Sven-Åke Johansson in conversation with Thomas Groetz
Thomas Groetz: You were able to directly witness and influence the formation of the European variety of free jazz, which appeared, I believe, around 1967/68. What was the determining point in this process?
Sven-Åke Johansson: Well, it was the disentanglement from the American straightjacket and from a fixed harmony and rhythm. Before then, jazz titles were prefabricated pieces. People improvised within this framework, and a tremendous step was needed to break out of it, a leap into icy water, or to put it differently, the simple making of noise—first and foremost showing an ecstatic, intense will to express, and extricating oneself from these precepts of rhythm and harmony. And it was unheard of to play anything else. You just couldn’t: we had to stay with this pure and abstract form for a while, for some years, before we could take anything from the old sources again.
What rationale occasioned the need to separate from traditional structures?
It was partly a rationale based on the fact that there were people in American jazz who simply had more to offer where conventional jazz was concerned. Why should we do it all over again? Furthermore, there was a purely artistic need to break out of this straightjacket. It also had to do with the social movements that were going on in Europe, in Germany and Holland for example, the 1968 uprising, which strove to wipe the slate clean in many ways. This music fit into the atmosphere pretty well.
To what extent did these two elements, music and politics, coincide?
There was a mutual support there for a time, whereas acoustic art wasn’t born directly from the political. Instead it came primarily from purely musical concerns. But the insurgency in jazz somehow fit with this student revolt.
Can you recall examples of how these two worlds linked together?
I came to Berlin in 1968. Back then I went to the Freie Universität in Berlin-Dahlem with the ensemble I was with at the time, M.N.D. (Moderne Nordeuropäische Dorfmusik), to which Norbert Eisbrenner and Werner Götz belonged. There we held a “new free lecture”, as we called it back then. We took our electric guitar, drums and bass into the school auditorium—after ten minutes, however, the plug was pulled by some sort of groundskeeper characters. But this didn’t prevent us from continuing. We were carried into the place, in a manner of speaking, on the shoulders of the student movement; and our playing was totally free, which hadn’t happened in the same form before then, and didn’t happen in the same form afterwards.
So you were invited officially to the university?
It was arranged by Werner Götz, our bassist, who attentively had his fingers on the pulse of communist ideology here in Berlin at the time.
What was the atmosphere like in the auditorium?
The atmosphere was very turbulent. At a second event we were even carried away by police officers.
Was M.N.D. your first experience in free jazz?
Somewhat earlier than that, I played in the trio with Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald from Wuppertal, in 1966/67, and we traveled all around Europe playing this expressive free jazz that wasn’t based on any compositions. Peter Brötzmann continued it like this and built a sizeable school around his own music. He’s almost more known in America than here.
Besides playing your way into a state of freedom, what else was it all about?
It was indeed also about finding new structures and forms outside of conventional musical parameters.
What sort of agreement existed when you played freely with several musicians?
There was a kind of sign language as well as a couple of tonal scraps that often served as starting points for other explosive solos. For me, this changed tremendously over time, leading to things like non-expressive, improvised, and yet also composed playing modes. In my gut, I didn’t feel the necessity to carry on this way, with purely expressive playing.
What else did the liberation from metrically organized drumming entail?
Since you couldn’t rely on harmonically and rhythmically fixed elements any more, you had to invent something. The pillars were gone, and after jumping into the icy water, you had to paddle around in order to find new directions. This was accompanied by another change: we began to listen more carefully to the sound, and we became more concerned with the—sometimes noise-like—qualities of a sound instead of a fixed tone scale. This change was sort of unavoidable.
Wasn’t contact made with the post-war avant-garde by this point? Someone like John Cage was, after all, also motivated by the liberation of sounds and noises from the tenacious grip of music and music history.
It all ran parallel back then, whereas New Music pieces were usually spelled out. The concerns were similar, but, as opposed to today, there were no forms of cooperation back then.
Did free jazzers keep track of what was simultaneously going on in New Music?
I’m sure we were aware of what composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and later on Helmut Lachenmann were doing, but there weren’t any shared activities, like concerts. As far as composers were concerned, there weren’t very many connections.
One probably can’t claim that concepts and approaches emerging from New Music have had any influence on the development of free jazz. Were the writings of John Cage actually known then, his book Silence, for example?
Yes, they were. People were listening to this or that record from that particular sphere of music, but it didn’t have an influence on how we played. That wasn’t the case.
How could one describe the playing method of M.N.D.?
Indeed, M.N.D. did have an entirely different character than the trio with Brötzmann. That was partly due to the fact that both of my fellow players contributed elements from other fields, in part from the field of visual arts. The work opened out onto other fields and other instrumentaria. For example, the violin seldom appeared in free jazz. On top of that, there were collections of junk that I used as percussion instruments.
What sort of junk?
For instance, I unscrewed traffic signs from construction sites, brought them home and fixed them to special mountings so I could research a new range of sounds. The research of sounds also played a major role with our guitarist, Norbert Eisbrenner. In a manner of speaking, he rediscovered the guitar by playing it on the table. Like with a Hawaiian guitar, he slid pieces of iron over the strings—something you never saw back then. I can’t imagine how, for example, Jimi Hendrix played at that period in time—he was actually still working with the fingers on the fretboard. Norbert Eisbrenner was doing something completely different. He developed an entirely new, howling kind of oscillatory playing that hard free jazz hadn’t ever produced. This, at that specific point in time, is one of the reasons why our trio arrived at a particular sound that was all our own.
By way of contrast, Peter Brötzmann did continue to utilize the classical trio consisting of saxophone, drums and bass.
Of course for him it was a question of researching sounds, like the sound made by a high saxophone note when combined with a bowed cymbal and a bass being sawed at its lower bridge. That produced a sort of overtonal montage. With M.N.D. it was also a question of these sonic-aesthetic things, but also of the formation of new structures, for example of pausing and marking time while playing.
