Spaces of possibility

For over thirty years, the Cologne saxophonist and composer Norbert Stein has been working on his unique Pata music.

Spaces of possibilityThe music flows calmly and warmly, but don’t let yourself be deceived: It is unpredictable, breaks out into free jazz, quotes non-European styles, distorts into the chamber music microscopic. One can imagine “We Are”, the latest CD from the Pata Messengers around tenor saxophonist Norbert Stein as a kaleidoscope, certain elements constantly recur, but always in an unusual constellation. This music ties up with Ornette Coleman’s harmonic fantasies, but above all with his own tradition: Stein has been releasing music under his “Pata” label since 1987.
Together with Philip Zoubek (piano), Joscha Oetz (bass) and Etienne Nillesen (drums), all established stars in the Cologne music scene, with “We Are”, he has presented one of the most outstanding jazz releases of the past year.

How would you describe the relationship between composed and free elements for your music?

I am interested – also as a listener – in the combination of the two: When I hear a band that improvises in the here and now and thereby shows what this community of musicians is capable of producing, but at the same time compositional elements appear in these free flows that fit in harmoniously, then I find this very exciting and successful. Compositional elements are an expression of the spiritual work of preparatory formulation. Every improvising musician deals with his personal formulation in the moment of improvisation anyway, even just by practicing his instrument. Composing, however, can also consciously and intentionally use elements to create form.

In this context, there is often talk of spaces that you create for your fellow musicians.

Spaces – this is an auxiliary term that I find provides a clear explanation for understanding the musical events. The space of the musician is the moment in which music happens. This moment is characterized by when and where it happens. An event space. As a composer, I work with improvising musicians who have the musical ability and the artistic need to formulate themselves and explore the possibilities of the moment. Here, the architecture of musical spaces created by me as a composer, in which my ideas are presented, and the vital art of improvisation, complement each other. In this sense, it is important to avoid the open spaces being filled by the composition, because then there would be no space left for something I find essential: giving access to the infinite realm of what is musically
possible.

Your homepage features a text in which you talk about the structure of musical improvisation. Does such a text, i.e. an intellectual discussion, have a direct impact on the way you play?

Although it is not intended as an operating manual, the analysis of playing music that is described there can be very useful for those who are involved with improvisation. A joint improvisation always creates something collective and has many levels that create form and content. The improvisational moment consists of a mixture of social intuition and certain ideas about a musical product. There are design criteria – even in free music. And my descriptions presented in the aforementioned text deal with compositionally conscious action in improvisation.

That brings us to pataphysics, which describes an (still) imaginary, a-logical space and which is the namesake for your pata music.

Thirty years ago, the expression pataphysics was a symbol of spiritual liberation for me. It comes from Alfred Jarry, one of the grandfathers of absurd theatre. For me, it was the encounter with delimitation, the abandonment of existing rules and the finding of new rules. That went quite well with what I had in mind from a musical perspective. So the step from pataphysics to pata music was only a small one. With pata music I had found a term which had not yet been proven in content and was free to be constantly redefined in flowing development.

How can we imagine this in concrete terms?

The sources of pata music are manifold: There is the knowledge about – for us – exotic things, such as gamelan music, about the local European e-music, about folk, pop and rock, jazz, John Cage and sounds “behind the baseboard”. Pata music is based on the knowledge of all kinds of audio material and what has been formed and handed down from it in the past. The most important thing for me is the following realization: The entire sound material ultimately originates from one source, and that is what is possible. The possible has not yet come to an end. Forty years ago, when I came here, Cologne was a very attractive place for border-expanding developments due to Stockhausen, Kagel and the Feedback Studio. Also in the field of jazz. It was in this innovative spirit that the Kölner Jazzhaus initiative was founded and the Loft was created. With all the urge towards the unknown, I am also aware of my own starting point from origin and musical socialization and the world that it gives – its cultural richness and limitations. It is at this point, between the existing and the possible, that pata music begins.

Interview by Felix Klopotek / Koelner Stadtrevue