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A guide to contemporary/Czech improvised music.

The following article attempts to give a brief characterisation of Czech improvised music scene and provide a list of selected places where you can encounter contemporary Czech and foreign improvisers.

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Improvisation, in my opinion, occupies a privileged position in the contemporary Czech alternative and experimental music milieu. After all, the alternative musicians' gravitation towards improvisation is also evident in the closest metropolises, Vienna and Berlin, with the latter being the mecca of a scene that has labelled itself as Echtzeitmusik, so as to avoid connotations relating to the notion of improvisation within the jazz idiom. Others speak of free improvisation or non-idiomatic improvisation.

What does the contemporary improvisation in the Czech Republic actually look like? With minor exceptions, it draws upon the sources, many a time filtered by the previous generations of foreign improvisers, which (simply put) sprang forth in the 1960s in the form of spontaneous creations of such collectives as AMM (whose table-top guitarist, Keith Rowe, has been a guest familiar in the Czech Republic), and which a decade later were brought to bear in the work of such industrial and noise creators as Britain's Throbbing Gristle, Japan's Hijokaidan and many others, who in their interpretation of the principles of the pre-war avant-garde (who will perhaps never cease to resonate "other" music) have endorsed the sound's liberation from the swaddling bounds of composition. And so it is not uncommon to see on stage, for instance, a virtuoso trumpet player in a concentrated, entirely seriously meant duo with a non-musician scratching a piece of amplified metal plate. Or with a person playing a typewriter. Or to observe a soloist who, by blowing a baritone saxophone, whose microphone is driven by dozens of originally guitar effects, generates bass sound structures with occasional rock 'n' roll convulsions, while almost totally giving up on melody. Or a person who places all kinds of items on a turntable, producing wow and flutter. While backstage waits a guitar duo ready to perform a set in which not a single chord may appear yet it astonishes the audience with the telepathic interplay and the numerous unexpected sounds that can be drawn forth from guitars. And so on and so forth...

In this regard, contemporary improvisation is highly democratic, not putting finely honed instrumental virtuosity on the pedestal, giving preference rather to seeking interesting timbres and unthought-of forms of chime. The improvised music scene is home to plenty of soloists, plenty of ad hoc formations, many of them international--almost all improvisers are members of several, some of them dozens of, groups (who now and then get together to play or make a recording), appearing at concerts and festivals, on the stages of which they meet old acquaintances, with whom they have previously performed in various constellations. "Regular" bands, improvising every week in the peace of a practice room and only getting on stages once they have achieved the desired form, are rare indeed. The key words are happenstance, suggestion, nonfinalisation, higher or lower risk that it will fall flat on its face, spontaneity--striving in vain to attain absolute perfection. A few years ago, it was a rather esoteric pursuit (and it had usually blown in from Berlin) during improvisation to ignore the adopted twists and approach an instrument and performance as though it were the first time ever, acting as if the musicians found themselves on the stage by pure chance.

The formative nature of improvising, on the other hand, has been emphasised by its currently most agile Czech protagonist and promoter, the trumpet, clarinet and vibrating loudspeakers player Petr Vrba: "I have always had somewhat different experiences with improvisation, and the more I have devoted to it and the more people who have devoted to it I have met, the more I believe in its ability to transform one into a better person ... By means of improvisation, one learns again and again how to make decisions for which he/she, literally and word by word, puts his/her head on the block (the stage), and with repeated reflection polishing this ability. Such activity, repeated year by year, naturally transfers to the other layers of life too and influences, in my opinion, positively, the modus vivendi, etc. Just try to imagine our politicians bearing earnest liability for their decisions and even being able to reflect on their deeds in a responsible manner ..."

Besides economic circumstances, the number of soloists has also increased owing to the advancement in technologies--today, anyone can buy something that is able to promptly respond to sonic impulses and fit into cabin hand luggage (a computer, tablet or smartphone, a mini-synth). Zdenek Konecny, who has been organising in Hradec Kralove a series of music events called MENU, is of the opinion that the "current accessibility of audio technology and the breadth of its use has often led music creators to experimenting with its non-traditional utilisation or making their own hardware, which has resulted in the tendency to bypass the fixed structure of performances, as well as music itself."