Where else outside of universities was it possible to see M.N.D. live?
In Berlin at that time we played in this famous Zodiac Club, which is the theater HAU 2 today and was the Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer before that. That was the meeting place at the end of the sixties in Berlin. To give an example, we once brought a gigantic tree saw in there and sawed the stage platform in half. However, we didn’t do it out of a pure appetite for destruction, but rather because of an interest in sound. Part of our interest was in how the tree saw sounded when it was struck and then also when it was being used according to its original function. Our group at the time was called “Music is Happening”, meant in both senses of the expression: on the one hand, “happening” was a particular term or concept back then, and on the other hand, music was transpiring, taking place.
How important was the Actionist “moment” at that point in time?
That did, of course, relate to the sound. In other words, what happens when you move this thing here or shake it.
Were there other important performance-like concerts back then?
One action was called BZ, which stands for Berliner Zeitung. Back then the BZ was indeed a topical, significant paper from the Axel Springer Press. There was a protest action on the event of a delivery dispatch, when all the papers were brought out from the press on Kochstrasse and demonstrators pushed a delivery truck over and so on. That stuck in a lot of people’s minds as a blueprint for resistance, in my mind too. I myself wasn’t there to experience the action in person, but ultimately the piece we performed—with a primarily improvisational character, yet still with certain parameters—was titled BZ, Berliner Zeitung. It took place in a small club here in Berlin. If you want to describe M.N.D.’s approaches—we were still with a pianist named Beppo de Saiti at the time—he got a piano, an old upright piano and scrunched up BZ newspapers behind the strings so the piano was muted. Then while the rest of the group was playing, he played it, but you could only hear the striking of the keys and the hammers on the paper. In the process he even shredded some of the paper. At the end, the piece offered a parallel to the action against BZ on Kochstrasse: the paper in the bottom of the piano was set on fire, enabling him to play it “freely”. As he was busy generating the sound, the newspaper was ablaze and flames spread higher into the piano, and smoke built up heavily in the Litfaß Club in Berlin-Charlottenburg. That was in winter, and the audience fled into the street, the fire department came and had to pull the piano out into the street and there was a huge fuss, not to mention we were banned from any further playing by the Greeks who ran the locale at the time. The whole thing was etched in a lot of people’s memories.
Does a recording of this concert exist?
Not of that day, but of the concert on the day before. At the end you hear various reactions in the audience and also from us, and we’re saying things like “shit, garbage, how miserable . . . .”—cursing and screaming about our own music—us complaining about our own music, mainly to anticipate the kinds of audience reactions that were usual back then, to be second-guessers.
How did the name Moderne Nordeuropäische Dorfmusik [modern North European village music] come about?
We started a rural commune with six or seven people in Helmstedt on the Inner German border. We named the group after this geographic aspect.
How long did this commune exist?
In this form, for one or one and a half years. I ventured out to Holland, to The Hague, in search of new musical adventures and taught classes there at the Free Academy. The improviser Michael Waisvis, who operated with self-built playing devices, worked at this school too. That was 1970.
Did M.N.D. still exist at that point?
Actually, no, even though we played another concert shortly thereafter in Scandinavia.
How did you continue?
Then I was in Hamburg for some time, and I continued with improvisation, writing pieces and especially making solo recordings for my own drum system, a type of dynamic oscillations named Slingerland whereby I operated with long sonic arcs, in other words with an ebb and flow in both volume and speed—with different opposing proportions. Those were my experiments at the time, which is also when I began an around ten-year-long collaboration with the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach in Berlin, as piano and drum duo. That began around 1971.
Was this characteristic playing style of yours already present in M.N.D. too?
It evolved there within our collective playing, and then I pursued it for myself in a strictly systematic way. But today I use it less, since my technique has moved more and more away from striking and toward bowing. I use actual bows for this. Instead of dense sequences of hits, here a extended bowed sound is produced.
What does the evolution of these dynamic oscillation processes mean for the musician performing live?
Here the drummer operates with his extremities separately in four different tempi and volume. To begin with, this is a kind of bodily independence training, as much as one’s bodily coordination allows. On the record Schlingerland, I present the building up and then the dissolution of this dynamic mesh.
What other means of musical expression did you put into practice during the seventies?
During that time—the mid seventies—I added improvised speech, Sprechgesang, or whatever you want to call it. A sort of interior movement inside me prompted me to leave the drums and develop a kind of free singing style, especially together with the piano. Sometimes I worked with voice in harmonic sequences, and then I went back to totally abstract, tonal and rhythmic patterns. That evolved until it turned into long, continuous modes of reciting and extended spoken epics.
What were your reasons for introducing speech into free jazz?
Now and then free jazz had singing in it, but there were never any classical songs with narrative. I also wanted to transform the poems that I was writing then into an immediate improvisational form. So I simply stood up and oriented myself to the sound of the other instruments—usually the piano—and I spontaneously began to find a form in which the verbal flow and the instrument went together. But then I didn’t make use of the texts I had brought with me. Instead I invented something new out of the moment.
So a kind of “instant composing”.
Yes, you could put it that way. The improvised texts were then transcribed in part, and ended up in my book Gedichte und Gesänge.
Is the affinity of your recitations with Arnold Schönberg’s rhythmic tonal speech an accident?
Probably not an accident, but rather an unconscious inspiration. The recital form in Pierrot Lunaire must was surely lingering in my memory, even though that was a matter of fixed forms.
What influence did Alexander von Schlippenbach have on the formation of these songs?
As he saw it, these songs were important because they woke his interest in other forms of music that weren’t traditionally connected with jazz. Naturally, echoes of the Romantic Lied arose through the piano and its potential for chordal playing.
