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Vyacheslav Ganelin: there’s no freedom, there’s only responsibility

Indriķis Veitners

A talk of Indrikis Veitners with Vyacheslav Ganelin and Arkady Gotesman on music which isn’t worth rehearsing or performing too often

Igors Kargins

The jazz world doesn’t need to be told who a jazz legend Vyacheslav Ganelin (1944) is. A talented jazz composer and pianist of modern jazz, born in Kraskov, studied in Vilnius and currently residing in Israel, in 1985 Vyatcheslav was in the charts of the best free jazz performers in America and Europe. He was and continues to be a legend of Soviet jazz, who has composed music for 34 theatre plays, three operas and six musicals, soundtracks for 60 movies and many concerts. Five movies with his composed music got awards at international festivals in Venice, Stockholm, Barcelona and Washington.

Right before the «Ganelin/Pashkevich/Gotesman» concert, which is released on vinyl in 2019 by «Jersika Records», Indrikis Veitners decided to talk to Vyacheslav Ganelin and Arkady Gotesman.

Thank you for your amazing performance! (Right before this talk the musicians had already sat by their instruments and played a couple of compositions) I think that this is a great honor that you’re here. A Lithuanian jazz and free jazz legend. I would like to ask you for a short interview, which I’ll begin with a question about what you’ve just played — where does this idea or impulse to play free the way you do come from? You create compositions on the spot, and do that completely free. Where does this idea come from?

Vyacheslav Ganelin: First of all, I’m a composer with a higher education. Long ago, when I’ve been playing more or less traditional jazz, there had been free music ideas in me, even though I was composing at that time, building those compositions, then in the line—up of our trio kept doing the same thing. During the first part of my life I’ve been composing, then I switched to composing only the first part, and playing the second part free. I moved to Israel 30 years ago, and was playing only free there. I have no idea what I’ll play when I’m going on stage. It’s always interesting for me not to fail, I want it to be natural, improvised. Many people tell me — why don’t you just play the grand piano, you could just play that — and it isn’t interesting to me at all.

I like grand piano, that’s the main instrument for me, but I also like all sorts of synthesizers just because I can make orchestrations with them. This isn’t playing only one instrument, this is a composition. There are some colleagues who understand this direction, but not everyone does. When you just press one key, you have to connect it to another key to create a phrase. But if there’s a phrase — that’s it, you already aren’t free, it is dangerous. So it isn’t free, you cannot only play the sounds. You can go outside and add some more effects, searching for some interesting sounds on your way, but the way has to be clear and you have to hold your streetlamp above this clear way. You might not see too far ahead, but you have to see at least something to keep following that way, so when there are some turns and crossroads, you have to turn, then turn again, and then repeat it, so that your way is logical after all. So you cannot be completely free.

There was a period which we’ve caught for a while when we were younger — Americans started playing a free of sorts (hums a melody), okay, for how long could you play it this way? It’s nice, an expression like this, when everyone fights with each other, but okay, for how long can you play like this? We have been moving away from it already. I was in Israel, and I was invited to do a solo performance at a festival in Berlin, but I was feeling like Tchaikovsky there compared to all the others — I still play melodically, I still have to have something to stick to. This is my credo.

I think that there’s no freedom, there’s only responsibility for what you’re doing, and this is something important. I had a lot of things like this — for example, my foot just caught a chair and that created a sound, and I’ve played a reply to that. I move a chair again, and then I can go on playing. A regular sequence of musical structures follows that. Music is a very simple thing: it has to begin with a theme or an intro to a theme, then the second theme could follow, but I try to always remember what I began with to end with something similar, then there’s a logic in that.

Thanks, you have already started answering one more question of mine. How spontaneous is the composition? Is it partly spontaneous and partly prepared beforehand?

Vyacheslav Ganelin: It’s completely spontaneous. I perform with various people, once someone ran to me after a concert with one talented singer, asking how prepared she was and how many rehearsals we had. And she feels everything very precisely. I tell that guy — thanks a lot for your compliment, I won’t try to prove you everything was spontaneous now, you won’t believe me anyway. The same thing happens at a workshop — I can explain how the improvisation is being built, but I warn at once — hey, you won’t believe me, you’ll say «you are prepared, you just want to earn some money». All the beauty is in the fact how you can emphasize the improvised material, how far does your imagination go.

