FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Peter Niklas Wilson


Beyond categories

"I try to tell stories like Homer and I organise them like Joyce. My music is a stream of consciousness. Just talk, let your thoughts flow and let them sort them selves out." What Sam Rivers formulated some time ago in an interview with Wolf Kampmann, does not only bring to mind Kleist's reflections on producing thoughts through conversation (absolutely pertinent to improvisation), but also makes something else clear: Samuel Carthorne Rivers is no master of the miniature, but an extemporising long-distance runner. The reference to Homer makes sense. What characterises an epic poem - long windedness of form, magic of repetition, its pathos - also characterises Rivers soulful and many-convoluted lines. This is not music of a simple, previously discernible dramatic development, but a mode of existence in sound: potentially endless, and, at the same time, wide awake for the happening of the moment. Rivers' music is not spectacular - no superficial pyrotechnics, no forced, ecstasy - and it demands patience and time of whoever wants to commit himself to its logic of gentle flow, of small turbulences, of sudden rapids.

And it demands even more of whoever enters its space as active co-creator. The fine line between redundancy and entropy the multi-instrumentalist Rivers always walks - the razor's edge between the logic of motives and free leaps of consciousness, between tonal clarity and free tonal ambiguity, between defined tempo and breathing agogics - to recognise it and, what is more, to balance on top of it with equal elegance demands considerable sensitivity from Rivers' duo partners. Alexander von Schlippenbach demonstrates it in every one of the seventy minutes of this recording. Such astonishing affinity to a foreign, very special concept of free improvisation may be surprising, but can be explored and explained. On the one hand, already in 1995 within the framework of a first collaboration with the American (documented on "Backgrounds for Improvisors", FMP CD 75), Schlippenbach had the opportunity to familiarise himself with Rivers' musical persona. On the other hand, the piano player from Berlin, like his American counterpart, is one of those free improvising musicians who had studied the jazz tradition extensively before emancipating himself from it. And, thirdly, Schlippenbach as well as Rivers, is equally au fait with the means and techniques of European

New Music as with those of African-American music (Schlippenbach studied with Bernd Alois Zimmermann; Rivers studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston). No wonder that Schlippenbach and Rivers, even in the most open of contexts think and feel in terms of tonality and form; no wonder that the pianist quick-wittedly and effortlessly parries the motif-like offerings of the saxophonist and flute player. Rivers, on the other hand, an active pianist as well, is best qualified to react on his instruments to specialised keyboard textures and forms of movement.

In successful duo music, it may seem inappropriate to emphasize the contribution of one partner or the other in the creative process. But I must admit that Schlippenbach's role in these five improvisations impresses me particularly. Not only because the pianist succeeds in adjusting to the highly specific and in a traditional sense without any doubt "unjazzy" flow of Rivers' phrases - alternating long vibrato-animated notes and rapid movement patterns -, but also because he knows how to throw light on the saxophone's lines in a great variety of ways, to put them into different contexts all the time, to "orchestrate" them spontaneously: by thinning it down to a two part harmony or by symphonic increases in density, by clever alternating and contrasting registers, through thematic like echoes, using dramatic and elaborate changes between motif-like reaction playing, dense weaving of patterns, modest withdrawal to accompanying backgrounds or well-calculated breaks, when Rivers' meandering lines only follow their autonomous logic.

The music of Sam Rivers and Alexander von Schlippenbach, their collective music: a world in itself, neither energy playing in the sense of hardcore-freejazz nor an example of a sound exploration aesthetic in the British (or Chicago) sense of the word. Freedom, as Sam Rivers defines it for himself, does not mean "unconditional renunciation of melody and rhythm, but the freedom of being able to choose what I want to play, 'Free', to me, means beyond all categories."

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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