Background of the project:
Framed by the headlines ”Action vs. Reaction”, ”Artistic encounters with an aesthetic otherness”, and ”New music for strings, percussion & piano”, I decided in 2015 to embark on this artistic research project. I wanted to create new music, bridging the gap(s) between classically/new music string players, on the one hand, and piano and drums rooted in jazz/improvisation, on the other. My ensemble, then known as “Strings, percussion & piano”, had released an album in 2013, and we were now working towards our second album, but driven by a conscious choice to do a number of things differently in the second round.
The main schism, I imagined, would be to facilitate a sounding encounter of different musical cultures, without one part unconditionally submitting to the aesthetic of the other part. I have tried to truly merge these two means of expression in a way where all involved musicians can stay true to their background and to the approach they were trained to master.
Artists who have moved around this area on similar (but not identical) paths include:
- from the classical and new music domains: Krzystof Penderecki, Witold Lutoslawski, Frederik Rzewski, Morton Feldman – and, to some extent, Igor Stravinski, Bela Bartok, Arvo Pärt, Georg Friedrich Haas.
- from beyond European classical music: Max Roach, Oliver Lake, Steve Lehman, Mat Maneri, Scott Walker, David Longstreth, Kat Hernandez, Jon Balke, Nils Wogram, Benoit Delbecq, Sylvie Courvousier, Mark Feldman, Lotte Anker.
I focused mainly on
a) pulse: searching for possible types of pulsation, rhythm, momentum and flow, unifying the different music cultures within the project;
b) improvisation: making the string players improvise. An approach to improvisation which is neither modal nor totally free – since they are not schooled in either – but a third position. I wanted to create a common starting point for a type of improvisation which does not have total freedom as an ethic goal. Rather, I wanted a clear aesthetic direction, combined with an explorative and process-based approach, to achieve a nerve of the unknown in the sounding result;
c) creating interesting new music from within the project.
The original research questions were as follows:
1) In which ways can I create new music, unifying the two music cultures in my ensemble – European classical/new music, resp. jazz/improvisation – leaving all parties’ integrity intact, and in a poetic totality?
2) Which modes of pulsation can I create, so that the two worlds unite (with a special focus on the pulse concepts being understandable and negotiable for all participants)?
3) In what approaches to indeterminancies and unpredictabilities can we meet on aesthetically satisfying soil, as only some of us have comprehensive experiences with improvisation?
The artistic result of the project is a series of new compositions for my ensemble, and the album release RESONANCE (September 2016), including eight compositions, seven of which are mine. The album features Karen Johanne Pedersen, violin, Mette Brandt, viola, Ida Nørholm, cello, Peter Bruun, drums, and myself on piano.
At the beginning of the project, our first album had been out for a couple of years. It had received praise and nominations from several international magazines and musicians. Still, I knew I would want to do a number of things differently on our second album. To put it simply, I wanted to be leaning less on the classical aesthetic. I had the feeling that our first album was built upon a basic compromise that I did not want to repeat. I no longer wanted Peter and me to accommodate a classical approach to phrasing, as much as I love classical phrasing when performed by musicians raised in this vernacular. I wanted another kind of clarity, especially in my own playing. It had to do with the relations between rhythm and physical/embodied human experience in my other ensembles. I was wondering if I had moved too far away from that. Was my music in this ensemble based too much on reaction, and too little on action?
When using the word “action” as opposed to “reaction” about this music, I am talking about expressing something, making a statement, which is not just a reaction to that which is already happening in that moment. I wanted to not just “improvise around the string parts”, even if I composed them myself, but to initiate and define the direction for the music, also through my spontaneous playing; letting the playing determine, convincingly, in which aesthetic the music is going to take place. Encountering any otherness does not mean abandoning your own identity.
When listening to genre-blending music by other artists, I have often missed true interaction between the aesthetics – or found it to be minimal. When talking about mixed-genre music, my ideal can be described as follows:
I dream of classically trained musicians being allowed to play with the virtuosity of timbre and the openness of phrasing so abundantly present in their musical literature.
