During a concert in Italy, at the beginning of the new millennium, Mengelberg was, at a certain moment, singing like a child, almost out of tune – or indifferent to tune. You can find an interview about that performance at the following link – even if unluckily for you the interview it’s in Italian, but it’s only because I don’t want to be perceived as disrespectful.
Fact is that, Misha Mengelberg believed in music as John Cage believed in it. Music has a childish quality in itself, that is the sound of freedom. If Lou Reed said once that listening to music is like to be in your mother’s womb, with the drums mimicking your mother’s heartbeat, for centuries in the western world the rules of music were almost at the point of destroying the mother and the children, suffocating them with rules.
Do you remember Chopin’s Nocturnes? I own a beautiful double CD with Maurizio Pollini playing that incredible music. But for Chopin’s contemporaries, that music was really only shit. Because it was music for piano, and the piano was the instrument where women were performing music at home. So, how some culturally evolved men were supposed to loose their time with things more suited for women?
Things are different nowadays, but even if concerts for piano solo are held in my city in prestigious theatres, there is a sacred quality with (classical) music that makes people like John Cage and Misha Mengelberg wanting to play with it, to disrupt that facade, that mask, and go deeper to the heart of both the musician and the listener.
More prosaically, as I wrote four years ago one week after Misha Mengelberg died aged 81, our pianist was born in Ukranie in 1935, son of the Dutch conductor Karel Mengelberg. His family moved to the Netherlands in the late 1930s and the young Mengelberg started taking piano lessons at the age of five. Subsequently he studied architecture briefly before entering the Royal Conservatory at the Hague.
Influenced by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and the above mentioned John Cage, Mengelberg in 1964 participated to a session of music with, among the others, drummer Han Bennink – who will become one of his lifetime collaborators – and multireedist Eric Dolphy, for the record of the latter titled “Last Date”. It’s like the perfect joining link between the US and Europe, as far as improvised music.
As many of his peers and colleagues, Mengelberg recorded a huge variety of live performances. The one we refer in this review is a solo performance at piano coming from a cassette labeled as “17-18-4-88 berlijn solo”, but in fact it has been established that the record comes from a solo performance in 1987. The music is different from the assertions of the US free jazz and avant garde music from the 1960s and 1970s, you can smell something coming from Fluxus or european avant art and theatre. At the beginning.
The record is divided in four parts, two parts per set for a couple of sets, to be accurate, from 15 to 23 minutes each. At the beginning we can hear the piano has been prepared as Cage would do, but the music, spanning from the lower to the medium registries, becomes after a brief introduction a little excited just to come back to what it seems to be an attempt to create assertions who are interrupted, hammered, deconstructed.
At about minute 8 Mengelberg tries to mix some assertive chords with more subtle excursions on the keyboard, then for quite a while silence fill the room just before a come back to this mix of melody and humming, giving us that feeling possibly Roland Barthes was referring to in his La Chambre Claire when talking about the “punctus”. We go on with many permutations until the end of the first part of the section, not without some nice occasions to hear Mengelberg pressing, pushing and crushing, so to speak, his keys.
Second part of the first section opens with a series of violent strumming on the lower registry of the piano, like we’re accustomed to listen to in Diamanda Galàs playing in her beautiful but haunting Defixiones, but instead of adding a raucous and grasping voice, at a certain point we hear another deconstructed melody – in fact it seems like a mix between a blues and a classical tune, which is no surprise since as a muisicologist pointed out in a recent number of the magazine Musica Jazz, Thelonious Monk himself was keen on taking inspiration from classical music for the blues pieces he wrote.
Obviously Mengelberg music isn’t devoid of more intimate, reflexive moments, but if the influence of Monk in these moments is clear and goes well beyond the quotation, which is present anyway, straight to the feeling of that music, one wonders, at a certain point, if it’s true that there are differences between the Western and the Eastern banks of the Atlantic, since the elements put to cook together seem to be almost the same.
We’re at almost half of the second part and a deconstructed ragtime appears, magnificently interspersed with a strumming on the medium and upper registries. As far as it seems, the music of Mengelberg from the beginning of this album hits us because of the ability of his creator to put together different styles and different emotional temperatures giving us the feeling that something almost new is coming from that clash.
After a brief applause, the last ten minutes of this section are dedicated again to the music of Monk, but it’s a Monk that we still know revisited by Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, and so it’s a Monk who lives of different interpretations, as his music would have gone well far beyond his creator’s death. Strumming on prepared chords occupy a consistent part of this section of the record, just before coming back to a deconstructed melody.
If the first set was equally divided into ‘decostructing Baroque’ and ‘deconstructing Monk’, the second set sees Mengelberg engaging in an attempt to put his hands on the living matter of classical music interspersed with more modern experimentations, using a similar ‘method’ to the one described above – that’s why we don’t describe it almost second-by-second as we did before.
My advice today is to listen carefully to these sets, available through Bandcamp, because if it is true that on a first level the European Avant Garde music from the 1970s on is more keen on playing with the sound matter and how it has been hystorically defined, while the US Avant Garde is more keen on creating new shapes and forms – think about Braxton and Mitchell, at a deeper level you will find in fact similar concept in both – aren’t Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy from the US?
And if there are different temperatures and general architectural concepts to differentiate the two currents, on a deeper level the bricks are the same, even if layered differently. I won’t loose time in affirming that, being mostly African-American the music coming from the US, it is more keen on illustrating how to survive in an hostile environment finding out the inner strenght to survive, while the European musicians find themselves more at ease with playing with culture and ideal constructions putting them out of context in order to see what they can become.
Because, in fact, in both cases the nucleus is an attempt to say something different from the mass thinking, the thinking of Power, in order to establish a new, spiritual order, that of freedom. And if Don Cherry encouraged Peter Brotzmann to go ahead with his music, we cannot let records like this unlistened, because their story is, mostly, our own story. A history of freedom, an attempt to a better life for each one, the search for new forms of music and life.