Riffing with Misha
by Bob Doran, The North Coast Journal
I wasn't sure what to expect when I called Misha Mengelberg, one of the founders of the Instant Composers Pool on the last Saturday morning in March. I'd been told it might not be an easy interview, I figured I'd improvise, and honestly we both had a blast once we got rolling, talking about religion, politics, history, and sometimes music.
We began with confused conversation about when the group was coming to California, and furthermore what day of the week it was (the day before April Fool's Day). Misha was in a hotel in Washington D.C. ICP was set to play at the Library of Congress that night.
Tonight you play at the Library of Congress.
That's right. It's next door to where we are now.
What do you think about that?
I think Americans have some regard for our music, and are keeping all that stuff. You'd think they'd want to capitalize on it. I would think it's impossible to capitalize on our way of playing. That's hard, I think. I don't think many people would put money on it. (laughs)
Has it been a hard way to earn a living for you?
Sometimes, most of the time...
But you've been at it for a long time.
Yes, but the people in Holland now say that we should skip all the provisions and subsidies for musicians and all that. And we should go and do real work. (laughs)
So there was public support for artists and musicians, but it's changing.
Since World War II ended they were supporting the arts. Painting first because we have such famous painters, then music a little bit. There were some Dutch composers in the Middle Ages who did rather well, no financially, but with some fame like Orlande de Lassus and a few others. I could go on for a short while...
Was it church music?
Yes, the church put some money into composers writing masses and things like that.
I suppose you always have to find some way to get paid...
Oh sure, that's an important aspect of everything, even music.
I don't imagine you chose this path because you thought it would be a great way to earn a living.
Oh, no, no, no. Far from that.
You say if the government has its way you'll have to get a real job. What job would that be?
I could start a greengrocer or something. That might be helpful. I won’t do that, but maybe I should.
This may be a dangerous question to ask...
No, no, there are only dangerous answers.
OK, what is an instant composition?
Well, well, if I would know that maybe I would be rich now. And I am not rich. An instant composer seems to be somebody who is just fantasizing that he is a composer or something. It's more fantasy than reality I think.
Is it synonymous with jazz? Whatever that word might mean.
Yes, It's synonymous with freak and idiot, frauds, and maybe a little bit with somebody who makes music and thinks something of it.
What do you think of it?
I don't think. (laughs) I have no opinion. Well, if I have an opinion, it would be challenged immediately by everybody.
Is not thinking part of the idea, that you play without a preconceived idea of what comes next?
Yes. For sure yes. I think that's true. I have no idea what I'm going to do. Very well put.
But on the other hand, doesn't the group use sheet music and notes on the bar?
Sometimes, but the sheets don't help very much.
Maybe just to serve as a roadmap?
Yes, like a map, that's the theory, but you might take your boat to Greece and end up in Capetown or something. That's what musical theory is about. That's my thing, I studied that profession. I am a theorist, but I don't know or understand anything about music.
Do you play the same songs one night after another?
Sometimes we do that. And we play them just as we played them yesterday, but not completely, because somebody did not the labor to write down what he played exactly. And we all have that kind of sickness where we simply forget how we played yesterday. So we play each time something different. We cannot be outed for that because we do not promise anything other than that.
Do you record the shows?
From time to time we do, not everywhere. You are from Knoxville, is that right?
No, from Arcata, Humboldt County, in California. That is the home of Michael Moore.
Yes, Michael's father is there.
Jerry Moore is a professor here.
What does he teach?
Well, he teaches jazz. I think he may be retired now. But he also led groups that fit no category. He would draw on music from many cultures...
Or animals or whatever...
He might combine something from the classical tradition with jazz...
But do those words mean anything?
That's a good question.
Perhaps I should ask you. Do those words mean anything?
That's a nice question. We'll leave it unanswered.
It's hard to find words for music as unique as what comes from the ICP.
Well thank you. But maybe it's not even music that we play. Sometimes I doubt that. But that won't make a difference. Music is what people call music. That may be a hackneyed way of putting it. You go further with a definition of that type than most others. What I mostly say is that: Music is what people call music.
Some people consider a bird's song to be music.
No, A bird song is a bird song.
To a bird it's just talking.
I had a parrot once, no my wife had a parrot. And he could imitate almost all the fragments I was singing or whistling in the house, in the bathroom or wherever. Most of the time I was whistling or whatever. That bird hated me so, he made a plan first then executed the plan: to imitate all the music that I could make, but not only that, to do it higher, better, snappier, I should think of some other qualities, but that was what he did. I recorded that. It made a very nice set of sounds. He used a Charlie Parker lick and ended with a shriek or something.
Was the parrot a musician?
