Blue for a Moment

Sven-Åke Johansson in a film by Antoine Prum

Blue for a Moment retraces the artistic career of the Berlin-based Swedish jazz musician, avant-garde composer, poet and visual artist Sven-Åke Johansson, one of the most singular and exciting figures in European improvised music.

Johansson (born 1943 in Mariestad) moved to Berlin in the late 1960s, where he has since been active in a variety of music and artistic contexts. His first performances took place in the context of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab on Hallesches Ufer, where young musicians and art students eagerly explored the boundaries between genres. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a regular figure on the West Berlin Free Jazz scene that formed around the FMP/SÅJ label. Johansson has been cultivating longstanding musical friendships with Alexander von Schlippenbach and Rüdiger Carl, and “developed his own concept of noise music with which he became a forerunner of the Echtzeitmusik scene that emerged in the eastern part of Berlin after 1990 in the nexus between squats, free improvisation, punk and New Music” (Wolfgang Müller). In his performances and compositions, Johansson explores the musical relics of 1950s and ’60s modernism, often with the help of “cheap” materials such as cardboard or foam. The Austrian composer Peter Ablinger has termed this practice musica povera, in reference to Arte povera, which elevated everyday objects to art and promoted the use of unconventional or “poor” materials.

Influenced by the Fluxus movement and its experimental and anti-conformist approach, Johansson started deconstructing his own practice as a free-jazz drummer very early on. By transposing the libertarian principle of free music into other artistic fields and switching effortlessly between the roles of performer, artist, poet and composer, he undermined established genres and media and turned the jazz drummer into a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Starring Peter Ablinger, Burkhard Beins, Peter Brötzmann, Nicholas Bussmann, Rüdiger Carl, Axel Dörner, Norbert Eisbrenner, Aris Fioretos, Thomas Millroth, Andrea Neumann, Alexander von Schlippenbach a.m.o.

LUX 2017, 82 Min., Dolby 5.1, German language,
English and Chinese subtitles

Director Antoine Prum

Assistant Director Theo Thiesmeier

Director of Photography Nikos Welter

Camera Luciano Cervio, Merle Jothe, Amandine Klee,
Sören Lang, Carlo Thiel, Theo Thiesmeier, Martin Wolf

Sound Engineer Oliver Stahn, Gerd Gangolf

Concert Recordist Andrew Levine

Postproduction Michel Dimmer

Edit Marc Recchia

Assistant Editor Liam McEvoy

Color Correction Raoul Nadalet

Sound Design Nicholas Bussmann

Sound Editor Capucine Courau

Concert Mastering Werner Dafeldecker

Sound Mix Michel Schillings

Subtitling Patrick Kremer

Executive Producer Paul Thiltges

Production Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu Productions Luxembourg


Sven-Åke Johansson in a film by Antoine Prum
LUX 2017, 82 min, Dolby 5.1/Stereo
German, with English and Chinese subtitles 


Barcelona Series + Rüdiger Carl

Andrea Neumann: inside piano, electronics
Axel Dörner: trumpet
Sven-Åke Johansson: percussion
Rüdiger Carl: clarinet

Recorded live on 17 March 2017
OpderSchmelz, Dudelange (Luxembourg)
Boris Thomé: concert recordist
Werner Dafeldecker: concert mix

DVD and CD produced by Paul Thiltges and Antoine Prum
for NI-VU-NI-CONNU Productions, 2018

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Blue for a Moment

Colin Lang, February 2018

What do cucumbers, phonebooks, tractors, dish towels, and DPD delivery boxes have in common? The answer: They are all part of the idiosyncratic inventory of musical instruments in the reparatory of Sven-Åke Johansson, a pivotal figure in the history of free jazz and improvised music in Western Europe since the 1960s, who is still performing, composing, and participating in today’s improv scene, perhaps now more than ever.

