Interview by Dan Warburton, April 29th, 1996
Misha Mengelberg was born in Kiev in 1935, where his father Karel, brother of Willem Mengelberg, was a conductor and composer of film music. He grew up in Holland, where he studied with Kees van Baaren at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, before becoming active both as a composer in the Dutch Fluxus movement (his Musica per 17 strumenti won first prize at the Gaudeamus Music Week in 1961) and as a highly original jazz pianist, working with fellow iconoclast percussionist Han Bennink in Eric Dolphy's quartet just before the latter died in 1964. Towards the end of the Sixties he was active in the Nutcrackers movement, with fellow musicians Andriessen, Schat and de Leeuw, and in 1970 founded the Instant Composers Pool (ICP), to promote improvised music in Holland.
As a pianist, Mengelberg belongs more in the tradition of Monk (and before him Ellington and Basie): there are no conspicuous feats of technical virtuosity here, à la Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, but rather pieces whose deceptive simplicity--even naïveté--belie an instinctive musicianship of a very high order (see our reviews) and a scandalous sense of humour. This is the man, after all, who dared record his pet parrot on the flipside of an Eric Dolphy record, and who, when I finally saw him in concert in Paris in 1995, managed to break the piano stool he was sitting on and then use what remained of it to attack the piano.
Several minutes late for our meeting at the Café Keyzer next to the Concergebouw, Misha entered at high speed (quite unlike his stately arrivals on stage) and ordered an espresso and a large cup of milk, before marking on my map the exact location of BVHaast, which turned out to be the only place in Amsterdam where I could find his albums. (One record shop owner earlier told me his entire Mengelberg stock had been bought up several weeks earlier by an avid collector named Thurston Moore, guitarist of Sonic Youth!)
Do you come from a musical family?
I didn't want to become a musician. I wanted to become an architect. It's a nice profession. My grandfather was an architect, so it's also a family trait, I think. I started studying architecture, but then suddenly the virus took me, and I stopped, and went to the Conservatory in The Hague. I didn't study piano; I never wanted to practice. I studied musical theory,classical counterpoint, things like that. I liked that very much. I was already composing, so I was also in the composition class there.
You became quickly associated with the avant-garde, Fluxus thing...
That was what I liked at that time, very much. We started Fluxus-like types of things towards the end of the Fifties. (At this point, his lunch, an open ham sandwich with two fried eggs on top, arrives. The following several minutes of conversation are punctuated by long silences as he attacks it with relish.) At that point we were independent of Fluxus, we had a group, which I was a member of. We did things that were similar to Fluxus. We made contact with Fluxus, and we asked them to come to Holland and join forces, for some concerts.
What was musical life like in Holland at the time?
Extremely dull. (Long pause.) Heine’s saying still applies, which was, or is, that in Holland everything seems to happen thirty years later. (Laughter.) That was the situation.
So if that’s true, the things you were doing at the end of the Sixties, with the Nutcrackers, are bearing fruit now.
It’s better today than it was, I think. But still, I think, Holland has a great love for traditionalism. The Dutch are very conservative-minded, but they love their freedom. So, they don’t like to bother people with inhibitions that are old-world; concerning drugs, for example. I think drugs are a matter of personal choice for people, those people who want to do that. The French don’t like that. The French are very old-fashioned.
When did the jazz start?
The jazz was already in by then. I was trying to find people to play with. Sometime in the late Fifties I managed to find musicians.
How did you get in touch with Eric Dolphy?
He wanted to come to Europe, to Holland, and to play with local musicians. We were ready for him, and so he met us... He was not very content with me, I think.
Why not? It sounds as though it worked very well...
It did, I think. I liked his playing very much, but I did not like his composition. His composition was not in the same category as his playing. In his composition, in the things I heard, he was more or less conventional. There was not the break from convention that was there in his playing. But we managed, and we played a week. We were on speaking terms.
You issued a live bootleg recording of Dolphy on ICP records...
Yes, that was a tape which Han Bennink got hold of, made by somebody in the south of the country, I don’t know exactly how. We liked some of the material on it.
Why did you choose to record your pet parrot on side two of the record?
Well I thought, as a player, the parrot was compatible, I would say. I think Dolphy would have liked the idea of combining his music with that. He liked to play with the birds.
Do you make a distinction between composing and playing piano?
No, certainly not.
Are you then playing when you compose?
No, but I recognize that similar things are going on, whether composing or playing. They’re both categories you have to take risks in. Any concept of sound may be risky.
