The most important thing though, is how I have developed as a person throughout the last 10 years or so.
With the release of The Trondheim Concert pianist Espen Berg took the step in to the unknown that he had preparing to make for some considerable time. If, as they say, timing is everything then this is Berg’s moment. Rapidly gathering plaudits from critics and fellow musicians, the album represents a massive leap of faith by the pianist and while it has not been stated explicitly the feeling is that here is the major new voice in the art of solo improvised piano recitals.
The Trondheim Concert is your first fully improvised piano concert, and something that you have been preparing yourself to do for some time. Why do you feel now was the right time to take this new step in your music?
I have known for a long time that this is something I have been wanting to do, but I didn’t have the courage and the self-confidence needed in order to make it live up to my own expectations and ambitions. Not until recently. My improvised music acts like an X-ray device on my emotions, and I can’t hide myself from my true feelings when playing a concert like this. It takes a certain age and a mature mindset in order to keep calm, stay in the moment and let the music flow effortlessly, not getting paralyzed by destructive thoughts or feelings. I’m also grateful for everything I have experienced in my life so far, both good and bad, because I feel all these memories helps enriching the music with a greater emotional depth. And it becomes especially true when the music is fully improvised.
At the time of the performance did you feel any additional pressure knowing that it was also being recorded?
Yes, but that was also the point of it. I added as much pressure to the situation as possible to test the rigidity of the concept and my ability to stay calm and focused when the stakes are high. I hired some of Norway’s best engineers for sound, lighting and recording, and I also hired photographers to make a multi-camera video production. I had the notion that I would perform better knowing that there was quality in all parts of the production. I also hired a Steinway technician from Oslo to prepare the instrument for the recording, and the audience was actually given throat lozenges upon arrival to prevent any excess coughing. I didn’t know this until after the concert, and I thought it was quite funny, but also clever. Later, I heard that one member of the audience was a bit uncomfortable during the concert, since he felt that he couldn’t leave the room. I think he might have felt more pressure than me actually.
You have often performed freely improvised pieces alongside precomposed music during your solo concerts. How did you prepare mentally for playing an entire concert without the safety net of compositions or structures to fall back on?
Free improvisation has been the main ingredient of my practice routines for nearly 20 years now. Musically, there’s no difference when I’m practicing or playing a concert. I try to stay submerged in the moment and in the development of the music, and by eliminating the distance between rehearsal and performance I get incredible amounts of «real» experience in return. When I recorded Acres of Blue back in 2013, I made around 30-40 improvised pieces, from which we chose five to include on the album itself. This recording process gave me a solid confidence boost, as it was becoming evident that I had what it took to create huge amounts of different sounding music on the fly. I just hadn’t got the desired «flow» at that time to be able to improvise a whole concert. I see it as a combination of acquiring the skills needed, and assimilating self-confidence in both the personal and the professional life. Accomplishment of other projects and the success of other bands, such as my trio, really helped me believing in my solo project. The most important thing though, is how I have developed as a person throughout the last 10 years or so. Becoming a husband and a father taught me a lot and is still kicking my butt every day. My life is now filled with relations on a level I previously couldn’t imagine. I have also learnt to accept my personality and characteristics, and I don’t feel that small failures can be as devastating as they have been earlier.
How did it feel stepping out on the stage alone, and without your colleagues in the trio, or any other musicians for support?
It was really tense. I’m not sure if I was nervous, but I was very excited and a bit frightened. It was as if I left my body on the way up to the piano, but I pulled myself together as I sat down and searched for inspiration for the first note.
In your notes to the album, you say that in making such spontaneously created music that it is all about the moment, and right up until the moment of beginning to play that you were trying to free yourself of the notion of having a plan for the opening. Can you elaborate on this, and how you managed to dispel the thought from disrupting the process of creating freely from the opening notes of the performance?
Improvising a concert like this is like getting on a train, and you have to stay on it until you reach your final destination. There are hundreds of trains passing by all the time, and I just have to choose one. In musical terms, the very first idea, be it a chord, motif or sound, defines a starting point. The rest of the concert is basically a reaction to that starting point. I have to be loyal to the ideas that unfold along the way, but I can also move freely between all the structures at any time. It’s an act of balance, and the ratio between spontaneity and structural elements change with every «song» and every concert. This is probably why my mind is obsessed with the opening, on a subconscious level. It’s the one thing I can control during a concert like this, but also the one thing I shouldn’t control. I want to preserve the greatest amount of spontaneity, and I want the opening to be a result of the moment I’m actually playing it. In that way, I can allow all the external factors to take part in forming this very idea; the room, the temperature, the audience, the light – everything. I want to listen to that moment and base the music on it. Not a preconceived structure. I know that Keith Jarrett preferred to start his recent solo concerts in an atonal and expressive way, to clear the air and get a feeling of the instrument. I understand why, but for me it seems like an easy way to handle this «problem» of the mind’s lack of control. And it will for sure create different music than when staying true to the moment all the way up until playing. I’m quite positive I went through a hundred or so different visualizations of the opening in my mind during the days before the concert. It probably played an important part of the preparations, but every time it happened, I had to accept it, and actively choose to not think on it. It was highly energy-consuming, but I’m glad I managed to keep the spontaneity all the way up to the first notes I played.