How does one adequately capture what is truly unique to Johansson: the artist’s long history and enduring vitality? There is almost no other figure who spans so many critical histories of music and performance in Western Europe; Johansson stands alone in those histories as having been present at foundational moments, helping to shape what it is that we now know about those histories—indeed, how we know them. Johansson was an active or founding member of groups led by legends of German Free Jazz, Peter Brötzmann and Alexander von Schlippenbach, and also played alongside pioneers of experimental electronics as a frequenter of the Zodiac Free Arts Lab in the late 1960s. In the 80s, Johansson was again right there when Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen were making forays into music alongside their careers as painters. When the Wall came down, Johansson made his way into the illegal underground spaces where intrepid Berliners were performing formless works of electronic sound. Despite collaborating with and supporting musicians who embrace the alien noises of electronically generated signals, this was one direction into which Johansson never veered. He remains a true organicist

Even more daunting than the task of recounting the uniqueness of Johansson’s contribution to experimental music since the 1960s is the question of how to render the level of commitment and concentration that Johansson brings to his world of distinctive instrumentation (commitment maybe sounds too political). In its inception, the idea of improvisation was developed as a means to do away with the existence of the a priori: systems such as notation and melody that exist before the realization of a work. Nonetheless, Johansson has never abandoned his marching band roots, and he composes (something of a no-no for hardcore improvisers), and draws, and sometimes those drawings become compositions. There is no contradiction here, despite the potential that one could mistake exploration for attachment to a style, or school, or something else altogether. Attachment is maybe the right word to describe Johansson’s commitment. The humor of watching Johansson carefully roll larger cucumbers along the taught skin of a drum only works if the performer doesn’t let you know he’s in on the gag. There’s always been a lack of humor in serious music, even more so today. The list of Johansson’s singularities keeps growing.

How, then, to transfer all of this to the flickering screen? How can one adequately show or describe, on the one hand, the historical breadth, and on the other, the specific mode of attachment (commitment) to the archive of performance materials? The solution is a relatively simple one, it seems: by making a film that lives, and breathes, and performs alongside Johansson, taking cues from his musical promiscuity, and letting Johansson’s choices influence the narrative along the way. This is precisely what Antoine Prum has accomplished in his engaging portrait, Blue for a Moment—for it is a portrait, and not a documentary, and the difference is enormous. The film investigates the mechanisms proper to its own language—color, the cut, temporal sequence—improvising with Johansson at every step. Like any great piece of music, Prum knows exactly when to stop (cut), when to keep playing (sequencing), and the best way to introduce us to the universe of a singular voice whose career has been defined by enduring exploration.

As such, Blue for a Moment contains conversations with former and current collaborators, letting the voices who know Johansson’s work intimately—its distinctive character and charm—tell the history that many may not otherwise know. Prum’s sense of timing in these sections is impeccable—understanding when to keep still, and when to let the camera go where it needs to—and is a key component of the film’s unique pacing. Blue for a Moment is, in other words, itself a kind of composition, filled with Prum’s delicate rendering of live scenes, interviews, and historical footage, all of which is punctuated by elegant protractions centered on one of the central characters in Blue for a Moment: The City of Berlin, which has been Johansson’s home and the site of his musical laboratory since the late ‘60s. These filmic “moments” of Berlin are not establishing shots, as is the common practice in narrative cinema. Instead, Prum employs his images of boule-games in a public park, the murky drift of a duck pond, a tableau of green ivy rustling along a wall, to name just a few, as extended riffs on Johansson’s music; the way an accomplished jazz musician can cite from a famous passage or melody of a standard in order to move away from the main structure of a song, only to return again, the structure then utterly transformed.

In one such scene, a subway train passes in front of Prum’s camera, its nearly empty interior illuminated by a yellow light that turns the U-Bahn windows into tiny abstract paintings. As soon as the moving subway car is recognizable, Prum cuts to an interior shot framed by a window of a neighboring car, two female passengers sit next to one another: one is reading the newspaper, the other, listening to headphones. The sequence is one that accompanies a session by a trio consisting of Johansson, Axel Dörner, and Andrea Neumann, where Prum directs the lens to a close-up of the interior guts of a classical piano, whose soundboard Neumann is manipulating, building a tower of wooden blocks on top of its strings, later shaking the table on which it rests, causing a beautiful ruckus to emerge.

Here, Prum’s interior/exterior cuts of the moving train are a perfect visual corollary to Neumann’s unmasked piano –  a structure composed of both an inside and an outside, each equally vibrant and resonant. Blue for a Moment is perhaps the only film about exploratory and improvised music that puts the camera to work in service of its subject – not as a passive onlooker, but as an active collaborator.

