Interview with Günter Müller | Bagatellen
This interview was conducted via e-mail between the 2nd and 12th of June, 2003. Much of Bagatellen’s content is drawn from modern improvisation and, in various levels of inquiry, the processes that guide the making of such music. The “new electronics” of the last decade have yielded sounds and techniques once thought unimaginable. The free world is swimming in technology, and music's foundation is modulating via an unprecedented accessibility to computers and electronics. There now exists a new kind of canvas, one upon which improvising musicians such as Günter Müller may always “begin.”
Alan Jones: What are your earliest memories with music?
Günter Müller: My very earliest memory with music is sitting as a child on a chair in front of an old radio, listening to some German Schlager. Beside that my father was listening to classical music all the time. I particularly liked Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
AJ: What was your favorite instrument/character?
GM: Definitely the bassoon of the grandfather, I adored it and it frightened me at the same time.
AJ: Many musicians set goals for themselves at an early age. Assuming you visualized such objectives, how have they been obscured or built upon over the years?
GM: When I got into improvising in the late 70’s I realized very quickly that this would be the only thing I’d like to do in music. I tried a few couple of times to play within conceptual things, but never was happy about it. Another main idea is the constant research in sounds, starting when I still played the acoustic drums that I prepared with all kinds of stuff – and developed even more when getting into the electronics in 1981.
AJ: Did you feel a sense of restraint with conventional playing, or was it music that you did not particularly enjoy?
GM: It was simply that the music has been predictable, something I don’t like at all. I was getting bored after playing the more or less defined parts more than three times. Or it happened that I was told to make some noise from minute 4:35 to minute 5:15… I felt terrible, like a clown.
AJ: Conceptually and aurally, your music is driven as much by process as by aesthetic. To what extent are composers such as Cage and Schoenberg an influence on your work?
GM: If there are any composers who influence my work I would list at first Feldman, Ferrari, Pierre Henry.
AJ: At what point did you become interested in the marriage of electronics with acoustic instruments? The drums, specifically.
GM: One day I took a contact-mic to place it everywhere on the drum set… on cymbals, cymbalstands, heads of the drums, drumsticks… I realized that I was at the entrance of a completely new world of sounds, of a huge field offered to be explored. The drums are instruments you have to find your own setup for anyway, so it was easy to combine it with the electronics – meaning not just playing the electronics as a second instrument. I built drumsticks with mics inside, played with mics instead of sticks, took effects. And I took a mic [and changed the] distance to a cymbal to get variations of sounds, used the mic as a kind of acoustic magnifier. An important decision – and probably typical as a drummer – was taking a second sound system, [meaning] getting one for my left and another one for my right side, so I could play in stereo, [which] was a main thing in my group, Nachtluft, when we did performances [that were] set up in different places of the site [with] the audience walking between us. I’m still playing with this double mono system today.
AJ: Doppler, right? That's a very scientific approach. What other roles does physics play in your music?
GM: It’s probably not exactly a Doppler. I’m getting different frequencies when changing distances. Another thing that might [address] your question: I’m not really playing with microphones, instead I’m playing with headphones that I plug in into the inputs of my mixer. I can get very beautiful feedbacks when playing the floor tom with them. I don’t even have to touch the head of the drum. Feedbacks are growing very slowly out of silence, just with the headphones in my hands in some distance to the drum. Because I have a tunable floor tom I can play various feedbacks, even feedback melodies.
AJ: There is a similar method guitarists use with an E-bow, where one places a magnet directly over the guitar's pickup. Do you manipulate gain control with your technique?
GM: I'm controlling the intensity of the feedback by changing the distance, similar to a guitar player who controls the feedback when moving the guitar towards his amp. And I'm controlling the pitch with a pedal on my floor tom that changes the tune mechanically.
AJ: What are your inclinations when playing with more minimalist instrumentation, with someone like Sachiko M?
GM: I try to reduce my material – try to play less – something I'm anyway doing more and more.
AJ: Does this reduction provide opportunities to expand your techniques or do you feel restraint?
