Spaces of Collaboration: An Interview with Ken Vandermark

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SS: Then how does that influence you in terms of large ensemble improvising? Let’s, for instance, take the Brötzmann Tentet. I’ve been trying to figure out how it actually works because I’ve seen having seen the Tentet play a number of times both here and elsewhere and I just don’t understand it because it seems to me, following from what you’re saying, there’s so much happening that the space would affect what everyone would hear and it would affect how everyone was playing. And that would seem to complicate what must already be a very musically complicated performance.

KV: Yes, and with a group that big, the truth is, you can’t hear everything. If I’m on one side of the stage and you’ve got Fred Lonberg-Holm on the other side of the stage when the band was together and, I don’t know maybe Joe McPhee was over there, there were times when I couldn’t hear what Joe was doing at all. But there’s an element of the implication of trust that if Joe’s playing, he’s hearing something and he’s contributing to what he’s hearing and I think the best improvised music is all about spontaneous content and editing. It’s not just about playing and being able to hear. Ideally you can hear everything, but in a group with ten to twelve people all improvising at the same time with no predetermined framework to deal with, you just walk on stage and discover the music at the time. At least in principle that’s what it’s about. You basically have to deal with selective hearing. What I can hear around me and if everybody’s playing at the same time, I’ve got to pick up parts of that to focus on, to relate to, because I cannot hear 11 other people and everything they’re doing, all of the detail of that.

And then on the other side of the stage, realistically from the standpoint of audibility, I can’t hear what’s happening. I can see them playing, I know they’re doing something but my understanding, and when I’ve heard recordings afterwards, we can hear the whole group, they were making choices about their framework of what they’re hearing and their participation. And by the nature of content, if the content is true and it’s not just playing for the sake of playing but a specific set of musical decisions that contribute to what’s happening in real time and that’s going on, things can be side by side and totally unrelated.

I think one of the highest levels of that and one of the best examples is the trio that Peter had with Fred Van Hove and Han Bennink in the 1970s. That trio is still one of my favourite groups. And when you listen to that music or you can see the video of them on television, I think there’s a German performance in particular that’s completely amazing, you’ve got three people working independently in parallel. But what they’re doing has so much content to it that it creates new relationships between each set of material. You’ve got three lines running vertically and on a horizontal, chronological scale, if you follow me.

And what Han Bennink does on his own is self-sufficient as an individual performance. I wouldn’t say that he’s not listening, that’s too oversimplified. But it’s self-sufficient, the same thing Peter, the same thing with Fred. There are points where, to use that example on the German TV, where Han Bennink just walks off stage in the middle of something. He doesn’t even finish what he’s doing, he just gets up and leaves, which under normal, cooperative improvising circumstances, that’s a radical move and maybe rude. Peter doesn’t flinch, Peter keeps doing exactly what he was doing and you can’t hear Fred Van Hove. He’s playing the piano but he’s being buried by the volume, especially when it was Han and Peter but even with Peter. And every time Peter would stop to breathe, you would hear this very quiet, maybe… it could have actually been a classical piece of music but… something in that style, just very piano/mezzo piano, that would suddenly appear for a brief moment and then be buried again. So, they’re all working independently and each of those independent sets of activity are self-contained but then they also are taking a stance with what they’re doing, maybe in some cases antagonistically but also in reference to and in relationship to what the others are doing, both as pairs and as trios.

So you’ve got a very complicated interaction, in a trio situation, a highly complex set of interrelationships that are based on listening, ignoring, self-contained playing and the development of new interrelationships that are, let’s say, irrational, that we look for relationships for because of the way the mind works. If all that stuff’s happening in a trio and I would say at its best the Tentet was working in that principle with a dozen people so you’ve got very, very, very dense layers of activity. And there was also a willingness in the Tentet to co-operate. I think that the trio, Brötzmann, Van Hove, and Bennink, they created a new paradigm of un-cooperative improvising and created amazing music from it. When I watched that… I knew a little bit about their history and knew their records because I’d never got to see them live but when I saw that performance, I was hanging out with Peter at his place and he showed it to me on a videotape. I asked Peter, “Was this your last concert?” There’s so much palpable tension, not hostility but just musical tension. Bennink leaves and he comes back with a giant box and throws it at the drums. It’s almost chaotic but so much electric tension. And Peter said, “It was one of the gigs in the middle of the period of the group together.” And I thought, “Jesus, every time you play, it was like this kind of thing?” They created a whole new way of working which I think is highly informative about how you can make music now, that it wasn’t really picked up by a lot of people and developed. And I think you can also develop that in a context with used composed elements… pre-composed elements with these totally improvised elements which is something I’m pretty fascinated by, personally. All those things were going on with the Tentet.

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