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Jazz 2020
On Distance and Self-placement

Ronny Graupe | Photo (detail): © Frank Schindelbeck
Ronny Graupe | Photo (detail): © Frank Schindelbeck

What happens when musicians and their audience have to keep their distance? Jazz festivals came up with various strategies to cope with that situation in the year of the coronavirus crisis. But even more auspicious are some ideas musicians themselves have come up with – for their own sake and for the future of improvised music. They deserve a hearing because their livelihoods really are at stake now.

By Franziska Buhre

How hollow and inanimate, even unfinished, a music hall can sound if, apart from the musicians, there’s nothing but furniture: the sound bounces right off the walls and ceiling, which only reinforce the emptiness, like a queasy feeling in your stomach. Watching concerts on a screen drives home the loss of physical presence – an agonizing experience of no longer being part of a musical event. And so, when streaming a concert, we’re liable to miss ourselves, our physical presence close to the inspired music.

Pizza and hunger

In late May, the Moers Festival, one of the first to be hit hard by the lockdown and the international travel restrictions on performing artists, tried to liven up their livestreams with some visual nonsense. Their streaming partner was Arte Concert. During the concerts, actor Matthias Hesse did some acting on a green screen: wearing silver overalls and a blond wig, he lolled about alternately on a projected sofa or a projected fawn, cut up a pizza or stared motionlessly into space. When, in spite of the official announcement that only a very small number of journalists and photographers would be allowed into the auditorium, a Berlin festival organizer revealed his presence there when he assured others on social media that the actor's actions weren’t distracting from his enjoyment of the music, it was clear that German concert organizers still had a lot to learn about streaming.

The Jazzfest Berlin, on the other hand, have done more than just their homework. In summer they had already commissioned the Collective for Improvised and Composed Music (KIM) to produce two videos and invited international musicians to talk about their current situation on video. So their concert streams in early November, with Arte Concert again serving as media partner, also featured video works by participating artists, creating a charming interplay between impressions of space and the musicians’ interacting with one another and with the projection. What is more, state broadcasting corporations streamed Jazzfest concerts by local ensembles on eight public radio stations. That radio stations should use their own resources to support musicians seems a promising development – and quite appropriate as long as the coronavirus crisis wears on.

The guitarist Ronny Graupe had no such resources at his disposal so he started up a concert series called Into the Shed in March. In over 50 performances streamed from Berlin’s Club der polnischen Versager (Polish Failures’ Club), international musicians of various genres were coming and going – an important signal to fellow musicians and fans stuck at home, whether because they fear for their livelihoods, are depressed about cancelled concerts or escaping by engrossing themselves in other pursuits. "It was important to me that it shouldn’t be well-rehearsed stuff and compositions, but everything should be improvised," Graupe says in an interview. "It was supposed to be rough so we wouldn’t be selling out the artists. People should go home hungry or stay home. If everything had been free of charge and high-end, I wouldn't have felt good about it." Graupe benefitted from the many musical encounters he had playing duos in his Into the Shed series. And it put his professional practice in a new light: "When you suddenly have a concert again, you appreciate it all the more intensely now."

Back to Germany

The pandemic is changing everything for musicians, from their usual working routines and environments to release cycles, tour planning and even relocating. The day before leaving the US in the autumn, drummer Joe Hertenstein recorded an album with a New York band. Although based in Germany now, with fourteen years of his music career behind him in New York, he continues to maintain close contacts: "I'm recording a remote album with a band in Brooklyn right now," he says on the phone in Berlin. "We all go into the studio and send the tracks back and forth to make sure we get it right and it feels good."

In March, Niklas Lukassen had to leave New York in a hurry, leaving behind goals he’d been working towards for years – and his double bass. He’d been studying at the Manhattan School of Music (Ron Carter has remained his mentor, though, even now). Lukassen had been asked to play gigs with Mike Stern and to sit in on rehearsals of the Village Vanguard Big Band under John Riley: whether these opportunities will present themselves again is uncertain, to say the least. Now he’s back in Berlin, where the music world is very different: "It bothers me that the scenes are so separate. Unfortunately, that’s extremely evident in the mindsets, too. I also like playing free music or contemporary jazz. But I'm very rarely asked to play electric bass, because others see me as ‘the jazz guy’. When I play a pop-jazz gig, I notice that people aren’t as good at improvising. In New York it's different. And because you have the same people playing different styles, the audience there are also more open-minded." Still, he’s optimistic: "I think there’ll be lots of very elaborate albums. What sets the jazz scene apart from all the others is that almost all jazz musicians compose, too. That’s going to generate a really great worldwide wave of musicians who excel not just as instrumentalists, but also as composers.”

Overcoming distances and hierarchies

By now, every musician can presumably talk from experience about working remotely, whether it be online lessons for local pupils, videoconferences with people in another time zone or recordings produced at different times to put together an album. Nicola Hein won’t settle for finished productions. As a PhD student at New York's Columbia University, the guitarist can live in Germany for the time being and develop new formats: "It's important for me to look for other platforms and domains so I can keep working internationally. I’ve started improvising with others telematically on the Internet, doing just music, music and dance, and music and video." Hein and media artist Claudia Schmitz have invited fellow musicians and video artists to collaborate with them, much as they did on tours of Asia and South America in years past. As part of this year’s Ars Electronica Festival in early September, they teamed up with a musician and a video artist from Mexico and a pianist from California to present the first version of an app using AR (augmented reality) technology: it enables smartphone users to see video sculptures created live in three-dimensional space and listen to improvised music on headphones. In future, the idea is for this to work live even if the artists and audience are in different places. Further collaboration is planned with artists in Colombia, Japan and South Korea.

Bass trombonist Maxine Troglauer also thinks about the future prospects for shared experiences between musicians and audience: "I hope new formats will emerge that are, by necessity, designed for a smaller audience and therefore automatically more inclusive and interactive. That the hierarchy of a ‘classical’ stage on high and the audience down below in the dark will be broken up to make way for more creativity and freedom." Troglauer flew back to New York in late October to resume her studies at the Manhattan School of Music, though it’s all still online for the time being. "My daily routine has changed a lot: I practise and make music only at home now. At first, as a brass player living in a fifth-floor apartment, I had to get used to having people around me all the time. I’ve been thrown back in a big way on my own personality and abilities. I practise solo pieces, solo improvisation and think about solo performances." She is critical of the advent of recording and playback equipment in almost every musician's home: "All of a sudden, musicians are expected not only to master their instrument, but in every genre, too, and to record, stream, edit, release, promote, compose and arrange their own music – whilst writing twenty applications for funding because, at the end of the day, nobody wants to pay money for it. These demands sometimes really put me under the gun and I'm afraid I won’t be able to keep up with the rapid pace of this compulsory technological self-optimization – which happens to be terribly expensive, by the way."

Music enthusiasts should definitely take these words as an appeal: not to consign musicians to oblivion when they drop off the virtual radar – or never even made it onto the radar to begin with. We’ll meet again, gathered together in an indoor or outdoor space, hearing people chatting in the background or profoundly content the moment we become aware of those around us listening too. That’s just the way we are.