When you start a composition, do you have a sound in mind, or a structure, or an idea? Or a particular musician or ensemble?
I don’t know what comes first. Sometimes when I have a sound, it can’t be used for anything. It’s part of an idea of something that is not yet music, somehow--or maybe never becomes music.
Do you make a lot of sketches, or is your composition more improvised?
(After a long silence during which he finally finishes the sandwich...) I look for gaps... What hasn’t been done in the field, and would be interesting to try... Speculation--that’s precisely the word.
You respond to individual musicians in a special way... if you’re writing a piece for people you’ve known for a long time, is it different from a piece for musicians you don’t know?
These last years, I’ve only written pieces for certain people. Not for anonymous orchestras.
You have to know whom you are writing for...
When you’re playing, then, you sometimes comes across something and say: “Yes, I can use that in a composition...”
Yes, that happens. (Long pause.) Or it’s the other way around. I remember in the Seventies there were some types of composition, for soloists, there was a piece by Birtwistle, which I think was for bass clarinet... and I thought it was a shame that it was all written down, it should have been improvised music.
So when you heard it you thought it was improvised, or you knew that it wasn’t?
You think that there is a lot in it that’s also involved in improvised music. George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Ab Baars, or Michael Moore, they do things that have a kind of complexity that is somehow very near to a way of composing. So I thought that it would be better for composers to give out the recipes, and...
...let the musicians cook.
Yes, that’s excellent.
Do your scores allow a certain amount of flexibility for “cooking”?
Yes... I’m always curious what they’ll do in certain circumstances. I think that’s the basis of the ICP orchestra. Curiosity.
ICP was started at the end of the Sixties by you, Han Bennink, Willem Breuker and others... How did that come about?
It started as a political organization. An organization that was not only into music but also into conditions. We wanted government subsidies. We said, if they can subsidize the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the opera, and the ballet, they can also subsidize some improvised music. So we went to The Hague to make demands there, and nobody listened. But when you go on like that for six or seven years, there comes a moment when they might listen. They don’t want to see you anymore. They’re fed up of seeing you. (Smiles.) So we started ICP [photo left], with the record label, and we sold enough records to produce the next record with what we made from the previous one. Even now this is still true: we still produce records with what we get from the records before. In the Sixties there was no interest in this music, there was no tradition for it... There was some interest in the jazz music at that time, not so much for the things that came out of jazz. Dolphy was generally seen as a jazz player, but I think most people stopped at Albert Ayler. I wanted to go further. I was interested in Ayler, in building on that...
Were there any other pianists that interested you at the time?
Not very many. There was Cecil Taylor... After 65 or 66, he was doing the same things over and over... He had this one-hour program which I heard three or four times. It was not bad, it was OK, all right... but he repeats himself.
As a pianist you’re more minimal.
I’m nothing as a pianist. I’m not a pianist at all, but I play the piano. It’s my vehicle to play. I’m absolutely unfit to play a horn, or anything else. I play what I think is needed there, to play. So it can be exotic or exuberant, or it can be harsh, minimizing the material. It depends.
Is ICP still the same organization today?
Yes, it’s more or less the same. I needed about twenty years to assemble the right musicians for the orchestra. In the early Seventies, the problem was that people either improvised very well or played written music very well. This difference is no longer there: they all read very well, and they are all very good improvisers. I look for these guys, and, given time, I find them. It’s easier now. I think also that by defining my requests in this way I was walking along a path that made it possible for people to develop in such a way. So, maybe by having ideas about what I thought the orchestra should be, I was not walking the path alone. People don’t do things just because I want them to do things. I say: “I need such and such a musician” and they say: “Thank you Mr. Mengelberg, we have other plans.” But I think there was a general understanding that this type of musician had somehow more chances of work. It could have happened anywhere, but we were, in a way, successful in our political acts. There was a climate until about three years ago that was beneficial for improvisers.
What happened three years ago?
Things changed. The government became aware that they would have to fit in somehow in the ideas about Europe that are coming from all parts of Europe, and the situation as it was here existed in no other European country. Maybe in Denmark... I think John Tchicai got a subsidy from his government... This music needs the same kind of attention, I think, as ballet, or symphony orchestras. It cannot stand on its own legs, financially.
But maybe you can work with these other media, write music for a ballet...
I hate ballet. (Silence). It’s very...athletic... The kind of ballet I’d like to see is... very old ladies knitting or something... Not a lot of... jumping about...
But if somebody contacted you to write a ballet for a company you liked, could you do it? Would you do it?