How did your collaboration continue?
It evolved into more or less operatic creations. In Stuttgart in 1986 we performed the piece Über Ursache und Wirkung der Meinungsverschiedenheiten beim Turmbau zu Babel, a music project for the stage with three singers, instrumentalists, and even a dance insert. It has composed parts that are linked by free solistic passages. Another project from the same year was my speech poem Die Harke und der Spaten, also with Alexander von Schlippenbach. The piece is structured in ten episodes about the love life of garden tools who, depending on the season, sit together in drawers or are separated from each other while being implemented.
A treatment of utility objects in a broad sense is characteristic of your work. That includes the musicalization of different everyday tools or machines. Is an interest in sound behind this too?
Yes, first and foremost it’s an interest in sound, an interest which is based on a search for new sounds. So this includes something as lapidary as the sound of a telephone book. Quite simply, I’m interested in the sound of a spade digging.
This intensive and tender treatment of “banal” objects also characterizes what one called, or calls, Fluxus.
Yes, it probably looked and sounded similar, but the approaches, the motivations and the backgrounds were completely different.
With Fluxus, things began more with ideas that were to a certain extent totally unachievable.
For me, as a musician, a special stage situation played a primary role, a situation that was informed by a non-knowledge with regard to what one ought to grab on to as the next thing in the improvisational process—and so you just take whatever is closest, whatever is within reach. Then for a certain length of time this can become an integral part of the playing. As an example, for years I maneuvered telephone books, the Berlin Gelbe Seiten [yellow pages], where I flip the pages just to achieve various pitches, or where I work on them with drumsticks. Then there is a composition of mine where eight people fling telephone books like bricks. Each of the books with their different thicknesses produce different sounds when they are picked up and caught. The books travel like stones during the building of a house. A wall is built up out of the books, which are transported piece by piece and changed into a six by eight meter surface—that amounts to all the Gelbe Seiten telephone books of Germany. So it’s a conceptual work and a sound piece at the same time.
So a lot of what later becomes composition is sparked off by the sound of things?
How did the process of working with telephone books begin?
With the collision of these books as a deep sound. That’s something you couldn’t do on the drums. The thick Gelbe Seiten from West Berlin back then—when you made them collide, there was a deep, dull sound. Later it developed into me tearing pages out or playing on the open book, and it progressed towards a fixed piece around twelve minutes long where a composition made of various little beat sequences was formed out of seven little single parts.
The expansion of the drum instrumentarium must play a role in this process.
It was the desperate attempt to free myself from the authority of the drum and cymbal and search for another path. That even includes the idea of using the packing material that the drum came in, for instance the yellow pads of foam that the cymbals are ordinarily stored between.
What role is played here by the notion of a sound that expands and stretches out spatially?
Something dramatic emerges when you take possession of a totally different sound source, because a completely unmusical object is musicalized or activated poetically. It’s a thrilling action because at first you don’t know how it will turn out.
Where in exactly lies the dramatic aspect?
It’s a kind of rebirth; something new is initiated into the musical process. There aren’t any paradigms one can adhere to, and there’s no virtuosity because nobody knows how it’s supposed to be done. You have to invent it yourself.
One steps into another field—could that be a description of how it feels?
Yes, and nobody who is listening and watching can say with any ease that it’s good or bad while he’s sitting right in the middle of this process. He doesn’t know how it will continue either.
What does it mean to extend the production of sounds out into the space, beyond the precisely outlined realm of the drum instrumentarium?
It’s first and foremost the viewer who observes that other dimensions are being worked on here. For me it only means pacing to another spot in the space. At some point one proceeds towards something that’s just sitting there innocently.
How could one describe this movement more precisely?
Another sort of tension exists between the conventional instrument and the expansion of this instrument. For example, while playing with others this can inspire someone else to discover something else outside of his conventional playing method. There’s also the working method that pursues notions of music as mute, for instance playing on foam pads as replacements for the cymbals. These produce less sound, but they sound within the “inner ear” of the viewer or the hearer. I use the foam pads when the idea is to produce an optical image of the music.
What aspects of this optical image interest you?
I’m interested in the image of a sound. The foam cymbals are a non-sounding antithesis of their form. This becomes more explicit if a player mauls these cymbals with an expressive bearing. As an answer, the non-exerted sound that results seems absurd—in other words, an expressive bearing from which very little sound emerges. This is a sort of wringing-out of a last sound. It not only makes use of the sound, but also of the non-sound.
Incidentally, the artist Joseph Beuys also addressed the non-sound, the idea of an inner tone that, physically speaking, isn’t there at all. There’s his silent gramophone, for instance, and the grand piano wrapped in felt.
It’s also a concern of mine, that the real sound cannot rise into infinity, neither where the listener nor the player is concerned. This is how one can arrive at the simple mode of imagining a tone, or an inner tone, which can be more powerful than when, for instance, fifty loud cymbals are crashed.
What does this inner sound signify?
For a listener, it can be interesting to make an inner image—a landscape, for example—of what is unfolding. Actually, to me, purely abstract music doesn’t exist at all. Music almost always evokes an inner image. And something mute can evoke an even bigger image, bigger than when sound is there.
What else is the inner sound made up of?
As I see it, the inner image is a kind of additional counterpoint. A non-aural yet visible part in the music that is brought into the musical arrangement, and it makes other components, like other instruments, that much more discernible. It intensifies that which is already audible, and more so than if a mere additional audible voice were added. I’ve done on-the-spot compositions with inaudible yet visible musical content. It’s an additional voice that is inserted to complete, above all for the listener/viewer, the overall shape of the sound. Sometimes I think it unnecessary to add another audible voice, which is why I invent an optical, inaudible voice. There are different ways it can turn out.
