“There’s drama, theatricality – it’s part of what we do”

Mary Oliver remembers her first experience of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra. A classically trained violinist and violist who obtained a doctorate in the theory and practice of improvisation from the University of California, Oliver has her feet firmly planted in what are often viewed as opposing musical endeavours.

She has given the premiere performances of written pieces by composers including John Cage, Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis, and she is equally at ease using her virtuosity – or her instincts – to create music spontaneously. This would appear to make her a natural participant in the ICP Orchestra, one of Europe’s most enduring and unpredictable musical ensembles who appear at Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra’s GIOfest this week as part of the UK and Ireland-wide Going Dutch project.

“A lot of us in the ensemble studied at Amsterdam Conservatoire with [ICP co-founder] Misha [Mengelberg] and the first hour of a class would be about counterpoint, or something disciplined like that,” says Oliver down the line from the studio in Amsterdam where the latest addition to the considerable ICP catalogue is being recorded. “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, 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.”

Mengelberg died in 2017, coincidentally the year in which the Instant Composers Pool celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. His dedication to keeping the group together for such a long time – it was originally a trio of Mengelberg, drummer Han Bennink and saxophonist Willem Breuker, the idea for the ICP Orchestra coalesced in the 1980s – inevitably means that the pianist’s presence is still felt strongly as the ensemble continues in his absence.

“We still play his music, of course,” says Han Bennink, whose history with Mengelberg goes back to 1961. “There are over two hundred pieces in the orchestra’s repertoire and Misha created an enormous number of them, so we are reminded of him every time we play.”

Bennink and Mengelberg originally played in a successful Dutch group that was called on to accompany visiting American musicians including the great saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins and the pioneering guitarist Wes Montgomery, whose playing with his thumb instead of a plectrum gave him a distinctive sound. They also played on the fiercely independent saxophonist and bass clarinettist Eric Dolphy’s final recording, Last Date, and it was his freer style, as well as Mengelberg’s fascination for pianist-composers Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols, that they wanted to pursue with ICP.    

Although other musicians, including Danish saxophonist John Tchicai and British guitarist Derek Bailey, became involved, too, much of ICP’s early work featured Mengelberg and Bennink as a duo, a collaboration between two great friends, even if their performances could suggest otherwise.

The pair would tease each other, with Bennink playing fast and loud while Mengelberg played quietly and studiously, and each would deliberately miss the other’s cues, continue playing long after the other had stopped or, in Bennink’s case, come crashing in during a particularly thoughtful moment by emptying his stick bag over his kit or drumming a mad tattoo on the stage floor. It was pure theatre and when they expanded to form a tentet, initially including German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and cellist Tristan Honsinger, a kind of musical anarchy resulted.

“There’s still drama,” says Mary Oliver, who has been with the orchestra for more than twenty years now. “But that 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 drummer-showman. We might start out with a set-list that someone’s taken it upon themselves to commit to paper in the dressing-room, but we never know what might happen.”

Mengelberg himself likened the orchestra’s set-lists, which change from night to night, although a particular piece might recur on each concert of a tour, to road maps. The same went – and presumably still goes in his absence – for the scores that the musicians read from. The pianist, who would happily tell you that he didn’t understand anything about music, despite his training and firm grasp of musical theory, liked to suggest that a written score might promise a trip to Greece that could end up in Capetown, or some equally off-course landing point. 

Tenor saxophonist Ab Baars, another long-serving member of the orchestra, isn’t quite so sure about the haphazardness Mengelberg’s approach suggested.

“In the beginning it was always Misha who put the set-list together and it was always just a few minutes before the concert,” he says. “He’d note down some groups of people who would improvise at certain points and around those he’d construct the programme of pieces we were going to play. And I noticed that he’d always take into account the keys the pieces are written in and their atmosphere. Making such a programme is also composing, in a sense, and you can do a lot with it, although the final outcome is, I’d concede, determined by what happens in the moment. 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, so from that point of view, no two concerts could ever be the same.”

Just as the personal chemistry between Bennink and Mengelberg would determine how their duo concerts unfolded, so the orchestra’s extraordinary stylistic range stems from the different forms of music that the pair drew on. From early jazz through to swing, bop and free playing, they can move onto tangos, can-cans, classical dance forms, hymns and Wagnerian harmonic explorations, all threaded together with physical responses and even sometimes a spontaneous dance step or two.

And the repertoire is being added to all the time, with everyone contributing ideas and arrangements.

“That wasn’t my impression to begin with,” says Mary Oliver. “I used to think, how do I get my ideas into such a large ensemble – there are still ten musicians, as was the case at the start – and I remember asking one of the other players this and being told, oh, you have to have been with the orchestra for ten years before you can suggest something. And, of course, that’s not true. It’s all part of the aesthetic that Misha devised. You know, he 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.”