Alfred Harth: Forty Years of Synaesthetic Improvisation
“ I had the desire to be a part of that, it was a passion for me, and so from this point I found out that the most interesting focus in all of this was a meeting of the arts, putting together music and art. ”
Multi-instrumentalist, improviser, composer and visual artist Alfred Harth was born near Frankfurt in 1949. He first recorded at age twenty with the ensemble Just Music, with whom he recorded two LPs, one of which was issued on ECM.
Throughout the 1970s he worked with musicians like pianist Nicole Van Den Plas, drummer Sven-Ake Johansson, bassist Peter Kowald, trumpeter Michael Sell and others in West European free music. In the late '70s, he became interested in punk music and in addition to a regularly-working duo with multi-instrumentalist Heiner Goebbels, he worked in punk / progrock / improvisation / modern composition combos like Cassiber and Gestalt et Jive.
Since moving to Seoul, South Korea in 2001, he has been involved with Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Orchestra and his own multi-media projects.
- Inauspicious Beginnings
- Wind in the Pillow
- Improvising Across Boundaries
- Living Without Borders
- Korean Ground Zero
- Pinning Down the Tribes
All About Jazz: I'd like to get started with how you got into music, as well as your upbringing.
Alfred Harth: It was a long time ago! My family's background is that of a quite well-supported middle class. I was the last in the chain of six children, and there was already an influence of my older siblings listening to music on the turntable when I was about seven. My folks were quite liberal in educating me, so I could do lots of things in the garden like building little huts and things, and this inspired me a lot. Actually, I wanted to be an architect when I grew up, so the next step was to study and in the meantime I picked up a little bit of flute and the wish came up to play the clarinet at about eight.
Then at eleven or so I was selling my electric trains to buy a real instrument rather than the toy I had been playing. I studied with a teacher who was playing all sorts of thingscello, drums, clarinet, saxophoneso he was the right teacher for me. I took lessons for some years with him but that's about all for the professional training I had. More or less I'm an autodidact with music.
At the age of twelve or so, I had a friend at school that played trumpet. We became a duo and we played easy things in the beginning, and then we started to form a teenage band for the small club we'd raised in my parents' house. So from time to time we played for school parties in the house. But we listened to jazz and we wanted to progress; there was an influence from an older brother who played piano. We played blues, too, and picked up the knowledge that was available in Germany in the early '60s. You have to remember that the time lag for information was much differentnow you have immediate education from the internet, but then it took longer.
AAJ: Also the economy in Germany wasn't strong then.
AH: It was up and coming, but the global technology had not gotten so far. In 1967 I had the first Albert Ayler record in my handit took three or four years for us to get those records, that information. In Great Britain there were some bands in the '60s like AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Brian Eno and the Portsmouth Sinfonia and the Scratch Orchestra. We didn't know about any of that at the time. We had been doing the Just Music band, which had my first recording in 1969 but we felt like we were on a lonely island in free improvisation.
AAJ: So hearing things like that was a confirmation of things you were already doing?
AH: No, not so muchwhen I was playing parties with my trumpeter friend, we wanted to spread our knowledge so we picked up everything. We looked for traditional jazz like New Orleans records, and we tried to play that. Actually, my first recording that I made was on cassette from 1965 with the New Orleans band, and I was really quick to purchase such a machine because the recorder was invented a year earlier in Germany. This was a very early, important recording. Being fourteen or fifteen, it was very important to have that tool and become independentyou can do what you want with playing and capturing it. This was a revolution going on, but of course I didn't know that!
So after the New Orleans band we followed the Americans' progress by starting with West Coast and modern jazz bands, so in '66 I had a modern jazz band. We opened up a club to the public in Frankfurt, and this was a meeting point for the cultural interests of the people around there. It became a center for free art at the time, "Centrum Freier Cunst," and we had a festival there in 1967. We had all sorts of free music and a gallery where we could show our visual art. Some participants were a bit olderthe trombonist from Just Music was six years older than me. Many artists and musicians who later made their name in Frankfurt had come to be inducted in this place.
AAJ: How did Frankfurt compare with other large German cities in that time?
AH: In the sixties and after, it was a leading progressive, culturally interesting city. We had the Albert Mangelsdorff Quintett and the people around his circle, so it was the jazz capital of Germany at that time. There was multimedia, experimental avant-garde visual art and literature there as well. It was always ahead, but when you grow up in such an environment, you don't have much to compare it to. You just go with the flow.
AAJ: It's interesting with the vanguard music from Germany now, it almost seems like people from Berlin or Wuppertal are viewed as the center of that music.
AH: Well, the musicians from those cities are given the "free jazz" moniker, but in Frankfurt we had the avant-garde new music in Darmstadt, and the Fluxus movement in Wiesbaden that had been invented there in 1962. So Frankfurt was a hot spot in various aspects of avant-garde art. Whereas Berlin and Wuppertal were very specifically related to free jazzand of course that comes from [multi-instrumentalist] Gunter Hampel, who had started a band in 1964 that gave us the first free music in Germany. I didn't know him then; I learned about him only in the Seventies. In the mid-Seventies I was a member of his Galaxie Dream Band, in fact.
