“I’ve become the musician that I am by daring to do these things!” Luise Volkmann is a force of nature. 2022 will see the Cologne-based saxophonist and composer perform across Europe with her trio Autochrom (alongside bassist Athina Kontou and drummer Dominik Mahning), as well as with the larger ensembles LEONEsauvage and Été Large – the latter of which was nominated for two prizes at the German Jazz Awards last year. Drawing together musical and social experimentation, Volkmann wants to engage in a new form of communication with her listeners. Interview for International Women’s Day 2022 by Izzy Blankfield:
London Jazz News: You have so many exciting projects coming up! How are you feeling after a couple of years where live performance has been uncertain?
Luise Volkmann: I was lucky enough to have my stage comeback last summer. I actually played a lot from May until the end of the year and I’m grateful for that. I find that if you don’t do something for a long time you forget that you can do it. If you don’t look for new ways to speak – if you just wait, stagnate – you become smaller and smaller. In order to remain big, you always have to make sure you go out and re-create again, and keep experimenting.
LJN: At the moment you are preparing to go on tour with your trio Autochrom. Can you tell me more about the project?
LV: Autochrom centres on the idea of touch. The idea is to build a new programme which has very strong physical and performative aspects. To understand music more as virtual togetherness – a kind of community, with strangers meeting each other. It’s our goal to create a concert space in which the audience is jointly responsible: we are making music here on stage, but how they react, what they give us as energy, that has an influence on the music. Together, we are the concert.
LJN: You also brought out music with your free jazz big band LEONEsauvage and as a trio alongside Salome Ahmed and Vasco Furtado in 2021. What’s the most exciting part about playing in these different ensembles?
LV: Maybe this is idealistic, but the collective. Where everyone is together, where we build up a language together, in terms of music, in terms of content, where we engage with each other, where everyone brings their impulses, but at the same time where there is so much trust that everyone has their own place.
LJN: What is it that drives you to create new, experimental music?
LV: When I was growing up, music was very present in my life. I really saw it as a medium of communication. It comforted me, helped me understand certain things, got me out of situations and created a bit of distance.
Music is my level of action. I have a sophisticated toolbox of different things that I can use to express my thoughts emotionally, politically, as well as socially. The encounter with new music can totally change you as a music listener, because you simply enter new worlds of thought. I love music honestly and deeply because it has this great power – I have a way of creating new worlds!
LJN: How do you position yourself within these new musical worlds? Do you think that your identity as a woman has an influence on your identity as a musician?
LV: [laughs] I don’t think there’s a way around that. We’re all affected by gender stereotypes. It shapes me as a person and, of course, as a musician and composer. I would say, however, that I was brought up in quite an androgynous way, not consciously, but somehow freely. Self-awareness as a girl or as a woman came to me relatively late.
LJN: Was that moment of self-awareness something that was linked to jazz?
LV: I never perceived the music world as something gender-specific before I started studying jazz. I was shocked by the form of communication that is so prevalent in the jazz world. There’s this sort of self-taught genius, this coolness – no talking, just playing. I find it very skewed.
It’s especially difficult as a woman. I think a lot of young women are brought up to talk a lot, to discuss things, to want to know: how did that go? This desire to speak can be a problem with male colleagues. So, it’s no longer stupid jokes or sexist clichés, but subtle differences like this that make the jazz scene feel dominated by men.
LJN: How does this way of communicating affect the way women are perceived in the jazz world?
LV: There’s a clear example of this: a lot of women nowadays are bandleaders, but they are rarely asked by men to be sidewomen. That’s what a lot of women will tell you, and I think that’s really sad. As a composer, I always have strong opinions, and I’ve often experienced a lot of resistance because of this – perhaps it’s alienating to have a woman standing there who is so outspoken.
LJN: How is this still the case when there are such prominent role models for female jazz musicians?
LV: If you look at the historiography of jazz, there are a lot of women who have been passed over. There have always been female musicians and composers in jazz. But the work and contributions of women aren’t idealised in the same manner as with men, so it’s harder to carry their work forward in this esoteric way.
An example I always come to is Nina Simone, who had an incredible career, but is not really studied as part of the jazz historiography. Maybe it’s because she was more than jazz. I mean, she was a superstar. But I always find it unbelievable that she’s not part of the jazz intellectual canon.
LJN: Do you think the male-dominated culture of jazz is changing?
LV: There is definitely hope. I have a feeling that for younger musicians, things are quite different. I’m not that old myself – I’m almost thirty. But I can see that people who are seven, eight years younger than me are starting to communicate differently.
LJN: What advice would you give to these younger people who are starting out?
LV: I don’t want to speak to female musicians alone, but to all young people who are interested in jazz, who want to get stuck in. I would really recommend not making it your aim to be recognised by institutions, but rather to build your own networks.
What I’ve come to understand is that if you’re not “normal”, there’s no point wasting energy trying to be recognised within a system – you have to get that support and assistance elsewhere. That can be colleagues or friends, maybe even tutors. I think you just have to keep your eyes open and try to reach out to people who are interested. I’m still learning.
LINK: Luise Volkmann’s website