A story for a story with Mats Gustafsson

Mats Gustafsson Anxious Magazine
Photo: Petra Cvelbar

His musical achievements are widely known to any free jazz/experimental scene maniac. If you don’t know who he is – google the shit out of your browser and prepare for an avalanche. He’ve played with many “famous” people, true artists… in few days he’s coming to Warsaw with The End crew (lovely Sofia Jernberg – crazy vocals, nearly touchable!) and all the noble guests, but I don’t really want to repeat questions like: “who”, “when”, “what” and “with whom”. Instead I want to really know “why” and “how”. First of all, because it’s extremely hard to focus on some of the projects, and leave other behind. Second thing is, for me music was always a way out, a safety valve, a way to communicate and regulate emotions ( a bit like in drugs addiction) – and what Gustafsson gives to all the sounds he makes is meaning and place in time and space, so they can be not only heard, but nearly touched and seen. Or maybe it’s just me… the tactile-synesthesia is a beautiful burden.

Marta Podoska

Marta Podoska: Anyway, dear Mats I came to a conclusion, that all of this HUGE musical output you’re leaving on this planet has (in my humble opinion) a very important common point – it’s like a creature, living and breathing and evolving and changing regardless of whether the performance or the listener’s perspective changes. Then I reminded myself an interview with Witold Lutosławski made by Irina Nikolska on his life and approach to music titled “Music is not only sounds” and since I saw you last time in W. Lutosławski’s Concert Studio with your “IAM” & “Hidros 9” projects, I’ve decided to ask:

What does “music” itself mean to you? Is that a thing, or a feeling, or a specific way of seeing/communicating with reality and beyond? 

Mats Gustafsson: “Music is like living, but better“, as my mentor Derek Bailey used to say. Music means all. And poetry. And art. It all connects. It IS really a way of living. When you start seeing it, hearing it. You see all the connections. There is no way back. No return.

As the situationists claimed early on: “To listen freely makes you think freely, which makes you ACT freely”. So, it is all political. It is all LIFE. To make art is to do research. The states of mind. And heart. On deeper levels. And then do it again. Never stop. It stops when I join the old gods. Or whatever you wanna call it. Without music I cannot breathe.

One key to understanding is always to remain curious. To really do the search, the research. Not to take things for granted. When you stop being curious about music and art – it is over. Meaning: you stop being curious about life. That would be sad.

What is reality? Perhaps we can find out?  Music is channeling it all. If you want it to.

M.P.:  If it comes to the first impression of sound that I remember, and the one that most likely shaped my later choices, and sensibility, was when I spent long hours in the printing house where my mother worked, and she was an offset printing goddess, really hard working one. I was about 5, maybe 6 years old watching for days & hours how the Romayor 314 Adast machines are producing tens of layers on paper while making the industrial sound that hypnotized me to eventual sleep. 

What about you? What was your most important and very first impression of sound? 

M.G.: Yeah, those machines are quite a wake up. I am pretty sure my early memories are more connected to nature. Nature has always been around the corner. Being born in Sapmi (Lapland), nature is essential to everything. It is always there. Even if we quickly are destroying it all now. The balance is soon gone. Anyway – that is another discussion…

My favorite sound will always be: snow falling on snow. The most beautiful sound there is. It might have been the first sound I heard? But, it will surely always be around me. Inside of me. Sounds and noises will always remain important and crucial to me. It is a way of listening. If you hear it as music. It IS music. All up for grabs. It is all about attitude.

Mats Gustafsson Anxious Magazine
Photo: Petra Cvelbar

M.P.: In one of the articles on jazzarium.pl site there is a citation “… I play music not because I feel like it, but because I have to.” I really deeply understand the urge of creating, especially when people tell me that they’re envious about the creativity in me. It is a blessing, but can be a curse – simple phrase, but very true.

I believe that you really did say that, but do you still think about music in terms of this urge growing in you? Is it the unrestrained impulse that drives you to all of those projects?

M.G.: Yes, I have to. There is no question. When the urge is not there, I will just stay at home. It is and will always be a necessity for me. The urge. My music is connected to me, myself. It is me. No way around that. It is a blessing and a curse, correct. True that. I cannot really stop. There is so much research to do. And so little time. I hate the standardized models… of free jazz and improvised music. The norm. Predictability sucks. In creative music. In other kinds of music, it works surely as a norm and framework for enjoyment and enlightenment. We need to move on. To new sounds, new mechanics, new tools… new way of creating and interacting together. I have to continue doing this. What other choice do I have? 

Mats Gustafsson Anxious Magazine

M.P.: A natural step in this conversation for me is to ask about your graphic scores for various symphonic works. I have one of these scores, as you know, on my forearm, but I saw more of them last year at Pardon To Tu on “Pieces of Peace” Fire! exhibition and to be honest a lot of them made me laugh (for example the one that states “Definitely not what conductor wants…” etc.), because apart from being signposts, they remind me how I saw you and other musicians, especially soloists, performing “Hidros 9” communicate. It seems you all have a lot of fun during the process and this kind of performances I personally find the most beautiful. The graphics itselves are kind of breaking the “fourth wall” for me, they’re like a blink of an eye, so thank you for letting us into this part of your work. But I guess that this kind of clues leave a lot of space for personal interpretation.