I dream of an encounter, in which the non-classical musicians understand the finer dimensions of the classical music literature, yet act according to the following notion about identity and integrity: Regardless of whether everything around you is changing,, you will remain the same. This is the opposite of the too often encountered situation where one kind of music is taken hostage in the self-realization of another.
I dream of a musical setting where the rhythm section does not throw away decades of specialization into the subtle nuances of feeling, beat, drive and flow. Added strings does not mean that your competences are no longer needed. If your musical DNA calls for the music to groove, then groove – when you must …
Along the way, I realized that I had to make adjustments in the ensemble personnel to achieve the sound I wanted. At the end of the day, I needed string players with more experience from music with a beat than what I had anticipated at first. In hindsight, I believe they needed to understand as much about my world as I understand about theirs, for me to become satisfied with the result. I wanted them to make a go for the pulse and phrasing, along with a strong understanding of what the drums were doing. I needed them to claim an equal position, even in terms of the negotiation of the beat, inside of the music. I needed them to also contribute to building the bridges between our disparate worlds.
At the same time, the moral paradox is painstakingly evident. I was searching for a fair balance between the musicians’ power of definition – albeit mainly in aesthetic terms. To achieve such a sound of equality, I had to define who could stay and who had to go. It became unavoidably clear that the ideal about equality was aesthetic rather than organisational. Inside of the music, the ideal was equality - but within the frame composed by me. The composed frame called for governance around the music. I can only hope that the result was this: A clear mandate of definition outside of the music made a naturally balanced aesthetic and musical encounter possible.
Airto Moreira told me many stories from his years of working with Miles Davis. According to Airto, Miles would repeat one particular sentence several times over the years, despite being highly selective about his verbal instructions. The sentence was: ”you listen, then you play”. As Airto and I discussed at length, this short statement contains a profound insight not just about music but about our entire existence. Listening and playing is a relation as basic as our breathing: We breathe in, we breathe out. We listen, then we play. However, Airto also emphasised that WHAT it means to listen is often misunderstood. How deeply or intensely do we listen – to music, to each other, to ourselves – before we think we have anything to say?
Existentially, we can generalize listening - playing into the relation sensing - contributing. We sense, then we contribute. But then again, how aware are we exactly in this sensing or sensational activity? With what parts of our sensory system do we sense the world? What do we listen for? The more we are conscious about what we are listening for, the more our mental categories will frame and limit our sensation of what is truly going on. When we focus on sensing with our full awareness and then contributing with committed action, how much does the sensing inform our actions? How receptive are we after all? And when we do contribute, are we still receptive while contributing? In music at least, we must be, if we want to succeed artistically. Nonetheless, as the fallible human beings we are, are we really able to listen and contribute at the same time? Are we prevented from doing so by tripping on our own contributions to such a degree that we forget to sense what the situation truly calls for? Or rather, and potentially as artistically frustrating, are we so obsessed with listening that we forget what we have to say, who we are, where we came from, and what our values are?
This exposition covers the small-scale artistic research project Action vs. Reaction - Artistic encounters with an aesthetic otherness, undertaken at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen in 2015-2016. The primary artistic output of the project is the album ”Resonance”, released on Sundance Music in September 2016.
The project is about an encounter between at least two music cultures, as I will explain elsewhere. This text is thus also a meeting or rather a juxtaposition of different ways to articulate central aspects of the project’s content, intentions, progression, results and insights.
The dissemination is divided into three layers. Layer 1, Kleio, explains how and why this music was conceived and developed, and what artistic considerations I had along the way. It is told as a personal/idiosyncratic and somewhat associative narrative. Kleio (Κλειώ) is the Greek muse of history. Layer 2, Athene, focuses on the thoughts, motivations and acknowledgements that emerged during the process. Athene (Αθηνη) is the Greek goddess of intelligence, handicraft and wisdom. Layer 3, Techne, contains the sheet music of all the compositions from the album. In ancient Greece, Techne (Τέχνη) personified technical skill, craftmanship and art.
The project was officially finished in the fall 2016 with the album release and a project report in Danish. Edited in 2018, the text in this exposition is a modified and updated English version of the original report. In 2018, Jacob Anderskov was nominated for the Nordic Council Music Price for the album Resonance.
