Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
In 1958, guitarist Jim Hall, in notes to a Jimmy Giuffre record, used the term instant composition to describe improvising. A few years later, Misha Mengelberg, knowing nothing of this, recoined the term, and it stuck. A quiet manifesto, those two English words countered notions that improvising was either a lesser order of music-making than composing, or an art without a memory, existing only in the moment, unmindful of form. Misha's formulation posited improvisation as formal composition's equal (if not its superior, being faster).
Yes but: Misha says he was thinking of instant coffee, stuff any serious java drinker (count Misha in: espresso cup rattling in its saucer announces his approach to a stage) recognized as a sham substitute, however aggressively sold. He deflates his lofty idea even as he raises it. He's also praised the instant poetry that came out of the Fluxus art movement he was involved with around then: put individual words on strips of paper, place in a jar and shake. Years later it became a commercial novelty: words on tiny magnetic tiles you can arrange on a refrigerator door.
For Misha mid-'60s Fluxus was inviting because it stood for nothing, had no ideals to defend. What bound together Fluxus's conceptualists, shock artists, early minimalists, musical comics et cetera was a need for a performance format that could accommodate them all. One solution was that symbol of '60s kookiness, the multimedia Happening. Those events belatedly helped inspire Mengelberg's absurdist-circus theater shows with Wim T. Schippers in the '70s and '80s, and the fluid play of styles, unbinding rules, lyricism and barnyard humor that characterize the ICP Orchestra today.
Nineteen sixty-seven, 30 years ago: Misha was as happy to think about music as play it. He said in an interview not long after, for me a few gigs a month is plenty. But his drummer of six years, Han Bennink--who'd sparked their little tours with visitors like Johnny Griffin and Eric Dolphy, and played sans Misha with everyone from Sonny Rollins to Marion Brown, (and a former art student who thought Happenings were contrived jive)--was as always eager to play, a lot, and working, a lot, with early Dutch punk Willem Breuker.
Willem was a kindred spirit on several levels. He had hellfire as a tenor saxophone or bass clarinet player, untutored enough (and eclectic enough in his tastes, jazz being just one of his interests) to sound like nobody so much as himself. He was also a conceptual composer full of odd ideas: barrel organ music out of John Cage; a piece conducted by a toy, which no one could see because it was for radio. Willem gives himself fair credit for helping to bump Han and Misha out of Monkish postbop and into a new improvised music.
Bennink and Breuker did a lot of gigs, and so made a record to sell at them, each cover a handmade Han Bennink original. They gave it catalog number ICP 001. Instant Composers Pool. And then, as Breuker tells it, Misha said, I too am part of ICP.
How innocently it began. Mengelberg and Bennink put together ad hoc groups to improvise music with a shifting foundation (sometimes with Breuker, sometimes not). They were already interested in the big picture: not just the improvised moment, or the shape of a piece or set or entire evening, but in how the ways people deal with each other off stage help shape the music. Each recalls, independently, fondly, a quartet tour where Derek Bailey and John Tchicai argued endlessly.
That confrontational aspect became stylized in the Bennink-Mengelberg duo, the most durable of all the formations to work under ICP's umbrella. You could look at that duo as a sort of loud violent chess game. Or maybe a fight between brain and muscles: Misha uses psychology to bend a duo partner in his direction; powerhouse Han can always elect to drown out the piano for an entire set.
Han kept working with Willem too, and both were already working with German free schoolers like pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and saxophonist Peter Brotzmann. By no coincidence, this is when the drummer really became the magician who can keep some breathtaking bit of drum business and some spectacular visual effect going simultaneously, in different tempos: ideas occupying different worlds, a mini-Happening. This is not so easy.
Early on there were some Breuker-Mengelberg-Bennink trio gigs which garnered a few witty negative reviews and other perplexed responses, but that molecule was too unstable. Breuker and Mengelberg never really got along. Before long an ICP gig meant either you got a Misha unit, usually improvising, or Breuker and company playing Willem's charts: the midsize ones often included Willem van Manen, Leo Cuypers and Maarten Altena.