In these respects, the contemporary Czech improvisers do not anyhow differ from their peers worldwide. Yet they do have, in my opinion, one specifically singular trait: they are not overly affected by jazz and composition. Whereas elsewhere in the world the link between wild contemporary improvisation, jazz and composition can be found in, for instance, the works of such universal figures as John Zorn or Fred Frith, at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s Czechoslovakia experienced a kind of attenuation, which was evidently caused not only by the political situation that ensued from "Normalisation". Innovative jazzmen, such as Jiri Stivin, Emil Viklicky and Laco Deczi, stuck to their professional careers and did not overly found their way to styles beyond the state-tolerated jazz. Free jazz was perhaps only programmatically embraced by the Free Jazz Trio Olomouc, while the Durman / Posejpal duo started in a similar vein, yet over the course of time they arrived at a totally singular, virtuoso, but absolutely non-jazz expression. The Jazz Section of the Union of Musicians, which was one of the precious few (and merely temporarily) experimental music event organisers tolerated by the authorities, deemed independent rock more interesting. In the 1970s and 1980s, the improvisation approach was tried by, among others, two legends of the Prague alternative rock scene: Kilhets and MCH Band. I would venture to say that the first modern improvisers in Bohemia were the numerous associations of musicians, non-musicians, visual artists and mystics bearing the bizarre title Zabi hlen (Frog Slime), capable of building hours-long, extremely suggestive and stratified musical structures.

"The scene in the Czech Republic is still pretty small, comparatively speaking, with few people that I would put at an international level of ability/ experience," says the American double-bass player George Cremaschi, who has been active in the Czech Republic for 15 years and, among other things, was behind the establishment of the large-scale Prague Improvisation Orchestra, within which Czech improvisers meet foreign guests and indulge in collective, controlled improvisation. "The important and probably necessary crossover with other potentially interested scenes (jazz, noise, outrock, contemporary 'classical') hasn't really happened, but there are signs that it is changing."

The blending of noiseniks and improvisers with musicians (many of them a generation older) possessing experience with classical and jazz music has been particularly pursued in his programmes by the organiser Pavel Straka. "I do not only aim for pure, downright free, improvisation. I also strive to incorporate more traditional, especially folk and classical, music structures into free-jazz playing, or, vice versa, to smudge them with specific sounds or lo-fi electronics. The result is encounters of different musical worlds, as well as generations--the almost 70-year-old Vlastislav Matousek flawlessly functions next to musicians in their twenties," he says.

Where to go in Prague

Here starts our brief guide to improvisation venues in Prague and beyond. The small space of the Rybanaruby club, on the borderline between the Vinohrady and Zizkov quarters, near the TV tower and Plecnik's church, may be considered by some to be too tearoom-like, yet Pavel Straka, who since May 2013 has organised there some 50, mainly improvised, concerts, finds the quasi-exotic milieu inspiriting. The music has always "accompanied" something, for instance, as background to silent Soviet avant-garde films, while on other occasions the club has hosted performances of the graphic scores by the painter Jan Steklik (check out the excellent album released last year by the underground Guerilla Records) and the poet Vaclav Vokolek.

Besides the aforementioned composer, ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist Matousek, those who have appeared on the Rybanaruby stage include the saxophonists Jan Grunt, Michal Hruby and Mikolas Chadima (MCH Band, ex-Kilhets), possessing ample experience with jazz, "Schrammel" and experimental rock, creating joint soundtracks and implementations with the noiseniks Radek Kopel (whose band, Napalmed, have become a legend of the global noise scene) and Jan Polansky (a painter who recently "bought a few gadgets"), as well as, for example, the unclassifiable Tomas Mika, seeking extended techniques of playing the banjo, and the hyperactive handyman, multi-instrumentalist (from keyboard to cassette players without cassettes), publisher and music journalist Jan Faix aka Count Portmon. For three years now, Rybanaruby has been a fixed part of the Prague experimental music map, yet it has also hosted ethnic music concerts, seminars and other events, and hence is not a venue solely dedicated to improvised music.

The one and only place in Prague that could actually be considered a venue of this kind is the Skolska 28--Komunikacni prostor (Communication Space). The white-rendered cube with large windows in the courtyard of a neo-Renaissance building houses several galleries, exclusively focused on sound art (the Dira gallery is just a socket for headphones, so make sure to bring some along). The programme and image of the Skolska 28 centre has been mainly determined by two figures spanning two generations. Milos Vojtechovsky has played with the experimental singer-songwriter Oldrich Janota, is a curator, teacher, as well as a hunter and archivist of sounds. In the 1990s, he held multi-genre symposiums at the Cistercian Monastery in Plasy, at which improvised music--particularly acoustic, often crossing over to sound art and original music instruments--played the major role and softly, mainly acoustically, resounded in Jan Blazej Santini's Baroquicised spaces.

