INTERVIEW: Mary Oliver (ICP orchestra, CCA Glasgow 29 Nov;Cafe Oto, London 6/7 Dec)

ICP member Mary Oliver (violin, centre)
with Ernst Glerum (bass, left) and Tristan Honsinger (cello, right)
Publicity photo by Francesca Patella

One of Europe’s most enduring and characterful ensembles, the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) orchestra plays concerts in London and Glasgow as part of the Going Dutch project that is bringing musicians from the Netherlands to the UK and Ireland until the end of 2019. Violinist Mary Oliver, a classically trained musician who has worked in both the classical and free improvisation schools, shares some of her experiences with Rob Adams.

Following a first instalment of enthusiastically received concerts towards the end of last year, the ICP  orchestra arrives with expectations high as they prepare to collaborate with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra at the CCA in Glasgow on Thursday 29 November and play two concerts of their own at Café Oto on 6 and 7 December.

The orchestra formed in the 1980s as an extension of the Instant Composers Pool founded in Amsterdam in 1967 by pianist Misha Mengelberg, drummer Han Bennink and saxophonist Willem Breuker. They play music from early jazz through Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and beyond into free improvisation, chamber music, tango and can-cans. Han Bennink is now the sole survivor of the original trio, Breuker having left in 1974 (he died in 2010) and Mengelberg having died in 2017, and now steers the ten-piece orchestra in his own inimitable way.

LondonJazz News: How did musicians become involved in the orchestra?

Mary Oliver: “A lot of us who have played in the ensemble studied at Amsterdam Conservatoire with Misha and the first hour of a class would be about counterpoint, or something disciplined like that. Then, in the second hour, we would play completely freely and Misha was just seeing how we would cope in this situation. If he liked what he saw, or heard, he’d invite us into the orchestra, which was similarly a group of people who might not normally be compatible, but it was our reactions he was interested in.”

LJN: Having founded ICP and worked with it for such a long time, is it fair to say that Misha’s presence is still very much felt within the orchestra?

MO: “We still play his music, of course. There are over 200 pieces in the orchestra’s repertoire and Misha created an enormous number of them, so, yes, we are reminded of him every time we play.”

LJN: There’s often been a sense of theatricality about the orchestra’s performances; is that still the case?

MO: “Oh yes. Theatricality is a natural part of what we do. I think the orchestra was always an expansion of Misha and Han’s duo, in its meeting of apparently opposing personalities, the conservatoire-trained pianist who studied composition and the fantastically energetic showman- drummer.”

LJN: How did Misha foster and expand that sense of friction that appeared to exist between Han and himself, who were great friends, really?

MO: “They were great friends. That's true. Everything was done for the sake of creating interesting musical situations. Misha would put people together who really didn’t like each other just to see how they reacted. Or he might give someone a solo in a certain piece because that piece fit their playing style or maybe precisely because it would present a particular challenge. Ultimately, though, in choosing these soloists or putting subgroups together he was following an unwritten rule that still pertains, and that is that everyone in the ensemble gets an equal chance to play.”

LJN: With such a huge repertoire and an interest in music from so many different eras and styles, how do you choose what to play?

MO: “In the beginning it was always Misha who put the set-list together and it was always just a few minutes before the concert, and that’s still what happens. Misha’s way was to take into account the keys the pieces are written in and their atmosphere. This is composition in a way, although the final outcome is determined by what happens in the moment. With Misha, we might have played the same pieces on consecutive nights but we weren’t expected to remember from night to night how we’d played them the previous time, and that’s the case still. No two concerts can ever be the same.”

LJN: Can you give an idea of what the audience can expect?

MO: “It’s always a varied programme, in terms of which style and what era the music comes from but the great thing for us is that while we might start out with a set-list that someone’s taken it upon themselves to commit to paper in the dressing-room, we never know ourselves what might happen.”

 Rob Adams is a journalist from Edinburgh who has been working on the Going Dutch project.

LINKS: ICP Orchestra at CCA, Glasgow

ICP Orchestra at Cafe Oto

ICP website

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