INTERVIEW. Vladimir Tarasov: Jazz Is More Than Just Music

Vladimir Tarasov does not need a special introduction for contemporary jazz lovers, and not only in Lithuania – the geography of his artistic activity has transcended the borders of Lithuania and even Europe a while ago. Once the drummer of the legendary Ganelin Trio, Tarasov has a solo career that is not less impressive, ranging from drum performances to conceptual sound installations and works for theatre. In this interview the artist, who turns 60 this year, speaks about his relationship with his favorite instrument, his artistic career, the situation in today’s Lithuanian jazz scene, and future plans.

photo: Dmitry Matveyev

- After one of your recent performances in Vilnius a friend of mine said that you appeared to be more alive than an infant. That spontaneous phrase struck me as perfectly expressing the spectacular energy of both that particular set and your whole creative career. Where does that vivacity come from? Does it manifest itself only when you’re playing drums, or do you feel its presence constantly?

- I am happy if my performances really communicate that sort of energy. As perhaps every artist, I do hope that it is always there, not only when I play drums or any other instrument. The ability to remain an infant is indeed an incredible thing, as it has been acknowledged by thinkers already thousands of years ago. Yet you cannot predict or calculate the appearance of this inspired state; it takes you over unexpectedly, and you suddenly feel the presence of this energy independent of your own intent.

I believe the fact that I simply enjoy playing drums is very important here. On the other hand, a lot depends on how sincere one is about what one does, no matter if it is music or anything else. I try to be sincere.

- Taking into consideration your lengthy and intense career, do you still discover anything genuinely new in music and art in general?

- I certainly do, even though I have been playing for quite a while already. Let me put it this way: I feel that the more I play, the more hidden things music (or art in general, for that matter) reveals to me, as if allowing me in further and further. I see it as a long hallway containing many doors, which I open one by one as I go along. One can’t just open any of these doors by force; a certain amount of time must pass and certain experience must be acquired being admitted inside.

I am glad that I can still find new aspects in what I do. The longer I am in music, the more intense is the feeling that it is an infi nitely vast expanse, especially if we are speaking about drums. I often say that the drum is the only authentically archaic instrument still played now. Its sound was not rationally calculated by humans in the way that, say, the sound of cello or piano was, it has its own melodic lines and a unique shape of sound. I consider myself lucky to be able to communicate with this instrument so intimately and hear all the amazing musical qualities of it.

- It is evident, then, that music is anything but routine for you.

- Yes, there is no routine in it whatsoever. When I feel that I’m losing momentum, I just switch to something else: collaborations with other artists, performances, installations and so on.

- So, after all, there are moments when you see an imaginary ‘stop’ sign in one sphere of your activity and realize that it is time to move on to some other one?

- Well, all these spheres are highly interrelated anyway; if you consider them closely, you will see that virtually all of my projects revolve around sound in one or another way. Even my visual exhibitions are related to sound, that’s why I prefer to call them ‘sound games’. These various spheres of activity are diverse languages that speak about the same thing using different codes. At times these different languages converge and produce some new hybrid forms, as it happened in my recent installation shown at the 2nd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, in which the video image of a drummer and the sounds produced by him are inseparable. I notice that working on the visual aspect of such a work inevitably makes me better understand the phenomenon of sound.

I like to use the sound of natural sources for my installations, such as dripping water or rustling paper. I discovered that the various sounds that simple paper produces actually contain notes, and that paper can even be tuned to sound in a certain tonality! Naturally, when I return to ‘proper’ musical instruments, I have a slightly different understanding of their sound.

- Does the connection of visual and aural forms in your works suggest that synaesthesia and synthetic arts are not alien to you?

- Sure! Although I prefer to use the term polystylistic arts in this case. Right, they are synthetic technically, but I believe that there must always be one dominant or central element. In my case, it is sound.

Speaking about polystylistic arts, it is extremely easy to slip into excessive eclecticism or mere commercial dullness if one is not skilled and experienced enough to meaningfully merge the different disciplines. The greatest mistake that an artist can make is to start doing something with the specific intent to please the audience (I’m not speaking about the type of culture that is commonly referred to as entertainment, but rather about jazz or contemporary classical music). If one is sincere and uses some creative methods because of inner justifi cation, then the audience will appreciate it anyway, even if this audience is smaller in size.

- Let’s look at your own artistic career now. Can you trace and outline the major stages and milestones in it? What led you from ‘pure’ jazz music to sound installations and other projects that involve more than just playing jazz?

- I started playing jazz in my native Arkhangelsk, in Russia. Back then I was under the tremendous infl uence of John Coltrane’s brand of contemporary jazz – I used to obtain virtually all of his records a mere week after their release in the USA, buying them from the seamen whose ships moored in the port of Arkhangelsk. The extraordinary impact of this music came from the fact that it contained the African Americans’ protest against the repressive system, which immediately resonated with us, the youth living in the totalitarian state. This music was an outlet for the energy that did not find any other vent. Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders were our heroes. At the same time, we did not copy them, we tried to create our own language.

The second major stage came about when I was invited to perform with the big band of the Philharmonic Society in Vilnius. It was then that I met Vyacheslav Ganelin. Vladimir Chekasin joined soon, and so the Ganelin Trio was formed. We played together for 15 years and then reunited briefly after sometime. This period was extremely important, of course. We were three absolutely different individuals, each coming to the trio with his own unique talent and original ideas. Looking back, I think we resembled a three-headed dragon.

