Born 1943 in Mariestad (Sweden), has lived in Berlin since 1968
Composer and musician, poet and visual artist, author and initiator of several music-theater productions, such as "Die Harke und der Spaten", "Über Ursache und Wirkung der Meinungsverschiedenheiten beim Turmbau zu Babel" together with Alexander von Schlippenbach (Hebbel Theater Berlin).
Numerous exhibitions, book publications, and over 50 LP and CD recordings. He was a major stylistic forerunner within European free improvisational music. In the 60s, together with Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Kowald and Peter Brötzmann, he developed a European form of free jazz.
Year-long collaboration with Alexander v. Schlippenbach, Rüdiger Carl, Hans Reichel, Dietmar Diesner, Axel Dörner and collaboration with many other musicians and artists.
Engagement as performer in the Burgtheater, Vienna. He is most well-known as a virtuosic drummer, but he also performs as a singer and speaker. Wears suits by Sali Saliu.
The Underside of Things: On the Work of Sven-Åke Johansson
When Bert Noglik found himself in the GDR twenty-five years ago, an exotically foreign freelance journalist in his old homeland, he asked European jazz musicians to talk, as part of a series of interviews, about their self-image, and one musician gave him the following answer: “It’s not about outdoing or mastering oneself, getting the better of oneself. Instead, roughly speaking, it’s about calmly looking at oneself, and at the music, from below.”*
Amidst the declarations made by the avant-gardists and free jazzers Noglik was interviewing at the time—all of whom orated about musical ecstasy, about being independent of American jazz, about being in opposition to the dominant music business—this statement stands out. What the devil does it mean to look, as a musician, at yourself and at the music from below? Sven-Åke Johansson’s remark went on the record, and any approach to his oeuvre—which might also shed light on the mystery of this utterance—would be better done in chronological form.
One can indeed describe his musico-artistic work as the diversification of a prototypical setup, or as a permanently increasing interior complexity. Johansson was born in the small Swedish town of Mariestad in 1943. At quite an early moment in his life, music and drumming took on a central role. “To build up diverse tensions and pressures with my tentacles, to bring in little variations through shifts in playing—right foot, left foot, right hand, left hand—and to create a movement in this way, a movement that circles within itself—this is something organic, something that speaks from the body,” he explained to Noglik. In conversations, he emphasizes that he simply had no other choice than to become a musician. ‘Musician’ meaning jazz drummer—at first.
The chronology: Johansson leaves Mariestad as soon as possible, moving to a nearby, and larger, Swedish town. In 1966 he finally lands in Paris, Europe’s jazz Mecca at the time, where he works as a veritable bebop drummer, playing session after session in small clubs. Johansson resides in Paris for one and a half years, at which point he is drawn to Germany, where a young and radical scene with musicians such as Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald and Manfred Schoof is forming. They’re already playing a distinct free jazz: in contrast to an American free jazz diligently aligned with tradition, “the Europeans” draw on New Music and adapt an “orgiastic fragmentation of material” that is practiced by Fluxus artists.
This must have had a catalytic effect on Johansson. He follows the call of this music, soon playing drums in Schoof and Brötzmann’s groups as if he had never played any other sort of music, and in 1967 and 68 he lives in Wuppertal and Cologne, the epicenters of free improvisation in West Germany. He doesn’t, however, come to Rhineland as a free jazz novice, as he recalls. He was already working on free forms much earlier in theaters on the Swedish countryside. The original configuration or constellation of his aesthetic consists of improvisation, of trust in an initial design, and of the intention to keep working on the first idea. This is a starting point that allows him unimagined freedoms; therefore, he will go on to give up drumming temporarily, write pieces for music theater, and start painting and drawing, which has, in the interim, yielded solo exhibitions and catalogues. Johansson tries things out, transforms things—his work is enormously manifold, but not random. Quite the contrary. When looked at individually, the works sometimes appear exaggeratedly strict, committed to one single idea that is consistently “conjugated” in all its forms. This is expressed by record titles that speak of concepts, serializations and programmes. Some examples from recent years include Versuch der Rekonstruktion einer vergangenen Zeit [an attempt at reconstructing bygone times] (1989, Cool-Jazz), Sechs kleine Stücke für Quintett [six little pieces for quintet] (Free Jazz, 1999), Barcelona Serie I-XI [Barcelona series I-XI] (1999, Geräuschimprovisationen), Kalte Welle 102 – 13 Fragmente [cold wave 102 – 13 fragments] (Geräuschimprovisationen, 2007).**
After the wild years in Wuppertal and Cologne, Johansson takes the concept of improvisation from free jazz (and from the drums) and applies it almost universally to other kinds of music and to other techniques. In the early 70s he jams with Tangerine Dream in Berlin (where he still lives today), plays a drum set made of upholstery foam, plays cardboard boxes, develops a unique, individual kind of sprechgesang, discovers the accordeon. In an earlier musico-gestural action (1967), issues of the Springer newspaper BZ are stuffed, according to scored directives, into an upright piano until it can’t be played anymore. Then the newspapers are set aflame; finally the piano catches fire too. His compositional treatment of New Music (which has intensified since the 90s) is also an aspect of this phase of his work. Perhaps one could even see this phase as the climactic end of his creative work in music, a phase that feeds on the expansion of an “instrumentarium”: if during the radicalism of the early seventies it was about turning New Music into something everyday, or humanizing New Music (music for non-musicians, music to read, etc.), then in this phase Johansson enlarges a particular principle (one characterised by the overstepping of the bounds of “art” and “life”) to include the world of things. He has conceived a trilogy for wind turbines, has given musicians directions for emptying fire extinguishers according to rhythmic-dynamic parameters, and has written a concert for car horns. All of these are compositional concepts into which he has transferred certain structural principles found in free improvisation. He rediscovers the free and rhythmic pulsation of his free jazz in the vibrations of tractor motors.
“Looking at things from below” is a form of reflection proper to Johansson. Usually one reflects on something. He shuns the ascendant position of the observer and prefers to go underneath things, and hence right into the middle of an anlysis which is, first and foremost, a search for surprising contexts, links and combinations, each of which arise by virtue of Johansson’s highly stylized parameters. On one of his CDs, Hudson Riv, he interprets, as singer—or better yet—non-singer, jazz standards, showtunes and love songs like You and the night and the music, Old Devil Moon, I should care or Autumn in New York—with lyrics like “Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds / In canyons of steel”. The CD was recorded in November 2001, a time when it was considered indecent for American radio stations to play Autumn in New York. Johansson plays the song in all his glory. Here irony and sorrow are interwoven with the almost defiant assertion that a song is, first and foremost, a song, not a facetious statement. Johansson is the master of spontaneous reflection because he reveals that it is not a creatio ex nihilo. On the contrary, any spontaneous reflection rests on its own history.
Felix Klopotek, 2009
*Bert Noglik, Jazzwerkstatt international, Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik, 1981.
**The English translations of these album titles are made only for the sake of understanding Klopotek’s point, not to provide “official” English translations of the titles. The albums are available only under their German titles.