Georg Graewe Octet: Gigs in Austria and Croatia

©Laurence Svirchev

Introduction – Georg Graewe invited me to accompany his Octet on a three-city tour through Austria and Croatia in April 2000. Graewe is a composer-pianist from Germany who now mainly resides in the United States, finding it easier in that country to obtain funding for his many projects. In each city, the Graewe Octet presented his 45-minute long new work, “Snapshots.”

Graewe has intimate connections thought the world of new and improvised music. Most recently he has worked closely with the Chicago improvisers’ scene. Three of the Octet musicians (Vandermark, Bishop, and Kessler) were from Chicago, already in Europe for the Munich “Come Sunday” concerts, Dutch reedist van Bergen and German percussionist Lovens reside in Europe, and violinist Parkins and harpist LeBaron flew in from the USA. The Vienna concert was recorded, but at press time, it is not clear whether the work will be released or if Graewe will remount another tour. The following are my observations and photography of the composer, the players, the music, and the tour.

The Croatian police and passport control had left the compartment and now the train was free to roll through Austria to Vienna. Georg Graewe’s demeanor turned wistful and he said, “I appreciate Vienna. I remember being in one café, there was a sign on the wall saying that Beethoven often played there. He was an improviser, you know. All those cats were. They’d just sit and play, always going for something new and different.”

That quote, the quiet smile, and the soft timbre in his voice sums up much of Graewe the man. Having premiered his work “Snapshots” in Graz, Austria and then in Zagreb, Croatia, he was on his way to the final concert. The Octet was Anne LeBaron (harp), Paul Lovens (drums & musical saw), Peter van Bergen (bass clarinet), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Ken Vandermark (clarinet), Kent Kessler (bass), and Sara Parkins (violin).

“Snapshots” is a score of thirteen original compositions, vignettes acting as door-openers to group and individual improvisation. Graewe composed the music at the Center for New Music and Audio Technology in California. The musicians’ first sight of it was at rehearsal in Graz. He introduced the music saying, “They each last about a minute, and the improvisations will be coming at you like little islands. I’ll be conducting most of the time.” As time passed, his rehearsal method became clear. The vignettes were first roughly learned by playing them through. Then selected musicians improvised on top of each vignette. In the third step specific players were given assignments for a series of improvisations between each vignette. The islands and the fluid transitions between each gradually formed an identifiable archipelago, each terrain possessing unique topography.

The music was not simple. Jeb Bishop explained, “The composed parts were mainly atonal and rhythmically quite complex, with subdivisions of fives, sevens, etc., within a framework of a regular pulse and meter. The overall gestures were generally of fragmented, isolated figures rather than longer melodic lines or contrapuntal textures, and in many places the feeling of a regular pulse was obscured or effaced entirely by the complexity of the rhythmic subdivisions.”

At the end of the second rehearsal day, Graewe went to the old quarter of Graz to visit the Klavierhaus Fiedler & Sohn to pick out the piano for the concert. Fiedler’s was founded in 1847 and, along with the Akademie Graz, was a sponsor for the “JungeMusik: Konzept/Improvisation” festival. Graewe picked out a Steinway and asked for specific voicing modifications in the mid-range of the pianoforte.

Over coffee, one of the Fielder grandsons pulled out a book containing the signatures of musicians who had played their instruments for the last 150 years. Brahms had signed the book, his page was now in a Graz museum. The great concert masters Ferruccio Busoni, Adolph Fischer, Adolph Hensert had also signed. Now Graewe’s signature is there as well, and while his music is certainly the most contemporary of any pianist in that archive, his hand-written name is also the most inscrutably illegible.

The nervosity of premiering difficult music with a perceived lack of rehearsal time translated itself into worrisome natterings during the sound check. Anne LeBaron was clearly concerned she would not be heard above the drums and breath instruments. She in fact had no cause for worry. Her music soared through the concert hall, partly because of her own ability to launch sound through space, but also because of the simpatico relations among the musicians.