No of course not, He was a parrot. He was grey red-tail and they are well known for their brilliant imitations of things. He could also speak, but of course he did not know what he said.
You could also say the same about certain musicians.
Oh yes. There are a lot of musicians who never give a thought to what they are playing or doing. Of course, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't mean they are dumb, it might have something to say about their quality as technicians, and there is a certain technique involved in what those so-called musicians do, yes.
As an instant composer, it must be your job to go beyond that way of thinking. I wonder, do you feel restricted by the fact that you usually must start with the familiar? How do you create something new when you have to use old building blocks?
Oh that's done in history a lot of times. Taking old roads and building churches or something.
I don't think I understand.
Let's say Roman roads -- the Romans made roads through all of Europe. Then at a certain point nobody was asking for roads anymore. They were happy or unhappy where they were and stayed there their whole lives and never traveled.
So they would take up the stones from the roadbed to build churches...
Yes. That's what they did finally. They thought: what do we need with these stupid old roads. Let's make something useful with them. And they did in their way, I think. Of course I think it's a ridiculous idea to build a church at all, but that's not the point here. In the Middle Ages, the question was what shall we do with them?
You originally come from Ukraine, is that right?
I come from Russia, Ukraine, yes, from Kiif.
And when did you migrate to Netherlands?
In 1938. I was three years old.
Did your parents leave for political reasons?
Yes of course, but mainly it was because the Russians wanted them out. They said, well that woman is a German. She can be a spy.
My mother was German, yes, a German Jewish woman. And my mother was afraid that the Germans would come to Russia and she would be one of the first victims, because of her being Jewish. The mother of my mother, my grandmother, was Jewish, so in the female line, I was also a Jew. But that's not how the Germans understood the word Jew. Since I had a non-Jewish father and grandfather, they would not see me as a Jew.
Because they follow patrilineal descent not, matrilineal...
Do you think of yourself as being a Jew?
(Laughs) No, no. Maybe half human, half something else. Being Jewish is not on my program.
So you spent almost your whole life in Holland, grew up there.
Yes, I was a little Dutchman. And now I'm an old Dutchman.
How did it happen that you discovered American jazz growing up in Holland?
During the war we had jazz records. We would have been shot perhaps if the Germans had found out. I had a 78, a little recording from "The Mooche," by the American Ellington. I was a boy between 5 and 9, and with that music the horror of the German occupation was gone. I wanted to know about that type of music. I found out in 1947. My father was a critic, a music critic for a Socialist daily journal, so he went to all kinds of classical concerts and took me with him. He wanted me to learn about Beethoven and Mozart and all that.
Was he also a musician?
My father could play music. He was a conductor and a composer. So he wrote music and conducted.
But he made his living writing about music?
Yes, because nobody wanted to have him as a conductor, and that was because they thought he was a Communist, and they were right. He was a Communist from when he was 12 years old living in Holland, then living in Germany. At first they had no children, then at 34, my father planted me, and my mother went to a new job, because in Europe there were no jobs for her. She played the harp all her life. In Ukraine they had a symphonic orchestra so she went there. Then I came along.
So both your parents were professional musicians.
Yes, that's right. But that was not their plan for me. They said don't do that because you won't earn enough money. You'd better do something else.
What did they have in mind for you?
Not anything really, but I had something in mind, which had not so much to do with music. I wanted at a certain moment, when I was 12 or 13, I wanted to become an architect. And maybe become famous and build some very big projects. Then I would have time to put all my time to music. Because music was the thing that I felt I would be the best in from all the professions. I had a talent for music more than for writing or making signs or whatever.
There's talent, then there's passion.
Yes, but you maybe should not answer those passions. But if they are strong enough, you somehow get lured into it.
You know my son has always had a passion for music, but when he went to college he decided not to study music, instead he chose philosophy.
That's better than music I think. As a philosopher when you have only one original thought in your life, you can bank on that. That's what most philosophers do or have been doing. Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher in Holland, he was an Atheist, but he never dared say that he did not believe n God. Instead, when all others in Holland would say, 'It's in God's hands to do this or that,' he said, 'Well, nature sometimes gives advice on what to do.'
Nature instead of God...
Yes, of course four centuries later, my father told me there is not such a thing as God. He did that because his father also told him that when he was a little boy. And my grandfather's father put him in an asylum thinking he was crazy, and he died there.
His father thought he was crazy because he did not believe in God?
And because he did not want to go to church any more.
That's a bit frightening.
