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Questionnaire: Thomas Ankersmit (2007)

1. Have you got any formal musical training, and what do you draw from it now?

No, I haven’t (with the exception of guitar lessons for a few weeks as a teenager). Musicians who did go to music schools often congratulate me on this, usually implying that it allows me to do my own thing more easily. I’m a little wary of the idea that not knowing something allows me to make better art, though. I guess I’ll never know what I missed out on.

2. What kind of equipment/instrument do you use, and what is you relationship towards it? What do you think lies behind your choice of the equipment/instrument?

I basically play two separate instruments: alto saxophone and analogue modular synthesizers, and I use a computer for editing and sampling etc. Although I frequently use all three during a concert, I don’t really combine the acoustic and the electronic, or at least I don’t use one to process the other. The electronics didn’t come in as an extension of the saxophone. I was messing around with electronics before I’d ever held a saxophone.
I prefer analogue equipment over computers, not out of nostalgia (there’s actually very little 70’s synthesizer music I care for, the era my instruments are from) but because of the hands-on, unstable character of it, as well as the nature of the sound itself. A lot of what I do on the synthesizers (an EMS Synthi A and a Serge modular) involves some careful abuse of the machines, jamming bits of metal in the connectors, feeding modules back on themselves etc. You can bend analogue equipment like that without it simply breaking down. There’s very little conventional synthesis technique there, it’s mostly the sound of modules being used differently than intended. I use electromagnetic pickups and contact microphones and little preparations to introduce a kind of tactile, metallic element to the synthesizer, a way of articulating sounds by hitting or scraping something. No keyboard.
The physicality of acoustic instruments is also very dear to me, the fact that you can aim sound depending on your position in the room, rather than have sound pour out of two speakers in the corners, the pleasure of generating sound with your own breath and voice etc. I guess my relationship to the saxophone is a little unusual because I never wanted to play jazz, and I’ve never been able to. I suppose I came more from a noise/rock background, even with the saxophone. People like Tamio Shiraishi and the band Borbetomagus were important in demonstrating this really intense non-jazz side of the instrument before I took it up myself.

3. What is it that attracts you towards musical experimentation?

I’m not sure if that’s what I do. Rather than trying to reach something that’s unknown to me I tend to try to execute pretty specific ideas, a sound I’m imagining (but then I do usually end up with something rather different). I don’t think the music I make is necessarily more experimental than anything else. I’m very much interested in a kind of focussed sound-intensity. The balance between transparency and saturation, making sound elements move together as a whole, to the point where all the small elements become a kind of blur that’s still somehow energetic, either with a kind of internal motion or as a line that draws itself. I find the kind of sounds and structures I’m using most appealing, I like noise, rather than more orthodox, popular ways of playing music, but I don’t really know why.

4. Why are you involved in improvisation, and how do you perceive it?

I like the “in the moment” aspect of it, it unfolds while doing, and it’s probably the only way that I can be involved in music. I can’t read or write music, so I wouldn’t be able to play most other people’s music, and I just enjoy generating things in real time much more than composing detached from playing. It sort of by-passes conscious thought, one sound event seems to generate the next, and I often feel that I’m just following it along.
That said, only a part of what I do is improvisation. When playing solo, I often decide on a broad structure before the concert, and roughly what kind of sound material I’ll be using over the course of time. Sometimes I layer prerecorded saxophone sequences with live playing, so then there’s a clearly predefined element. I also use samples embedded in the synthesizer stuff, passing through signal processing modules, so that also introduces a kind of memory-bank where certain sounds can be called up while I’m doing something else at the same time.
I often use improvised sequences as the building blocks for electro-acoustic “composition”. It’s a way of letting unexpected things happen, of losing control to an extent, and then taking control of the material again afterwards by editing, juxtaposition, processing.

5. How do you perceive the relation between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?

If I play together with others I don’t plan anything, but of course that doesn’t mean that “anything can happen”. When I play by myself I don’t really consider it improvisation, even when I do make up a set as I go along. It’s just that improvising by myself is still only my ideas and the instabilities of my instruments. I may execute things “spontaneously” but I might feel that I’ve been “planning” them for years.

6. Do you “practise” for an improvisation, and what are your general thoughts on the idea of “practising” for improvisation?
When you improvise, do you use sounds that you’ve already “tried out”, and how much room is there for actual sound experimentation?

I rehearse certain things to be able to repeat them, but not “for” an improvisation. Instead of practicing, I just improvise, together or (mostly) alone. I generally start with something I’ve tried before, but frequently end up in something I couldn’t have predicted. Either because my instruments or my body or the acoustics of the room didn’t behave as I expected and led me somewhere else, or simply because another musician’s actions transform the meaning of what I’m doing. At the moment, I’m attempting to teach myself to play a new synthesizer, so I’m consciously listening for what I can do with it.

7. How do you evaluate an improvisation? What is it, according to you, that makes one improvisation better than another?

Generally, whether with my own stuff or with other music I hear, I’m always looking for a kind of intensity, a focus, and the absence of boredom. It might be easier for me to say when I think something is unsuccessful: flat, predictable, without flow or tension. The good moments are all the other moments. As an example, I heard Robin Hayward do an improvised concert with Diego Chamy sometime last year. It was a rather tense, uncomfortable situation, a very incongruent set of events where nobody knew who had what role in the music or what was keeping it “up”. I thought that was very beautiful.

8. When you are recording for a release, does the awareness of being recorded influence your playing, and in what way?

I’ve never recorded any real-time music with the intention of having it published as far as I can remember, so I wouldn’t know. I’d say having an audience has a good influence on my playing because you have to stay with it, you can’t start over if the music falls apart in your hands. But that’s a different kind of pressure.