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Swiss-Balkan Creative Music: Interview with Jonas Kocher (2007)

November 2, 2010

In April 2007, local musicians from four different Balkan cities – Skopje, Belgrade, Priština and Sarajevo – most of whom have never been involved in free improvisation, and coming from different musical backgrounds, had the opportunity to meet with Swiss musicians from Ensemble Rue du Nord, and take up the challenge of searching and finding a collective sound through free improvisation. The initiator of this project, Jonas Kocher from the ensemble, talks about this project, its conception, its development, and hopes for the future, while awaiting its next phase in November 2007.

– What is the idea behind Swiss-Balkan Creative Music, and how did you come up with it? Why the Balkans?

I have been many times in the Balkans since 2001. At first only as a tourist. I liked the region and the people there, and I wanted to come again, but as musician, not only as a tourist. I realized that there are very few people and places dealing with improvised and
experimental music in the Balkans.
So, we (the musicians from Ensemble Rue du Nord) decided to try to organize concerts there. From the beginning it was clear that we wanted to meet local musicians and play with them, because improvised music is (beyond the musical aspect) a beautiful way of meeting new people and sharing unique moments by playing music together. A concert is always something unique, depending on the people you’re playing with and the audience. It’s the intensity, hazard, communication, feelings… And I think it is very important for musicians to be in touch with others, to travel, to share moments, ideas, experiences. It gives me the energy, ideas and motivation to go on with my music. All these aspects are very present in the projects I’ve realized in Switzerland and Western Europe. So I wanted to do the same in the Balkans.
Besides these basic reflections, I find it interesting and challenging to try to build an improv-network between Switzerland and the Balkans and within the region. I have the feeling that it is possible to work things out here: there are good musicians, there’s an interest for new musical practices, and good people involved in the alternative cultural scene. If it works, it will bring the Balkan region closer to the European improv-network, which is very dense, and give the Western European musicians more possibilities to play in the Balkans.
Countries like Slovenia, Hungary, Lebanon, have developed for some years very interesting scenes (musicians, places, festivals, etc). Why not Southeastern Europe too?
The last point I want to mention is the political aspect. Trying to build an alternative, critical and lively network beside today’s capitalism is of great importance in keeping people awake and active (musicians and audience). For me it is the best way of being politically involved as a musician and organizer.

– How do you see the position of projects like Swiss-Balkan Creative Music in the overall cultural politics of the region? And also, what is the position of improvised music on the Swiss cultural scene?

I think that such projects thrive beside the ‘official’ cultural life supported by the governments. Free improvisation is subversive in itself and stays on the sides of the commercial culture and culture bourgeoise. The governments’ support to alternative culture is minimal compared to others cultural fields. I think that cultural/artistical exchanges and experimentations are low on the list of priorities in general for governments. Such projects are mainly supported by NGO’s .
This kind of musical practice needs engaged and passionate people to keep it alive and we have the chance to have such people and organizations here in the Balkans, which is the most important motive for starting this kind of a project.
The position of improvised music in Switzerland is a bit different but not really. There is more support from the government (for festivals, concert series and clubs) but many small venues of free music don’t have money or only very little. These small venues are very important in keeping the scene lively and allowing new musicians to be heard. Thanks to dedicated people it is possible.
Free improvisation has for some years been being ‘discovered’ by contemporary music festivals and high schools. It’s more visible but it is still being looked on as something exotic and not very serious by a majority of the people involved in the academic contemporary music scene.
– How developed is the network of artists in Switzerland?

There are about ten festivals (maybe a few more) yearly. You can find in almost every small city people playing improvised music. Musicians often organise concerts by themselves too – that means that there are many places to play and meet new musicians. The audience is often small but good.

– How did you meet the musicians in the Balkan countries? Were you familiar with their music before?

