Maybe not everybody knows that Barcelona and Catalonia in general, more than everywhere else in Europe, is hosting a rich panorama of improvisers, forced to play a secondary role and work in very little amounts of time. Among them we chose to interview Ruth Barberàn, for she is a clear example of musician with a academic education passed to research, and she is involved in the organization of little events and concerts contributing to enrich scenarios and ideas of local sound and music experimentation. We chose her because she is a woman, but it is better not to say it loud for she does not like discrimination, no matter if even good one, although she admits the need of filling a still existing gap.
Her works combine her trumpet with electronic sounds and the amplification through microphones in contact with “natural” materials such as wood, metal, paper. Since 1999, year that marked her beginnings with IBA of Barcelona collective group of improvisation (we will talk about that later in the interview), she’s been deeply attracted by live elements of musical improvisation and at the moment she collaborates with some of the most interesting names of Catalonia and Spain experimental underground scene: I treni inerti duo (with Alfredo Costa Monteiro); the trio with Ferran Fages and again Alfredo Costa Monteiro; musicians by the likes of Dorothee Schmitx, Guillermo Torres and Margarita García.
Her skill and passion started a large amount of collaborations, participations, human and professional relationships with clubs, friends and musicians, and made her a strong point in the whole scene of the often ignored improvisation art for many years.
The time was right for us to get an exhaustive panorama of all locals, events, formations and professional relationships that thanks to her and through her inspire the (Catalan scenario. The following interview is therefore based on that.
Barbara Sansone:Hi Ruth. Just to get it started, let’s decide how to define this kind of music. The “electronic” and “experimental” definitions make most of people think to a completely different genre than yours. In other words, by using these adjectives people imagine the kind of music performed at Sònar.
Ruth Barberán: Yes, in fact I like to define it “free improvisation”. When I am talking with someone who does not know what kind of music we play, I use the term “experimental”, which is now a more common definition indeed. When I talk about “improvisation” they think about jazz, that has nothing to do with what we do. But “improvisation” is an ambiguous definition too. There are different kinds of improvisation, so the best thing we can do is listen to the music if we want to have an idea of what we are talking about
Barbara Sansone: What path did you choose and how have you got to play this kind of music?
Ruth Barberán: First of all, interviews were just the ones to made me think about it, I must say. All the questions the interviewers asked me made me reflect and brought me to the conclusion that if I play this music is thanks to Béla Bartòk. I studied piano at the academy of music with my three years older sister. Since she studied my same music three years before, it always seemed familiar to me. I rather played music by ear than reading it, and as a result my teacher closed my book and put it between the keyboard and my eyes so that I could not see the keys.
Then the time came I had to play Bartòk. I did not know then if I was wrong or I was playing the right way: it seemed very strange to me and so I thought I had to read his works. I was so surprised that he left my with an unexpected pleasure and now in all the music I like (and I like many kinds of it) the surprise effect is extremely important. It amuses me so much. Few years ago I realized that in pop music I like more melancholic songs than happy ones. The happy ones do not amuse me. That’s why I wondered what was the music that amused me and I realized it was the one I did.
Thanks to the surprise effect I have fun playing it and listening to it as well. My music seems very serious, and so we are when we play it. But you should see us during the rehearsal: we laugh a lot. And sometimes we think it is a shame we don’t act like that in public, perhaps because we would possibly lose concentration. Anyway, when I am among the public and I listen to improvisation music, as far as it may seem intellectual and pretentious, it can bring me to laugh of joy and fun.
I never associated music to sight, olfaction or tact. There are many people who prefer it accompanied by dance or videos, seeing a relation between image and music. It never happened to me: music suggests internal spaces to me, not internal ones, and I put them into relation with feelings. Music helps me think. When I need to get in touch with my sadness, music is useful indeed.
Barbara Sansone: But you worked with videos as well…
Ruth Barberán: One of the things we worked on with IBA collective came from an idea by a friend of Alfredo Costa Monteiro. Lionel Stora, a French who was then living in Barcelona, proposed the organization of Minùscul, a very interesting and particular festival, for the public it was directed to was composed by only two people. Every concert lasted only 5 or 10 minutes (actually the musician could play for even half an hour, but for the listeners that was the time) and one listened to it in cybercafés with headphones.
The event took place in a public, and the musician stood there, with his table full of objects, while people, by twos, listened with headphones very close to him. The purpose was on one hand to make people see what the artist did, and on the other to prevent everybody who didn’t wear any headphones from understanding what it was happening on a sound level.
One year I played in it with amplified instruments and the year later Lionel proposed me to work with music and video. But, like I said, I told him in I didn’t like to mix music and image. He wanted image to interfere with music and vice versa, by using pre-arranged pictures, but I declined the offer. I told him I might be interested in working with videos though.
