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Interview: 'Creativity Is About The Unknown,' Says Jazz Pianist Misha Alperin

Ukrainian-born jazz pianist Misha Alperin (photo: Pietro Bandini)

Ukrainian-born jazz pianist Misha Alperin (photo: Pietro Bandini)

Misha Alperin is a jazz pianist and composer who was born in Kamenez Podolsky, Ukraine, in 1956. He lived and studied in Moldova and Russia.

Since 1993, he has been an associate professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music in piano composition and improvisation.

Recently, he performed at the Jazz in Church festival held in Bucharest, Romania, by the association and hosted by the city’s historic Lutheran church.

RFE/RL correspondent Lucian Stefanescu sat down with Alperin after the concert to discuss diversity, the avant-garde, poetry, and, of course, jazz from Soviet times to the present day.

RFE/RL: You were born in Ukraine, you lived in Moldova, you studied in Chisinau and Moscow, and now you live and work in Norway. Is this journey reflected in your compositions and in the way you make music?

Misha Alperin: Yes, I guess so. It’s very natural for artists. At least from my own experience, I can say about myself that I was always inspired by the places where I lived and always inspired by the culture around me. But very often it's unconscious -- it's not about the decision, but about the sensitivity of the artist. I can say I was quite sensitive, and in any of the places I lived I became a big fan of the local culture and naturally there were real, direct influences to my own music.

RFE/RL: It sometimes seems there are no boundaries nowadays between jazz, classical music, modern music, folklore, and so on. Some people call it postmodernism. Others say it is simply globalization. Is it good? Is it bad?

Alperin: I think it is very good. All these borders between genres are quite artificial, I think. And unfortunately evolution is dependent on the openness of the mind, and evolution is the most natural process of our being. In the arts, boundaries always mean limitations. And not only in the arts. In any kind of social life, boundaries make you closed, not open.

Openness is one of the main tools to be able to grow as a human being. This is why I think it is very important that we are open to any kind of music or art or whatever and are trying to be inspired and trying to inspire each other. And it doesn’t matter in which area we are functioning.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us something about your Moscow Art Trio, please? It's something like jazz, but it's not jazz. It is something else.

Alperin: One of the main reasons for the Moscow Trio as a concept was exactly what we are talking about now -- three different cultures meet together and live in peace: a folk musician, a classical horn player, and an improviser functioning together as one family. And that was the main reason of the aesthetic concept of the Moscow Art Trio when we started.

But it is one thing, you know, to declare this. Everybody can theoretically talk about openness and so on. But it’s another thing to realize and to practice openness. The same like in life is the same thing in music. Lots of musicians and artists will tell you about openness for several hours without any problem because to talk is always easy. But to practice and to be open and to be able to not accept any borders -- first of all you have to know lots of things. You have to be [up to date] and you have to be very disciplined and you need experience in different genres.

RFE/RL: ...And you must know the other musicians you are playing with...

Alperin: Exactly. And you have to appreciate the others. Differences are much more important in that case than similarities. But the human being is not so simple. Human beings look for similarities, not differences. People want networks and their own friends around them because they know how they are functioning and so on.

RFE/RL: And because they are afraid of the unknown?

Alperin: Absolutely. But creativity is about the unknown. Creativity in general is a darkness, but darkness in the positive [sense]. You need time to get used to it, to go to the dark forest until you feel comfortable there. In the beginning, [it] is quite scary.

The Moscow Art Trio is an example. It was very scary in the first years for all of us, very scary because there were no references. You have to stay in a kind of an unknown zone, an unknown territory. On top of this, afterwards, nobody knows how to sell you. On one hand, you are walking in unknown territory and you have lots of questions with yourself. But on top of that, there is trouble – promoters don’t know how to sell you, because you're not jazz and not rock and not pop and not classical. You see what I mean? So creativity is great, but it's challenging.

