The last time Hans Lüdemann taught at Swarthmore, he was administering an exam in silence when his fingers began tickling the ivories.
“I don’t know why, it just happened,” says the internationally acclaimed German jazz pianist.
A student stood up, and Lüdemann thought, “OK, yeah, sorry.” But the student said, “Could you please play more for us?”
“I ended up playing in the background for all of the exams,” says Lüdemann, smiling. “The students found it really cool.”
That emphasis of playing music, rather than talking about or even listening to it, propels Lüdemann’s return to the College as Cornell Visiting Professor. He is teaching a class in both the fall and spring, and performing both with Trio Ivoire and as a solo artist.
The fall course extols the virtues of improvisation to advanced musicians. Learning how to improvise “really gives you a very personal approach to your instrument and brings you closer to the music,” says Lüdemann. But the concepts also apply beyond music.
“To be able to make decisions in split seconds and really draw from all the different experiences you have and, on the spot, say 'this is what I’m going to play' is something that can be applied to many situations in life,” he says.
That universality also applies to Lüdemann’s spring offering on the history of jazz, which is open to all students. Both courses will allow students to hear and play with Lüdemann and visiting artists like jazz ensemble director Andrew Neu. Lüdemann will conduct workshops during the year for the College community.
Lüdemann taught, performed, and lectured at conservatories throughout Germany, as well as Italy and Africa, for 15 years, honing a teaching style that is more practical than theoretical. While he considers teaching in America “very different,” Lüdemann does not view it as too much a shift.
“I’m adapting to the syllabus,” he says, “but trying to keep in some of my own style.”
Although Lüdemann didn’t come from a musical background, he became passionate about listening to and playing the piano as a child. Educated in classical music, Lüdemann began improvising and creating music. After listening to and imitating blues, pop, and Dixieland Jazz, he got to see his first concert of modern improvised jazz at age 14 — cementing what he calls a life-long “love affair” with music.
“It absolutely blew me away,” he says. “I didn’t understand what they were doing, but everything just seemed so free and emotionally strong and direct.”
Now fortunate enough to call his passion his profession, Lüdemann strives to create music that deeply resonates with listeners.
“I want them to feel that personal connection,” he says. “Like, ‘This guy is really telling me a story. He’s talking to me.’”
Lüdemann has taken a break from teaching in recent years to meet growing demand for live performances and record new music. His approach to music is rooted in classical music and jazz, integrating African elements, electronic "virtual piano“ sounds, and microtonal experiments.
In 2014, Trio Ivoire released Timbuktu in 2014. The trio - Lüdemann, Aly Keita on the balafon, and Christian Thomé on drums and percussion - will perform on campus Oct. 2 for the inauguration of President Valerie Smith in a performance sponsored by the Provost's Office and the Consortium for Faculty Diversity. He will also perform pieces from his forthcoming solo album, das reale Klavier, at the College on Nov. 1. A book of his concert compositions, Rhythmic Études, will be published in the fall.
In the meantime, Lüdemann is re-acclimating to the College community. Although it’s been six years since his last stay, his comfort level is high.
“I felt at home here, really,” he says. “Maybe it’s even a kind of spiritual thing, in a way. There's just an atmosphere here of everyone being eager to learn and have new experiences.
“I think I learned more than my students did last time,” he adds. “Their curiosity and eagerness encourages me to really get all of my skills together to bring my very best across.”