In Just Music, we were looking around to all those diverse activities in the various avant-garde fields, and the idea of mixed media was available to us through the center we'd created. That's the start of our synaestheticsa synthesis of some of these different arts.
AAJ: Could you speak to how the ensemble Just Music began?
AH: This center was working like a magnet to musicians, who showed up there to see what was going on. It was just a normal focus for the young players, and it wasn't difficult to put all those people together.
AAJ: Could you describe a typical Just Music performance, how that "synaesthesia" could manifest itself?
AH: We were interested in the politics of the time, we put up flyers everywhere and tried to be up front with the political activities. From this we wanted to create art and music without being confined and without fortifying the establishment. We refused to give titles to our compositions, refused PR work on the name (which would change from time to time) because of this political, leftist attitude. So as far as creating the content, it came from mixed-media ideas. We were oriented to the American avant-garde and we also wanted to fortify our connection to European music, which came as a result of the string players in our band. We had two cellos, violin, bass, guitar, and there was lots of playing towards European-music approaches. We went to many places all over Europe to play wherever we could.
There was one early concert in 1967 when we played in Dusseldorf in a competition for young bands where there were about 1,000 people. After our performance, the audience was rhythmically clapping and full of emotion but the jury denied that it even happenedsaying that people wanted "swing music" instead of ours. This told me something about the actual historical time in music then, and the tensions there. We also had a performance in the Liederhalle in Stuttgart that was recorded, and I still have the moderator's comments on the broadcast. It was ridiculousthese two rather important jazz guys who commented negatively on what we were doing.
AAJ: Was this common for the announcers to give a commentary or criticize the music?
AH: They played a part of the music and then would summarize how they felt, sort of manipulating the radio audience. The cultural engines were a bit hot, but we didn't always pick it upwe just had to go on.
AAJ: How did ECM come into the picture in putting out this recording [Just Music, 1969]?
AH: From the beginning, we had [cellist] Tomas Stoewsand in the group who was a very important manager [Saudades] for musicians playing in Europe. He wanted to be a journalist, and was very active and looking around and happy to make contacts. One day he told us about Manfred Eicher and said that he was somebody who was looking for fresh avant-garde music in Europe. We had put out a recording ourselves already in '69, and so we thought maybe if he wants to have it and put it out with more distribution he could, and nobody at the time was aware of where the ECM label would go! Manfred was playing bass then. We did a concert in Munich and Eicher was very open-minded, but he decided to follow a dream of making a big label. Sometime later Stoewsand became Manfred's right hand at ECM.
AAJ: I gather that there was a strong desire on your part to gather as much music and art as you could, document it and release it yourself, controlling production and distribution.
AH: Well, that would be an exaggeration. We didn't have the desire to control all that we did or record everything; it just happened from time to time. It was just being an artistthe focus was to do what we wanted and to be free. We were in the middle of the activity so we couldn't think beyond that as much.
AAJ: How did you get involved with [pianist] Nicole van den Plas?
AH: It happened in '69 through Thomas Cremer, the drummer from Just Music. We were very close and made a trip to Spain that year, played some clubs and got a little money. At one point we went to a jazz festival on the coast in San Sebastian. We arrived early and found all these musicians before the event started. I saw this young lady there who was immediately coming to my mind [laughs], and I was thinking if she's a musician this is the one I'd love to meet! I heard she was from Belgium and playing piano, and she had a trio.
We weren't on the program so I approached her and asked if she could do a session with us. She accepted and we played with her trio during the festivalThomas Cremer, Thomas Stoewsand and I played in a sextet with her. We were happy, so we exchanged addresses. I started to visit her in Belgium and that's how we got to know one another. We had an invitation to play at a jazz festival in Perov and in Pragueher group and Just Music. So from there we became very close and were a couple.
AAJ: She's a painter, too, right?
AH: She was painting all the time, and when she came to Frankfurt in 1973 she started studying at the art academy, Staedel. Later she decided to be only a visual artist.
AAJ: And you formed EMT with her and [drummer] Sven-Ake Johansson, which seemed to be a distillation of your 4.Januar 1970 LP.
AH: Yes, 4.Januar 1970 was with Thomas Cremer on drums and other Just Music players, sort of a midway point in our evolution. Because I was involved in the Belgian scene I got to know players like [bassist] Peter Kowald and [drummer] Paul Lovens. In 1970 we had a recording in Frankfurt with those guys, and that's how I met the Wuppertal players. From this influence, I wanted to create something similar and it became EMT.
I was remembering my first meeting of Sven-Ake Johansson in Berlin in 1968, where we performed together. I was remembering his sense of freedom; he was also getting into visual art and doing mixed-media art. This is the reason why EMT came together with him and Nicole van den Plasit's not directly from Just Music and the quartet, but a little more related to Sven-Ake.
AAJ: You mentioned to me something about Peter Brotzmann's comment about your sound, "Wind in a Pillow." Could you elaborate a bit on your relationship with Brotzmann and the Wuppertal/FMP axis? Were you easily accepted by those musicians?