I intended the album to be heard as a fertile crosspollination of the elements it consists of.
Pointing in several directions yet unified in the listener’s experience.
With or without of all the words I have said about it, I hope you will hear it as an immediate experience.
J.A. – 2016-2020
Techne (Τέχνη)/ sheet music
Music sheets for all my compositions for RESONANCE are shown here.
In alphabetical order:
- 8th Avenue Tranquility
- Impermanence II:
- Attack and textures
- Pitch material relations
- Open Society
The album ”Resonance”, released on Sundance music in September 2016, is out on LP, CD, and digitally (streaming + download).
Listen to the whole Resonance album in Spotify here
This project and the resulting album Resonance are strongly influenced by my reflections on the above-mentioned questions. It is my experience that many genre meetings in music suffer from unclear balances related to our notions of the encounter. To what degree can you be true to yourself while at the same time sincerely compassionate towards the other’s singular musicality? In the ideal encounter, both parties’ identity and integrity remain intact, or so it may appear. On the other hand, we could also claim that in an intensely igniting encounter, all participants will be changed.
My ensemble Resonance (previously known as ” Strings, Percussion & Piano”) consists of 3 string players as well as Peter Bruun on drums and myself on piano. The string players all have a background in European classical music and "new music" (composed, European new music), whereas Peter and I originally came out of improvised music, jazz and its neighbouring regions. In this ensemble, we have dealt with the above-mentioned thoughts on artistic encounters for several years. I have realized that my primary curiosity orbits around the questions:
1) How can all members of a cross-genre ensemble stay true to their own musical intuition, developed through decades of full immersion?
2) How can these confident artists then transcend their notion of themselves and meet anew in an aesthetic field different from their respective origins?
The present exposition has been peer reviewed, 2020, based on the RMC’s artistic research quality criteria SITRE (link). In the following section, I discuss some of the peer reviewers’ most critical comments and my subsequent reactions:
1) On informedness and artistic (research) context:
One reviewer missed contextual mentioning of artists like Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, Pauline Oliveros & Steve Reich. I agree that these could be relevant from a Western New Music perspective. However, they are not highly important as to informing the choices of artistic solutions within this project. They do form an important contextual backdrop for similar projects by other artists, but for this project they are less central than a number of post-jazz and post-improvisational artists and ensembles (Tyshawn Sorey, Tanya Kalmanovitch, Benoit Delbecq, Uri Caine, Elisabeth Coudoux, Tim Berne, Hank Roberts, etc.).
A reviewer suggested Eirik Hegdal to deserve inclusion in the contextual frame, and upon revisiting Eirik’s music, I do agree that Eirik and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra are a relevant artistic reference point.
2) On documentation of work processes:
Two reviewers missed documentation on the way we worked in the ensemble, on the methods used when rehearsing, by either audio or video recordings. I agree that this would have been highly relevant. Especially “before and after” video documentations of rehearsals during the entire process timeline would have been desirable. Unfortunately, the limited time scale of the project (three months) did not allow time for prioritizing detailed accounts (assisted by e.g. video) and analyses of our ensemble work processes as such. The project focused primarily on my compositional experiments, revisions and associated reflections.
However, I can offer the following observations based on personal notes on my on-going reflections and conversations with the band: During the composition and rehearsal process, I experienced a number of times that the change, I wanted to hear in the music, was achievable primarily by changing my approach to composition, rather than by changing our approach to rehearsing. Thus, deciding on e.g. a specific propulsive-momentum based poly-metric feeling to a piece early in the composition process proved more applicable than to demonstrate by conduction, instruction or metaphor during rehearsals how to bend a rhythmically ambiguous composition in the desired direction.
In conclusion, I ended up believing that in this project, the factors central to the sounding result were most closely related to the composition process, and less so to the specific approach to ensemble rehearsals.
If any conscious ensemble instruction approach was central to this project, it would go like the following, rather conventional chamber music approach: In the beginning, each piece was presented and instructed in great detail with clear, conductive gestures given by me for all collective decisions on entries, duration, proportion, feeling. Later in the process, barely no conductive gestures were given, and the ensemble was allowed to act freely as an embodied collective mind and to let the music breathe.
