Can you please tell us a bit about your own sense of identity – and how it motivated you to take an artistic path?
P: The city I come from, Stavanger in Norway, has a sort of free jazz/free improv-label attached to it. Mostly thanks to influential musicians like Frode Gjerstad, Eivin One Pedersen and Didrik Ingvaldsen. This coloured my sense of direction as a teenager. I loved the energy and wildness of the music, and a motivator for getting better on my horn was that I really wanted to become part of that scene. I wanted to learn all I could about jazz-related stuff of course (was obsessed with diverse players like Paul Desmond, Coltrane, Parker, Steve Coleman), but always came back to music with strong ties to British improvised music.
In fact, British pioneers like John Stevens and Paul Rutherford, played regularly with Frode Gjerstad in Stavanger, so I got to experience these guys live from early on (I actually used my brother’s ID to get into concerts when I wasn’t old enough). That fascination with the UK scene led me to Leeds, where I studied and lived for more than a decade. I was there at the right time, the mid-nineties scene in the UK was screaming out for something innovative, and I became part of the city’s vibrant free scene. We set up Leeds Improvised Music Association (LIMA), where all of us played in loads of large and small ensembles, ran our own gigs, released our own albums etc. In Leeds I ended up doing a PhD in improvised music – a performance-based PhD based on my own work as a musician – which helped me conceptualise how I see my own artistic practice in a larger context.
So, to answer your question, I suppose my sense of identity comes from this long journey of constantly pursing new ways of playing improvised music, experimenting with new structures, sounds, groups, places, spaces, cultures etc. This is also where Angrusori comes in. I’m not a Roma sax player, but collaborating with Roma musicians pushes me into thinking and playing differently – in the same way as you would play differently within shifting acoustics or compositional material.
NH: Who I am, artistically, is something I am asking myself every day. Actually, last year I released a book about the different sides of my musical practice – called Lydkilder (meaning sound sources).
I think the idea partly came out of a need to map my own, quite composite identity. My musical roots are in the classical music tradition, as performer on the piano and organ. In parallel with this I have been developing a broad activity in composition, both on the contemporary classical field and also with interdisciplinary and genre-crossing ramifications. This also brought me to act as an organizer and artistic director, and I got to know and sometimes work with the artistic underground.
And then there is the improvisation. Compared to classical performance and composition, improvisation puts me in a totally different state of being, where the action of the moment, the relations to other players and the actual space/context become main parameters in the music. I think I can say that artistic collaborations have influenced my artistic path, in the choices of involvement in projects, but also in shaping the music itself. I like to take on challenges - when people ask me things, I get triggered both by the feeling of their trust and by the insecurity about a type of work that is new to me. I often embark on projects where I can't know exactly how we will proceed, maybe I even don't feel completely competent, so I simply need to trust the process and put my faith in what we will find together as we go.
This way, my artistic identity is constantly re-shaping. With my traditional background as a backpack, I feel musically rooted and migrating at the same time. Maybe it is also tied to the fact that I grew up partly in Norway, partly abroad, and always lived well with the feeling of not being "one of the others".
In which way do you feel these identities you just described concretely influence your creativity?
P: Improvisation is the core of my musical identity, so I’m always looking for ways of evolving my improvisational repertoire, finding new ways of pushing myself into thinking and acting differently in an improvisational moment. This is what I love about Angrusori, there is no set way of doing this, it’s like a never-ending riddle, and the fun is trying to solve it – but at the same time never actually solving it, never being completely satisfied, always look for new solutions which might improve the music somehow.
NH: A difficult question. Maybe rather turn it around: Creativity is at the core of my identity. But let me think a bit further. I come from a family of many teachers. There is probably an instinct to convey something to people, and a kind of pedagogical cycle: a will to understand people and to find out how to get into a dialogue, in turn to learn myself. This is part of my identity and influences my creative work.
Art can be an expression or celebration of identity, but it can also be an effort to establish new ones or break free from them. How would you describe your own approach in this regard?
P: Sure, I think the way Marcela and Josef for example keep expanding their family repertoire, is definitely helping to reinforce who they are and where they come from. And anyone interested in improvisation or who sees music as a creative force will look for ways to evolve their sense of identity, or, put otherwise, where the sense of identity is innovation and newness as well as tradition.
This is perhaps obvious for us coming from contemporary improvisation – there’s sort of an expectation to keep changing – but this is also important for more traditional musicians, to keep the music up-to-date and relevant. Jana often describes Slovakian Roma music as a series of Lego blocks, where the blocks/components keeps shifting into infinite shapes – changing tempos, order, forms. Really fascinating, and sometimes challenging to follow; you never know whether to expect a verse or a chorus or a violin solo …
NH: I am notoriously afraid of fixed identities. The classical music world cultivates them, and I do all what I can in order to break them up. In concert series that I organise, that means, for example, to mix high and low, to re-work old masterpieces, to use space in unexpected ways, to give the audience real choices about how to behave etc. etc.
