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Alec Haavik Interview Part 2!

AlecAfter we completed part one of the interview (several months ago. You know how I roll) Alec suggested we do a follow-up as he had more to offer on some of the topics we had gotten into during part one before I realized that my minidisc recorder was busted. So here it is, a mere two weeks after promised. I’m getting better and better at this! It’s kind of long but, ducklings, you are not some short-attention-spanned MTV brats, no, you are the most sophisticated music lovers in the WORLD! Enjoy.

LYBZ: So you said you have some more ideas you are burning with desire to share, about the DVD markets, etc.?
AH: I’ve been thinking about the ingredients that make up a jazz scene, and some pretty amazing particulars in the case of Shanghai’s: one is the vacuum of western music that was here before, before western jazz players started coming. There’s a feeling of a fresh start, that jazz is new–and it’s something that’s been going on for a hundred years–whereas in the US there’s a feeling that “oh yeah, it’s that stuff, that jazz, I already know about that.” Because there hasn’t been any jazz here a lot of Chinese people don’t know anything about it and it is new. At the same time, paradoxically, this was a jazz city in the 30’s, and there’s still an echo of that, which makes it a good environment for jazz. A second element is the cultural isolation. Partially as a result of this cultural vacuum of western music, there’s isolation from outside influences, even considering the Internet and the fact that everything is available to anyone. You can find anything on the Internet. If you already know what you’re looking for it you can find it on a file-sharing site. But if you’re looking to find something new you probably go shopping, which is feasible, because everything is bootlegged in china. This is another key aspect of the scene: in China media is freely bootlegged. But what gets bootlegged? I don’t know. In terms of the jazz, it’s hard to tell what the criteria are for what ends up in the DVD markets. It’s a limited number of things, and if you go a lot to these places you see these things over and over again. For us, we come from the sates and it’s a few specific aspects of jazz music or western music, but if you’re a Chinese person, DVD shopping is your entire exposure. I was thinking about this experience when I was doing an interview for [Shanghai English language channel] ICS on avant-garde music, and I had just watched the John Zorn video, which, as we talked about last time, neither of us probably would have watched in the states. We both know who John Zorn is, I’ve seen him play, I’ve listened to his albums because they’re easy to get in the states. Anyway, I saw the video and thought “this is an interesting documentary, really cool, lots of good stuff in it, ” but this Chinese interviewer for ICS who is preparing an interview about avant-garde music, she probably had no idea about any of this two weeks previous, and she probably collected some names and went to the DVD store and this is what she found. There is this limited number of influences that we’re all sharing in this small pocket, this is the kind of thing that determines a jazz community, and it’s occurring in the internet era, when anyone can watch or listen to anything if they know how.

LYBZ: Did you find any other DVDs of avant-garde music? Did you send her to get the Zorn video?

AH: No, it was just on my mind, and I was like “yeah, John Zorn, blah blah” and she was like yeah. What else did they have? When you make a TV show in China, and you want to put some segments on, you can just take it from a bootleg DVD. You don’t have to pay for any rights or anything. I mean we’re in China! I don’t remember the episode so well. There must have been some other ones…

LYBZ: So the new project, this thing in January [the 4th], will it be a continuing thing or a one-time thing?

AH: Well, it’s…both. It is a special group I’m putting together only for this show, and the way we will perform will be much different from the way we do in the bar. We’re going to explore the softer sounds, and give the music a chance to breathe in a way you can’t in a noisy bar. In that sense it will be a one-time thing. As for the music I wrote for it, originally my intention was that it would be a one-time, special thing, but of course that’s impossible for me, because the more I write and play music the more all my music becomes one thing, one body. So far it’s been a fascinating process, because I had an intuition that I would be able to take Messiaen’s music, for example, and reverse engineer it for use as improvisational music, and indeed, as I researched his compositional methods I found that a lot of them are exactly the kinds of things that we use in improvisational music. He was very concerned with rhythmic patterns: he got a bunch of them from a 13th century Indian scholar who wrote these things down, these talas which are still the rhythmic basis for a lot of Indian classical music. Messiaen wasn’t into it from an improvisational standpoint; he didn’t go and check out Indian musicians performing; he was just into it as a compositional strategy. He also used harmonic cycles. In the piece I’m adapting, he uses a cycle of 27 chords which repeats over and over, but this cycle of 27 chords takes place in a pattern of 15 rhythmic events, so it’s a cycle that would repeat itself every 27 x 15 times…[looks up and squints, attempting a quick calculation, laughs]…yeah, that number of times.