3) On the applied terminology surrounding our backgrounds in different music cultures:
One reviewer raisesed relevant critical questions concerning ethical perspectives on some of the cultural, genre-related terminology in the exposition. I read the critical comments as being in two tracks:
1) What do I mean by describing different backgrounds in music culture (classical/postclassical versus jazz/improvisation) as a “musical DNA” of the string players; Is the musical intuition configured or determined by such a DNA, and what is my position on whether such a DNA defines us in absolute, normative or cultural terms?
2) Do I tend to create an unneeded otherness in the choices of terms to describe the string players.
My response to these highly complex questions will try to stay within the project frame, and not aim for articulating statements on otherness and cultural differences outside of the project. I believe that this and other similar projects prove the paradoxical point that
- YES, it is possible for artists to meet in a mutual satisfactory musical expression though we are coming from different backgrounds, but
- NO, this does not mean that we could as well pretend to come from other backgrounds than our own.
I believe that a musician coming from a very genre specific educational path can not just choose to become a completely different kind of musician overnight, without still carrying sediments of cultural markers in their way of playing, listening and interacting.
This is not a problem, but a profound given allusion to what we are doing, coexisting with other (chosen) allusions in our work. The ways in which we perceive concepts such as phrasing, sound, dynamics, interplay, blend, intonation, etc., are highly dependent on the path we took to becoming professional musicians. We cannot just choose to have no history or no hermeneutic frame around our artistic processes. To create meaningful encounters in music, art, and society, we need to acknowledge that cultural differences exist. Our cultural heritage is part of our art. This might make us aware that some colleagues share our background more than others, but that is NOT telling us whom we need to work with to create new and though provoking art for a new day.
What Reason Could I Give
While composing the album music, I received the news of Ornette Coleman’s passing. This resulted in profound considerations, plus a trip or two down memory lane. Few musicians have meant as much for my musical development as Coleman. His music has shaped my way of thinking about music, about the importance of irrationality in art, and especially about the potential in juxtaposing mutually contradictory musical elements. Even Charles Ives, yet another of the musical heroes of my youth, was for me mainly understood and re-actualized through Coleman’s approach to simultaneities. It was through Coleman’s music that I could hear the radicality of Ives. Hence, I had to honour Ornette with a composition of his, which ended up being What Reason Could I Give, originally from Ornette’s Science Fiction album. (Ives also receives a musical salute or two on the album ...)
Other compositions on the album:
I was stranded on an island without the usual contact to the surrounding world. The extreme situation brought me to a point where I started to hallucinate. I imagined a giant string sound growing out of one single low note on the piano, as a rather twisted unfolding of the potentials in the core of the piano sound. Meanwhile, the drums and the piano performed a simple ritualistic dance around this sonic phenomenon. That is the opening of the piece. The hallucination dictated the subsequent events. I pencilled it on the last piece of music paper I had.
(The name of the island was Manhattan).
8th Avenue Tranquility:
This piece was also written in NYC, near 8th Avenue & 19th Street in Greenwich Village/ Chelsea. The title started out as a kind of pun on the paradox that such a calm and slow piece was written at a location where everything else seems so fast and noisy. This unique combination of tranquillity, new music and NYC is also present when we discuss Morton Feldman, who used to live just a few blocks away (6th Avenue and 14th Street). In this way, the title, if not the composition, was a tribute to Feldman.
I imagine this composition having the following layers or characteristics: The first string melody combines a rather dark emotionality with constant dissonance and a rather simple melodic direction. At first glance, the string texture might appear non-resolving and static, but soon we realize that the cello carries a pure and captivating melody, expressing an almost naivistic longing. Is it perhaps a longing away from the dissonances? A longing for tranquillity, away from the city noise and the dissonance surrounding the cello? A yearning to be reunited with a loved one? The cello melody has a weightless quality. Does that mean it is left to its own absurdities and confusions, or is it filled with a potential of freedom?