I might consider writing a piece for Pina Bausch. (Pause.) But, generally, ballet doesn’t interest me. I think that there are cultures in which ballet, or rather dance is treated much better than in the European tradition. In Japanese ballet, there is real space for older people. I’m interested in that. I find a ballet dancer who is eighty-one much more interesting than a ballet dancer who is eighteen.
Were you also in contact with writers?
Yes... in contact with a lot of Fluxus people who went on to do a lot of different things... (in true Fluxus spirit, he chooses this moment to open another pack of Marlboro Light 100s, close to the microphone, in such a way that parts of the following were almost impossible to transcribe accurately.) ...and also with a Dutch guy now involved in television... at that time, his background was more sculpture... Wim Schippers. He made very nice television throughout the Seventies and Eighties. In the Seventies, we made yearly theater pieces together, and I think theater is something that is very much part of ICP. My inspiration for making any type of music, anything, any attempt at anything, (here, having finished with his cigarette packet, he screws up the paper placemat into a ball) most of the time has nothing to do with music. I think art that is interesting is always connected with other elements. The aesthetics of art were never my starting point. If you asked me who my inspirations are in music, I would say more Marcel Duchamp than Igor Stravinsky. In a way, I’m more interested in the other arts, and activities other than music, as a basis for what I do.
So you draw inspiration from other things...
Yes, yes. I think, in a way, Dada never produced any interesting music. And I think Dada was one of the most important things that happened in art this century. (Pause.) I think Fluxus was a form of Dada, but in a much less ideological way than Zürich in 1914, 1915. Those Fluxus people were all rather young, and they did not have any general program--nobody had a general program. So it was a kind of meeting of people who did some funny things, that lasted for half a year, or something. From then on, people went out and did their own thing. I still see people who try to organize Fluxus concerts, but they do the same things as thirty years ago or so. I’m not interested in that anymore.
Where do you stand in relation to Cage?
(Long pause.) I did not like the Eastern philosophy part. But I have always been interested in Taoism, ever since I read Lao-Tse, this very little book with little poems in it... I thought this was the basis for a kind of world religion... not too bad: no gods, no nonsense... a kind of view of nature and its surroundings... But I didn’t get into wearing funny clothes, or into weeds, or any of that...
Cage also went through a Mao period at the end of the Sixties. Did that happen to you?
Not so strongly, no. I felt a certain sympathy... We didn’t know anything about what they were doing in those days... The ideas about the Cultural Revolution I had were completely different from what actually happened. We were not well-informed.
Speaking of periods, can you divide your work into periods, or has it been moving in the same general direction since the Sixties?
I leave all analysis to other people. I’m busy analyzing the work I’m doing now. I use all my skills to make situations as chaotic as possible. (Pause.) Maybe it’s not chaos I’m looking for, but... I want to amuse myself somehow. Sometimes I do that by wiping out tradition... whatever is needed to amuse myself. I don’t know if it’s music, or what it is.
When does a performance begin? When you walk on stage, it’s already something... You walk on stage very slowly, spend a lot of time with the piano stool...
Yes... yes... yes... that’s part of it...
Has the piece started before you come on stage?
Well, in a way, yes, but on the other hand, I never know what’s going to happen at all. I come on stage blank. (Pause.) No ideas. (Pause.) As though I am seeing the piano for the first time in my life. (Long pause.) I don’t know how I do that. I seem to forget and learn easily.
When you see a great jazz musician, even when they walk out on stage, you know something is happening...
Yeah, you think so? I’m not aware of it... but that may be the case. I remember I had a very strong impression when I met once, long ago, Thelonious Monk... that he was doing the same things in real life as what he did on stage.
How did you meet him?
It was the first time I saw this quartet, which later I kind of hated, because it was not interesting enough to go on for six or seven years with the same saxophone player, Charlie Rouse. (A very nice saxophone player, but I think he should have stayed in America.) I met Monk after a concert he played. I went to a place where local musicians played sometimes... There was Thelonious Monk dribbling in the neighbourhood of the bar, having his kind of cocktail... one quarter of gin, one quarter of whisky I think, one quarter of Coca Cola, and one quarter of Crème de Cacao... unbelievable! And he swallowed it just like that... I asked him to come and sit at my table. I was there with my wife. We tried to have some kind of conversation with him, but that was not easy at all, because what he did was, he listened to what I said and said to my wife what I just said... Then my wife said something back, and Thelonious said what my wife said, to me.
Like an interpreter...
That was the game.
It was a game... you felt he was playing a game?
I felt it was, yes, a game. That’s what he does with the music also.