Since its release the album has been universally praised, and deservedly received some incredible comments from the music media. How have you perceived the feedback from the album, and has the success of the recording taken you by surprise?
The feedback has been overwhelming, and it has made me proud and humble, and also more ambitious. It’s easier to eye the opportunities with this project when so many people enjoy listening to it and writes beautifully about my music. I’m highly motivated to play more concerts and release more solo albums. I have actually already recorded two more, which will be released later on. Listening back on them, I’m very happy with the evolution of the project and my playing, but I also feel that there is so much more to explore.
There has inevitably been the mention of Keith Jarrett when discussing wholly improvised piano concerts. How do you deal with such a towering figure in improvisation without feeling the weight of what has gone before? Was it possible to brush away all such thoughts prior to playing your own concert?
It was The Köln Concert that sparked my motivation back in the early 2000s. I then heard it for the first time, and instantly fell in love with the music. What was special for me was that it reminded me of how I started to play and discover music in the first place. In my childhood I spent a lot of time by the piano just playing around, exploring sounds and chords, and making melodies. I just needed the reminder that this was also a perfectly viable way of creating music. Since then, I have listened to several of Keith’s solo concerts, but mostly in small doses. I haven’t transcribed anything, but I have absorbed his ideas and technique in a general way. This is how I deal with all kinds of music: I seldom listen to a song more than once, and I usually always listen to music to learn something from it. There’s always something to learn, and I just try to keep my ears open for all the structures. During the past two decades I have evolved my own solo project, solidifying and personalizing it in a way that can’t be separated from myself. I feel that I, as a musician, composer, pianist and person, am now so visible in the music that I’m not at all concerned about it compares to Keith Jarrett’s. It’s like comparing two different worlds, built on the same physical laws. Sometimes I explicitly quote other music while improvising, and it is one of those things that just happens. I know I have quoted some of Keith’s style a couple of times, but I’m happy to do so: He is a pioneer, and of immense importance for me and many, many others.
Talking about the weight of the tradition, who would you name as having influenced you, and how do you draw from them while still remaining true to your own artistic vision in creating your own voice?
This is a hard question, as I don’t have a long list of clear references. I have mostly listened to Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Sting, Donald Fagen, and some classical music like Beethoven, Chopin and Ravel. It’s a weird list, I know, but it doesn’t provide the whole picture. As I already mentioned, I usually listen to music once or twice. It’s not because I don’t enjoy it, but because I try to absorb as much as possible. As soon as I figure out all the structures in the music, like rhythmics, harmonics and melody, I instantly adopt it into my own. It’s one of the benefits of having perfect pitch. This way I can imitate all kinds of styles in a short amount of time, and I could probably have added hundreds of names to the list, ranging from all kinds of classical and jazz to Nordic folk music, pop, rock, progressive rock, country, gospel, trance, hip-hop, Arabic, Cuban, Indian, West-African, and so on. But I’m just scratching the surface enough to keep myself busy with discovering new music. I actually spend more time singing, whistling or clapping rhythms than by the piano, and I am always looking for ways of broadening my palette of styles. The sum of it all is my personal musical voice, which becomes visible in my compositions and improvisations.
The preparation over an extended period of time and process of finally feeling ready to play a solo improvised piano concert has yielded a very personal musical statement. You have indicated that this may be the beginning of a series of performances and recordings. Do you feel that this may now be the defining moment that leads you down a new musical route, and something that you would like to develop and document at regular intervals throughout your career?
I will definitely try to document all my solo concerts, as they make up the sole basis for future albums. My next two solo albums will probably be released in the near future, and I’m highly motivated to play more concerts around the world. I’m eager to test out different strategies to see how I can get the most out of the music, and to make the concerts even more unique.
The trio that you have led over the last few years has also developed a very unique collective voice. Do you see your music with the trio evolving towards more freely improvised music, or do you feel there is more discover working within more formally composed tunes and structures?
I’m working on the music for our fifth album these days, and it’s already looking to be a nice evolution of what has become «our» music. The trio is perfect for exploring new ways of composing and new concepts of rhythmics, and for trying to renew a long and crowded tradition. We have been doing some free improvisation with the trio, which without exception has been a perfect addition to our songs. I can see that I will use improvisation as a way of making the trio compositions more flexible, but we won’t abandon our music to play improv only. It’s just too much fun playing all these odd meters together.
And finally, what about your future plans for your music?
I wrote a commissioned work for three Norwegian jazz festivals this year, which premiered at Trondheim Jazz Festival in May. I named this work Water Fabric, and it is written for a sextet with trumpet, violin, viola, cello, piano and drums. All the musicians have a highly unique background, and it’s been very interesting to both write and play the music. We’re recording in Rainbow Studio in Oslo in January 2023. That year looks to be packed with album releases: In addition to Water Fabric I will be releasing a solo concert or two, and Maetrix which I wrote for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. Then I will probably focus on the new trio album and play solo and trio concerts. I feel that I have to slow down a little bit and take care of my ongoing projects. After some time, I will definitely start looking for opportunities to start writing new music for another ensemble or orchestra. This is the way I work, and I love keeping myself busy will all kinds of projects. I hope I’m able to partner up with a booking agent or manager who really believe in my music, so I can free up more time to spend on music itself.
For more information visit https://espenberg.no/
Read our review of The Trondheim Concert at https://jazzviews.net/espen-berg-the-trondheim-concert/