This interview with the members of Poolplayers was conducted by email during Feburary 2008.
Tony Reif: How did the group get together? What was the inspiration or impetus behind you four making music together? Arve and Lars, had either of you performed together before or with Benoît or Steve?
Arve Henriksen: I had never performed with Steve or Benoît before. I knew Lars from before. We played some gigs in Denmark.
Lars Juul: Back in 1998 I was asked to play a duo concert at The Copenhagen Jazz Festival in the beautiful round tower in the center of Copenhagen. A year earlier I heard Arve in a concert with a good friend of mine, guitar player Hasse Poulsen, and I was amazed by his sound on the trumpet and of course his vocal work too, so there was no doubt in my mind who I wanted to invite for the duo concert. After that we did a quartet concert with two Danish guys, Steffen Poulsen and Jakob Riis, and a trio concert with guitarist Hilmar Jensson. In 2003 I was looking for a third voice to join me and Arve for some concerts in Holland and Belgium, and Hasse Poulsen, who’s living in Paris, gave me some of Benoît’s music – and again, like the first time I heard Arve, I was really surprised by Benoît’s way of playing the piano. Unfortunately Arve was unable to do these concerts, so we did them with the great Norwegian bass player Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten as a substitute. A year later Benoît called me to say that the Baneliues Bleues festival would like to invite us. Benoît suggested bringing Steve into the trio work with his live processing, which I though was a very good idea.
Benoit Delbecq: Banlieues Bleues offered me a gig in 2005 and I proposed to everybody to add Steve on electronics, to have some kind of exterior-ear input and interaction in the music. Sort of a real-time producer – which made sense.
Steve Arguelles: Benoît my old mate dragged me into the affair, I’m happy to say. I’d obviously heard bits and pieces from Arve, who I met through my production work with Dhafer Youssef, who had invited Arve to be in his touring band. This is the first time I play in a band not at the drums. The impetus as usual is curiosity at what might happen and of course the opportunity to perform a live concert with musicians of this calibre.
TR: What do you consider to be the building blocks of this music and the concepts behind it, and how does it actually get made, what kinds of interactions take place? How much of it is performed live, and how much created through post-production processing, editing and mixing? The compositions are credited to Poolplayers rather than individuals – were there any scores, plans or starting points, or is it all freely improvised? How do you form pieces so that they have their own separate identity – or is that irrelevant?
AH: This is free improvised music, in the open meaning of it. Not so interesting to put the ‘jazz’ tag on this music. There are different moods when we play a concert, and I think the music on the record is more focused. Steve and Benoît can say more about the process.
SA: All the music is live and improvised with a few composed themes that get injected into the mix, either played by Benoît or Arve independently, or as a group together. The compositional elements arenecessarily very loose so that they can become part of whatever improvised soundscape we are in.
BD: I actually wrote a number of short pieces you can hear on the disc, we also played over a couple of old tunes by Steve. But one specific thing with Arve is that he was very much interested in playing by ear with what I would propose at the piano. Since trying it on the first gig that’s the way we’ve been doing it. I have the scores on the piano but I might as well choose not to play them. We did the same for the recording, we improvised very freely with a few orally given directions, and on the spur of the moment I could quote part of Steve’s or my melody or musical statement. We have decided to credit all the compositions to the four players because the music is the result of a collective and subtle interplay.
SA: Basically it’s quite a classic improvised set-up between the three instrumentalists; I guess I’m a little bit of a wild card and tilt the perspective a little. For my part I’m continually recording the three players on separate tracks, and bringing back into the mix chosen segments which are typically treated in a small number of ways: as time delays, fragments on hold or loops, frequency filtering, or pitch change. As a non-player in the general sense I have as much influence on the group dialogue as the three instrumental players, who are highly attuned to the input I’m suggesting, either as a reinterpretation of themselves or an addition to the setting. I did most of the editing as a kind of continuation in post-production of this role I have in the group anyway, and I feel an affinity with film editors in this approach. The editing is mostly about tightening the story and helping the flow, cutting out some dead wood and selective muting. The mixing is concerned with stereo placement and balance and not any additional treatments.
BD: There are very few elements that were post-produced, no electronic remix process. The music was played as it sounds on the disc, a very focused collective vision of music, with not that much editing in the end. I took more time to choose than to edit. I think this reflects the music we four had to play together – I think everybody really feels good about the playing. And our last gig last Tuesday at the Sons d’dhiver festival confirms it, it was just a deep and wonderful 70 minutes of music.
LJ: I feel it’s like a conversation between more than two people. Sounds from the instruments are discussing, arguing and supporting each other in a fantastic blend. We’ve all developed a musical language which we can communicate in through the music, so we, in a very organic way, can create a musical language together, a band sound.
