Interview with Jacob Anderskov: I like to translate music into a coordination exercise: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Jacob Anderskov. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Jacob Anderskov: – I grew up near Lemvig, in Jylland (Jutland), the western part of Denmark, in a thinly populated area. My parents were university graduates and both taught at the local teachers training college. None of them were musicians, none of them played an instrument. My grandfather was a musician, but he passed away when I was 3, so I did not have a direct transfer of music tradition from within my family. My parents encouraged me to attend instrument teaching, and I played violin for my entire childhood: Starting in the Suzuki repertoire, but then moving on to everything from European folk music (Bulgarian, Scandinavian), 20’s and 30’s jazz music, 80’s pop music, European violin sonatas, and playing my own compositions, cadenzas and improvisations (in a style mixing Fats Waller and Joseph Haydn, as far as I remember). Meanwhile, I started fooling around on the old piano that my parents had bought, with only minimal piano instruction. I did study 2 years of piano from when I was 11 years old, improvising, arranging, playing tunes, but then my wonderful teacher quit the job, and it was not possible to find someone to teach me improvising on the piano, and I became self taught the following years. Starting in the local amateur big band at the same time became central to the limited jazz schooling I had. Once in high school, I started commuting weekly for more advanced piano lessons, and left the violin behind. Though I played in numerous bands during my high school years, I was 21 before I had any idea that I would become a musician – the thought had seemed impossible to me until then, not because of lack of interest, but due to a strong vibe in my upbringing that being a musician was not a real profession…

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

JA: – I had composed since my early childhood, without much knowledge of traditions, but quite some understanding of the mechanics of harmony. Once I started imaginig myself as a professional, I went through the jazz tradition quite thoroughly, from James P Johnson & Fats Waller to Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Gery Allen, Marilyn Crispell, Jason Moran. From the very start I had this intuitive understanding that those studies were exercises in style, understanding, level of excellence, and that it did not define my own future path, only inform it. Around the time when I lived in NYC, 1999-2000, my interests had moved to also incorporating 20th Century new music from the European tradition, as well as listening mostly to bands without pianos, and I had started to feel my future path in a way that proved to be about right: music incorporating post tonal structuring principles found in European modernism, avant-jazz from the “post Milford Graves continuum” (quoting Paul Bley), strong allusions from the Danish songs I had known since my childhood, an awareness of contemporary music from the Indie, noise, and electronica domains, plus a strong dose of NYC downtown music (Loft Scene + Knitting Factory) approaches. I have since then stayed on that path, but I still aim for developing my approach and my methodologies quite radically from album to album, from band to band, and from year to year.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

JA: – At times I spend all my practice time on coordination, quintuplet-based grooves or concepts from around the world of rhythm, at other times I am composing in very specific concepts from a harmonical or motivic perspective, or I am playing piano music by Stockhausen and Ligeti to expand my ideas, or by Bach to deepen the weight transferring of the piano touch. Regarding rhythm, I have had a ton of practice approaches since my early twenties. A few years back, while instructing a group of younger musicians in compositions requiring an understanding of these concepts, I condensed this practice into as series of exercises called “The untempered Metronome”. The idea is that you are stranded on a desert island with a broken metronome, that you can’t change the tempo of, nor shut down. So it is beating all the time, at e.g. 75 BPM. Then the series of exercises investigate how many tempos you can play in with that metronome. There is of course quarters, 8th notes, off beats, etc., but interesting things start to happen if you hear the metronome as e.g. “every 3rd 16th note”, or “every 5th 8th note triplet”, or “every 4th quintuplet”, etc. This became a systematic approach to practicing that is easier to explain than when the same thing was happening intuitively in my practice in the preceding 15 years, especially for musicians that are to play my music.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

JA: – I were always conscious to copy only parts of the concepts I encountered and liked. So, if I found a harmonic sequence that I liked, I would make sure to use it in another kind of orchestration, with another melodic language, and another rhythmic approach. Or, being inspired by the vibe from one tradition, the form from another, the degree of expressivity from a third, etc. This may sound as a cheap excuse or alibi, but my experience is that it worked, not just to hide the influences, but also to create a habit of resituating the concepts that I found, and thus stressing the awareness of how to translate old ideas to brand new sounds.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

