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Go North, Son!

An experiential narrative about the travels of a musician

By Misha Feigin

Misha Feigin was born and raised in Moscow, acclaimed as one of the best guitarists and songwriters in Russia. He left behind in Moscow an established folk-music career hall-marked by four albums released on Russian Melodiya label, major radio, television shows, national and international tours, and publications in various magazines. The Russian independent radio station "Echo of Moscow" ended threedays of emergency broadcasting after the failed coup in August 1991 with Misha's song, "Gulp of Freedom".
          Since coming to the United States, Misha has performed original and traditional Russian & American music in both English and Russian in concerts for over 300,000 young people in schools and universities. He has played in numerous folk festivals and concerts in 47 states in Canada, and in Europe in hopes of bringing people of all cultures together through music.
         Having settled in Louisville, Kentucky he became an active improvisor in guitar and vocals, working with with Joee Conroy and Gregory Ackerman of UT Gret. Launching out as an improvisor on his own, he has performed in the Birmingham International Improv Festival and others around the country. After eight years in the United States, Misha longed to take his music back to Europe as an improvisor. This story is his account and experiences from the trip he made in the Spring of 1988 from Louisville, back to Europe.

A few months later after my return from Europe, the tour I made felt already like a very pleasant, but distant dream. . .

After spending months working to make this dream into a reality, I left Louisville with anticipation and enthusiasm about the journey back to Europe. I played 15 concerts all the way from Zurich to Oslo, meeting many fascinating people in the process. But it was what seemed to be an "impossible dream" had actually became a truly possible dream, and perhaps a possible dream for any motivated improvisor, who is ready to start working on it!

It makes sense that the place to start is by organizing contacts and booking. That is not an easy job, and many people do not really know how to begin. I hope that my story will be an encouragement to those who have a dream to travel and play and an inspiration to do it. Usually things develop one step at a time, like building a trail. It makes sense to ask the people who have organized a gig for you, as well as musicians you play with, for contacts which they know. You collect them, and make a list of them all, and start where you have the most.

Last year, such a place for me was Germany. I've heard these somewhat fantastic remarks about the improvising scene in Germany from many American and British players. "Oh, in Germany, people really appreciate the new music. They pay real money for playing it, and they have plenty of gigs." That sounding inspiring enough, in October of 1997, I developed a list of forty or so contacts in Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, and I began the process.

I started by sending my musical biography with the description of my music. Two or three weeks later, I called everybody and asked if they would be interested to receive a tape from me. Almost everybody said yes, in quite good English. I sent my demos, and started calling again a month later. Reaching people who book concerts overseas by telephone is a tedious and expensive thing. The time difference, uncertain schedules, and so on, but it was easier for me to do booking in Germany, than in America. This was because the German organizers were not afraid to tell me a straight no, when they could not, or did not want to book me. It saved me a lot of money on telephone calls, and some peace of mind.

A similar experience in my first year, in the USA was very frustrating because everybody was so nice to me on the telephone, and never said no, just- "call me next week", or "I'll call you later". Then of course, nothing happened. Thankfully, Germans were much more simple to work with. People who didn't book me would frequently give me other contacts to try. So after two or three rounds of calls, I'd start to receive the first positive connections. And at the same time, it became very clear that I wouldn't be able to connect all my gigs with a straight line on the map.

On the Road

In Europe you can enjoy all the pleasures and benefits of excellent public transportation. I recommend buying a Europass, or any of the local discount train passes. Then you just walk on the train, a fast one, and settle into a comfortable seat for enjoying views from the window, and perhaps a sandwich, and a beer. A few hours later, you will walk out of the train in a different country. It is an easy travel experience, indeed, if you are careful enough not to hurt your back in an attempt to squeeze an overstuffed bag in the overhead storage on the train. Just take it easy!

My first stop in Germany was Bielefield, a city of 400,000 people 300 kilometers north from Frankfurt. The venue I played was called the "Bunker". It was an actual underground WW2 bunker converted into a performing space, a fine form of conversion. (It is typical in Germany now to find bunkers, and old WW2 vintage factory spaces recreated into clubs or art & music spaces--a common European approach to recycling outdated industrial architecture is to turn it over to the artists-ed.) At the Bunker they have all sorts of music and theatrical events, including one free-improvisation concert every month. My contact in Bielefeld , Erhard Hessling, was both an organizer and a fellow improvising musician, a typical combination for an artist in the improv-scene all over the world.

The performance set up at the Bunker felt a little strange. The audience is seated on the left and right flanks of the stage, and the performer plays facing the entrance without really seeing people in the room, rather sensing them. That way a temptation "to impress" your audience just is not there. You just play music for yourself, and for the people whom you can feel, but not see in the close proximity.

