Olga Ŕbalos


Free Improvisation, the most personal and individual of musical expression possible has always been a huge challenge for large groups. In Europe, since the outbreak of free music in the 60's, there have been several attempts to find the definitive amalgam, that which can make personal freedom and composition – i.e. using limitations – work together; that combine the inherited procedures from European contemporary music with the violence and energy that came from the United States in the form of Free Jazz. The perfect blend is still being sought, with and without direction or conduction, and within this process of investigation lies the point of bringing together so many people to play almost from scratch, without scores.

For Clayton Thomas (double bass) and Clare Cooper (harp and guzheng), Australian musicians who have lived in Berlin for four years, it seemed, as free improvisers, that the most natural thing in the world was to bring together 24 likeminded musicians resident in the German capital and form a new improvisers orchestra. The Splitter Orchester was born last April with the support of the ausland club, one of the centers of experimental creation in the city. Thus Thomas and Cooper continued the process they started in Sydney as artistic directors of the Splinter Orchestra, which they ran for more than a decade, whilst giving a concrete resolution to their thought: what more could be done with the fantastic local music scene! It was only a matter of time before something like this had to happen in a city that is so conducive to artistic development – lots of spaces, low rent and cheap food – and that in the Cold War was home to one of the most groundbreaking and interesting improviser’s big bands, the Globe Unity Orchestra, directed by pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and with Peter Brötzmann as one of its greatest figures. Of course, the Globe Unity and Splitter Orchester are stylistically and conceptually very far apart, mainly because the political circumstances were very different then and because the channeling of the latent violence in the 60s has today been replaced by a tension that is mostly achieved from the confrontation between silence and noise. At least one thing remains however: the intention of involving the public in the process of creating music.

The 24 players chosen by Thomas and Cooper are currently some of the best improvisers on the European scene – names like Axel Dörner, Hilary Jeffery, Burkhard Beins, Ignaz Schick, Sabine Vogel and Clayton Thomas himself. Most are experts in extended instrumental techniques and well versed in aleatoric systems and branches of electroacoustic music. The diversity of nationalities that makes up the group mean it is very heterogeneous but that does not detract from the discipline, as seen in the concert, to generate their own collective sound without a conductor. It wasn't a German sound but one that was culturally diffuse – is it a reflection of the current multicultural Berlin?, is it caused by the musical process itself? -, and almost stateless – European? -. Can such a large group make decisions collectively I asked Thomas? “Yes,” cried the Australian bassist before the concert. “We rehearsed for six consecutive days and for seven hours each day. We talked a lot about how and what to play”. And finally the repertoire was agreed for the launch night: spontaneous music combined with open form compositions. Nonetheless, the mediation of the two artistic directors has always existed like directors in the shadows.

The concert consisted of two sets of several pieces each in which were a combination of different types of compositions for improvisers. They began with a strong demonstration of group ability then brief work in sections: the winds, electronics, strings, declaring there was no escape from its great noise. With a masterly control of silence and duration, with concision and zero uncertainty, the sound was the greatest player.
The second piece on the other hand, in which they developed an open work where individual statements had prearranged timings, hindered musicality and put the musicians in an area that seemed too comfortable. It was a kind of showcase of extended techniques but one where the dynamics weren’t worked enough. Something that changed in the third piece, which seemed to oil the cogs of the musical machinery, was to unblock the pipes and to add a little more boldness and expression, though they never commited to creating climatic moments, as if they wanted to escape from certain expressive or emotional clichés. It was curious how as the concert was progressing one could forget the names of the musicians, as we saw them giving up their ability to play as a soloist. We could call it solidarity or collectivism.

In the second set they changed the rules of the game: now the musicians had a certain mobility around the stage and the audience surrounding them, which definitely seemed to liberate them. The interaction between them flowed more than ever. Achieving moments of beautiful sound, they weaved together rhythmic figures that were born and died in seconds, but helped to give an organic feeling to the music. They looked and played, but always respecting the precious silence and moderating their interventions to the minimum required, which meant everyone could have their space. In this musically freer second part, one could better appreciate the strong personalities of some of the musicians, which ended up giving meaning to their selection as part of the Splitter Orchestrer. The electronics section, as I heard it, went the most unnoticed and were the most diffuse.

If we understand the concert as the result of a work in progress, it was a performance of great musical beauty and intelligence made by artisans of silence and expert creators of tension, by musicians with strong individual languages looking for their place within an anonymous mass. At the same time, it was missing something of passion and joy, of dynamic contrast, it needed less extended techniques and more chinks of melody, and maybe even some solos. Of course, this assessment is influenced by the ears of a person raised in a Mediterranean culture that understands the expression of emotion in a particular way… Regardless, it is when we talk about these musical formats that pertinent questions arise and our prejudices as listeners are challenged. The audience must be involved in the musical process, as John Cage said, so let us ask ourselves: is it worth bringing together this cast of improvisers and then relinquishing their individual potential for the group sound? Without the physical presence of a director, how can the musicians handle their seemingly complete freedom whilst not falling into the self-censorship needed to create the group sound? And did I enjoy the concert? The answer is yes, very much.

Olga Ŕbalos (born in Terrassa, Spain, in 1978) is a Barcelona-based cultural journalist. Since more than 10 years she has been writing about books, cinema and music for different newspapers, music magazines and websites like the ones from TV3, the national Catalan television. She also plays alto sax and flute in several projects like the free improv octet IED8 and the big ensemble Banda d'Improvisadors de Barcelona.