INTERVIEW: Anke Steinbeck (new book on improvisation Fantasieren nach Beethoven)

Anke Steinbeck
Photo credit: Sandra Seiffen

Musicologist Anke Steinbeck has written a book in German about improvisation, Fantasieren nach Beethoven (extemporizing after Beethoven).  Dr Steinbeck is Head of Communication for JazzFest Bonn,  founded in 2010, and running this year from 12 to 28 May. Bonn is the city where Beethoven was born, and the jazz festival includes a concert in the Beethovenhaus. She explained the background to Sebastian: 


LondonJazz News: What would you describe as your purpose in writing this book?

Anke Steinbeck: Improvisation is one of the cornerstones of the history of European music, and not something either strange or foreign; I would really like to raise awareness of that with this book.

What improvisation means to me above all is communication. It is about engaging with the here and now, being flexible, about daring to do new things and developing one's own voice. Given that background, it is regrettable that improvisation has disappeared from many parts of today's classical concert life. Composers like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were brilliant improvisers – in their day they would held audiences spellbound with their artistry and their "fantasieren."

LJN: What led you to choose this subject for the book?

AS: I have played the violin for many years, and also worked in the management of symphony orchestras for about a decade and a half. In classical music, the concept of fidelity to the score is central. Orchestras are fascinating structures, and they do achieve things which are both important and valuable, very often performing works of complete genius; and yet the form of presentation is that of a museum. Wouldn‘t it be wonderful if more communication in concerts could be encouraged. We need those moments which can open up the music: a freely played cadenza, or a performer explaining what's actually going on....

One of the concerts which left the strongest effect on me was a piano recital by András Schiff. At the beginning of the concert he gave explanations from the concert platform of the Goldberg Variations, and also a guide to his interpretation of it. Then, after the interval, he played the variations straight through. It was amazing. I have never heard the work played like that. I had the sense that I could understand the music and its context much better and had learnt so much about the composer, the work and about the pianist himself.

LJN:  The form of the book follows the idea of ‘fantasieren’ and ends up in a different place from where it starts.

AS: Yes, you’re right. I didn’t just want to write about improvisation, but also be sufficiently open in my structure to things that I would encounter in the process of writing and in the interviews. In order to understand how improvisation functions, what it is, what it is capable of and what it isn’t. it was necessary to be open-minded. I see this book as the start of a journey into a new musical world.

LJN:  There is a context here with the Bonn 2020 Beethoven anniversary celebrations - can you explain that...

AS: Beethoven is considered today all over the world as the most important composer, many consider him to have been a genius. But in his own lifetime he was not known first and foremost as a composer but rather as a hugely talented improviser on the piano, as a virtuoso with astonishing agility. His playing could enchant and beguile, or reduce people to tears. The reason he became so well known and so quickly in Vienna was his remarkable combination of temperament, finger-speed and creative acumen. In 2020 it will be the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. I am absolutely convinced that, in the context of these celebrations, it will be good – indeed vital – not just to perform and to hear his works, but also to keep his spirit alive. Beethoven was one of the most intrepid revolutionaries in history. If he were alive today, he would no doubt be dazzling us with his improvisations. As a musician , he did concern himself with tradition. But he would also be pushing out creative boundaries and formulating ideas in a musical language all his own.

LJN:  One of the key elements is a series of interviews, and you interview the people about very different themes. Did this grow organically from the first interview or did you have a fixed plan that you stuck to?

AS: My choice of interviewees was subjective. They were artists who had given concerts that had affected me and made me convinced that they would have interesting things to say about their art.

Many of the interviewees are musicians and composers. They had insights into how Beethoven‘s improvisation was not just an instruction, how to act, but also a basis of his compositional process in the sense of discovery.

All of the interviews begin with the question "What is jazz for you?" I wanted to get to know the artists and to find out what motivated them, how they understood their music, and how important artistic freedom is for them. There was, of course, a blueprint for how the interviews would proceed. But I often found that I strayed from the plan - I improvised. It was more important to establish a dialogue than to stick to the pre-conceived structure.

LJN:  Where you do you think the new elements in the book are... the things you are proudest of... the themes you hope people will notice?

AS: I wanted to flag up the idea that contemporary music with improvised sections can be a really beautiful thing. Really, nobody is going to get hurt here!

I wanted this to be the kind of book which one can curl up on a sofa with after a concert, and learn more about individual musicians. It is intended for people interested in the arts, who have open ears and eyes when it comes encounters with the music of our time. The juxtaposition of interviews, photos and short theoretical texts should above all entertain and divert.

LJN:  I enjoyed the very last interview with Quasthoff. I find he speaks very directly. You must be pleased with that interview..…

AS: Thomas Quasthoff was – and still is – THE singer of German Lieder par excellence. His voice and personality have been with me ever since my youth, so to meet him in person was a very special experience. He is a lovely man with a huge heart, and it was amazing to be able to put open, personal questions to him. That was an incredible evening from which I learnt a lot.

LJN:  One is not supposed to have favourite children but maybe there is another interview you are particularly proud of?

AS: That is a difficult question, because every one of the conversations seemed to open new doors. However, the one that has stuck in my mind the most is the interview with Christopher Dell. It was the one which surprised me the most and proved the most demanding. In the course of the conversation I completely abandoned my script. Christopher has a clear analytical framework. He is not just a superb vibraphonist, but also a remarkable theoretician – his knowledge base is dauntingly impressive. I find I often think back to the conversation with him.

LJN:  The book is very well produced and beautifully designed and the amazing thing is quite how rapidly it has been produced - you and the editorial and production team have moved very fast from the conducting of the last  interview (9 December 2016) until the finished book appearing (1 May 2017). Tell us that story now it has been completed.

AS: Yes indeed, we were very quick. I am very happy with it and incredibly grateful to the artists who were interviewed, and also to Dennis Russell Davies, who wrote the Foreword. All of them really supported this book, and went way beyond the call of duty. The publisher has also done an amazing job, and only through this teamwork and co-ordination has the fast turnaround been achievable.

I have the impression that the music scene is currently in a state of upheaval: boundaries between genres are ever more fluid. Jazz can be heard more and more in concert halls. I have just read (it was on the BBC’s website) that Gabriela Montero will shortly be giving a masterclass on improvisation. The Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger recently featured jazz pianist Iiro Rantala on his show KlickKlack on the music station BR Klassik. That’s fantastic!

One area that does concern me a lot is the working conditions of musicians, and especially jazz musicians, are still often miserable. Low fees or even no fees – I’d like to praise the superb work of the UDJ (Union Deutsche Jazzmusiker) to draw attention to the problem. I am utterly convinced that a strong, healthy and creative music scene is of benefit to society as a whole.

LJN:  When is the launch, so we can raise a glass for your achievement?

AS: The book is already out. It will be available from mid-May in bookshops, and also at the concerts in Jazzfest Bonn. See you there maybe?

LINKS: Jazzfest Bonn
Fantasieren nach Beethoven at Dohr=Verlag. Price 20 Euros

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