There were seven or eight players who joined in improvisation at the end of the event. The audience in the Bunker felt receptive and knowledgeable of the genre. And that was true at most of the venues that I played in Germany.

In Hamburg I encountered a very active group of improvisors and new music fans, who organized improvisation gigs monthly in a nice, big loft. They also have a weekly Friday night two hour radio show on a small independent radio station. My contact, Heiner Metzger, was also my generous, caring host.

I can suggest to you if you travel--don't miss the East part of Germany! In economically depressed and politically disturbed Dresden (neo-Nazi's are there), I have found many people emotionally vibrant, responsive, and outspoken. Perhaps when you still live on the edge, not safe and satisfied completely yet, it's natural to be more creative and sensitive. Some resemblance (even in landscapes) with mother Russia was obvious. I spent a few very memorable days around Dresden with improviser and theoretical mathematician Gunther Heinz.

So much playing, walking, and talking! And a trombone player, Yohannes Frish organized an excellent concert in Karlsruhe in the South of Germany.

We met for the first time twenty minutes before the gig. Yohannes asked me after shaking my hand: "Would we play some now, or would we save it for the gig?" We saved it for the gig, of course. It's a quite remarkable event, to meet another player for the first time in music. You gently open channels for each other, and extend yourself musically towards the other with respect and awareness. Then a miracle of communication and togetherness might occur. After you meet once, it will never be the same. With the new knowledge and awareness of each other, friendships are born.

In Zurich, Switzerland my concert was sponsored by WIM, a motivated group of local improvisors, who run a very well known concert series. They have an established space as well as an active radio station. The person who organized my concert was Christoph Gallio, a full-time musician well known for his saxophone style the work with his group, Day & Taxi. It is a privilege, not so many improvisors around the world can exalt. So many of us, even the best, stay on the margin, and sometimes have to perform strange and unrelated jobs to support our earthly existence.

In Bern, I was fortunate to share the gig with Eugene Chadbourne. We played at the Reitschule, a quit interesting, peculiar venue, some sort of squatters community. For that one, contact Sandro Wiedmar.

Free improvisation is taken quite seriously in Germany and Switzerland, and it is not considered elitist or extreme from other styles of music, jazz in particular. There are a good number of jazz clubs in Germany where free improvisation is also a regular part of the menu. There are German Jazz Club Directories, good to have for booking reference. German people are seasoned and good listeners, but their response to anything they consider schmaltzy will be very straight in your face. So you better be good. And another warning: don't expect people from the audience to come to the stage after the show, and shake your hand or hug you, even after ovations and encores. They just don't do it!

Once again my experience has proven what everybody else knows already: that the Germans can organize things! In many cities, and even in towns not bigger than 10,000, you can find groups of people, both musicians and listeners, who put on improv concerts on a regular basis, one or two times a month. Often they manage to get funding from the government, but the money that can be collected at the door in most places is quite reasonable, because promotion and attendance at new music concerts is good in northern Europe, at least in my experience.

For instance, in the little town of Hofheim near Frankfurt, my concert was organized by Esther Arvay, a devoted new music fan.

I saw concert posters practically on every corner, and we got 60-70 people at the gig. I can't imagine anything close to that in any small, or even in a reasonably big town here in the United States. That was a really impressive display of the community appreciation of music.

I also suggest that the relative success of new music in Germany has something to do with the public attitude to music in general. What we call classical music is rather treated like folk music in that country. How else can you perceive it, when every second person can sit in with a quartet playing Brahms, and in the schools almost everybody experiences playing in the orchestra? People don't consider new music and free improvisation as something weird, just an extension in the evolution of music. They hear it just like any other genre, judge good from bad, and they let you know immediately if they think it is boring!

In my journey to the North I made it to Sweden, where in the little town called Kungalv near Getheborg a couple of improvisors, Biggi Vinkeloe and Peeter Uuskyla, keep the genre alive and well. They have a number of venues which they can access for producing touring folk, including a gig on a beautiful little island!

Going North, why bother?

If you keep up with the spirit of adventure and discovery, you have to cross the borders. And after you cross them, you might realize the borders are not really real. Going north, I encountered yet one more time the world community of improvisors, a global improv village. I felt myself at home there. It doesn't really matter what town, country, or continent. I feel at home, anywhere I go. People shared with me their homes, ideas, food, and music. A few deep friendships began. I see the world map differently now: Here, in the middle of Europe- Gunther, down below- Ute and Gerhard, all the way up- Biggi, Peeter. Good friendship is perhaps one of the few stabilities in our world of relativity.

Every new encounter with a good improvisor extended my relationships, musical vocabulary and technique, and gave me very unique and pure joy. Every new connection I made with people by the means of music and beyond, extended my mind, heart, and spirit.

So don't hesitate. Just go North, player!