In concerts, what part is played by your deliberate handling of objects?
When I play the yellow foam pads, for example, one could perhaps understand it as irony. But it’s no irony; it’s an additional, positive insert of mine. Beyond that, I often carry around with me little plastic bowls, lunch boxes manufactured back in the GDR. They’re unbelievably loud when you scratch them around on a wall or on the floor. They serve as a sort of elongated ear with which I magnify myself optically on stage. My ear becomes larger also so that I can hear soft or loud places in the music more clearly. This hearing can transfer to the listener too.
I would like to talk about composition some more. How do your compositions come into being?
Perforce, to a certain extent—because when six or seven people improvise together and it ends up being really interesting, it’s often a stroke of luck.
To my knowledge, there were also composed portions in your 1979 concert in the Berlin club SO 36.
Yes, there are various support mechanisms there, in other words fixed parts like marches and musical quotes—for instance Artur Rubinstein’s Melodie in F as an endless loop.
What part does Melodie in F play?
That’s an age-old tearjerker that’s usually presented by small chamber ensembles, with violins. Here it’s reformed into a rhythmic, half big band arrangement, in other words into a repeating form of this Melodie in F, which, after twenty repetitions, works its way up to the end of the piece through a halftone and actually becomes something completely different. In a text about me, Peter Ablinger compared this form of alienation to Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with the moustache. Marches continued to appear in concerts in SO 36, some of which were modeled on some of the ideas of the composer Charles Ives. There were, for instance, two marches that were played at the same time, giving rise to a sort of “double tonality”.
Was the concept for this concert tailor-made for the venue? It was an important punk venue back then.
I got invited by the artist Martin Kippenberger to perform there with a troupe. He had a lot of money for such things, regardless of how many people came to see it. So I put this ensemble together and developed some thoughts about fragmented inserts and directives the improvisers would play between. I already knew what context it would take place in because I was often in SO 36 myself.
How did you get to know Martin Kippenberger?
Prior to this event I had already been featured in the Berlin venue Café Einstein in an event of Martin Kippenberger’s—also a group performance—entitled Paul Linke Musik. Set pieces from his operettas were used; there was a serenade with a brass ensemble, with drums and bass. At that time Martin Kippenberger was just beginning to appear in Berlin with his programmatic events. Later in Café Einstein he did a performance himself too, together with the Austrian composer Gerhard Lampersberg. After the performance of Paul Linke Musik he came to me and said he quite liked it. Then I always got invited to perform in the various events he organized in SO 36.
Could one say there was a related artistic interest between you and him, and also Albert Oehlen?
One commonality, for instance, was that we got something from everyday life and placed it into the contexts of art or performance. Our backgrounds and intentions were perhaps somewhat different. In those days, Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner and first and foremost Kippenberger played a lot with quotations from pop culture and with entertainment value. Maybe Kippenberger recognized something in my musical approach that he himself liked working with.
In Albert Oehlen’s work one can see an effort to extend and transcend conventional forms, meanings and traditions in order to step into a new sphere where, if possible, other laws are operative, laws that one can’t give a name to with any ease whatsoever. I can see a certain parallelism between this sphere and what you described a moment ago with regard to your playing, that an expansion into an unfamiliar, fresh space can occur by more than just musical means.
It’s all about re-describing what space is, using known and unknown objects. Getting drawn into a space. In the process, the audible and added optical elements lose their meaning as such and enter into a new relation. This can open new channels of thought in the minds of those who see and hear it.
What was the atmosphere like at the SO 36 concert?
Naturally, the audience was not used to music being played in this form there. That someone suddenly played a solo on the cello was perhaps okay with the audience, but people also protested, which you can hear in the recordings. I responded to audience interjections by reciting a text in English that explains how said Melodie in F evolves over the course of the piece. My speaking in English didn’t go over well with them either, even though people sang in English there most of the time. So I also improvised a short text in German. There was resistance against us, naturally.
That’s probably just the thing that interested Martin Kippenberger.
I think it was okay with him. Of course I knew protest already from ten years before that at our concerts in Zodiac. That was a comparable zero state from which something was created. Those kinds of places also provide the player with a certain tension, and even with the inspiration to move forward with a stronger preference for new material in new spaces rather than performing before an audience who has a preconceived opinion of what they’re about to hear. Fundamentally, it’s through tension and resistance that you get intellectual support and realize that whatever you’re doing is right.
How is the entire composition structured?
Several sequential, notated things with free passages in between. When I give the sign, the next fixed part begins. As a whole, the piece isn’t composed through and through.
Were there rehearsals?
We rehearsed in situ. In order to figure the whole thing out, we used the space beforehand during the day.
Were there also other similar projects in this configuration?
There were only two performances with this ensemble, which was, of course, sumptuous. Other large works of mine are, as I mentioned before, Die Harke und der Spaten and Über Ursache und Wirkung beim Turmbau zu Babel.
Next we could talk about the project Night and Day, which broke completely new ground stylistically.
Night and Day was actually a dance orchestra. It was brought into being in 1984 on the occasion of the exhibition Wahrheit ist Arbeit is Essen, in which Martin Kippenberger, Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen participated. The artists asked us to provide a dance or swing orchestra at the opening party. We musicians had been talking about something like this since ever, saying that we wanted to carve out other fields using our previous knowledge of free playing methods. Everyone knew these old American standard melodies and tooted them now and again on tours, but we had never actually played them because that wasn’t our task. This time, we didn’t want to perform it in concert form; instead the concept was to always perform within the framework of a dance event. And if the audience could dance well, then it inspired us too, naturally.
Would Night and Day have existed without the contact with and engagement of the artists?
Perhaps not. For instance, we recorded our first record in a club during the event in Essen, in Fuffies Nightclub, where a lot of artists could be found. For many of our colleagues from the free jazz camp, that was of course somewhat odd. And some weren’t allowed into the club because they didn’t have a tie or something appropriate on.
