Artvark has performed at major international festivals such as The North Sea Jazz Festival, The Cairo Jazz Festival, The Bohemia Jazz Festival in Prague, Jazz Bruges and toured in Ireland, Turkey and South Africa. The saxophone quartet has engaged in special and remarkable collaborations, such as with jazz legend Peter Erskine, Senegalese master drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose and the Danish band Efterklang. With the classical soprano Claron McFadden they recorded the ‘Sly Meets Callas’ record and played at numerous prestigious festivals, like ‘Grachtenfestival Amsterdam’ and ‘Rotterdamse Opera dagen’ and toured the theaters extensively. The fifth record ‘Blue Stories’ was the prelude to a big theatre tour of the project ‘Polder Beast’ with the talented actor John Buijsman.
Late in 2017 Artvark released their latest CD “Trance”. After a number of releases with guest artists Trance is a true quartet Album allowing the ensemble to fully explore the possibilities of the format. A perfect time to sit down with the guys from Artvark and pose some questions.
Andrew Read: Thanks guys for taking the time to sit and speak with us. Saxophone quartet’s are quite common in the modern classical genre and rather unique in the jazz world. Can you tell us the motivation behind forming the Artvark Quartet?
Artvark: Forming the quartet came out of pure curiosity, we wanted to see what we could achieve and what we would sound like. At first in rehearsal we covered the great music by 29th Street SQ, the World SQ as well as listening to music of Itchy Fingers from the UK. Soon we found that we had to write our own music to make it really worthwhile and unique for us, we wanted to go as deep as possible.
AR:Personally, when I look at the ensemble and the projects you have produced over the years I think it’s almost impossible to pigeon hole the Artvark Quartet. In fact, I’d have to say the ensemble transcends the limitations of genre. What are your thoughts on this and do you find there is a clash between artistry and the industries need to pigeon hole music?
AV: To be honest, we’re not that much interested in the question how to pinpoint our music or in which niche we fit. We simply try to always write and make the best music we can. All influences of the music we love can be translated to the quartet format. One of our albums is called ‘Sly Meets Callas’: Sly Stone meets Maria Callas. We recorded this album with the phenomenal classical soprano Claron MacFadden. The whole spectrum of funk, blues, jazz and spoken word is to be heard on this one. There are no boundaries as far as being able to use our imagination in writing and playing.
Editors Note: Showing the bands jazz chops is this video during a collaboration the quartet has had with Peter Erskine and Dutch Bassist Eric van der Westen.
AR: You play in many different performances spaces and to a very diverse audience. How do audiences that may not be familiar with the sound of a saxophone quartet react.
AV: Often people come up to us at concerts and say the didn’t know what to expect. We hear things like, I thought we would miss the rhythm section or what can you achieve with 4 saxes. When we perform we don’t think of this, when you hear us play, In the beginning you may hear 4 saxophones however after that you only hear music.
AR: You all have strong backgrounds in the jazz scene both in the Netherlands and internationally. I can imagine that performing with the quartet requires a different approach than performing in more conventional jazz settings. What are the main differences you see performing in a quartet setting as opposed to other formats?
AV: It is very intense to play in a saxophone quartet like Artvark. No rhythm section means always have to be alert and focused, there’s a lot of responsibility to each other. There’s no way you can hide or lean back. That’s a big difference from playing in a ‘normal’ band, however on the other hand this is what makes a successful Artvark concert twice as rewarding. After a concert, most of the time we need some time to ‘land’, as we’re often wasted both mentally and physically.
AR: When I first read the quartets biography I was taken the opening statement “Away with chairs! Away with music stands! Artvark moves! Artvark meanders through musical traditions and slides across the stage according to an improvised choreography.” – How important is theatre in an Artvart performance?
AV: We always play our music by heart, so no sheet music on stage, haha. This enables us to really concentrate on the music, each other, the groove, the sound, breath, dynamics, etc. There are no chairs on stage, that’s correct. We constantly move to be able to hear on stage what we want at a certain moment. When three play a background for instance and one is playing a solo, the three group together and the soloist stands a bit apart. The result is a natural choreography: the people see what they hear.
It’s not something we discuss or rehearse. Every venue has different acoustics, which means our movements differ from place to place. When we write and make a project meant to be played in theatres, we are very aware to make use of the possibilities theatres offer.
Also when possible we bring our own sound engineer. He has to be top notch. In ”Homelands”, an afro-jazz project with Cameroonian singer Ntjam Rosie, we had an artist with us who drew visuals on a big screen, reacting on the music. We love this project and still play it when the occasion is there.
AR: Let’s move on to the new album. I read that with “Trance” the quartet strived to find a new direction and “conceive one big story instead of many separate pieces each with their own character and sound.” First of all, could you fill our readers that may not yet be familiar with the album in on the story and where did the concept come from?
AV: Our latest ‘solo’ project is called ‘Trance’ indeed, a 50 minute piece, one big story if you like. It was our wish to make a piece like that, after what we had done so far. The big goal is to keep the attention of the people throughout the concert. To our surprise almost everywhere the response has been fabulous: audience and quartet both in one big concentration bubble. The music is quite cinematic, the listeners can sit back and join us on this journey and make up their own images.
AR: The CD includes what you call an imaginary road map for the story. You mentioned that keeping the audience attention during the concert was a mission. When you perform live do you give the listeners the map?
AV: Yes, when we perform Trance live, we always play a short set of about 30min before the intermission and at this time we hand out a flyer with the road-map of the story. It’s a great way to reach out and get in-touch with the audience. It’s a long piece so it’s important to us to be able to keep the audience attention. We find that some people will try to follow the story but many will either make up their own story or imagine their own images and some will just listen and absorb the music.
AR: In the notes I received you speak of the concept of “Co-Composing”. Can you tell us about this process?
