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Gene Coleman – „The wide field of sound“

The „Sound Field“-Festival in Chicago, always good for causing a stir in America’s progressive scene, is one of his foundings. Consequently also it‘s European counterpart „Transonic“ in the „Haus der Kulturen der Welt“ (House Of World’s Cultures) in Berlin is under his supervision and artistic directory: Gene Coleman, himself a musician, a sound artist as well as cultural visionary. [>>> deutsche Version]

Gene Coleman

Musically speaking, Coleman is counted among the periphery of Anthony Braxton. He himself freely admits to be strongly influenced by the Chicago scene, especially the AACM.

Carina Prange talked to Gene Coleman in Berlin in connection with the festival „Transonic“.

Carina: You are the founder of the festival "Sound-Field" and it's musical director since 2000. As well you are musical director for the Transonic-festival in Berlin for the second time now. Can "Transonic" be regarded as a sort of Europe-based second "Sound-Field" festival? What are the main differences between Sound-Field and Transonic in concept and purpose?

Gene: Transonic is a festival specifically created for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. It has a focus around new music in non-western cultures, which is in accord with the general programing mission of HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt).

Sound Field is a festival of new and experimental music from all over the world, it does not focus on western or non-western, it is open to both. Western composers and musicians are included in Transonic only if they have a specific relationship to non western music. Sound Field has no such restrictions. However, since working on both festivals, there is a lot of overlapping. For example; we had Otomo Yoshihide as a guest composer for Sound Field in 2002 and then he was also featured in Transonic 2003. This overlap will continue, as I intend to bring some of the artists from Transonic 2004 to participate in Sound Field over the next two years.

Gene Coleman

Carina: We can read about Transonic 2003, that it (citation) "is the new production forum for current developments in the music scene: a field of experimentation without any adherence to categories such as New Music, Jazz or world music." How is it possible to make music without categories?

Gene: I think musicians make music "without categories" all the time. This is most true with improvised music. In my experience with Transonic, I saw musicians from very diverse cultures playing together very well. This would not be possible if they were thinking about their style or category as something that they can't transcend.

Carina: But isn't a category necessary to have something like a base for what the music is about?

Gene: From the point of view of promotion, this is certainly an issue. With Transonic, and also Sound Field, there is the challenge to make people understand what this new music is. Anytime you go in between areas that are understood as separate you have this problem.

But the problem is here in promotion, not in the music. The music must take the audience to a new space, that is what it is meant to do.

Carina: To transcend categories, doesn't that automatically mean forming a category of it's own?

Gene: This is another aspect of the process within the context of promotion in the market place. In the current global economy, with it's tendency towards categories – as a way of selling things – this phenomenon will occur.

It could be argued that the mind itself needs such categorization of information, but this is a more organic phenomenon that constantly moves between stasis and flux and has little to do with maketing of "products".

Carina: Another citation: "Musicians such as Gene Coleman, Liu Sola andYoshihide Otomo call traditions and the hegemony of a universalist Western avant-garde radically into question." - The main focus of transonic 2003 lies on the question if "New Music can be borderless and global and if New Music is eurocentric and blind concerning non-European music." Now that the festival is nearly over: how does your own answer to this question look like?

Gene: The experience of Transonic has left me very excited about the future of music – if we don't destroy each other. I have seen a new field of development between western and non-western, between traditions and experimentation. This I believe, is the essential material for art in the next 100 years.

Gene Coleman

Carina: One focus of your work as musician and artist is "trying to find a synthesis between noise and music and sounds". How much does that mean dealing with "chaos versus structure", what role do contrasts and extremes play?

Gene: I'm interested in the idea of "chaos and order" as a dynamic element in art. The same for "noise" and "music". In fact these things are the same, they just seem different. Chaos is basically a situation where we can't understand why or how something is happening, once we understand and recognize it, it becomes "orderly". I think the same is true of noise and music – our definitions change over time.

But there is a fundamental need for opposition within ourselves, so we keep finding new forms of it. In the present time there is a need to understand how "sound", which includes noise and music, is the basic material for composition – this is what I mean by saying "sound field composition". It is through the soundfield concept that I find a way of working with musicians and traditions outside of my original culture.

Carina: As an American, you are composing "New Music". Origin and background of New Music, however, come from Europe. In contrast to that there is an innate jazz-heritage in the USA; the M-Base-Collective around Steve Coleman created a new direction of jazz and black music on that foundation. Do you see yourself in the role of a mediator between the (European?) heritage of white classical music and modern artistic forms, as the possible founder of a new - maybe genuinely American – direction that preserves western musical ideas while exploring the music of other cultures?

Gene: My principle influence here is the AACM (association for the advancement of creative musicians), a collective of African American musicians that started in Chicago in the 1960s. I think the basic ideas I am interested in of tradition and experimentation, improvisation and composition and synthesis between non-western and western aesthetics are all found in the work of the AACM. For me Anthony Braxton, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Henry Threadgil were the most influential.

Carina: One of your mentors was Henry Brant, the pioneer explorer and practitioner of acoustic spatial music. What was the most important thing he tought you?

Gene: His approach to creativity, which is all about a probing, open mind.

Carina: It is Brant's concept to disallow amplification and the use of electronic means in his experimental music. Do you follow him in this? What is your relationship to electronic equipment?

Gene: I don't know if Henry Brant is against electronic music or not, so I can't comment on his thinking. For me, the use of amplification is very interesting and has been an important feature in my recent works. As for electronic sounds, this is also a big influence on me. I really enjoy musicians such as Keith Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura, Martin Tetreault, and others who work with electronic or electro-acoustic sounds.

I have a number of works that involve electronic sounds along with acoustic instruments. YAGO is a good example - it has amplified sax quartet and gagaku ensemble along with live electronics and guitar. And I plan to do more in this area.

Carina: You started Transonic 2003 with many musicians from Japan participating. In November 2003 the focus of the Jazzfest Berlin also happened to lie on "Japanese music, jazz and beyond". Do you see a connection there, a sort of recognition of your work?

Gene: I somehow missed seeing the info about the "Berlin Jazzfest" for 2003, so I don't know how close it was to the line up for Transonic. I think there is a lot of interest in Japan and it's culture, so it is not surprising that a festival would focus on it.

Gene Coleman

Carina: Do festivals like Transonic have an impact on the awareness of music and culture in western society and system, maybe even on a somewhat political level? Is music in general a political statement of some form?

Gene: I think music is one of the most political arts – not in a literal way – though this is also possible, e.g.; Beethoven, Kurt Weil, Cornelius Cardew..., but rather through the metaphor of cooperation. Generally speaking you must have cooperation between humans to make music and to make an orderly society. In this way music has been a symbol of power and/or order in many different cultures. In music the exception now might be some forms of electronic music that don't need humans to "realize" it in real time.

Carina Prange

Fotos: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin


© jazzdimensions2004
erschienen: 28.11.2004
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