Tristan Honsinger (1949-2023)

Tristan Honsinger , who has died aged 73, was born in Burlington, Vermont and started playing the cello at the age of nine. He went on to study at the New England Conservatory and, later, the Peabody. In the late sixties, he moved to Canada to avoid the draft, where he developed an interest in free improvised music. He travelled to the Netherlands in 1974 and became involved in the European free improvised music scene, working with the Instant Composers’ Pool and Derek Bailey’s Company. Towards the end of the 1970s, he also collaborated with The Pop Group and can be heard playing on the B-side of their single, We Are All Prostitutes.

In the 1980s, he moved to Florence, where he worked with the sax player Gianluigi Trovesi and the trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini. He then went on to form his own group, This, That and the Other, with Toshinori Kondo, Sean Bergin and Tiziana Simona. They released two albums, for both of which he composed the music, What Are You Talking About (1983) and This, That and the Other (1987). The unpretentious titles are a clue to Honsinger’s approach to improvisation and composition. As a composer, he was, according to Dutch journalist Erik van de Berg, ‘someone who hasn’t lost his childhood fantasy entirely. His compositions are like a child’s drawing, or even more like a story from Winnie The Pooh: awkward and touchingly simple, yet full of deeper meanings for those who want to see them.’

In the late 1980s, Honsinger began playing regularly with Cecil Taylor. Together with Evan Parker, they recorded a live album, Hearth (1989). He did various gigs with Taylor with various line-ups, as well as being a member of the Cecil Taylor Quintet.

In the 21st century, Honsinger was involved with a number of groups, including maintaining his long-standing association with the ICP Orchestra. He formed a quartet, House of Wasps, with the pianist Suichi Chino, the bass player, Takashi Seo and the violinist, Yuriko Mukoujima. He also collaborated a great deal with the Swedish bass player, Joel Grip. Perhaps his most ambitious project from this time was his large, free jazz-cum-music theatre ensemble, Hopscotch.

As a performer, Honsinger was a charismatic presence. He cited a wide range of influences, from Buster Keaton to Piet Mondrian. He was more than a musician: his performances incorporated music, language and theatre in such a way that each flowed into the other. He put great store by the idea of free association. It’s an idea we usually think of in relation to words, but in Honsinger’s work, it embraced sounds and gestures, too. As well as a performer, he was a mentor to many and described the essence of his work in that area (in a recent interview with Adam Reese) as ‘to find people that can understand associative thinking, because it is a mystery.’

This approach is central to the book Honsinger brought out in 2021, Wander and Wonder, illustrated by Joel Grip. Songs are set out on clefless staves and whimsical verbal improvisations set off in unexpected directions across its hand-written pages:

Stop twisting the gum tree
I can imitate a dragonfly
I spit chewing tobacco on your rudders
I am oblivious to chance

Honsinger had been ill for some time. Earlier this year, he ran out of money to pay for his treatment. He also found himself threatened with homelessness. The free jazz community raised funds to help him and, by a happy coincidence, he was also awarded the $50,000 ‘Instant Award In Improvised Music’ prize. As a result, he was able to move into an apartment in Trieste. The award was well deserved, if late coming: with his unique combination of playfulness, seriousness and originality, Honsinger made a hugely significant contribution to music which extended well beyond the genres within which he worked. Last summer, in his interview with Adam Reese, he said ‘I’m at a point where death has revealed itself to me already. In the last two-and-a-half years I’ve exploded with creative things… Life and death. It’s the divine comedy.’

Tristan Honsinger, October 23, 1949 – August 5, 2023.



Dominic Rivron

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One Response to Tristan Honsinger (1949-2023)

    1. The Robert Crumb of music….

      Comment by Tom on 20 August, 2023 at 11:44 am

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