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Alfred Harth: Forty Years of Synaesthetic Improvisation

By Published: January 5, 2009
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Living Without Borders

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 punk—to 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.

Alfred HarthAH: That's possible for everybody—the 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 precipice—we 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 ahead—save 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 sensation—you 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 aware—they 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 famous—they 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 class—even the professor—had 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 art—they 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 precipice—things 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.

Alfred HarthAAJ: 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 compositions—these 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 Frankfurt—Nam 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 did—it 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 borders—it's a motor that drives many of us—and 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.

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