GM: Reduction [allows me to] expand my techniques in that sense that I go more into it, that I focus on less, to explore this 'less' more and more. Little changes of the material become more important… it's less possible to hide. I gain more intensity, so I certainly don't feel restraint.
AJ: You’ve lived in Switzerland for many years now. How would you describe the music community?
GM: There is a jazz scene in several parts of Switzerland, mostly influenced by several jazz schools. A free improv scene you may find more in the German speaking part, but only very little in the French and Italian speaking parts. Regarding what a small country Switzerland is, there are quite a number of improv musicians. The WIM Zürich, Werkstatt für Improvisierte Musik – that is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and as well the little younger WIM Bern – have been and still are places to meet each other to try new combinations and are important influences for many musicians. Beside Zürich and Bern there are musicians living in Luzern, St.Gallen, and Biel, amongst other towns. I guess in this improv community almost everybody has played somewhere with everybody else. It might be just my personal perception, but I see most of the musicians are improvising in a more traditional way, but there are a few who have been in electronic and electro-acoustic improv for a long time. Because Switzerland is so small that you have to play abroad, this might be a reason that you often can see at least some of the Swiss improvisers collaborating with musicians of other countries.
AJ: As I understand it, Switzerland has the practice of supporting and often subsidizing its improvising musicians, namely those who perform jazz. Do musicians of the electro-acoustic variety generally get support from the government?
GM: Well, first of all they have to like your project... And nowadays you have to play outside Europe – at least eight gigs – to get some money to cover your travel expenses. Inside Europe it’s easier. I’m not so happy that “quantity” is the main criterion. For example, last year I didn’t get any money to go to the Amplify Festival in Tokyo, because I only played four concerts and did two days recordings at the studio. It didn’t matter that this definitely was an important festival and that there will be a couple of CDs from these venues.
AJ: You have your own label, For4Ears. How has dealing with so many methods of sound production affected you as a musician?
GM: Mixing and editing on computer affected a lot of my listening and so my improvising and playing. I’m listening today more carefully than before. Now I’m trying to focus more and playing less. A friend of mine told me that you have two ears and one mouth to be used in that ratio. And [for] a couple of years [I’ve been] doing sounds on computer that I use live with minidisc and Ipod as basic sounds for my electronics.
AJ: Are the minidisc and Ipod central tools in your music, or do they fill a secondary purpose?
GM: It depends on the musicians I’m playing with. There are combinations where minidiscs and Ipod are secondary and others where I don’t even set up the drums. But I’m using these tools always to get basic sounds to be treated with my electronics.
AJ: Could you describe the use of minidisc in real-time performance?
GM: On minidiscs and Ipod there are a couple of hundred loops I've done on computer between 20 seconds and six minutes in duration. In performance most of the time I choose a loop that I will use for my electronics after listening to it a bit, sometimes I choose it by random. The loop – as well as all the signals I'm getting when playing the drums with my headphones – run trough the volume pedals, 8-second delays and equalizers. I use the delays to make short sound collages and for pitch shifting. It's [a] very simple but effective setup.
AJ: What criteria or guidelines do you go by when selecting musicians or considering a proposed project for your label?
GM: On For4Ears I only release CDs by musicians I had the chance to play with before in any project. This means I want to have the personal contact, and it means that their music is not too far away from the music I'm interested in myself.
AJ: What can you tell us about the conception of La Voyelle Liquide -- your recording with Le Quan Ninh?
GM: All of it was improvised; there has been no conception beside the fact that we both were playing selected parts of acoustic drums in combination with our electronics. After the recording I made some few edits. That's it!
AJ: You have several recordings with Voice Crack [Norbert Moslang and Andy Guhl], and then your performing unit, poire_z. How did that relationship come about?
GM: Voice Crack and I [have known] each other for a very long time. But we finally got together to play quite late, in 1995, suggested by Jim O'Rourke. That year we did a CD together with Jim, played since then several times as a trio, and got together in 1999 with Erik M with whom I've done a few concerts in duo. Meanwhile we did three CDs as poire_z , and a fourth CD with Phil Minton will be released early next year on my label. Also next year a duo CD of Norbert and me will be released on Grob.
