Questionnaire by Petr Slabý for Uni (kulturní magazín) Prague 9/2016
What is your first memory as a child?
One of my earliest memories has to do with a visit to a restaurant or
snack bar with my parents where I had my first french fries in my life,
and there was an abstract painting hanging on the wall with a weird
title. I must have been three or four years old
I also remember a lot of train rides, and being totally absorbed in my
children's books, looking at the pictures and trying to read the
stories. It felt as if I could step inside those books and be there
with those characters.
What is your first musical memory in life?
My parents playing the piano. I can still remember some pieces my
mother played: The Bb major partita by Bach, Beethoven's „Tempest“
sonata in d minor, and the Sonatine by
My dad also played through some more modern stuff – Stravinsky, some
serial music – although I don't remember that in particular. But I must
have heard it, because (I know) he was working on some of that type of
music at the time. And I am sure I heard some music on the radio –
popular music of the day (the 60s).
What is your musical background?
Both parents are musicians, Mom: piano student at the Cologne
Conservatory when I was very young, later piano teacher. Dad: conductor
and rehearsal pianist.
When did you start to improvise?
I was around fifteen.
Why did you choose the instrument that you play?
Because we had a piano at home. I tried a few other instruments when I
was young (guitar, clarinet) but didn't get very far. Piano seemed the
most natural and accessible, also for writing music – although I didn't
get seriously interested in music until I was fifteen.
What kind of music did you like as a teenager?
I loved the Beatles when I was maybe ten (very early teens). I heard
the Sergeant Pepper's album at a friend's house and just had to listen
to it over and over again. But for some reason I wasn't so interested
in music after that.
There was always music at our house – mostly someone playing the piano,
and there were records as well - mostly classical music, some jazz and
some odd stuff like Spike Jones, the great cabarettist/chansonnier
Georg Kreisler, and an anarcho-political record for children with
obscene nursery rhymes. I took all of that more or less for granted,
being interested in other stuff, like drawing comics.
I didn't particularly like most of the stuff my classmates were
listening to – with the possible exception of Led Zeppelin. I just
owned a few cassette tapes. This was in the mid-70s.
When I was around fifteen, I got into jazz – in the beginning I was
especially fascinated by the history of and the stories about jazz –
particularly bebop so I started listening to a lot of Charlie Parker,
Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy… I moved on to other – more contemporary -
musicians from there.
What does improvisation mean to you — in terms of music and in general?
In music, it is the equivalent of „making things up“ (as we go along) -
that's why moving from drawing comics to improvising music or writing
jazz tunes was not a big switch for me. Actually, one led to the other.
If I hadn't discovered for myself that it is possible to make music up
on the piano (and that's what I thought jazz players do), I probably
wouldn't have gotten seriously into
When I play, there has to be improvisation involved to keep me interested.
To me, improvisation is directly linked to life. You don't go through
life following a textbook. You make experiences, mistakes, and you
learn. You have to embrace accidents.
When I listen to music, it usually doesn't matter to me if it is the
result of fast decision-making (i.e., improvisation), or if it took the
artist longer to get there. Lately I have been fascinated by a lot of
electronic music and the possibilities of editing, as in film-making. I
am interested in strategies used in other disciplines such as film,
painting, dance and poetry -- and I discuss a lot of those ideas with
my wife, Gabriele Guenther, who is a poet and visual
Did you have any heroes in improvising music?
In the beginning, I wasn't really aware that „improvised music“ could
be a genre or field in its own right. I was familiar with the term
„free jazz“ and listened to some music that was considered part of that
category: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry. Also
more „in-between“ players like Paul Bley and Andrew Hill.
In 1986, improvising using game structures under George Lewis's
tutelage at a workshop in Banff, Canada, was quite a thought-provoking
In the early 90s, I heard Georg Graewe, Ernst Reijseger and Gerry
Hemingway's seminal improvising trio on various occasions which left
quite a mark. Later on, after my relocation to Amsterdam, I frequently
saw Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink (and lots of other great
musicians), and they all influenced me as well.
