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Interview with Mats Gustafsson

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

For Mats Gustafsson, beauty lies in the process of searching for originality - and is the result of continuous transformation and changing perspectives.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
That is the way it works, if you ask me. Learning through others, by doing it your own way. Realising things with the help of others (experience). That is how history works.
We have to deal with the past in order to get closer to the future. To check the traditions out ... all aspects and perspectives of it, whatever kicks your mind and butt. But of course ... the key is to be aware of what and why you do it. And how to build your own language out of it. Then start building it up and adding element after element. Unique elements of your own.

I was personally very inspired by the visual arts and drew a lot of inspiration from them. The early explorations were more about finding unique techniques on the sax. And I found the most interesting building blocks from percussive music of all sorts. Contemporary classic music and world music. Korean music was huge for me. To be able to do research in percussive techniques on the horns was a very important path and goal.

That is the beauty: You pick shit up ... you leave some stuff behind ... but you transform it all into what you need and use. And it is an endless (re)search for new elements. New information. New experiences. It NEVER stops. Transformations and processes into something unique. Something original, hopefully.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
From the beginning, I think. What interested me in music as a very young Swede was actually the originality factor - when something stood out. When something grabbed you emotionally. Little Richard! And later Coltrane, Ayler and Bailey. It was never about the quality of recognition for me. As a matter a fact, the opposite was always way more interesting and appealing to me: When you realise that it is all about expressing yourself and your individual being through music, it really opened up a lot. To find your own voice ... it is a cliche, I know. But, the mechanics of this are true and still very valid.

You need to find it. To work with it. All the time.
There is no end ... no best before date ....
The research never stops. It can't.

Whenever I heard strong individual voices that moved me emotionally, I immediately got  interested. It was a lot about the energy in the beginning and the spiritual elements. So, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler especially were (and are) very important to me as a sax player, as a musician and as a human being. But I really feel sick when I hear someone just trying to sound like one of them, without adding an ounce of originality.

You NEED to get/ create your own voice in order to express something unique and valid!

What's your own definition of originality?
When you are able to really present a unique language on your instrument or with your voice. When it is easily recogniceable to hear WHO is playing or singing. From a variety of parameters of course: colour, phrasing, attack, sustain, overtones ... the whole spectrum. When you can transform who you are into the music you are doing. It is all the same. All is all.

This goes for groups as well, of course. And this is true mostly for group that have been working over a longer time ... developing something unique together. That just keeps developing and tranforming. Of course, this is happening on different levels. It can be partly original ... or very much so ... the scale is sliding, and that ist he way it should be. In life, in art, in music.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
It was/ and continues to be very important to me always. I started exploring my sax early, trying to find unique things and techniques. From the very first day I was holding a tenor sax in my hands. Parallel with working on the basic techniques and also trying to copy the language of the musicians and instruments that inspired me form the very start. Percussion music from Asia and the wild saxes of Little Richard! A good start!

Since I am autodidact – no one really told me how to do it, haha! So it was some deep explorations and many mistakes for some years ... and I think I understood very early, that it is simply about the necessity of  finding your own language. No matter what kind of music you do.

And this is true when you play with other genres ... it is always okay, if you ask me, to play and try new things out with different genres of music (and other artforms) – as long as you keep true to your own language. Usually it means that you are actually adding something to the picture ... and if it doesn't work ... you learned a lesson and can move on. If it works: hurray!

This quality is still very much valid to me and I m still trying to find new sounds, new colours, new techniques ... every day. It is a research that never stops. And that fact makes me happy. You will never learn it all. You can never be done. But you can go pretty deep into it meanhwile, ha ha!

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
If I knew ... it would all look different, ha ha! That is the key – to find out where. And the focus shifts. It has to shift. Some musicians are really finding new perspectives ... and that is very inspiring for me. It is always a bit stupid to drop names and such ... but I think that the sounds and music that is being explored by individuals like vocalists Stine Motland and Sofia Jernberg are just amazing! They are deep into some good shit! Music that I have never heard before. Elements that are new to me.

I'm trying to figure out how to add that stuff into the sax, ha ha ... not easy , I tell you. When it comes to sax playing, I'm amazed that there are so many clichés and repetitions around still. The only real exception to me that last years, is the amazing playing of Christine Abdelnour! She ROCKS! There are some promising Swedes around now as well, Magnus Granberg (active since a while) and the young Anna Högberg. Funny enough they all play alto sax!

