Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Olga Magieres

Interview by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

In mid-August, I received a package from Grzegorz Wroblewski, a Polish poet who has lived for many years in Copenhagen. In it I found a copy of his most recent book (his only book translated into English to this point) Our Flying Objects, a stout copy of the Duke University journal Common Knowledge, and a CD entitled Piano & Poetry by Olga Magieres. Wroblewski's poetry appears in each.

My reading list being insanely overpopulated, as always, I put the book and journal aside for later sampling. The CD, removed from its colorful, geometrically designed cover of staggered stripes on a white background, went immediately into the CD drive of my computer. It featured Ms. Magieres' improvising some 16 tracks of music, together with five of Denmark's better known avant-garde musicians. I found myself playing it over again and again, hearing a different CD, preferring different tracks each time as I listened to it in different circumstances. An exchange of e-mails ensued, and a telephone interview was arranged.

Not having done an interview for some years, I was forced to cobble together the necessary equipment. Unfortunately, between Ms. Magieres's soft voice, interference in the telephone line, and a partial breakdown of the equipment, much of the initial interview could not be recovered. My loud voice, however, could be heard well enough to recover all of the questions, a selection from which was sent to the kind subject of the interview to be answered once again. The slightly disjointed result of all of this appears below.


GWP     How are you?

OM     I'm very well. And you?

GWP     Well, thank you. I've listened to your CD many times, and I've enjoyed it very much.

OM     Thank you very much.

GWP     You're more than welcome. It's a delight, and I'll put it in the rack of my CDs and listen to it often. Copenhagen seems to have an unusually large expatriate artist community. Am I getting the right impression?

OM     Berlin has a much bigger community than us. I do not think Copenhagen is much different from other big European cities with regard to foreign artist communities. But also here in Copenhagen we have lots of music, theater, and experimental music and poetry.

GWP     It seems like there's quite an active artists' community there.

OM     Yes.

GWP     Do you think of Copenhagen as being a particularly attractive city to artists?

OM     Well, Copenhagen... You have never been here. It's a very beautiful city. It's not too big, but it has always had a rich jazz tradition. I don't know if you have heard about the many international jazz concerts here for many years. In the whole country there are many writers. Maybe because it's so dark here.

GWP     Is that true? You don't get a lot of sunlight, at least during the winters?

OM     Yes. We stay in the house. Maybe this is the reason why they come here to write. I think a lot of people try jazz here.

GWP     In listening to your CD, one of things that strikes me about it is that you are perhaps not as jazz oriented as others in your community. Is that true?

OM     It is true that I am not at all jazz educated. Actually, I have never been interested in playing jazz. I have a classical education, in fact. Through the fact that I started improvisational activities, I've met other musicians. In this area most are playing jazz. We started to work together. So when those people play on the CD, to me it really feels like it has a lot of jazz. For me it's too much. But I've got to try to marry them together. For me, I like abstract, classical music.

GWP     In your biography is it clear that you have a very strong classical music education. Do you still play classical as well as playing new music, experimental music?

OM     For everyday life, I'm working at teaching classical piano. And, of course, I play classical music every day. But, when I perform, then mostly it's improvisation.

GWP     Now, you say "your everyday work." Do you teach classical piano? Is that your everyday work?

OM     Yes, teaching and playing.

GWP     Why did you choose to change to experimental or to improvisational music from classical (for performance)?

OM     Well, I did not change from classical, but improvisational music is basically what I wish to compose. It's maybe up to date. One day a friend of mine, an artist named Doris Bloom, asked me to perform at her Gallery Asbaek, in the city, and she asked me to play my music while she improvised her pictures and drawings, and then I got the idea to improvise music. It's my search for some more free way to express myself.

GWP     Do you think that you find it more exciting as a composer and as a performer to do improvisational music? Is it the excitement level of the community?

OM     It's very exciting to perform, and every time I perform it's somehow a feeling of being free. I like that. There are just good musicians here. It makes it very inspiring.

GWP     You actually perform with quite a few artists at the Tel Aviv White Night. Is that correct?

