This is your composer speaking: Kika Sprangers
in conversation with Anne La Berge at New Music Conference 2023
The 29-year old jazz saxophonist Kika Sprangers loves to compose for big groups. She gets her inspiration preferably from non-musical things like literature, photography or even concepts – for November Music 2023 she wrote a piece about ‘the human perception of infinity’. In conversation with fellow composer Anne La Berge at New Music Conference 2023, we get to know Sprangers through several fragments of her work.
‘In September 2021 I recorded the concert film Mind’s Eye with my quintet. It’s filmed from very close up. Because it was still during the pandemic, my wish was to bring the music as close as possible to the people, without playing live. The piece here is called Film Noir, I wrote it during my two-year residency in TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht. I was there on my own, the whole building was abandoned, which was quite spooky. Sometimes the lights went off automatically and I had to stand up and wave to relight the room. We couldn’t rehearse with the band yet, so invited them one by one and we started to play in duos and improvise a lot. What came out, was a piece that was really co-created with the band members. I think we found new ways of blending together.’
Many composers have their ‘covid stories’ about how to create intimacy during the pandemic. It’s amazing how you did that in that building. And you had the opportunity to use a big space. Many people during covid had to go into only small spaces, into their heads.
‘Yes, this emptiness became an infinite acoustic space to fill. That was pretty crazy. But being really on your own, that felt intimate as well. Composing is that for me in general, actually, it’s my introvert part of the music.’
Inspiration and influence
Sound is not your only inspiration source, you have other tentacles reaching towards parts of our world. Can you describe some of that for us?
‘I think I’m really inspired by the human perception on things. My first album was based on personal characters that I created. I was inspired by a novel by Griet Op de Beeck, in which she let me feel really close and connected to the characters. I could imagine myself being all these people. I translated them into music, also working with a photographer who made portraits. I like to take a non-musical thing as an inspiration. For instance, during covid times, I felt the only thing that I still had was my imagination. So I wrote an ode to human imagination.’
‘For November Music I wrote music about infinity and the human perception on that. Not that I want to be super philosophical, I just think it’s funny: we are trying to get the concept of infinity, but maybe we cannot do that at all.’
As a player, your setup is very physical: you have a reed in your mouth, the sound vibrates the bones in your body. Does that influence you in writing?
‘Yeah, I always had the dream that one day I wake up and I have the most amazing voice to sing. But I don’t. So then I decided to see the saxophone as the lengthening of my voice. In composing, I try to come as close as possible to the human voice. Because then, you get as vulnerable, as close as you can get to human feelings.’
‘Pynarello is an ensemble of classically schooled musicians that works in different lineups. Lots of strings, but sometimes also a full symphony orchestra. They call themselves a ‘collective of rebels’: they try to break with the traditions of classical music and play everything by heart without a conductor. I just fell in love with them. They’re super open-minded people and they wanted to play my music – that’s the greatest gift you can get as a composer. They were also open to improvising. We did a commissioned piece for the Grachtenfestival in Amsterdam, and I wrote an orchestral work for them this year, for their big Shostakovich project.’
Did you work with strings before?
‘No, this was the first time. I made the worst beginner’s mistake, which is having two first violins. Never take two first violins. In an orchestra, one first violin sounds good, three as well, but two is, intonation-wise, the worst. Some people said: ‘maybe you shouldn’t’. But the Pynarello musicians said: “Let’s go for it.”
‘However, the bigger the ensemble gets, the bigger the challenge to integrate freedom, because I still want it to sound like it’s lyrical. And it still needs to sound like my music.’
For you as a jazz player, I think it’s hard to imagine someone who has never improvised and was never encouraged to. How did you deal with your players to sculpt this string band to sound like you wanted it to sound like?
‘It’s always about the mindset. Because it’s never true that they cannot do it. It’s about how to give trust and how to trigger them to start improvising. For instance, in an open intro, I gave them a lot of freedom, just some words to improvise with. At first, I got really small sounds. And then I said: “Come on! More!” and then I got a whole horror forest full of sounds. But it really starts and ends with finding a band sound. Because within that sound you can start improvising.’
Did they enjoy it?
‘They said they did, haha. But in that first rehearsal, I was dying. I suddenly got like 12 amazing string players in front of me, who will always know more about their instrument than me.’
What is your feeling about the future of music, about throwing away style words like jazz, classical and free improv?
‘I think the non-existing genre connection of people making music has never been gone. I worked with the Jong Metropole, for example, and there all the classical players think they cannot groove. Well, if you can play Mozart, you can groove like hell, right?’
It’s really exciting to imagine that you could be one of the molders to take that somewhere.
‘Yeah, but it’s hard to say that about yourself, I think.’
Why not? Men say it all the time about themselves.
‘That’s true, maybe I should say it. But I don’t know, it’s just hard to see it on this meta level, you know? Having this helicopter view. I can only see it from my tiny perspective.’
Lamias – Jong Metropole
This was a turning point for a compositional method you’re using now.
‘Yes, I wrote this last year, at the beginning of summer. It was the first time I had a commission for one piece, not an album with different songs. I was blocked during the process. Luckily, I had some help of Jochen Neuffer, conductor and arranger for the Metropole. He taught me a process that I’m still using today: improvise, make sketches and record it for two weeks, without listening to the recordings. That’s what I first did wrong for this piece: I started listening and judging right away. Now, I don’t judge and only listen after three or four weeks. That way, I had more material and I’d sometimes even forgotten what I did and surprised myself. It brought back the fun.’
When are your most creative moments, how do you get into a flow?
‘I take this blank sheet of paper, physically but also in my head. Then, I start walking, go to a museum, and take a day off. And then, mostly at night, or in a house in nature to be by myself, I start writing. During the afternoon I cannot write a single note, that is just not my time. Only in the morning or evening. Maybe there is just too much going on in the world during the day. At night, I feel like I can be alone with the moon. And best I work with pressure.’
‘This is the group I also performed with during November Music 2023. The recording is from last January. It went wrong so many times. The biggest challenge is to get 13 people to feel free within my music. It’s a tricky thing with such a big ensemble, it’s like a heavy, slowly moving creature. Last Sunday, at November Music, it also went wrong. Some people thought I cued backing, while some thought I cued the bridge. This went on for ten bars.’
And then you sounded like Misha Mengelberg’s music.
‘Exactly. But then you also make it work, because they’re great players, so you will fix it. But it’s hard to cue, lead ánd feel freedom within these rules and arrangements. I don’t want to conduct too much.’
You need space to be musical.
‘Yes, there should be things that go wrong, because those can be great.’
Maybe they are not wrong then. Maybe it’s good to listen back and go, whoa, the energy in that moment was so happening.
‘Maybe it inspires new compositions, yes.’
Do you have moments where you tear up when you’re performing, where it’s like: here we are, all of us, me, the sound?
‘Yes, I always strive for that moment. I have maybe five or six that I really remember and which are the reason why I make music. Actually, last week my quintet played songs from my latest album, which we’ve played tons of times now. Then, at a certain moment in the outro, it just became a new song. The band surprised me completely. They just took my song and went ahead with it. That’s a beautiful thing: just being there as a composer and enjoying what the musicians do with your work, let go of the control. I can really feel happiness in that moment.’
Photos by Claudia Hansen
Text by Stella Vrijmoed