This festival was also made in Madrid and its third edition in Barcelona had to do with food. There were scores on acid, spicy and sweet basis, with even cooks present (Alfredo, for instance is very good at it). While the artists played, the public, once again composed by two people (maybe three, I am not sure of it), was tasting the food the scores suggested. Unfortunately the festival didn’t continue: Lionel went to live elsewhere and the idea was lost. What a shame.
Barbara Sansone: So, you were studying at the academy if music…
Ruth Barberán: Yes I was, but then I came to live in Galicia, where I quit studying piano because I didn’t have one. A trumpeter gave me a trumpet he was not using, along with some lessons. That’s how I began playing my current instrument. I enjoyed it very much, for although I had always liked to listen to it, I had never seriously tried to play it . Then I left it (maybe because I was afraid to engage in it, for it is a very difficult instrument indeed) and came back to piano. Instead, when I returned from Galicia and I found I didn’t have one once again, I ended up playing trumpet.
Yet how did I come to improvisation? When I lived in Galicia, Pedro Lopez, my drums teacher coming from Madrid, andWade Matthews (two musicians who at the beginning took part in Musicalibre, improvisation group from Madrid) began to talk me about all that, making my interest rise. When I came back to Barcelona, I started wandering around to have a look on the scenario, and I realized it was very bad. One day Pedro came to play with me and I told him how terrible the situation in Barcelona was.
In response, he suggested me to followLEM di Gràcia, which was then at its beginnings. Suddenly, during a weekend LEM appeared: in a single night three concerts half an hour long were performed, each in a different bar, one after one. And people could decide how many shows to attend to. Apart from this, LEM appeared and disappeared, was there and then it was not there anymore. But I liked that format very much.
Pedro also talked to me about Agustí Fernandez, a musician I had known many years before when I worked as secretary at Taller de Músics. One day I met him at Heliogàbaland I asked him how I could keep myself informed about his concerts (e-mails, Facebook and other social networks didn’t existed yet). He asked me to give him my telephone number because that was a way to involve some people, for there were so many few interested in it.
And so my answering machine began to receive messages informing about his concerts, while my mail had news of some IBA group concerts at Jazz Sí. IBA was born a year before, but unfortunately they performed on Monday in a schedule time that prevented me from going there for I worked late in a school outside Barcelona. I was very angry I received the news and could not be there. But in September I changed job and I succeeded in being free on Monday night.
Barbara Sansone: Who were then the members of IBA?
Ruth Barberán: IBA was found in April 1998 by Agustì Fernandez, Joan Saura and Javier “Liba” Villavecchia. Soon after that dancer Andrés Corchero joined the group. From September/October of the same yearFezrran Fagesand I were always present. A couple of months later Agustì invited us to join them. The concerts were then performed at Jazz Sì, Taller de Mùsics’s jazz club, which offered a grand piano and a mailing for Agustì. Corchero made a triptych of the program (every Monday there was an improvisation concert), and Taller de Mùsics paid for the photocopies and the invitations to all of its contacts. The shows lasted about two years and it could not actually last more because apart us there were was nobody else who played.
Barbara Sansone: Did not any foreigner guests come and play with you?
Ruth Barberán: Yes they did, but it rarely happened because we could not afford their payment. Then, just like nowadays, it is common to rely on “pring-tours” (from pringado, “uncool” in Spanish): you are paid for a concert somewhere and you integrate it with other ones for which you get food and hospitality in return. During the third year of activity we kept on playing in Jazz Sì only the first Monday on the month. Other artists joined the group and Agustì was a little less present for he was working on other projects as well (such as Fundació Miró and Metrònom nights) and then he became Auditorium director of contemporary music festival. He began to have some conflicts of interest with IBA and was forced to leave it.
In the third year IBA lost Saura and Corchero as well. Even people who had just arrived began to leave as soon as they realized the original core was melting. Matt Davis went to London and in the end only Ferran, Alfredo and I remained. That was when we decided to leave Jazz Sì: none of us played piano very well, everyone of us had e-mails and so we didn’t need its support any longer. We thought about quitting playing in public, which it didn’t mean to do the same in private. IBA, despite all, was very active, although it didn’t produce a real programme. Just like today, the programme began to be scarce: we never knew when the musician would come because they wrote and ask to play with us only when they passed nearby.
The rehearsals took place in the homes of some of us, but soon we felt the need for a more larger space. Alfredo suggestedCan Felipaand so we did. Its directress allowed us to use that wonderful place each Saturday from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., when the centre was closed and only the guard remained. We stayed alone, in silence and peace, and given the dimension of our new space, we began to do other things once again, such as open to the public concerts and IBA Convoca (an open to everybody improvisation night involving musicians and dancers).
