'...I have received several emails from people saying that one
of my albums has formed a valuable companion in their journey
working through grief.
Tord Gustavsen (b. 1970) is an internationally
renowned contemporary jazz pianist. He tours extensively worldwide,
and has been a bandleader of a
trio and a later ensemble, both of which bore his name. His music
has received widespread critical acclaim:
The trio, with Harald Johnsen on double bass
and Jarle Vespestad on drums, has been described as “unique in
jazz, blending the distinctions between chamber jazz, classical and
pastoral music”. Other glowing
reviews have identified a wide range of influence, from Spanish
and gospel music to Keith Jarrett. To this listener, his work
combines the subtle melodic inventiveness of Bill Evans with the
refinement and restraint prevalent in
modern Nordic jazz.
Before studying music, Gustavsen completed a
higher degree in musicology. He wrote a lengthy thesis on the
paradoxes of improvisation which drew on his previous study of
dialectical psychological theory. He gave some in-depth and thought
provoking responses to my questions in our recent interview. I for
one will not be missing the London performance as part of his
UK tour next year.
'When things work well, when we feel we’ve done a good concert,
when I feel I’m using myself well and giving my gift to the world -
then, the benefits clearly outweigh the burdens.'
JT: It seems to me you see a great
connection between the workings of the mind and musical creativity.
You have a degree in psychology and have applied your interest and
knowledge to a thesis on the ‘dialectics of improvisation’. What
benefits do you think formal study of music would bring to a
practising mental health professional?
TG: That depends on the kind of studies in
question. The benefits could range from almost nothing to
mind-blowing! Music theory, music history or practising an
instrument are very different fields of study. To grow in the field
that I am particularly interested in, one must enter into the
dialogue between playing and reflecting on playing,
whether one is playing an instrument oneself or reading about how
musicians experience playing. And one should look for studies in
the psychology of music where parallels between music making and
lovemaking are explicitly brought to the fore. I humbly suggest my
Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation’ as one of these.
JT: Can you tell us what practical
benefits you believe playing or listening to music has on an
individual’s mental health? Is jazz and improvisation different in
Jazz will almost always have an element of
improvisation – ranging from small variations of a theme inside a
fixed form all the way into freely improvised large-scale forms and
improvisation without tonal structures. Other genres will also have
degrees of improvisation – and, indeed, much of what I have to say
about improvisation could also be said about
interpretation. But making these distinctions is not my
Then, regarding possible benefits of music for
mental health - a huge question with great individual differences.
What I can say for sure is that for most people who are touched by
music and/or make it themselves, there is a powerful connection
between mental states and musical landscapes. But this connection
can operate in a multitude of ways – some artists actually make
melancholic music feeling great, some make uplifting music during
depression. Others have a more obvious connection of emotional
correspondence between art and life – where you can ‘hear’ their
sorrow or feel their joy through their art. But for all of us, I
think life and art influence each other, be it through
correspondence or polarity.
Do we work through our grief or give shape to
our longing through music? Yes.
Do we celebrate life and love through our
music? Yes. But via an infinite number of positions on this
continuum from correspondence to polarity or tension.
As for simply listening to music, I
have heard so many touching reports about music making a
fundamental difference in people lives. Music can form
‘soundtracks’ to our lives’ phases. It can carry symbolic meaning
and emotional triggers, filling us up, energizing us, making us
pensive, opening us up for reflection and meditation. And music can
sometimes help people get through tragic loss. I have received
several emails from people saying that one of my albums has
formed a valuable companion in their journey working through grief.
This really adds a fundamental aspect of the feeling that it is all
‘worth it’ to me. The communal bliss of playing music – when it’s
really working – is in itself more than enough to justify it. But
all the practical and financial hassles of life as a touring
musician can sometimes be overwhelming and exhausting. Feedback
like this really adds to the meaning of it all for me.
JT: As well as your practice,
recording and research, you tour a considerable amount- how does
this affect the stability of your more ‘everyday’ life in Oslo?
Does it put a particular strain on your mental health? If so, how
do you cope with this?
It does put a few strains on my health, but it
also boosts it. When things work well, when we feel we’ve done a
good concert, when I feel I’m using myself well and giving my gift
to the world - then, the benefits clearly outweigh the burdens.
Also, it’s important to do some exercising and eat healthy on the
road (although obsessing about it can be just as unhealthy).
But no matter how well one finds a way to
do it, being on the road all the time is no good,
especially not with a small child at home. After we had our child,
I stopped doing most of my ‘sideman’ projects, concentrating more
or less exclusively on my own ensemble. This meant going from being
away more than half the time to considerably less, and not more
than one tour of 10 days or longer per semester. That was
definitely a good decision.
Furthermore, when I am at home, my days are
far more flexible than those of parents working a straight job.
Even though I practice, compose, plan tours and do a lot of
administrative work to keep it all going, I can start at 10 or 11
instead of 8 in the morning and instead work more late in the
evening. Thus I actually get to spend more time with my son than
most fathers – I can take him to kindergarten late in the morning
without stress and pick him up early.
JT: What musicians and artists have
inspired you most? Would you like to select a particular piece of
music that has special meaning for you, particularly in relation to
what we’ve spoken about here?
Well, there is a long, long line of deep
sources of inspiration. Let me mention only a few selected ones:
Pianists Jan Johansson, Jon Balke, Glenn Gould, Keith Jarrett.
Composers Ravel, Shostakovich, Bach, Messiaen, Fartein Valen.
Singers Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday from the jazz canon.
Contemporary singer/songwriters Sidsel Endresen, Solveig
Slettahjell, Susanna Wallumrød, Kristin Asbjørnsen, Hilde Kjersem,
Synne Sanden – the Scandinavian scene has so many fantastic singers
these days! And saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter in all his
different musical phases.
I should also mention visual arts and
literature – inspiration certainly crosses borders. I have done
several projects combining music and poetry recitals, and I also
worked for a while at the Norwegian film institute improvising
music to silent movies.
I have to stop soon in order not to overload
this interview with names and references! But I’d like to end with
suggesting Buxtehude’s cantata Ad Genua from Cantates Membra Jesu
Nostri – recorded by Concerto
Vocale on Harmonia Mundi. This recording found me in a
vulnerable and open and beautiful state on an off-day on tour in a
rural German hotel 12 years ago. It’s about being embraced and
nurtured in Jesus’ bosom - or at least that’s what I think it’s
about. It’s comforting and spiritually nourishing, and ultimately
(to me at least) it’s about finding the parent inside yourself to
comfort and embrace your inner needy child.
You can interact and make love with this music
and the lyrics and the sacred sensuality of it all – cry your heart
out, and walk away humbled, yet strengthened, and perhaps less
likely to sink into unconscious demands that your partner also be
- Visit Tord Gustavsen’s official
- Listen to Tord’s selection of one of
his favourite live recordings of his work here.
- Listen to a live recording of
‘Still there’ from his trio’s 2007 album,
‘Being There’ here.
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