AJ: In what ways are you limited with your instruments and sources? Does the process of selection in any way inhibit what you foresee as natural results in the music?
GM: Selection inhibits playing in automatisms. There is always a danger, especially for drummers… you play all this well-practiced stuff as a virtuoso without really saying something. Imagine how many thousands of drummers are doing millions of rolls over the snare and all the toms... To break this, I started many years ago [setting] up my drum set differently from time to time, and the longer the more I dropped some parts of the drums. So I had to learn to play with a new setup and I had to listen more carefully again. Years ago I had lots of material, percussion stuff, self-constructed things, effects… and it took me a while to admit that it often happened during a concert that I felt pushed to use all this stuff. This means that sometimes the material determined the music more than the listening. Now with a much smaller setup it can happen that I miss a certain instrument at a certain moment, so I have to invent new possibilities playing with my reduced material.
AJ: Your new Eight Landscapes has remarkable depth. Surprisingly, it is your first solo recording. How did this record come about?
GM: It's not exactly my first solo recording. It's the first solo CD after two solo cassettes that I did in 1985 and 1987. Well, from time to time I was thinking of doing a new solo [recording] again, but there are so many interesting projects I can do with other musicians that I always thought that these projects are more important. But in the last couple of years I was asked by different people if I would do a solo recording, so this idea slowly, slowly grew in my mind. I started to record directly on hard disk, used some snippets for processing to get new loops for minidisc or Ipod, recorded again using, among others, exactly these new loops, and I was getting more and more into it. It was when I was invited at the “What Is Music” Festival in 2002 to play a solo concert at the Sydney Opera House that I seriously worked on playing and recording solo. So I got a bunch of recordings that I edited and put the “eight landscapes” together. There are maybe two things to remark: first, I guess I learned a lot, developed lots of new stuff, and second, it was new to experience being solo without feedbacks and discussions with other musicians. I tried to do my best, not knowing if people would like the CD or think it's crap...
AJ: Erstwhile Records is very much in the same business as For4Ears, using similar techniques and of course instrumentation, yet the two labels have markedly different sounds. You have recorded for Erstwhile yourself. I would assume that the two labels sympathize greatly with each other, even as they are competitors on some scale. How would you describe the relationship?
GM: Jon Abbey is a very good friend of mine, and I admire a lot [of the] work he does for Erstwhile, both the CDs and the concerts. He his not only an excellent organizer but [foremost] an excellent listener with lots of imagination and enthusiasm. I could do 4 CDs until today, there will be some more included in his “amplify: balance” box set and another one [has been] announced for next year. I'm totally happy how it worked so far. We always had a good dialog, he has his strong ideas and at the same time he is open for other opinions. I'd say I see much more a supportive relationship than a competition – I guess it might be absurd anyway to talk about competition in this small business...
AJ: Do you have any new projects or developments in your music that you would like to tease us with?
GM: The new CDs on For4Ears for this year will be by Urs Leimgruber, Arte Quartet, and me, and a duo by Charlotte Hug and Chantale Laplante. For next year there will be a solo CD by Norbert Möslang, a second Filament-2, a trio of the young Swiss guitarist Tomas Korber with Toshimaru Nakamura and Otomo Yoshihide, and the poire_z + Phil Minton.
Right now when writing these answers I'm listening [to] a rough mix that I got today, by Toshi Nakamura, Erik M and me – sounds great but no idea yet what will happen with it… same for duo recordings I recently did with Jason Kahn. There will be a CD on Sirr with Oren Ambarchi, Philip Samartzis and me, another one on Cut with Korber Steinbrüchel and me, the duo with Norbert Möslang I already mentioned, a duo with Tetuzi Akiyama on Erstwhile, a quartet with Philip Samartzis and Voice Crack, and a quartet with Lee Ranaldo, David Watson and Christain Marclay.
AJ: To wrap things up, what do you ideally seek to provide to your audience?
GM: That the audience can have some good time with good music, can perhaps experience some new sounds, can enjoy the moment and maybe forget about just for this short time what's going on around the world.