We started to organize home concerts again, which is what we do now. DorotheeSchmitz offered her home and we were glad of that. At the beginnings we informed our contacts by e-mail about who and when would happen the performance, but we didn’t tell where, for we felt it was strange to write the home address of some of us. We gave it only to the ones that answered the e-mail, although we noticed that the already few people interested were reducing because of this and so we chose to reveal that information as well.
Barbara Sansone: It seems to me the home concert is a more and more common format: evenMadriguera del Conejo (who in July launched its new activity with a concert byPaolo Angeli) used it, and I have recently been to Bellaterra for a concert by Limbomade in the garden of a house. It appears this format is in fashion in Berlin and New York as well. In your opinion, what did generate this need?
Ruth Barberán: The problem is to find spaces that normally would not be allowed, and also avoid shooting oneself in the foot, a thing lots of musicians ingenuously do. I am very strict in this: I never play for free for anybody taking money from what I do. If I really am not to be paid, I rather do it for a situation like this. The fact is that musicians enjoy playing and if they succeeded in doing it in public it is far better. It is therefore a good thing that initiatives like this one take place: they fulfil the artists’ need to play in public without getting paid, but at least they don’t produce any profit for others. If these formats are successful, everybody who wants to play will begin to prefer them to other situations and everyone who wants to exploit musicians will find no-one available to accept his conditions and will be forced to share his profit with artists.
Barbara Sansone: So the current IBA programme is improvised too? Does not it follow a set schedule?
Ruth Barberán: Yes, it is. Since the time we stopped performing at Jazz Sì every Monday, we organize events when someone comes to us. At the beginning we had to play, but the affair was coming to an end. Now what we do is to organize a private session when musicians write to us and propose to play together, but if we perform every time a guest comes, the thing would be repetitive.
Barbara Sansone: What is IBA now?
Ruth Barberán: Me. And Sisu Coromina, my partner. He is not part of the group, but he helps me a lot. One thing I realized later is that Ferran and Alfredo wanted to ask for funds, while I preferred the group to remain into a more independent state. When we three were all at IBA, a very strange and utopian thing happened: the group was not democratic and unanimous. Sometimes, when one of us had an opinion and the remaining two had another, things were not decided by the majority: instead we kept on arguing and very often we ended up doing what the minority said.
If we had based our decision on voting, we would not keep on discussing and we would never ended up finding the thought of one single person reasonable. That is what happened in the case of funds, and I represented the minority. It was fundamental that everyone agreed on that and I was absolutely contrary to it: I didn’t bear the idea of all the necessary papers for the purpose. It is a pleasure for me to work for IBA for free, because I like everything I do but two things: festivals and purchasing plane tickets on the Internet.
Barbara Sansone: What festival did IBA organized?
Ruth Barberán: One of those was entitled Improvisa, and was launched by Agustì Fernandez and Andrés Corchero. This show actually survived because of dance, since the director made clear he did not care about music at all. Anyway, the directress of Can Felipa attended to the fourth edition, and she liked the show so much that she looked for funds in order to create one of her own in her space. The budget was very low, so that the festival was named Mìnim. When I presented this year’s estimate they told I had to reduce it, but it was not possible, for it was already minimum: one solo and another solo the first night, one solo and a duo the second one.
Ferran (although they are not part of the group anymore, I kept in good relationships with everybody, asking for advice and playing with them sometimes) suggested me to seize the moment, given the circumstances. When I was about to answer the e-mail, then, I remembered that to the first edition of Mìnim, for we did not know whether the show would continue, we associated the title Two nights of improvised music (the following editions were named II Mìnim, III Mìnim, and so on).
So the idea to define the current edition came to my mind. I thought about a night of improvised music, and I called it Com a mìnim (at the very least) and so the show has been done, November 5. Martin Küchen, Tomás Gris, David Lacey and Paul Vogel performed. Some days later, taking advantage of the Erik Carlsson‘s presence (he is in a quartet with Küchen, Lacey and Vogel), we made another concert at Ferran’s home.
Barbara Sansone: In how many groups are you now playing?
Ruth Barberán: I play solo, in I treni inerti duo with Alfredo Costa Monteiro and in the trio with Ferran Fages and Alfredo. This group was once named with our surnames, but now it is called Atolòn, like our first album. We launched the new name during the concert you attended to in May, at Caja Madrid, where they invited us to play in a short film festival about the domestic field. Our members changed their roles many times. At the beginning Ferran played electronic music, I played trumpet and Alfredo played accordion.
Then Ferran began to play the record player (as in a past duo with me that ended quickly). For a short time the trio became a quartet, when Portuguese double bass playerMargarida Garcia entered the group. We made a couple of discs with her, and we kept on playing even when she came back to Portugal after her residence at Metrònom ended: once in a while we all made a collection so that she could come back to play with us. She now lives in New York.