In Vojtechovsky's universe, silence and nonamplified sound enjoy great esteem--and at Skolska 28, with regard to the building's character, it isn't actually possible to play music loudly. Petr Vrba, who is above all in charge of the centre's programme, explains that "at Skolska there are splendid acoustics for quiet pieces and delicate sound things, yet it is a disaster for noise and regular bands in general. Strings, for instance, sound wonderful there. Skolska 28 is a rather cold place, a former workshop, there is no bar there. I think that one can easily concentrate on something, easily get lost in the music, yet if you were to listen to it at some underground club, you would leave, as you wouldn't be able to get into it. Doing free jazz core or something similarly wild, or some noise things at some filthy dive, such as, for instance, a railway station pub, is a joy of another kind." Vrba's IQ+i, today perceived as a supergroup of contemporary Czech improvisers, have arrived at their compact, yet pure expression by rehearsing at Skolska 28.

Vrba's "joy of another kind"--a noisier, dirtier form of improvisation--agrees with the musicians grouped around the publisher and promotional unit KLaNGundKRaCH. No longer as enclosed as it was at the beginning, it has amalgamated with the culture-social fortnightly A2, and also encompasses the Blood in the Boat label and the promotional activities pursued by the French musician Roman Krzych. All the key figures have emerged from industrial and noise, and can be characterised as striving to be as unpretentious, DIY and soiled with the urban milieu as possible. Harbouring some bohemian traits, they like conducting their activities not only in clubs but also on various pop-up stages, including railway stations and pubs in general, places whose regulars have not previously heard anything about improvisation. They invite to the Czech Republic representatives of all sorts of world underground micro-scenes.

"In general, I consider improvisation a potentially very exciting method of work, yet I wouldn't define it as fundamental. I cannot say that, as an organiser, I have been seeking or prioritising it. The fact that improvisation does make up a significant part of the concerts we organise is rather determined by the current constellation of minority music. The 'noise' label, for instance, has been fading a bit, I would say. Formerly, it also signified a type of music which today we would perhaps deem a noisier form of free improvisation," says K!amm , the co-organiser of the A2+ series and a member of the Mooncup Accident, No Pavarotti and Fuck It Duet formations. "But improvisation is not just a method; it is, unfortunately, also a genre with its own idiom and clear-cut audience, which results in an almost unhealthy degree of predictability having got into improvisation. By and large, there is an unwritten system of rules defining how to behave during free improvising--the players can choose from among the settled manners of playing, and the audience can select from an index of fixed expectations. Well, I can't say I find this form of improvisation overly sexy..."

Those who prior to visiting Prague seek out an establishment that is a must for the ultra-hip will surely have come across the name Cafe v lese. Krymska street in the Vrsovice quarter has become a sought-after party zone ever since the activist Ondrej Kobza took over an old, half-empty pub and turned it into something Prague, it would seem, had long been in need of. The once rather unalluring cellar is now an attractive venue, one of whose regular programme items is the Wakushoppu concert series. Every first Tuesday of the month, the basement of the Cafe v lese hosts an improvised performance, usually given by two musicians or groups. The individual sets delivered by them are usually followed by a joint one.

"Over the course of time, we have grown together with the Cafe v lese basement, and it satisfies us. A certain underground quality is evidently pertinent to our production," says Tomas Prochazka, a theatre-maker, multi-instrumentalist and producer, one of the most active and most versatile music seekers in the Czech Republic today, who, together with the author of the present article, has organised the Wakushoppu concerts. The idea of providing a platform in Prague at which one can, free of charge (no rent, entrance fee and the performer's fees are paid), try out a new notion, present a fledgling project or simply play, has been materialised for the sixth year now. The publisher of this magazine, the Czech Music Information Centre, has to date released two CD compilations of recordings made at Wakushoppu as covermounts to the HIS Voice magazine. The concerts' complete recordings and videos are freely available online.