In 1974 Breuker split--money wrangles, and by now severe mutual antagonism with Misha--and remade his splinter band into the Breuker Kollektief. Altena stayed with ICP through the '70s, period when the bassist with the double-jointed plosive pizzicato--classical bass attack attacking itself--developed from instant improviser to conceptual composer. When he left he began his long trek to becoming a composer-leader and then composer period.
Breuker, nine years younger than Misha, was hare to his tortoise. The Kollektief found its mature voice immediately, made Dutch music and humor marketable exports. Same period, Misha's first big ICP groups were habitually quite sloppy, despite some very good players including Altena, Brotzmann, cellist Tristan Honisnger and (slightly later) saxophonist Sean Bergin. Han as ever pursued his own self-contained conceptual ruminations on the bandstand, animating inanimate objects and making gloriously wrong and unexpectedly right turns.
These bands usually had lots of bleary saxophones, could make you think Mengelberg was trying to parody the Kollektief sometimes, but he denies it. Misha was looking for something of his own--or more accurately, players who could do all he now had in mind. By his own estimation and recorded evidence, it took him ten years to find it.
The modern ICP Orchestra begins to take shape in the early '80s when newer recruits Maurice Horsthuis, Michael Moore and Wolter Wierbos begin to emerge from the rumbling rubble of the '70s band. Violist Horsthuis and his colleagues Ernst Reijseger and Ernst Glerum from the Amsterdam String Trio put ICP's string section on a par with the versatile brass and reeds. Moore's jazz grace played against the violent coloring within the lines by fellow reedists Paul Termos or Ab Baars: Baars like trombonist Wierbos had a brass band/fanfare/harmonie background, leading to a peculiarly Dutch extraverted sound, which is not to say they neglected their Ellington models. Far from it. Ellington was subject of one of three '80s repertory projects that served, among other things, as object lessons for the younger players, on the value of pretty melody and voicings (Ellington), the construction and subversion of chords (Monk) and how to devise chord progressions that move in funny ways, with funny timing (Herbie Nichols. On the latter, Misha found a great ally in Nichols' friend Roswell Rudd). Misha is very picky about trumpeters, and with so many bad ones around no wonder, but the first time he heard Thomas Heberer at a rehearsal in Berlin, he said, someday I'll find a place for you.
Ellington wrote charts that A) borrowed intelligently from his players' pet licks, and B) designed pieces to let those rich stylists flourish. Misha is more B-oriented, but pieces are apt to address player's weaknesses as well as strengths. The ingredients are not always fully assembled when presented in rehearsal, so musicians have to do a little head scratching to figure what goes where, all the more so as a decent Mengelberg piece may have two strong melodies that work well in or out of counterpoint. Even rehearsing, Misha gives little verbal direction. Set lists, if any, are provided shortly before show time.
It was always the ICP Orchestra, never the Misha Mengelberg band, though he's always been its guiding intelligence. Glerum, Moore, Baars, Horsthuis and more have brought tunes to the band's book, usually because the pianist hadn't brought anything new in awhile (though there's a few CDs worth of unrecorded Mengelberg material from the band's '90s book).
Lots of good players have passed through ICP since it began to stabilize (its 'newest' member Tristan Honsinger had done an earlier tenure not long after ICP's 10th anniversary). Amazing to think that the modern version of the Orchestra that began in the early '80s--the one documented on two brilliant CD volumes of Bospaadje Konijnehol--by now has been around for half of ICP's 30 years. If a certain kind of Dutch music is about humor, theater, pan-stylistic references, excellent jazz chops, delicate writing and game strategies, ICP has touched on more of them, in less regimented and more fluid settings, than any band around. As the name implies, everyone involved shares credit: everybody in the Pool.
Source: © Kevin Whitehead 1997