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Misha Mengelberg


05-06-1935 - 03-03-2017


componist, improvised, jazz, piano


Misja Mengelberg

Misha Mengelberg

Misha Mengelberg (Kiev, 5 June 1935), leader of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, is a trickster figure in Dutch composing and international improvised music: a philosophical thinker about musical issues who doesn't take himself seriously, but who helped bring about government subsidies for composed and improvised music (which he dubbed ...
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componist, piano

Mentioned in the biography of

1959   Chris Dekker
1961   Han Bennink
1963   Piet Noordijk
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Biography Misha Mengelberg

Misha Mengelberg (Kiev, 5 June 1935), leader of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, is a trickster figure in Dutch composing and international improvised music: a philosophical thinker about musical issues who doesn't take himself seriously, but who helped bring about government subsidies for composed and improvised music (which he dubbed 'instant composition') in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 70s. He has brought compositional procedures to improvised music with ICP, and quasi-improvised insubordination to his composing. As jazz pianist, he draws on early idols Thelonious Monk (an unhurried gait, dense impacted chords) and Herbie Nichols (harmonies that subvert traditional patterns). In the late 1960s Mengelberg helped develop the “European improvised music” that splintered off of jazz, along with his lifelong drummer Han Bennink. Mengelberg's 1960s “game pieces” anticipate later works by his friend and benefactor John Zorn. In the 1990s ICP became increasingly recognized internationally, for its live collaging operations and Mengelberg's elegantly witty writing. His classical works are likewise noted for fetching melodies and unpredictable developments.

1935 - 1958

The son of Dutch composer Karel Mengelberg and German harpist Rahel Mengelberg-Draber is born in Kiev but raised in Holland from age three. Misha and his mother are both Jewish but were shielded from harm during the Occupation by Karel's uncle, conductor Willem Mengelberg. Misha begins composing, improvising and studying piano as a small child, listening to Stravinsky and Ellington at home. He hears Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk by age 15, and immediately takes to the new jazz. A few years later he has a similar reaction to hearing harmonically original jazz pianist Herbie Nichols.

Karel Mengelberg Willem Mengelberg

1958 - 1965

Mengelberg studies at the Hague Conservatory under Kees van Baaren, befriending fellow student Louis Andriessen. In Darmstadt he sees John Cage give a lecture involving lighted cigarettes as comic props, fueling his own taste for absurd performances. Mengelberg's music takes off on separate tracks; his Monkish trio wins the 1959 Loosdrecht jazz competition, and he takes prize at the 1961 Gaudeamus Music Week for Musica per 17 strumenti (1959). He also composes music for solo piano and string quartet, and bonds with drummer Han Bennink, in 1961. They begin backing visiting American jazz soloists, including multireedist Eric Dolphy in 1964; a broadcast performance is released as Dolphy's Last Date, Mengelberg's first released recording. He becomes involved with the international absurdists' movement Fluxus, and composes the proto-minimalist piano piece In Memoriam Hans van Zweeden. He begins playing with the Misha Mengelberg/Piet Noordijk Quartet, which earns a large reputation and is the first European group that plays at the famous Newport Jazz Festival (1966).

Han Bennink Misha Mengelberg / Piet Noordijk Kwartet

1966 - 1970

While continuing to work with the Mengelberg/Noordijk quartet, Mengelberg and Bennink begin working with young reed anarchist Willem Breuker; the next year the three form the Instant Composers Pool, an umbrella organization for diverse Mengelberg and Breuker groups. Mengelberg writes a playful musical game for dueling wind quintets, Hello! Windyboys (1968). Meanwhile, he, Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijman organize as the Notenkrakers (Notescrackers), who unsuccessfully attempt to liberalize the operations/repertoire of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and (more successfully) help lobby for composer subsidies. In 1969 the five produce the opera Reconstruction. Mengelberg and Bennink join forces with various pan-European improvisers in ad hoc groups; they include Danish saxophonist John Tchicai and England's Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey.

Willem Breuker

1971 - 1981

Mengelberg chairs the new musicians union BIM (1971-1982), and for a time oversees the electronic music studio STEIM. He stages numerous absurd music-theater evenings with writer Wim T. Schippers, and composes for orchestra Met Welbeleefde Groet Van De Kameel (1973), during which, using a circular saw, he deconstructs/reconstructs a wooden chair into a stylized camel. He continues to record in a combative duo with Bennink, and by 1977 leads a tentet which evolves into the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, his main vehicle ever after. (See separate entry.) Formal compositions include Onderweg (1973), the episodic Dressoir (1977) for Orkest De Volharding, and a 1980 saxophone concerto for Ed Boogaard, part of it borrowed from Haydn. In 1978 he records the solo piano recital Pech Onderweg at the Bimhuis.

Instant Composers Pool Orkest de Volharding Wim T. Schippers

1982 - 1993

The mature ICP emerges in the early 1980s with the addition of younger players such as trombonist Wolter Wierbos and saxophonists/clarinetists Michael Moore and Ab Baars, all still there in 2011; Mengelberg teaches them various procedures for subverting or rearranging his scores in performance. In the orchestra and small groups, Mengelberg participates in repertory projects devoted to his early influences Nichols, Monk and Ellington, helping prompt a revival of interest in Nichols' compositions. A quartet of Mengelberg, Bennink, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and bassist Donald Garrett play a Monk program at the 1986 Chicago Jazz Festival. Mengelberg's various music theater productions include the wallpaper-hanging Behang (1988, 1990). The Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra records several of Mengelberg pieces (1988) with the composer on piano, and he tours with Anthony Braxton's Charlie Parker repertory project in 1993.

Ab Baars Michael Moore Wolter Wierbos

1994 - 2011

ICP is now the primary focus of Mengelberg's activities, but he also records solo piano improvisations (Mix, 1994; Solo, 1999), and begins a series of spry trio and quartet recordings involving New York drummer Joey Baron, bassists Brad Jones and Greg Cohen, and trumpeter Dave Douglas. He records Two Days in Chicago (1998) with various Dutch and American colleagues. One of Mengelberg's last major commissions is To a Deaf Man's Ears, libretto by J. Bernlef (1996). That year, Mengelberg is featured composer in the Hague's Thunderclaps concert series, and Bologna's AngelicA festival presents “Onderweg” and his saxophone concerto. After the mid-'90s, ICP tours more often internationally, and Mengelberg composes less, though ICP revives numerous early Mengelberg works in new arrangements. He also records in trios and duos with a.o. Steve Lacy (1996), Paul Termos (2002), Frank Gratkowski (2005), and alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman (2003), who frequently performs his tunes. In 2009, MCN publishes a folio of Mengelberg jazz compositions, Goedendagjes.

Benjamin Herman Paul Termos

Discography Misha Mengelberg

In the discography you will find all recordings that have been released listed chronologically. We restrict ourselves to the title, the type of audio, year of publication or recording, label, list of guest musicians, plus any comments on the issue.

Photos Misha Mengelberg

Audio/Video Misha Mengelberg

Video Misha Mengelberg

Jazz-concert in Haarlem (...
Jazz-concert in Haarlem (1960)
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Jazz-concert in Haarlem (1960)

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