I have probably listened to all the important pianists at some point or
other. Some of them became my heroes for a while. But in terms of my
playing especially regarding the role of my instrument in an ensemble
context, and as a textural resource, other (non-pianistic) influences
have been important as well. For instance, the way in which Bill
Frisell's chords and sound work as a „glue“ in Paul Motian's trio (a
group I saw live quite often) has remained an influence to this day.
Can we call your music jazz? Is it rooted in it or it is something different?
I usually call it music. Still, I wouldn't be doing what I do if it
hadn't been for jazz. I would even go so far as to say that everybody
who improvises today owes it to jazz, knowingly or not.
African-American musicians put improvisation back on the map, for people in America, Europe and elsewhere.
But of course other types of music were influential as well: John
Cage's „Music of Changes“, „Allegro sostenuto“ by Helmut Lachenmann,
Stockhausen's music from the 60s, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Sly
and the Family Stone, Can (to name only a few examples) - in
addition to a lot of music from all parts of the world, such as
Western and Central Africa, Morocco, Indonesia, Japan, Korea.
I am basically interested in all aspects of music and sound, including the sounds we are surrounded by every day.
Upon further reflection, even the contemporary music compositions I
referred to above might not exist in that form without the music called
How did you meet the other musicians in the trio Kaufmann/Gratkowski/de Joode?
I met Frank for the first time in Hamburg in 1984 or '85 when I
was touring with Thomas Heberer (one of my first tour experiences ever
playing original music). Shortly after that, Frank moved to Cologne,
and we started playingtogether.
I met Wilbert in Amsterdam in 1999 (I think), when Michael Vatcher put
a group together for an evening of improvised music at the legendary
squat venue Zaal 100.
Some time later – sitting in a hotel room after a rather dissatisfying
experience with a different, totally unrelated group – a voice popped
up in my head telling me that Wilbert was the right guy to play
Around the same time, Frank and I reconnected and talked about the
possibility of setting a gig up with Wilbert. They were both members of
Michiel Braam's band at the time.
A while later, the trio got together for the first time, again at Zaal 100.
What specifically is different about this trio?
I think there was a certain attention to detail right from the start that made us want to continue.
A lot of this has to do with rhythmic detail, pitch sensitivity, especially phrasing and dynamics.
For me, it was (and still is) the feeling of a magnetic pull and great
openness at the same
When we started to play together more and do tours, it became more of
an issue to develop our music over the course of a whole concert,
particularily over the course of several concerts in a row, while
(always) keeping it fresh and on the edge.
And not staying in a comfort zone for too long. We don't want to make it too easy for ourselves.
How much were and are you inspired by the places where you play?
I find it impossible not to be influenced (and ideally inspired) by my surroundings.
Everything becomes an influence: the country, the people, the city, the
architecture, the room we play in, the vibe of the audience. Especially
since we are improvising (and not so much „presenting“ music that has
been thought up beforehand), we are much more open to those factors.
There is in fact a strong aspect of sharing when we do a concert,
because we basically don't know much more than the audience does just
before we begin to play. It is a communal experience, and very often
the people in the audience are aware of that and reflect that in their
What is it like to co-operate (i.e. play together) with “foreigners” ?
For the past twenty years I have lived in cities with musical
communities in which artists from other parts of the world play a vital
When I lived in Amsterdam from 1996 to 2009, I was a „foreigner“
myself. In Berlin, almost all the musical situations I am involved in
include musicians from other countries. This seems to be the norm, so I
don't even think about it that much.
Besides, I am surrounded by immigrants and/or people with immigrant
backgrounds in the area of Berlin where I live. I find this totally
normal and sometimes even miss it when I am
Of course I am aware of diverse cultural backgrounds, and when I travel
to other places, I realize that certain different societal
circumstances have an impact on the musicians' outlook on life, the way
they have to act and interact in order to survive and make ends meet.
But at the end of the day, when it comes to playing together, it very
quickly becomes clear if we can actually connect or not musically.
I believe that musicians have transcended borders (whether
geographical, political, racial, enforced by law, man-made or
imaginary) long before politicians have.
What was the musically most weird or bizarre experience you have ever had?
I have had a fair amount of strange musical experiences over the years
– often musical mismatches or weird interpersonal situations – but I
won't go into naming
Some of the more bizarre and anecdotal experiences happened when I was
a young student and in desperate need of money which meant that I had
to take every gig that was offered to me. Hence mostly „commercial“
I remember being asked to play solo piano at a trade fair for jeans.
