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Interview with Peter Van Huffel

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 ripp-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.

To Canadian improviser and saxophonist Peter van Huffel, globalism and cheaper modes of transportation have been a godsend for originality - allowing for the dissemination of new ideas, the forming of new connections and a greater potential for learning.

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?

I started playing saxophone when I was thirteen and at the time had very little knowledge of jazz or improvised music. I simply loved the sound of the instrument and wanted to play it. My first influences towards jazz were albums by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz which were given to me by my father, and I instantly fell in love with the searching qualities of this music. John Coltrane especially inspired me because I could hear that he was always striving for something creative, without necessarily being sure to achieve his goal – at least that's how I perceived it at that age. I loved to hear that energy with which he would give everything he had as if reaching that next level meant more than anything else in the world to him.

My interests quickly expanded through my teenaged years and I listened to a lot of musicians like Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman and so on. I was a huge Kenny Wheeler fan for years and the Dave Holland Quintet records as well as Kenny's own were the first to really inspire me towards emulating others. My first compositions were very heavily influenced by these artists, and I think my playing style was as well. I remember trying to transcribe Steve Coleman solos already before attending university for music, and for a period I really wanted to at least understand the musical approach that these artists used, if not really wanting to sound like them completely.

Of course I had many other influences in this way throughout my studies as well – including influences from my teachers - and I think all of this helped to create the sound and style I have today, although it has been some years since I have seriously tried to “emulate” anyone.

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?
I think originality has always been extremely important to me in music, even before I knew that it was. Even when I first started really listening to music on my own and gaining an interest in it, I tended to listen to bands who were not necessarily “modern” and popular at the time, but those who simply gave me a thrill in a way, and they were usually bands or musicians who I would say really have or had their own style. Some of my early favourites in the rock world for example were Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin, even though they had existed years before and some of my friends didn't know who they were. In jazz, as I said before my first big influences were Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Steve Coleman, and of course many of the greats like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles and this list goes on. What did and does make an artist sound “original” to me is that sense that they are trying to say something personal, and not spending time trying to do what others have done before. Sure, we are all a product of our influences, and being completely original is a very hard if not impossible thing to accomplish, but it is usually very obvious when an artist is not trying to hide who they are. Some singers have strange and awkward voices, but yet their way of singing is beautiful and touching – for example, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, three of my personal favourites – and this is a perfect example of originality as far as I'm concerned.

What's your own definition of originality?
To me originality comes mainly from intention. As I said previously, I find it tremendously hard to strive to sound like no one else who exists or has existed – so much has already been said and done in music and so much modern music can be analysed and related back to the influences from which it stems – but the musicians who compose and perform music that genuinely comes from their own heart and spirit, and from their own personal interests and desires, are the musicians who truly achieve “originality” in my mind. For me, music ceases to be “original” in this sense, when the artist is obviously copying a style or another individual, or when a piece of music is manufactured and produced simply with the goal of being commercial. Of course, this is all very personal and subjective, and many others may disagree with what I personally find to be original and what not.

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?
For me, originality is one of the most important aspects in music, at least the way I look at it. There is so much music available now in the world from all sorts of genres, and so much of it can easily sound alike. As a listener, I appreciate when an artist stands out to me, when they are able to present me with a sound and/or style that I feel I haven't experienced before. To me this makes it worth taking the time to listen. As a performer/composer/musician, I think originality is utterly important for the exact same reason. I don't expect audiences to be interested in music that does not stand out for having something unique and special, and therefore I strive to create music that does not replicate the past or other current artists. I think originality has always been equally important in the music world, but now we have reached a time where it is more challenging to be truly “original” as we are surrounded and overwhelmed by music and media, and it is impossible nowadays not to be largely influenced by the thousands and thousands of artists who have existed and do exist today.

