In conversation with Ab Baars and Ig Henneman

In conversation with Ab Baars and Ig Henneman

September 1, 2015

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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Mutual introduction

Dutch musician-composer and bandleader Ab Baars performs on tenor saxophone, clarinet and shakuhachi. He focuses mainly on Ab Baars Solo, Baars-Buis, Fish Scale Sunrise, Perch Hen Brock & Rain, Ab Baars Trio, Duo Baars-Henneman and the ICP Orchestra. His wife Ig Henneman is also a Dutch musician who performs on viola and writes compositions for orchestras, ensembles, soloists, including pieces for film and theater. As an improviser, she mainly focuses on the Ig Henneman Sextet, Duo Baars-Henneman and Perch Hen Brock & Rain.

We met Ab and Ig during this year's edition of Konfrontationen festival from Nickelsdorf (Austria) and when it got dark outside we sat down, under a tree, to discuss certain aspects of music and the universe surrounding it.

So, what would you say would be some good introductory albums into free improv for the kids who haven’t listened to anything yet? Can you think of some good ones as a good introduction?

Ig Henneman: Wow, that’s a good question.

I mean …there are kids who don’t even know this thing exists.

AB Baars: That’s difficult.

Ig Henneman: Maybe... do you know the “Perch Hen Brock and Rain” record? It will be out soon. That’s with Ingrid Laudbrock and Tom Rainey. Him on drums and Ingrid on reeds and Ab on reeds and shakuhachi.

So it’s not out yet.

Ig Henneman: It’s not out yet. But that’s totally free improvised music. Nobody is the bandleader; nobody takes initiatives. For me, that’s the best example to listen to. It’s... still when we listen back to the first concert - that’s the concert we want to bring out, in Finland - it’s totally amazing what happens, like making compositions and grooves and colors. What we did also now (i.e Konfrontationen Festival 2015) with that combination of people, just going out on stage.

What if someone would like to start listening to your work (i.e Ig Henneman), what would you say is a good introduction, one album? Can you think of a good one?

Ig Henneman: Hmm, maybe my first album, it’s from 1991.

What’s it called?

Ig Henneman: Ig Henneman Kwintet - In Grassetto. But it’s still... I could listen back to it and it’s really… the things I worked on until now. It is probably a bit more specific direction... Maybe I can pass the question to you (i.e Ab Baars), with the best introduction to your work.

...for someone who hasn’t listened to any Ab Baars.

AB Baars: Well, I think the trio CD we made with Misha Mengelberg would be a nice introduction.

What year was that?

AB Baars: That was 2008. It was Ig Henneman, me and Misha Mengelberg, and it’s all improvised, but there is a great knowledge of form, of melodies and of going in, going out. I really like that disc.

*photo credits: Uli Templin

Improvisation and composition

When you improvise, do you think about going out there with an empty mind?

AB: I try to, but that’s the most difficult thing to do. Because when you start a concert you have these ideas about what you would like to play and what you would not like to play, and when you start playing you can get caught in a certain way of playing music that you forget about the freedom new music had, that it’s able to go that direction or that direction.

So it’s hard to have a balance between what’s your sound, right, if you’re playing with some more people.

AB: Yeah. To start from, I always forget about and it’s hard to be totally empty and start from nothing, without the idea that it has to go in a certain direction and to think about all the possibilities that are there, in the moment.

Besides, there is a kind of idea of things that sound right and things that sound wrong, right? It’s really hard to get rid of this.

IG: Hmm, I don’t know what didn’t sound right.

It’s subjective, of course. Everyone has his (or her) own idea.

AB: Well, I really love things that are wrong.

IG: What do you mean by being wrong?

AB: My favorite saxophone players are beginners, because they haven’t formed their language yet, so they are playing a sound that is unpolished, that is very pure, and for that reason in the eyes of a professional it’s probably wrong; so you want to polish your style.

IG: It’s wrong, you mean out of tune?

