Bill Shoemaker on Blue for a Moment

Point of Departure, March 2018

Sven-Åke Johansson is the quintessential dotted line in the flow chart of European improvised music. First and foremost, in a genesis narrative that foregrounds national stereotypes – earth-scorching Germans, impish Dutch, and hair-splitting Brits – and whose initial wave of innovators travelled constantly but did not permanently uproot, the Swedish percussionist stands out as an ex-pat, having moved to Berlin 50 years ago this year. By then, Johansson was already embedded in the German emancipation from American jazz: he replaced Jaki Liebezeit in Manfred Schoof’s envelope-pushing quintet with Alexander von Schlippenbach and was on board for the pianist’s “Globe Unity ‘67,” performed at the iconic Donaueschingen new music festival; he also played on Peter Brötzmann’s first trio album and Machine Gun.

“Berlin was in the ‘60s a place for free thought in aesthetics and political thinking,” Johansson recently recalled. “A lot of upcoming artists went to Berlin to communicate; you could live in big apartments cheap because the rich left, afraid of the Soviets behind the wall. It was gas light and dark and no commercial thought in the art and music scene here.”

On the one hand, Johansson’s move to Berlin reinforced connections with first-wave exponents like Schlippenbach and reed player Rudiger Carl; Johansson has collaborated with both to the present in settings spanning free improvisation, sprechgesang, jazz repertoire, and orchestras that exclusively play marches. Berlin also proved to be a strategic base for Johansson’s evolution as a conceptualist and a composer. Some of his projects are enduringly notorious, particularly a 1979 concert in Peitz that juxtaposed an improvising quartet with the noisy onstage welding and hammering of a frame-like structure by three steelworkers, and a concerto for 12 vintage farm tractors presented at the 1996 “What are we hearing?” festival in Höfgen.

Yet, Johansson’s compositions can wryly comment on canonical 20th Century music, the 1997 solo piano piece “Vom Gleichwertigan und Ungleichwertigan” (“Equal and Unequal”) being a case in point. In his essay for Steffen Schleiermacher’s Enfants Terribles, (hat[now]ART), which includes pieces by Tom Johnson, John Zorn, and the pianist, Art Lange cites how Johansson’s piece “mirror(s) Satie’s simplified patterns, childish demeanor, and labyrinthine, seemingly endless and illogical, chord modulations.” (The suggestion of a French influence should not seem unlikely; Johansson spent several years in Paris before settling in Berlin.) Additionally, the pace of the piece suggests a LP of Morton Feldman’s piano music being played at 45rpm.

Johansson refers to “a kind of continuity” in the avant-garde music created in Berlin over the decades, the years-long transitions from music created “in the shape of protest to the expressive free-form, into non-expressivity.” The latter refers to the Berlin-centered echtzeitmusik movement of the past twenty years, in which Johansson has played a catalytic role, most notably with the trio now known as Barcelona Series. Instead of the incessant drive that distinguished his free improvisations with Schlippenbach and others in the ‘70s, or the refined jazz chops he employed with his late ‘90s quintet with trumpeter Axel Dörner and bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, the front line of the jazz-oriented Die Enttäuschung, Johansson painstakingly plies static colors and textures with Barcelona Series. It is an approach that allows for the full saturation of the soft smears, gurgles and glissandi of Dörner and the otherworldly sounds of Andrea Neumann, who extracted the strings, their cast-iron frame and sound board from a conventional piano to create a tabletop instrument easily augmented by old-school preparations and electronic interfaces.