OM     Yes. I have been to Tel Aviv for the concert three or four times... the White Night Festival. Some of the musicians shared to organize the festival. They are from Copenhagen. They're like old friends. So we have connections. Also the festival in part was founded by international [grant organizations]. Some people who are there come from competitions [related to those organizations].

GWP     Are you talking specifically about Skraep?

OM     Yes. Skraep is about kind of instrumental concerns. We are also involved in international events.

As I learned, the group of experimental music composers in Tel Aviv was very inspired by Skraep's concerts in Tel Aviv, in the year 2000, and already there they decided to create their own festival of experimental music. Since then, every year, in the end of June, the White Night Festival takes place, and I had the pleasure to participate in three of those happenings.

GWP     It's difficult to tell. Is Sraep still a very active organization?

OM     Yes. I would say it is. We are not getting so much support these days.

GWP     What does Skraep actually do? What does the organization do for you as a composer or a musician?

OM     Skraep is just a forum, a crew of people who are loosely connected. We organize concerts, festivals, and other experimental music happenings. It is for practical matters: to get the money. Of course, we are all very different in our attitudes.

GWP     Do the members of Skraep get together on a regular basis to discuss each other's work? Is it that you discuss it with the members but not specifically at a Skraep meeting?

OM     We don't have any kind of club. Let's say we meet once, maybe twice a year to discuss the concerns of the organization. It's mostly about practical matters.

GWP     Where does the name "Skraep" come from?

OM     Skraep was a sword, I think. The word comes from Nordic mythology. It was a singing sword, I think. Skraep is a musical weapon. If you put it in Google, stories in Danish will come up that explain it.

GWP     You used to perform as a member of the MAF trio.

OM     Yes.

GWP     Was that also an improvisational group?

OM     Yes, entirely. And I`m still playing and improvising with Lotte Anker and Peter Friis Nielsen, from MAF, but often also in [different combination with other people], like on the CD where Martin Klapper and Joel Leonard Katz joined us.

GWP     Everyone on your CD is a member of Skraep, too. Am I correct?

OM     No. Lotte is not: Lotte Anker. And Joel Leonard Katz isn't.

GWP     How did you meet Lotte?

OM     Through other musicians. Peter Friis Nielsen played with her a lot, and maybe it was him who introduced me to her. She's very active. We're a very strange combination.

GWP     I did check her out on YouTube. I checked you out at YouTube. There are several different postings of her on YouTube, one that's actually a music video.

OM     Yes. She was in a lot of things before we formed MAF. We started working together in 1990-something.

GWP     It was 1993, I think, that you started the MAF group according to your bio. Under the 2001 Jazz Festival entry I see mentioned the "Salon Olga."What is the Salon Olga?

OM     2001?

GWP     It says "July 2001. Copenhagen Jazz Festival, organized musical events in 'Salon Olga'."

OM     It's in the bio? Wait, I must check it.

GWP     It's in your bio. Right.

OM     Ah, salon. I was the organizer of the musical community I called it a "salon" because it was musical and it was done with poetry. Usually, when I did it, every day, at a certain time of day, there was a concert. Sometimes art was exhibited.

GWP     It sounds like it qualifies as a "salon" in the French sense of the word. Having people come to the drawing room of a fine lady and have conversation and read their poetry.

OM     I did it in a very esthetic, old fashioned way. The public came and also were offered a drink.

GWP     I wish we had that over here in this town. I used to tell people we need to have that. But somehow we just can't get it organized. Now, "Henrik Nordbrandt" is the poet's name. Right?

OM     Yes. He was reading his poetry at one of the Salons in Huset. He was at the salon. He gets many awards.

GWP     So it was quite a coup to have Henrik Nordbrandt at the Salon Olga, yes?

OM     Yes. It was a very great thing. I was very happy that he agreed to perform in my arrangement, and the evening was very successful.

GWP     I see. It sounds like it was very special. Did you have more than one Salon?

OM     Well, I organized the Salon for three years during the period of the jazz festival in Copenhagen that usually takes place in July. I think it was about 30 concerts during this period.

GWP     Now the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, did you actually play jazz at the festival? Or were your performances all experimental, all improvisational?

OM     Then it was all jazz. But now they allow some variation. If you ask about my performances, they were never pure jazz.

GWP     You had something you called an "Encounter" in October of 2004, and I notice that everybody's name in the Encounter is on the Piano & Poetry CD.

OM     They were only some of the people that came. There were many more people.

GWP     I get the impression that that was the beginning of you putting together the CD.

OM     Yes, one could say so. I was thinking about a CD production for some time.

We actually did all kinds of things. We did an arrangement with the toys. I know that you have been in touch with [the poet] Grzegorz [Wroblewski]. He was also reading. The encounter was reading and music. All kinds of things.

GWP     And a few months later you actually had something called the "First Piano and Poetry Concert."

OM     Yes.

GWP     Now the "Piano and Poetry" concert, that's the same name as your CD. Did the people who got together to make those concerts start putting together music... Did you work with them to start putting together the music for the CD then?

OM     No. This concert was different but certainly the idea of the Piano & Poetry CD already existed. It was a kind of collaboration with Grzegorz. He thought it was an interesting combination. The name for the CD is also his idea.

GWP     I notice, listening to the CD, one of the things that is a little surprising is that, while there is poetry printed on the jacket, there is no poetry read on the CD.

OM     Yes. I decided I wanted to do only music. The music on the CD is the poetry. The cover and the CD make a match so that all the product (the cover, poetry on the cover and the music on the CD) becomes one piece of art.

GWP     The poetry does appear on the packaging. So it still remains "Piano and Poetry."

OM     So it's intentional. The text is strong.

GWP     It sounds like—from something you had said earlier—that there is actually more support for poetry than there is for experimental music. Is that true?

OM     No, I actually think that most artists and writers from experimental stage get less support then before... but I do not know exact numbers.

GWP     It sounded like you had said on a couple of different occasions you were having trouble these days getting grant monies, and it seemed like you might be saying it, in part, because the poets weren't as pleased with...

OM     There is lots of poetry performances. No, I did not say anything like that with the poets, but I was speaking about great interest for poetry here in Denmark and Copenhagen especially. I [meant that] there are quite many occasions where poets read their poetry in public.

GWP     They cut back from what they used to offer in grant money.

OM     Yes. Yes. They want us to be more American. (Laughter)

GWP     For real. I completely understand that. Let me come back to the CD. How much of the music of the CD is composed and how much of it is improvised?

OM     The whole CD is improvised. We have been working... You could call it composed. The music on CD is an "instant composition."

GWP     Is there any such thing as a score for any of these pieces?

OM     If you mean on a piece of paper, no. There were notes and observations but not a score in a traditional sense.

GWP     In going through YouTube to some of the things that are being done in experimental music today, I noticed that a number of the different groups seemed to have an electronic board that they used for a score, and that the board seems to have let them know how the music's coming together and what instrument should come in next. Are you familiar with that?

OM     We are not using that. We play and then we discuss what we did.

GWP     The Joel Leonard Katz pieces, you played very normal popular piano behind them. The improvisation is in how Katz performs the song.

OM     Yes, for those two songs. The music must indicate where we are. I love those songs. Many people do.

GWP     It would be very difficult to do it without a main instrument keeping the original tune, so people were reminded what the rest were improvising away from. Is he having excellent success with the vocals like that?

OM     Joel Leonard Katz is an anthropologist in his profession, but he did work quite a lot with an experimental singing and performed many times with me—as I find his way very interesting and different. In the concerts the reaction from the public usually was very strong and positive.

GWP     I have to say that at first I wasn't impressed, but as I listen to it more and more I become more impressed with how well it works. On the CD, Lotte Anker's pieces seem more subdued than the playing she does elsewhere. Was that intentional?

OM     At first the sound technician Jakob Bjoern did the sound design as he liked it, and then I listened to it many times and accepted his decisions.