I’m sure that more than a few people were quite taken aback.
Yes, a lot of them didn’t know what to make of any of it.
Then there was this LP, the Golden Kot Quartett, which also rendered the artists of the same name possible.
The idea was to send Night and Day into the studio and put out a record, but that fell through at first. Ultimately, the big label in Cologne didn’t want to put it out after all. Then the tracks were smuggled out of that place, and there was the cooperation with our artist friends where we delivered the music and they delivered the cover, on which they themselves were named and pictured as the musicians. So simultaneously it was a deliberate puzzlement since you didn’t know who’s in fact playing.
Even today some people think that it’s really the artists who are playing. The cover, I believe, was designed by Martin Kippenberger.
Yes, he was the one who did it.
After that, you continued to make appearances at various exhibitions and events of Martin Kippenberger’s. Were there musical concepts that were adjusted to each individual artistic context?
Actually not. We played what we were playing. In Hamburg as early as the eighties, by the way, there was a music series organized by Albert Oehlen and Diedrich Diedrichsen. I was invited to play there too as part of various groups. That was in the small Dankerrt Theater.
The Bergisch-Brandenburgische Quartett played there too, for example.
I think so. Tristan Honsinger performed too.
I’d like to speak more concretely about your own musical works. Could one say that in the last ten years there has been a stronger tendency towards activities in the area of New Music?
It could be that a tendency points in that direction. That’s actually attributable to my working method, to the fact that I don’t want to work on drums only. I have a big interest in the sound of motors and turning tools that can be classed within contexts outside of the musical. For example, there’s a work with twelve tractors; it’s a continuation of a drum piece with these four different rhythms—I talked about it a while ago—where slow, faster, increasing movements mutually inspire each other or balance each other out. The thing with the tractors is sort of the enlargement of this idea—here, slowly moving motors overtake each other in speed, come back together in equal tempos and move apart again, and I only direct it as composer and conductor. This is an example of how I arrive at a fully formulated music piece.
Then there is also a composition for wind turbines.
There’s a piece for wind generators, which are all over the place in Europe. In my piece, three of these generators produce a beating or rotational sound that overlaps. You have three different rhythms that are similar at first, that run simultaneously perhaps, then diverge and converge again. The turning of each of the axes also generates a tone, or three standing tones that are sometimes lower and sometimes higher, depending on wind speed. Thus you have a total of six sound sources that play together. This is a sort of “field work” that also has to do with the visible. You see them at first, from about three kilometers away. You don’t hear them yet, though. At first you can only imagine the sound; you don’t hear it until you enter an audio surveillance van. In the van, you can follow, via a stereophonic transmission, how the six different sound sources enter into conversation with one another. Later a radio play was also made using eight sound miniatures from the whole of the acoustic material.
So the piece is, to the same extent, a continuation of your work with drums.
Yes, it evolved from a treatment of the drums and the rotation on the cymbals.
Is there more in this context?
There are even smaller, solistic pieces that are carried out on parts of the drum. For instance, a ten-minute, drawn-out, swirl on the snare that is executed with different volumes, yet in a continuous rushing sound. At first, only an ordinary swirl on a snare drum appears, but then it transforms into a rushing sound and takes shape in different patterns.
What is it about the swirl that interests you?
The interesting thing is that the swirl transforms into something entirely different, a sort of white noise—especially when it’s executed in a space that reverberates somewhat. A new tone quality can emerge like this. What one hears changes too. After a while one hears the swirl as something completely different and perceives minimal changes in the sound. After five minutes my ear makes something else out of the sound too. It’s a piece for which only a part of the drum instrumentarium was picked out. In the same vein, there are several compositions that are conceived just for bowed cymbals, also for substitute cymbals made of wood or cardboard. The sounds are produced through contact between a classical bow and corrugated cardboard. That gives rise to a practically unexplored spectrum of not purely tonal, yet noise-like patterns and mini-tonalities.
Could this also be seen as related to classical drums?
Not directly to the drums, but primarily with the material “cardboard”. I consider it important to make different use of the bow, which was actually developed for a tonal playing mode.
What compositions came out of this context?
For starters there’s WePa (Wellpappe) [corrugated cardboard], which I myself perform on two larger cardboard boxes and one smaller box. Then another notated composition exists, one for twenty-two players on twenty-two different boxes. This piece hasn’t been performed yet because it’s naturally an elaborate and expensive thing to develop and rehearse. In a performance of this piece, I expect that a large plateau of rushing sounds would be produced, one that we haven’t yet heard in this quality. Beyond that, I use pieces of cardboard in connection with the drums as part of improvisational processes.
Another of your work’s focal points is motors and motor sounds. How did this composition for twelve tractors come into being?
That’s actually a product of circumstance, a little revenge on the tractors that woke me at six a.m. for a period of time during the corn harvest. Those were old GDR tractors near Leipzig, where I was living in an artists’ residence. Then the opportunity presented itself to bring these and even other tractors together and compose a piece for these machines. Then at the end of my residency I presented this in the large yard. You see, instead of being destroyed by them, I wanted to relish the tractors.
How were the sounds of the different tractors and motors brought together?
First I selected them according to my ear, and then they were brought into a certain order. That demanded, of course, a certain amount of artful persuasion. First I had to inspire trust in the machines’ owners so they would participate. And then came the rehearsal process.
Was that complicated?
That was really interesting because initially they were nervous regarding how all of it was supposed to happen, naturally. But they were participating because their tractors were second nature to them, and because they wanted to share an experience. Then they pretty much had to sit there, like in a classroom, read a paper and stand up when I said “Motor on!” and sit back down when I said “Motor off!”—this was a dry rehearsal. So they just stood there silently not saying a word while I watched the clock. That was a thrilling process.