AH: He wasn't offensive with thatthis title he gave was said with a smile. There was lots of wind used by the players, of course, and it was one of those early instances of those wind-effects in the saxophones. Maybe it was new to play soft like that for him. He was the aggressive player, but there was a fragile possibility and it had been out of the question at the time for him. I was in my early twenties and still looking around for where to go, and I felt more accepted by those players than the local players like Albert Mangelsdorff. There was tension between the different scenes.
Recently I received a CD box called Music in Deutschland 1950-2000 (BMG, 2003/2008)that contains a disc about the beginnings of free jazz in Europe. The liner notes are written by Felix Klopotek, and he cements the Berlin-Wuppertal monopole. He even calls Manfred Schoof's European Echoes (FMP, 1969) a manifest of the essence of European free jazz, but it's a total ultimate power play with paradoxical orderly solos. Klopotek simply ignores the existence of the Just Music LP from the same year, and the LP 4.Januar 1970 and two years later, EMT's Canadian Cup of Coffee (SAJ-FMP). These would have showed him that there had been other, subtle forms in German free improvisation that contained silent and fragile modes, beyond the limitation of a series of solos.
My music from these early times had open forms and sublime structures, because I was not mainly inspired to be the loudest. The ideology of "Kaputtspielen" (to destroy what destroys you) in the Berlin-Wuppertal axis was not my eminent thing. We had more diverse things to say at that time than being aggressive; but maybe we weren't loud enough. Klopotek says that the Brotzmann Quartet from 1989 fulfills certain ideas by being powerful but not aggressive, with no constraining themes, and freely and collectively played. The latter characteristics can be used also to describe the music of Just Music from 1969 and 1970 (if he'd only heard us).
Klopotek seems happy that in 1989 the free jazz players in Germany found their way back to American jazz, and this is a tendency which was quite widespread during those days, coming out of a kind of minority complex towards American players. But in 1989, there had been Cassiber, my LP Anything Goes (Creative Works, 1986), and the postmodern group Vladimir Estragon, all clashing using new methods beyond the American ones. Why should there be happiness in music criticism about Brotzmann coming home to the blues?
AAJ: Wow. Well, it's true that in America, we get this conception about European improvisation, that in the various countries there was a brotherhood of musicians who were working in this way, and also a lot of cross-pollination between scenes. But maybe that's not the case as much and that it wasn't as friendly.
AH: Often we try to make things a little more rosy than they were. It was characterized by a bit of territorial behavior, and Mangelsdorff for example had put all this energy into making something that he had to protect. Nowadays, it's more open and jazz musicians find schools and teach, but it's because of a readiness for things to go forward. The history of the music is something nobody has to talk about in America because it's there and it's obvious. In Germany, it did not exist in this way, with just really tiny things going on in the Second World War (a kind of resistance) and no free music until much later. For us, it wasn't like Ornette Coleman where it was coming out of something elseit was a birth of the form.
AAJ: The cross-disciplinary nature of the music in Europe, the gallery scene and the musicians collaborating, was quite different from how the music was presented in the States. You're characterizing the artists in Frankfurt as diverse, some of whom may not be involved in music or who choose a different mediumwhereas in the States it was solely musical.
AH: Maybe there was more of an urge in the States to be specialized, to develop such a high level of technique, and that's not so much the case in Europe. Also because of the political influences, the leftist influence, that made people more aware of the problems of being so narrow. That would be like supporting the establishment, and culturally things were falling apart in Europe and people were looking for different avenues, fulfilling their desires in an honest way. This was beyond what a specialist could do. In America, specialists like Dolphy or Coltrane were practicing so much, and in the black community it's something very goodto come out of bad circumstances with a talent. You're developing as a star, like a sports player who can embrace those possibilities with enormous effort beyond the artistic desire. Also, the economic situation was quite different in Europe.
AAJ: Even in a lot of free or improvised music, some players are "preaching to the choir" and they give the audience what they expect, rather than making them work and letting people who are interested find them.
AH: I think these days we have so many more musicians and people are so connected. Those that aren't fall behind. I am astonished by how rich the field is and it's so diverse. I think the inner wish was to reach many people with what we were doing.
AAJ: And yet there is this desire to connect across boundaries. For example, through things like social networking, there are Turkish musicians who have found me to network withthat wouldn't have happened before.
AH: Yes, I realized that there is a free music scene in Lebanon now and that's another example of the expanding universe of this music. Imagine that we could have free music in Iraq rather than what is going on now. I'm not naive enough to believe that music could push away all conflict, but it's good just to know that in a country like Lebanon with such a history of battles, we can have jazz improvisation there that contains hopeeven if it's only a few people.
I'm a searcher all my life and loving surprises and the unexpected, crossing borders and finding openness to other fields, and the output will of course be complicated.
AAJ: It's interesting to me too that one has this idea of improvising itself as such a rebellion against high societylike in England, Ronnie Scott was giving English conservative society the middle finger by just playing his horn.
AH: I think it was. But also I was reading an interview with Trevor Watts in the Wire, and he sees himself within an American free jazz tradition. He didn't want to rebel but just wanted to go on and play, which is the same for myself by the way. There was a lot of rebellion going on in the students and with the young generation. In the States, too, it fed into the cultural apparatus, and they didn't stop at the door of the temple. Also, the things that the Wuppertal and Berlin people were doing, they were carried along by the interest of the people in the students' movement. It was equivalent to their ideology at the time.
