Ursel Schlicht: Piano Colors - Inside and Out


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I like interesting forms. My current pieces have narrative structures, so as to keep the listener curious at any moment.
It's impossible to ignore - Ursel Schlicht has a taste for interesting collaborations. She works with musicians from diverse genres and cultures; her musical partners come from Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, East and West Africa, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and of course colleagues from her native Germany and New York where she spends most of her time at the moment.

Rooted primarily in improvised music and jazz, she explores experimental forms of music, composition, improvised scores for silent film, and perpetually strives to incorporate these elements into her own musical voice.

She likes the intimacy and directness of the duo, as well as the power and colors of larger ensembles. Her most active current projects include her Ex Tempore ensemble, an intercultural and mixed-gender group, duos with bassist Reuben Radding, flutist-composer Robert Dick, guitarists Bruce Arnold and Hans Tammen, and actress Ute Kaiser, a trio with Ken Filiano and Lou Grassi, a new sextet with Ned Rothenberg, Robert Dick, Tomas Ulrich, Ken Filiano, and Klaus Kugel; she is part of the Laura Andel Orchestra, and - last not least - there are her projects with Australia saxophonist Adam Simmons.

When I first met Schlicht in 2003, she was in Sydney for a concert at SIMA, coming from the Melbourne Women's International Jazz Festival. Her appearance at the festival was the result of an earlier meeting of musical minds with Adam Simmons: "I met Adam at the Music Omi International Artist Residency in upstate New York in 2001 where we spent two weeks collaborating together with fourteen other composers and musicians from different countries. Adam and I had this instant musical affinity and wanted to find ways to collaborate further." Simmons later travelled to New York where they began performing together. "He took my records and submitted them to the festival. They invited me, and Adam was instrumental in putting a tour together for us. We had a great time. I am very grateful for all he did."

As part of the ongoing journey to find her own musical voice, Schlicht realised at some point that she was shifting out of the jazz and improvised world and searching for something that was more her music. She says the Music Omi residency inspired her tremendously because everyone there had strong conceptual ideas. "I have given more and more thought as to how to integrate the languages of free improvisation and jazz composition, colors inside the piano, new music, the ethnic languages I am learning from some of my colleagues, and try to find a sound that allows for a very open, creative interpretation by the musicians, not necessarily based on things like chord changes or a standard cyclic form, but not open either. I like interesting forms. My current pieces have narrative structures, so as to keep the listener curious at any moment. I reach for a similar level of complexity both in the structured and in the open material. To some extent this is inspired by the discussions we had at Omi because we were listening to and discussing our music in a way I never had before at that level. Some of us have been meeting for listening sessions ever since. People liked my improvisation vocabulary and suggested that I write music that sounded like that."

She adds: "The Music Omi residency was a turning point in many ways. I had just come out of this rather dark phase where I was dealing with visa issues, constantly traveling back and forth between New York and Kassel. Exhausting. Now I am an 'Alien of Extraordinary Abilities', allowed to work in both countries. I have taught courses at Rutgers University, Columbia University, and Ramapo College since then—something I was not allowed to do before. To apply to Music Omi at that time - and then to be accepted—was actually intimidating. I found out later that many others felt like that, too. Those two weeks were artistically very strengthening and had lots of positive repercussions, for many of us."

A good example is her travel to Australia. "This tour really helped to develop my music. To have this exposure, to be the featured guest at the Melbourne Women's International Jazz Festival was really exciting. I didn't want to present pieces that I had written a couple of years ago. I was really pushing myself to find something new to present. And it is such a pleasure to be invited and to have musicians here who are willing to learn my music and to share that creativity with me. It's really fantastic."

Schlicht also gave a lecture at the festival about women in jazz - one of her scholarly fields for many years and the topic of her dissertation It's Gotta Be Music First. On the Impact, Perception, and Working Conditions of Women Jazz Instrumentalists, published as a book in Germany in 2000. "Historically, women were acting in the domestic or semi-professional sphere, and men were really out in the public sphere. There is a long history of that, and so many women did not have the same kind of access and this fundamental encouragement that you can be a professional musician and make a living at it," she says. Her lecture attracted a large audience, men and women, and she found the ambiance in Melbourne very open and interested in these discussions.

Simmons was in New York again this January, thanks to a special award from the Freedman Fellowship program, among other things to work with Schlicht on a project that included John Hollenbeck on drums and Reuben Radding on the bass. They then met again at the Symposium fuer Aktuelle Musik in Kassel, Germany, a three-day festival with musicians from six countries - curated and produced by Ursel Schlicht.

For more than a decade now, she has organized events to bring musicians from different spheres together. Communication across cultures and musical genres is essential to her. In March 2005, participants played 'aktuelle', i.e. 'current', 'cutting-edge' music, and participants brought a variety of composed, performative and improvisatory approaches to the event.

Ex Tempore is one such collaboration about which Schlicht feels particularly passionate. The idea arose out of her need to make a meaningful statement after the events of September 11, 2001: to organize an intercultural collaboration in Kassel, during the Documenta X - the leading avantgarde art show in the world, which had a focus that year on global dialogue. Outraged by the US bombing of Afghanistan, she reached out to find have musicians from both countries on the same stage. Says Schlicht "I spent months in Germany just preparing and trying to find the right musicians. I wrote to Radio Afghanistan and any cultural organization in Afghanistan I could find - no answer. It was an ambitions project. Musicians in the group came from a wide range of places, musically and geographically. Fortunately I found Dr. Salamat Schiftah and Hakim Ludin - outstanding Afghan musicians both based in Germany!" Eight musicians participated: German vocalist-composer Gabriele Hasler, Eritrean singer-songwriter Tadios Tesfu American cellist Tomas Ulrich and flutist Jamie Baum, Indian-American percussionist Ravish Momin, and Schlicht, Schiftah and Ludin. "It was very successful. Musicans and audiences loved it. We all wanted to continue to play together."