I'm still trying very hard to find out about the frictions between live electronic sounds and sax playing. There are definitely some new perspectives to find there for me. One thing really feeds the other.

But, yeah – there are too many things being released ... Where originality is NOT the number one priority for people, it seems ... a lot of repetition ... and quite depressing when it comes to so called free improvisation ... that has become very much non-free ... even more conservative than the old be bop and swing jazz!

Good improvised music is amazing. But you really have to go to the pioneers that are still active to find the real thing .... Gunter Christmann, Paul Lovens, John Russell ... what can you say. They do their thing ... and they are still exploring. And yes, they are very original!

Communities? Yes, it is quite funny to watch and hear it happen. How these centres of activities move around the world from one time to the other. Stockholm in early 90´s, Chicago in late 90´s, Oslo and Berlin in early 2000´s and after that, there are small hubs all over the place. South Korea, Poland, Copenhagen, London, Istanbul ... And of course ... Tokyo! Always amazing shit going on there. Every time I go there, there are new faces around. New instruments, new techniques. A UNIQUE place!

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
When I write music it is all a bit different of course. It is difficult, in a normal score, to write with the aspects of originality. That is of course also the challenge! I rather use a soloist that has that certain quality and let him/her free in the context of the piece. So important to choose WHO is playing. More important than what you actually write in the score, sometimes. In my own writing I try to put my own distorted shit in there.

What I am interested in, as a musician: extended techniques, the friction and energies in between – over and under – free improvised music and pre-composed/structured such.

Every upcoming piece is a challenge. And the challenge is to find new perspectives for the old perspectives/originalities.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
Ha ha, that sounds like the philosophers should deal with that matter. But, yes, the ideas come from any angle and perspective. It is always around you. You can not push the process. Never. It happens or it doesn't. You need to let it happen, to be able to actually see it when it does. You just need to open up your eyes, ears and mind. And to be able to transform that input into the process. It is about frictions ... and energies. Things that create that. When you rub them against each other. Something new appears.

You just have to rub it your own way. This is of course endless. And very much of the process is about deduction and restrictions.

To be able to see that special tree deep down in the forest.
That tree happens to have a beauty that only corresponds and communicates to those hidden black trumpet mushrooms, a mile away. Hidden under old leaves and branches. The energy between them is something to work from and out of.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
It is all about balance. How to balance it all. But there HAS to be an agreement between the „composer“ and the musician. What is what. And why. It is an interesting question, that needs to be dealt with more.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
You have to gain your originality. It takes a whole life (and more). It is a never ending process. Thanks Tor and Odin. You will never be done ... and that is great, I think.

Tools are tools – that is why you use them. To create music. To gain your originality.

Fantasy and curiousness is ALL!

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
Technological developments ... I don't know, really ... but of course, being a discaholic, it is great to be able to use pre recorded material on vinyl – as or together with a turntableist. This is not that new ... but good.

There are some softwares that could be of usage, for sure. For transcribing, for notations, for processing etc. etc. etc.  But ... I prefer the pen and paper process. Since it is about the process for me. That suits me just fine.

I might feel a bit from to far a distance if I use to many (new) tools... and to  many tools that is not connected to me, and who I am. I don't work with computers when I compose. It just doesn't feel right. That might change ... I'm open for changes. But up to now. Pen and paper is king.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
Of course it makes everything easier if you live in a society and in a cultural climate where originality in the arts are allowed. In a way they always are, of course. And if they're not, resistance creates the fundations.

But for sure – and this is a long discussion – the conservatories and the educational systems are a huge problem in some cases. Many jazz and improvised music educational institutions premier techniques and mentalities that is not very original or creative. Rather the opposite. When you are tought how to copy someone elses originality and then not being told / adviced / taught what to do with that knowledge. The schools should just give the pupils all the directions to the various doors ... the doors that need to be opened up by the pupils themselfes. Knowledge is great. Knowledge and history is everything. IF you can hear it freely. Think about it freely. And USE it freely. The educational institutions needs to OPEN up the minds of the pupils, the ears, the eyes ... not shut them down. Just give them the tools to become original. To CREATE your own languages!

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Oh yes. Yes yes yes! And not just one ... ha ha!!! Limitations are usually for financial reasons ... the technical details can always be dealt with. If you want to. But that is also a financial question, of course ...

But YES.... some ideas sit there and wait for a better moment.... it will come... it HAS to come!

Mats Gustafsson Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mats Gustafsson