Zagreb was a different story altogether. Graewe’ hands had to manipulate an ancient upright after he politely refused to allow a digital piano on stage. Mate Skugor, manager of the University of Zagreb campus club KSET also had to hustle for a harp and a replacement for Kent Kessler’s travel-damaged bass. KSET normally caters to punk rock, so it took more than a few minutes of advanced chamber music for the drinking crowd to calm down. Eventually the audience tempered its social self-interest enough that the harp and bass clarinet could be heard even at the rear of the club. Vienna may have been the sweetest of the concerts, for the acoustics of the Porgy and Bess club were the best of the tour, Graewe had his best piano, and the musicians had the hang of the music.

The music had a provocatively elegant flow, with segued but sharp transitions between each section. The last seven sections, for example, were: Snapshot Eight; improvisation by violin, harp, piano-drum; ensemble improvisation; bass clarinet solo later joined by bass and drums; harp solo; concert end with Snapshot Nine.

Snapshot Eight contrasted Ken Vandermark’s screaming clarinet as lead instrument improvising over the non-linear and rhythmically extreme written parts of the rest of the ensemble. The trombone and bass sounded out quasar-like bursts of energy: short, irregular, and fractionated series of notes against the long tones of the other instruments, what Peter van Bergen called “a classical aesthetic but with a specific Georg Graewe swing.”

The contrasts among solos by each musician showed that Graewe had chosen well. In Graz, van Bergen’s solo improvisation post-Snapshot Eight consisted of rapid exchanges between the treble and bass extremities of the horn; in Zagreb he played forcefully in the bass register, occasionally using multiphonics in the treble end; in Vienna, Peter blew breathe lightly, so pianissimo that a listener had to contend with his own heartbeat to enter van Bergen’s sound world.

Having heard all three concerts, the sections that unfailingly moved me to beauty were Anne LeBaron’s harp solo followed by Snapshot Nine, the closing photo. LeBaron’s extended techniques include using metal objects to caress, slash, or strike the strings and let them resonate. She prepares the harp to project a gamelon-type sounds and also favours building rhythmic densities. In Snapshot Nine, long tones from the horns, violin, and bass served as a drop-cloth for the harpist striking the strings one at a time. The harp combined with Paul Loven’s playing a cross-cut saw with a bow summoned up ethereal dream states ending each concert.

The music was a success not only because of the compositions and the inherent musicality of the performers. Graewe is a strategist with definite ideas about where he wants his music to go. The musicians he picked had a spectrum of qualities, some excellent readers, others whose strongest points are in improvisation and blowing, each a composer with a strong musical personality. He told me he picked the musicians he did because he wanted a group “which would have enough inner tension, a group that would not fit on paper right away.”

These personalities could be counted on to project a wide range of sound color, but in addition, Graewe wrote a material whose ground-zero was continuously and rapidly shifting, demanding a constant realignment of musical response. The degree of difficulty of the charts and the rapid mental changes required to execute the music challenged the individuals and the ensemble to the point where the improvisations changed radically each night.

The process broke down what many observers and authorities think is a natural differentiation between composition and improvisation. Graewe pointed out, however, that this distinction is only about 80 years old, that even into the 1920s, concert pianists were required to play both repertory music and improvisation to pass their conservatory exams. Rather than legitimize a cleavage between two skill sets of the musical art, he much prefers to contemporize an ancient idea: “My idea of a musician is very traditional. It is somebody, as in the times of Bach, who plays and instrument, composes music, who analyzes and talks about music, and who improvises.”

As the train rolled into that home of classicism, Vienna, it occurred to me that Graewe’s adventurous desire to “generate something which cannot be described before it is over” had been accomplished by an Octet of musicians who carry in their blood that traditional definition, but who others might describe as avant-garde.

This article originally appeared in Planet Jazz, Montreal, 2000

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