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Fred Van Hove

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Antwerp, Belgium
Nationality : Belgian
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2012-03-02

Fred Van Hove (born 1937) is a Belgian jazz musician and a pioneer of European free jazz. He is a pianist, accordionist, church organist, and carillonist, an improviser and a composer. He is known for his work in the 1960s and 70s with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Han Bennink and for his subsequent work in various duos and as a solo artist.

Fred Van Hove is one of the pioneers of improvised music. Not quite jazz, not really classical, Van Hove's music has elements of both, but manages to transcend those classifications to create a genre all its own. Van Hove's virtuosity brings to his music an almost impossibly broad range of influences, clear echoes of Erroll Gardner, Arnold Schoenberg, Lennie Tristano, Cecil Taylor and others--an uncommon and tantalizing combination. He has performed with most of the world's improv musicians in a variety of combinations: solo, duo, trio and large ensembles such as the legendary Peter Brötzmann Octet and Van Hove's own 't Nonet. For 2001, Van Hove planned new combos, such as piano paired with a quartet of string players, and his own line-up of piano, bass and drums--one of the classic jazz combos which Van Hove in some 40 years of performing has never attempted.

Van Hove was born in 1937 in Antwerp, Belgium. His father was a self-taught musician who played trombone and double-bass and who was aware from personal experience of the limitations of self-training and private lessons. He made up his mind that his son would have a real musical education.

Thus, around the age of eleven, Fred Van Hove entered the musical academy in his home town of Antwerp where he studied classical piano for the next seven or eight years. Normally such a student would have gone on to conservatory. By that time, however, Van Hove was already interested in jazz. He left school, but continues to use classical exercises to practice. "I do because they're the most advanced, the most advanced technically speaking, to get all the different things of piano playing in your fingers," he told Contemporary Musicians. "I still use them almost every day."

Van Hove's father also kindled an interest in jazz music in Fred, partly through the recordings he brought home. "When I was 15 or 16, I heard a Charlie Parker record at my home," he told Coda's Bill Shoemaker. "I wasn't listening to music yet, so it was a shock. It was a 78--"Lover Man." What excited Van Hove most about jazz like Charlie Parker's was that unlike other music, the player could improvise--he wasn't restricted to playing the notes already written on the page. Van Hove started listening to jazz, and when he was 18, he formed his own jazz combo, which for a couple of years, played two or three times a week for free in a local bar in Antwerp.

The group started off playing standards in bebop style. But soon more advanced jazz improvisation began filtering across the Atlantic: the music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler. It was music that increasingly cut itself loose from the song structures that bebop still followed and gave the musicians more freedom than ever before. Van Hove, who had been feeling constrained by the older structures, welcomed the innovations from the United States and introduced them a little at a time into his jazz group. Eventually those changes led to completely free improvisation.

In the mid-1960s, improvisational music was in its infancy in Europe and was at best a specialized interest both among musicians and listeners. Players met through word of mouth or by chance. Van Hove, for example, attended a Cecil Taylor concert in Rotterdam and was introduced by a friend to the man sitting next to him, a young Dutch saxophonist named Willem Breuker, who later became a force in his own right in European jazz. In the mid-Sixties, Van Hove and his group played a Belgian festival where German saxophone player Peter Brötzmann was performing. Van Hove and Brötzmann began playing together, first with bassist Peter Kowald, and later with Buschi, and drummer Sven-Ake Johansson, who was later replaced by Dutch drummer Han Bennink. Van Hove, Kowald, Niebergal, Bennink, Johannson, and Breuker, along with English saxophonist Evan Parker, comprised the ensemble that recorded Machine Gun, Peter Brötzmann's explosive LP that launched the European free improv revolution in 1968.

Van Hove believes that free jazz was an integral part of the political upheavals that rocked Europe in the late 1960s. "When it started," he told Contemporary Musicians, "of course this kind of music was about music and certainly now it's about music. But it had something to do with society as well. I always thought that a free improvising group is an example of a totally democratic thing, because there's no authority, there are no tunes, there's no chords, no structure. And the role of the instruments changed also from the jazz before. At that time, the piano and guitar were for the chords, the double bass was there for the bass notes, and then you had a soloist, a trumpet or saxophone or trombone or whatever. I think that changed completely with improvised music. The thing in improvised music is that the instruments--whatever instruments--are equal, and I find that a different thing. It is an example of a utopian society where, in fact, everybody is equal."

The spirit of self-determination that characterized the Sixties also led Van Hove to collaborate in the creation of a collective for Belgian musicians, Werkgroep Improviserende Musici (WIM). The specific event responsible for WIM was the 1971 Middelheim Festival, Belgium's largest jazz festival. Van Hove, and his then duo-partner Cel Overberghe, a Belgian saxophone player, were invited to play the festival, but they were disturbed by the fact that visiting American artists were being paid substantially more money than the Belgian artists. Four or five groups who were invited discussed boycotting the festival in protest--in the end, though, only two groups, Van Hove's and one other, actually refused to play. However, some younger musicians in Antwerp who were interested in improvised music heard about the boycott, suggested making a movement out of it, and WIM was born. By 2000 the bad feelings between Van Hove and the Middelheim Festival had long disappeared. WIM was still in existence, and Van Hove had been its chairman for the entire time. Down to ten or 12 members from 60 in the early 1970s, the collective was mounting its 27th annual improvised music festival, the second oldest in Europe. WIM has also released two of Van Hove's CDs, Pijp and Lust.

