The first and second performances of Django Bates’ “Bass Clarinet Concerto Without End”, written for Håvard Lund and the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra, first on January 23rd 2015, at the Northern Lights Festival in Tromsø and on the next night at the Bodø Jazz Open.
Jon Carvell attended the second performance, and spoke to Django Bates about this new work, plans for 2015, a third live Loose Tubes album to be released from 1990 recordings, and what the UK can learn from the jazz scene in Norway:
London Jazz News: How do you approach writing for a symphony orchestra?
Django Bates: I’ve always just looked at any writing situation as a group of musicians that throw up various, infinite possibilities, so I don’t really think in terms of orchestra, big band, chamber group or soloist. I just think ‘What have I got here today to play with?’, and so with Loose Tubes for instance, I’d heard a lot of big bands that you recognise immediately as big bands, and I wanted to find a way to find new sounds from those instruments. It was the same with the orchestra: I wanted to try to find sounds I haven’t heard before, and it’s funny because I’ve had my music played alongside Bernstein before, and in a way it’s difficult because you’ll never sound as loud as Bernstein! And I just have to accept that I’m looking for something less blatant.
LJN: Your concerto is theatrical, with the orchestra actually disassembling as the piece goes on. Was there a link to the two Bernstein works in the concert programme- both originally for stage?
DB: I was aware of the rest of the programme, but the theatricality in the Bass Clarinet Concerto Without End is really odd because it honestly happened by accident. I was writing the piece and it kind of tumbled into the world of Scott Joplin, and I thought ‘I really like this’, and I really liked that moment of suddenly arriving in New Orleans. And then I thought it would be so weird to just stay here and not to ever go back, because normally people who know anything about my music would think ‘Ok, it’s Django he’s referring to something, he’s going to go back in 8 bars’, and I thought it would be really funny to just get stuck in a bar in New Orleans!
LJN: And why did you think of getting rid of the orchestra?
DB: I think at some point when you’re writing a piece, usually quite early on, you start to think of your options for getting out at the end. And I’ve tried all sorts of things, usually with the aim of making a really good ending that works and leaves everyone feeling satisfied. And just something inside me said ‘Why do you always do that? Why don’t you try and find an ending that leaves everyone feeling unsatisfied, but not in a bad way, in a good way?’
Also I think it was because I did a project with my students in Bern where the subject of our study was failure, and that ended up with us doing a performance. The performance was that the musicians would stand with their instruments, but just sing very quietly and listen to each other, just changing the harmony, with the rule that they would not stop until the last member of the audience had left, but the audience wouldn’t know that! I thought it would be interesting, but it became beyond interesting. People in the audience were freaking out. There was this one guy who couldn’t handle it, he was smashing a bottle on the floor – this is in Bern where everyone is very civilized – and then he’d stop and he’d try again to concentrate. Other people suddenly just started singing their own songs, and you saw the disintegration of the whole concept of audience and performer.
LJN: With this piece, and the people involved Håvard Lund with Farmers Market, and also Christian Lindberg (the conductor of the Arctic Philharmonic) was it the perfect opportunity to apply those ideas? All three of you have a reputation for a good sense of humour, combined with great musicality.
DB: I was aware of the characters, and me and Håvard had talked about if there could be a theatrical element, and then I came away from that thinking probably not, because it can be so hammy to ask people in the classical world to act, because they’re not trained actors. But maybe it was because this interesting coming together of personalities that I thought ‘This is the one time where this is possible’. I was surprised on the first rehearsal, because I thought ‘What’ll happen is we’ll play through to that point [where the orchestra disassembles] and then it’ll kind of stop and it’ll be a big discussion about why they should get up and leave’. But, on the contrary, it got to that point and the band just started walking off and as it says on the part “Do not act! Just leave!”
LJN: What’s next for you?
DB: We’re mixing the album for Loose Tubes, the third of the live shows at Ronnie Scott’s from 1990. The album includes three of the new pieces we did when we played there a few months ago, so it kind of brings everything up to date.
LJN: Do you have a name for album yet?
DB: Arriving. That’s a track by Chris Batchelor that we play on the album, and it was always important for the band. It was the piece which often led us to leave the stage funnily enough. (I seem to have an obsession with leaving!) But it’s the perfect name from many angles: the original arriving at Ronnie Scott’s was as young musicians trying to get a foothold in the world of being a performer; arriving back there; arriving at a point where Loose Tubes is part of our history – which we celebrated last year and will do this year.
LJN: Will you do more trio work too?
DB: Yeah the trio is always ongoing and it’s quite a nice on a Sunday afternoon to just toy around with an idea and present it to them next time we meet. It can be quite spontaneous with that group. We’re working on material for a new album too.
LJN: And lastly, what do you think the UK could learn from the Norwegian jazz scene or the Scandinavian jazz scene as a whole?
DB: I don’t think the UK is in a position to do anything similar to what Scandinavia has done, because there’s a different attitude and a different budget. The UK still suffers from this idea that ‘Ok we know you must have culture’, and I’m talking about the way a politician thinks, ‘We know that you must have culture, otherwise you’re just an embarrassment to the world, and we know what the really high pinnacle of culture is, it’s an opera house, so let’s have two of those at least, and let’s put all of the money into that. We’ll have a few orchestras too and we’ll make sure they survive, all of which is good. Ok that’s it, we’ve done it!’ But everything that’s possibly more interesting, more cutting-edge, more organic and helping more real people be involved in the arts is really left on the fringes.
My experience has been going to festivals in Europe over the last few years, and there are journalists there and they say ‘Wow isn’t it incredible how many Norwegian bands there are playing. They rule the world in jazz don’t they?’ And I say ‘Ok it [Norway] does have fantastic jazz artists but let’s just be honest about it. It doesn’t cost any money for a Norwegian band to play here because their flights will be paid [by the Norwegian government].’ That doesn’t apply to an English band. An English band probably won’t go to that festival.
As our conversation comes to a close, Django Bates’ manager Jeremy Farnell is keen to add his own thoughts to a subject he also feels very strongly about. “What we really need in the UK, without sounding lofty about it, is an art ensemble. We’ve got a fantastically strong younger generation, but these people they haven’t got a jazz orchestral situation where they have funds to write new work, choose the musicians they’d like, and put a concert series on throughout the UK – we have all the potential do this, but there is very little political will to make that a reality.” Jeremy cites Trondheim Jazz Orchestra (another project of Håvard Lund’s) as a possible model, but the issue in UK, he says, is one of infrastructure around the music; “We’re doing world-class stuff here, we’re just not supporting it in a world-class way.”