FUN and tango and seeing what happens next: Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet), Jan Jachmann (accordion) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello). Photograph by Christoph Herpel.
WHAT DO YOU get when you toss some well-heeled classics together with an unusual kind of trio, an appetite for experimentation with symphonic rearrangement and a clear, fresh look at the future of music audiences? That’s easy: you will experience it all in Johannesburg next Sunday evening, courtesy of the Johannesburg Musical Society, played by Jan Jachmann (concert accordion), Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello), collectively known as Trio NeuKlang. In South Africa for the first time, the trio took the time to chat to My View last week.
In 1998, it was the universe effectively, who put the trio together. Given their respective skills, Jachmann and Abramson were approached separately to premier a new work by contemporary German composer, Georg Katzer.
“We met each other in rehearsal,” remembers Berlin-born Jachmann (35). “Had we stayed within that framework, there would not have been much for us to do: the trio is an unusual combination of instruments; there are not many pieces composed for a clarinet, concert accordion and ‘cello.” But the premier went well and music organisers’ ears pricked up, the world over.
Their first international invitation as a result of this performance was to Japan. “We told the festival director in Japan that we only have the one piece and it is very modern,” Hornig takes the story’s reins. “He replied, ‘Yes, well. Japan is a very modern country. It will work out well.
“But a few weeks before the festival, he came to Berlin to find out what we were doing, and … well, he said Japan’s not that modern after all. And he asked us if we could play something ‘normal’ instead. And so this was the start of us arranging things, for our instruments. After a while, we added some jazz chords and tango rhythms, which is how we came to be where we are now.”
Says Abramson (40), who also rearranges the music: “The challenges of rearranging the work are not that difficult. The accordion is like a little orchestra all of its own. The ‘cello is the bass, and I have the solo in clarinet. It’s not that difficult. The left hand of the accordion is very near to the ‘cello, and the sound mixes very well.”
Born in Moscow, Abramson immigrated to Berlin as a child, with his parents. “It was a time when a lot of Russians were immigrating to Germany,” he says, which made it possible for him to experience the best of both worlds in terms of music education.
Both he and Kornig (30) were educated at the same professional music school, ten years apart. Born near Kassel, the son of an actor and an amateur musician, Hornig remembers moving around a lot as a small child. Berlin became his home when he was a teenager.
“My first ‘cello was like a viola with a stick,” he grins. He joined the trio in 2004.
Speaking of the trio’s unique sound, Jachmann says that it is “a bit more of symphonic than a conventional piano trio, because the sound of the accordion is closer to that of woodwinds.
“The novelty of our trio – NeuKlang means ‘new sound’ – was the combination of instruments; it’s all new. But it’s still developing. We can’t say what we will be doing in five years from now,” he grins.
You think of the idea of a German trio calling themselves NeuKlang and in your mind, you might conjure up an image of three proto-Dadaists of the teens of the twentieth century, wearing leder hosen, out to reinvent the world, armed with skills and beliefs.
You’d be only a little wrong: not that Jachmann, Hornig and Abramson are Dadaists, or that they wear trousers made of stiff leather, but rather because they’re deeply savvy as to the value of culture and how it conflates with music.
The accordion’s an unusual instrument, says Jachmann. “It’s not very loved, nor very popular, but there have been other developments over the last several decades with good accordion players who were keen to get it into the canon of serious instruments, so it’s no surprise we found each other playing contemporary music. Original compositions for this instrument all date back just 50 years.”
These days, the accordion has become something of an avant-garde trendsetter and the folksy instrument it was has been pushed and pulled into a variety of contemporary directions, but nothing’s that simple, Jachmann explains: “On the one hand you have this folk music thing. And on the other, you have this modern contemporary thing which wants to be serious and has nothing! To! Do! With! Folk! Music! At! All!” he shouts, emphasising the purists’ viewpoint, but not without irony.
“It also has nothing to do with money,” interjects Abramson, with not a little dollop of cynicism.
“If you compare German folk music to that of Italy or France,” Jachmann adds, speaking of how the Third Reich’s history sullied its reputation. “It’s less vivid. It’s rather a different kind of a thing, and it fits more into museums than on the street.
“In Germany you have serious music on the one hand and not-so-kosher volk music on the other. The accordion knows both worlds. Not only in Germany but in other countries too: from Russian to Argentina, it’s a part of popular culture, and fits neither in one world nor another. This is what we do: get two worlds in dialogue with one another, and see what happens.
“When you’re in the audience,” he adds, “You might not notice these things consciously. But listening to music is not about thinking. It’s about feeling something which you can say ‘oh! That spoke to me!’ and often you can’t explain why.” That’s the trio’s magic.
But what brings them to Africa? In short, a youtube video. Some time ago, the trio embarked on a project: a bit of a lark, but also a bit of a promotional exercise, it’s a four minute mash-up of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the tango, which you can see here.
In it, they take the weather indicated in the work to heart, playing in fountains and car washes, on fake snow and in direct sun. “Hermann van Niekerk, the promoter of the Sasolburg Theatre saw this video by chance on youtube,” says Hornig, “He’s loves the accordion. And one thing led to another.”
Technology today makes the world turn, Jachmann grins: “We’re living in a time of globalisation with all its effects. The music is a by-product of this interconnectivity and it is universal.”
The repertoire for the JMS concert draws from the trio’s second CD, entitled Goodbye Astor. It’s a tribute to the influence quintessential Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzola (1921-1992) has had on their work, but it’s also testament to where that work is currently going.
“If you don’t want to just play stuff other people with other instruments have played before,” says Jachmann. “What do you do? We thought: what could be new? What could be interesting for us and the audience? It was a collaborative decision to blend classical music with tango lingo. We put it out there, and said ‘let’s see what will happen. Nikolaj started arranging and everything fell into place.”
Retrospectively, it feels obvious: if you have an accordion, it always seems to shout out Piazzolla! even before you take it out of its case.
Says Abramson: “We combined it a consideration of Piazzolla and how he influenced other classical music, and we got this feedback which said Piazzolla’s nice, but this is more. It’s our goodbye and thank you to Piazzolla for everything,” he laughs.
“Goodbye Astor comprises arrangements by us,” adds Jachmann. “It’s still tango, but it’s also something else. Something I can’t describe in words.”
Each piece on the programme is dedicated to the composer from whom the music derives, says Hornig. “Schubert, Brahms, Bach … in a tango net.”
Jachmann laughs. “It’s a bit of a trial to see how South African audiences respond to it. In Germany, the very conservative audiences love us most, as they have knowledge and can recognise the classic originals. It’s then when the fun really starts.”
But this kind of mash-up is no joke, or self-indulgent trick. “It’s very easy to do a crossover thing with some melody,” he adds. “But if you want to take the music you are playing seriously, you must get into proper dialogue with it. We respect the music. We’re looking forward to playing for an audience, who does too.”