AB: Out of tune...

IG: And no proper aesthetics.

Do you see improvisation and composition as totally separate things?

IG: No, for me they’re not. The thing is, I was just thinking while listening to the concert just now, when you play totally free, without any appointments or charts, or compositions, or themes, whatever you call it, you play intuitively and when you have made decisions at your hands, you try to work with that. And in a way these are two different worlds, that can be hard to combine and I think, for me, as a composer - performer, I do need both worlds to have intuitive sides that really fit you. In a composition, things like your knowledge... it’s much more academic to make it work in form and in imitation. But when you play with good improvisers all these worlds come together and you can use it.

AB: Being an improviser, I think every improviser should be a composer too. Think about how you build an improvisation. You can have a thousand ideas, play them all at once, and that’s probably not so interesting. But if you are improvising and have knowledge of how to build something, where to go, why do you want to go there.

IG: So you mean, by mentioning a composer, that you have a kind of idea at forehand about form and texture.

AB: No, while playing you should be aware of what you are playing, why you are playing certain things, and then try to develop it. Instead of just following your emotions and `oh that’s nice too, let’s play that`, or `that’s nice too so we can go`.

IG: That’s the difference between totally going with your intuition and using your knowledge about form. It’s always hard to play for yourself; you play where the borders are, between all these worlds. It’s a very interesting world.

I think that when some people are improvising, they can get to certain places and certain sounds and certain ideas that they couldn’t do if they tried to compose. They just try to compose at home. I mean, I think sometimes this whole intuition plus the fusion with the other musicians can get to a more special place than if you only try to compose.

IG: That’s the academic world of composing. I don’t think I agree, but I know why you came up with this thought about improvising... being very intuitive and flexible, because that’s what happens, you get on stage without any appointments. But when you’re a really good composer, I think you can also produce these kind of worlds for reading musicians. But it doesn’t happen often.

AB: There was a nice interview with Steve Lacy, the soprano saxophone player, and he was asked on the street with a microphone in front of him: `Steve Lacy, can you tell me what is the difference between improvisation and composing in 15 seconds?` And he said `Well, an improviser can tell in 15 seconds what he wants to do and a composer can take a year to write 15 seconds of music`. And it was said in 15 seconds, so I thought it was really nice. So things are made on the spot, and as a composer you can take a year to think about 15 seconds, and an improviser can just think about 15 seconds through his whole life and find a language, but he always has to do it within this certain amount of time.

I was thinking earlier that maybe one of the beauties of the improvisation is that when you’re playing live, when you’re on stage, that music, that moment never sounded like that before and it will never sound like that either in the future. So it’s totally unique, while when you play a composition, like a written piece, you build from there, you don’t have that freedom.

IG: You’re talking about interpretation. But still, I think a lot of very skilled musicians will not agree with you, but I know what you’re saying, because all the famous pieces are performed different by different players, so they feel about themselves a little bit like composers rather than interpreters. But it’s a different world; you are totally true, you are right.


It’s the particularity of the moment. And also I do have a question - this is out of the musical worlds - can you tell us how did you meet?

IG It’s a very important question.

AB: We met 34-35 years ago in Amsterdam. I had just moved to Amsterdam and I was visiting the Bimhuis, the venue where there was a lot of improvised music and jazz music. And I was taking lessons to learn to compose with a friend of mine, so I would go there once or twice a week and Ig would be there too.

IG Not to learn to compose. It was a counterpoint kind of style.

AB: So we met on the stairs, because I would go out when my lesson was over, and she would come in, and we would be talking. And then we met at the Bimhuis, during concerts, and we started talking and we had been playing, recording for ballet music, so that’s how we met... and at that time I was working on a solo CD and I didn’t want to have anything else bothering me. No new relations, no nothing. So I kept her away (laughing).

Ig, what were you doing at the time? Were you playing?

IG: Well, I was in a rock band.

What was the name of the band?