So a score also exists for this piece.
Yes, the piece has already been performed with different tractors in different countries.
And then there are also works you wrote for cars.
For instance Henry F. kommt zu Besuch, with the Ford Eifel. That’s more of a conceptual piece. It’s a sound performance, and yet it’s connected to a specific geography. I was commissioned to do something in the Eifel. I gave it some thought, and then I saw this castle in the Eifel and decided on the way there to use an old automobile model from the Ford family, namely the Ford Eifel—that was a prewar model. The piece was about Henry Ford, about German National Socialism. Concretely, it looked like this: The Ford Eifel drove up to the Eifel to this castle and was directed simply to make a sound, to honk the horn briefly in front of the castle—requesting permission to enter—and then drive into the castle yard. Naturally, there isn’t a castle as such any more, and no lords of the castle, and the car doesn’t exist anymore either and neither does Mr. Ford. Thus, it only came to an imaginary meeting. So the driver, who was dressed as Henry Ford in a pinstriped suit, made his sounds and rang the bell to the main entrance while the motor was running, and nobody let him in. So he drove back out. Then he returned two hours later, then once again at night with a flashlight whereupon he searched for the castle’s “substance”, which didn’t exist. It’s about the sound of the Ford Eifel in this castle and the fictional story of a castle lord. It’s also about calling into memory the conditions of production of the Ford Eifel.
Another one of your concepts involves fire extinguishers.
That’s MM schäumend, a sound miniature for sixteen players. It started when I used a fire extinguisher onstage as part of my improvisational playing, in connection with a recited poem. Later, during a production on Deutschlandradio, I saw a fire extinguisher while taking a smoke break, and I thought to myself that I could do something else with it. Before then I had, however, never seen a fire extinguisher in action. Then I did trials with various types of fire extinguishers that had different mechanisms. Finally there was a commission from the Berlin Akademie der Künste for this piece. Everything was organized, and we rehearsed according to a short pattern. Of course, one had to deal sparingly with the opening and closing since a fire extinguisher empties out within seconds. In total, a two-and-a-half-minute miniature emerged that for the most part consisted of pauses. An interesting aspect—beyond the aural—is that a shape comes into being and is left over, a “half-form”. Of course it’s smoking at first, and then a big cloud is formed. The audible aspect I’m interested in is the high “pfft” sound of the sixteen fire extinguishers that, while following the indications in the score, speak and answer individually or together. It’s a sort of music for fireworks with a very sophisticated sound. The foam form left over at the end is the echo, so to speak, of what was; and then it rapidly collapses, melting into itself.
The conversation took place in Berlin on February 22, 2005.
by Felix Klopothek
When Bert Noglik found himself in the GDR twenty-five years ago, an exotically foreign freelance journalist in his old homeland, he asked European jazz musicians to talk, as part of a series of interviews, about their self-image, and one musician gave him the following answer: “It’s not about outdoing or mastering oneself, getting the better of oneself. Instead, roughly speaking, it’s about calmly looking at oneself, and at the music, from below.”
*Amidst the declarations made by the avant-gardists and free jazzers Noglik was interviewing at the time—all of whom orated about musical ecstasy, about being independent of American jazz, about being in opposition to the dominant music business—this statement stands out. What the devil does it mean to look, as a musician, at yourself and at the music from below? Sven-Åke Johansson’s remark went on the record, and any approach to his oeuvre—which might also shed light on the mystery of this utterance—would be better done in chronological form. One can indeed describe his musico-artistic work as the diversification of a prototypical setup, or as a permanently increasing interior complexity. Johansson was born in the small Swedish town of Mariestad in 1943. At quite an early moment in his life, music and drumming took on a central role. “To build up diverse tensions and pressures with my tentacles, to bring in little variations through shifts in playing—right foot, left foot, right hand, left hand—and to create a movement in this way, a movement that circles within itself—this is something organic, something that speaks from the body,” he explained to Noglik. In conversations, he emphasizes that he simply had no other choice than to become a musician. ‘Musician’ meaning jazz drummer—at first.
The chronology: Johansson leaves Mariestad as soon as possible, moving to a nearby, and larger, Swedish town. In 1966 he finally lands in Paris, Europe’s jazz Mecca at the time, where he works as a veritable bebop drummer, playing session after session in small clubs. Johansson resides in Paris for one and a half years, at which point he is drawn to Germany, where a young and radical scene with musicians such as Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald and Manfred Schoof is forming. They’re already playing a distinct free jazz: in contrast to an American free jazz diligently aligned with tradition, “the Europeans” draw on New Music and adapt an “orgiastic fragmentation of material” that is practiced by Fluxus artists.