It was for my father as well. So my father gave up religion also when he was six or seven. He told my grandmother, 'I also do not want to got to church on Sundays.' He said he'd prefer to be mad than to go to church every Sunday. He was adamant, and was allowed to become the first Atheist in my family. He taught that to me and to my brother, and not only are we Atheists, we are Anti-theists. We became very anti, anti-church and beliefs and all.
To turn this conversation back to music, I wonder, what role do you think music plays in society as a whole? What is the purpose of music?
The purpose. Another fantastic question. There is no direct purpose and I don't know what I'm doing. That's what I finally think. I have no special affection for music because all the music that I hear on the radio, in the department store, jingles on TV at 7 o'clock when I want to see the news. All those things I hate.
There's even music on the news to tell you how you should feel about the news you see.
Yes. sure, sure. You have happy music for happy stories and when there are 600 deaths you have the sad music. (laughs)
Something in a minor key in the background.
Yes. A minor key, yes, that creates the right atmosphere, yes. That's how I think about music. It is ridiculous most of the time.
But what you do is a rebellion against that sort of thing.
That's fine. Why not rebellion? Yes. That's a fine word. I have more contact with rebellion than with complacency, seeing what happens without reacting. There's nothing to be complacent about.
So is the idea of instant composition a rebellion against complacency?
When people ask me, why are you doing all those things playing all those notes? I say I really don't know and I don't want to know. That's my reaction to your question.
Tonight you play at the Library of Congress. Do you know what the pool will play?
No, no, no. I never have, so why would I now?
There's no set list?
No set list. Well, maybe we are going to play some certain pieces: they asked us, I have made some Ellington arrangements some years ago. And they want us to play some of those.
Any particular songs?
Yes, I think there is one guy at the library offices, Applebaum, who I think it's the specialist on jazz affairs. So he is the author of the request I think. He asked, 'Please could you play some of those arrangements for us?' We do that sometimes, but not on order, that's something we do almost never, but maybe we do it tonight.
After the performance here there is a workshop: Instant Composing for Everyone. I like that idea. I'd like to see the application of instant composition applied to other things beyond music.
That could be the subject of some thought, things that can be done immediately on the spot.
We could all use more spontaneity.
I talk about that, spontaneity. It's a little word, there's fake spontaneity and real spontaneity. What that is, I really don't know anymore. Most of the time what I am doing has to do with some sort of pseudospontaneity. That's what I call it.
Pseudo, in that it's spontaneous and it's not?
You could say that.
I did say that, but is that what you meant?
Yes, that's what I meant to say and what I mean. For myself, I reject spontaneity as such because it gives you no clue in terms of if some empathy might come from it. And sometimes I think there is some value to it.
Are you still learning things yourself?
I am learning every time I think of certain music. What I most do with my time nowadays is not play anything, but only think my music. I could do this or that, would that give maybe an answer to the question of so and so and so? Could I do it? Or is it too difficult so I should I ask a real piano player to play it for me? I have written a piece in 1994 for Frederick Rzewski. Do you know that name?
I have to admit, I do not.
He's a piano player, a very good one. He is now as old as I am, a little older perhaps. He asked if I would write a piece for him. He said there was a restriction, he said, "I am now an old and lazy player, so don't write something too difficult." He knew very well what was difficult because he was the guy who played Stockhausen's 11 piano pieces, a very mind-breaking and technique-breaking piece written at the end of the '50s. He wanted something easier for an older avant-garde player, Ha ha. Whatever that is. So I started, but something happened that had never happened in my life. Within five bars the piece became very complex and very difficult to play. I thought he would never play it and he never did. We put it on the piano and he tried to play one phrase and said, "It's too difficult, I would make mistake on mistake." I admitted I had not kept my promise, I had to write this stupidly complex and difficult piece.
You had to?
My thoughts compelled me to write what I wrote.
Have you ever found anyone to play it?
Yes, I found a Dutch player, not a bad player. It's called "Left, Right," my piece. The left hand does one thing while the right is doing something else, then the left hand come back, then the right, and so it goes: left, right, left, right. This Dutch player could play about 85 percent of it. A very competent Japanese woman does even better, 89 percent.
What about you?
No. Ha. I am not a piano player.
I suppose it always helps to have skillful players to execute your concepts. Is that one of the reasons for the ICP?
Yes. I sometimes start to play something, and cannot, but I can think it and that's enough for me. That's enough because they can play it. There are always fragments I can take care of. With my piece, "Left, Right," I can hit perhaps 12 percent. I can play something like the far nephew of the piece. That's what I do when I improvise. You may still ask, why, what sense does all that make? And I still don't have any answer for you. Ha ha!
Stop—you can't explain why you do what you do?
Don't ask that. You should know by now what my answer will be. Let's eat a good Indonesian spring roll. That's an answer for the question. Ha!