An Interview

Mikkel Ploug, Sissel Vera Pettersen & Joachim Badenhorst

This interview was conducted by email during January-February 2008.

Tony Reif: Could you tell us about your background and early experiences in music, your studies/role models, influences and inspirations, and how you decided or got to the point of playing jazz/improvised music?

Mikkel Ploug: I started out playing the drums at the age of four, took up guitar at 12 and never left it alone since. I have been composing as long as I can remember. Curiosity took me through rock, pop and classical music to end up in jazz in my late teens. In 2005 I received my masters in jazz guitar from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague with a distinction for original composition and high level of performance. Since then I have been working with great musicians from Europe and New York. I’m very happy to be part of the young European jazz scene, and I get a lot of inspiration from my peers. Besides them, Wayne Shorter and Arvo Part have probably been my biggest influences lately.

Some of the most important moments in my life in music have been getting the bossa nova right on the drums at the age of 7, touring with Mark Turner, and meeting Wayne Shorter…

Sissel Vera Pettersen: My mom is a piano teacher, and there was always music in our home. I started dreaming about playing the sax quite early, but there was no teacher around. So I started out on the flute. When I was 15 I bought an old alto and practiced by myself, and then got a teacher a year later. He introduced me to Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Miles, Coltrane etc, and from then on the source of inspiration just started growing larger and wider. At 18 I entered the Jazz department at the Music Conservatory in Trondheim, and then I did my diploma at the Rhythmic Conservatory in Copenhagen in 2002 – both places with the saxophone as my main instrument.

As a kid I used to call my favourite music “flow music.” I remember I went to the local music store asking for it, but they didn’t quite understand me, and I didn’t know what else to ask for. I think what always attracted me were the improvised and free elements in music.

Joachim Badenhorst: I started playing clarinet at an early age and studied classical clarinet during my whole childhood. Discovering rock in my adolescent years I had a brief period of playing electric bass and drums with friends, and I wanted to stop playing the clarinet, because at that point I thought the clarinet was an instrument for wusses. I think it was also the classical music school system that I didn’t like. My parents then decided to transfer me to a very good private teacher, so I didn’t stop playing the clarinet. I got interested in different kinds of musics – started playing clarinet in a rock band, discovered jazz music, started playing in a klezmer band, and later I also played in a tango band for a few years. I learned a lot from playing in these different musical settings.

At a young age I got accepted at the Conservatory of The Hague. I’d just come out of high school and didn’t know that much about jazz, I only knew the three standards that I played on my entrance exam! When school started I quickly realized that all my fellow students were older and much more experienced players than me. So I pretty much locked myself up in practice rooms for the first years at the conservatory and practiced really hard. I was pretty shy too, so I didn’t hang out much.

The school was very international, lots of students from all over the world. I discovered a lot of interesting music by listening to what my fellow students were listening to, because most people know a lot of interesting music that comes out of their home country. So I got to discover a lot of jazz and experimental music from all over Europe (and beyond). And it was there that I met Mikkel, we were in the same year. He was one of the guys who made me realize I’d better get my act together if I ever wanted to seriously make music. I remember the classes we had together in the first years, some were a waste of time, but we had good laughs. Later we started playing together in different groups, projects, settings.

I am influenced by tons of musicians – the teachers I had, the musicians I played with, my friends, my record collection. Things outside of music are equally inspiring – going to museums, reading books, movies, spending time with dogs cats and other small animals.

TR: How did the three of you get together, and what was the process of developing the music like? Did you already have a concept and some compositions to work on, or did that grow out of jamming, etc?

MP: I had a few compositions that really didn’t fit my other working band (Mikkel Ploug Group with Mark Turner). For these compositions I had the human voice in mind, and when I first heard Sissel, who also resides in Copenhagen, I knew she would be perfect for the music. We started playing sessions together, just improvising and playing through different sketches, and we quickly felt that we needed to document this music. When we had a chance to add Joachim to the duo it was an immediate blessing and we all had the feeling that this was a band we had to pursue. We spent a week of playing together in Sissel’s house, and the music developed, as all of us added an equal amount of input and enthusiasm.

SVP: When I heard Mikkel’s tunes I felt really drawn to them and very much at home in them. Mikkel then told me about Joachim and I was intrigued by the idea of bringing in a bass clarinet, and the possibilities of a trio with this instrumentation. So we met, jammed, talked and had lots of good food, and right from the start the communication was just there, both personally and musically.

TR: Mikkel, you’ve talked about the music using terms like “a love for simple pure melody coexisting with a lurking rustic mysteriousness” and “the trio explores harmonic ground found in western classical music, Nordic folk, and jazz.” Could any of you say, from your own point of view, how you see your role in the creation/performance of the music, and how these different impulses, approaches or sources of material – composition/free improvisation, classical/traditional Nordic folk music/jazz, acoustic/electronic, etc. – come together in the unique way they do in this music?