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?
I think we are in a great period for originality in music. I hear more and more musicians in all genres from around the world creating new exciting music, combining various styles of music, and making a strong effort to have their music heard. Especially within the jazz and improvised music scenes, I see musicians of all ages traveling more and more to different cities around the world, building projects with musicians from various locations and backgrounds, and I see the scene expanding greatly on an almost daily basis. The physical moves I have made in my life have greatly influenced the way I play and sound today, and meeting musicians from all different backgrounds has helped me to discover what I love to hear and do, and how I like to approach playing music. The music scene in Berlin is now as important as the one in New York, and hundreds of other cities around world have vibrant music scenes with amazing musicians who are performing and playing with artists from all over. There is also a large mixture of visual and media arts with music nowadays, and this adds a whole other level to the idea of “creativity” and “originality”.

Pretty much all of my peers and the musicians I play with in Europe, Canada and the US are creating exceptional music at a very high level of complexity, feeling and originality. To know who I think are amongst some of the most important, creative and original artists right now, one simply has to look at who I collaborate with. Of course there are many others I highly respect and appreciate as well, but the list would be too long, and I wouldn't know where to begin if I were to start listing names.

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.
Currently, my greatest challenge in composition is finding enough time to do so. Unfortunately the “business” aspect of being a musician often takes over the creative time, but I do try to keep up with composing on a regular basis, and try to keep the music fresh in each of my ensembles. I personally like to focus on writing for specific groups, instrumentation and also specific musicians. I am quite selective when putting a band or project together and always hope that these groups will stay together with the same musicians for a long time. To me, the strongest compositions are those that cater to the unique talents of the musicians performing. Of course for a band like GORILLA MASK, many of the compositions are relatively simple from an academic or compositional point of view, but I still write pieces for this group with the idea of catering to the strengths of my band mates. I don't tend to write anything on paper without having a clear idea in my head of how the composition will sound when played by those who I expect to play it. The current project which I would say involves the most detailed and challenging writing process is HOUSE OF MIRRORS which I co-lead with Sophie Tassignon. We look at this project as a sort of chamber ensemble and try to write music more from a through-composed thought process and with an almost classical or contemporary chamber approach. We are currently working on writing new music for this group and it is always an interesting challenge to see what sounds and developments are possible with this combination of instruments and unique musical personalities.

I have also recently been going back to some of my older compositions, to find ways in which to incorporate them in newer projects. Some pieces that I wrote years ago for my quintet or quartet projects I am now playing in trio or duo. The recent release BOOM CRANE with Michael Bates and Jeff Davis features some older compositions which I had not yet released on recording; and I have a new duo project with guitarist Alex Maksymiw, as well as a trio project in Berlin called THE SCRAMBLING EX (soon to release our new CD on FMR records) with Andreas Willers and Oliver Steidle, both of which are performing compositions from past projects of mine. I find it to be very interesting and rewarding to discover a whole new approach and sound with these older compositions, and in this sense they end up feeling also like completely new pieces for me.

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?
Each of my projects, compositions, albums and so on involve an individual creative process, I would say. As a person and as an artist we change a lot through life and as years pass on, so I don't think an individual's creative process necessarily stays the same either. When I was younger, the creative process was more of a learning experience for me, even sometimes writing a composition as a sort of exercise to learn or develop a new technique or idea. Now I would say that my creative process strives more from a desire to say or create something new. I find that each of my bands are quite different from each other, in both sound and approach. Each one of them caters to a different aspect of my creational process, and gives me the opportunity to explore different sounds and ideas. GORILLA MASK for example allows me an outlet to explore rock and punk sounds within a free-jazz setting; BOOM CRANE and THE SCRAMBLING EX are both a bit more based in jazz and 60s style free-jazz, but each coming from very different places and backgrounds; HOUSE OF MIRRORS forces me to think more like an ensemble performer and as a composer of contemporary classical works. I also get a great deal of inspiration from films, 20th century and modern visual art, traveling to different places in the world, and so much more. I have written pieces before simply thinking of a painting I saw in a museum or a great film I had watched the week before, and I also often compose a piece thinking simply about the energy I want to create in a live performance. The process of transforming these inspirations into an actual composition, performance or album seems to flow naturally if the inspiration is strong enough and the intent for completion exists.