AAJ: Looking at the photos taken at the Workshop Freie Musik, they were all college kids, young hip students, sitting on the floor at these concerts. The American jazz audience presented a very different thing through the club environment, which is by the way one that American music still adheres to. Also due in part to these festivals in Europe in the 1970s, it seems like it was a vastly more open environment in which to experience the music.
AH: Also don't forget the Cold War was more visible in Europe, especially in places like Germany. The division was very apparent and we were aware that there were free music players in the GDR, and we started to exchange activitiesit really meant something to the audiences [in the West] when Eastern free music players came over to play, and there was a revelation that "hey, we speak the same language!" But when the wall came down, these same people went to Michael Jackson!
AAJ: It's unfortunate to me that in these times of political and social difficulty as we experience now, which are in some ways analogous to the tensions that occurred in the '60s and '70s, artistic taste hasn't followedpeople don't often pick up on artistic expression of politics and culture.
But you haven't been one to historically be pigeonholed into one approachJust Music and EMT are just a part of your activities.
AH: EMT was a band that was an opening up of possibilities; it was a place for me to develop performance art aesthetics in music, such as a "music circus." I was playing a number of different instruments like electric zither, violin, and percussion. There was an electric organ, Sven-Ake was singing in a strange way and using Dadaist words. We also put European composers in the repertoire like Schumann and Grieg. We wanted to be seen as in the European tradition, and it was the first time I had an understanding of my being a European musician. I had grown up and stayed in Europe and now I wasn't playing jazz colored by the American influences.
This was strengthened by working with [pianist/multi-instrumentalist] Heiner Goebbels later on, where we introduced lots of music by European composers like Hanns Eisler. Also, the political awareness within that duo was denser because of the times. In the Eighties it opened up into more diverse directions, working with [pianist] Paul Bley, [saxophonist] John Zorn and Brotzmann again.
AAJ: Your approach to a wide range of different instrumentswhen did that start to enter your mind?
AH: In Just Music I was using a pocket trumpet, but with music and the arts, I was not trained by the academy so I was putting things together by the wisdom I had from the avant-garde. It was like a visual artist approaching a canvas with a lot of different materials.
In the punk period, I was fortified by guitarists only having played for a little whileat that time I picked up trombone and other instruments without hesitation, because of that renewed inspiration.
AAJ: There's almost a collagist element to seeing how these elements work together or fight one another, that's also visually or aurally interesting. It seems almost like an audio collage in those bands, where contrasting elements are combined.
AH: There was a lot of diverse activity and much of it was not released at the time; I'm putting together a three-CD set of Just Music and a two-CD set of EMT that will clarify how diverse we really were. Maybe it's a little exaggerated but sometimes it seems like music from the futureand it's like something I've never heard.
AAJ: How do you define your relationship to the punk musicians you met in the early Eighties?
AH: Everybody was surrounded by so many borders, customs and intellectual divisions in society throughout Europe. I was stopped in Belgium to show my passport some years ago; now that would not be the case. Also, people had become divided between serious and entertainment music, professionals and amateurs, and only later there came in Berlin the dilettante geniuses in the punk scene. It was something very important for artists to look beyond borders and to explode them wherever possible.
I had been looking around wherever there was a possibility to overcome hindrances, and when I first heard of the punk movement I was very interested and supportiveI took it right away and implemented some of these ideas, together with people like Christoph Anders, a left-wing artist whom I knew. This was the beginning of the Cassiber band, which is a blend of punk, classical, free jazz and rock.
AAJ: As a follower myself of both improvised music and punk, and coming from punk music as a teenager to jazz through Albert Ayler, there's always been this divisionary tactic even within rock and jazz. There's almost an aspect of un-learning of style and approach, taking away personal boundaries in order to find a way to express oneself. A starting over, if you will, getting it down to scratch. In improvised music, or in the history of it one gets in the US, autodidacticism worked against Ornette at first, but later became a reason for his favor.
Could you speak to the tension between the self-taught musician and the "schooled" musician?
AH: With respect to punk, this was very much welcomed; it was in the air of the times and there was punk still going on into the early Eighties, new wave and so on, and there was no resistance artistically to this music. Which brings to mind something you mentioned earlierCage was one of the earliest to tear down these borders, using the piano as a drum set in the 1930s and by 1952 he was coming to the Zen spiritual universe and denied any beginning or end in anything artistic. He made a beautiful electronic mix, "Fontana Mix," in 1959, for example.
AAJ: He was very against improvisation, though.
AH: But he did use those cut-up things, of course they were composed and structuralist, and John Zorn also did some similar things in the Eighties. There was this 4'33" in 1952, which was similar to Robert Rauschenberg's white canvases at the time, putting a silence into music that is really never there. This is something those improvisers in reductionist areas are more or less repeating. It's not a rebellion in Cage, but an opening upand in punk, opening up more emotionally. Cage, Stockhausenthey were strict composers. I was reading about the differences between Stockhausen and the Cecil Taylor-Tony Oxley duos, which sound similar but of course the music of Taylor is flesh.
It was Cage's program to avoid relationships between musical parameters and each tone should be heard purely and in isolationidealistic, wonderful and great. Punk is talking in opposition to this in a very emotional way.
