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MaerzMusik head trips

INTERVIEW. Performing at Berghain as part of MaerzMusik on March 20, San Francisco-based free jazz pianist turned sound artist and composer Matthew Goodheart brings a heady mix of calculated collaborations, fuzzy aesthetics and spatialisation.

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Photo by Veronica Jonsson

Free jazz pianist turned sound artist and composer, Matthew Goodheart, brings his love of structured improvisation to Berlin all the way from San Francisco in time for this year’s MaerzMusik. Goodheart underscores Berghain’s industrial surroundings with his beautifully clanky compositions on March 20.

You’re performing at Berghain on March 20. Is there anything about the performance you’re looking forward to in particular?

Well, I haven’t segmented it; it’s sort of the whole thing! I love performing and it’s an exciting venue itself – I think the history of that space and its unique acoustic properties are really interesting things. Just being alive in that moment is something I’m definitely looking forward to. I’m also looking forward to George Cremaschi playing the bass piece, because this is the first time he’s performing it. I wrote it with him in mind, so I’m really excited about hearing how he realises it and what he’s going to bring to it. I think these instruments are going to speak really well there.

Could you maybe tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on integrating the gongs into instrumental ensembles. I’ve always been interested in the spatialisation idea and in non-traditional performance situations – prior to this I wrote a piece for a sinfonietta, where the instruments were divided into groups and surrounded the audience. I’ve done a number of sound installations with the gongs all around as well, so I’m really trying to find a way of integrating those two ideas. The gongs are surrounding the audience, small ensembles are surrounding the audience, so it’s sort of this mix between sound installation and more traditional performance composition.

You used to be a free jazz pianist, but your compositions seem closer to a neoclassical tradition in terms of both aesthetics and structure. How did you make the transition into more traditional disciplines of music like composing?

I don’t see one as traditional and the other as non-traditional, because they both have a long history of music making, so… it’s an interesting question. People talk about improvised music as opposed to written music, but to me they’re both merely an expression of a deeper aesthetic interest. So I just began doing written music, because I was pursuing aesthetic ends that required that sort of construction. It was like: “I’m interested in exploring these ideas and the best way to explore them is through these means rather than those means.” The bass piece was written for George who’s an improviser. It’s a very set score, but there are still bits of freedom and interpretation in there. The other pieces are structured algorithmically in some ways. There are even moments that are very structured with the gongs and there’s suggestions for what actions the performer will be taking. But there’s a freedom for the performer because I’m interested in that mix. I prefer to think of the process as a means to an end, which to me is all about the aesthetics.

You could argue that free jazz is built upon improvisation, so what does the strict structure offer that the improvisation doesn’t?

With some pieces I was looking for specific temporal musical moments that evolve or develop in very specific ways, so that’s one reason to notate things strictly. The improvisational stuff, the sort of structured improvisations that these pieces are, allow a similar type of focus because they’re very structured, but there’s still a fuzzy sense. I guess I enjoy the fuzziness and the type of energy that brings to the performance. There’s a certain type of action a performer is going to take if they’re waiting or if they know it’s coming, but they don’t know when it’s going to happen. You could think of it in a metaphorical sense: there are aspects of our lives that are uncertain – you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know when. The pieces have that. You’re interacting within a semi-predetermined milieu, but you have to thrive and survive within that environment, so I think that’s part of the aesthetic construction of the pieces, yeah.

What would you say influences you when you’re composing?

There’s an underlying interest in my work that deals with instruments and engagement with instruments. At one point the instruments were honed down to a standardised ideal for the production of particular types of sound, and there’s been this expansion over the last 100 years of looking for ways to operate outside the ideal these instruments were constructed for. 

So there’s some sort of larger question of what that means. Of course I don’t have an answer to that, but I find it interesting to examine the question of what an instrument is. They’re these exterior objects that don’t have a life outside our interaction with them, but there’s this feeling of otherness to them and that influences our interaction with them in a broad sense. The living nature of these nonliving objects, how it’s brought to life by our own perceptual mechanisms, I think that’s the underlying philosophical interest I’ve had. And that pursuit, aesthetically, is beautiful. 

Matthew Goodheart Portrait, March 20, 22:00 | Berghain, Am Wriezener Bahnhof, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof

Maerzmusik runs March 14-23.