The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Fred Van Hove at 80

Hugo de Craen
(Dropa Disc Publications/Sound in Motion; Antwerp)

Fred Van Hove                                                                                                              © Cees van de Ven



“Sometimes I am so bored of having nothing to do that I play improvised music on the piano. Would you believe it? You wouldn’t (and you are very right). Only when you have heard it, you can decide.” (fvhd)


Solo piano improvisation has been part of Van Hove’s repertoire for more than six decades now. He deftly manipulates the keyboard, running at breakneck speed to pour out energised sonic waves. Initially he produces a continuously flowing tinkling of crystalline quality that falls to earth with accelerated velocity. The music has purity, streaming relentlessly with turbulent currents. Midway through a marathon venture his left hand begins to dip into the lower notes seeking samples to augment the flooding high-end waves. The tones go deeper and deeper, finally settling with authority.

“I am a percussive pianist. I have very good wrists. Béla Bartók has always been my choice. It also has to do with the rhythmic independence of both hands. What also seems important to me in all music are the micro shifts. I find the minor second – a half tone – the least committing interval. That leaves you very free.” (fvhd)

Now and then Van Hove feels that he has to play a melody. After a longer period of very complicated sounds, a melody is perceived as liberating again. So he does not want to shield himself from tonality. For him, freedom always means a 360-degree angle. “When I include a waltz, a march, or a tango, suddenly there are things that have become almost folk music in their tradition and effect. By the way, I like melodies a lot. When I compose for larger groups, I often work from the format of songs.” (fvhd)

In his playing, Van Hove is not only present as a pianist, but always as a person too. He may groan, mumble and cry, depending on his mood. The things that have happened during the day are noticeable: coincidences, inconsistencies, incidents, moments of happiness, conflict and reconciliation. He surrenders to his listeners almost defenselessly, with a mixture of kindness and helplessness – wondrously, grandiose. “The nature of the sound and the development of the course of the music should be experienced with the head, the heart and the body, as inevitable and true.” (fvhd)

Sometimes it seems as if Van Hove is struggling with the piano or trying to revive the rigid instrument, to breathe life into it. He sets something in motion, a mechanical apparatus that finally makes the hammer sound somewhere around the string. It is very difficult to influence this process individually. But he believes he has succeeded through his individual style. Preparing the piano is an attempt to vary the sound. After a certain amount of time playing prepared piano, the normal sound of the piano will be different again.

Live at the university, November 1974. Van Hove likes alienating effects: e.g. by using ping-pong balls. These balls are like cyborgs receiving signals through the piano strings, making them controllable. But in order to control the balls, one must loosen the reins from time to time. The practice is more stubborn though. The balls move jerkily, fluttering drunkenly around. Van Hove wants to rewrite their operating system. They have to do the work themselves as much as possible. But will they finally get used to it? After a while they bluntly ignore the signals: they do not care what the pianist wants, they go the other way.

Although Van Hove knows exactly what he wants and what he does not want, he has retained the ability to doubt. In his musical development, a permanent move can be observed: the refusal to deny oneself. The respect he received is based on this.

“I have always recognised a kinship between my music and the Western classical tradition and even more so with so-called contemporary music. When I listen to Evryali, the Xenakis piano piece, I feel like it’s me, especially at the level of the sound, there is a lot of affinity between Xenakis and my music” (FVH, Keys, 1980).

In his diary about Japan, he noted with candour: “I practised classical music today: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frédéric Chopin, Erik Satie ... I felt the need to produce something that sounds nice. Pulling back a bit from that tiresome improvised music.” (fvhd)


Solo concerts are good, you can let your will free reign, without paying attention to others. On the other hand, the music is no longer appropriate in the long run if you do not get into an argument. Van Hove therefore enjoyed playing duets too. After the music to the silent films, a veritable duo phase blossomed. In the duo you cannot hide, you are suddenly, to a certain extent, defenseless.