On another note: When dealing with the Roma musicians, I realised something very thought-provoking: that we found ourselves having opinions on what parts of the Roma musical practice was more or less "interesting". There were more recent pop music elements that we felt less authentic and didn't want in our project. Well, who are we and what do we know? Maybe this was one of the problematic sides of the Angrusori project. I really didn't want to apply any ‘besserwisser’ evaluation on those people's music, still it was hard to avoid as we came as a kind of culturally upper class.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. Recently, Brendan Perry released his new album “Songs of Disenchantment”, which contains the song “Gipsy Girl” and was intantly attacked for it. After immersing yourself in the topic for so long, what are your thoughts on what is permissable and what isn't?
P: Yes, this an important point, and I’m glad you asked this. I teach jazz history at the University here in Stavanger, and we recently had a session on hybridity, specifically discussing Steven Feld’s article on Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby” (I recommend reading it, it’s called “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music”), explaining the background to what is essentially a lullaby called Rorogwela stemming from Northern Mailaita at the Solomon Islands. The article is an enlightening read, Fell asking whether world music should be renamed “third world music”, but also where the line goes between mediating disadvantaged cultures and outright theft of other people’s musics (the Norwegian sax player Jan Garbarek is also implicated here, he used the lullaby for an album …).
The point is that the Western music business belongs to a long story of exploitation – including how large labels took advantage of black jazz diasporas since the beginning – urging for caution in how you go about using traditional material, especially from minority groups. With so called gypsy music there is of course loads of derogatory stereotypes and cliché’s which should be avoided, and it’s one of the reasons we chose Hudson Records as our label, it’s an independent label with an ethical foundation and a real enthusiasm for promoting authentic folk cultures.
The ever-looming ‘ghost of appropriation’ aside, the musics and traditions around the world are so rich and inspiring to engage with, that it would be a shame if we didn’t dare to get involved and exchange ideas simply out of some sorts of misunderstood PCness. For Angrusori the point was always to keep this musician-centred, and I think that solves quite a few of these issues. We always just put the emphasis on enhancing our skills and our practices, saw it as a way to broaden our horizons. In fact, we didn’t even have a concert or release in mind when we started, it wasn’t about that.
So, to answer your question, it has to do with intent, that it’s ethically thought through, and to make sure the focus is on what we can achieve collectively as different people from different backgrounds. You know, back to Fell’s article, whether the project in question is commercially driven, or based on honest curiosity and fascination with cultures outside your own, says quite a lot about its ethical soundness I think.
NH: It's a whole field that's enormously hot these days. Themes like colonialism, white supremacy, you name it, the definitions of where to draw the lines are shifting as we speak. One will have to decide for oneself, to scrutinize the motivations and the aims. Definitely this was up front in my mind as we embarked on the project.
But too much questioning here could lead to paralysis. We chose a "It is what it is" approach where the project gives ample space for the original songs to sound like they are, with their unpolished rawness and crude expressivity, and Marcela and Josef can feel like the leaders.
By the way, I have a relevant, totally different example: One of my main compositions for choir and orchestra from the last years, "Muohta", takes Sami words for snow as its lyrics. I was anxious to know how that would be received by the people speaking this language (I'm not one of them). I was very glad to learn that it's actually perceived as something giving their minority culture a visibility.
How, do you feel, can music contribute to a society capable of dealing with different identities in a more positive way?
P: Music is a great way of creating new meetings, and is at its core an effective platform for social engagement – regardless of whether we are involved as musicians, as organisers or as audiences. That’s what I love about playing, that I get to travel around, meet new people, experience new places. I wholeheartedly think music can be an antidote to xenophobia, because it has the power to transcend nations, language barriers and socio-cultural hierarchies, simply by being something we can experience and enjoy together irrelevant of background.
And I don’t mean to idealize this in a clichéd sit-around-the-campfire-and-hold-hands-kind-of-way, but feel certain that a greater emphasis on musical exchanges between societal divisions is an effective fight against fearmongering and right-wing-xenophobia. This is what politicians should spend their money on ...
NH: The best thing we can and should do, is to give kids instruments to play. The joy of mastering the skills of an instrument, the sharing of common values when playing together, all the wonderful possible ways of development that are facilitated through the practice of music. This is real empowerment.
Books, websites, articles or other sources of information recommended by Angrusori:
P: I mentioned the Fell article earlier, but in addition there is an increasingly strong critical discourse within ethnomusicology, new musicology, artistic research etc., which see musical cultures as transitional; not static and defined, but constantly changing and evolving.
Within my field of jazz studies, we see jazz as multiple diasporas, found all over the world; basically, an artform which started as an Afro American folk music but has spread to be a world music with endless dialects. Bruce Johnson’s Jazz Diaspora: Music and Globalisation is an interesting read for that.
I suppose I should also plug my own book which came last year, Jazz on the Line: Improvisation in Practice, dealing with various underground cultures and in Europe and Japan. The book has focus on identity formation and why we end up playing what we play … In a similar vein, if you happen to understand any of the Scandinavian languages, then definitely check out Nils Henriks book, Lydkilder! In terms of websites have a look at Zudro, run by Jana Belisova, it has loads of great links to films and music, and her documentary “Cigarettes and Songs” is a must-see.