venerdì 14 novembre 2014

Interview with Daniel Buess, percussionist and co-founder of Ensemble Phoenix Basel

The Ensemble Phoenix Basel is a group of up to 25 musicians who are especially dedicated to performing contemporary music. The initiator and conductor of the ensemble, Jürg Henneberger, who is presently also president of the IGNM Basel, has for years been regarded as a specialist for contemporary music. Each of the individual members of the ensemble has accumulated experience in this branch of musical performance during the past years. During this time, these musicians were engaged as individual performers by institutions such as the IGNM Basel or the Theater Basel, where they performed in various formations, for example under the name "Ensemble der IGNM Basel". As such, the members of the Ensemble Phoenix Basel were involved in productions such as "The Unanswered Question" (Marthaler/Henneberger) or "Der mündliche Verrat" from Mauricio Kagel, etc. However, at this point in time an actual ensemble per se did not exist. In time, the need of forming a specialized ensemble for contemporary music became evident, not only to meet the demands of the Basler Theater. The city of Basel, which with its large number of resident composers is regarded as an important center for contemporary music in and outside of Switzerland, is ideally suited to house an ensemble of this kind. In addition, an independent, self-managed ensemble significantly eases the organizational burden of concert promoters such as the IGNM and the Basler Theater, and can insure the efficiency which comes from working with a permanent team, the members being tuned-in to each other. In 1998 Jürg Henneberger and a handful of nucleus members took the initiative and founded the Ensemble Phoenix Basel, which gave its initial concert on the "Kleine Bühne" of the Basler Theater on December 12, 1998. Works from B. A. Zimmermann, Harrison Birtwistle and Christoph Delz were on the program. The concert was recorded live by Swiss Radio DRS II and received wide acclaim by the press. The Ensemble Phoenix Basel will continue to be active, performing ensemble concerts of the IGNM Basel, as well as realizing projects requiring chamber music ensembles at the Basler Theater, and organizing its own concerts. The purpose of the Ensemble Phoenix Basel is to perform concerts in its home town, the rest of Switzerland, and also to be present in the most important contemporary music festivals outside of the country. Its primary objective is to play an integral role in the development of contemporary music through direct co-operation with not only renowned, but also young composers of our times, in order to perform their works and make them accessible to a broader public.

This interview was made in december 2009

The first question is always the classic one:: How was born the Ensemble Phoenix?

The Ensemble Phoenix Basel was founded in 1998 by Jürg Henneberger, Christoph Bösch and myself. Before Phoenix, more or less the same musicians played often together under the name "Ensemble of the IGNM (like ISCM) Basel" so the idea to found an organized ensemble was somehow very obvious… Basel has quite a long tradition for contemporary music, but there was no organized ensemble so we started to develop the plan to found a professional organized ensemble to make it easier to organize concerts, to collaborate with organizers and next to these practical reasons, a fix ensemble with fix core-members is also an upgrading concerning the quality of the performances if the same players play together regularly.
How did start your interest about the contemporary repertoire, and what are the stylistic currents in which you recognize yourself most?
Speaking about myself, my interest for experimental music began when I was about 14 years old, I played the first time John Cage's early percussion-pieces with a percussion-ensemble. I was really impressed by the industrial sounds of metal and prepared piano so I started to get really into this kind of music. That's why John Cage was always a big influente for me and a very important figure in my life. About stylistic currents and Phoenix: I would say we don't follow any stylistic currents, we just play the music which interests us, we are always looking for new sounds and experiments but we don't orientate ourselves in any stylistic currents, movemnts, scenes etc. We are also three very individual persons who are organizing the ensemble and choosing the programs (Jürg Henneberger, Christoph Bösch and me), with three very different backgrounds so we have to take care of the interests and aesthetics of each other which is of corse not always easy but interesting and I think to deal with our aesthetics is important for the personality and the character of the ensemble.
Who are the composers with whom you collaborate most and how were born these contacts?
With Alex Buess we work together since many years. I started to work with him around 1996 when we performed his percussion-duo for the first time with my percussionduo HOW with Daniel Stalder. The work on this piece leaded to a very close collaboration. About two years later I played drums in the last project of Alex' legendary noise-core group 16-17 (originally with Knut Remond and Markus Kneubühler) and after 16-17 Alex and me started our duo-project called CORTEX which is still existing today. With Phoenix we played several pieces by him, two of them (Parallaxe A and Maxwell's Demon) are on the Buess/Feiler/Hodgkinson-CD and one (Ghosts of Schizophonia) is on the Phoenix-Portrait-CD which was released by the Swiss Grammont-label. We are currently working on his new piece which we will premiere on Novembre 25 in Bludenz (Austria) and in December in Switzerland. Alex is also working as a producer and recording engineer and did most of our recordings, also live-recordings of our concerts which will be available soon via our own online-download-lable "United Phoenix-Records" which is currently under construction but will be ready till the end of this year. More infos soon on our website
Other composers with whom we are collaborating over a long time are Junghae Lee, Detlev Müller-Siemens and Franz Furrer Münch, next to others.

