Keep the music alive and it will keep you alive - interview with Harri Sjöström

Piotr Wojdat

How was the last year for you?

Harri Sjöström: Well if your question is meant about my musical adventures then I can say that I am rather glad for a group of wonderful concerts with some musicians that I really like and with whom I feel an open and energetic common communication. This is very essential in the work we do. Of course all this reflects to my daily work and life very positively as also visa versa. It all belongs together in this.

What you’ve done and you are happy with it and what you’ve expected to do?

HS: In my projects I am regularly thinking of ideas how to bring different groups of mine to places where we can perform. This is a big part of my daily work. I am planning many things among others. I am working
towards my 3 rd festival in Finland „Sounds Visible“ (Soundscapes vol. 3). The “Soundscapes-Festivals” are festivals in a row: the 1 st started 2016 “Soundscapes X- Tensions” and the 2 nd “Soundscapes & Soundportraits” followed 2018 - this is one of the bigger projects. In Berlin I am curating the “Soundscape Concerts Series” since 2013 in the Finnish – German Art Space “Toolbox”, and also in the Gallery Wolf & Galentz as a new venue for these concerts. Mainly it is an art- Gallery but they like very much to have regularly contemporary improvised music there. I am glad about the results of these Soundscapes-Berlin projects and it is what I expect to continue among my projects: Bringing in and inviting musicians in exclusive line–ups and presenting them in these situations.

During your career you’ve travelled a lot. You were born in Finland, but you’ve lived also in USA, Austria and Germany. What you’ve learned from this places and people who live there?

HS: I was born in Finland and grew up and lived Turku until I was 19. After this I lived in Helsinki for a couple of years. I lived in USA for all in all about 8 years in two different periods. The last was from 1973 – 1978
as I was studying music, photography, film-history and beginning film. After the USA time I lived in Vienna for about 5 years and then in 1985 moved to Berlin.

Especially in San Francisco, where I lived most of the time, the general feeling I felt was people’s very open attitude and open-mindedness, very supportive all over and specially for me it had a great meaning and value that helped me to look at things in new ways and get involved in things that I had not experienced before. In all my studies at the college the classmates helped and supported me very strongly and for me as a shy guy from Turku, this was absolutely a new awakening in my life!

Later in Vienna things where kind of slow compared to San Francisco and the melancholy feeling among the people reminded me of the feeling in Finland. Things took much time to get them going.

Fortunately the same time I did meet some of the important people who regularly organised the most interesting ex-tempore meetings in the contemporary improvised music! I met the foremost important
musicians in the contemporary improvised music and especially from the European scene. Fex. Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Carlos Zingaro, Gian Lugi Trovesi, Radu Malfatti, Tony Coe, Irene Schweitzer, Lol Coxhill, John Russell, Philip Wachsmann, Paul Lovens, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Georg Russell, Bill Dixon, Steve Lacy and many others and one of my saxophone teachers in Vienna was the wonderful Leo Wright.

Of course constantly I learned a lot from all these people and especially through the regular concerts that where often presented there by the composer and flugelhorn player Franz Koglmann and he’s wife Ingrid Karl. They organized most of these important events, always in a cultural frame of high quality the Museum of Modern Art and at the “Museum of the 20 th century”. I attended some of the workshops among others with Georg Russell, Bill Dixon, Steve Lacy. So it was a great place to continue my studies and practise in the contemporary improvised music. I also studied at the “Hochschule für Musik” in some classes lead by the composers Friedrich Cerha and Haubenstock Ramati in the electro acoustic composition class.

The time in Vienna was also the time when I started to organize my own projects and tours especially for Finland. My idea was to introduce important personalities in this music in my home country as well
as have exchange between the Finnish and foreign players. One of the first ones was a tour with Franz Koglmann and in 1985 a tour with a Derek Bailey Company where half of the players where from Finland. This was something very special in my country and it recieved great attention there.

So we come to Berlin: It has from the very beginning in 1985 been a wonderful experience to live here. It’s like a Mecca for Improvised music. There is in my knowledge no other place that’s so active in this music. There are several concerts on every day through out the year. Amazing really. So much enthusiasm and joy among the musicians and always an active and intensive communication between the artists. The people are very open and ready to jump in the cold water and explore and get together in endlessly many projects. The energy is really intense and flowing in this international scene! Apart from the difficult financial situation the scene in the improvised music is steadily growing since I
have been here. Of course it has changed a lot since in came here in 1985. For me Berlin feels good and is my favourite city in many ways. The people I know help and support my soul to keep going on in my individual work. It tells me “keep music alive and it keeps you alive” this is very much the attitude of the people here and what I have learned from them.

You’ve worked a lot with legendary pianist Cecil Taylor. How he was as a musician and how he was as a human?

HS: We met in 1990 in Berlin and played for the first time in 1991. We played a number of concerts - Germany, Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Cologne, Berlin,
Hamburg, New York… Cecil as a musician was very generous, giving a lot of freedom and liberty, creative space to the players involved in the projects where I was involved.

