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Misha Mengelberg: More than Instant Composition

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The orchestra primarily plays directed group improvisations, for Mengelberg's philosophy is that "a piece may work as a starting point for an improvisation, or a point to go at the end of an improvisation, not something that one should think about while improvising. It developed from a point that I started to give up composition 11 years ago... I do something similar to what Derek Bailey did for his concerts, which was to write three or four names on a piece of paper and that would provide 20 or 30 minutes of improvisation. Of course, the difference between the two is that Mengelberg chooses players who know and understand the aesthetic and processes by which instant composition takes place, rather than creating completely foreign situations. Mengelberg is currently active as a professor of music in Amsterdam, in which he teaches the fundamental points of improvised music, even more basic than instant composition - noise and counterpoint. As Mengelberg puts it, "you might think the first two years that this is idiotic, that I am teaching a discipline that developed out of the music up until the Renaissance...but there is so much realism in their ways of music making, that there are some things still worth taking into consideration. After all, if one listens to the duets of Mengelberg and Bennink, it is not just a note-for-note counterpoint, but a game of sparring, trading volleys of improvisation back and forth, each determining the direction that the other may go, whether one's choice is to extend or subvert the other's action. This is a grander theme than "playing (to use Bailey's term), as it adds a level of calculation to what might otherwise be an impulse. Noise, on the other hand, is the use of non-musical sounds in the production of music and has a history going back to the Italian Futurists of the early 20th Century. It is a tactic that is routinely employed by members of the ICP, adding a level of contrast and color as well as giving direction to the improvisation and—you guessed it—counterpoint.

Misha Mengelberg is one of the truly rare voices in improvised music, for he has added so much to the conceptualization of what makes jazz and improvisation tick, a semantic understanding of the music, yet has also cut to the core of the personality that the music has and requires. Mengelberg often uses the word "amusing to describe what music and art can do - that is, a statement of value placed on personality. Improvisation is pointless if it isn't fun and given to joy and understanding, a knowing nod to the contrasts that make art happen. Theatrics and ironic impossibilities are not present as part of an act, but for action - the action of life.

Recommended Listening:

· Eric Dolphy - Last Date (Fontana, 1964)

· ICP Orchestra - Groupcomposing (ICP, 1970)

· Misha Mengelberg/Steve Lacy/George Lewis/Arjen Gorter/Han Bennink - Change of Season: The Music Of Herbie Nichols (Soul Note, 1984)

· Misha Mengelberg - Who's Bridge (Avant, 1994)

· Misha Mengelberg - Two Days in Chicago (hatHut, 1998)

· Misha Mengelberg - Four in One (Songlines, 2000)

Photo Credit
Peter Gannushkin


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