Ofir Klemperer, our guest on the 27th installation of Experimental Israel, presents us with a musical split personality. On the one side, he is a classically trained musician who writes highly stylised and meticulous scores, and who claims to be dissatisfied with something intrinsic to improvisatory practices. On the other hand, he is a wonderful improviser with quite a record to show in the field, which currently, can be seen as one of his main activities. To me this is already very interesting, and carries with it something of the experimental spirit.
Trying to define his personal ideas regarding experimentation, Klemperer revisits ideas first introduced by our former guest, Alex Drool. Similarly to Drool, Klemperer recognises in himself a deep dissatisfaction, boredom, or need for change, which he subjectively equates with experimentalism. Perhaps it is more of a means towards an end, but still, if the end is experimentation then indeed the means is of less importance.
“Improvisation”, claims Klemperer, “is the power of listening; it’s knowing when a moment requires change”. And by saying this, Klemperer already sets himself within the great corpus of artists on this research who manage to extract a theory from within musical practices, which can then be attributed to many other aspects of art and life. However, Klemperer expresses a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with an ongoing attempt amongst some practitioners to make free improvisation into an “establishment” – an establishment linking itself to exclusive aesthetics, rather than fighting for the continuation of the Tabula Rasa attitude he believes free improvisation should embody.
When thinking of improvisation, Klemperer expresses a common frustration for composers. As a composer, one plans minute moments in painstaking rigour, whereas the improvised moment requires no planning. This is doubly frustrating, as the spontaneous moment can turn out to be nonsensical and unimportant, and thus, in Klemperer’s eyes, diminish the value of art. Yet sometimes the spontaneous moment can turn out to be artistically masterful, and in many ways better and fresher than any written composition. This raises the questions of whether the planned moment does not require some of the unknown, or the openness so characteristic of “free” music.
Klemperer tells us of an event he partook in as a student of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague; with an improvisation ensemble he was part of – the Royal Improvisers Orchestra. A basic plan for an impromptu orchestral composition was thwarted by one of the violinists who forgot to get on stage. Soon after the performance commenced, the violinist, realising his mistake, started running frantically towards stage whilst playing his “part”. This action “high jacked” the entire performance, as now, the improvisers on stage were forced to interact with this new and unforeseeable action. Thus, the compositions was suddenly shaped around this “mistake”, and the piece ensued with each performer leaving the stage in turn, leaving the same violinist alone on the empty podium at the end of the performance. Although Klemperer recognised this moment and indeed the way the piece unfolded as beautiful, he could not help but be annoyed. “Music allows us to communicate these great emotions, and this moment became farcical”. Whereas Klemperer was searching for musical communication on a profound level, this action felt more like entertainment. This is why Klemperer enjoys performing his music (specifically contemporary music) in bars – not as a headliner on stage, but simply in the role of musac. In this scenario, listening isn’t guaranteed, and if he still manages to get the audience’s attention, it is due to the ad-hoc relationship created with them based on carefully chosen materials.
When speaking of scoring or visual musical specification, Klemperer admits he doesn’t believe or much enjoys improvisatory means inserted into through-composed pieces, or indeed structured improvisation: “This isn’t improvisation”, he tells us. However, as a composer Klemperer recognises the different shades of specification a performer could potentially react to. Whereas one performer could react best to the through-composed part, another could react best to partial specification, and yet another could react best to no specification at all. In this manner, each performer is approached with a method that would allow them to bring the required or utmost energy into the piece. The trick, tells us Klemperer, is to know your musicians, and write for each performer, even within the same ensemble, with means befitting her or his performance sensibilities.
In his current home in Cincinnati, Ohio, Klemperer performs every Sunday with his band – Sun Night, in the Lava Bar. These performances usually include interactive musical games incorporating the audience. Klemperer gives us a few examples: A game in which each audience member writes down a word on a card later given to the performers. The performers react to the written cards in music whilst showing the same cards to the audience, but not to each other. This allows for cacophonic moments to still be accepted and appreciated by the audience, as they are let into the process with an advantaged vista. Another example is what Klemperer terms “Shred Nights”. Here a video screen is employed, showing a video performance of a known band with the original sound turned off. Sun Night then continue to mimic the on-screen performance whilst attempting to react to specific musical cues, only doing so with completely different and unrelated music. The “Light Show” is a collection of LED lights connected to a lighting desk, controlled by an audience-member. This same audience-member, through the lighting desk, is now a cuing mechanism for the band, each of whom is allocated a dedicated LED bulb. Hence, the band is allowing the unknowing audience member a glimpse into conduction. In relation to his aforementioned ideas regarding scoring, these are all methods for Klemperer to extract the utmost materials from his musicians and audiences in non-ideal circumstances.
I ask Klemperer whether this approach doesn’t, in effect, negate his feelings regarding improvised music and improvisation. Very aware of this conflict, he retorts with a profound understanding that acted also as a pivot point for our former guest, Ohad Fishof: “In me I have multitudes”. These multitudes might not be in peace with each other as much as they are with Fishof, but Klemperer recognises them and allows them their due place. This short exchange reminds him of an older piece of his, Kera Kahol (Blue Tear) which started off as a song performed and recorded by Klemperer himself as singer-songwriter. Later the same song was rearranged for his Amsterdam based band during Klemperer’s Dutch years. In this version the song already sounds a bit more stylised and gains the feel of a cabaret song, yet still maintains its earlier character. Finally, commissioned by a friend to write a piece for ensemble and soprano, Klemperer reissues the piece, now as a sort of classical aria maintaining only faintly recognisable links to the original. Here too, there is something with that very distinct aroma of experimentalism, a leanness of material, and mainly an ingrained understanding of cause and effect of the musical craft. It all leads to this exciting whole called Ofir Klemperer. I urge you to check out his works: