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Theo Jorgensmann: Sheep with Two Heads

Richard Noel Taylor By

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An improviser is also a composer. He is a spontaneous composer. The difference is how long it takes to make the composition.
Theo Jörgensmann, the German free jazz clarinet maestro likes to quote the Austrian cultural historian, Egon Fridell: "pure originality has no great value—it is like a sheep with two heads." Fridell, who committed suicide in 1938 as the SA arrived at his door, was fond of illustrating his thinking with vivid and elliptical images of this type. It is a characteristic that Jörgensmann seems to share, as I discovered during a series of email exchanges that we conducted earlier this year.

Jörgensmann sets great store on the virtue of training his improvisational reflexes. He never practices technical exercises, but instead tries to use his daily practice to play as he would if he were performing. "It is important during an improvisation," he says "to always find the connection to the next phrase, without delaying any of its intensity." Jörgensmann often improvises at breakneck speeds, playing with the kind of reckless abandonment that only a consummate high wire performer would dare to attempt. Some people, I suggested, regard such technical virtuosity as an impediment to good improvisation. "If you have a talent for improvisation," he replies "it doesn't depend on how much technique you have. Good technique is not an advantage, but on the other hand neither is it a disability."

Jörgensmann has a core belief that the evolution of jazz represents a fundamental shift in the fabric and substance of what music can be. By moving away from the metronomic pulse of the classical tradition to the swing of Afro-American music something akin to a new dimension opened up, which Jörgensmann believes is the element of time. When Jörgensmann speaks of swing he uses the word to refer to all music that gives performers the freedom and discretion to make a sound at the moment of their own choosing. He likens this to the discovery of perspective in painting.

I wanted to know how Jörgensmann deals with those moments when an improvisation seems to flag and lose its sense of direction. "It is normal during an improvisation for back holes to occur," he replied. Perhaps, I suggest, these black holes might be moments of potential where a new improvisational and unpredictable direction might open up? "I ride over those black holes, by playing less or with reduced intensity. In these moments I try to concentrate on me, and I look to find a model to go back into the improvisation. If I don't succeed, I stop playing." Some players, I suggest, adopt strategies to deal with such moments of uncertainty during an improvisation, such as theatrical pauses or sudden and abrupt contrasts in volume. Jörgensmann denies ever resorting to such devices, which he regards as mannered and clichéd, and which he associates with aspects of 'contemporary' music. It does, however prompt him to remember a remark from the late John Carter, the American clarinettist who collaborated with Ornette Coleman. Jörgensmann worked with Carter on several occasions, including the Clarinet Summit of 1979: "I once asked him (Carter) why he does not work with these kinds of effects, as he had such a classical sound and technique. He answered: "but I'm not a classical player, I come from the street."

One strategy that Jörgensmann does readily admit to is using composed passages of play and then using them as a theme around which to improvise. "An improviser," he writes "is also a composer. He is a spontaneous composer. The difference is how long it takes to make the composition." Surely, I ask, it is essentially different within an ensemble. "In a conventional line-up such as drums and bass I feel more like a soloist. My sound is at the front and so there is less depth to the space. When I play with other melodic "lead" instruments I feel part of a collective. When you improvise it also means you are participating in a democratic process." Does he not think, I ask, that in ensemble playing there is a stronger dilemma between the desire for self-assertion and a respect for the needs of the other musicians to also assert themselves? "Musical improvisation is the mirror of life. The freedom of the one determines the freedom of the other."

Jörgensmann believes that during an improvisation an audience needs to find reference points in order to anchor their responses. With no reference points at all an audience might not even know that they were listening to music. At first reading this might seem to be a deeply conservative view, but for Jörgensmann it is no more than a logical truism. It is a truism which he qualifies by acknowledging that the ability to recognise reference points is conditioned by the audience's previous exposure to experimental forms. The avant-garde, in this view, is of necessity engaged in an incremental development from what has already occurred.


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