Colin Lang on Blue for a Moment

Liner notes, 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.