And that was a big influence on you, in some way.
I think, yes, he was one of my teachers. I analyzed his stuff very thoroughly in those years, the Fifties.
The themes, or the solos...
Everything. The whole phenomenon. So the conversation game was added to that. I played a piece for him that I thought was one of his best pieces, and he said he had forgotten it. Never heard of it. “Criss Cross.” Never heard of it. So I said: “I’ll play it to you... you’ll recognize it.” I could play it almost exactly as he had played it.
In the same way as he did with your conversation?
Yes! (Laughs.) That was my revenge...
What did he say at the end?
He remembered it! (Laughs.) Yeah, yeah, he remembered it. And next year he came back to play another concert with this same group, that I now found dull, and they played “Criss Cross...” but there was something missing in the piece. There is a bridge in the piece that is originally eight bars, but he cut off the last two bars... I think he couldn’t play them anymore. There are some pianistic difficulties you know... I think it was the start of his group fading out. So he played an incomplete “Criss Cross” for the occasion. I told him after the concert. “Where did you put those two bars?” (Sings the two missing bars.) Those two bars, they are very well-constructed, and they more or less give an exposé of the whole piece, because I define the piece as a kind of study of making motives longer and then shorter.
I always wanted to know why Dolphy never worked with Monk...
Yes, that would have been a very good idea. But it never happened... That would have been a very wise move...
You spent a lot of time analyzing Monk, but do you do the same for your own pieces? If you approach the piano like it’s never existed before, do you listen to the piece afterwards and try to find out what you did?
Tapes. I make tapes. These last few years I haven’t made any tapes anymore, because other people make tapes. I always taped everything I played. It was the only thing I listened to. I didn’t listen to anything other than my own tapes. Which was of course very boring. But I had to, because it gave me clues about what had been going on.
Today do you listen to other people’s music?
I still try to avoid that. I go to concerts sometimes, for five minutes.
So suppose we put you on a desert island and gave you ten records. What would you choose?
I wouldn’t play any of the records.
But you can take them anyway...
Yes, that’s all right, yes... I would take the first yellow and red Monk albums. I would listen to them once. I listen to those records once every five or six years now. (Long pause.)
In your Paris concert recently there were parts which were very Bach...
(Taken aback) Bach?
Baroque-like melodic lines...
I would be more interested in Scarlatti than in Bach. Bach makes everything heavy. He made some very light and entertaining music, for sure... but that’s not the general atmosphere of the Suites, or whatever you hear... Things like that become heavy. With Scarlatti, who has the same bag of tricks, it all becomes light, somehow, and doesn’t press down on you. I like that concept more than the other one.
So you’re open to anything that comes in...
Yes... I love all kinds of incidents. A dog that wants to play the piano... whatever.
What about techno music?
I remember listening to music in a London disco some six or seven years ago, and there was only a rhythm box and there was a scratcher. I loved the combination, it was very essential, very good. Well done. Dance music brought back to a kind of essence. Very good. Excellent. But having grasped that idea is enough, I think... you don’t have to buy any records of that. It doesn’t go any further. People going to a disco don’t need any more than something like that.
How did the album produced by John Zorn come about?
We’d known each other for some time. He said: “This would be a good idea to set you up with a nice rhythm section, and play all those old pieces...” He heard the Monk/Nichols CD and recognized that I had a kind of be-bop training. What I learned in piano playing was by imitating Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and some other players, and then I thought I could add some kind of European thing...
How did you work with Joey Baron? He’s not Han Bennink.
Joey’s a fantastic guy. Very subtle, and precise. Han is in a category of his own. He’s fine also. We had some troubles some time ago. We didn’t play on an album for almost three years. But he plays his part in the orchestra very well. And I think that’s all right: it gives time and the opportunity to play solo. But not too much.
What are you working on at the moment?
My latest project... yes, I think there are certain projects going on... There’s one that takes place next month in Cologne, purely improvised music, and then there’s another in June that could be seen as a kind of follow-up to the trio record.
Any compositions, so to speak?
(With a great burst of enthusiasm) I just did a cantata, which was performed last Friday here in Amsterdam. The ICP orchestra was involved in it, with four singers... The text was about an old composer, a kind of birthday party... The composer is deaf. Like Beethoven. And like my father, who was also a composer and who was deaf in the last years of his life. (Pause.) I didn’t like the commission very much, but it didn’t seem to get in the way of making it somehow a nice piece.
This interview is copyright 1997 by the Paris New Music Review, and may only be reprinted for educational purposes.