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Guus Janssen – interview in the pianist-composer’s workroom, October 2007


Is there anything in this for me?

“I can play up a storm with my left hand. Autonomously. You almost never see that in jazz music.” Guus Janssen is not just an individualistic improviser, he is also a virtuoso pianist, a seasoned performer of his own composed work and that of others. “A composer can easily detach himself from the practice”, Janssen says, “so playing music yourself as well is enjoyable and useful.” His music is often about that of others, recognizable sounds, references and quotes can be heard in it. Sometimes they’re appearances that are deceiving, and often they last only a moment, just long enough for a flash of recognition. Whether it’s in Russia or in America, in China or Turkey, Janssen can sometimes move his listeners deeply.

uptown – downtown
“My first concerts abroad were in London, in the Nineteen Seventies. In Amsterdam I had met the English guitarist Peter Cusack, he was involved with electronic music at Steim, but also wanted to improvise on guitar. For this, he came to my home, together with saxophonist Paul Termos. Cusack was a member of the London Musicians’ Collective, a society of improvising musicians, and he had various contacts because of this. Through him I wound up in London at some point, and met more and more foreign musicians that way.

“In 1987 I played Misha Mengelberg pieces with John Zorn, like Number one and Broezimann, among other places at the October Meeting at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. After that, thanks to him, I went to Italy. Joining other musicians is one way of getting to foreign countries, but there are also people who send you on journeys, because they feel your music should be heard across the border. Valeria Gorokhovskaya is one of them. She brings a lot of Dutch music to Russia, often commissioned by the Dutch Jazz Connection or Gaudeamus. She thought I absolutely had to go as well, especially because of this combination of composing and improvising.

“For as long as thirty years we have a musical culture in which all fences have been cleared away. Or at least people are looking over the fences, and if you want to you can step into each other’s gardens. This ease with which the Dutch move around within all kinds of different styles and genres is regarded as very extraordinary abroad. Here, you can go to the opera for affordable prices, and you rarely get the feeling you’re not welcome somewhere – in Paris or Berlin you really have to wear the right clothes and hit the champagne afterwards, that’s part of going to the opera there.

“In America the circuits, which they call uptown and downtown, are still completely separate. Uptown composers operate exclusively on university campuses, they don’t want to have anything to do with the music of their downtown colleagues who are experimenting with new forms, with jazz influences and electronics.”

“The first time I played in New York, with Paul Termos and my brother Wim, who’s a drummer, was at the Knitting Factory, I think in 1993. Two composers from the Netherlands – the audience associates that with someone like Milton Babbit, or at best with John Cage or Morton Feldman. But we didn’t present ready-made compositions, we were improvising along in a rather curious way. Composers who improvise themselves, that was unheard of over there.

“It is remarkable though that people sometimes already knew my music, especially in America and Canada there’ve been occasions when they started to cheer as soon as we got on stage. At first you think: they’re pulling our leg, this can’t be true. But then they began shouting titles of certain pieces; they knew about them and they were serious. I’ve been making records since 1978, and they don’t sell in great numbers, but they do sell all over the world. It turned out this had given me a reputation of sorts with aficionados and collectors, and they thought it was great to see you play those pieces in the flesh.

“A few years ago Verstelwerk was performed in Toronto, by the Esprit Orchestra under the direction of conductor Alex Pauk, with saxophonist Peter van Bergen, pianist Gerard Bouwhuis and drummer John Faber. It contains improvisations by the three soloists, and the piece is totally bizarre. How it deals with tonality, the higgledy-piggledy way in which it’s been put together. There’s some exuberant swing in it as well, but in an odd, stumbling way. And yet it’s very accessible music, it sounds like a kind of flipped-out Bernstein. Verstelwerk is one of my favorite pieces, and the director had a ball. The audience just gets this thrown at them, whammo, you can do it like this too.

“I had written the piece for the Donaueschinger Musiktage of 1996, Louis Andriessen’s Tao was performed there that same year. The writing commission had come from the Süd-Westfunk (Southwest Broadcasting Company) in Baden-Baden, I think they were alerted to me by the Radio Kamerorkest, which for years has asked me for a piece at regular intervals. My music doesn’t really fit in at that festival, it’s completely un-German. But the musicians and the audience were wildly enthusiastic, and afterwards Alex Pauk came over to me: we’re going to do this in Toronto. And that’s what happened, too.”

“In a sense, music is a language, but certainly not a universal one. In the Nineties I’ve played themes by Lee Konitz in a contrary way with the band Sound Lee! I approach these themes as things in themselves, totally detached from what was originally done with them. ‘Janssen completely missed the point, but he found an interesting new one’, Lee Konitz has said something like that about my approach.

“People seem to translate what they hear into something they know, to find a point of contact with it some way. Around 1996 I did two tours in China, with a trio and a quartet. The actual reason was that I wanted to prepare my opera Hier° with three Chinese opera singers. At the Shanghai conservatory I played them the cd with Landschap met een bleekgezicht on it, which starts with an improvisation on harpsichord. That instrument has a very low, lute-like and muffled sound, and I’m playing glisses with a trumpet mouthpiece. All sorts of things happen in that piece. The funny thing is, in Shanghai they heard a qin in it, their own archaic zither.

“They thought it was respectful that I took their tradition seriously, but I wasn’t aware of that at all while I was playing it. I do know that qin music, it’s lovely, and when I listen to music I’m always thinking in the back of my mind: is there anything in this for me? Apparently there was, and these sounds were given a place in my musical framework, so that at some point I evoke associations with Chinese music.

“In Turkey, people were really moved. I was there in 1993 with Theo Loevendie, Martin van Duynhoven and the Turkish kemenche player Ihsan Özgen, we played pieces of classical Turkish court music, but entirely our way. I was doing all sorts of things in the piano’s interior, not at all with the intention of sounding Turkish, I just liked doing it that way. But the listeners were thinking: this is beautiful, he’s making that piano sound like a Turkish zither.”

“So, thanks to Valeria Gorokhovskaya I wound up in Russia, among other places in Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow. The musicians of the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble were so enthusiastic that I worked with them extensively afterwards, we did a tour of Russia together. The Muscovites like to play Zoek, for harpsichord and piccolo, I think because it’s a kind of Vivaldi, but then in sixth gear. My music often has other music as its subject, that’s a quirk I inherited from Andriessen and his generation. In Zoek Baroque music is the subject, and also the search for the big triad, all through the piece. People sense this of course, it’s something they recognize.

“And yet, my music also leads to misunderstandings, for a piano duo from Bergen, Norway for instance, who played Veranderingen, a tricky, introverted piece. Initially it was all Chinese to them, they couldn’t place it. Then I rehearsed with them for an hour or so, told them a few things about the piece, and it became perfectly clear to them what I was aiming at. I don’t know how this works with other composers, but when I take my music abroad it always collides with the prevalent musical climate there. That’s inevitable. It makes a huge difference when I demonstrate or tell something. Right away, they also get their hands on the key to all the fun in there.”

A breach in the dyke, the promotion of Dutch music abroad, 2007, ISBN/EAN: 978-90-812526-1-4, Muziekcentrum Nederland (order at © Peter van Amstel - 2007