“Anything but boring” - Misha Mengelberg remembered



If you know where I am, try and find me.

“A man’s life touches so many other lives”. This line pretty much summarises the sense of the famous old Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life. What would have happened if a certain life was not there to make it happen?

When I think about the days of EJN’s birth, the first name that comes to my mind is Huub van Riel’s, because in a way he set the path of the whole thing. Originally, I had thought about it as an association with a very strong market impact and a definite cultural-political view. Huub simply inverted the priorities.

When I think of Huub, we go such a long way back that the circumstances of when and how we met become blurry. But they’re not. We met through Misha Mengelberg. Obviously, I daresay.

Misha was in fact a ‘network person’. He made a point of sharing his friendships. One day in the late Seventies, he invited me to lunch somewhere round the Stedelijk Museum. Arriving at the restaurant I found him in the company of Wim Schippers, his partner in crime of many musical theatre pieces. He didn’t even introduce us, just said “I always thought you two have many things in common and that you should be in touch. So now you can talk between yourselves”. Which was not really the best start for a conversation, but we all know that sprinkling a bit of discomfort was very much his vocation, both in life and music. Although a formidable creator of ‘easy’ melodies (he called them “ear worms”), Misha didn’t like it ‘easy’. No sugar coating.

I’ll try to explain with a little story. Sometimes in the early Eighties a well known Italian theatre group, based in a village near Rome called Genazzano, commissioned us a sort of music theatre work in progress. Chapter one was meant to be just a concert of Mengelberg & Bennink, in the park surrounding the castle where the group was based. They had rented for him a magnificent Bösendorfer grand piano, but forgot to send the plane ticket to Han, so it had to be a solo... About an hour before the concert, an ill-timed cloudburst suggested to move the concert indoors, where only an out-of-tune vertical piano missing a leg, and with several broken keys, was available. No PA. I won’t even try to describe what an unbelievable performance Misha delivered, suffice it to say that driving back to Rome at night I told him “I’ve heard you play so many times and always loved it, but tonight was really special”. He mumbled: “Well, they put me in such a difficult situation that I had to show them”…

Misha was the first musician that not only reacted enthusiastically to the idea of EJN, but contributed contents to give it a shape (others were Paul Bley and George Lewis). It might be useful to remember that all the European large ensembles of that time (ICP Orchestra, Globe Unity, Derek’s Company, LJCO) were internationally based. Their existence in itself inspired the idea of a European network. He immediately saw the potential of a communication structure that was starting to switch from ‘broadcasting’ to ‘narrowcasting’ (according to the brilliant definition of Peter Schulze). But more in general Misha was able to see into the future due to the fact that, as his gentle wife Amy remarked once, he was a formidable chess player. Calculating the implications of every single move was his structure of thought.

As we all know, improvisation is the more effective metaphor of existence, which is – alas – not written but improvised. Misha took that a step forward, to a total identification between art and life. In 1979 a friend and I had a daily broadcast on the Italian ‘cultural’ channel, Radio 3. It was not the ‘talk and music’ kind of programme, though. Every day we had to produce a sort of ‘radio drama’ of ninety minutes, involving live music. In June we had for a whole week in the studio Mengelberg, Bennink and Brötzmann. Schedule was pretty tight. We wrote the scripts at night, made photocopies for the actors and record in the morning, broadcast at 3.30pm. The last day the script was about a middle-aged couple from Venice, driving to Rome in search of her nephew. They are shouting at each other all the time: “You should have turned left, not right!!”; “Your nephew is a jerk anyway, why drive all the way from Venice to find him?!?”; “Watch that car!! You almost bumped into it!”. Apparently the guy had changed job and address many times so in the end they don’t find him and go back to Venice. The whole thing was recorded in the morning in Rome’s traffic, with a Nagra (hands up who remembers what a Nagra is!). At 5pm, when the broadcast was over, Misha stated: “This was the best thing we did so far. The people could have opened the window instead of the radio, and they would have heard exactly the same thing – noises of traffic and people arguing”. Oh yes, that’s life...

So, going back to square one, what would have happened if I hadn’t met Misha Mengelberg at some point? I don’t even wanna think about it. All I can say is that I have been so lucky to “touch his life”, and through him “so many other lives”… In the 30th anniversary of EJN’s foundation, it might be a good idea to conceive something special for Misha. To celebrate his life, rather than his death. Which was, in his own words, “a very boring concept”. And Misha was anything but boring…

Filippo Bianchi
EJN Honorary President

Misha Mengelberg has been a key figure in improvised music in Europe for many decades and his death gives us all the opportunity both to celebrate his massive contribution and also to reflect on where such huge creativity in jazz may come from in the years to come, and how we can support it. Filippo Bianchi reminds us of his connection with the early days of EJN and of the early ambitions for the network which we must not forget as we grow and develop. 

Ros Rigby
EJN President

Misha Mengelberg had a special easiness of mind; he had no fear and a gift to focus on his very own world but additionally also to involve others in an open, disturbing and non-binding way - as a prerequisite for artistically really sparking binds. He knew about the productive energy of paradoxes and how to get the ball rolling. In that sense he always was a causing force not a pushing or forcing power. He had a good sense and persistence to play the game, let things happen and emerge. He was a man of lightness and fleeting, a kind of lightness and fleeting that leaves some precious non-perishable sediments. 

He had clear ideas how (the) music should be, should sound but instead of solitary construction he preferred and trusted the effects of chance, starting with “No Idea”. He played his very own game with this antithesis. He preferred to get at higher levels of composition through and with the tension and thrill of emergence in the moment - a question of excitement and liveliness. Meanwhile, he was like a child to create pleasure in tiny and simple beautiful things and animal life. 

As the reactions on his death show: Misha strikes a chord of many different people. His special way of dealing with reality and creating freedom has affected and affects a great variety of people of different backgrounds and ages. Misha has crossed the river. His soul and spirit is now wandering on another level. And there are lots of echoes, rich and appealing memmmmmmmories and precious sediments. 

Henning Bolte
Music journalist, Amsterdam

Photo: Misha Mengelberg / Berlin, 5 juni 2010 / 75 birthday © Francesca Patella