Once I was playing a solo concert in Leningrad, and a person came to me shouting: «This isn’t you who plays! That’s him!» I was really scared — who is that he who was playing? Then I started watching myself and my colleagues, and understood that there is that something that guides us. There is this thing — we are art mediators, artists, writers. If a person is able to do something, he can think or struggle. This, for example, can be related to composers — there’s an idea, start writing it down, begin again, it’s slowly built like that. You can sit and try and nothing comes out right, but then there’s an idea which lights up another idea like a lightning. Art is created for lightnings. And it’s hard for us, all of us are electricized, there’s a responsibility both for performance and composition. Double responsibility — that’s difficult, someone has better results, someone is doing worse.

It’s easier to play traditional jazz — it’s a form of variations with a certain amount of bars, sequences, harmonies. And there it’s important that a certain musician plays a certain composition. Many, especially after studies in Berkley, do it like that — I’m against it. I also teach, I’m a professor as well, we’re colleagues. I don’t approve complete learning by heart — then your brain doesn’t work, people are scared to change what they’ve already learned, I’ve seen it among my students. It doesn’t make any sense — knowing why famous people have played in such a style. You have to play something of your own. The meaning of improvisation itself is your point of view on this material. And then, when we see genius musicians, they let the theme go, play around it. Middle—class musicians have only learned the parts the theme consists of.


If everything is spontaneous, what about the risk — we all know we repeat things from time to time. What about the clichés?

Vyacheslav Ganelin: You have asked the right question. This is why I don’t like having too many concerts. You can play a concert every day, it’s convenient, even if you stick with some melodic lines, because there’s an automatic mode on, right phrases, and everything’s good. You are responsible for the music that you want to make special.

That’s just how I am — I want to play differently every time. There certainly happen to be some clichés in the phrasing. Why do we recognize Tchaikovsky, for example? He could have composed differently every single time. We recognize him by his clichés. We recognize Chopin by his clichés, as well. Those who have their own language are recognizable. Stravinsky wanted to get rid of his clichés, but we’re listening and we still hear Stravinsky everywhere. You can try to play differently every single time, if you have the strive to do so. We’re playing both tonal and atonal music. There are more colors, sonorics in tonal music, but atonal creates a definition of sorts.

We also began with normal jazz, then broke it a bit, then returned back, that was the principle. I usually play the first part being philosophic, chamber—symphonic, dramatically tragic, the one that makes think more, and the second one being more jazzy. That’s because people came to listen to jazz and during the first part think — alright, what is he actually playing? But when they like it, they think — okay, there is something in it. And when some jazzy melodies of sorts begin in the second part, they think — okay, I recognize that. But after applause I usually play a more recognizable style, like — here you go, take a candy. Cliche is a complicated thing, I want to move away from it, I guess it’s there anyway, but the material demands and provokes an attitude towards it. I can do a workshop for you now, play some things, you’ll tell me — aaah, he’s learned it! You won’t believe me. It’s interesting to me like that. I’m an egoist.

And what do you think of rehearsals?

Vyacheslav Ganelin: They don’t make any sense. You just have to find the right colleagues. I don’t play anything even at home, except some exercises. I take Bach sometimes, it’s good, he always refreshes your head with polyphonic movements. I don’t practice, I’m more of a composer than a pianist. The thing is that you have to be sure of what you’re doing, so I never practice at home, I don’t prepare material. A provocation like this is just interesting to me. I know it’s dangerous, you can go on stage and fail, but the question is how do you solve this situation.

And you lead your musicians.

Vyacheslav Ganelin: You’re right in saying that — I always play and lead. I’m leading the form. I go away in the theme. It’s good that Deniss Pashkevich knows how crazy I’ll get, and he gets crazy as well. If we play together, we feel, exactly how and how much we have to play together, when we go in different directions, or we stick to the line. An example: Me and Petras Vyšniauskas (Lithuanian saxophone player) have played together, and he says in an interview — Ganelin plays so tightly that I have no idea how I could play anything inside there. There was a very famous drummer from Germany, who has heard our trio long ago, came to a festival where we had to play together. Sometimes during our performances he didn’t even play at all, he just stood still as a classical musician. The next day he had lessons, and I was invited to play with him for a little bit. And he tells me: «Slava, please, don’t play solo all the time!» He didn’t understand me, he’s an avant garde musician. He didn’t understand how I keep up the form, but didn’t bother him, I went down and made counterpoint movements, that he can only benefit from.