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... and where to go beyond Prague

The Divadlo 29 centre in Pardubice takes pride in a magnificent theatre hall and a smaller club. Even though it may not be down to the magic of numerals, similarly to the Skolska 28 venue in Prague, it can be deemed a distinct improvisation scene. The dramaturges and active musicians Zdenek Zavodny and Jara Tarnovski (who gets together within the Gurun Gurun band with Tomas Prochazka and others) seek to hold as many concerts as possible, and not only directly in the theatre building. They also strive to revive the genius loci of the university town and railway hub.

"We make use of, for instance, the Automatic Mills [by the Cubist and Functionalist architect Josef Gocar], the premises of the Pardubice railway station, the former Sirius cinema, or the officers' swimming pool in the complex of the former military shooting range," says Zavodny. "Over the past three years, we have held in these places a series of culture events, including concerts of improvised music. Perhaps we have best succeeded in this respect at the Automatic Mills complex, where we spent almost six months and whose spaces were extremely inspiring, allowing for great variability. When it comes to these unusual spaces, their genius loci definitely works in our favour. The events that took place at the mills attracted an unexpected number of visitors."

A similar emphasis on blending culture events with the spirit and history of a city has been placed by Zdenek Konecny in nearby Hradec Kralove. His MENU concert series is not primarily focused on improvisation, yet it affords improvisation considerable attention. Konecny does not build a single scene, seeking instead to incorporate his activities into the fabric of the city's life more generally, and so his experimental programmes have, for instance, become part of the official local festivities. Hradec Kralove is a university town, possessing a remarkable geography and modern architecture--with Gocars footprint being the most distinct--and Konecny makes sure that "the performances correspond to the given venue or locality. It's not a problem for me to accommodate a Baroque chapel to a production, not only as a concert place but also as, say, a non-traditional screening area, to make use of the multi-storeyed gallery of the concrete building of the Study and Research Library as a popup club with a packed programme, or a dive, replacing the regulars with a beakcore producer. Integrating an artistic performance with a non-traditional use of a venue is, in my opinion, a bonus value, which can serve as inspiration and motivation, not only for the artists themselves. I simply like creating a certain atmosphere, which is often more important than the technical (im)perfection of the performance. Of late, we have made ample use of Pilnacek's factory, which as a true brownfield complex represents a singular micro world affording plenty of opportunities for incorporating the grime of the industrial environment into the actual productions. I like it when I can, for instance, set up an impromptu noise concert on a pavement, whose duration and course, and the audience's response to it, cannot be estimated in advance. Our conception of improvisation is simply somewhat adrenaline-driven."

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The Czech Republic is a country with only one city with a population in excess of a million, yet in the east--in Moravia and Silesia--there are regional metropolises, Brno and Ostrava, each inhabited by approximately 400,000 people. The former occupies a significant position within the context of 20th-century Czech music as a place in which distinguished composers worked. In the 1980s, Brno was the birthplace of a remarkable offshoot of alternative rock and genre-unclassifiable experiments, with Iva Bittova being their best-known protagonist.

Over the past few years, the programmes of the traditional Exposition of New Music festival in Brno have been compiled by specialists in classical music and non-academics whose common aim has been to attain a blending of genres, to offer a non pigeonholing view of music, as well as to transfer concerts from conventional halls into non-traditional venues and spaces. Should you be about to visit the Moravian metropolis, make sure to check out a concert venue with the slightly provocative name Praha (Prague). Something is going on almost every day, and the fact that a space with such an audacious programme still exists more than a year since its opening can be considered a minor miracle. Now and then, interesting music events have also been taking place at the legendary Sklenena louka (Glass Meadow) centre and the Kabinet muz (Cabinet of Muses). The Brno cultural life has been markedly aided by the city's proximity to Bratislava and Vienna, which are closer than Prague. Hence, various international projects easily come into being.

The part of Silesia that is located within the territory of the Czech Republic has been above all connected with coal mines and iron-ore processing. Over the past few years, however, Ostrava has gained a reputation as a dynamically developing centre of culture. Opava, a small university town, a mere 30 kilometres distant from the Ostrava industrial landscape, seems to be from a different world. Improvised music has been thriving in Opava and Ostrava mainly owing to the activities pursued by the Opava-based association Bludny kamen (Erratic Boulder), whose director, Martin Klimes, is deemed by many, including the author of the present article, to be the major promoter of experimental music in the Czech Republic. For over two decades, Klimes has succeeded in facing up to the unfavourable situation and alluring audiences--in his native Opava in particular, people are accustomed to going to Bludny kamen without even knowing who will be performing. The organiser's brand is a guarantee of quality.

