Rob Armus was interviewed in Vancouver in November 2003; Marion von Tilzer added her comments later by email.
Tony Reif: Tell me a little about the your musical background and that of Aros. How and when did the group and the instrumentation come together and has there been an evolution in the concept? Current band members reside in Canada and Britain as well as Amsterdam, and I’m interested in those connections.
Rob Armus: Tony Wilson was the first creative musician I met and played with. I’d been trying to play bebop but listening to Ornette, Coltrane, Dewey Redman and Pharoah Sanders. Tony and I started a band called Video Barbecue around ’86. It was intended to be a band for exploring free jazz but for some reason or other it turned out to be a somewhat underground dance band in the end. But I learned a lot from Tony, percussionist Robert Baird, the scene at the old Glass Slipper. I was playing with Joe Williamson, Dylan van der Schyff, Tony, François Houle, we went a couple of times down the west coast playing our original compositions and improvisations. For a while I was playing almost every day with Tony, Dylan and Joe somewhere in Vancouver, jamming or playing on the street, wailing free jazz on Granville Mall till the police would come. Plus after-hours clubs, wherever we could play. I started playing with Joe when he was 16 and I was 21. Everything was really underground, gigs that would start at 2 in the morning. Anyway, we decided in ’92 to busk for the summer in Europe; Dylan was going to come but at the last minute didn’t so it was me, Tony and Sue (Tony’s wife) and Joe. Joe and I decided to stay in Amsterdam. I fell in love with the city; Joe didn’t, he decided he’d go to London but a month later he was back. There was a lot of creative music Dutch-style going on and a lot of opportunities to play. Han Bennink is a great and very supportive musician who hangs out everywhere including underground squat places and clubs and is interested in meeting and playing with new people coming to town, so we played with him in a squat and had a great connection musically but never managed to play together in any recognized venue in Holland. (Finally Tony, Joe, Han and I are going to play at the Bim Huis in February, we’re calling it the Impromptu Quartet; Han, Tony and I have also played a couple of times in Vancouver: in 2002 with Jason Roebke, and in 2000 I played with Han, Wilbert de Joode and Tristan Honsinger, pure improv gigs, at the Vancouver jazz festival.)
The concept for Aros with its current instrumentation (but not players) started in 1998 for music for a dance piece. It was called the Rob Armus group, and it consisted of me, Tristan, Joe Williamson, Curtis Clark, Wolter Weirbos, and Victor de Boo. At one of those concerts the violinist Rudolf Notrot approached me and was interested in playing the music, and I was interested in having a violin player. Marion was a friend of Rudolf’s. I was getting more and more interested in contemporary classical music, and found it interesting to collaborate as a jazz musician with contemporary classical musicians, so we started the group with Marion and Rudolf. For the first couple of years it was all my compositions, and when Marion started to compose pieces herself we changed the name of the group to Aros, which means different things in different languages. It has Greek references about working on the land; in Spanish it means “ring” or “loop”. We recorded for BVHaast in 2000. The relationship with Marion was about learning from each other: she showed me things about contemporary music and I showed her jazz, and now Marion is an improviser and I’m more educated towards contemporary music. The current band is an international group: a Pakistani/Scottish violin player who lives in London, a Scottish percussionist who lives in Amsterdam, a German bass player, Marion is Austrian, I’m a Canadian living in Amsterdam for 11 years, and John lives in Vancouver.
Marion von Tilzer: I started playing the piano at the age of 8, growing up always listening to (western) classical music. I learned a lot from the American pianist Suzanne Bradbury, with whom I studied for some years in Mallorca, Spain. Later I studied at a conservatory in Holland to deepen my knowledge of the classical repertoire of piano literature.
Along the way people had always encouraged me to write my own music and improvise. As a kid I had written my own songs, influenced by the pieces I was studying at that particular moment, but later I got so involved with studying the great composers and was so much in awe of their greatness that I couldn’t think of writing music myself. It was only after having spent some time at the conservatory that I started to miss something only studying the old classics, much as I also did enjoy playing and developing my understanding about the many wonderful pieces there are. What I missed was the expression of the present moment, and of my personal experience of this time right now. While and after finishing my studies, I started studying more and more 20th century music and soon started playing in the Dutch contemporary music scene at the Ijsbreker, meeting young composers and working together with them on their pieces. I enjoyed the freshness of the compositions and the space they gave to the interpreter, often being played for the first time. The recording industry definitely has brought a big change to so-called classical music for we can hear maybe 1000 recordings of the same Beethoven sonata by different interpreters. I didn’t feel the need to add another recording to the already existing ones, I wanted to express myself in a different, for me more personal, way. During my search I started hearing free improvisers such as Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, their personal expression was so inspiring to me – as fresh as it gets! The most complex modern piece by someone like Xenakis didn’t sound so different from a completely free-improvised piece. As I was looking to connect with improvisers, for a short while I signed up for a course at the Amsterdam Conservatory that was introducing Indian classical improvising techniques with western music/improv. The improvising in those classes was a huge step for me; it was as if I was starting to play the piano again, after all those years of being so attached to written music. Around that time I was introduced to Rob by a mutual friend who knew that I was looking to meet improvising musicians. Meeting Rob has been a great gift in my life, starting to play together and learning so much about improvised music, and through him also meeting and playing with other musicians in the field such as the jazz pianist Curtis Clark, who also has been very encouraging and inspiring for me.