MP: It’s really a democratic pile-up of all of our ideas, tastes and perceptions of the moment that creates the output. Some of the compositions written for the trio inspire us to “answer” with an open improvisation. We like to leave a lot of space for open improvisation and we don’t worry about what influences we draw from. Taking a lot of risks and feeling exposed is desired so that we are forced to go “outside the box” and into new territory. It’s really the sum of our tastes, ambition and luck (the muse). We are all fortunate to work with great musicians from a generation or two ahead of us (Mark Turner, Han Bennink, Marc Ducret etc), and in this group being peers makes the decision-making process very democratic. What seems to be the force of this trio is that all three of us melt into a sound really quite different from the respective bands we perform with. Our very different musical backgrounds serve as a very broad palette to draw from, and part of the creation process is simply to bring in bits and pieces and see how the trio catalyses them.

SVP: I can just join Mikkel here. I don’t think any of us had a fixed concept of how this trio should sound, or tried hard to send it in a specific direction. We just really enjoy listening to each other, and being in this space we can create together. All three of us brought our different references, personalities and aestethics in on an equal level, and the sum of this is the sound of our music.

TR: Nevertheless, there’s something quite compelling melodically/harmonically about the compositions, and they provide a kind of framework for the music-making here. Mikkel, as all but one of them are yours, can you say something about where these compositions came from, since you say they’re pieces that didn’t fit your regular quartet (Mikkel Ploug Group)?

MP: The first few tunes that we started playing, like “Chords” and “November,” came out of a period of trying to rethink the role and limitations of the guitar (read: the way I was used to playing it). That led me to finger-picking patterns in odd groupings (like on “November”) and extreme stretches over 7 frets, making new voicings possible. I have always been looking for new harmonic territory that satisfies my ears, and at the time the Belgian composer Ysaye was a huge influence. Harmony and melody is one and the same thing when I compose, I can’t separate one from the other. Both “Chords” and “November” can be seen as harmonic progressions that reveal a melody, or as melodies that lead to and ask for certain harmony. And as I move along, trying to see where a tune wants to go, I keep repeating phrases and letting them evolve slowly by a trial and error process. After hearing Sissel’s vocal range I wrote “Cathedral,” and the newest compositions for the group are written very specifically for Joachim, Sissel and me.

TR: And regarding that “rustic mysteriousness,” Sissel, are your vocal improvisations inspired by cattle calls, Sami joik and/or Inuit throat singing? And what about the idea of vocal spells (you know, like a sorcerer casting a spell on someone)? There’s certainly a trance-like enchantment in the music, but that also has a lot to do with the guitar…

SVP: I’m influenced by joik, pygmy songs, cattle calls, South Indian music, Inuit throat singing, Chinese opera, West African griots, Balinese kecak, birds….The traditional music of different people and cultures inspires me a lot – music that has evolved through history from a deep human need to belong, and to express feelings, and not from a technical or commercial point of view. These different styles are reflected in my vocal improvs, without me necessarily trying to imitate them.

The human voice is such a fantastic instrument, with an enormous flexibility and variety of timbres which I am curious to explore. It’s also very important for me to keep an organic sound in my use of live electronics.

TR: Sissel, could you also say something about your ongoing musical relationship with Theo Bleckmann? And Mikkel, you studied a bit with Ben Monder I believe? The Bleckmann/Monder duo is something that listeners might think of in relation to this music even if they didn’t know that. If there are some similarities though there are also a lot of differences….

SVP: The first time I heard Theo was with Meredith Monk Ensemble in 2005, and his voice just hit me in the stomach and made me cry. It was a strange and beautiful feeling of connection. I didn’t get his name then, but kept thinking that I had to sing with this guy someday. Two years later I met Ben Monder, and when he heard me he immediately asked if I’d listened to Theo Bleckmann. I didn;t know that name, but was very curious when Ben told me about a male singer who worked with loops and electronics just like me. So I googled the name, and there he was…this singer I had been thinking of for so long. A year later, both Theo and I were invited to teach in a workshop in Copenhagen, and we immediately connected and started our duo Audiopool. I am so grateful to have met him, because he is not only a musical companion, but also a dear friend.

I actually didn’t hear the Monder/Bleckmann duo records before we recorded this album, but since I met Theo I have listened a lot to them, and I love it. At Night is such a great album – the playing/singing, the musical approach and the compositions are absolutely beautiful.

MP: I met Ben when he lectured at a summer jazz camp for the Danish jazz scene that I took part in. Now we are well acquainted. Ben is probably the most exciting guitarist around today and I have listened tons to his music both live and on records. I thank Ben for opening my eyes to a lot of things, he is great. There are definitely similarities between the work of Ben and Theo and what we do, but we come from totally different backgrounds and places and I believe that is evident in the music. Maybe there is a closer link to Nordic folk music in what we do, although it’s quite an indirect influence.