The questions are: is it hard these days to find musicians you can trust, does it happen that someone doesn’t understand the clues? Do you fight (mentally) a lot when “giving life” to symphonic compositions? 

M.G.: My music is really dependent on WHO I invite into the projects. It will define the music. Just as Duke Ellington was composing with those specific musicians in mind. I wanna create a similar model. Since I work a lot with improvisation – it means ALL who I collaborate and interact together with. Sometimes you work with musicians you know and sometimes not. Of course, there are obstacles. And it is always a process to get everyone onboard. But, it is a creative process that I love. It is really part of the challenge. Part of the game. And it should be. I want the participating musicians to feel that they are really a creative part of the pieces I do. Some pieces are more conceptual than others. It all depends. I have to be flexible and adjust, when needed. That is key. To be open for changes and adjustments. Music comes first. It is a fantastic process to compose/prepare and afterwards get it together with the musicians you have chosen. I love it.  I love the challenge. Not to know what will happen in detail and adjust to it.

Mats Gustafsson Anxious Magazine
Photo: Petra Cvelbar

M.P.: 6 years ago in an interview with Vinyl Factory you said that you have 2.5 tonnes of records in your basement “cave” created in the casamates of your home in Austria. That’s funny. I don’t really buy records now, because it would probably be addictive and this type of sound carriers require special treatment – they’re not for cats to run around on, you know especially in a small Warsaw apartment.

So how did the collection grow in the last 6 years? Did you get any gems lately? 

M.G.: Well, the archive is a huge part of myself. Of who I am. And why. It is not only a source of information. But, also inspiration. I need it. For my music. For my way of living. The record makes me feel good. It IS an addiction. I try to stay away from too many addictions. I would easily get caught. The vinyl hunting is enough for me. I just LOVE the connection to the history of the objects. To fully understand why the music was done at the time. And WHY. The choices of paper, the choices of art work, design. The sequence of the ALBUM. Not just the infantile one-click wonder of streaming bullshit. 

The-one-click-wonder-of-proclaimed-truth. There is a reason why the artists chose to create an album with a specific sequence and order. I love the tactility of the album. The smell. The vibe. The feel. The history of it all. It tells me a lot. Never too late to start collecting. I get new records all the time. I get rid of shit as well. I trim my garden every day. I’m dying to hear new music. And music I already know. I neeeeeeed music around me. Preferably on vinyl. Since it sounds much better. Warmer, more dynamic. I don’t mind other media. Music comes first. But when you hear a mono recording played back with a mono needle… you will fully understand. This is almost a religious experience. To have the music in front of you. Not just as a dead mp3 file… but as something alive in the room. My main focus is experimental music. Improvised music. But, I can’t live without ethnic music, early music, garage rock, punk, metal,  Brazilian music and other forms of music expressions.

M.P.: I keep dreaming the same dream over and over again, where I find a cello with strings made of wool and when I play them it feels really warm, it’s warming up the fiddlestick so it’s nearly burning. After that I always end up trying to put the cello into the Fiat 126p car, which was one of the smallest vehicles in times of PRL. Maybe you know which one I mean, Tom Hanks has one of those ;) 

Do these kinds of dreams happen to you? I mean musical dreams? Or – to go further – have you ever dreamed up a composition or an idea that was later played and recorded?

M.G.: I usually never remember my dreams. I try to live them instead. But, once in a while I do remember actual music… and I try to run down to my piano immediately and transcribe what I just dreamt. It does happen. Hopefully again soon.

M.P.: I’m looking forward to hearing your full collaboration with Joachim Nordwall – it’s emerging on 24th of March. When the track “There are some worlds where all dreams die” first appeared on Spotify I was listening to it for hours on repeat. It is so steady, so calm and pretty ominous at the same time. Nearly inevitable. Then I landed on the Bandcamp site and dived into “Her eyes… were like cold fires”. Found it nonconformistic yet strangely melodic.

Is this album a result of carefully thought out ideas or is it’s pure conversation between you and Joachim? I’m not asking for spoilers, just a glimpse of a concept ;)

M.G.: Joachim and I have known each other since prehistoric times. Ancient shit. We haven’t worked together so much over the years, but now is the time to make it all happen. We have always hung out together and helped each other out with various shit. I am super excited about the record. The old jazz beards will hate it. That is a good sign. We recently played in Austria and I had those beards coming up to me after the gig and saying: “ I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. Please stop doing that music”. 

So many people that are into improvised music and free jazz are so conformistic and not at all open to new things. They just want their music, their experience, in ONE certain way. This is something I do NOT understand. Perhaps I am the “jazz beard”?

I hate that attitude. To not being open. Not to try.

The music with Joachim means a lot to me. We sent stuff back and forth during the pandemic. Researching our shit together. And suddenly we had an album. Thrill Jockey loved it. And we said, sure thing, put it out, be our guests.  We are trying to create music that is not predictable, but still built on a lot of repetition. Let’s see how it will play out. I love working with Joachim. He is totally open. To it ALL. It is about interaction. On another level. It is about frictions. Energies. Fuck the normal musical parameters. Fuck tradition. Love tradition.

Peace & fire!


Photographer: www.petracvelbar.com