After Machine Gun, Van Hove, Brötzmann and Bennink formed an influential trio that stayed together until 1975. After the improv revolution's first wave, a period when older musical forms were smashed, almost physically, by musicians, performers realized that the second stage of their movement involved creating brand new structures they could use. As that happened, the members of the Brötzmann trio drifted apart, each going in different directions. "After those nine years," Van Hove told Shoemaker, "Brötzmann and Bennink were playing outward music and I wanted a change. I was going into inward music." In 1975 they recorded their last album together, Tschüs, colloquial German for "bye."

An important result of leaving the trio was that Van Hove rediscovered solo piano in an unusual way, by accompanying silent movies and experimental films. Besides presenting a new challenge--he had to find music that fit the images on the screen at any particular moment--playing with movies had other advantages. For example, he was able to perform for audiences that didn't normally attend improvised music concerts, and the pictures made Van Hove's often demanding music easier to digest. Solo playing would remain an important part of his performing life. In the late 1990s, Van Hove had two solo piano releases--Passing Wavesreleased in 1997 and Flux released in 1998.

Van Hove has added other keyboards to his performances. While still with Brötzmann, he purchased a small child's accordion and he now uses the instrument regularly. A Belgian acquaintance had the idea to do a series of free improv concerts on the pipe organ after hearing an organ recital at a Bruges conservatory. Van Hove was one of three artists invited to perform. "It was fantastic!" he told Coda's Marc Chenard. He has since recorded several times on the instrument, most recently Pijp, an unusual combo of pipe organ and trombone.

The sound of Van Hove's music shifts, seamlessly and often unexpectedly, from twentieth century classical music to jazz to new music, occasionally even hinting at pop. When Van Hove is asked what kind of music he plays, though, he answers simply "improvised music." He described the excitement he derives from improvising to Chenard: "It's such a big rush: a second before the concert there is nothing, and then there has to be music. It is a fantastic feeling to be able to create out of nothing. Heavenly."

In addition to his total dedication to improvising, Van Hove also composes regularly, usually for larger groups of improvising musicians. This may strike one as paradoxical at first, and he admits that there are difficulties in writing music on paper for musicians who are used to playing whatever and however they happen to be inspired at a given moment. He told Contemporary Musicians, "I've always found it a difficult thing to be in a group where you have to play composed music as well as improvised parts because it's quite a different kind of attention. It's always difficult to follow the sheet and take care where you have to do something. And then all at once there's a spot where you have to improvise and you have to switch from one thing to the other." One way he found around the problem was to have normal concert musicians play the performed parts, while the improvisers did nothing but improvise. Another strategy is illustrated in Suite for B...City, performed by Van Hove's 't Nonet, a group made up of Europe's finest improvisers. The completely improvised parts, usually for only one or two instruments at most, are clearly demarcated within the score from Van Hove's composed sections.

For the past decade, Van Hove has been involved in music education, running a class in improvisation at the university in Lille, France. It is a pilot program, the only one of its kind in the country, intended to provide more hands-on performance experience for students, most of whom are training to become music teachers. Is it difficult to teach improvisation to students who have usually never even heard improvised music much less performed it? "I do not teach them to improvise," he told Contemporary Musicians, "they have to find it themselves. But I try to put them in a situation where they have a possibility to improvise." That means creating a feeling that the class is a performing group, playing with and responding to other musicians. Van Hove says that usually, when they play their final exam--a concert at the end of the school year--they feel like a group. And sometimes the extraordinary occurs. "There are some, I'm thinking particularly of one student, who told me he had never done anything like it before," Van Hove told Contemporary Musicians. "He stayed with me for two or three years and now he's an improvising musician, he has a group and he's trying to play. He played the Antwerp festival already. That was very satisfying."

Van Hove creates music with few recognizable melodies, no standard chord progressions, and irregular rhythms. That his music nonetheless possesses high intelligence and remarkable beauty is obvious to anyone who listens to it attentively and with an open mind. Van Hove recognizes that his kind of music appeals to a small audience, not because it is inherently strange, rather because it is almost completely absent from radio, television, concert venues, and record stores. Listeners, he believes, would embrace it if they had more opportunities to hear it and were better educated to appreciate it. "I would say forget everything you think music is and listen with new ears, without any prejudices," he told Contemporary Musicians. "And don't think of music as being only something which has a melody and a rhythm--just listen to what we are doing and try to follow." Improvised music, Van Hove likes to point out, is one of the few areas where an audience can witness, and influence the actual creative process in action. That's part of the beauty of Van Hove's music--it is the sound of creation.


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