In the first half of the 80’s, when the Trio was still together, I became extremely interested in solo drum performances. I was curious to extract all the possible sounds from this instrument; I thought, “what else can it sound like, besides the familiar sound of the jazz drum kit?” In other words, I wanted to find the unique melody of the drum, instead of the standard “play it hard and fast” type of sound, and I found it.

In a while I and the great Russian artist Ilya Kabakov started organizing what I like to call “polystylistic performances”, mostly in artists’ studios in Moscow, involving writers, painters and other artists. After some time I took this circle of Moscow’s conceptualists to Vilnius, where we continued our performances, this time in the studios of Lithuanian artists like Algimantas Kuras. That was probably another distinctive period.

Oh, I almost forgot my theatre works! I have worked with the French choreographer Josef Nadj for 12 years now. He has staged several performances based on my music. That was a very interesting experience, because I understood that percussion is very close to contemporary choreography.

I would view these stages as stages of continuous maturing and education that advance my understanding of creative work. I fail to understand statements like “now I can do my thing flawlessly and I know how everything must be” that some artists make. I never feel that I know something comprehensively.

- You’ve mentioned the Trio and some of your other collaborations. What is the basis that allows artists to ‘feel’ each other, especially in jazz?

- Let me express this basis in two words: knowledge and taste. I am also sure that there is no worse for collaboration than money. I mean, there are situations when one musician calls the other and says, “Hey, there’s a concert in one club, they pay us this much money, let’s play something.” When the word something is heard, that’s the end. Dead music. Yes, it will sound like jazz, it may even contain moments of inspiration when the musicians catch the drive, which the painters call “the accidental stroke”. But you can’t live on accidental drive only, it’s like constantly taking drugs. One must possess some wisdom and take a clear position towards one’s art. The Trio was an ideal case in this respect.

- Which recent developments in Lithuanian jazz do you find intriguing and promising? Which composers, performers and collectives capture your attention? What is your view on ‘interventions’ of jazz into different musical cultures, or permutations and metamorphoses of jazz itself?

- Before answering this question, I’d like to suggest that jazz does not necessarily equal jazz music. The definition of a jazzman has transcended these strict frames by now. I can’t forget the visit of the San Francisco Symphony with Seiji Ozawa to Lithuania, they were playing Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 with the incredible pianist Johan Weiss that time. They had an unbelievable amount of swing in their sound! Thus, jazz could be more accurately understood as a special way of extracting sounds, or, even more broadly, as a special way of life. So Chekasin, for example, with all his interdisciplinary theatrical performances, is more of a jazzman than anybody else. The same with Miles Davis; many thought that what he did on his late albums was not jazz anymore, but that was so only because those who attempted to imitate Miles interpreted the developments in his style as rock or fusion, while this was pure jazz. Back in the middle of the 20th century, jazz projected itself onto other arts, including literature – think of Cortázar, for instance. In a way, jazz shaped a whole generation of people who were constantly surrounded by it at that time.

Undoubtedly, Lithuania has many talented jazz musicians, especially young ones. I hesitate to say that they have already found their unique voice, but they are definitely entering this stage now. One of them is Vytis Nivinskas, with his solid American school background and a good sense of swing. Surely, the influence of American jazz is obvious in his playing, which is natural, since he has obtained his MA in the USA, but I feel that he is already coming across his own way. Liudas Mockūnas, Vytautas Labutis, and a host of others who are quite interesting as well, some of them have just graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music... no, it is certainly too early to bury jazz! I’m especially pleased to see how these young people learn to appreciate the authenticity of the purely acoustic sound and hear the sublime sea of sounds that every individual note contains.

- What about musical styles other than jazz? Do you follow their development and current trends?

- Well, I think that Lithuanian contemporary composers are definitely very interesting. Anatolijus Šenderovas, Faustas Latėnas, Algirdas Martinaitis – they are extremely intelligent people. These and other contemporary composers are the ones who really have their own distinctive identities. The problem is that art is becoming more and more of a business dominated by free market laws, and they are not always able to present their works to the public.

- What are your plans for the nearest future, especially the ones related to Lithuania? I have heard that you are doing a project for this year’s Jauna muzika festival.

- Yes, I was invited to take part in Jauna muzika. That will be a video work, the starting piece of a new cycle of works based on my music, most probably Atto IV.

One of my greatest joys currently is the forthcoming release of a box set containing 11 CD’s of my solo works. The idea of this collection was born quite a while ago, several people have contributed to its realization, including the Ford Foundation that made it possible financially (show me a sane person who will want to release 11 CD’s of solo drum performances!), and now I’m happy to have my personal history assembled in one collection. I think of it as my own epic novel in 11 parts.

I have almost completed the 12th program by now (I have played a part of it at the One Man Band festival in Vilnius this winter), and in the nearest weeks I will have a series of performances in Czech Republic and Slovakia. Unfortunately, I don’t play in Lithuania very often lately, but I can tell you that my solo concert at the National Philharmonic Hall is scheduled for December.

© Jurij Dobriakov

Lithuanian Music Link No. 14