Feb.13, 2010

Ulf Olsson

”A library of sounds” – that is how Mats Gustafsson once described the knowledge and ability that the improvising musician possesses. A library made up not of written sheets of music, of notation, but of the possibilities that the body offers the musician. It is within the body that sound is stored: in the bodies of musician and instrument respectively. Improvising is, then, to actualize that library of sound.
For a long time you could speak of Mats Gustafsson as a “saxophone player”. He left his northern hometown Umeå at an early age, moved to Stockholm, locked himself up inside a soundproof wardrobe, and practiced on that instrument for a couple of years. He wanted to become a saxophone machine, a machine worker impossible to distinguish from his machine, the instrument.
But leaving the wardrobe, he started to play – silence. Playing is also knowing when not to play. To wait for the sound. To let the sound rest. I know of no other musician who can play, and play with and against, silence, like Gustafsson. And then silence becomes an expressive part of his music.
At the same time, the instrument makes demands its own. The saxophone is a machine, and the musician a worker at his machine, he is the one forced to go to work every night. Every day he has to put his mouth to the mouthpiece and breathe life into the machine.
With time, the music of Mats Gustafsson becomes physical, beautiful, repulsive, powerful: bodily, most of all. Watching him perform on stage, you realize his closeness to dance and choreography. His relation to his instrument is that of a dancer. A body in motion, moving in space. There is no given closeness between man and his machine; it must be produced anew, every day.
The saxophone machine forces the musician to a take a stand. The saxophone includes within it everyone that has played on it before: the tradition. And every time you pick up the instrument, the musician must ask him- or herself: give in to tradition, consciously or unconsciously – or try to do the impossible: invent the instrument again? Mats Gustafsson has always chosen the latter alternative.
Deeply oriented in tradition, familiar with all those who have made the instrument possible to play, Gustafsson still creates ongoing situations where the musician must initiate a new relation to the instrument. He does it very concretely: playing on the mouthpiece only. Or through playing on an instrument of his own making, the flutophone, or playing the impossible-to-play-on glide saxophone. Or stopping the sound from leaving the instrument by holding it against his thigh. Or playing in an acoustic situation where the sound is so high that the only remaining possibility is to scream through the instrument.
And through arranging situations that force the musicians to move outside their normal ways of playing. Improvisation not as playing whatever enters your mind, but playing what is made possible by the situation. Free improvisation is based on the library of sound and the saxophone machine, it has always been prepared in that configuration, and it presupposes a script, realized or not, that does not notate what the musician should be playing, but opens a space for him or her to explore. The improvising musician then has to situate the resulting music: make room for it; bring it into a material shape.
It all comes down to an attitude toward sound and the world where that sound is to be listened to, the context in which music sounds. Mats Gustafsson became a listener, the musician who is always listening for the spaces in between, the narrow gaps and openings, the possibilities. And those possibilities are often to be found in other spaces, in new constellations. Don’t ever be scared of trying: playing solo or in a group, play for or play against. That is why the musician is not only an instrumentalist; he is also an agitator. And an organizer. Mats Gustafsson belongs to the kind of musician that is constantly looking for new spaces, and if they are not to be found, he tries to create them. He sees to that the most remarkable music can be heard in small provincial towns of Sweden as well as in London or New York.
Mats Gustafsson has become an international star within improvised music. His discography is already impossible to take in; he has played with almost every name within this type of music. But throughout this career, all along the way, he has slowly and firmly been moving into a new position: the improvising musician becomes a sound artist.
The foundation is broadened. What was from the start an obsession with sounds and, most of all, with his own, has become something larger, wider. But all the time, this search is situated within something tangible, material, physical. It is not by accident that Gustafsson is one of those artists that, in re-establishing contact with the improvised music of the Sixties, also have come to engage with its avant-garde poetry, to art as a happening. There, in something happening, sound improvisation and words meet and form something new, something else.
Or, a shape of music to come.
This text was originally an oral presentation of Mats Gustafsson, broadcasted by the Swedish Radio Channel One on May 7, 2005. – Ulf Olsson is a professor of Comparative Literature at Stockholm University. He has also published extensively – but in Swedish – on improvised music, from The Grateful Dead via John Coltrane to Anthony Braxton.