Ex Tempore gradually developed into an ensemble based in New York. Recent members and guests include Malian balafon master Balla Kouyate, bassist Thomson Kneeland, oud player Brandon Terzic and vocalist Kyoko Kitamura.

Striving to keep performing with the original performers, the group flew in Gabriele Hasler for a week-long tour in 2004. The highlight was their concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada - on September 11(!)

In 2005, the ensemble received a grant from Chamber Music America's Residency Program to do community outreach performances. The community partners are Ramapo College, New Jersey—where Schlicht teaches courses in Music & Gender and Improvisation—and the Mahwah High School, Public Library and Senior Activities Center. Ex Tempore will give masterclasses, workshops, and concerts in the Mahwah community during the 2005 fall season.

Band members bring music to the group and develop arrangements together. The cultural combinations within the ensemble can make for interesting musical dynamics. For example, explains Schlicht, not every instrument is tuned in the tempered system. Or, the sound of a balafon, or a tabla have distinct ethnic connotations and need a well-thought out context in a piece. "It means you have to be very careful - you can't just - like in other ensembles I am in - hand out music to people and know that it will all fit together. You have to be very thoughtful and very careful, try ideas in different ways and find out how to play to everyone's strengths and bring out their individualities."

If it sounds like Schlicht sets high standards and shows a motivation to articulate her preferences, it would also be correct to say that she is increasingly aware of how easily she takes on too much. "I volunteer easily out of motivation to get things done. However, I tend to take on too much and am not necessarily very strategic. For example, In 2003, I received a fellowship at Harvestworks, New York, to do a score to F. W. Murnau's 'Faust', one of the films I play live. I recorded several layers of piano, inside and keys, and then edited it onto the film - which is over 2 hours long, one of the largest editing projects ever done by a resident. Having never worked with ProTools before, I had no idea how huge a project I had proposed. It was a great experience, but it took forever to get done."

Early this year, I made a commitment to myself to not take on anything new until, step by step, all CDs in process are finished!"

String Theory with Bruce Arnold and Schlicht has just been released on Arnold's Muse-Eek label. The next one to come out will her duo CD with Reuben Radding, recorded live at the Roulette concert series at Location One. "We both feel this concert represents our duo sound very well. It is all improvised, and has this strong live energy." Schlicht really appreciates working with Radding. "Reuben and I happened to meet when we both had time to play on a regular basis. We played together in the Laura Andel Orchestra - a large ensemble that I love being a part of. Reuben and I then did weekly sessions for months, playing, listening, finding what works best for us musically. I value that a lot. Plus, both of us made an effort to find work. In 2004, Reuben had an invitation to the Festival of Creative Music in Seattle and he had carte blanche from the festival to choose one musician from New York to come with him. He chose me! As all my colleagues know, I've often created work for others - it was so good to see something coming back."

Also in the works are an Ex Tempore CD, a duo CD with Robert Dick, and a CD with Adam Simmons, Radding, Schlicht, and John Hollenbeck. Forthcoming in the fall is a new release of the Laura Andel Orchestra called In::Tension on Rossbin Records.

If Ursel Schlicht had a wish list, it would probably include a number of items that any busy musician would recognise.

"I would love a representative or a manager. I actually think that with the range of things that I do - the various ensembles, my scores for silent film, workshops, lectures - there should be lots of work that could be found if somebody was into it."

"And two, three, four hours a day to work on my music - to write and to practice. Sometimes it feels like those two or three hours are impossible to find. Although," she says, "this year things are changing in the right direction. I have very good performances coming up. In September, Robert Dick and I will open the World Music Institute's 'Interpretations' series at Merkin Hall - that is one of the best concerts to be had in New York, and I am very excited about it. Ute Kaiser and I will tour with our Mascha Kaleko program in October. I will tour with 'Faust' in Germany in November. Then there are of course the Ex Tempore residency concerts. My teaching is getting easier because my courses are well developed now. During the summer months, I will write music and work on the various CDs - and seriously practice.

"Today - right before this interview - I took a piano lesson with Connie Crothers and it made me really happy. I practiced all morning and then went to meet with Connie, and it was wonderful. Taking lessons myself again after several years feels almost like a luxury · but I think that to get to the next level it is absolutely essential that I not neglect those hours at the instrument like I did in phases when organizing a complex project seems to take over my life. I respect when some of my colleagues say 'Well, I can't talk to you right now - I need to practice. Call me back in two hours.' That is a side that I am cultivating right now."

Recommended Listening:

As Leader/Co-Leader

· Ursel Schlicht/ Bruce Arnold: String Theory Muse-Eek 2005

· Implicate Order (Schlicht/Swell/Filiano/Grassi): Sound Quest Cadence 2001

· Duo Statements (Ursel Schlicht/Hans Tammen): Statements Hybrid Music Prod. 1995


· Laura Andel Orchestra: In::Tension (forthcoming) Rossbin 2005

· Laura Andel Orchestra: Somnambulist Red Toucan 2003

See all Ursel Schlicht reviews at All About Jazz

For a complete discography, visit Ursel Schlicht on the web.

This article sprang from ideas and conversations with Ursel Schlicht in Sydney and New York City between December 2003 and June 2005. It could not have been written without her input and support during a period when the author was experiencing considerable personal difficulty. What a pleasure to interview a gifted musician who also turns out to have compassion :-)

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