AAJ: I think of punk as very idealistic, though.
AH: It is, it is.
l:r Maggie Nicols, Paul Bley, Alfred Harth, Trilok Gurtu, Barre Phillips (1983)
AAJ: This getting rid of boundaries between the schooled and unschooled was very important in groups like AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which you mentioned before, and they had the idea of paring away to the very basics as though you don't know anything. These relationships may be formed by instantaneous, unplanned interaction. That's idealistic too, trying to get rid of trainingthat the more traditional knowledge one has stops one from getting to the source of the thing. As so much of this music's history has been taught, and you see all these players coming out of schools to play jazz, it seems antithetical and cuts something off to the player. I don't know whether you have anything to add to that, but as one who has taught oneself as well as embraced other self-taught musicians and artists
AH: With punk as an ideology, we shall not forget that all those art-rock movements in Europe would not have been possible without it, prog rock as well, and there was a development of more avant-garde approaches like Voice Crack. In the visual arts, situationism and Georges Bataille in the Fifties, distorting things, was a sort of pre-punk ideology. I think the denial of achievement is always going on and it is a dialectical movement in history, taking old ideas and destroying them in order to bring up new ones. Now it is very hard for young artists and musicians, because of such big turnarounds, and new music doesn't seem to know where to go. It's peculiar, too, in the avant-garde visual arts that it's hard to detect something new.
AAJ: I don't quite understand why that is. When I first started exploring new music, avant-garde music, and free music after being into punk I found in myself a strong aversion to Western Classical avant-garde music. I still do like academic music to some extent, but I'm not hearing anything I like anymore, though I am not sure it's a problem with my ears. I don't think improvised music is necessarily better than composed music, but
AH: It's a more holistic touch in improvised musicit touches the emotions and the body as well as the intellect. That's not the case in the new music. The last century has folded, and when we look at the various media, people are still trying to digest what was happening in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties while at the same time trying to understand what's going on NOW. People are realizing that the last century is over, but there were so many things that went on. There are a lot of possibilities in the new Millennium that are so far beyond the possibilities available in the last century.
AAJ: Well there's so much of an oversaturation of information, with the internet and so forth, that it's hard for things to "pop out," as it were.
AH: The internet is a sort of sleeping pill these days. From the politics of the last eight years, though, it's a sort of rolling back to the Dark Agesa cultural Zeroand it has become somewhat of a boring decade. But the internet is good for exchanging information about what happened during the previous decades, more or less.
AAJ: We're only now even catching up to the significance of things done in the last ten or twenty years.
AH: You mentioned that the first thing that touched you was punk, and after that Albert Ayler, so you lived through the time of punk and not through the times of Ayler. Now in 2008 you and I and others, we all look back to the Seventies and Eighties as what we lived through, but it is suddenly distant history.
AAJ: My experience of living through something is not being able to assess it as much. I was young and didn't grasp the cultural significance of punkto me, then, it was just loud music that I enjoyed. Now, on the other hand, I have a better appreciation for it. In ten years I may have a greater appreciation for what is happening in this decade.
AH: That's possible for everybodythe analytical history, to look back at the past, comes later. Now we seem to be in a special time where we have the chance to look back at the late Twentieth Century, and at the same time there's helplessness toward moving forward. All the cycles as they play out are kind of boring. What do you think?
AAJ: I feel like we're on the verge of something, and that we're standing on a cultural precipicewe don't know what's down there, we've not fallen off, but we've reached the end of something. We can see what was behind and what's around, but not what's aheadsave maybe a great openness.
AH: Everything is possible, and when there are borders to bang your head on there's movement. Many people were moving together to create a movement and push down those borders. Now, with fewer borders, it's more solipsistic. There are some tribes here and there, like around electro-acoustic music, but they don't have the power that a movement would have. It's more the power of a single person, which might be a new characteristic of these times.
AAJ: Perhaps not having something to bang your head into is a weird sensationyou want to push but there's nothing to push against. It makes things complicated.
AH: My wife is a painter in Seoul teaching at the academy here, and we're in touch with the younger scene. They repeat things done by others and they're not awarethey invent it for themselves. I'm not saying these times are worse; it is much better in all respects now than it used to be.
AAJ: Well, you deal with what you're given. One cannot help one's environment to a certain extent.
We've sort of skipped by this, but could you talk about your visual art training?
AH: It was earlier than the music, right from the beginning and I was studying art at the university in Frankfurt. I went to an art college, not music school. I became an art teacher from 1975-78, and I finished that because the music was going well and by the age of thirty, I was a professional musician.
AAJ: So that has always, without fail, been a major part of your life.
AH: Yes, yes. We've talked about borders and divisions a bit, and it's been a difficult thing in my biography with audiences and recipients of my work and its image. They see me being a duo partner with Heiner Goebbels, then again as a photographer, and maybe another time in Cassiber so the multi-talented situation I'm in has a slightly negative aspect. People are confused about my biography and it might be why some people don't know my work. It would be easier if I had only played saxophone or only painted in a certain style. This is the usual way artists become famousthey point out one single aim for their work, and yet my aim is to be in all the fields. It's my nature.