TR: If the music is in some sense the intersection or outcome of a kind of soft collision between jazz, improv and electronica/ambient, do you think it requires a new kind of listening to appreciate? I’m asking for myself, because when I listen to it – and I generally listen to music on headphones, which this music is certainly made for – I have a tendency to drift away if not actually fall asleep. Sure, it’s the ultimate dream music – and maybe it isn’t speaking primarily to the conscious mind? There’s something slippery and hard to grasp about the effect it has – a constant slipping away from the usual horizontal/vertical (melodic/harmonic) structural and experiential logic of more traditional music, slipping also I suppose between the usual grids we’ve created to talk about music. For the most part it doesn’t seem to have a dramatic arc or destination, yet when it ends you realize you i have been taken somewhere, you’re just not sure where. A lot of it seems to have to do with gesture, texture, expansion/proliferation of sounds in space and time, overlapping intensities or states. Please comment.
BD: Yes I believe this is a very special music that has its unique blend and, first of all, momentum – a certain slowness, an idea of Northern territories I’m sure. I mean, two of us are from Scandinavia, where time is different – winter makes it different, particularly Norway, where I’ve been a few times.
So the momentum in this music is actually slow, it’s the pace we first played, at the very first rehearsal. The music offers also some fast artifacts of ideas, but it’s true I experience the same thing as you when listening to it, it brings me to a mental halt or something, and is very emotional, it’s quite funeral-like at some point. Imaginary anthems or prayers or something. Harmonically, Arve and I have a very intense communication, one that’s purely instinctive, we never agree ahead of time on pedal points or tonal center shifting. I call it ear attitude, we have a certain ear attitude that works extremely well, in that I can somehow guess some of the next directions he’s calling for, but I can also go against that. I believe there’s a relation to Bartok’s folk song collecting, in particular we’re I think involved in odd structural melodic forms and ornaments. Arve knows a lot of Norwegian folklore, and I’ve been working on imaginary folklore for a long time – I tried to achieve a certain research on my own little lullaby-system – so I guess we’ve connected in that domain with a lot of pleasure! As a paradox, because a lot of folk tunes are played with a hyper-tonal or modal approach, I don’t often use diatonic chord progressions, I’m trying to make them sound mysterious, with a different harmonic pace, and Arve constantly offers an open door to shift on demand – it’s a bit like hunting for gemstones or something, panning for gold, whatever – when we try we find something and then try ro develop it, it seems to work fine that way.
SA: Well those are all welcome comments, I don’t have a problem with music that makes one want to sleep, it’s obviously comfortable on a certain level, if it was irritating you’d soon have the headphones off. I would say that we are not concerned with any kind of virtuosic or demonstrative techniques or bravura. This is certainly not a new kind of listening experience but somewhat rare in the jazz field perhaps.
AH: I also fall asleep when I listen to music sometimes. I think that’s okay. If it gives you space and time to think of whatever you want, that’s a good thing about music. The intellectual aspect is very often too much in focus in music. I like it when music makes me remember, get nostalgic, melancholic, sleep, see landscapes etc. This music has a lot of harmony in it, but it’s not the traditional type of 2-5-1 jazz progression. The link to contemporary and classical music is maybe closer than to jazz chords. I like that.
LJ: As I experience it, the music grows and grows, new things show up every single time you listen to it. The form has a kind of elasticity, it all depends on what elements you put into it. From the beginning I have absolutely no idea where the music will take me. Sometimes you have an idea of where the music will take you before you’ve played the first tone, but it nearly never happens as you expect.
TR: What does the process of making the music actually feel like?
SA: It’s so much about listening, especially for me as I’m separated from my usual instrument – I have a miniscule physical input.
BD: It feels like a deep concentration, and a deep unconsciousness, both at the same time – I think that’s what music is about. Consciousness and unconsciousness – I think both parts are equally represented in Poolplayers. It’s a quite sensual experience.
LJ: Reacting, doing, not thinking, feeling satisfied by the sounds and what they do to you, and in concert, what the music and sounds do for the interaction and communication between the audience and yourself.
AH: It can feel good or not so good. You can get the feeling of moving towards something, almost flying, or it can feel like standing still and making you feel stuck in glue.
TR: Arve, how do you create your trumpet vocalizations? How do you get the trumpet to sound like a flute? And what kinds of things do you do with your laptop?
AH: An interest in sound-making was there from the beginning of my work with the trumpet. I’ve spent many hours on developing a warm sound, for instance, but not only that. In my opinion, the trumpet has a vast potential for tone and sound variations that we still have not heard. At one point, I think it was in 1988, Nils Petter Molvber lent me a cassette of shakuhachi playing, and I began collecting recordings of Japanese music, with koto, biwa, shakuhachi and other instruments. I let the music ‘ring’ and develop in my head. I was astonished by the sound of this flute and fascinated by its meditative and minimalistic expressive quality, as well as its roots in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. This made me work with tone and sound-making in a new direction.
