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Artist Interview: Johannes on His New Ensemble Johannes Luebbers Septet

The debut performance of the Johannes Luebbers Septet took place at the Art Gallery of WA as a part of the Van Gogh, Dali and Beyond exhibition. The following interview took place in the lead up to that performance.

How will performing as part of the Van Gogh, Dali and Beyond exhibition shape your performance?
Dali has already quite an impact on my previous work, with a few past pieces employing some surrealist techniques and inspiration generally being taken from his work. This performance will feature a brand new ensemble of mine, so the music is being specifically written for it – I’ll certainly be looking to draw on some of these fantastic artists as points of reference.

Do you have a favourite artist from the Van Gogh, Dali and Beyond exhibition?
Dali is up there as one of my favourites, but I also love Klimt and certain works by Van Gogh. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to see all the 96 artists featured in the exhibition, so I’m sure there are others too.

What can the AGWA audience expect from your performance?
This will be the debut performance of a new ensemble, so they can expect some excitement, some nerves, and some new music that weaves improvisation into the composition. The ensemble is a bit eclectic, featuring piano, guitar, accordion, cello, two saxophones, percussion and possibly some electronics. I often write things that are long and a bit complicated, so here I’m looking to explore smaller structures that have focussed ideas and exploit the improvising skill of the group. There are some excellent players on board and it should be great fun.

What has the last 12 months been like for your band?
Well this band is brand new, so there hasn’t been a past 12 months! I have worked with most of these players in different situations before and have loved their work, so I’m very excited to be bringing them together like this for the first time. The past 12 months for me personally has been rather busy, working on different projects from jazz, to music theatre and most recently Decibel new music ensemble.

Can you tell us a bit about your style of music?
The music I write is often pretty ‘composed’ – notated, specific, longer forms – but I usually work with jazz musicians, so there is a strong jazz and improvised aesthetic too. Growing up on pop and rock, elements of that inevitably seep in too. Some of my favourite albums as a kid were Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Queen’s Greatest Hits, and I feel like I occasionally hear something of this in what I’m working on. My earliest loves were rock, then I studied classical music at school and later I came to jazz, and it’s like things kind of come out in that order; there is a foundation that is almost pop/rock, a layer of orchestral music and then a surface of jazz (I’m not sure if any one listening would hear it like this!). I really love music that takes me somewhere and makes me feel something – music that evokes some kind of reaction. This is the kind of thing I suppose I usually try and write – if I can make myself feel something, then perhaps it will make someone else feel it too.
The new ensemble featuring in this performance brings together a group of people who are all skilled improvisers, mostly from jazz backgrounds, and have worked in many different, diverse environments as freelancers. I think that diversity of experience will create a interesting foundation for the sound of the group.

What is the best gallery or exhibition you have ever visited?
I have had the good fortune of wondering around some incredible galleries before – getting lost in the Louvre and MoMA in NYC have both resulted in some wonderful days. One of my most memorable experiences was in a gallery in a palace in Vienna, a little out of the main part of town. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was an old palace and had some original works by Klimt which were just spectacular. I also saw the Dali exhibition a few years ago at the Art Gallery of Victoria, which was magical. I’ve seen many of those works in books, but seeing them in person was something else. The vibrancy of the colour and the texture of the paint was a whole other experience to looking at a book.

What do you do when you’re not playing music?
When I’m not playing it I’m often writing it, reading about it, listening to it, teaching it, emailing someone about it… it can be a bit all consuming, and not always in a good way. I love to try and find time to read non-music things, and movies and TV series are always great in my down time. I also love to travel and have had some amazing trips in the past few years that have involved very little music. And of course friends and family (they are a patient and understanding lot!)

Which other musicians inspire you?
Probably too many to mention. While at uni I spent a bit of time studying French composer Messiaen, who has been a huge inspiration for me. From that kind of tradition I also find great inspiration in the work of Debussy, Stravinsky and Piazzola, to mention just a few. Many jazz composers have also inspired me in different ways – people like Ellington and Johnny Richards, and contemporary writers like John Hollenbeck all inspire through their work. The people immediately around me probably prove to be the biggest inspiration – those I work with, study with and play with. People in this industry work so hard, there is never a shortage of inspiring individuals.

What does the next year have in store for you?
I’ve started a PhD this year, so I anticipate that will consume quite a bit of my time. I’ve been working on a music theatre work that will hopefully get up in the next year and I also plan to do a new recording with my other ensemble, the Johannes Luebbers Dectet (JLD). Other than that I hope to learn a few things and have a good time along the way!

What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
It’s difficult to say – there have been many highlights and each year seems to top the last. A big highlight was releasing my two albums with JLD and in their wake winning 2011 Jazz Work of the Year at the APRA/AMC Art Music Awards and 2011 Young Australian Jazz Artist of the Year at the Jazz ‘Bell’ Awards. I’ve had some pretty special arranging gigs too, with highlights including writing for Sinead O’Connor and Orchestra Victoria, the WA Symphony with the Panics and recently orchestrating for Shane Warne the Musical. After I finished uni I tagged along on a tour with the Maria Schneider Orchestra around Europe and also assisted on a recording with Ed Partyka and the Sunday Night Orchestra, both of which were incredible highlights. Each time I write something and hear it performed it’s a bit of a highlight – nothing quite like hearing something you’ve conceived come to life!

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