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?
Obviously it is very likely that an artist creates something from their mind that they do not realise has come from an outside influence. I'm sure this happens often. I have even occasionally written down some ideas for a composition and then heard the exact same music on a recording which I had been listening to during the same period. These things happen. I think however, that often artists have obvious influences of others in their music/film/painting and so on, but that most of the time you can still claim that the artists' individual touch has made the piece of art into something unique. Some might argue that they have “stolen” the idea, but this is again such a subjective question or feeling. I willingly admit that much of my music is heavily influenced by others, and I would not be surprised if I have written pieces that sound a lot like those by some other artists, but in the end, my goal has never been to copy anyone else, and therefore regardless of what influences may be apparent in some of my work, I still strongly feel that they are uniquely my own creations.

As far as finding a better model for recognising originality, I think this is one of these things that will always remain subjective and overall difficult to absolutely define or settle. Unfortunately, I don't think I am capable or really answering that question, and I am not sure where to draw the line between a piece of music or art that has “obvious influences” and one that is directly copying another artists' work – sometimes this is absolutely obvious, but other times it is not so, and this “line” tends to be moveable in differing circumstances. I really don't know if we could even come up with a definitive way of judging the level of “originality” in a piece of art.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I have not yet at this point personally used any “tools” in my music-making process except for my instruments, although pedals and effects are used by other musicians within some of my projects, especially in GORILLA MASK. In this sense, and for this project in specific, I find the addition of “noise” or “sound” (depending on how one looks at it) is a great inclusion and helps the band to achieve the soundscapes and kind of energy we are striving for. Without these tools the group would sound more like an acoustic free-jazz trio, and this is not what we want. I think electronics or computers in music, like any typical instruments, can be wonderful if they are used in the right way and in the right setting. Anything can sound great in music, and anything can also be over used.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
At this point I would say that technology has not played such a large roll in my musical creations, however I find that the modern advances and computer equipment now available to studios has had a profound effect on the sound quality and the entire process of recording. I absolutely love working on a new album – and that includes all aspects of it – and I definitely feel that the technology available today makes this whole process smooth and enjoyable, and therefore allows the creativity to flow when in the studio, and to be easily manipulated in the editing and mixing processes when one wants to add effects, sounds or textures to the record in the finishing stages. These tools have really helped me to look at the creation of an album as a completely different concept to a live performance – one where the ideals of the sound the artist is striving for can easily and accurately be reached.

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?
As mentioned previously, I think one of the greatest things that is adding to originality in art today is the ease with which we can travel around the world, and the willingness of artists and musicians worldwide to get together, welcome those from other cultures, and create together. Also, the increasing multicultural qualities of many of the world's big cities allows artists around the world the chance to meet new people from different backgrounds and histories everyday, in almost any location in the world. In Berlin my friend and musician-circle includes people from hundreds of different places, and this is something that was much less common and less easy a number of years ago. The mixture of different personalities and backgrounds largely increases the ability and chance to create something original together because you are constantly learning from other people's experiences which differ from your own.

As far as obstacles, I think the current state of the internet world – however many great opportunities it also gives us to spread our work instantly throughout the world – is providing us with an overwhelming amount of information that no one can possibly process in one moment or one day, etc. Each artists' works become a part of what is essentially a huge stew of information, and it is easy to get pushed aside or lost in the increasingly expanding pool of information and media that is in all of our hands at any moment of any day. Although we feel that we can reach out to our potential audience at any time with the internet, our competition grows unbelievably by the second, and our potential audience's attention is constantly being pulled in millions of directions. This means that even millions of artist who are truly doing something “original” are struggling to be noticed.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I don't necessarily have a vision of a specific composition which I would like to realize, but my mind is full of ideas for different groups, projects, and even special evenings where I would like to present an expanded ensemble as a one-night event. I do not have a lack of ideas, but it is mostly time and to some extent the financial aspect of realizing all of these dreams which keeps me from doing them at this time. Many of these I imagine I will accomplish at some point in my life however, but it is a matter of having the time to realize them, and as I am currently working with a multitude of projects as a leader or collaborator, I do not see myself having the time anytime soon to add another. I think they will emerge slowly one by one as the years go on, and of course more and more ideas will grow and be realised as well.

Peter Van Huffel Interview by Tobias Fischer
Photo by Roger Rossell.

Homepage: Peter Van Huffel