Furthermore, Klimes is a curator of exhibitions and a culture activist. One of his programmes the one-day Minimarathon of Electronic Music --has been presented within the biennial Ostrava Days, the leading festival of contemporary music held in the Czech Republic. He, however, does not actually consider himself to be a dyed-in-the-wool fan of improvising. "Only when I look back do I realise that the vast majority of our concerts, or better said, music-acoustic, as well as music-movement events, have been based on improvisation, or at least partial improvisation. I understand it as a natural modus of thinking and manifestation of contemporary experimental music. The initial intention was not to organise improvised events, that has only arisen on its own." While in Opava, go to the Bludny kamen events at the Maticni dum or at the Gottfrei centre; in Ostrava, they have been held at the Galerie vytvarnych umeni (Gallery of Fine Arts) and the Plato gallery within the Vitkovice Ironworks complex, which, as a tourist, you are bound to visit anyway.

Just like the other organisers mentioned in this article (I should also add Jaroslav Basta and his Ostinato in Ceske Budejovice--if you get the chance to take in a concert at the House of Art, I recommend that you wander during the performance from one room of the gallery to another, so as to enjoy the incredible reverberation), Martin Klimes has been involved in the Stara sit na novou hudbu (Old Net for New Music) association, within which promoters from various towns and cities have been sending to one another foreign artists, affording them the opportunity to give a mini tour of the Czech Republic. "The Divadlo 29 theatre is one of the founding members," Zdenek Zavodny explains. "The aim with which the association was established was to create a network of promoters and culture centres that were willing to support and present Czech and foreign experimental music. The Net's all-year programme consists of a series of concerts organised in various places in the Czech Republic. Its activities include the Hear Me! festival, held every year in a different region, with its programme being drawn up by the respective regional partner." Most recently, the festival was prepared by the Divadlo 29 theatre in Pardubice, and the two-day programme was opulent indeed.

Improvisation versus ...

This year, Prague will host a solely improvised music project at the end of April and the beginning of May, the second edition of the international vs. Interpretation festival, organised by the Czech-American Agosto Foundation. A major role in it has been played by Petr Vrba, as a dramaturge and producer.

"The first edition, in 2014, was novel owing to its stressing of the theoretical aspect of improvisation and its context," Vrba explains enthusiastically. "There were plenty of discussions, and the opportunity to talk about improvisation with George Lewis was for a lot of people devoting to improvisation to some degree a new, or at least refreshing and, I believe, inspiring experience. The second edition focuses more on the practical aspect and has several objectives with a common denominator, which is further support for improvisation as such--the scene itself, as well as expansion of awareness of it as a tool for some and life philosophy for others. Of significance too is that the festival will present a more comprehensive picture of the Lebanese scene, which around the turn of the millennium launched its activities virtually from scratch, and today is highly respected. Here I can see certain parallels with the Czech scene (the size, separateness from other genres, lack of concentrated support, etc.), which, however, is incomparable with the rest of the world when it comes to reflection. Who beyond our borders knows about, for instance, the long-term activities of Ivan Palacky with his amplified Dopleta knitting machine? Or who knows that the Czech Republic is home to such superlative young players as Tomas Mika? I think that the opportunity to talk to Lebanese (as well as other) creators about such topics can be beneficial."

The festival has also initiated several days of encounters between Czech and foreign artists, the results of which will be presented during its course. The dancer Julyen Hamilton will conceive a new piece together with five Czech and Slovak dancers in collaboration with Andrea Parkins. Within a three-day workshop with the Prague Improvisation Orchestra and a few foreign guests, Christof Kurzmann will produce a tailor-made composition. Several afternoon solo performances will be given at acoustically intriguing places in Prague, including the waste-water treatment plant in Bubene?, where three decades ago Czech industrial music came into being, and a number of acoustic installations and performances will be held too (either at galleries or public spaces). "It is quite a concentrated event," Petr Vrba adds, "one that evidently doesn't have many parallels in this country as regards its focus and extent." It sounds fabulous, enthusiastic, optimistic and noble. Let us hope that this event will become a tradition we can all enjoy.
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Title Annotation:focus
Author:Ferenc, Petr
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jan 1, 2016
Words:4273
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