First I made researches on the Internet about free music, places and musicians in the Balkans. The only person really involved with improvised music I found was Bojan Djordjevic from the Ring Ring festival. I contacted him and proposed to meet in Belgrade. John Menoud (guitarist from Ensemble Rue du Nord) and I went to the Balkans in October 2006 to meet people interested in collaborating on the organisation of a free music project. I also got some contacts from some Swiss musicians active in the Balkans. After this trip I had a contact person in each city (Sarajevo, Belgrade, Skopje and Priština). Each collaborator was supposed to find interesting young musicians able to take part in the project in his/her respective region. The project wouldn’t have been possible without these local collaborators.
We didn’t know the music of the musicians we met in April 2007. It was a big surprise for us…and for them as well!

– What is it that you and the musicians were surprised about?

We didn’t know the musical backgrounds of the musicians we met. We worked mainly around sound and noise: focusing on sound/noise production, tension, interplay and on how to get a common sound with so many different people. We were surprised by how the people understood it every time.
It was at times something very natural, we had the same common language and we didn’t need to explain a lot, and we had great musical moments, even though we had never played together before.
At times we realised that this kind of an approach to sound is far away from the habits of some musicians. In that case you can’t explain and practice it within two days and for me there is also an ethical point: you can give some directions, ideas, and rules but you have to leave space for personal expression and accept what people are doing. You can’t control all the results. That is why improvised music can be so lively and surprising but also sometimes boring when people don’t know each other or don’t have the sensibility for this kind of musical practice.
Each meeting in each city was different, with very interesting results and sometimes also with a more conventional free jazz sound. In each place we met great musicians and also musicians with no experience with free music but with very good feeling and potential for it.
I am very curious to see how we can develop the work further on the forthcoming sessions in November 2007. As far as we [Ensemble Rue du Nord] are concerned, we are not the same musicians’ pool as the first time. It means that the inputs and ideas from the Swiss musicians will also be different.

– So, the musicians were generally receptive to the idea of free improvising – could you comment a bit more on how you went about presenting your ideas and how they responded?

We didn’t talk a lot about concepts and ideas, we simply played. By focusing the work on sound quality and concentrated listening, (most of) the musicians understood what we wanted. When you are playing and you really get into the sound, you feel the intensity, richness and energy sounds may contain. It is the same when playing together. You have to feel open and able to respond very spontaneously and quickly. When all these things work, you don’t need to speak a lot about music.
Bringing the musicians to feel this mix of control, concentration and spontaneity was one of the aims of the workshops. The concentration on sound was sometimes difficult to bring to some musicians. Some of them couldn’t enter this universe, it was too far away from their conception of music. And sometimes people also had difficulties with noise or abstraction. These two points are due to personal education, openness and knowledge about modern art. It is not particular to the Balkans, you can come across such reactions all over the world.

– Were there any specific differences in your experiences in the different cities with different musicians?

Yes, of course. We did almost the same work with the same concept in each city but the result was always very different. In Skopje the music was more melodic, sometimes with jazzy colors. In Priština we played with young students of classical music, and the music was very fresh and direct. In Belgrade, the music was more elaborate in textures and construction by the fact that we had musicians playing electronics and having more experience with improvised music and/or new music. In Sarajevo we only had half a day to work with musicians who had never played free music, so the result was very fragile and not always convincing but we met some interesting musicians who have a good feeling and interest for this music.
Another thing is that in some cities the musicians didn’t know each other and in other cities they know each others very well, which also influences the music. Naturally, it also depends on our collaborators in each city who are responsible for the choice of local musicians who are playing with us.

– What does a successful improvisation mean to you, in the light of the experiences you’ve had in the Balkans?

When you are playing and you have a feeling that the music is working by itself and that all the musicians on the stage are part of it. It then becomes so natural, making you feel like a part of the flow. You don’t have to think anymore what to play, you just do it. You feel connected with other musicians, the place and the audience at the same time. Such moments are rare and you are always looking for them…We had such experiences in some concerts here in the Balkans last April, and we are looking to have more in the future!



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