Interview with John Ehde and Knut Vaage by Norbert Landeskog

Hello. My name is Norbert Landeskog. I am a virtual journalist and have been following the performer/composer project for two and a half years. To finalize the process, I have been granted an exclusive interview with John Ehde and Knut Vaage on some of the features and challenges they have overcome:


NL: You have been working intensely for almost three years now, creating ideas and structures as a base for final compositions. What have been the main challenges during your process, and how did you tackle them?


KV: First, I would like to stress that our work, the equal communication between composer and performer from the very start of the process, seems to be historically rare and perhaps unique. Looking back, we find long-term, ground-breaking artistic collaborations like the ones between composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears, Olivier Messiaen and pianist Yvonne Loriod, and we may also mention the composer Igor Stravinsky and conductor Robert Craft. In the very interesting book Distributed Creativity (2017) Arnold Whittal states: “It remains a major challenge to commentators to find convincing ways of establishing exactly how a composition might be shown to be concretely affected by that longstanding partner´s personality and thinking”. And for us the following is even more relevant: “...yet collaboration in the sense of a kind of co-working, which begins to take on some aspects of sharing in, influencing and even determining the outcome of the `real` composer´s creative process - especially if it extends over a considerable amount of time - has been unsurprisingly rare.” (Whittal: 2017). See what I mean?


NL: Very interesting. Now let´s go back to my initial question!


JE: Well, the biggest challenge was probably to find and keep the equality in our communication during all parts of the process. I as performer, had to find the composer inside me and not only be interpretative but also creative in the basic sense of the word. As I have quite some experiences with free improvisation, I had to trust my instincts and search for my inner creative palette.  Knut is an experienced jazz pianist and has been a forceful and inspiring catapult during all our sessions.  I have also come to realize that the boarders between performer and composer are in some ways extremely narrow. Earlier research states: “Performance practice is always in some respects an improvisatory process, and the musical thinking that goes into composition surely must always have at least a bit of the kind of thinking that goes into improvisation” (Nettl: 1991).  “The activities that we call composing and performing are essentially improvisational in nature” (Benson: 2003).  


KV: One can say that composing is a kind of “slow improvisation” or vice versa where we use a palette of the experiences we have. Judith Becker states:” The musician in an oral tradition…has mastered a technique of composition, based upon the manipulation of formulas, which allow him or her to compose and perform at the same moment” (Becker: 2017).


NL: So, one could say you have “met in the middle” of the two artforms?


JE: In a way, yes. Considering that we also have been incorporating computer processing and other electronics in our work, you might even call it a kind of “comprovisation”.

NL: That´s a new expression for me, can you elaborate?


JE: The actual word might be a modern invention, but the way of thinking and working can be related back to the 1950´s:


“... With the emergence of electronic and experimental musical techniques since 1950, the boundary between composition and improvisation began to blend” (Holmes and Holmes, 2002).  “In the context of electronic music, a more common form of performance is now regarded as comprovisation, a creative process in which improvisation is used as a precursor to composition to generate musical ideas and extend existing structures, and in which composed structures and instruments are then widely used in an improvisational setting” (Dudas: 2010).


You might say it is a kind of composed improvisation where we integrate electronics in one way or another. This is especially relevant when describing the work, we did with sound engineer and musician John Hegre, using guitar pedals, transducers and loop stations to create lush soundscapes for our ideas. Also, our work with live computer processing in the work Hybrid 1 is a good example of comprovisation in its best sense. Here sound artist Thorolf Thuestad worked creatively with my cello sound, digesting it through a computer with pre-programmed structures for complex live processing, to create huge soundscapes based on my sounds.


NL: How did you go to work notating all this for posterity, if you see what I mean?


KV: That has not been an easy task. We have been working with a mix of traditional and graphic notation with detailed descriptions of each sound or effect to be used. With my compositional experience, I sketched the initial ideas which John, with his experience as performer, commented on and challenged during an intense dialogue.


NL: What do these musical and tonal ideas express, and how did you include them in a musical context?


JE: I just waited for you to ask! Musical expression within a fixed compositional shape is of course very essential for us, as our aim has been to create final compositions. I have tried to explain my view of this at a separate forum, where every sound is analysed and explained technically and sound-wise, including what every idea might express. We also discovered that in being creative musicians, the musical context and expression would appear naturally during the actual work in performances in different contexts. The expression lies behind the notation. 


Armanda Baylay has a good insight on this: “While the composer or arranger strives for a notation which is as accurate as possible, derived from discussions in rehearsal, its limitations keep rehearsal dialogue and interaction focused on what the notation does not communicate, and how to achieve the sounds, feelings, expressions and moods that notation cannot convey. The paradoxical result is that notation is often the locus for creativity and the site for collaboration” (Baylay: 2017).


NL: So, how did you experience the whole process, having decided to blend your “normal” working roles?


JE: It is not easy to verbalize, but we´ll give it a try. It seems our history as classical cellist and jazz pianist made us experience parts of the process in different ways. For example, I felt that we were doing a kind of “free impro” in the very first couple of sessions, whereas Knut was consciously searching for fixed ideas and structure.


KV: “Free impro” for me implies going into the style of free jazz improvisation, that in my opinion does not suit the aims of our project. If anything, I would prefer to call it “open impro” or “contemporary improvisation”.


JE: Sure, I do not have that burden and knowledge of jazz tradition as you do. Open impro sounds fine to me. Anyway, we soon agreed on the way to work, looking at videos from our sessions and focusing on certain ideas and how to develop and notate them.


NL: Did you always agree on which ideas to use?


JE: Yes and no! When improvising, it is important to try to get out of one´s own creative boundaries and expand your palette and limitations as a performer. Searching for “the opposite”, in both your partner´s and your own ideas, is an important feature. Film director Jean Luc Godard said, “Intelligence is to understand before affirming. It means that when confronted with an idea, one seeks to go beyond it...to find its opposite” (Goddard: 1975).


KV: It is also a matter of “staying cool” and to sustain your listening, maybe even more to your surroundings than to yourself. That also applies to the performance situation where you are bringing the composition over to the listeners. The great Theodor Adorno was maybe not always the performing musician’s best friend, but here is a sentence that is well worth philosophizing over - “The secret of interpretation: controlling oneself, yet not making music against oneself. One´s own impulse must live on even in its negation. This is precisely where the performer´s strength lies” (Adorno: 2006). 


NL: Are there any further challenges in the creative process you would like to mention?


KV: As we worked separately in certain parts of the process, I sometimes missed being able to try out some of my immediate notation suggestions for the right reaction and instrumental colour.


JE: That´s true, but we had a fruitful communication via mail and other fora that cleared many obstacles. The high point for me was to experience our ideas develop through all different stages, and finally to hear and experience them in a multi-media setup with the internationally recognised sinfonietta from Bergen, the BIT20 Ensemble.


NL: Thank you very much, gentlemen. It has been a pleasure talking to you!


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Foto: Bente Elisabeth Finserås