A short fanfare grants the drums a pulsation to catch on to, and the piece becomes danceable. The background rhythm of the strings in the next section serves a key function on the album. It exemplifies the ambition permeating the music: to create a musical universe where each player is at home in the approach to pulse, while at the same time reaching for common ground with the other musicians. The string players told me – just as I imagined – that according to their music history references, this motif points back to early baroque music, or a renaissance era dance piece. In that context, the rhythm symbolises a specific part of pre-industrialised European history. However, as the string players also noted after working on the piece for some time, they realized that it can also resonate as a work song with an Afro-American subtext. I had imagined both of these allusionary directions behind the music when composing it: On the one hand,a slow gospel groove or a drawn out blues, on the other, a bourgeois dance in medieval Italy. This duality runs through the whole composition, and, I imagine, through the whole album: Is this European classical music, on European premises? Is it jazz music (whatever that means)? The drum beat beneath the string background motif points clearly towards the Afro-American interpretation. It is Venice, in the 17th century. It is the American south, after the Civil War.
Plus there is a piano solo. I imagine this layer as a dancing, emotionally expressive utterance of joy. Pitchwise it comes across as a bluesy language, but joyful and with an inner glow, as from a celebration. There is a sense of expectation, curiosity, of playfulness around the strings. The solo is intended as an improvised melodic revelation of the written material, and behind that, the faint echo of Danish traditional melodies. Near the end, the longing cello melody is revisited once again. In this context, the nostalgia is even more spelled out than earlier. The melody is in the “subdominant tempo” in relation to the surrounding string rhythms. Hence, the melody resides in a warmer, more emotional layer than the rather neutral domain of the background rhythm.
When I first conceived the piano figure in the opening bars, I heard it as reminiscent of mainly Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock. But the structural narrative of the strings in this piece is consistently unaffected by the “jazzy” piano approach. Thus, the piece admits to being indebted to Charles Ives’ 4th Symphony, which for me always was his parallel to Ornette Coleman’s “the Shape of Jazz to Come”. Later, the piano solo is allowed to bridge the gap from soul to heart. Main elements here are light and darkness, patience and revelation. I hope – and believe – the improvisations on this track emerge out of the nothingness inherent in all deep listening.
Maybe these questions apply most appropriately to some of the dimensions of music where this differentiation is most un-definable: How we experience and interpret pulse, sound and phrasing. In a series of new compositions, I have sought to create a musical universe that allows room for the string sounds and textures to originate in the primary musical DNA of the string players. I aimed to create a space for their intuitive reactions to the musical totality. I hoped they would play neither more nor less metronomically in this ensemble than in a string quartet written between 1850 and 2020. I thought of their instruments as equal elements in the music, rather than an added-on background. I tried to hear their music making as true to who they are, and to where their music is from. Correspondingly, Peter and I also had to stay true to our ways of approaching improvisation, momentum and initiative, despite encountering three string players who insist on staying true to themselves. We had to maintain our music’s approach to pulse, flow and energy while the string players maintain theirs.
Reflecting upon the changes in the music of the ensemble since our debut album (2013), I feel that two parameters have changed most importantly between the releases. The first parameter is the music’s relation to pulse, phrasing and feeling. In our ensemble today, pulse seems to be conceived as a larger domain where we can meet, exchange views, and fight about what we think pulse is, what phrasing is, and how they ought to be. On the new album, a field has been outlined where we can collectively investigate our experiences from phrasing together with each other, or up against each other.
The second parameter relates to how we react to each other, musically. Ideally, the ensemble should be reacting to each other with the awareness that any reaction must contain an action: A reaction pre-requires an action. Reacting meaningfully to each other presupposes being able and courageous enough to act independently. It presupposes being able to sense the entire musical environment intensely while retaining unquestionable personal artistic integrity in the sounding actions. I perceive the successful musical encounter as an ideal model for the way in which we humans react to each other. A model for how we relate and respond to other people, to reality, to society, and in the end, to ourselves.
See video in top left corner, or listen to 8th Avenue Tranquility here.
Listen to What Reason Could I Give here.
Listen to Resonance here.
Listen to Capone here.