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Alfred Harth: Forty Years of Synaesthetic Improvisation

By Published: January 5, 2009
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Improvising Across Boundaries

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 medium—whereas 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 good—to 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 with—that 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 hope—even 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 society—like 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.

Alfred HarthAH: 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 activities—it 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 followed—people don't often pick up on artistic expression of politics and culture.

But you haven't been one to historically be pigeonholed into one approach—Just 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 instruments—when 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 while—at 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 future—and 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 supportive—I 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 earlier—Cage 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 up—and in punk, opening up more emotionally. Cage, Stockhausen—they 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 isolation—idealistic, 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.

align=center>Alfred Harth 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 training—that 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 music—it 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 Ages—a cultural Zero—and 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.

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