Saxophonist, composer, label

Interview by Hans-Juergen Schaal
(Published in CLARINO)

Around 1980, he belonged to the “young wild ones” on the Cologne jazz scene. With his label Pata Music he has been documenting his exciting music with various ensembles for over 30 years.

He received his first saxophone lessons from his father. At the age of 13, he joined the local music club, where he played in the wind orchestra. It was mainly from the radio that he learned that completely different sounds existed, such as jazz and new music. For six years, Norbert Stein studied at Cologne Music College, where composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel taught in the 1970s.
“Cologne was an important place for innovative music,” says Stein today. “There was a courageous, creative spirit of awakening and departure into new − also new musical − worlds.” In 1980, he and other young Cologne-based musicians got together and founded the Jazz Haus Initiative, which includes the Offene Jazz Haus Schule and the music label JazzHausMusik. This step was inspired by similar musician initiatives in the USA (Jazz Composers Guild, AACM) or France (ARFI).

Having gathered experience with the label JazzHausMusik, the saxophonist founded his label Pata Music in 1986 in order to be able to produce his own music even more independently. The term “Pata” refers to the imaginary “science” of pataphysics, an invention of the writer Alfred Jarry. Like pataphysics, Stein’s “patamusic” is supposed to be above convention. Everything is transformable, but nothing is arbitrary. Norbert Stein has published 24 productions on his label so far − with large ensembles (for example Pata Orchestra), with small ensembles (for example Pata Trio), with world music projects (for example Pata Bahia, Pata Java, Pata Maroc) or with a pure wind group (Pata Horns). The current Pata band is called Pata Messengers and is a jazz quartet with tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums.

CLARINO: How influential was the awakening of the Cologne scene around 1980 for you? How did you experience it back then? How did you experience it back then?

Norbert Stein: I experienced the young years of the initiative as very communicative, lively and idealistic. Many independent ensembles and exciting productions were created. I was able to experience what was to be achieved politically at that time, supported by the spirit of the citizens’ initiatives. Over the years, however, I also recognized how the collective changed as a result of developing hierarchies and aspirations to power. My step out into independence was then consistent and necessary.

In the mid-1980s you were also part of the then celebrated Cologne Saxophone Mafia, a pure saxophone ensemble. Was Pata Horns later inspired by this?

The Cologne Saxophone Mafia existed in public perception at the same time as the World Saxophone Quartet and the Californian Rova Saxophone Quartet. For us, it was a good challenge to develop our own ideas and skills. One of the Cologne Saxophone Mafia’s album titles was practically an artistic program: “Die saxuelle Befreiung” [Saxual Liberation]. After leaving, I co-founded the Pata Horns, a wind quartet consisting of two woodwinds and two brass instruments. The music from the Pata Horns was more songlike than that of the Saxophone Mafia, and also romantic and witty. It formed a warm, harmonious bridge between tradition and the new – “New Archaic Music”.

How would you describe your musical development as a saxophonist? What has inspired you in particular over the years?

Béla Bartók’s “Microcosmos” confronted me for the first time with bitonality – something that I later found to a larger extent in Charles Ives’ 4th Symphony. Schönberg’s border-crossing atonality was also a delightful acoustic experience for me. This so-called “a-tonality” corresponded perfectly with the tonality of my sense of the world. I was inspired by the artistic unleashing of elemental forces in the music of Xenakis, the saxophonistic power of Pharoah Sanders, the expression of Archie Shepp, the art of Sonny Rollins and the melodic, burning flights of Gato Barbieri rising above a rhythmic current. In the 1970s, as a clarinetist, I also visited the Darmstädter Tage für Neue Musik. There, I took part in a course for multiphonics on the oboe. I found that “Top-Tones for (the) Saxophone” by Ted Nash and the exercise book of the same name by Sigurd Rascher burst beyond the narrow boundaries of the previous fingering chart. They opened the broad field of the art of saxophone playing to me – together with excursions into “false fingering” and studies on creating differentiated multiphonics on the saxophone.

Your profile as a composer is at least as strong as your profile as a saxophonist. If you compose for improvising musicians, are you also a prompter to a certain extent, an enabler?

My composing developed out of the need to initiate and bring into the world something that I would like to hear. I compose for improvisers My main approach is the melody. Through it, I stage spaces in which musicians can express themselves and their art beyond the interpretation of what has been written. The composed section of a piece presents what
I want to grasp and communicate as a composer. The open spaces, on the other hand, create what I value very much and what fulfils me: the musical interaction and the mutual creation of a strong moment of intense presence.

As a composer, you are inspired by very different worlds. How would you describe your relationship to e-music or jazz?

Both genres – and also music from cultures that are exotic to me – have opened doors for me out of the familiar. Not towards different worlds, but towards experiencing a world that understands the present as an expression of what is possible. A world in flux, full of creative potential, in which I can participate in something new.

How important is it for you to deal with these “exotic” or world music concepts?

The knowledge of non-European musical concepts opens the eyes and ears of musicians to the fact that there are many different possibilities and rules to creating wonderful and touching music. Each set of rules creates an aesthetic idiosyncrasy, which only arises from the fact that it demands some things and excludes others. Such specific sets of rules are distributed as different musical cultures not only across countries, but also across the time. The beauty of Gregorian music, for example, was based on its specific laws. Such laws also demand specific instrumental or compositional abilities and arts from the performers. In my opinion, however, above all cultural differences there is a universal understanding of rhythm, harmony, melody, energy and flow in music. This enables us as musicians to work globally across local dialects. Numerous projects of intercultural encounters, which I was able to realize with my colleagues worldwide, were based on this.

Some of your Pata ensembles were unique projects, others of longer duration. Was it always planned that way?

I am generally interested in working together with other musicians and artists as intensively and long-term as possible. Such long-term cooperations are not a matter of course – and they also come to an end at some point. When that will happen is always uncertain, and the course is exciting. It is crucial to use the cooperation as productively as possible in order to penetrate together into depths, heights or the truth. The process is one that can be used, and the end is often the beginning of the new and the continued.

Are the current Pata Messengers a continuously working ensemble?

The Pata Messengers are my main project at the moment. And we have now been working together as an ensemble over the production of three CDs. It is a musical cohesion of musicians driving forward. At the same time, we have a concentrated closeness in our work and a great distance in pursuing our own paths. The ensemble is a focus of innovative forces – and that is the quality that I appreciate.

You have stressed several times that when you were young, you found a term with which you could identify in Jarry’s “Pataphysics” Would you call your label Pata Music again today?

Roger Shattuck writes: “Pataphysics is the science of that area which extends beyond metaphysics; or also: pataphysics exceeds metaphysics to the extent that metaphysics exceeds physics [… ]. Pataphysics is the science of the special, of the laws that determine the exceptions.” So: Not a bad reason to call my label Pata Music again!