Misha Mengelberg


By Sunny Bleckinger

This year, Instant Composer’s Pool (ICP) turns 40 and they’ve been celebrating with a slew of performances, culminating this Saturday at the Bimhuis. Pianist Misha Mengelberg, one of their co-founders—and the man who many cite as the mind behind the madness (though he would never accede to this)—sits down with me at cafe De Keyser, where the dress code is uncomfortable and the lingo requires a small apple in the throat.

Mengelberg ignores both rules, and the staff fall over themselves to accommodate him.

Naturally, a man with a life-long involvement in spontaneous music is not only erratic when seated behind the piano, but also in nearly every aspect of life. Telling him the interview is for a little portrait piece about ICP is akin to asking him to play a simple straight-ahead tune for a group of church ladies. He’ll give the same reply, ‘Yes, that’ll be fine,’ and then proceed to lay his sweater on the piano strings and attack the keys in a manner that might later require 30 Hail Mary’s from each lady to purge them-selves of the experience—all the while, behaving as if he’s doing exactly what was requested.

Mengelberg starts innocently enough, by ordering an espresso—his fourth of the day. ‘You can get these in the US now,’ he beams. ‘For a while, they had the machines but nobody knew how to use them.’ Then, with a little goad-ing, he recalls ICP’s origins, with him, Han Bennink and Willem Breuker starting it all. ‘When Willem left in ’74,’ he explains, while eye-ing the biscotti next to his espresso, ‘ICP became something that I felt responsible for. From that point on I wrote a lot for ICP, until ’94, when I thought the orchestra was more or less a failure and I wanted to get rid of it.’ He grabs the biscotti for closer inspection. ‘But I didn’t. I gave it a new impulse by stopping writing, and then others contributed.’ He takes a bite and gives the cookie the kind of compliment he reserves only for the greatest of music. ‘It’s good.’

Then he talks for 14 minutes about Taoism, carefully writing his favourite book titles and author’s names in my notebook. His transitions—musically and conversationally—can be so smooth and natural, you don’t realise he’s drifted away from the subject until it’s too late. I ask if Taoism is part of ICP’s methodology. ‘What? No, no.’

There are other moments, however, when he switches direction with such abruptness, that if you weren’t paying attention, it would jerk you upright, wondering how he got there. After seven minutes of childhood memories regarding the zoo in Kiev (where he was born), 27 minutes about his uncle conducting in the Concertgebouw, 16 minutes about the war and an eight-minute anecdote about his encounters with Thelonius Monk, he steers back to the original theme. I’m beginning to get a feel for what it’s like to take part in an ICP rehearsal which, rumour has it, involves a lot of head scratching. ‘Well, not so much,’ says Mengelberg. ‘We only use the rehearsals when we play tunes. And it’s a fantastic group of people—the best musicians of their time. I don’t think there’s a better trumpet player than [ICP’s] Thomas Heberer. And Ab [Baars on saxophone] is interesting. There’s an originality in his voice, a great player in all senses, his ideas about how to organise himself and the groups he plays with—he could easily become a leader for ICP.’

Mengelberg once said he’s happy with only a few gigs a month—a schedule far from ICP’s reality. Next week alone, they have six shows planned. ‘It’s too much,’ he says. ‘I’d like to play two or three gigs a year.’ That would leave a lot of free time, particularly for a man who admits a hatred for practising. He says he’d use the extra time to sleep. ‘I like to sleep. I’m a real sleeper.’ Then, somehow, he sets up a segue into Belgian beer, modulates into French wine and then leaps into communism. This lasts for 47 minutes, runs counterpoint to him rearranging cookie crumbs around the table into an abstract pattern, and ends with him ordering an Irish coffee. A coda is then presented, which reveals his expectations for the next 40 years of ICP: ‘Oh, nothing special. I think it will dry out when most of the people with some notion of the direction of music are dead. That’s all.’ He smiles, we walk out of the cafe without paying and he offers to give me a ride home.

Clearly, Mengelberg, like every ICP member, doesn’t need his instrument to create an instant composition. He uses whatever’s at hand, and the result is always memorable, if not always easily comprehensible.