Misha Mengelberg No Idea

Chris Wiesendanger, Pianist and Composer from Zurich shares some memories of Misha Mengelberg.

Misha Mengelberg No Idea

april 2017
Misha Mengelberg is a versatile magician on the piano. In his music avantgarde and tradition are intertwined.

I have given the title “No Idea” to my short essay of the great life`s work of Misha Mengelberg. “No Idea” is the name of a trio album which Mengelberg has released in 1998 together with two American musicians Greg Cohen (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) .

At first having “No Idea” would not be a very charming thing for a musician or any artist: it would stand for boring music with no surprise, completely without any invention, no creation and vision. But could we not understand “No Idea” in another way? “No Idea” (or not being attached to an idea) could also mean to detach oneself from the tradition, to create freely in the here and now. This is for sure the declared goal of every improviser, to create new things with no preconceived ideas or in other words without any preparation.

The notion of “idea” had been given a lot of different meanings during its longtime history since Aristotle and Plato. Hegel sees in the idea the one thing that brings in line the reality that it brings fourth. He is defining it as the “unity of term and objectivity” – a central thought in his “Wissenschaft der Logik II”. A very important thought it seems to me, but I don`t want to elaborate on this here any further. In today`s philosophy the term “idea” has lost almost any relevance. Can we bring in here the notion of “no idea”, the spontaneous and subjective thought, the Instant Composing? In relation to music: what kind of reality an idea brings forth? Is a musical idea after performing it exactly what was intended in the beginning? Is thought and form congruent? I would doubt it vehemently. It seems to me that also Hegel was very well aware of this fact.

No Idea means something that is absent, but at the same time the presence is expected. I think that this is, and with reference to the album titel, distinctiv for Misha Mengelberg`s music. Mengelberg is a musician who knows the tradition very well and he puts some unexpected cluster voicings like accents against the rhythmic flow, sudden free-tonal arpeggios that are questioning the given harmonies, and then to resolve in a perfectly timed bebop phrase. “No Idea” is the absent that runs against our expectation. With the spontaneous unexpected, that is far from being an idea, questioning our hearing. “No Idea” thwarts any plan of hearing, prevents us from hearing what we want to hear. I would like to understand “No Idea” in this way.

Misha Mengelberg often mentioned in interviews, that he has no idea from what he plays next. A Jazzstandard, a tune from Thelonious Monk or Herbie Nichols are starting points for spontaneous improvisations / Instant Composing. This can be beautifully described with the picture of streets and pathways in a landscape.”Roads and paths create the illusion that the land is known, yet really very little of it is seen: there are so many corners, that none of us go into for years on end.” writes the English writer and walker Peter Owen Jones in his worth reading book “Pathlands – 21 Tranquil Walks Among The Villages Of Britain”. It is a historic fact to build new streets on old ways. Just think of the Romans and the old passages of the Celts.

2 famous pianists – Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk – and one unfortunately not well known – Herbie Nichols are important musicians for Misha Mengelberg. Maybe it is exactly the aphoristic music of Herbie Nichols, a music of small gestures, at the same time dramatic and humorous (which are so often very close to each other) from which the music of Misha Mengelberg has emerged. In the later compositions of Herbie Nichols the composed and the improvised lie very close, often hard to distinguish. Instant Composing, Composing The Moment. Improvisation is Instant Composing – this became the keynote for Mengelberg. Together with Han Bennink and others he founded the ICP Orchestra (Instant Composers Pool) in 1967. Mengelberg has recorded a couple of albums with the music of Herbie Nichols. I am thinking strongly about 2 recordings: “Change Of Season” (Soul Note) and “The ICP Orchestra Performs Nichols + Monk” (ICP).

Misha Mengelberg was a rebel with humour. He always opposed when it was urgently needed.

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