I experienced him as a warm-hearted, always good willing person, who had a strong trust in other. people, even after so many disappointments and hard times in he’s life. He never lost his trust in people and kept always his enthusiasm. He could show other sides as well when this was needed and appropriate in some situations. He laughed a lot and loved to talk and talk and he had a good sense of humour. He read a lot and if he wasn’t practising piano he read a great deal of literature and wrote he’s poetry. He was humbly grateful towards he’s life and often expressed how fortunate he has been in so many things, although he had gone through many tough times. He deeply respected the laws of nature and humanity. He was also very alert to uncivilised behaviour that could lead to strong reactions in situations of working with other musicians. Some of the great players had to leave the bands because of such behaviour reasons. In this was Cecil was not very patient.

I am naturally very grateful of having had the chance in my life to meet him, to work with him and to learn to know him for such a long time from 1990 – 2018. Besides the music we played we developed a very close personal relationship.

What is your favourite Cecil Taylor’s album and why?

HS: Oh! my favourite album? I can’t say there is one particular because there are so many from different periods in his life that touch me in different ways. One group I consider very special is the Desperados quintet and quartet (Cecil, Paul Lovens, Teppo Hauta-aho, Tristan Honsinger, my self). As Cecil ones said about the “Desperados” (the band that we travelled with the most but unfortunately no records released yet): “This is my best band I ever had” and short after he said this he said: “It’s not my band, it is our band”. I personally would say that this group was kind of a turning point in the development in Cecil’s playing (some other pioneers in this music have said the same to me). Cecil had completely accepted a new role in an ensemble where the group had changed to a “European” kind of constellation and where there was not any more a “one leader” situation, but a equal rights line up. A group without a leader or without “one person main-soloist” like it had been in the older formations that he had had. So the concentration was not centrally on Cecil. He very much enjoyed this and it seemed to have freed him. In concerts one could clearly here and see this in he’s playing. He was really smiling in a new freedom, as I would describe it.

You are a teacher since 40 years, I think. Are students still want to play jazz and improvised music?

HS: Yes about 40 years of teaching meanwhile. Still students weekly and also some that like to learn improvising and most of them also want to play jazz in its different forms and traditions.

Last year you’ve released an album with cellist Guilherme Rodrigues. The mix of soprano saxophone and cello is not very common in jazz music…

HS: I like this less common mix of instruments. It works well but of course this can only be if the players love what the do and can play with each other. Here we have one of those lucky “chemysteries” and the
formula is working fantastically.

You’re a photographer. How did it happen that you started making photos and what is the most important for you in photography?

HS: When I started my music-studies at the college in USA. I had also started to take photos a couple years earlier. The college had a very good photo class and program led by the great photographer Greg Mac Gregor, as well as Arthur Ollmann. My interest in photography as well as the joy of it led me to take a second major study in fine- art photography. It was my hunger for all the wonderful experiences in making art, also Video Art that was very new still at that time in the early 70ies (working with big tape - recorder like gear and cutting the films with razorblades and taping them together). Essentially important in photography to me is to train your intuition in seeing things as you go along taking pictures. The high concentration, insensitivity looking, looking, seeing and seeing... more and more which happens as you start to look. It’s very much an inner experience that I experience also in music where one listens, listens and starts hearing more and more… This is something that we can train
endlessly… and all over where we are and live….

What are your music plans for this year?

HS: Improvise, Improvise, Improvise, as a player not separat from my life – its all a big improvisation! Ok, right now I’m among others working on my festival project for Helsinki “Sounds Visible” as I mentioned earlier, hoping that it can be realized. It depends if the supporting gods are rewarding I have a number of other concerts and performances planed for different festivals and smaller venues mainly in Europe. What finally comes through is still open. One plan is to perform at the Ad Libitum
festival with Sestetto Internazionale and I very much hope this can happen. Our second CD will be released in February published by ”Fundacja SŁUCHAJ”. I am very much looking forward to this and
I am very glad that Maciej Karłowski has been so enthusiastic and supportive about our music and the whole production of this double CD!
At the moment I am trying to find more possibilities for the fantastic ensemble “Sestetto Internazionale” with Alison Blunt, Achim Kaufmann, Veli Kujala, Gianni Mimmo, Ignaz Schick. We are going to be on tour in December in Germany and Austria. Additionally planning concerts for the group MOVE - quintet and for the meanwhile legendary “Quintet Moderne” with Teppo Hauta-aho, Paul Lovens, Sebi Tramontana, Phil Wachsmann. QM exists since 1996. There are more groups on the list that I regularly propose to organizers. On is the fairly new Duo with Guilherme - cello and my self. This duo is very special and motivating for me! The first CD “The Treasures Are” has received fantastic critics! One bigger project is to organise a two days festival In Munich at the “Offene Ohren” venue. This is basically the same format that we had at my Helsinki festival in 2018. The double cd from the recordings during the festival have been released on Leo Records und the name: “The Balderin Sali Variations”. The musicians are Matthias Bauer, Emilio Gordoa, Teppo Hauta-aho, Veli Kujala, Paul Lovens, Libero Mureddu, Dag Magnus Narvesen, Evan Parker, Harri Sjöström, Sebi Tramontana, Philipp Wachsmann and Lena Czerniawska (live drawing)

Living in good hopes and wishes to have opportunities and chances
to play and play…
”Keep the music alive and it will keep you alive!”