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Artist Profiles

Ursel Schlicht: Piano Colors - Inside and Out

By Published: July 16, 2005
Schlicht also gave a lecture at the festival about women in jazz - one of her scholarly fields for many years and the topic of her dissertation It's Gotta Be Music First. On the Impact, Perception, and Working Conditions of Women Jazz Instrumentalists, published as a book in Germany in 2000. "Historically, women were acting in the domestic or semi-professional sphere, and men were really out in the public sphere. There is a long history of that, and so many women did not have the same kind of access and this fundamental encouragement that you can be a professional musician and make a living at it," she says. Her lecture attracted a large audience, men and women, and she found the ambiance in Melbourne very open and interested in these discussions.

Simmons was in New York again this January, thanks to a special award from the Freedman Fellowship program, among other things to work with Schlicht on a project that included John Hollenbeck on drums and Reuben Radding on the bass. They then met again at the Symposium fuer Aktuelle Musik in Kassel, Germany, a three-day festival with musicians from six countries - curated and produced by Ursel Schlicht.

For more than a decade now, she has organized events to bring musicians from different spheres together. Communication across cultures and musical genres is essential to her. In March 2005, participants played 'aktuelle', i.e. 'current', 'cutting-edge' music, and participants brought a variety of composed, performative and improvisatory approaches to the event.

Ex Tempore is one such collaboration about which Schlicht feels particularly passionate. The idea arose out of her need to make a meaningful statement after the events of September 11, 2001: to organize an intercultural collaboration in Kassel, during the Documenta X - the leading avantgarde art show in the world, which had a focus that year on global dialogue. Outraged by the US bombing of Afghanistan, she reached out to find have musicians from both countries on the same stage. Says Schlicht "I spent months in Germany just preparing and trying to find the right musicians. I wrote to Radio Afghanistan and any cultural organization in Afghanistan I could find - no answer. It was an ambitions project. Musicians in the group came from a wide range of places, musically and geographically. Fortunately I found Dr. Salamat Schiftah and Hakim Ludin - outstanding Afghan musicians both based in Germany!" Eight musicians participated: German vocalist-composer Gabriele Hasler, Eritrean singer-songwriter Tadios Tesfu American cellist Tomas Ulrich and flutist Jamie Baum, Indian-American percussionist Ravish Momin, and Schlicht, Schiftah and Ludin. "It was very successful. Musicans and audiences loved it. We all wanted to continue to play together."

Ex Tempore gradually developed into an ensemble based in New York. Recent members and guests include Malian balafon master Balla Kouyate, bassist Thomson Kneeland, oud player Brandon Terzic and vocalist Kyoko Kitamura.

Striving to keep performing with the original performers, the group flew in Gabriele Hasler for a week-long tour in 2004. The highlight was their concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada - on September 11(!)

In 2005, the ensemble received a grant from Chamber Music America's Residency Program to do community outreach performances. The community partners are Ramapo College, New Jersey—where Schlicht teaches courses in Music & Gender and Improvisation—and the Mahwah High School, Public Library and Senior Activities Center. Ex Tempore will give masterclasses, workshops, and concerts in the Mahwah community during the 2005 fall season.

Band members bring music to the group and develop arrangements together. The cultural combinations within the ensemble can make for interesting musical dynamics. For example, explains Schlicht, not every instrument is tuned in the tempered system. Or, the sound of a balafon, or a tabla have distinct ethnic connotations and need a well-thought out context in a piece. "It means you have to be very careful - you can't just - like in other ensembles I am in - hand out music to people and know that it will all fit together. You have to be very thoughtful and very careful, try ideas in different ways and find out how to play to everyone's strengths and bring out their individualities."

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