TR: Could you say something more specific about the sound(s) you’re going for on this record, including your own guitar sound (what guitars do you use, and what effects)?

MP: This trio is my chance to write music that is more closely related to classical chamber music. The simple fact that we have no bass and drums also opens up vast possibilities of exploring other nuances of our instruments. Having Sissel and Joachim in my head when I write or play is really the most important sound influence. Regarding what sound we are going for I would say it is something that feels truthful.

On this album I’m mostly playing with a clean sound with my analog delay pedal as the only effect. I have discovered that the pedal when set to certain extreme settings can create ongoing loops that then can be manipulated. On a few pieces I use prepared guitar, plectrums stuck in between the strings and playing with a coffee cup etc. Just looking for ways to make the guitar sound not like a guitar. However I mostly like my guitar sound to be clean and pure so one can hear the detail in huge chord voicings, and for me high tension strings, high action and thick picks make up my favorite setup.

TR: Joachim, you and Sissel both play reeds on the record. Could you talk about the relationship between voice and soprano sax/clarinet/bass clarinet? Along with the guitar there’s certainly a striking variety of timbres here for a trio record, but I’m also interested more specifically in how you think about using these resources to structure the music and develop its expressiveness.

JB: I like to work on sound, to find different ways of approaching and creating sound out of my instruments. It is somewhat schizophrenic to play three instruments, but I try to approach them in the same way, like practicing the same things on each of them and spending equal time on all of them. But it doesn’t always work, and I end up spending more time on a particular instrument for certain periods of time. Anyway I find it interesting to see what different sorts of sounds I can get out of my horns. In this respect, someone like Arve Henriksen has been a big inspiration for me. He found a way to make the trumpet sound completely different, more like a flute or a shakuhachi. So I try to do that at times, see if I can make my instruments sound like something else.

It is interesting to work in a setting with voice. In the same way, I try to see if I can find my way to a sound on my instruments that is close to the human voice. It is great to work with Sissel because both her voice and saxophone sound feel very natural and close to me. So it is easy to interact and blend in with her. She has a beautiful, full and airy tone which gives me goosebumps.

SVP: I’ve often been told that I sing through the sax and play my voice like an instrument. To me it’s just two voices, and I feel they are very closely related in this airy organic sound, in the way the sound is actually produced and in the natural rhythm of breathing. I’m very glad to do both, because they give me more options in how to approach and express music, and also to join in different musical constellations. Tone and sound has always been my main focus in working with both the saxes and the voice, and it’s great to play with Joachim because I love his sound and phrasing.

TR: What was it like mixing with the famous, longtime ECM engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studios in Norway? Did you have an ECM-like sound in mind for this record from the beginning?

SVP: I didn’t think “now we’re going for the ECM sound,” I just knew that I wanted a very clear and open sound for this record, and that nobody could do that better than Jan Erik. It was his sound we wanted, so the idea was to say as little as possible to him and just let him do his thing. And we are extremely happy with the result.

MP: Actually we knew for sure that we didn’t want to make an “ECM record.” But we also knew that Jan Erik is a genius with sound. He made an excellent mix that blew us all away. He has an incredible understanding of how instruments blend and how to get the tiniest little details just right. His legacy with ECM of course speaks for itself.

JB: Great to be there, in a space where so much great music has been recorded and mixed. Jan Erik was very friendly and extremely efficient in his job. Impressive.

TR: How does this music relate to the other music each of you is doing these days?

MP: For me it is a blessing to work in totally different settings with wonderful musicians, and this trio brings out a more mysterious side of me that nevertheless is a big part of who I am as a composer and improviser. I find that writing and playing in more bands complements and inspires me.

SVP: Like Mikkel I find a lot of inspiration working with and writing for different constellations, and I’m always curious to see what can evolve from the meeting between different musicians and personalities. I really enjoy playing in settings with a lot of space – both for improv and for each musician. So I tend to end up in smaller constellations like duos and trios. I enjoy both the freedom and responsibility it gives me.

JB: I don’t feel a difference in the different projects I am doing these days. They are all similar in that it’s about making music, interacting with other musicians. I like it a lot to play with different kinds of players, I learn a lot from doing that, finding ways that work – to be yourself, but sometimes musicians push you in directions you’d never imagined yourself going, and it’s great when that happens.

TR: What are your plans for the group, and where do you see the music heading?

MP: It’s all very exciting, we have received so much positive response on this music even before the record is out. We have a feeling that we have just started this “new thing” and only the future will tell how it will take shape and where it will go.

SVP: It will be interesting to see where this music takes us, and how we can make it grow and develop in the best way. Hopefully we’ll get to play a lot of gigs, and in that way be able to continue shaping and molding our sound together. And then a new record?

JB: I hope we can work a lot with this trio, write more music, tour, and do more recordings. I’m sure there is more to explore for us – like you say, there are so many different timbres, textures, possibilities in this trio. It’s exciting. Yay!