AAJ: I went to the Art Institute of Chicago for graduate work in art history. It was surprising to me how few people interested in either making art or studying its history had any interest in music at all. Since I was equally interested in visual art and improvised music, it was fun for me but it was hard in class to transfer those interests. I had a seminar on minimalism and we talked about [painter-filmmaker-musician] Michael Snow; I brought in his albums and nobody in the classeven the professorhad any idea about this aspect of his career.
AH: That's very interesting and very typical. Another example is when I started theater compositions in '79 (Germany has a very big theater culture), and I was thinking from my naive mixed-media world that everybody would clap their hands if we talked about Albert Ayler and improvisation here, Jackson Pollock, all the fields. I was so astonished that even in the multi-media temple of the theater, acting, music, improvisation, composition, visual artthey didn't care at all!
I find that more or less it is this way and everybody is specializing and it is the exception to be interested in such diverse things.
AAJ: I'll say another thing to the point in that I am a librarian and having two degrees on top of that in art history as well as an interest in music, it confuses people. People in art libraries don't get that I studied both, and music librarians don't want anything to do with art. There's no cross-pollination, whereas I think that approaching either medium from a different angle would be an asset. Americans like to throw around the word "interdisciplinary" but when they are confronted with someone who is actually this way, they don't know what to do.
AH: We have the word but we don't have the content.
AAJ: Again, it's the situation of being at the precipicethings are open but we don't know what to do.
But going back to your biography, when did you first play in the States?
AH: In '75, I had a short time in Gunter Hampel's Galaxie Dream Band, and I became good friends with [reedmen] Perry Robinson and Mark Whitecage. When I finished my service (I was a conscientious objector, so I didn't do the army), there was a little pause because I hadn't started teaching art so I visited New York. I got right into the loft jazz scene and met [pianist] John Fischer, stayed at his loft Environ and took part in the concerts. This was a great experience for me.
AAJ: You had a lucky thing where loft jazz was happening and not much later punk and new wave things started happening.
AH: Well, I didn't see those latter movements if they were happening. I was touched by loft jazz and the spiritual things going on as well. When I came back to Germany, I formed a trio with bassist Buschi Niebergall and the drummer Uwe Schmitt and then started playing in the duo with Heiner Goebbels. I was mobilizing my free music desires again, though in the duo we didn't do so much of this. In 1978 I picked up punk music, but in Germany.
AAJ: In the 1980s, there was a more transatlantic base for a lot of European musicians. Was this at all a part of your experience then?
AH: Not so much; when I met Goebbels that opened up a new field in my work and it was after my New York visit. We focused on that duo work and putting together a brass band (Left-radical Brass Orchestra), and in '82 we formed Cassiber and I did not go to the States again until 1988 or so. I went to Canada to play the Victoriaville festival with the duo in 1987. A year later I played with [cellist] Tom Cora, [trombonist] George Lewis and [saxophonist] Kappo Umezu in New York. So there was a gap of about twelve years.
AAJ: How did the Goebbels-Harth Duo go over with audiences? There was such a lack of boundaries present in that work.
AH: It was really well-appreciated at those times; we were lucky and got famous. The ongoing movements like the peace movement were still there, there was cultural readiness to digest the things we were approaching like songs against the atomic programs and things. This is one of the reasons I didn't go to the States because we had been so busy in all of Europe through the early Eighties. With Cassiber we played a lot of festivals and concerts, and also my own band that I formed in '84, Gestalt et Jive, and I continued to use punk elements and improvising on compositionsthese were all very well received.
AAJ: When you used compositional materials of others, was it as much to break them apart as to improvise within the structures they created?
AH: If I say I was a self-taught musician I wasn't a dull person! I was trained by people I played with who were part of the system, and I treated compositions of Schumann and Eisler as respected material. We didn't take this as a holy cow, either; because it was material we found a way to destruct it and make something new for us. So in this way, it is a simple process.
AAJ: I'd like to talk a bit about what you are doing now in light of this. In the series of solo and audio collage works that you've sent me, the Mother of Pearl series, I am having a bit of difficulty understanding them. Could you explain these?
AH: These are works that are dedicated to Korea and Korean life. One is about Korean poetry, one is about North Korea, and another is about Seoul and the history from the time of the Japanese occupation. This is a reflection on the fact that I was moving here at the beginning of the decade, to a country that I really love. I wanted to dedicate my artistic contributions to it. And in this new environment where I was very welcomed as a musician, of course I invited local musicians to participate. It's more or less a solo production in my studio, a collage of sorts.
When I look back to my very beginnings, I was coming from a synaesthetical point where I was doing art and music from an early age. There was openness in education and fortunately I was in an inspiring region in FrankfurtNam Jun Paik was living there and I could get it all. I had the desire to be a part of that, it was a passion for me, and so from this point on I found out that the most interesting focus in all of this was a meeting of the arts, putting together music and art (and they may need one another). This stream went throughout my biography, where I wanted to merge punk and free improvisation, electronics, new music and so forth. Cassiber brought in all those diverse elements together, for example, not only in a harmony but in a broken manner as well, a boiling as well as a meeting.