This must have had a catalytic effect on Johansson. He follows the call of this music, soon playing drums in Schoof and Brötzmann’s groups as if he had never played any other sort of music, and in 1967 and 68 he lives in Wuppertal and Cologne, the epicenters of free improvisation in West Germany. He doesn’t, however, come to Rhineland as a free jazz novice, as he recalls. He was already working on free forms much earlier in theaters on the Swedish countryside. The original configuration or constellation of his aesthetic consists of improvisation, of trust in an initial design, and of the intention to keep working on the first idea. This is a starting point that allows him unimagined freedoms; therefore, he will go on to give up drumming temporarily, write pieces for music theater, and start painting and drawing, which has, in the interim, yielded solo exhibitions and catalogues. Johansson tries things out, transforms things—his work is enormously manifold, but not random. Quite the contrary. When looked at individually, the works sometimes appear exaggeratedly strict, committed to one single idea that is consistently “conjugated” in all its forms. This is expressed by record titles that speak of concepts, serializations and programmes. Some examples from recent years include Versuch der Rekonstruktion einer vergangenen Zeit (1989, Cool-Jazz), Sechs kleine Stücke für Quintett (Free Jazz, 1999), Barcelona Serie I-XI (1999, Geräuschimprovisationen), Kalte Welle 102 – 13 Fragmente (Geräuschimprovisationen, 2007)
After the wild years in Wuppertal and Cologne, Johansson takes the concept of improvisation from free jazz (and from the drums) and applies it almost universally to other kinds of music and to other techniques. In the early 70s he jams with Tangerine Dream in Berlin (where he still lives today), plays a drum set made of upholstery foam, plays cardboard boxes, develops a unique, individual kind of sprechgesang, discovers the accordeon. In an earlier musico-gestural action (1967), issues of the Springer newspaper BZ are stuffed, according to scored directives, into an upright piano until it can’t be played anymore. Then the newspapers are set aflame; finally the piano catches fire too. His compositional treatment of New Music (which has intensified since the 90s) is also an aspect of this phase of his work. Perhaps one could even see this phase as the climactic end of his creative work in music, a phase that feeds on the expansion of an “instrumentarium”: if during the radicalism of the early seventies it was about turning New Music into something everyday, or humanizing New Music (music for non-musicians, music to read, etc.), then in this phase Johansson enlarges a particular principle (one characterised by the overstepping of the bounds of “art” and “life”) to include the world of things. He has conceived a trilogy for wind turbines, has given musicians directions for emptying fire extinguishers according to rhythmic-dynamic parameters, and has written a concert for car horns. All of these are compositional concepts into which he has transferred certain structural principles found in free improvisation. He rediscovers the free and rhythmic pulsation of his free jazz in the vibrations of tractor motors.
“Looking at things from below” is a form of reflection proper to Johansson. Usually one reflects on something. He shuns the ascendant position of the observer and prefers to go underneath things, and hence right into the middle of an anlysis which is, first and foremost, a search for surprising contexts, links and combinations, each of which arise by virtue of Johansson’s highly stylized parameters. On one of his CDs, Hudson Riv, he interprets, as singer—or better yet—non-singer, jazz standards, showtunes and love songs like You and the night and the music, Old Devil Moon, I should care or Autumn in New York—with lyrics like “Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds / In canyons of steel”. The CD was recorded in November 2001, a time when it was considered indecent for American radio stations to play Autumn in New York. Johansson plays the song in all his glory. Here irony and sorrow are interwoven with the almost defiant assertion that a song is, first and foremost, a song, not a facetious statement. Johansson is the master of spontaneous reflection because he reveals that it is not a creatio ex nihilo. On the contrary, any spontaneous reflection rests on its own history.
Felix Klopotek, 2009 *Bert Noglik, Jazzwerkstatt international, Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1981.
by Sabine Sanjo
Signs of Expression beyond Subjectivity
Over time, Johansson has acquired boundless control over an entire spectrum of highly diverse aural intensities and qualities. He boasts a long-since-developed sense of the expressive qualities of the sounds he creates. Occasionally his musicalization of the everyday world possesses a systematic character, yet this doesn’t prevent him from pursuing and giving expression to his own proclivities and preferences.
His relationship to his own proclivities is at least as complex as his notions of the expressive character of sounds. Johansson has, going on quite a while, established an interior distance between himself and any notion of the free evolvement of sound; the ideal of a comprehensive “poeticization” of everyday life seems deceptive to him. Instead he is fascinated by sounds that only emerge against pressure and resistance, sounds that make these reluctant forces audible. Such quickly terminated sounds, sounds that promptly go from sound to silence, stand for a withdrawal of proper subjectivity. While the sounds being squeezed out of cardboard boxes and telephone books intimate that there is an inner tension, one which waits to be freed, he himself understands the withdrawal of proper subjectivity as the very form that indeed could mean freedom. The musicalization of an everyday object consists first and foremost in the delineation of the most interesting combinations of the diverse parameters with which an object’s aural spectrum can be demonstrated as exhaustively as possible. Thus, besides the sound material itself, the techniques of causing them to resonate are the main constituents of his composition’s and performance’s themes. Particularly in his solo-performances Johansson gives his complete concentration to a material in order to lend presence to all aspects of its aurality. The structure of a composition arises directly from its material. Constants within this work can be found in its rhythmic aspects as well as in the basic forms of percussive sound generation that vary or evolve from case to case. Johansson prefers an extensive reduction of his material. The more sparing the means employed, the more fundamentally he can attend to their potential variations and the clearer the tension between the individual variants, which he rescues from sinking into the sheer multiplicity of phenomena, becomes. To him music is a form of variation; his compositional work aims for an intensification of the variations he creates.
Johansson mostly utilizes surprising and uncommon actions in order to musicalize everyday objects. Yet his fantasy is especially stimulated by entirely banal and inconspicuous material. Since his beginnings he has possessed a very individual technique of presentation, which could be described as a staging that operates with very intense distortion effects. Our drummer achieves these effects especially by focusing his attention with extreme intensity onto his own activity. In his performances he seems to ignore everything going on around him. Through this posture, the audience too must allow his sometimes almost absurd-seeming doings to occupy the center of their attention. The viewer is pushed off course by this concentration, is “misled” to take uncommon resonating objects seriously, to take interest in the sonic character and aural color of pickles, tractors, or telephone books.
The effect of distortion and irritation applies as much to the treatment of banal everyday objects which are elevated to art objects as it does, conversely, to the sphere of art itself, whose blessing is here conferred on totally unspectacular objects. However, technical virtuosity—which at first appears to be quite misplaced when combined with telephone books or pickles, even though to this day virtuosity stands as a vital criterion for high art in particular—is a natural element of his work. He couples precision in timing in all things rhythmic with a sovereignty that sometimes gives the impression of an inner absence on the part of the protagonist while always remaining airtight with regard to musicality.