Barbara Sansone: And then there is the Tarannà…
Ruth Barberán: Of course, my return to the “normal” music I played before. In the past a played in a reggae and a soul group. Then, when I began with improvisation I concentrated deeply on it and I left all the formations I was in, even if many friends told me I was mistaking and I would have surely lost technique with the trumpet. But I could not publish an advertisement saying I was searching for a normal music group in order to preserve my technique…And unfortunately it is true: technique can be lost.
It was then that I knew Sisu Coromina, who had already made a disc: the record label liked that music very much, but the group did not exist yet and that was a perfect coincidence. In fact actually he had the idea of adding a trumpet and so that role was mine. Now there are three Tarannà: the septet which has just changed formation; the septet playing in José Val Del Omar‘s movies and finally the Tarannà with the addition of Catalan cobla instruments and an intervention in the direction by Agustì Fernandez. The first night was performed in September at El Jardi di Figueres municipal theatre.
I also play in another group created by our neighbours. Sisu and I live in country and it happened that in the house next to ours live a farmer who’s been playing in a progressive rock band for 10 years. He has always thought about adding a sax and a trumpet, so when we went to live there he could not believe it! At first we obviously declined his offer, but then we listen to the rehearsals and we liked their sound a lot. A week later Sisu began to play with them, and in the end I got involved too.
Barbara Sansone: But how can you do all of this? Are your days 48 hours long?
Ruth Barberán: We work the bare essential trying to reduce our expenses to the minimum and to have as much time as possible for music. Moreover, we do not own a television and we exploit the whole year by doing things we like, without the need for holidays.
Barbara Sansone: What do you think you lack to be happier? I mean, would you want to dedicate all your time to music?
Ruth Barberán: Well, there are always things that should be made better: a social changing would be necessary, maybe even a revolution [she smiles]. For what it concerns music instead, a wider culture by people would be needed. I am not talking about intellectual snobbery: I would be glad to see people listening, respecting and appreciating simple things, such as staying in silence when someone is playing, for instance. I often listen to concerts and I regret when I see how musicians are accustomed to play for a public that makes noise. The public itself should command silence, not the musicians.
Barbara Sansone: What are the occasions do you play more often?
Ruth Barberán: I rarely play in Catalonia. Sometimes in Spain, during contemporary music festivals. This music has a little circle and everybody knows each others, even abroad. And beyond musicians, there are also critics and listeners who write reviews and notices about concerts and albums on the Internet, send the information to their journals and this way contribute in creating interest around this kind of music.
Barbara Sansone:What do discs mean for an improviser?
Ruth Barberán: In my honest opinion, they serve two purposes. The first is to take a photograph of the present moment: music changes continuously, so it is good to revisit what was done is a particular moment. The latter is to share your music with others: every time we know musicians, every time we play with them and every time they come playing with us, we always share our discs.
Barbara Sansone: Do you follow any score?
Ruth Barberán: No, but there is a hard work behind all of that. A personal work creating a language, whether you like it or not. And usually you may like and you may not. You do not like it because the fact a language is created can ruin the improvisation. As far as I am concerned, I always liked how to produce a specific sound, and above all what to do with it. I often watch musicians doing good things but I do not like how, or vice versa. In my opinion both aspects are fundamental. Few time ago I realized I always work with quite instable elements that continuously forsake me, but I think it is my fault. That is my attempt of balancing that language I want to create. When I am about to create a language, the elements themselves will always trouble me, but that is what I am interested in.
Barbara Sansone:If somebody in 50 or 100 years wants to play Ruth Barberàn’s music, what will he do?
Ruth Barberán: Master classes of improvisation already exist and they are so scary! Many years before, at the beginnings of IBA, chatting with Joan Saura we ended up talking about jazz schools and he thought that with improvised music the same would happened. And he was right. I know musicians who organize concerts and master classes, and the thing is going to spread around because unlike for concerts, there are money for master classes. I do not mean to criticize this trend, but it seems to me that such situation resemble very much jazz’s.
Barbara Sansone: Sure, but probably in this case it appears more the description of a process (what improvised music actually seems to be), rather than a result. For instance, your music is not written anywhere: will it disappear with you?
Ruth Barberán: One time I wrote it [she smiles]. Our last album, Emispheri, is a double disc because we registered in studio and we made a tournée with a concert too. And although we had to make selections we liked everything of that. I ended up trying to write it and I had a lot of fun: this music can be written! Provided that you know the musicians, of course. I know what Ferran and Alfredo do and what I do, even if when I listen to an album of ours I hardly understand who does what.
The arrangement was based on time, on who and on what with a its own development, when it was possible. I decided to write it for I feared we chose randomly by tiredness and ended up selecting repetitive parts. I do not know where that papers are now, but I would like to find them. When I worked in studio, to write music was a relaxing moment, I liked it very much. If necessary, I would repeat the experience again and again.