TR: Rob, how would you characterize the mix of musical elements that you and you and Marion are working with now?
RA: I felt after years of playing free improvised music that I had come to some type of dead-end with that and was needing more form. Marion on the other hand had been playing very structured classical music her whole life and was seeking more freedom, so we tried to combine form and structure with improvisation.
MvT: I feel that in this time when through the mobility of society and the media we are exposed to so many cultures it is very important to connect with different cultures and be inspired by and learn from them. Learning about jazz has been a wonderful adventure and has made me reconnect with music in a whole new way, to recognize the similarities and the differences of the different styles – but in the end it is all music. In Aros we mix different styles, and in order for them to really mingle we both had to study each others’ musical background. Our pieces are often a mix of improvised and written material, something that had been forgotten for a long time in European classical music history, only in organ music it’s still ‘done’. But for instance all the cadenzas in concertos by Mozart and Beethoven were meant to be improvised, but have been fixed and only few performers write their own cadenzas.
The instrumentation of Aros is like a mini orchestra, with a horn section, a string section and piano (the latter often has the function of a ‘harmonic carpet’) and percussion. For the first record we did not have percussion, which made it more of a chamber group, but adding the percussion has given us a more drive, which I really like.
TR: Aros’s music is often compared to that of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. What is the relation to minimalism as you see it and specifically with their music? I’m thinking not just in terms of rhythm and repetition but also (perhaps) harmony.
RA: People sometimes compare my compositions with minimalist composers; they don’t normally say this about Marion’s pieces by the way. What happened was I found that if I mixed a rhythm in 6 with another rhythm in 5 to make a cycle of 30, it made for an interesting base for improvising, and many possibilities for composition. I came to this from listening to African music, and later realized that Steve Reich was using such techniques from listening to African music also. I decided to continue with exploring these techniques in composition as it stemmed from listening to and playing African music, specifically from Ghana. I’d been interested for many years in Ghanaian music, particularly a ceremonial music rhythm called abadja. I first got into that rhythm in Vancouver, Tony Wilson showed it to me, he’d been up in Banff at the summer jazz program in 1987 and a the Ghanaian drummer Abraham Adzenyah was teaching there. And ever since then I’ve been almost obsessed with this rhythm.
I never really listened to Philip Glass’s music until people started to tell me that some of my compositions reminded them of Glass. I checked out his music and sure enough I could hear the similarities. To me, Philip Glass sometimes sounds like simplified Bach. Often when people hear repeated arpeggios they will think of Glass, but he didn’t invent arpeggios. Michael Nyman was the first person to use the word “minimalism” when he was a writer, before he started composing, to describe the music of Glass and Reich and other mainly American composers, and people tend to associate Michael Nyman’s music with minimalism, although it’s closer to Henry Purcell. Purcell and Bach have definitely influenced Glass, and the minimalist influence that people hear in my music comes from them too rather than second-hand from minimalism. But once I listened to those guys I was afraid that subconsciously I was going to start writing like that, so I stopped listening to them. Plus you can’t really call what Glass and Reich and Terry Riley are doing now minimalism anyway. (I’d be flattered if people compared my music to Riley’s but they don’t.) What I find inspiring about Glass is also his personal story, how he struggled for so many years and had so much conviction about his music.
As for harmony, on this record there’s a lot of functional harmony, baroque and romantic harmonic language. Jazz is also harmonically very similar to baroque music. And also the use of ostinatos or if you like basso continuo is something I took from modal jazz as well as baroque music.
TR: You’ve mentioned Bach and Purcell as longtime inspirations of yours. What other “classical” or art-music elements are you and Marion interested in and what strategies do you use to transform them into jazz? Or is this music actually better called something else?
RA: I grew up listening to and playing jazz and popular music and only when I moved to Europe did I start to educate myself about classical and contemporary music. I got interested in Ligeti, also Xenakis, and wrote a piece called “Ligeti Western” which was a sort of instant Ligeti composition using improvisation, but had to change the title after realizing that an old acquaintance from Vancouver, Bill Clark, had also written a piece with that title that appeared on a Talking Pictures CD. I was interested in the polyrhythm 5 against 4 and wrote a series of compositions incorporating this rhythm only to find out that it’s almost impossible for jazz musicians to execute this rhythm live. The polyrhythm 2:3 exists in almost all folk music, and 3:4 exists in more complex African traditional musics, so 5:4 would be the natural development but these developments take hundreds if not thousands of years to incorporate themselves into vocabulary of folk or popular music so that people feel it naturally. It would seem to me that the next development of popular music rhythmically would be 5:4. Rhythm starts with one beat, then two against three, then three against four, then four against five. It’s used in Indian music but it’s jammed in as a subdivision of the beat, it’s not used in any music I’m aware of as a rhythmic base.
