A Fireside Chat with Wolfgang Fuchs
“ It is the basic thing of every music style, to play together, to work together. Without this, nothing would happen because you cannot play music together or in your mind and in your thinking, you are at another place with other persons. ”
As the leader of the King 'b' 'rchestr', Wolfgang Fuchs' place in the European improvisation lineage is safe. Moreover, Fuchs' '89 recordings of various duets with Evan Parker, Louis Sclavis, and Hans Koch on the FMP label (Duets, Dithyrambisch) is a case study in duel improvisation. In particular, Fuchs and Parker are monsters. Fuchs sat down with the Roadshow on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where he played the line space line Festival. I am honored to have Wolfgang Fuchs as a guest, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz (AAJ): Let's start from the beginning.
WOLFGANG FUCHS (WF): When I was younger, I played in a mandolin orchestra. I was a boy of twelve or thirteen years. We played in different places and I realized that people like music. This is very simple. So I thought this must be something and it must be important to do this. I think it was a kind of social aspect for me. Later, when I started with this improvised stuff, it was also again, this kind of social aspect because I think in improvised music, it is the most direct way to communicate between people because there is nothing in between. There is no score, no composition, no conductor. It has to do with one person on a very direct way to the other person or persons.
AAJ: The capacity to communicate defines the effectiveness of the music.
WF: It is the basic thing of every music style, to play together, to work together. Without this, nothing would happen because you cannot play music together or in your mind and in your thinking, you are at another place with other persons. Yeah, it is the basic thing of all music.
AAJ: Classical trained, did you find a need to break away from convention?
WF: Yeah, the thing is, I went to this music academy in Karlsruhe to study first saxophone and then clarinet. I wanted to do a lot of things, but then I realized what they were teaching and their thinking about music, I would not like to do it, so I stayed there for a while, but I didn't study. What I build up for my own as the idea of playing together with musicians and therefore, I had to find my own way to work. I was there, but in reality I was kind of an odd duck.
AAJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Alex von Schlippenbach.
WF: I met Alex when I went to Berlin. This was in 1974 because I knew he lived there as well as Sven-'ke Johansson. One day I met him through Sven-'ke because he was building up a group with Berlin musicians and so I met him and so our working together through the years started not in very special groups, but always in add hock formations, also duets and we did film and improvised music stuff together and other bigger combinations together with Sven-'ke.
AAJ: Improvising to film poses the challenge of taking an audible medium to coincide with a visual medium.
WF: Yeah, a good question. I think it is different, but I can't tell you why at the moment because when you look at films, it goes through the eyes in your head and something happens. I don't know exactly what happens. We did it because of this ir I did it because of this, what happens with my own music when I am confronted to look at the film at the same time. For me, I did it also with dances and I did it also with poetry, as well as playing solo. I always have to think about in a new way how I work with my material.
AAJ: Who is King 'b'?
WF: King 'b' is the main figure of a theater play written by Alfred Jarry, the French surrealistic writer, ending of the 18th century. It is 'b' roi, King 'b', a figure of this theater play.
AAJ: Why did you form the King 'b' 'rchestr'?
WF: This started in 1982, '83. It came out of a combination which was called Xpact, this quartet together with Paul Lytton, Hans Schneider on bass, and Erhard Hirt. We always wanted to build up a big group, a big improvising group or an orchestra because we all had heard the great music of Globe Unity and also London Jazz Composers' Orchestra. We knew we had to try this and this came out of this and this was the beginning Eighties.
AAJ: Various members of King 'b' are becoming recognized stateside.
WF: As you mentioned, Paul Lytton is quite well known on the scene and in America as well as Phil Wachsmann, Radu Malfatti. Maybe only some people know our new member Fernando Grillo, the double bassist out of Italy. I think a lot of people know Melvyn Poore, Peter van Bergen, Axel D'rner as a kind of newcomer I suppose.
AAJ: A tentet presents challenges that go far beyond music.
WF: Yeah, it is a European band, but it was not planned like this because to bring ten players together out of different countries is a question of money and you have to find an organizer or festival who will pay for it. It wasn't possible over the years to invite players out of the USA unless they were around in Europe for a longer time. It is very, very difficult. A lot of organizers, when they think about 'b', they would like to do it. They also have to think about how much money it is and of course, to bring eight to ten people together out of these different countries in Europe, it's an expensive group and I am not talking about very high fees. It is expensive, traveling expenses, hotel, and then comes the fee. They say that for this money they can do two or three other groups. So it is very difficult, but some organizers like it and they do it. We try to bring it also to this year's Total Music Meeting, but it depends whether we get extra money from the Berlin government for this year's very special 'b' project to work with the text of the theater play.
AAJ: Is the well starting to run dry on the European government subsidies?
WF: Yeah, in all European countries, in the rich, West European countries, the funding goes down and down and down and it will be less and less and less. The European musicians maybe didn't learn to work without this, to get funding from other places or private persons or to go to sponsors. They have to learn it and so I think in USA, they learn it from beginning on because they have to learn it or it is like in Italy and in Spain, they have to learn it very early to find money from other places and institutes. It makes it easier for the moment, but not for the future. Then it is more difficult because there must be another thinking that you have when you don't have this money. You expect it because they give much money for cultural activities, but when they don't do it for the next years, then we have to learn how can we do a festival now or how can I can bring 'b' or small groups to other countries. It is difficult. First, it was easy, but it is also difficult.