“You have to stand up against the other. When there are three you can hide behind one.” (fvhd)

The concerts of Van Hove and Cel Overberghe, Van Hove’s brother-in-law, were musical theatre: balloons, fireworks, masks, toy instruments, re-recordings on stage, and many other instruments. The two musicians disguised as blind and lame, representing the situation of the improvising musician in Belgium. “Duo Fred & Cel, February 1974: the only group in the world that makes Antwerp free jazz. An evening programme with me on keys (piano, organ, marimba) and Cel on tenor sax, bass, drums and marimba. Scenes from everyday life for toy piano, kazoo, rubber ducks, balloons, tenor sax, piano, police flute, ping-pong balls, violin, children’s accordion. In order to break through the often compulsive course of improvisation, listeners and musicians are given different assignments time and time again: children’s games, pre-recorded sound images on soundtracks, pieces with exact time division and reflections on the world situation, etc. The visual element, which is no spectacle, only serves to stimulate so many times and moves away from what seemed important. These are, of course, only suggestions (add to or delete as you like).” (fvhd) In 1979, Overberghe and Van Hove presented another similar and beautiful project called De weg van en naar (The Road to and from) for piano, tenor saxophone, tape and slides.

On the other side of the spectrum is Van Hove’s duo with Johannes Bauer. The duo lasted for at least three decades and symbolises, without exaggeration, Van Hove’s coronary artery during that period. Pure symbiosis, an emblematic example of the quest for pure sound. In Van Hove’s opinion the duo with Bauer was a paramount example of improvisation. The same can be applied to his duo work with André Goudbeek and Ivo Vander Borght.


“If you spend more time learning, you better avoid the pitfalls of improvised music. The material used is crystallised. What remains is the enormous fearful moment the second before the concert begins. Making something out of nothing, an almost divine feeling. The less space there is for improvised music in our disintegrating society, the more I think it is necessary to make it sound more urgent. Or more compelling?” (fvhd).

From 1984 to 2000, Van Hove formed a pioneering trio with Annick Nozati and Bauer. Perhaps Van Hove’s nec plus ultra.

“We first met at a jazz & improvisation workshop in Cluny in August 1984. I was intrigued by what she would be like since reading about her reading her own writings. This had made me curious. I had never heard her sing before, but there were not that many singers in improvised music then, were there? Towards the end of the workshop we attended the final concert. After a while I thought, I don’t like the music too much, it was made more to please the audience than to bring together an improvising ensemble. At that moment Annick said to me “Ah, ça j’aime pas du tout” (“Oh, this I don’t like”), and I replied “Moi non plus” (“Me neither”) – like in the famous Gainsbourg/Birkin song “Je t’aime, moi non plus”. That’s where and when we decided to work together. Our first duo concert dates from November 1984 at Club Dunois in Paris. We worked together as a duo and in combination with many European improvisers and as a trio with Bauer since 1987 and in ‘t Nonet since 1991.” (fvhd)

The trio with Nozati and Bauer was about mad improvisation/voice-adventure in evening dress/Fellini atmosphere. Acoustics and visuals ran parallel. The audience warm-heartedly followed this long journey, which would go until the primal scream was reached, then looking for something else. Against the polished and the smooth, this trio sets the scream: calling, whispering, roaring, gossiping, laughing, weeping, shouting, stuttering, barking, cursing, mumbling, rattling, whistling, snorting, puffing, lulling, reeling, blowing, coughing, and ... singing too.

“Annick was a natural singer who gave it her all when she was on stage. She didn’t come with a programme; she always tried to make a group happening. She was an actress too, which added something visual to the concerts, but that didn’t embarrass the ongoing music – which can often happen with humorous dramatic interventions. Annick and Johannes could not communicate with each other, there was no common language. We never rehearsed, we never discussed anything before playing. We came together, got on stage and there it was: music. Sometimes we used texts in German. We recorded the texts on cassettes for Annick to practise. Johannes said afterwards that he had never heard another person speaking German like Annick. I don’t recall any concert with the trio of which I should be ashamed. I remember many, many of which I am proud. Also in ‘t Nonet Annick brought a different touch. She was not afraid of the 8 blaring men around her. She put her foot down, she was the signboard of the group. Annick, you are irreplaceable, je t’embrasse très, très fort.” (fvhd)

Van Hove kept a diary of his concerts with Nozati. Between 11 November 1984 and 8 April 2000, Van Hove and Nozati played 94 concerts. About half of them were in duo and 40 as a trio with Bauer. The first trio performance is dated 4 September 1987, the last 8 April 2000. The remaining concerts were with ‘t Nonet, occasionally adding musicians like Michel Doneda, Benat Achiary, Phil Minton, Daunik Lazro, and Paul Lovens.

© 2019 Hugo de Craen

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