WATCH:The Moscow Art Trio, featuring Misha Alperin

RFE/RL: My former teacher, Romanian jazz critic Virgil Mihaiu, told me you are the one who discovered one of the best jazz bands in Moldova -- Trigon. Trigon describe themselves as an ethno jazz band. Why do you think they insist on adding this "ethno"? In the end, jazz is jazz regardless of its roots, influences, or the different forms of music it incorporates.

Alperin: Of course, you are right. Jazz was originally born from a lot of different ethnic influences. So you are right, absolutely, that it sounds a little bit strange when we say "ethno." But I know the reason why people say they are playing ethno music. It is because lots of people think jazz is something American, which is not true. But this cliche influenced musicians who would like to say, "We are not playing American music, so we are proud Romanians or proud Chinese or whatever, proud Moldovans.”

So this is a kind of statement that we would like to find our own voice through the local ethnic culture.

RFE/RL: I want to tell you something about my early experience with jazz. I heard the Soviet band Trio Ganelin in Cluj in 1977. And I was wondering, if jazz is by definition a free art form, how could these guys be allowed to play it in the unfree U.S.S.R.? Do you have an explanation for this paradox?

Alperin: I think it's not a paradox. It's actually a natural process. When you lived in a country with so much political pressure like the Soviet Union, in a totalitarian regime, the only thing that usually creative people are dreaming is protest in different forms. And [some people] protest without saying anything. But people who are dealing with art forms -- and this is all over the world, it would be the same thing whether we are talking about the Soviet period or not, over thousands of years it will be the same.

You are creating your own zone where you can express your own protest. That’s what happened with Trio Ganelin. I remember I had exactly the same feeling. Actually, to tell you the truth, one of the reasons I started the Moscow Art Trio was inspiration from Trio Ganelin. When I heard them in 1982 for the first time, in Moscow, it was also a shock. And I felt like, "Wow, these guys really feel so free."

And I wanted to do my own experiments, but I was from the Balkan region and I am a southerner. I am not from the Baltic republics, so I would like to do my own things, and one day I would do it. Actually, all the critics say we -- the Moscow Art Trio and Trio Ganelin -- are the only two trios in the ex-Soviet Union kind of dealing with experiments and so on. I don't know if it's only two trios or not, it's not important.

Most important is to learn one thing: Protest is a temporary thing, and the inspiration that [the Trio Ganelin] got from the totalitarian regime very soon disappeared because the regime had disappeared. And then there was no Trio Ganelin, and no reason to protest, and there is no interest in any avant-garde today. So you have to be always aware that avant-garde is an art form similar to the word "temporary.” Everything that has to do with time is temporary.

RFE/RL: Yes, because it becomes classic.

Alperin: Right. Today, avant-garde is [a] museum, [an] old museum. And this is not a paradox; you said it's a paradox. Everything that comes from the influence of time is temporary. That's why I don't like, and I am not interested in, time. But folk culture can influence me forever because folk culture has nothing to do with time. Because folk culture was never born and that is why it will never die.

RFE/RL: At your concert here in Bucharest, you played what you said were fragments of a series called "Stories for the Piano." Is there any connection between jazz and poetry? I asked jazz guitarist John McLaughlin this question when I interviewed him in 1993 and he said: "When poetry exists, I myself exist. And you, my friend. We are all in the same boat."

Alperin: That's a very beautiful explanation. His explanation is beautiful, and it's also very correct. What can I say? My father was a writer. Poetry is the most natural of things in my life; there was never a question about poetry in my life. It was natural for me. I was always a part of it, but I was never thinking about it. To tell stories, as I found out later, for me it's most natural.

But often stories do not mean for me something related to the text and concrete words. So dramatically I think about sound stories -- that means stories often without any meaning but with the same impact of dramatic beauty and development.

So for me poetry is a most important thing, and I feel my music is poetical stories -- but by sounds, made by sounds. My mother was a musician from Bessarabia, so I get from her some inspiration, and my father was a writer. So I guess it is a very simple explanation why my music is full of stories and sounds.