Then we played together with Arkady Gotesman, he invited another avant garde pianist to Lithuania, we played two pianos and drums. He also stands up and completely goes away. We look at one another, then continue. He again comes on the stage, plays, then goes away. Then he asks: «Can Ganelin stop at all?» He was bothered by this. And I realized that those people are very conservative. They are locked in organizing material on the level of bebop and simple jazz. This is another music, and on the one hand, it’s a solo of everyone, and on the other hand, there’s movement, development of material, other definitions. And they, avant gardists of sorts, turn out to be really conservative, non—free, remaining in the system of tradition.

How do you define your music, how important is jazz tradition for you at all?

Arkady Gotesman: I recently was in Lithuania, and two workshops happened there. I have quite a vast experience, I teach for 25 years, we had group composition, introduction to composition for saxophone players. I say — guys, let’s rehearse, we cannot just go as classical musicians, take any scores and just play. Let’s analyze it with our ears. We need to follow the music, we cannot relax, it’s all bullshit. Music outside the program is completely self sufficient in its informational content. So I put some Count Basie on. And then it turned out — young people, nobody knew who Count Basie was. I tell them — okay, tell me about the line—up. They say — okay, there are some brasses. They are musicians, and they don’t hear! We’ve listened through it for five times, I made them pay attention to some things. It seems nice to me that closer to the end of the course they begin to listen, hear, compose, some of them were really dedicated to composition in the end.

Then I came here and began a workshop with a really light exam, gave them something to listen to. There were some 20—30 people, and one girl told me — there are saxophones, trombones, but she didn’t know how is the band called. I told them that while they have no idea of what this classics is, you won’t be able to play right, because there’s swing in it! If you’ll play without swing, you will go backwards, music is dead, not interesting at all, there’s no energy, absolute nothing. If you won’t hear it, I will give you the most avant garde things where each note is energy. From bebop, from absolute classics! Look, Count Basie, just one note. They don’t recognize Earl Gardner! And there’s nothing without Earl! He divides it melodically, there is no bebop in it. There’s no movement without classics at all.

Greta Skaraitiene

A very simple question — what does it mean to you to play such music, and what is the hardest in it?

Arkady Gotesman: There isn’t anything complicated in it at all, if you like it and you play it long enough, you simply fall in love. This freedom is very limited, it has its own logics and its own truths, and it’s very real. You cannot skip being a random person in this music, you cannot skip falling in love with every single beat. There’s its own logic and its own rules of the game. Every musician can allow himself to play free, but it depends on how prepared you are for this. Actually I’m a lucky man: I’m a student of the very first improvisation school called by Ganelin’s name. We were students in Vilnius, and saw it from the very young years. Until recent times nobody played bebop, they used to only improvise over everything.

I remember one occasion — we were playing at restaurants, made some money, Slava with his trio has returned from India and was telling about it everywhere. Tarasov told only a couple of words — that the drummer was creating many different sounds. Chekasin was just being silent about it. Slava started telling us how it went. If there are people who dedicated all their lives to this music, who think compositionally and create music without any pathos, do that and don’t ask anything back, we have to learn from them. I play this music for a long time, and collaborate with Slava for a long time, and that’s love towards music, sound, yourself, respect towards the time that has to be dedicated to something in your life.

What actually is a free jazz phenomena in Lithuania connected to? Lithuania made a giant step towards free in the Soviet era, what is this about?

Arkady Gotesman: That is connected to Ganelin. Now our Baltic countries celebrate centenaries, I’m organizing a festival, I invited Slava over and announced him as a legend of Lithuanian centenary. I was announcing him also as a composer—legend. We played concerts, and he was announced as a jazz patriarch there. Everything that’s there in Lithuania is Slava. I had a friend, who was asking all the time — where is Slava? And Slava said — I’m working on my style. The answer to your question is — here, in this room, sits a man whom we’ve learned a lot from, playing with him is a real pleasure, and that’s a huge demand to ourselves, to be able to be here at all.

A question to Slava in this case — where does this impulse come from? In the 1960ies in Lithuania there wasn’t anything like it.