JA: – This has changed a lot over the years. First of all, I need to practice regularly. I sometimes say to my students that people who say that too much practicing ruins the freshness don’t know how to practice. However, this is a major problem in many muscians’ practice. I swear by a mantra inspired by Lee Konitz’ “practice everything in all 11 keys” meaning, everything except for what you are going to use on stage: So I will play stuff in other keys, other styles (though I dislike that word in this sentence), other tempos, other meters, other harmonic landscapes, other motivic logics etc., to make sure that interesting stuff is intuitively available once on stage. That being said, I did have a period 10-15 years ago in which I had specific warm up and mental preparation routines. The reasons I later scaled down on this was that it seemed to accumulate, so that my required preparation programme grew to immense durations. Plus, on days where it was just not possible to find 30-60 minutes alone with a yoga mat before a show or a recording, the lack of this routine created an anxiety that I realized was unnecessary. One interesting thing that struck me, was that when I used extended preparation programmes every day during a solo tour or similar, the more “optimal” the warm up routine was, the more likely I was to leave it altogether the day I got home from the tour. And the saying “never leave the stage” rang in my ears in those instances: if something was that good for my wellbeing, why not do it all the time? Contrary to this, the routines would require several hours of my limited time every day, and being a father of two, a professor at the RMC, a composer of commissioned pieces, a performer, and releasing around 2-3 albums pr year, I realized that I did not want to spend several hours every day on my own wellbeing. Playing and composing the music I want to make seems the best, most efficient and most cosmically justifiable way of finding inner peace.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JA: – The question is whether any dichotomy forces us to find a balance, a “half of this, half of that”. Growing up in the home country of Niels Bohr, I have to answer that the universe as well as our psyche does allow us a complementary position on questions like this. The electron can be particle and wave function at the same time, though those two seem to contradict each other. In music, I find it possible to be restructuralist and mysticist at the same time, or to hear your music from the position of the player while hearing it from a transpersonal position above the audience, or to be aware of your language while diving in for statements you cannot control. At the same time, I do acknowledge that the question is highly relevant. If caught in a compositional problem, I have often enjoyed transferring the music into a coordination exercise, and once that is grooving, let the instinctive reaction in the coordination experience guide my decisions on e.g. harmony, melody or form.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

JA: – I am not the type who is ultra aware of what people want. Some will say I am courageous to do what I want to do, while my wonderful family tells me I am just not able to read other people’s likes and dislikes… What is very important for me though, is to play to an imagined, ideally interested listener. I think I hear my music through the ears of this imaginary listener (friend?), which also creates a big difference between practice/rehearsal and concert/recording. Growing up in a rural area with wonderful childhood opportunities, but no one to trust on strong artistic choices, made me painfully aware at an early age that I could not artistically steer by the compass of my near surroundings.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JA: – Well, there as so many. Playing with Airto Moreia the first couple of times felt as if I did not do anything, but were hypnotized to dream the music. On the first recording session with Agnostic Revelations, I realized that Chris Speed and Michael Formanek were able to blend so exquisitely in my music that dissonance ceased to exist, and Gerald Cleaver seemed to breathe air through the drums, rather than touching them. At numerous concerts with Anderskov Accident, I felt the sky was blast open. Every time my Resonance ensemble (3 string players, Peter Bruun on drums, and me) plays, there will be moments in which time seems to come to a complete halt, and the articulation of one soft note can cause an earthquake.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JA: – Good question. I am not sure we need the standard repertoire for jazz to survive. We need artists who dare to address the time we live in, through sounds that are true not just to the tradition, but to the experience of the world today, ugly as it may be. Jazz has been able to transform more radically and more often than most genres ever in existence, and I believe this process of transformation is and must be a central part of what we define needs people’s interest, rather than defining a museum frame around the music.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

JA: – Giving and receiving. Listening before you play. Listening before you speak. Bringing stuff to an energy level on which true transformation can take place – artistically as well as socially. Being genuinely interested in other peoples positions, experiences and intensions. Working on making dreams come true, not just your own.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

JA: – That the surrounding society would truly understand that without art, we are just meaningless machines.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

JA: – Georg Friedrich Haas, Julia Holter, Moor Mother, Ingrid Laubroch, Charlie Parker for a whole day on his centennial, my students’ own music, Vladimir Horowitz, Giacinto Scelsi, Tyshawn Sorey, my friends, and, sorry to say, too many of my own premixes, premasters, rehearsal documentations, etc., on the path to finishing all the albums I am making for the time being.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JA: – To become not just who we are, but who we could be, if we do the right thing.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

JA: – Well, there is a long list; Santorini or Crete before the collapse of the Minoan Culture 1700 b.c, to see if it was the peaceful, highly developed, culturally rich, gender equal society that some have argued it probably was. Leipzig in the 1730’s to hear Bach improvise. 52nd street in the mid-to-late 40s, Greenwich Village in the 60’s, goes without saying. San Francisco 1965’ish, before the “Death of the Hippie” ceremony, when the potentiality of that movement was still uncollapsed. But first and foremost, 2 years into a future post Covid, post Trump, which also goes without saying. The 1920’s may have been tough as hell, but remember how much interesting stuff happened in art, music and diversity of life approaches, once WW1 and the Spanish Flu was over; That might very well be our opportunity once the mess we are in has been solved.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

JA: – How can music journalism bridge the respect of the tradition with a curiousity for present and future expressions? How can jazz journalism bring the deepest values of jazz – interaction, creativity, soul, transformation, expression, diversity, development of brand new sounds – to an audience too young to know the tradition, disseminating what the music was about as well as what it is becoming?

JBN: – These are difficult questions, there is no unity even among musicologists, jazz critics …

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

JA: – I don’t know if I should be harnessing any more than I have already harnessed, but I sure know that I hope as many people as possible will go out and VOTE November 3rd in the US, now that we, the remaining 7,5 billion, are not allowed to vote for the leader of the world.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Jacob Anderskov

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