Carl Ludwig Hübsch: „Aurora, how do you tell whether an improvisation is good, from the point of view as a listener?“

Aurora Josephson: „I know an improvisation is good if I feel that I am in good hands; that the improvisers have the experience needed to keep not only my attention, but the attention of the entire audience, including those who have never heard an improvisation before. I believe this can happen with less experienced improvisors who have extensive training, but a bulk of the best improvisations I have heard have originated from players with over twenty years of experience improvising constantly.

I know the improvisation is good when I no longer think about the music in the context of improvisation, but as a stand-alone piece of music which transcends all musical genres.“

Huebsch: „Those ones who have practiced for more than 20 years raise your expectations. But in a concrete situation of music, are there any parameters for you which determine whether you don´t like what you hear?“

Josephson: „I would say when it is obvious someone is not listening, when people play over one another, when you…“

Huebsch: „What do you mean with they play over one another?“

Josephson: „Well, it’s obvious when an improviser is not letting someone else conclude their phrase for instance, where there’s a logical place where one part would come out. There is also a concept of lines, where that would make sense, where two people can be playing something totally different, and one person will play really loud so the other’s part is obscured for a few moments, and then stop. The other player continues exactly as they had done, unaffected by the louder playing. But if it’s obvious that the other player is totally yammering over the other person…

Actually I have a good example of this. There was a group of musicians that I really admire performing at CNMAT with Joëlle Leandre. Most of the ensemble played beautifully with one  another, except for one player. Joelle actually spoke up and told the performer they needed to stop, she actually told them.  She actually said, ’shut up‘ or something to that effect. It was obvious that this person was being insensitive and literally drowning everyone else on the stage. Everyone witnessing the performance could sense that player was not being sensitive to the others.“

[We herewith kindly ask you to respect the authors rights especially of the interviewed musicians and not to quote this interview it without asking our permission. Thanks for your solidarity!]

Huebsch: „What is that concept of lines that you have mentioned?“

Josephson: „There’s a concept in improvisation that’s called lines, and you’re each playing, you’re going along, you’re playing your own part and they’re parallel and equal and you have the same voicing, right? One musician takes the foreground and one takes the background. Each performer keeps doing what they are doing and sometimes the other person will fall out and you keep going, you keep your line going. But at a certain point you’re going to meet and there’s the intersection. So, this is what we’re talking about, the points where we meet each other and the points where we are further apart. This is just one structure an improvisation can take, one concept. I feel the music happens as we make the musical decisions informed by the intersections we are confronted with.“

Huebsch: „Do you produce the intersections willingly?“

Josephson: „No, I think the intersections are totally spontaneous and something that comes almost like a miracle. Intersections can lie at the heart of improvisation, they are what makes improvisation magic in some way. There is a moment that’s greater than the sum of its parts, so it’s a synergy that happens, it’s magic. Improvisers can only hang out there for a little while because there are always changes sending the music somewhere else, and that’s where the lines come back in. And so you have this line and you trust the other person is there too, and they are going to carry their own part, right? And so if you drop out, they’ll be there, right? There is a tension between parallel lines with each part existing on its own, and the intersections of the parts coming together and synergizing, making something greater than the two parts.“

Huebsch: „What kind of interaction, if you would give it a name, would that be? Would you call it a conversation?

Josephson: „It definitely is a conversation.“

Huebsch: „Is it communication?“

Josephson: „I think it’s a spontaneous communication, that it involves the subconscious in some way. Some deeply rooted aspect of ourselves is communicating on perhaps an instinctual or subconscious level with the other. The best improvisations come when we can get out of the way of our own ego and our own desires, and  leave the small human pettiness out of it. If we are spontaneous enough and we are able to let go of our ego, we can forget hunger, the elements, longing and heartbreak, and let the authentic music come.“

Huebsch: „Is there something an improviser needs to know that an interpreter wouldn’t need to know?“

Josephson: „I would say as a teacher of improvisation, my first two lessons are listen and listen. But other than that, I feel that we have a responsibility to listeners to keep the music interesting somehow. And what that means in a given situation can be any number of things, given the context, so you can improvise on any medium, right? You can be in the idiom of European free improvisation like what we’re doing, right? You can do it in Jazz, you can make any kind of structure loose, but you have to decide what context you’re in and where it makes sense.

I think that part of being a good improviser is knowing where you have a receptive audience and where you don’t, in a way. And then you have to decide if you’re going to take the risk and explore how far out you’re going to go, and if you’re going to break the ice or if you’re going to abstain.“

Huebsch: „Are you in communication with the audience?“

Josephson: „More than communicating with the audience, I feel like I’m in communication with something that’s greater than myself, that’s greater than the audience. This something surrounds all of us, like dark matter, or, I don’t know what you want to call it, but it’s that energy that connects all living things to all other living things. I see little tendrils of energy bonding all living entities together. If we tap into that, then we have tapped into something that’s like God. A place of truly authentic and universal music making that has no beginning and no ending. This way of communicating is a timeless kind of stream that any entity may tap into. This is the ideal place that I like to be when I play music and I hope others are there beside me.“

Huebsch: „That brings up the communal part in communication?“

Josephson: „Right. That hopefully everyone would tap into that too and realize that we’re all in the same place, that maybe we’re having a raised awareness moment.“