The Musicalization of the Arts
Johansson’s artistic practice is unaffected by hand-me-down genre conventions. When one considers how long he has already been working on the transformation of entirely everyday things into sound objects, it comes as no surprise that this practice doesn’t shy away from the musicalization of the visual arts, of painting, and of literature. Yet his concern isn’t simply to show that there indeed is music in all things. Ultimately he merely holds fast to the study of his material, whose aesthetic potential for realization sometimes demands language or visual objects rather than music. Therefore one can’t be taken by surprise by this performer’s longstanding activity of demonstrating his musical techniques in other fields as well. He fashions selected sound material into assemblages and image objects that traverse the border to visual art, almost unnoticed. When his performance incorporates lingual or phonetic-poetic moments, it comes into contact with areas of theater and poetry.
The several books by the Swedish artist include text editions as well as image editions. In his texts he operates with language beyond firmly established syntactic and semantic correlations. This very attempt at blurriness and deviance from regular uses of lingual components intensifies language’s potential. Usually one surmises that a clear meaning is not so far off, until the sentence, at least by its very end, takes a completely unexpected turn, thus producing images of fantastic colorfulness. Among his image editions can be counted the book Gurken (pickles), bound entirely in green, with drawings of various pickle-shaped objects, accompanied by an index where titles such as “siebenbürger gherkin,” “belgian snake gourd,” “polish cottage pickle,” or “bielefelder roman pickle” are found. This book too is based on the tireless work of recording and building repertoire, a labor that has a sometimes almost obsessive-systematic character, one reminiscent of the collector’s obsession as displayed in the museum.
Sabine Sanio (Positionen Nr. 28) 1996
by Diedrich Diedrichsen
Mayo Thompson with Sven-Åke Johansson Quintet
This project is not simply about having jazz musicians play rock or pop compositions. From Gabor Szabo to the Thing, this has already produced so many results of the greatest difference in quality that we have enough to do studying the causes of this difference.When Albert Oehlen had the idea that Sven Ake Johansson’s group play the music of Mayo Thompson, he was thinking of something else. Instead of the old additive idea of fusion or the synthetic one of a kind of chemical reaction, his intention was rather more to do with uncovering and making identifiable kinds of togetherness and difference - by means of mutual estrangement and familiarisation. Because only in this way can one acquire an understanding that is not exhausted in purely musical or musicianly interpretations, but rather states much more its implicit basic aesthetic assumptions, which one sees or hears most clearly precisely when different people work together on similar, or on a certain level identical, material.
Oehlen selected particular compositions written by Thompson (some of them together with his comrades in arms from the early days of the Red Crayola) for the way in which they would make clear a specific, unorthodox treatment of melodic, theme-constructing or deconstructing elements, and in whose peculiarity he perhaps recognised the sensibility evident in the arrangements and compositions from Johansson’s quintet, albeit in quite a different context. But instead of simply compiling pieces from very different phases of Thompson’s work and having Johansson and his group play their own arrangements, Thompson himself should also sing. Which he did, in the end result establishing that he couldn’t create a solo record in this musical context, rather only a “Red Crayola covers” album, whose artist-composer relationship, though, would thereby become charmingly complicated, with the composer also appearing in the exposed role of singer.
So a series of effects arises, not only one after the other but also simultaneously. The Red Crayola tunes become separated from their original, aesthetically- formed, text-music relationship. They no longer sound as if they’d been written in connection with a text. But in the next stage the text returns, now as a kind of commentary, as an additional lyrical level, similar to a piece like Joseph Jarman’s “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City”. But before this return of a now liberated semantics, the apparently resistant, gesturally anti-jazz playing styles in the original material had to be appropriated by the quintet’s musicians. Ostinato figures, riffs, but also phases of a psychedelic uncertainty, in which one, for various reasons, hears a strangeness opposed to the jazz idiom, become accepted blithely as compositional models. However, these patterns - typically for pop music- are, on a musical level, more widely eclectic than most jazz playing styles would allow them to be, namely either much more rigid and stereotyped, above all in line and swing, than any previously- conceived music can be, or much less defined, and freer. Naturally, one doesn’t hear all of this in pop music because the many-sided diversity of its associations both with solidified and with freshly - created semantics (mediated, after all, by text and picture sources) forms completely different connections. But again, Thompson, both as musician and songwriter, has already taken these as his theme. One way of doing this was in the laying side by side of classical methods (close to song-writing), with others that conflict with linguistically-constituted semantics, of song-like narrative and sudden interruptions. This constantly present level of reflection in Thompson’s work can be taken as an opportunity of addressing the existing differences in levels of the form – jazz and jazz-related music - whose sound concepts rather strive for uniformity.
But this often surprising, funny, exciting, voluntary and enforced jump or plunge of jazz-type playing into the conceptual, would not be the only description of the cultural and aesthetic breadth which develops here. Observing the protagonists Thompson and Johansson from a different viewpoint, one finds that not only do both have a range of projects which pose similar questions, but that one can describe their differences in yet another way, when one relates them to the plastic arts. Johansson is, in the first place, often interpreted as a composer and director of large scale music events in relation to the tradition of the Fluxus movement, Thompson, on the other hand, who has worked for a long time as artist, author and participant in artistic work with the artist group Art & Language, historically counted as adherents of conceptual art, would belong to the other great 60s avant garde movement, conceptualism.
Both have had points of contact with the other, and both have just as often landed in diametrically opposed positions. What has hardly ever happened, though, neither for Fluxus and conceptualism, nor for rock and jazz, is the reflection of the implicit rules of one genre or medium in the laws of the other. And this is what one experiences here.
Diedrich Diedrichsen (liner notes yeb-7708 2)