This kind of food with diverse ingredients was very good for my soul from the beginning. So it was nothing new for me to use computers, and I went into the studio to make my compositions in this way. I never had to leave my own identity no matter what I didit was all my personal style. The studio and electronics had always been an extended instrument for the colors that I wanted to use.
AAJ: Had you thought of the studio as an instrument prior to this time?
AH: Yes, this is an idea that came up with musicians like Chris Cutler in the 1980s. We had so many possibilities, electronic and otherwise, overdubs and mixing in a new manner and it created a new way of looking at things. I remember the revolutionary strike that came up with the evolution of electronics. And there was the avant-garde impulse to step across bordersit's a motor that drives many of usand we think about what could be beyond this border. It's a thrill and a challenge. The hope is to embrace and use all these means toward putting out something that makes artistic sense. Maybe this work is not easy to digest, but I am not thinking about the audience or the recipients.
AH: But this is only part of what I'm doing now. On the other hand, I have also done concerts with [guitarist/turntablist] Otomo Yoshihide and did about six CDs with him since about 2004 (as well as some diverse compilations). I met him in the middle 90s, he was contacted by Chris Cutler who had produced a CD of Ground Zero, where he had sampled Goebbels-Harth, and it was a milestone of Otomo's work where he became a bit famous. This was how we got to know one another and he stayed at my home in Frankfurt in 1998. He came to do a concert in Seoul a bit later and then his saxophonist left the band and I filled the chair with my own contributions. He's a very open person, to many fields in musicI don't know about his tendencies towards art and literature, but he's a unique artist.
Later I was facing again towards the European scene, the younger scene in Rome around Massimo Pupillo and the band Zu. Die Schachtel has put out a project we did called 7000 Oaks (7k Oaks), and there's another trio with Gunter Muller and Hans-Joachim Irmler from Faust called Taste Tribes. There is another thing I'm doing with [electronic artist] Conrad Schnitzler. It's a coincidence that now I'm doing some work with names from the Seventies also, like Manuel Gottsching from Ash Ra TempelI knew their names then but had not played with them until now.
AAJ: Do you plan to stay in Korea?
AH: I'm feeling good here and it feels like home, but that doesn't mean all my artistic works are defined by living here. It's like people who live in New York may play their music all over the world.
AAJ: But you almost moved to New York in 2001.
AH: That's right, I was looking for a change of scenery from Germany and we came very close to living there around that time. My wife was having an exhibition in 1999 in a gallery and took part in a grant. Her feet were on the ground and I had been working in the 1990s with New York musicians. During the year 2000 I met [bassist] Wilber Morris and played with him, and he chose Kevin Norton as our drummer and that formed the Trio Viriditas. We did two recordings for Clean Feed in 2000-01. But Wilber died and it had to end.
As for choosing a place to live, we did the research on living in New York and looked at the apartments and it was too expensive. This was in September 2001 and then we saw the incredible things that happened in New York. Since then, all the aftermath of the politics has made us turn away and we haven't felt a lot of sympathy for America. There was a big exodus of artists from New York and it confirmed my decision not to live there. But it's all very sad and I want to go there again when things have improved.
So my wife had an invitation to a biennale in 2000 and I joined her on this trip to Asia. During this trip I had an occasion to do some concerts in Seoul with several of the most famous players of free music here. I was very astonished and attracted to the country after a couple of weeks. In 2001 we got a grant to spend six months in Seoul at an art space, and it gave us a place to live and a chance to leave Germany for a change. This was a perfect start for me to get grounded. Of course I wouldn't have had this connection if I wasn't together with my wife, so it is in many ways a love story!
AAJ: Did your interests change as a musician in Korea?
AH: I had stayed my whole life in Frankfurt and felt it would be good to change for many reasons. I wanted to get out of somewhere that was a bit stagnant and it was good to move on and get rejuvenated. That's exactly what happened by coming to Asia, which provides a different world and an altogether inspiring place. I was not expecting thingsI was just open to change. Frankfurt needed new faces as well. Japan, Hong Kong and Vladivostok are nearbyit's a new radius for me from the places I was used to in Europe.
AAJ: Could you talk a bit about the Korean musicians you came into contact with?
AH:There is an alto saxophonist, Kang Tae Hwan, who is a unique master of the music with circular breathing in extended waysa very free and outrageous player who's often sitting down in a Buddhist position. There's a trumpet player Choi Sun Bae, a very close friend who has been compared by other people to Bill Dixon. Those two are not very well recognized, and even herethere's an astonishing degree of ignorance and nobody supports this music. It's much better in places like Japan. There are others who have mastered traditional instruments who have also not been recognized, but this seems to be the Korean thing.
AAJ: Is Korea known for being unsupportive?
AH: It's a sort of hermit situation, and they are not encouraged to give a certain image to the world. They don't have an idea about their own reputation, and when it comes to the cultural figures there are no names. There was the drummer Kim Dae Hwan, who passed away, that played in Japan regularlyhe was really unique, holding four or five sticks in his hands, running the motor of his motorcycle on stage, really strange and free. It's nice to look into this universe that nobody knows about.
AAJ: Is there a chance to do some more recordings with Korean players?
AH: I produced a solo record of Choi Sun Bae, and I would love to do more that exposes them. This would be something new for many people.
