Interview with Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh

30. April 2019
Elisa Polov

Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh are a German-American duo who have collaborated for 4 years, travelling the whole world, experimenting with their instruments and discovering new spectrums in music. On the 22nd of April, Jazzkaar reporter Elisa Polov had a talk with Peter and Heather at Punane Maja before their concert.


How did you two meet and form this collaboration?


Heather: I grew up in Texas, but I’ve lived in Scotland for 15 years. When I was at high school, I saw Peter play in Texas, where he was involved with an arts organization there that was putting on concerts. We met briefly at that time.


Living in Glasgow I was invited to play at a festival and they asked if I would like to have a guest to play with me. Peter had been in the back of my mind as someone who I just really wanted to collaborate with. From that first concert at the festival in Glasgow we knew that we needed to do more work together. That concert was a really strong one for a first concert. And since that was in May 2015, since that time we’ve worked really intensely together, travelling all over the world.


You both have very special instruments. Heather, you have an instrument called the pedal steel guitar. What is that?


It originates from a Hawaiian slide guitar essentially. Those players have a guitar, usually with 6 strings, which sits on their lap. I feel, almost more than any other instrument, it is really tied to a genre, that is country and western music. But it’s an instrument that hasn’t been used a lot outside of that tradition. I loved the sound of the guitar. I’m a self-taught musician and I wanted it to play a more direct role, as a lead instrument rather as an accompanying instrument and to explore different ways of playing it. I work a lot with vibrato and moving between the notes. Because on the pedal steel guitar the strings are sitting on top, you can play the entire board with the slide. I have also developed my own specific tuning.


What about you, Peter, you are playing an instrument called a tarugata.


It is an instrument used in Hungarian folk music. I found it in the south of Hungary, there was a festival and a guy running a workshop. He showed me these funny-looking instruments and I was able to pick up one of those. It has a very special sound and has a technique similar to the saxophones.


Of course it has a history and tradition. It comes actually from the very far East – China, Tibet. In earlier times it was played with a trumpet mouthpiece and used as a military signal horn. As the armies moved further and further westwards, they came to the Orient and oriental folks. They used a double reed, which they were quite used to. When the Turkish armies invaded Europe, they came to Vienna, where it got a clarinet-like mouthpiece. But it still has a kind of oriental sound and the mechanics on it is very simple. As the main thing you just have the holes in the wood. With that you can play half and quarter notes and you can always surprise yourself, because you always find little things that you haven’t played before.


Do you knowingly play the quarter note system?


Peter: When I’m lucky, in a good mood and the day is right, I find them. Because there is no recipe for that, you just have to be sensitive.


Heather: It’s such a nice combination with the steel as well. Because I move between the notes and Peter cannot do that with other instruments.


Peter: It has a bit to do with the early clarinet players in the early jazz of New Orleans or Dixieland because they usually had very cheap clarinets, which had a German system and did not have very advanced mechanics. You had the holes. So if you listen very carefully to the early clarinet players, like Johnny Dodds, for example, or some of the New Orleans players, they could do something with their fingers that is not possible with the later and much more complicated system.


How does people’s feedback on your creative output (positive and negative) affect you?


Peter: I don’t know if it affects me. But of course I like it when people come after the concert and say: “Man, I like that you did something or something new or experienced something interesting.”


Peter: I like to argue with people. But the problem as with young critics is that they have no idea. They know what they know from the Internet and that’s not enough.


Heather: I agree with Peter. Of course, it’s always nice to get feedback from the audience. Playing on stage is not a one-way stream. We’re not there just playing. The atmosphere, the surroundings, what you’re feeling from the audience, it all affects you. Especially with improvised music, it plays a large part in the music. But criticism can be good, it can make you think.


Would you say that you are somehow trying to break the rules of music?


Peter: I have been doing that my whole life, it’s nothing special.


Heather: Yes, like breaking the rules in general for myself. You might as well know.


Peter: Yes, it is a common thing to do, otherwise it gets too boring. It gets too boring to yourself, it gets too boring for the audience.


What would you say about players who play strictly according to the rules of a genre?


Heather: I’m not against that in the slightest, it comes down to the sound for me. I don’t really care how you arrive there. I’m sure that Peter can tell you that he absolutely loves the old jazz. Of course, sometimes for me, playing too much in a genre or tradition, I find stifling, it hinders my playing. But that’s just myself. How every musician decides to approach that is really their choice.


Peter: Tradition and history are very important, I am always aware of them. Without the music of, for example, Coleman Hawkins, I wouldn’t be able to play what I’m playing now. It’s a pity that a lot of young players have no idea where the music comes from, and don’t know about blues/jazz tradition. They know what they learn at school and that’s mostly rubbish.


What would be the best way for young musicians to build a base for themselves as musicians?


Heather: The most important part of all is to work and play and find your voice. For some people that might mean studying. I don’t read music or approach it in that way. But I think everything in life comes down to work and experience. So, for instance, if you go to a music school and just study, but you’re not out there playing for the people, I don’t think it’s very fulfilling and you’re probably not going to get very far. In any sort of creative work, be it music or art, you definitely have people who get stuck in academia and they don’t really venture outside of that sphere. And I think that’s quite a safe world. I love playing for the people and being out and travelling.


How would you describe the music that you produce on stage?


Heather: It comes down to just a feel for me. And also having a sort of confidence or bravery to just go with it, to trust it. It’s a gut instinct. Nothing could make me freeze up more. If I start to think about mechanics or even thinking too much in general. I really try to keep thought out of the process and just play. Also listening and not listening to Peter. I’m not completely focused on what he’s doing, but of course I’m listening very intensely.


Check out photos of their concert here