LYBZ: Does it repeat?

AH: No, it’s the genesis of the first movement of the “Quartet for The End of Time”. So it’s theoretically creating this intention that after this really long period of time it would repeat, but it’s called “The End of Time”, so he’s interested in creating a sense of eternity, or time stopping, or stepping out of time. But this is exactly the kind of thing that we use to improvise: harmonic cycles and rhythmic cycles, and all the combinations of the two.

LYBZ: What’s the lineup for this project?

AH: It’s going to be two keyboardists, two drummers, and me on saxophone. That’s the band. We’re also doing a Schoenberg piece, a twelve-tone serial composition. I explored this type of composition earlier. I have one piece based on a twelve-tone row on my first CD. We will use the row as a means to improvise.

LYBZ: Like your improvising should also be a row, or you should just use the melody?
AH: It should be derived somehow from the tone row. It’s kind of ridiculously mechanical to try to improvise only in the form of a 12-tone row, but so the idea is to take fragments from it, or to derive melodies from it. In other words: those are the changes; that’s the tune, and we improvise from that. It would never be used in terms of the rules that were set for twelve-tone compositions. For the show I’m still working on a new strategy for improvising using the twelve-tone row. Maybe we won’t improvise on it at all. Maybe we’ll borrow a segment from the Schoenberg and use it as an event in a larger improvised structure.

LYBZ: Did I hear that you’re working on another album now?
AH: Well there are the Theo [Croker] sessions, which will be on the JZ label, and then there are a lot of live recordings of my group which will go onto a live at JZ recording, and the next thing will probably be the culmination of my upcoming project at the Oriental Arts Center, using the music of Messaien, Schoenberg and Bach.

LYBZ: I haven’t been to those Oriental Arts Center shows. Are they doing well?
AH: I think they have a pretty strong subscription audience. I went to one show, David Friesen playing duo with Lawrence Ku. It’s a beautiful space called the Performance Hall, which is like a recital hall. There’s a small circular stage which is mostly surrounded by seats on a pretty steep incline, like a stadium incline. The sound is beautiful. We won’t need heavy amplification. It’s perfect for the audience–you can really pay careful attention. And…it’s right next door to the park! You can take a walk beforehand or afterwards in the park.

LYBZ: So do you think that concert-style presentation of jazz is likely to grow beyond that space?
AH: Well, that’s the only show I’ve seen that I would call “concert-style presentation of jazz” in China, and…it’s hard to say if the audience understood or enjoyed it, but they were very quiet, which is sometimes a surprise in china…I only heard one cell-phone. The feeling was good. There were families there, coming to hear some music.

LYBZ: It’s a great program, so that some of the musicians who are playing at clubs all the time can have a chance to play in that setting.

AH: Yeah, its’ so different from a bar. Recently I got a chance to play with two visiting artists: David Friesen at the Shanghai Jazz Festival and at JZ Club here in Shanghai and at JZ Hangzhou, and also with Franck Amsallem at the Oriental Arts Center and at JZ with me and bassist Liao Jiachang as a trio. Both of them were pretty frustrated by the noise level at the club. That’s usually the case when there are musicians visiting from the west: they’re shocked and amazed at how much noise and talking there is in the audience, but for me, I don’t even notice it.