Of course, before this and all the way along I have been and I am influenced by Jon Hassell, Per Jbfrgensen, Don Cherry, Palle Mikkelborg, Nils Petter Molvaer, Miles Davis, Chet Baker and many more. I have for many years been searching for sounds and moods in different corners – the Armenian duduk, Indian flutes, Balinese sounds, Mongolian overtone singing, Sidsel Endresen’s vocal sounds, electronic sounds. Over the last ten or twelve years I’ve been into many different styles and worked with many inspiring musicians and artists. Anyway, the trumpet sound has gradually moved along in the spirit of the shakuhachi. With laptop and electronics I can make sounds that can be difficult to do with voice and trumpet, but I also try to copy the sounds from electronics to the trumpet.
TR: Steve, what’s a Sherman filter and what do you do with it and what with your laptop?
SA: A Sherman filter is an audio envelope and frequency filter, quite powerful especially in distorting sounds – the manual is called an abuser’s manual, which is kind of accurate. So I use this hardware effect with moderation, it’s basically the kind of filtering that you find on the fascia of a Moog synthesizer and is the last in line in my chain of effects. The laptop runs a program called Usine, which has been developed by Olivier Sens, a friend in Paris, he’s programmed this to a very high level in respect of other music software programs, and he’s a working musician himself (a bass player). There are core elements which can be updated in almost unlimited ways. However, one needs an analytical understanding of its modules in order to adapt its functions in a personal way. This is where my limitations become evident. But Olivier knows what’s useful to a musician and what his users can manage in terms of programming. The end result is Usine as a mixing desk which routes the microphone inputs of Arve, Benoît and Lars to various delays and looping devices and the modifications I’ve built into the program. I like this program especially because it’s about the only software that is not totally linked to a metronome. I would hate to be tied down to a continuous timeline – perhaps this is part of the dreamlike aspect you speak of.
TR: Lars, how do you use electronics here?
LJ: I’m working with various live sampling and effects machines which I control by foot pedals placed between the drums, primarily in a coloristic way, not to sample groovy loops. I’m very concerned with the timbres and possible sound qualities of the kit, and I’ve developed a large acoustic spectrum of colors – skins, wood, stone, metal and plastic. But basically I’m a musician who likes to swing. Whether the playing is in 4/4 or completely abstract, my coherence and propulsion strengthens the natural logic of the music.
TR: Benoit, how did you and your engineer Etienne Bultingaire go about the multi-channel mix? Did you discover anything different in the music than you did in the stereo mix?
BD: We started with the multi-channel mix, and of course had a lot of happy moments discovering details in the music, in particular in Steve’s live-remixing ear attitude – so the mix made them sometimes more fair in term of balance, timbre and, primarily, geography. We mixed the multi-channel for the listener to be standing on the stage with us, sharing the acoustical thrust experience.
TR: What do any of you see as the relationship (if any) of this project to others you’ve been involved in for a long time, such as Supersilent, Ambitronix and PianoBook?
BD: It belongs to the same family of projects, except that, as I said earlier, I consider the music of Poolplayers to be the one for this particular band, and it’s a very precious feeling to realize this band has a rare thing. I think you have to look at quite a wide range of works if you want to consider my work as a whole. It can appear to be spread out in many directions – but my one and only direction is to find the right people and find the right music to play together. It takes a lot of thinking for the playing to get oriented in the direction of this or that project. But once you have the feeling that you’re close to your dream, well it’s a very happy feeling that can be heard in the essence of the music. This is how I proceed and I tend to think I’ll continue this direction in the future.
AH: There’s a relationship in the approach to making free improvised music in the open meaning of it, not free jazz because that is not always as free as it should be.
LJ: It’s a continuation and further growth of my work, which began with the bands Sound of Choice and Takuan back in the beginning of the ’90s.
SA: I think of it as part of the extended family of PianoBook; for me it’s the same process involved only there are the added voices of Lars and Arve.
TR: What’s the next step for Poolplayers?
SA: The next step for sure is to play live and figure out what it is we’ve created. New ideas, fine tunings are only going to happen from our get-togethers – there’s not much to be gained from individual improvements, it’s a collective effort. A lot will be determined by how the record is received by listeners – what’s the next step in general for music? it’s not clear, lots of possibilities, I hope we’ll be part of them.
BD: We’re getting some gig offers, a European and North American tour would be great – we’re looking forward to perform, and I’m sure the record will provoke attention from organizers around the world.
AH: Play more concerts and get more together musically to find and be able to create moments in music that are interesting for us and those who are listening.
LJ: And after a year or two a new recording for Songlines.