IG: FC Gerania, we made two records. It was famous in Holland.

What does it mean?

IG: Gerania is a kind of flower and FC is like football. I was working with them and learning how to improvise.


AB: The first time I played here was with the trio I have, my own trio, with bass and drums. It has Martin van Duynhoven on drums and Wilbert de Joode on bass, and I think it was even my first concert outside Holland with the trio. And I had been playing in Molde, in Norway, the festival, and I would fly from Molde to Vienna. So I was really looking forward, we had been rehearsing the music and I was playing in Molde with the ICP Orchestra, with Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg. So I was going to the airport very early in the morning and it was all mist, a fog, you couldn’t see anything. So all flights were cancelled and I couldn’t fly to Vienna. I phoned Hans Falb and I said `Hans, I’m very sorry but I cannot come, because all the flights are cancelled`. And Martin van Duynhoven and Wilbert de Joode were already here, so that was that.

IG: No, you played here in 1987, with ICP.

AB: Oh, with the ICP Orchestra, you’re right.

So what was your first impression when you came here? Did you know about the festival before?

IG: I was invited to play with ICP here and there was Leroy Jenkins, the violin player. I think he was in charge, because they mostly had a kind of one person bring a big group at that time, and since I was a swing player as well I was asked to join them. And John Carter, he was a beautiful player with whom Ab studied later.

AB: Yeah, 1989.

Ig: And for me it was a beautiful world; all this audience, just having so much attention for this strange, pretentious music. Back then there were a lot of American players, they had more budget to bring them.

I have the poster from 1987 at home. I remember it says ICP on it, and also Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake, John Carter.

IG: And also Cecil Taylor was playing in the same year, I think?

AB: Cecil Taylor was playing with John Carter.

IG: I was here, like this year, the day before the festival started, with no audience yet, and we were all sitting here and Hans starts cooking at about 10, everybody is starving. It was beautiful, and I remember all the talks between Misha Mengelberg and Cecil Taylor about what you asked us, about improvising and notating this music, and I remember Misha asked Cecil `Why don’t you notate your music, because it’s such a beautiful thing you invent?`

AB: And what did Cecil Taylor say?

IG: Yeah, like all the spiritual things you always miss. He was not very specific in his answers, but he said it has to happen on the spot, that’s what I remember.

AB: Well, it’s interesting, because I think Cecil Taylor notates a lot of his music.

IG: I think he notates pitches and plans.

AB: I saw him play with big scores in front of him.

IG: But that’s a different world than having all the plans for session musicians who could reproduce your ideas. That’s a totally different world, much more into details.

What do you think, as musicians who played here... what do you think kept not only this festival alive but made it flourish and evolve each year?

AB: Young people, young musicians. That’s what we need.

IG: And budgets to make it happen. But the most important thing I think is that there’s one person like Hans Falb.

This is what I wanted to get to, because I think this kind of people are so special and are very very few.

IG: There are only a few, but the ones that are there, the ones that support - I think Hans with all the financial problems he had in the last five-six-seven years - I think Hans is supported very well by all the people around him who know their skills and his skills. And the device rolls now, and that’s why it still survives. Yeah, I think it’s very important that, I love to see that this impossible person, like Hans Falb, with his beautiful tastes for all the music that’s happening, and his brother and his nephews or whatever, they really have a knowledge about `what’s my role, what can I do`.

AB: And they love Hans and his ideas.

IG: I think they love him and they hate him, all at the same time.

A love-hate relationship.

IG: Yeah, because he is an impossible person.

Even the fans contributed with some money five or six years ago, when they had the financial problems.

IG: Yeah, because I think we are all aware how important this kind of festival is. You experienced it yourself, to be here, in this side of the world and just listen to it. Sometimes you hate it, sometimes you like it, but you are here and listen, and everybody is very attentive.


Read also:
*Konfrontationen 2015 - festival report
**Interview with Hans Falb and Philipp Schmickl
***Interview with Hamid Drake

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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