Alfred Harth: Forty Years of Synaesthetic Improvisation


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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.
Alfred Harth 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.

Chapter Index

  1. Inauspicious Beginnings
  2. Wind in the Pillow
  3. Improvising Across Boundaries
  4. Living Without Borders
  5. Korean Ground Zero
  6. Pinning Down the Tribes

Inauspicious Beginnings

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 things—cello, drums, clarinet, saxophone—so 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 different—now 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 hand—it 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 much—when 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 independent—you can do what you want with playing and capturing it. This was a revolution going on, but of course I didn't know that!

Alfred Harth

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 older—the 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 jazz—and 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 synaesthetics—a synthesis of some of these different arts.


Wind in the Pillow

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 happened—saying 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 ridiculous—these 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 up—we 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 artist—the 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 festival—Thomas 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 Prague—her group and Just Music. So from there we became very close and were a couple.

Alfred HarthAAJ: 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 Plas—it'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 that—this 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 else—it was a birth of the form.

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