The only problem was there were numerous other stands next to the one
where I was supposed to play that had loud music blaring from powerful
sound systems so no one could hear a single note I was playing. To make
things worse, I had eaten a space cookie that morning before going to
the gig to be able to cope with the situation. At some point, the jeans
company people realized the pointlessness of it all and sent me
Another time, I was asked to sub in a commercial dance band for what
turned out to be a national or even international dance contest which
was broadcast on national radio. For some reason, there was no
instrument, and I had to bring my Fender Rhodes. The guys I had to play
with were slick professionals. Jaded, die-hard dance-band dudes who
called a lot of tunes off the top of their heads, none of which I knew.
So I had to fake my way through it, and during the intermissions
everyone basically ignored me.
A third anecdote involved another commercial dance band that could have
been straight out of a Fellini movie. We once had to drive from Cologne
to this dance gig in Helmstedt right on the border to East Germany in
the deep of winter, through thick ice and snow, a drive which involved
a number of near-accidents because we kept on getting lost along the
way. At some point, it felt like we'd been on the road for twelve hours
or more. One particular aspect of that band was the bandleader
sometimes called out several tunes simultaneously whenever he got
nervous, which resulted in a quasi-Charles Ivesian cacophony of tunes:
various band members playing a motley array of different pieces in
different keys at the same time. Part of the band's repertoire included
typical carnival tunes from Cologne usually only played in February but
which our band played everywhere, regardless of the time or place. At
some point, a middle-aged lady came up to me and complained why we were
playing such old-fashioned music at our young age.
Actually, these stories sound more like bad dreams now that I think about them.
An additional question about Trio Kamosc:
your written music, you are sometimes inspired by some „old stuff“
(traditional musics), as stated in your liner notes to the album
Kamosc. You are referring here to New Orleans jazz and „archaic funk“,
Why did you choose those references at this point in time? What led to you to refer to “styles” or genres in general?
"Kamosc" was a specific group that reflected my compositional and conceptual interests at a particular point in time (2005).
It can be viewed as kind of a midpoint between my first quartet with
Michael Moore and my more recent duet recordings with him. The Kamosc
trio was actually the result of a recording session instigated by my
good friend, the Canadian drummer Dylan van der Schyff. That disc is
called Definition of a Toy and featured Mark Helias and trumpeter Brad
Turner, in addition to the trio with Michael and Dylan.
We recorded a number of improvised trio miniatures during that session,
and I got inspired to look for more work with this group.
I think some of us expected this to be a mostly improvisational affair
but in the end I came up with a whole bunch of compositional ideas that
we developed over the course of maybe ten concerts during a North
When I started my collaboration with Michael (1998), we mostly played
my music in a quartet setting which was often „dramaturgically“
designed, with a lot of improvisational zones, but in general was
always often "planned ahead".
However, during those years I started to appreciate greater freedom in
dealing with pre-conceived structures. I learned that it was sometimes
OK, not to know what to do with a certain compositional idea
beforehand. That it could actually be great fun to deal with this
question at the very moment of playing. A lot of Michael's
compositions and ideas are based on that approach. (I had the pleasure
to play quite a bit of his music on his gigs as well.)
On the other hand, Michael is an incredibly knowledgeable musician very
connected to a lot of traditional styles and the roots of music. This
inspired me to deal with certain stylistic references in a more direct
way; I also thought that those pieces referred to various musics that
we all enjoy listening to.
Additionally, this particular instrumentation (clarinet/saxophone –
piano – drums) refers back to a lot of early jazz but also to some
prominent early free-jazz groups (Cecil Taylor, Schlippenbach Trio,
To sum it up, my idea for this trio was: Instead of continuing with
some kind of amalgamized European version of open jazz, what would
happen if I (as a European) worked with a personalized outlook on more
blatant examples of what I considered American music, which we could
also implement as „found objects“, then let them converge, or even
clash, with our free improvising?
A bit of an experimental setup, if you will -- partly research, partly fun.
Special thanks to Gabriele Guenther for copy editing