GWP     Throughout the CD, she doesn't do any of the (if I can use the word without seeming to denigrate it) "noise" with her saxophone, she doesn't do any of the special effects. Did you want it to be more musical and have fewer of those effects, is that intentional?

OM     The way Lotte plays on the CD is totally her own choice. But we did some rehearsals where we discussed what sound we would like for the whole picture of each piece. I wanted the saxophone a bit in the background. But it's very important that it's there.

GWP     One of the reasons I say she is more subdued on your CD is because elsewhere when she performs, in the examples I've been able to see, she seems to like to dominate the audience.

OM     I tell her on my CD she must calm down. I don't think me and Lotte had any problems finding a balance in the music on the CD.

GWP     Especially in the first few tracks of the CD, you do the toys quite a bit. It seems like you lead in with a lot of toys, and then as the CD goes on, they are here and there throughout but you don't use them nearly as much. Is that again intentional? Did you decide to have some tracks where you put this musician in the foreground, with the others playing behind, then another track where you changed the musician that was in the foreground?

OM     The first day we recorded "the days" and the quartet, "States of mind," and the day after all the pieces with toys and the voice.

To create a variation of moods and different sound pictures, I decided to put the music in the order that you see now. It took many hours of listening to take this decision so that the whole CD became like one composition and can be listened to as such.

GWP     You seem to... For short periods... Perhaps in the track that is entitled "Wednesday I," you seem to go into jazz there a little bit, but otherwise you seem to be... I have my suspicions that it's more classical. Is that a pretty good take on that?

OM     I think that is more jazz. You very much got it. Yes, if one wants to think in terms of classic or jazz. For me it's just my own expression in music. But of course my background is classical.

GWP     Do you think that the four tracks entitled "States of Mind" have more of a classical basis? At times it seems to me that I hear bars that are very similar to some classical music.

OM     Sure, I agree. But, I did not consciously think about any particular other composer... During my studies I used to listen a lot to composers like Alban Berg, Schoenberg, Hugo Wolff? Maybe that's "under my skin"?

GWP     Your piano in places seems to be more jazz, especially on "Wednesday I," in concert with the rest of the players, but it seems to me on "States of Mind" that the piano sounds more classical.

OM     Maybe I will have to listen to that again.

GWP     This is your CD, but the piano is not necessarily the dominant instrument.

OM     Well, the music is a concert for a piano and an ensemble. Piano is just a part of the group, and each instrument is irreplaceable. I actually think that the piano is quite clear and representative on the CD. I called the CD an Olga Magieres CD because it's me who created the idea for the work and I instructed the whole production, musically and the technical side of it.

GWP     This is Olga Magieres CD. You've played with Harold Rubin, am I correct?

OM     Yes.

GWP     And Harold Rubin, whenever he's on the stage, dominates the stage. You can see he tries to. But when Olga Magieres does her CD, she doesn't take that dominant, front role. She doesn't step up in front and say, "This is my CD. This is Olga's CD."

OM     I do not completely agree. I think I do say it's my CD, but it's of course a CD that could not be produced without all the other musicians who are chosen for the project and who created the music together with me.

GWP     Do you think that caused you any difficulty getting a CD out? Do you think it will cause any difficulty with future CDs? That you don't try to dominate?

OM     The CD is my product. If it's not what the fashion is, that's fine. It is for the public, yes. It is a product, but it is my work. I think the music on the CD is fun. But I don't want to dominate anyone.

GWP     Do you think that leaves you at any disadvantage with all the people out there making much louder noise? Grabbing the audience by the shirt collar and shaking them around?

OM     Yes and no. Different ways of playing bring different colors out, and that can be very inspiring. For instance, I never experienced anybody playing louder than Tetsuo Furudate, the noise composer from Tokyo. My first performance with Tetsuo was a shocking experience for me. It was some concerts in Stockholm we did together. But I found a kind of a poetical side in the violent attitude to sound that apparently many Japanese musicians fancy. It's hard for the ears, though, and I wouldn't work with noise too often, but it's fascinating.

GWP     Thank you for being so generous with your time.

OM     Thank you for your interest in my music and the CD!