AV: Normally one of us brings in a short idea, a motive, line or a couple of bars. From that moment on everybody is involved and will give suggestions. And throughout the next period the composition is shaped and even after the first concerts we evaluate till everybody is satisfied with the whole piece. Of course sometimes someone comes up with a longer piece of music, but the essential thing is that we approach every composition with an open mind.
AR: So in effect are you saying it’s composition by committee or as they would say in the Netherlands it’s the “Polder Model”? Does the process also extend to the arrangement and harmonization?
AV: Well it’s definitely not like the Polder Model idea. That has a negative connotation and usually means compromise and that’s not what we’re about. In the process we look at the big picture, the style, the form, the melody, these type of things. Once we’ve got this the composer goes away and works out the details like the harmony and the voicing and brings this back into rehearsal when we collectively refine it.
AR: Each of you have busy careers in your own right and are involved in a number of other projects. Do you find it difficult to schedule time for the quartet?
AV: We had to learn to organize, but in the past years we have created some serious deadlines for ourselves which also means that we have to check our agendas, we have to be able to lock some periods and Artvark realizes that this is the only way. We do not work with remplacants (ed: stand in musicians), so checking our availability is a continuous and weekly discipline.
AR: When I listen to your music the first thing that strikes me is the exceptional ensemble work yet your individual sound and style’s are present at all times. How do you achieve this?
AV: As you mentioned before, we do have our own careers and other projects. All of us are involved as a ‘captain’ in other bands and projects, which means that you have already thought about all the aspects of making music. With this in mind, when we started with Artvark, each of us had our own history including our own sound, vision and opinion.
That’s totally different than a bunch of musicians waiting for a call for a studio job. So the positive effect was and still is, that while on the one hand we are conscious of our own sound and vision, on the other hand we respect the opinion of the others, because we know its coming from a long way back and therefore of enormous value.
AR: In January this year you launched a project with dance group 155: ‘PULSE and producer/ percussionist Frank Wienk. Tell us about this project?
AV: This was such a great experience! Three groups from a totally different worlds have come together to shape this program. Frank Wienk, aka Binkbeats, is well know for his complex rhythm samples and sounds, so he came up with some compositions and we gave him small ideas and pieces to use and combine with his rhythmical approach. Then the dancers started working on these pieces and gave us suggestions about forms and tempo and meanwhile they ‘placed’ us on stage, so we had to stand on huge boxes for instance and play and walk with them together.
In the final format the dancers start as technicians and during the show they develop as dancers. The reactions were overwhelming and a lot of listeners told us they had never seen a combination as this before.
AR: I’ve asked this question a great deal in recent interviews and it’s provoked some rather interesting answers so far, so here I go. What are your thoughts on the state of Jazz music today and where do you see the future of the genre?
AV: Well that’s funny because the question before about our latest project shows that we have and want to think beyond the borders of styles. When you think of jazz as a style of music with an open mind and attitude it means that we can only survive if we do not stay and repeat the same things over and over again. The jazz has institutionalized and that creates an awful lot of absolute virtuoso musicians who are capable of doing the most exciting things. But it can cause a gap between the music and the public.
That doesn’t mean we have to think commercial or whatever in a negative way, we have to follow our heart and today for Arvark it means that we want to combine all the styles we love and look at some great musicians of today: Brad Mehldau finds inspiration in songs of Radiohead, Joshua Redman plays songs of John Mayer. Claron Mc Faddon for instance is well known for her baroque performances, meanwhile she plays some free style impro at the Bimhuis and at home listens to Earth wind and fire.
So we already have an open spirit, now it’s time for a lot of organizers and programmers to do the same and jazz can and should be part of it.
AR: To finish off, can you tell us what’s next for the Artvark Quartet?
Ha! It looks like the next question is always an expected one, as it continues on from where we were: About combining styles: Arvark has met the Apollo saxophone quartet, originally from Manchester. We both did a workshop in South Africa and we found out we had a ‘match’ with each other: although they had a classical background we talked about so many different kinds of music that we decided to do a project together. We’ve rehearsed now in Manchester and in May we will do a festival: eights songs for a sax or as we call it ‘2 saxophone quartets collide and merge!’ Again a unique experience and everyone wrote a piece, so the mixture is unbelievable. If we can fulfill our dreams like this, Arvark goes on for the next 25 years!
AR: Thanks you all for you time and I wish you all great success with Trance and the other projects. I hope we will be able to see more of Artvark on stages outside of the Netherlands.
In April Artvark will perform a series of children’s concerts with dance company de Stilte. The project brings to life the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch in sound and vision. Also coming up will be a Double quartet project with Apollo Saxophone Quartet from Manchester. In June the ensemble will travel to Berlin to present their new album Trance to the Germany public. Dates below.
For full tour dates visit the Artvark website.
24 May 2018 | Thursday 20:30
Double quartet ‘Artvark and Apollo’ – with Apollo Saxophone Quartet (UK)
Honig, Waalbandijk 14 e/f, 6541 AJ Nijmegen, The Netherlands
26 May 2018 | Saturday 14:00
Double quartet ‘Artvark and Apollo’ – with Apollo Saxophone Quartet (UK)
Amersfoort Jazz / St. Aegtenkapel (3 short concerts)
Het Zand 37, 3811 GB Amersfoort, The Netherlands
2 Jun 2018 | Saturday 19:30
Best of Artvark & TRANCE – a symphonic poem for four pigs
Am Kloster, 16792 Zehdenick (Berlin),
3 Jun 2018 | Sunday 21:00
Best of Artvark & TRANCE – a symphonic poem for four pigs
Music- and Jazz Club B-Flat
10178 Berlin-Mitte Dircksenstrasse 40 (Berlin)
Further information at the Jazz Media and More Website