Speaking to Peter Niklaus Wilson for the late author/bassist’s essay for Barcelona Series’ 2001 hatOLOGY debut, Johansson said the trio was cultivating “a mechanistic, almost non-expressive playing stance, with the aesthetics of renouncement or of leaving out instead of filling in.” In an essay included in echtzeitmusik berlin: selbstbestimmung einer szene/self-defining a scene (2011; Wolke; co-edited by Neumann), Thomas Milroth concludes that the trio’s “gestures are almost zero, the expression, therefore, all the more intense.” The intentionality of the music is clear. This area of his work was not “experimental at all,” asserted Johansson, answering the first of 27 Questions for a Start – a questionnaire devised in 2007 by Burkhard Beins, Bertrand Denzler and Phil Durrant, then working as Trio Sowari (Johansson is one of several musicians whose responses are included in echtzeitmusic). Instead, “this is but an accomplished method. Something is experimental if you don’t know if it makes sense, but I am not questioning anything. I’m making a proposition.”

Johansson recently made his most sweeping proposition with Blue for a Moment. The newest film by Antoine Prum (Sunny’s Time Now; Taking the Dog for a Walk), Blue for a Moment documents a wide swath of Johansson’s activities in Berlin (most of which have been collected in a massive 9-LP box set of the same name, issued on Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu), casting him as a unique rallying figure in one of the planet’s more vibrant musical communities. Although it includes a disc of 1979 duets with Schlippenbach that adds another distinctive facet to this partnership, the film and box set places Johansson’s relevancy not in history per se, nor even the emancipation trope of European improvised music; but in an ever-subversive pluralism.

Granted, the box set is silent on Johansson’s significant relationships with modern jazz and contemporary music; still, each of the various spectra of materials – of propositions – has an aura of irreducibility about it. The inclusion of discs not only by Barcelona Series, but also a trio with percussionist Beins and harpist Rhodri Davies (who, with cellist Mark Wastell, created a nexus between the New London Silence and the Echtzeit movement early in the century as The Sealed Knot), and another with guitarist Annette Krebs and trumpeter Liz Allbee (one of several noteworthy transplants thriving in Berlin), presents an emphasis on the granular, otherworldly textures and aversion to figuration that permeates present-day improvised music in Berlin.

As critical as these groups are in documenting Johansson’s relationship to the Echtzeit community, they only get one so far in assessing the totality of his work, and Berlin’s impact on it. Throughout these sides, Johansson bows, scrapes and rat-tails drums and cymbals as often as he uses standard sticks and mallets – one has to see the film to know what sounds a pair of zucchinis produce. The resulting sounds that often take on an electronic patina in these trios; but when heard isolated in the set-concluding disc of solo performances, they are squarely in a decades-long tradition of solo percussion music pioneered by Johansson and contemporaries like Pierre Favre and Eddie Prévost.

Projects like Das Marschorchester and Hudson Songs, a disc of songs Johansson sings in a nearly strangled voice, his piano accompaniment whittled down to frayed utterances, have no tangible relationship to Echtzeit; but, each of these endeavors can heard as a historical critique. Take his version of John Philip Souza’s “The Washington Post” (the common amendment of “March” is not the composer’s), commissioned by the newspaper for its essay-writing award ceremonies in 1889 – it is ebullient, but without the martial regalia often misapplied to the composition – an unostentatious brightness present throughout the 2-disc set, even in the improvised solos by Carl and others. This stands in stark contrast to the sarcasm of the marches by contemporaries like Willem Breuker and Misha Mengelberg in the ‘70s; it is far closer to Anthony Braxton’s beaming “Composition 58.” Hudson Songs suggests a post-Brechtian alienation, making the familiar context of the singer/pianist strange, and creating strangely compelling music in the process.

The overarching critique offered by Blue for a Moment is the folly of pigeonholing artists, even in the more subtle iterations of characterizing one idiom or another as the core of his or her sensibility. Johansson blows such constructs to smithereens. “Diverse” is inadequate to describe Johansson’s pursuits, particularly its implication of a compatibility between the constituents. Johansson simply confirms their co-existence in this rather massive body of work. When asked what proposition he was making with Blue for a Moment, Johansson replied: “I am declaring the humanist ideal.” Despite the aesthetic dissonances posited by this collection – or because of them – Johansson’s proposition rings true.