I have noticed in recent years, a gradual rapprochement between the two aspects of avant-garde music, first the most academic and the other one brought forward by musicians from the classical canon and far from areas such as jazz, electronics and extreme rock like Fred Frith, John Zorn, the New York downtown scene and some electronic music labels such as Sub Rosa and the Mille Plateux influenced by the thought of Deleuze and Guattari. What do you think about these possible interactions?
I think these interactions between different fields of experimental music are very important. There's not only the new York-Scene with innovative musicianans doing important stuff for experimental music, it happened quite often that some music existed much earlier in Europe or somewhere else played by local musicians and bands but got famous later on through some New York based musicians like John Zorn and got advertised as something "very new"… For me, sometimes collaborations with musicians with a non academical background who are coming from improvised music scenes like noise, electronic music etc. are sometimes more inspiring than to work with composers with kind of a "normal" academical background because they often have a different approach to music and sound and how to handle an instrument which can also bring out very different and interesting musical results. From my experience, classical educated musicians often have too much respect from instruments, they are scared to take an instrument in their hands which they don't know. Musicians I'm working with with no instrumental education have often some kind of a childish approach to music, they just take an instrument and play it, see what they can do with it, without taking care if the know how to play it or not. I also often observe that academical educated composero often compose in a way like they learned it at the school where they were studying, other musicians with no classical education sometimes just do it in their own way which can be sometimes more original. With Phoenix we had very interesting with musicians like John Duncan, Kasper Toeplitz, Phill Niblock, Knut Remond, of corse also Alex Buess and others, which were very important for the work of the ensemble. There are a lot of musicians around who are making amazing sounds but who don't write music. So I think also for contemporary music ensembles it's very important and interesting to find these people and work with them because at the end it's about the same music and the same ideas, just different approaches and different ways how to produce it.

How was playing music by Tim Hodgkinson (who was a member of Henry Cow) and how did start your relationship with him? I confess I’m a fan of his music…
I got to know Tim via Alex Buess, he was playing with him in Kevin Martin's Rock-Big-Band God. I was working with him on his percussion-trio which we performed here in Switzerland in 2003. Later we played his piece Repulsion which we also released on the Buess/Filer/Hodgkinson-CD.

Berlioz said that composing for classical guitar was difficult because to do it you must first be a guitarists, this phrase was often used as a justification for the limited repertoire of classical guitar with other instruments like piano and violin. At the same time this quote has been increasingly "undermined" by the growing interest that guitar (whether classical, acoustic, electric, MIDI) collects in contemporary music. Do you think that the phrase of Berlioz is still true?
I must say I can't answer this question because I'm not a guitarist but I also think it's not very relevant for the work of Phoenix.

Berio in his essay "A remembrance to the future," wrote: ".. A pianist who is a specialist about classical and romantic repertoire, and plays Beethoven and Chopin without knowing the music of the twentieth century, it is also off as a pianist who is specialist about contemporary music and plays with hands and mind that have never been crossed in depth by Beethoven and Chopin. " You play contemporary repertoire but you studied classical music... do you recognize yourself in these words?