Vyacheslav Ganelin: Patriarch. Old. You know, the times in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been way more convenient in the Soviet period, there was more freedom. I was born in Moscow, and if I stayed there, I probably wouldn’t be able to develop a situation like this. In Lithuania however everything has begun just like everywhere else — from a huge half–secreсу, searching for jazz, there was a youngsters cafe that gave a lot to us. Someone played Charlie Parker there, and in the beginning I said — what the hell is that? Karl Vlach is a man though! Karl Vlach is a Czech big band, improvisation, with a sweet beautiful music, and I’m a lyrical man myself as well. I was against it all, against Parker, I thought he was a stupidness not music. But it all passed very quickly — we had regular lectures, and after some seven months I was already up for Ornette Coleman. Only then I realised and told everyone that Stan Getz is a genius of musical logic and development. Listen to Stan Getz, learn from him, this is one of the higher possible points. Here is this clearness, that’s in him, because this is melodic improvisation that makes him a genius. Contrasts like this are built on it.

You know that speaking of Eastern Europe, an old avant garde tradition exists in Poland, Lithuanian neighbors. Did it influence you?

Vyacheslav Ganelin: No. I remember that Polish ensembles were very organized, we were listening to them a lot, but there wasn’t so much avant garde, there was modern music. There was a contemporary music festival «Autumn in Warsaw», and we have learned a lot from it as well. An ensemble of Krzysztof Komeda. Long theme, I was thinking all the time, went back and forward, complicated, they played for half an hour already, but after the theme you didn’t want to listen to improvisations, because he has already said everything in the theme. And it’s very complicated to play that theme — not 32 but 60 and more bars. You began feeling dizzy while following it. If you just listen while drinking coffee and talking to a girl — that’s another thing, but if you listen attentively, you have to understand all the lines, and you have to be interested. And I became bored. There was a famous festival in Tallinn, and I started going there to perform in the 1964 — 1965. Every time I was there, a musicologist Alexey Batashev said «Well, you brought your music again?» Everyone was playing bebop there, playing really good, but I was playing something else, and it made people follow. But we, of course, began with bebop.

Arkady, what do you think, will this deep free jazz tradition in Lithuania continue?

Arkady Gotesman: Yes, we proceed. There’s a chamber improvisation course now in our academy, where Liudas Mockunas and the others teach. This department became a part of the whole system, where every week teachers from other countries arrive and teach the basics, phrasings, improvisation ideas. Everything is solely about improvisation. We have a contest called «Vilnius Young Power», where there’s not a single word from bebop, everything is being played free.

Two years ago I met a very interesting person and played with him — that was a famous drummer Warren Smith, we invited him over to a festival in Vilnius, played together with him, just the two of us. He is such a star! I was looking at him at the rehearsal — well, what is he going to say? And he didn’t say anything, not a single word. And the first step on the stage, he comes and says «Surprise!» You make a surprise in every note, in every phrase, and make a surprise for yourself, as well. That talk was an interesting one. He is 80 years old, sleeps like a boy, he can fall asleep wherever he sits down, he’s calm, travels the world, performs everywhere, teaches improvisation to the kids. He took the charts that he composed by Art Blakey, gave them to the kids who played the same notes. It isn’t possible to play drums without swing, it isn’t possible to exist without that movement. This is necessary.

A question about the youngsters then — how do you evaluate the young generation in Lithuania?

Arkady Gotesman: We have a big saxophone school. We have some pianists, and some drummers already as well. It’s really bad with double bassists.

The situation is bad with double bassists everywhere.

Arkady Gotesman: There’s just one who plays really well, but went away to study at the Rhythmic Music conservatory in Copenhagen. We have 13 young and 25 old musicians. Now. Maybe someone else will get old. But the youngsters are very interesting. Recently during a project of the Baltic countries centenary I was playing with Villu Veski, it was three of us in Lithuania, three from Latvia and three from Estonia. Artis Orubs is an amazing drummer, we have one and the same topics important to us all, and just the same worries. But everything grows. I teach at the academy, and this year a very interesting 19 year old student has enrolled, who during the very first lecture showed me the books which they normally read at the 4th year. I asked her — what do you do with those? She answered — I analyse them.

How do you see the situation in the Baltic countries? How do you see our jazz future?

Arkady Gotesman: I think, we have to speak about those who come to us and play with us. Big stars come to our countries, play at some projects, it states something, it means that someone needs us. Not just because they need to earn money. We have many projects uniting musicians from different countries, so I think that we compete with way more powerful countries where the economy is stronger, there are more opportunities that let people reach something.

Do you see the potential?

Arkady Gotesman: A huge one, moreover, almost the same for all the countries. It would be nice if we’d have the same price for concert tickets.