LYBZ: Yeah, I don’t notice it much either. Sometimes I’m playing and the music starts to move in a quiet direction and you realize “Oh, everyone’s been talking this whole time and they’re still talking now.” There have been a few times in clubs when we’ve done the soft thing and almost everybody is listening, and it’s always a surprise, like “whoa!”

AH: I see this as another barrier that keeps the jazz scene isolated, because it’s really not hospitable to people who want to perform in a quiet…bar.

LYBZ: Do you mean it isolates foreign musicians who would be more interested in coming here if it weren’t such a madhouse when they play at a club?

AH: yeah.

LYBZ: But on the other hand, the benefit the audience attitude in Shanghai is that jazz shows here are an all around thing. People who wouldn’t go if it was a sit down and worship the masters thing are at jazz clubs here. Did you do those gigs on Hengshan Lu? [There were a bunch of performances by foreign bands at dice-shaking bars on Hengshan Lu. it was put together by the Xuhui Government.]

AH: yeah.

LYBZ: My cousin has done some gigs in China, and the places he described were like that. Joe Rosenberg’s tour also included a bunch of those gigs. What makes them exciting is the people who clearly were not expecting to hear it and have no previous experience with that kind of music. Their reaction is “Whoa, what’s this?” and they check it out and see what it is, and the curiosity and the open-mindedness is fun. At the same time, you’re restricted in what you can do because there are also a lot of people there who maybe don’t know what you’re doing, but sincerely prefer playing dice to listening to whatever it is you’re doing. My cousin was telling me that he and maybe one of the other musicians in his groups like to come to China because of that opportunity to perform for a “fresh” audience, but a lot of other guys just won’t come because it’s too disorganized and chaotic and the audiences are often loud, and there’s not enough money, especially when it’s getting changed into Euros at the end.

AH: yeah, so there’s a financial wall that’s isolates the guys that are here. Theo just told me a tourist visa from the US is 160 dollars. That’s where it starts. That’s what he said, I don’t know.

LYBZ: Okay, I think we’re winding down here. Is there anything else you wanted to mention?

AH: Well, I’m interested in the scene, and what creates the scene, and some of the specifics. One big surprise for me has been meeting the musicians from Mauritius. I had never heard of Mauritius before I came to China, and since coming here I’ve met a lot of musicians from Mauritius, and they’re pretty much all…really great. (laughs)

LYBZ: Yeah, they’re basically all killin’.
AH: The rhythmic culture they come from is an amazing confluence of Indian and African, which are basically the two most important rhythmic traditions in the world. And there’s a real strong culture of instrumental jazz music there, so I really feel that country and culture making a huge effect on the future of the jazz scene here.

LYBZ: Yeah, it’s funny, the Shanghai thing, the elements of randomness in it: like the DVD thing, the Mauritius guys, and all the guys from Brazil, and though it’s called the jazz scene, it’s really an instrumental music with improvisation scene that has all these different parts, just bubbling along together, not so much with the different scenes each in their own box.
AH: Yeah, well that would be impossible, because we’re all getting mixed up together.

LYBZ: So what’s up next for you?
AH: I will be performing on a Sunday afternoon in January [January 4th, as of the time of writing] as part of the JZ “More Than Jazz” concert series at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center. We talked about it already, but I just want to give an overview. The theme of the show is “Life and Death and Everything In-Between” and I will be drawing upon some musical material from the classical genre which deals with these large themes — Messian’s apocalyptic composition Quartet for the End of Time, Schoenberg’s String Trio, which is musical portrait of his heart attack and ensuing near death experience, and J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, one of the most beautiful spiritual tributes ever written. These classical works will not be performed as wholes, but as generative material for improvisation. I will also be using recorded source material, such as the sound of my son’s heart-beat in the womb, and environmental sounds of the expanding city of Shanghai, as part of the sound sculpting.

LYBZ: Sounds good. Thanks Alec.
AH: Thank you!

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