Huebsch: „As an improviser, do you address your sounds to some of the co-players at times?  Do you give responses?“

Josephson: „I feel like definitely, I’m trying not to react, but I’m trying to absorb, and somehow compose my part through a filter. I’m trying not to have an immediate response where my musical choices are obvious, but to assimilate in some way, and respond in kind to what the other person is doing, not just reflect it faithfully. Not mimic what they are doing and not imitate, but be with it in some way. Ideally each person has their own place, but together they make something that synergizes and is more than that the two parts.“

Huebsch: „The reception is a crucial point about improvising, right?“

Josephson: „Right.“

Huebsch: „And the reception of information, right?“

Josephson: „Right.“

Huebsch: „Is there, so to say, a second layer of information in improvised music that lies beyond it’s so squeakyness or screechyness or beauty or violence or whatever quality of it´s sound?“

Josephson: „It’s desire.“

Huebsch: „Desire?“

Josephson: „Desire. The extra levels of information in improvised music are the same as in any kind of music making. They are desire, passion, the life force. One knows when the desire to make music is there and when it is not. You know when something is going to fall flat, you know if there’s a level of interest. Sometimes, there is an energy that meets your own energy level, and sometimes you notice your like-mindedness with another, and feel safe. This has to do with desire to engage in the music making and engage with it fully in the moment.

I’ve just thought of this – who was it… It wasn’t Brötzmann and it wasn’t Fuchs, it was, oh God, some famous improviser, some asshole from Germany… Two of my friends were playing with at a venue I ran in East Oakland called The Yellow Room. The performer in question sat quietly while the other musicians in the ensemble began to improvise without him. After several minutes without playing a note, he finally interrupts the performance and says, [speaks in a pronounced german accent] ‚it’s not working.‘  Because he was a professional with a lot of experience in these matters, he gave the group one more shot and they continued. After a few minutes more of his abstention, he stops the performance once again and says, ‚it’s still not working.‘ That’s it. He could not tap into the meta layer of communication between the other players. Whatever he needed from them in order to communicate musically wasn’t there for him. If whatever the thing is that animates the music is not there, the music falls flat.“

Huebsch: „Does an improvisation need to be good at all?“

Josephson: „I want an improvisation to be excellent. I want to listen to people that have been improvising longer than I have. I want to hear virtuosity, longing, expression of life’s mysteries, to be filled with vim, vigor, longing, suffering, pain, remorse, everything! I want to be impressed deep down by the improvising, to walk out of the performance a changed woman.“

Huebsch: „What impresses you the most when you hear improvised music?“

Josephson: „I am impressed by people who are at the pinnacle of their craft like a Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins or Joelle Leandre. I am impressed by the improvisers and improvisations that teach me something. This lesson could also come from someone who‘ is relatively new to improvisation. I can no longer discriminate after recently returning to Mills College to pursue an MFA in Music Performance with an emphasis in improvisation. I encountered many new improvisers whom I learned from and who inspire me greatly to this day: Kelley Kipperman, Katerina Kopelevich and Kim Nucci, to name just a few. If an improviser is really smoking, if they have something to say, their level of experience becomes meaningless in the face of following just a few simple guidelines in spontaneous music making. Any improvisation that teaches me a better way to live and to make my own music impresses me.“

Huebsch: „Do improvisors need to have high technical skills as instrumentalists?“

Josephson: „Technical proficiency is very important to me. I like precision, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with how a musician plays. I don’t think proficiency can be determined when one is not playing the instrument the way it’s traditionally supposed to be played. An improvisor can be an outsider, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have trained, like in the conservatory, if that’s what you mean. I don’t care if an improviser is able to read music. If someone has a passion for improvisation, includes improvisation in their daily life, spends time honing their craft, whatever that is, the improvisation will shine and be enjoyable because the desire and passion are there, without the need for extremely technical skills.“

Huebsch: “I come to my last question. What is typical for improvising musicians from Bay Area?“

Josephson: „I think there’s a lot of politeness, maybe. I think that people don’t want to tread on one another toes perhaps. Maybe it’s a California sunshine thing. Perhaps because we have so much space, improvisers leave more space. It depends on the music idiom.

I find that most of the improvisation in the bay area stems from this lineage of Free Jazz going to Europe and coming back. We are now imitating the European free improvisers who were influenced by the wave of Jazz musicians that came to Europe after WWII. So, there is this wave of musicians here in the bay area that are informed by the music that was created in Europe by European improvisers after being visited by waves of American musicians like Art Ensemble, MEV, and AMM. What we are left with is a highly developed, transcontinental art form, which is much bigger than our little Bay Area Improvised music scene.“

Huebsch: “Thank you very much, Aurora!“

[We herewith kindly ask you to respect the authors rights especially of the interviewed musicians and not to quote this interview it without asking our permission. Thanks for your solidarity!]

2 Gedanken zu „AURORA JOSEPHSON“

  1. great interview, carl ludwig and aurora – i really like the notion of desire being an essential element in improvisation. because so many people say they play music because they HAVE TO … it’s not a cerebral thing, but more instinctive. there is a desire to connect with others – it’s funny, i know this, but i don’t think i’ve ever heard it stated this way.

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