AAJ: How much planning goes into your recordings beforehand?
AH: I go into them as an intuitive; from my background I'm kind of a thinker compared to some others, so I can trust that capacity. Of course it happens when there's a project that requires more thought, I can do that, but my personal work is more intuitive. I pick up some contents that trigger my ideas, such as the history of Korea and the Japanese occupation that moved me very much as a German because of the injustices we'd done to the world. Many things are not told these days from the Japanese sidethey didn't apologize and they denied things, so this created a new border and hinders the new politics. So when I learn about those things it triggers a wish to put something together and speak about it.
AAJ: I notice you've included poetry in some of the Mother of Pearl discs.
AH: Yes, each of these discs contains another item in a modest wayit's not easy for me to speak about the language and history as an outsider, but I was approaching the country and its richness as an artist as best I could, with my feelings and experience. Now that series has been finished, and though I'm still living here I'm doing things elsewhere. I'm going to Switzerland and Portugal, and will be working with Taste TribesI am fascinated by the electronic possibilities of the Kaoss pad, contact mikes, laptops and the things Gunter and Hans-Joachim will bring to the table. There's a psychedelic/electro-acoustic aspect to the band, a new approach that I find very satisfying. The CD is a studio work that I had mixed while here. I call it Taste Tribes because it is in-between; it has something to do with modern times as well as with older forms, Krautrock and so on.
AAJ: And at the same time you're revisiting prior work with EMT and Just Music.
AH: Yes, I had found these tapes and cleaned them up and put them on CDs that I hope to reissue at some point.
But with Taste Tribes, it's very far from jazz as there are shadows of saxophone tone in it, but it's all electronics and it is very challenging.
AAJ: How have you been received in Seoul as an artist and musician?
AH: It's very strange; at first it was open because they knew my name and it was a warm welcome, and I built up relationships with younger experimental musicians. And then it faded a little bit because I began concentrating on working with Otomo in Japan and now I've withdrawn from activities in Seoul because I'm going my own wayand it's a natural movement but it's a bit less of a collaboration. But I feel well, and I think I'll remain living herelife is great here.
Leaving in the sense of doing more activities in Europe and elsewhere is something I would like to continue to do. But I will always come back. If I go to the States, it would be under the auspices of connecting to new musicians and exploring new scenes; I'm just so open. With Otomo, things are fading a bit because now he is searching for other new ways that are not the same as minehe's playing more guitar and working with [saxophonist] Mats Gustafsson's Thing. The big band, ONJO, is no longer working togetherit's already a part of history. Everybody is searching for a new way.
AAJ: What's interesting to me is that the most visible of your recent recordings is within more of a jazz context, Trio Viriditas, which involves so little of your working process. Do you have thoughts about that, getting noticed for something which is just a certain aspect?
AH: I think not many people know my work in the first place, and that's a little sad. My other friends get more recognition, and it's always that which makes you fly and motivates you a bit. I'm not too happy about not being so well-known; it's not that I need applause every day, but I do need something to keep going on!
But the point is to have among your diverse talents that of selling yourself, and that's not a talent that I have. I want to show myself and put myself in the position that people can see what I've done in a better waybut I accept less recognition and try not to get down about it. I continue working, I don't do many concerts, and that's how it is. Even if it all goes down into a hole I will thankfully accept it!
AAJ: Do you still teach at all?
AH: No, no, I did that only in the Seventies before getting famous with Heiner Goebbels. That put me in a good position economically, while I was also doing compositions for theater and for television which paid very well. From there on I could invest my money, so I am in the position of being independent from economic worries and I'm very lucky. I was seeking freedom like this for a long time, so I didn't have to phone clubs and play gigs here and there. I have a choice. And this is a really good thing, but I do get enemies in the music scenemusicians who struggle and have to do work that they don't like, and they see me able to do things independently and it creates envy. Once you realize this it's a bit sad. I have to say I want to go to the United States in a fresh way and innocently, and I don't want to be blamed for my right to be free both musically and personally.
I am positive though, and I don't want to look too much at the negative. Everybody, I hope, is looking to the light and that's what I'm trying to do. But just so you know, I do feel a little bit of the blues as a result.
7000 Oaks, 7k Oaks (Die Schachtel, 2008)
Harth/Irmler/Mueller, Taste Tribes (For4Ears, 2008)
Trio Viriditas, Live at the Vision Festival 2001 (Clean Feed, 2008)
Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Orchestra, Out To Lunch (Doubt Music, 2006)
Alfred Harth & Peter Brotzmann, Go No Go (FMP, 1987)
Cassiber, Beauty and the Beast (ReR, 1984)
Heiner Goebbels/Alfred Harth, Hommage/Vier Fauste Fur Hanns Eisler (FMP, 1978; ReR, 2004)
EMT, Canadian Cup of Coffee (SAJ, 1972)
Alfred Harth/Nicole Van Den Plas/Peter Stock/Franz Vollhard/Thomas Cremer, 4.Januar 1970 (self-released, 1970)
Various Artists (incl. Just Music and Lester Bowie's European Free Jazz Orchestra), Born Free: 12th German Jazzfestival 1970 (Scout, 1970)
Just Music, Just Music (ECM, 1969)