AAJ: In country and abroad, you present numerous workshops.
WF: Yes, I am doing it. There are two things. First, it has to do with the money, of course, because as you know, the organizers here can't pay very well and often, it's just door money you will get, but you have to pay for your flight to come from Europe to USA and back and so it helps with the workshops because people pay directly to me, the participants pay directly to me, so it helps to pay for my basic traveling expenses. The other thing of course is I am always interested in meeting new and of course, younger players and to work with them. I do not really feel like a teacher. I teach through the years, clarinet and saxophone, but it is not really that I feel like a teacher. It is the confrontation with new people for me that I didn't meet before and their thinking and their way to deal with musical problems. I have meet in two or three years a lot of younger players, younger than me at the Bay Area and now also in LA and they are very interested and they know nearly all the stuff which happens in Europe, all the players, nearly everything. They are very interested in doing this European kind of improvised music and they also have to do with the traditional jazz players, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk.
AAJ: What initiated the Total Music Meeting?
WF: As far as I know, it started end of Sixties, done by a kind of collective with Jost Gebers, Peter Br'tzmann, Alex Schlippenbach, Peter Kowald, and they started it in Berlin and they asked for money and they got it and also the label FMP. The situation two years ago was that we had to realize that Jost Gebers stopped the festival. He went to the government and said that he stopped the festival and he did not need money anymore for this. When we heard this, it was unbelievable because he cannot stop a festival and we cannot do it as a private party because for the last ten, twenty years, he did it with money of the government, so it was a public thing. I talked to Helma and some other musicians and said that we have to continue it and this is what we do since and we are fighting very hard for money every year and I think it works quite well. We try to bring some new ideas in it for the festival and it works as you can see from the program from last year. I brought also my new trio with Damon Smith and Jerome Bryerton (Three October Meetings) from the Bay Area.
AAJ: So is the Total Music Meeting without government sponsorship?
WF: We still have some because Helma wrote a lot of letters and she went to the government and said that this must be continued. It is not a good idea to stop it and so we still get a little, but Helma also pays a lot of her own money from her own factory to do it and now we are looking for other possibilities to continue it and work together with other people, who are interested in continuing the Total Music Meeting. It works in this way and all the musicians we invite know about the situation and they are coming so that the festival can be continued and they really play for low fees. This is the only way we can do it and we did it.
AAJ: You play numerous reed instruments, akin stateside to Vinny Golia.
WF: Yeah, I know him. I like three, the contrabass clarinet, bass clarinet, and sopranino saxophone. The thing is, I started with tenor saxophone, which was my first reed instrument and also as I mentioned before with the B flat clarinet and then I found sopranino and I was very interested. Then I came to the bass clarinet and this means that I had to leave the tenor saxophone and of course, from the bass clarinet to the contrabass clarinet, it is easy to go. So in the meantime, I worked very hard on it over the years. For me, these three instruments are one. Of course, I have to change and interrupt my playing when I go to the next instrument, but for me, it is really like one because I have to whole range from very deep tones to very high tones and incredible possibilities with all the sounds. I cannot say I like this or this. I was also thinking about putting one or two away because it is easy to travel and to carry the sopranino and not the big cases of bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet, but I cannot do it. It turned out that it's one, one in three cases.
AAJ: Having frequently played solo performances, apart from the obvious, what are the challenges of playing without the luxury of other musicians?
WF: That is a good question. To play solo, it also has to do with communication. You can do it in a very direct way to the audience. The thing is to find a way to play solo, that you are not only playing solo because you cannot do like you are playing in trio and do the same stuff that you do for all of the years. It is again, for me, a question of the material that I have to work with to find out what is necessary to do and what has to be done. This, I think, when you are alone on stage playing solo, is the best way to do it to find out because you have nobody else. The members of the group are not there. You're mother is not there (laughing). You are alone, so you have to do something that is necessary of this moment.
AAJ: Utilizing electronics is cache of late, but that was not the case when you and a very select few like Paul Lytton were doing it decades ago.
WF: I started in the beginning of the Eighties together with Georg Katzer, the East German composer and also live electronic player. For me, it was very interesting in the sounds and these incredible sounds that they could produce. We played and we played a lot together. People liked it. Of course, I have always met people who say that they like the pure sound of the instrument. Me too, but people like it. In Europe, especially in Germany and Berlin, in certain clubs, you only can play when you work with electronics. This is, I think, a stupid thing because it is easy to go into a shop and buy some stuff and do electronic things. People like it and think it is new, but it is not new, but they don't know the works of other players. In the beginning of the Eighties, the only electronics thing I knew was the great Anthony Braxton together with Richard Teitelbaum. This was the only thing I had heard until then.
AAJ: And the future?
WF: I plan the next solo CD. Yesterday, we recorded at the Capitol Studios, which was a nice experience together in trio with Stephen Flinn and Jeremy Drake. I played on the festival with this trio and yesterday, we recorded here and maybe they will bring it out. I don't know. My other planning is my next solo CD and hopefully, this project of the King 'b' at the meeting in November.