No, but I'm a percussionist so I never really played classical music. I know for most of the classic educated instrumentalists who I know it's important to play classical music but I never really understood why You should need to know how to play classical music to be able to play an instrument and to play contemporary music. I can understand that somebody wants to play classical music because he likes the music but that's a different reason. You can also play every instrument in a completely different way which doesn't have to do anythging with classical music. There are a lot of great instrumentalists who play improvised music, producing awsome sounds with their instruments, without any knowledge of classical music. For me classical music belongs to a different time and a different society than we are living now. So why should it be important to play music from other times? The only reason to play it which I see is that there's some good music…(that's my opinion and I think some of the Phoenix-members wouldn't agree with me but as Dirty Harry said: "Well, opinions are like assholes... everybody has one.")
Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?

I think marketing and to promote Yourself is a part of our work as musicians as long as You're not employed by some institution like an orchestra or a school. Sometimes it's not pleasant because we are not businessmen but if You want to realize Your own projects You also have to sell these projects somehow and promote Yourself as a musician up to some certain point. Sometimes it's not easy to find the right balance between making music and organizing/promoting, there are also musicians who from my point of vew are more businessmen than musicians. I don't like to promote myself and I think a lot of musicians don't really like it because we should rather concentrate on making music instead of business- or managing-work. But if we wouldn't do it such an ensemble like Phoenix wouldn't exist, we are doing a big part of the whole organisation-work for free since 10 years. Other comparable ensembles employ about ten people to do the same work but we don't have this financial possibilities. It also happens often with big ensembles and Orchestras that the musicians get payed very bad because the whole money flows into the business and organization and I think that's also not the right way to do it.

What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possibile to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?.? In addition, we often hear about improvisation, sometimes unpredictable improvisation in contemporary music confusing it with the action and the game of chance like Cage ... and Derek Bailey wanted to distinguish who is playing and improvising who plays improvised music ... do you improvise? How?
Yes, I've been always also playing improvised music. I'm playing drums in a band called MIR ( which is an instrumental noisy trio, we play our own structured pieces which have a lot of freedom to improvise. Currently completely free imporvised music to me is interesting either to meet people who You don't know or sometimes to play with people You know very well and from whom You know exactly what to expect. Otherwise totally free improvised music doesn't interest me so much anymore, I think very often it seems to be more interesting for the participating musicians than for the audience. With Phoenix we basically don't improvise. We played pieces with space for improvisations but always structured and organized, never completely free improvisations.

Frank Zappa in his autobiography, made a bit shocking declaration of intents: If John Cage, for example, would say "Now I'll put a microphone in contact on the throat, then I drink carrot juice and this will be my composition", that's his gargling would classified as a musical composition, because he applied a frame, declaring it as such. "Take it or leave it, now I want it to be music." It's really a good statement to define the contemporary music?
Yes it's a good statement to show that basically everything's possibile which doesn't mean that everything's interesting…The perception of the sounds which we are surrounded with all the time and that everything which sounds can be music was a very revolutionary part of John Cage's philosophy in the 60's. Today it's still interesting and I think it's still important to take care of all the great sounds which we hear in our daily life but today the idea has not the same revolutionary content anymore which it had when Cage came out with this kind of stuff 40 years ago. But of course these ideas were extremely important for the development of the contemoprary music during the last decades.

I have, sometimes, the feeling that in our times music’s history flows without a particular interest in its chronological course, in our discoteque before and after, past and future become interchangeable elements, shall this be a risk of a uniform vision for an interpreter and a composer? The risck of a musical "globalization"?

I have personally no problem with exchanging and combining music from different times. I think there's only good and bad music, or music which tells me something and touches me and some music doesn't. No matter from which time it is… That's anyway a point which is extremely subjective and depending from so many different things like Your personal mood, the time of the day when You hear it, the place, ambiance and environment where You hear it, the soundsystem and so on...

