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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.


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