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Ett tidsdokument om konstens relation till samhällets utveckling

Andreas Engstrom

Opulens Magasin, August 2017

DOKUMENTÄR. ”Båda är också allvarliga och oironiska även om Beuys ofta ler och skämtar och Johanssons dissekerande av gurkor lätt inbjuder till skratt. Det är en bieffekt. Allt utgår från materialet”, skriver Andreas Engström om konstnärerna Joseph Beuys och Sven-Åke Johansson.

Nyligen kom två dokumentärfilmer som presenterar två betydelsefulla konstnärer. Joseph Beuys är ämnet för Andres Veiels film Beuys och Sven-Åke Johansson porträtteras av Antoine Prum i Blue for a Moment.

Joseph Beuys (1921–86) var Västtysklands konstsuperstar med ett genomslag jämförbart med Andy Warhol. Sven-Åke Johansson (född 1943), Berlinsvensk sedan slutet av 60-talet, är i alternativmiljöer lika respekterad och högaktad men en doldis för den breda konstpubliken.

Filmerna har kvaliteter var för sig. De bildar också ett utsträckt tidsdokument om konstens relation till samhällets utveckling och hur erkännande och genomslag är avhängt vilket sätt man förhåller sig till tidsandan.

Som konstnärer har de en del en del gemensamt.

Sven-Åke Johansson är minimalist där slagverksspelet och skulpturerna utgår från ett begränsat material. Joseph Beuys jobbar också med enkla idéer, som dock kan ta gigantiska proportioner, som de 7000 ekar som planterades i Kassel 1982 under Documenta 7. Beuys gjorde skulpturer runt idén om klang och musik. Johansson kom vartefter att göra ljudinstallationer. Johansson återkommer till material som papp, skumgummi eller östtyska telefonkataloger och matlådor i plast. Beuys är förknippad med filt och fett och går knappast att tänka sig utan väst och hatt (i filt). Material och image hänger hos Beuys samman med vad nog är en självodlad myt. Under andra världskriget blev han nedskjuten i sitt flygplan och därefter vårdad av krimtartarer som smörjde in honom i fett och lindade honom i filtar. Alltid välekiperad i kostym och eleganta skor är Johansson också mån om sin visuella framtoning. Här finns nog ingen biografisk koppling, men det är klassiskt och stilrent – precis som konsten.

Genom att se instrumenten som material att undersöka snarare än spela på var Johansson en tidig postmodernist. Beuys i sin tur överskred gränsen mellan liv och konst och hans engagemang för djur och miljö gjorde honom till en pionjär inom ekologisk konst.

Det som sägs om Johansson, att han är trogen materialet och ”solidarisk med världens skräp” skulle likaväl kunna gälla Beuys. Båda är också allvarliga och oironiska även om Beuys ofta ler och skämtar och Johanssons dissekerande av gurkor lätt inbjuder till skratt. Det är en bieffekt. Allt utgår från materialet.

Men som sagt, filmerna visar inte minst hur olik vägen till erkännande kan se ut. Beuys kom fram när tiden var mogen för ett medialt gångbart konstnärskap. Hans agiterande och engagemang i den västeuropeiska motkulturen och uppror mot konstvärlden var samtidigt vägen in i institutionerna. Johansson stod utanför allt detta och gick under den mediala radarn när han turnerade i Väst och i Öst.

Men vartefter frijazzen uppgick i en allmän improvisationsmusik som gradvis accepterades av konstmusikvärlden har den kultur Johansson verkat inom fått större genomslag. Det hänger också samman med hur subkulturer i allmänhet rent av blivit del av en kommersiell kulturindustri. Vad vore Berlins ”alternativa attraktionskraft” utan den så kallade Echtzeit-scenen? För denna betraktas Johansson som en pionjär.

Beuys hade premiär under Berlins filmfestival och har sedan visats regelbundet på alternativa biografer. Blue for a Moment har visats blott ett par gånger, bland annat på klassiska Cinema Paris i Berlin. Filmen är som konstverk betraktad en pärla med rytmiskt avvägd klippning och ljudläggning. Har ni inte sett den känner ni nu till den och kan beställa den från det lilla luxemburgska film- och skivbolaget ni-vu-ni-connu.

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Radicale liberté

Josée Hansern
D'Lëtzebuerger Land N°12 / 24.4.2017

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