Widely admired as a virtuoso exponent of the viola da gamba through his concert performances and recordings of key composers from Germany, France, Spain, England and his native Italy, Paolo Pandolfo has in recent years been concentrating on his instincts and skills for improvising and composing (not to mention continuing with his teaching). An artist who can bring out the expressive vitality and poetry in the viol music of composers such as Sainte-Colombe, Marin Marais or J.S. Bach is plainly also relishing the challenges of other musical explorations that have included, on disc, an unaccompanied tour de force in A Solo and a travelogue (from this artist who is a modern, high-tech nomad himself) in Travel Notes.
Two years after Travel Notes Pandolfo turns fully to the art of improvisation with his – and his set of friendly musical accomplices – modern extemporizations using musical starting points drawn from the 16th century. Also, as he explains in his booklet note, he looks back to Plato’s discussion of the relationship between writing and oral communication, coming down in favour of the latter, a conclusion that Pandolfo feels very relevant in a 21st century totally dependent on “archived wisdom”. With Improvisando Paolo Pandolfo acts as a guide towards the future, while making a strong case for his own assertion that the viola da gamba is not only a historical instrument bound to music of three centuries ago.
As a musician in the 21st century what does improvisation mean to you?
I see it as a kind of instant composition, consisting of an enormous treasure of assimilated vocabulary that one draws out of oneself in a way which is easily comparable with speaking, because when one speaks one has this treasure of words, ideas, concepts and there is an instant combination of all these factors. It may be no longer fashionable but there have always been attempts to make something more elaborate and special out of words – improvised poetry, for example. This is something that belongs to most folk traditions, which brings us on to improvised music, which has that same immediate feel to it. With music there exists a framework of well-known vocabulary and within it, improvising means combining colours, sounds and words in a way that fits that very moment, an emotion or just a context. For me, improvisation represents both a need and a pleasure. Of course I am fully a classical musician, spending periods of time only concentrating on interpreting, on practising and improving my skills as a performer. But then I tend to find that there is something missing – the need to improvise. Undoubtedly, this is a condition which arises from the beginnings of my musical career, when I hadn’t yet chosen which field I was going to move in and I was spending two years as a jazz player. At that time I experienced the feeling of moving freely within the framework of the chordal and rhythmical structure of a piece, but with you the performer choosing what to do on or over it. That certainly gave me a very special sense of the pure pleasure of playing because with it one has the feeling that it is you yourself saying something in that very moment. That is a feeling which I miss when I am not improvising. So improvising now for me is a little bit like going back to the beginning of my musical experience and refining those sensations and emotions. Even if the framework of my improvisation on the viola da gamba is quite different now to that twenty-five years ago, when I was a double bass jazz player, there are certain characteristic feelings that you experience while improvising which are very much alike.
Doesn’t one need to learn how to improvise, or at least to practice it?
Yes, it is a process which implies the courage of not referring to written music, trying to listen to the sounds that your instrument is producing and combining those sounds with your own creativity. There are, of course, well-known treatises about historical renaissance and baroque improvisation – Diego Ortiz’s Tratado de glosas, and treatises by the likes of Francesco Rognioni or Orazio Bassani – with most of them providing examples and consequently these examples form part of the “repertoire” of an early music musician. Students from previous ages would have practised rather than played them, just to see the way their teacher combined ideas while improvising and then, after having learnt that way, they would themselves improvise. Thus early musicians would have been practising patterns on scales, on intervals, on rhythmical structures. So yes, I have been practising those extracts of improvisation many, many times and one gets to learn the patterns. These were real patterns in the same way that a jazz saxophone player has patterns to practise on. But one thing that I think is very important is the process of “forgetting” – and in this way I am proud of having a bad memory, as I forget very quickly!
Naturally, I think that I can play by heart most of my baroque repertoire but most of the music that I have been “feeding” myself with is somewhere in my brain and it is not always easy to name it.
Improvising also benefits my interpreting and I suppose that this has always been one of the keys of my way of interpreting, as I wouldn’t be capable of playing a musical phrase if I couldn’t understand it as though I was improvising it or writing it. Indeed, there is a process of re-composing the music somehow while interpreting and in order to re-say a word which has been told thousands of times you must say it as if it was the first time.
Imagine an actor, having to repeat the words of a written drama thousands of times. Of course, it is different every time, depending on different contexts, the actor’s own maturity and state of mind, but there is still a written text which implies the process of getting out of yourself in order to jump into somebody else’s personality. When we play with music it is a very similar process and some of us musicians may be content with this; it is perfectly respectable, because it is very profound process and it can imply a life’s work to go deeply into it. But others of us still do need to have a feeling that some of the “words” that they are saying on stage belong to ourselves.
Has the ‘Improvisando’ CD turned out in the way that you originally envisaged?
I think that this recording was a great moment; we made music as I imagine music would have been made on many occasions in the past. As a jazz player I was always hearing about the arrangements of the Charles Mingus Big Band. They would go on stage and they would then decide which instruments would be brought into play and when, and they would keep these structures for that concert. For the next concert it would be different. I worked on the recording with a group of musicians who are, first and foremost, good friends. We understand each other musically and all of us spend some time in our lives dedicated to improvisation. For example, Guido Morini (who plays harpsichord and organ) is really well-known as a skilled improviser. The disc also includes musicians who belong to the classical music world but who have experienced improvised music in their past, keeping both the inspiration and the skill. Thomas Boysen is one – he used to be a pop and jazz guitar player.
I would say that the CD tends to stay “straight” within the late Renaissance patterns which we chose to use. It is an ambitious project and I would be happy if half of it was considered successful because I think that it is important to try and lay out a path which describes a role for playing classical music in today’s world. Of course, I remain very enthusiastic about early music but I do hope that after some fifty years of experience my students will follow different paths: some of them will be more performers and interpreters but others will be musicians in terms of composing or improvising music or maybe combining their skills with other vocabularies, world music, jazz music and so on. I think that it is important for us artists to find a place in the world of today, not only just using the words and the notes that were written three hundred years ago in order to do this, even if we can approach and feel very close to the music that has been written so long ago. To put this into context one can think of Indian music, you can have been listening to a raga performed by sitar and tabla players and afterwards they tell you that “this is four thousand years old”, and yet they are improvising it. It sounds like perfection to me!
by Mark Wiggins© 2006 Glossa Music / MusiContact