Luciano Berio writes "the preservation of the past has a negative sense, as it becomes a way of forgetting music. The listener will get an illusion of continuity that allows you to select what seems to confirm that same continuity and censor everything that seems disturbing”, What role can take music and contemporary composers in this context?

Experimental music was always very important to develop the auditory perception and the musical way of thinking of the society in which we are living. If there wouldn't be artists, musicians and composers who are always searching for something new, the music would stand still and would be played to death. Today we are living a bit in a whole because our society is overloaded with music and everything gets mixed with everything, sometimes I have the feeling people don't want to listen anymore and it's very hard to get some direct reactions (positive or negative) from the audience. There's no direction anymore, somehow a big chaos which has it's good and it's bad sides… I'm very curious how the music will develop during the next years , where it will go. Sometimes I have the feeling what we would need is something like a big bang, a big crash which would destroy everything which is existing to make it possibile for something new to grow.

What do you think about the discographic market crisis, with the transition to digital downloading in mp3 and all this new scenario? I’m very interested about this thing because I have seen that you have created your personal net label…
The situation with record-labels is indeed very difficult, specially in the contemporary music-scene. The times when record-labels payed for productions is anyway passed since a long time but currently it's not even unusual that You have to give the final master to the record-label for free and also You even have to pay them for the distribution. That doesn't make sense to us anymore, that's why we decided to start our own ondine-label which is also something like a platform for contemporary music and artists which are related to us in some way. I mean that was the one reason, the other one was that we have a big collection of high-quality live-recordings made by Alex Buess which were broadcasted by the Swiss radio once but now they are not available anymore. So we want to make these records available for people who are interested in our music or just in some particular compositions. The label will be called United Phoenix Records. We are currentlx in the final preparations and the whole website should be hopefully ready by the end of this year. More infos You can always find on our website. The label will be distributed via finetunes which is an online distributor, connected to the most well know download-stores. I'm not a big friend of this download-thing, for myself I prefer to support record-stores bifore they all die (I anyway like to buy vinyl), but as long as there are no labels who can do something for our music, we have to do it by ourselves and the web is a good way to distribute our music worldwide and also a very effective promotion-tool.

Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island ...

I can again only speak for myserlf not for the whole ensemble: Xenakis "Electronic Music", Public Enemy "Fear of a black Placet", The Pop Group "Y", Myles Davis "Dark Magus", Swans "Public Castration is a good Idea", Coil "Scatology" Sorry, these are already six of my top 10 records…
What are your five favorite scores?

Karlheinz Stockhausen "Kontakte", Iannis Xenakis "Psappha", Alex Buess "Phylum", Edgard Varèse "Arcana", Igor Stravinsky "Le Sacre du Printemps"
Whith who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?

I'm listening to all possibile kind of music. Kevin Martin said once in an interview: "In every style of music, there's 95% bullshit and 5% interesting, so You always have to find the hardcore 5% ". I absolutely agree with this statement. In almost every style of music I can find something interesting. Sometimes You have to search for it which makes it interesting. With whom I would like to Play: I like to continue playing with the musicians with whom I'm already working because I have the luck tp have a lot of phantastic musicians around me (actually not only around me, I'm collaboration with musicians from several countries) to collaborate. Well otherwise there are a lot of great musicians around with whom I would be interested to collaborate. I like to collaborate with people from different countries and different cultures, it's always a great experience because through collaborations You always learn a lot about the country itself.
Your next projects?

We are currently preparing our "10 Years Ensemble Phoenix Basel-Birthday-Concerts" with two new pieces by Alex Buess and Knut Remond for Flute, Percussion , Piano and Electronics and an old electroacoustic piece from the 70's by Bernard Parmegiani. On the 14th of december we will play this program in Basel, together with a very special performance of the legendary american noise-trio Borbetomagus, they will be on their 30 anniversary-tour.

The last question …. the Blog is read by several students .. any good advices to give them?
Go Your own way and don't forget to eat good and have a beer in between.

Thank you very much Daniel!

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