In some of my compositions you’ll find 5:4 incorporated into when certain instruments enter, and in the accents of a piece that may be in 4/4 or 5/4. In listening you probably wouldn’t notice it. For example, if a tune is in 5/4 time and there’s a musical line where the accent is moving bar by bar, first on the downbeat, then on the 2nd beat, then on the 3rd and so on, it implies 5:4. Rhythmic cycles themselves imply a polyrhythm in their working out: if you take 5 bars of 4/4 and 4 bars of 5/4 in the same pulse you are creating a ‘macrocosm’ of the polyrhythm 5:4 and a rhythmic cycle of 20 beats. For example in the piece “30” there’s a rhythm in 6, and another in 5, overlaid in the same pulse, which creates a cycle of 30. And in a way a macrocosm of the polyrhythm 5:6. So you’ve got two different rhythms, the Ghanaian bell rhythm in 6 played by the low instruments and a similar rhythm in 5 played by the higher instruments, creating a collective downbeat every 30 beats.
MvT: In terms of writing I was much inspired by Rob’s style of breaking the written sections with improvs. My harmonic and melodic inspiration comes a lot from my beloved composers Bela Bartok, Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt, besides all the many pieces I have studied along the way. I write quite intuitively starting from one idea, like a single melody that will then develop, or a short harmonic sequence, like in “Ostinato,” that is repeated and improvised upon with the whole group, like in Baroque music, becoming richer and sometimes deliberately leaving the harmonic structure for a moment then coming back to it. My pieces usually have a life of their own once I start writing them, unfolding their story. “Song of the Heart” started with the piano part in 11/8 which was inviting a dreamlike melody from the violin in 12/8, a Chopinesque way of using polyrhythms – where unlike in African music it does not create a groove but makes the melody float above the repetitive accompaniment, since the accents of the melody in the violin do not coincide with the ones of the piano part.
TR: You’ve written about influences from Africa and South America. Tango, obviously, but what else from world music is involved in your approach?
RA: Astor Piazzolla lived in New York when he was a child and heard a lot of Jewish music from Eastern Europe (klezmer) and was influenced by rhythmic groups of 2s and 3s like in Balkan music, and for his own music settled on the grouping of 3-3-2 (as mentioned in Natalio Gorin’s book Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir). When I heard Piazzolla I just took it for granted that this rhythm was a traditional Argentinean rhythm, but as it turns out it’s a mix of Eastern European Jewish music with tango sentiment harmonically. Great things come from hybrids. I incorporate this 3-3-2 rhythm in my compositions (e.g. “Train Song,” “Tango”) but I’ll flip it backwards at the same time, to have it 2-3-3 and 3-3-2 simultaneously for example, and then add another 3 or 2 to make the rhythm in 10 or 11 instead of 8, but still retaining that driving feeling.
TR: Improvisation is usually considered the cornerstone of jazz, and you yourself, and some of the other members of the group, have a lot of experience playing both inside and free improv, but in Aros composition is emphasized more than improvisation. Solos (where there are solos) are kept short and group improvisation is limited to a couple of pieces. To me Aros seems to be about highly structured interrelationships between relatively fixed musical elements, some of which are open to spontaneous variation and others not. To me there’s perhaps a certain severity about it, a kind of contemporary third-stream approach? In any case, individual expressiveness is kept within the parameters of the group sound.
RA: In the jazz mentality, rehearsal is usually minimal; if a composition takes more than an hour to rehearse it often gets chucked. But in this group I wanted to focus on composition but without constraining the musicians, I wanted them to feel free to express themselves, whether improvising or not. For example in “Rocket Song” I’ve tried to mix a chord sequence with complete freedom for the musicians in the improv part in the middle: it’s a chord sequence that all of the players outline in whatever rhythmic feel they choose, whatever pulse they choose (there’s no time signature), simultaneously. So hopefully the musicians feel like they’re expressing themselves and the composition keeps its integrity.
Personally, before Aros I felt that the free improvising that I was doing was beginning to all sound the same. I was seeking other ways to improvise. In some of the other pieces on this record, rather than having one long solo, everybody may have little sections where they improvise on a strict chord sequence within the rhythmic structure, as if the improvisation is a continuation of their part.
TR: Where do things go from here?
RA: With Aros we started out as more of an improvisational group, and after satisfying some compositional needs (but nowhere near exhausting them) it seems to be going back towards a more improvisational yet structured direction where the language of the improvisation is based on the pieces and concepts. A few years ago I sat in for some rehearsals of Cecil Taylor’s big band project in New York, where for nine months the band had rehearsed only strict compositions by Cecil, and then when it came time to perform, everyone was wondering what pieces they were going to play from the huge stack of compositions Cecil had written over those nine months (most without any improvisational sections in them). Finally on the gig the word from Cecil was to improvise, to play none of the pieces. He’d taught the band his language and it was an improvising orchestra that sounded like Cecil Taylor! (I was only there for a couple of weeks, but I heard that’s what happened.) So that’s the idea that we’re pursuing at the moment.