Clayton Thomas in (a train to) Berlin

Before I take you to the Polish train where I am about to get up from my seat to walk to the restaurant car, I would like to spend some words on the Echtzeitmusiktage that soon will occupy a fair part of the music calendar in Berlin. Echtzeitmusik is “a calendar” itself. If you consult it regularly you will start to recognize the names of the artists. Most of them play conventional instruments, like you know from or might have heard in (free) jazz ensembles. And because they don’t play from a score, they improvise, and that’s why it is called improvised music.

In Berlin there are at least eight concerts of this kind every week. I guess it is a bit like when I used to play football in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam. Every one could come and join, as long as they didn’t intend to play the ball with a stick or their hands, because then it is not football anymore, but hockey or korfball. That’s why experimentalists of an other kind hardly play together with improvisers, and vice versa.

I can’t tell why the improvisers find so many places in Berlin where they can play. Maybe it’s because the bar owners don’t have a clue, and think that it is like what you see in black and white gangster movies of the forties that show smoky bars in New York or Chicago. Or it makes them think of street musicians, who mostly are very cute and very well behaved. I really don’t know. I am not a bar owner.

Now there is this festival, called echtzeitmusiktage, which, as a word, hops and bumps as oktoberbierfeste. If you come from outside and don’t belong to the group of thirty echtzeitmusicians and their close friends, you might wonder why this festival is set up at all. There is no website to explain it to you, only a webpage with a programme. But what not is, might come soon. Maybe then also the idea behind it will be revealed, if there is any. But if the organizer states that during the echtzeitmusiktage an overview will be given of the Berlin experimentalist scene and its wide variety of sonic expressions, you will be mislead.

I did quite a lot of travelling last May. Hundreds and hundreds of kilometres I found myself looking out of the window in a Polish train. In that month I did a huge tour. I played at a festival in Vilnius from where I brought back a nice booklet and a CD; I played at a festival in Lublin, from where I brought back another nice booklet and a cotton shopping bag; I played at a festival in Budapest, from where I brought nothing but good memories, because it was a very low budget festival with some funding by the Goethe Institute that could cover my fee and expenses.

All these festivals made sense to the local devotees to our kind of music, because they offered a chance to listen to and meet artists that seldom or never performed in their town. The Echtzeitmusiktage fails completely to present such surprises. In fact the festival would have gone unnoticed if the concert days weren’t tagged by that same name. Yes, it can be a long ride from Warsaw to Berlin. Luckily I could spend a part of it talking.

Because when I got up from my chair and walked to the restaurant car, and once in that restaurant car wanted to sit down and order a beer, who could guess my amazement as I saw the contours of a young man pushing a big black body appear at the other side of the glass door? “Hi Rinus,” said the young man, in a voice, as if we were not on a train driving through soon to be inundated Polish land, but running into each other on Weserstrasse, around the corners from our houses.

Ardent readers might have recognized Clayton Thomas and his double bass. We sat down and had some talks, on how he got on trains (like this one) in the very last second, on his show last evening in Warsaw, on some of the things that I have discussed in the first part of this piece, like playing football in the Oosterpark. About him going out every evening to play in a different setting, because he and his friends liked to meet up and play. (And what could be better then to have some friends come over as well, have some drinks and see the concert? Well, go out and play football with friends, I say, but I live in the wrong city to do that.)

Back at the coffee table, we decided to make a break. Meeting colleagues is nice, and unless he or she is Dutch, talking for five hours is out of the question.

I had heard of Clayton Thomas before I had met him. It is almost impossible not to hear from Clayton or not to notice his name, because he does three hundred concerts a year. And he plays with a lot of different musicians. When I finally saw him play, I was taking care of the entrance and he was playing his double bass on the doorstep. Because the attendance that evening was less then discreet, his performance was a one to one one.

Some sorcerer doing his voodoo, an African bogeyman, or a fortune teller examining tealeaves or the bones of a goat are always depicted with a strange collection of tools. Clayton must have gathered some of these objects while travelling. Not that his playing has anything to do with such hocus pocus, but while performing he resembled an illusionist that drew yet another tool from between layers of thin air. But what struck me most was his sense of humour.

While in Paris I try to convince my friends to set up a gig for our band Diktat: three Dictaphone players and a double bass player. We are in our fourth year now, and our performances are getting better and better. I dare say that playing with Diktat has been and still is a major influence on my own style of playing. But, being familiar with playing together with Jean, our double bass player, and also being a person who has done numerous collaborative performances over the years, plus the fact that Clayton and I seem to move in parallel worlds with hardly any cross-over meeting, I thought it would be a good idea to propose him to do a duo performance some time.

The first one got cancelled because he had underestimated the time it would take to get from Bucharest back to Berlin by train. So, after a discussion on holes in the earth, and holes in the universe, and floating masses that loose weight, I reminded him of our appointment:

Friday 6. August, door 21.00
A duo performance by
Clayton Thomas
Rinus van Alebeek
Sowieso, Weisestrasse 24
U8 Leinestrasse


Comments are closed.