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Interview with Günter Müller

Interview: Kurt Liedwart, April 2009

Tell us about your earliest and early musical memories.

Trying to go further and further back into my memories, I see myself as an about 5 years old boy sitting on a chair in front of a bookshelf with a small radio. There I easily could forget about time, I was totally fascinated by this box with its small knob you could change programs and sounds.

When did you start playing drums? Why did you choose drums?

I started playing drums quite late in 1971 when I was 17. Before that I used to drum all the time on a sofa with two rulers when listening to some records. Finally I got with the money of my first holliday job a very bad second-hand drum kit. Because I was drumming on all the furniture all the time, it was kind of obvious to start playing the drums one day.

What were the projects you played in the 70s?

First I was playing in a band at the high school, something between pop songs, jazz standards and jazz rock improvs. I was very fond of Soft Machine, the early Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson amongst others. In 1975 I moved to Basel where I went to the art school. There was a club presenting free jazz concerts. I remember the first concert I've seen there was Nicra, I left after the first set, it was simply too much for me. But some months later I was a fan of them, after I also had heard music of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Brotherhood of Breath at the first Willisau Jazz Festival. So this had a huge impact to the way of my own playing. In the late 70s I was playing free music, loud, fast and noisy. I was experimenting in preparing the drums with several materials, soft and hard, got pieces of sheet metal instead of cymbals, played a bass drum with a metal cap instead of a drumhead and so on.

Did you get any formal musical training?

No. I already got the training in arts, I really didn't want to do the same in music. Music always was and still is a kind of free island in my life.

What did you major in and what you’ve been doing for a living, then and now?

I'm working with a 60%-job as an art teacher since 1979. Since 10 years I'm teaching computer graphics, mainly Photoshop and InDesign in a high school and since 5 years didactics in computer graphics for students who become art teachers themselves.

When and why did you become dissatisfied with the conventional playing? What did you want to achieve with your experiments with extended techniques and preparation? How did you come to the idea of introducing electronics into your drum set?

I was dissatisfied by the hierarchy of instruments in a band, first the singer, guitar, reeds, perhaps keyboards, in the back the bass and drums. I also was tired to be the timekeeper. I was looking for a kind of music created by all the musicians in a more democratic understanding. I found this in free improvised music. This also supported my curiosity for new techniques and for new sounds. And I tried to cut my manners of playing the drums, so I changed the set up to be forced to learn playing the kit in new ways, sometimes I dropped the bass drum or put a second floor tom on the left side and I integrated more and more self-made instruments.
I started using electronics only because I couldn't hear me playing some small instruments when the 2 sax players of the band were blowing rather loud. I got a pick-up mic and a small amp. Used to experiment with whatever I got in my hands it was obvious that I put the pick-up mics on all parts of the drum set. Putting them on the cymbals have been particularly successfull. I soon got a set up with one pair of pick-up mics on 2 cymbal stands and another pair on the drum sticks. I could get different sounds when beating a drum or a cymbal with those sticks and also by placing them on the drumhead or the cymbal for some longer moments. Using some effects and equalizer I could modulate those sounds. Additionally I used 2 microphones of an old Sony tape machine instead of drum sticks, also for beating but at the same time as a kind of acoustic magnifier when playing with varying distances to the cymbal, and to produce beautiful feedbacks when getting more or less close to the drumhead of the floor tom. From all the different pedals I established a set up with a a pair of 8 second delays and equalizers. I always used a double set up for left and right - still today when playing 2 iPods.

You said that playing conceptual things made you feel like a clown.

Yes, the few times I have been involved in conceptual things I got the parts for the funny or more crazy sounds. It wasn't a musical process, it was because I could do those sounds, let's say between minute 5'15 and minute 6'00 I had to make a sound like a steam locomotive. This wasn't exactly congruent with my understanding of music.

It seems to me that your attitude towards conceptual composition has changed: you took part with Jason Kahn's Timelines and Lawrence D. Butch Morris' Conduction series.

No, there is a profound difference between Jason's or Butch's concepts and those projects I was talking about. Jason gives you time slots you are improvising in a way you want to. Butch gives you different, sometimes very specific signs, but anyway it's you who decides what and how you're improvise. And more important and very interesting is that you are part of the instrument Butch is improvising with. I experienced with him very satisfying conductions, more problematic have been those where lots of electronics have been involved.

Who influenced you musically and esthetically?

At the beginning I had my heroes like Sunny Murray first of all. When I integrated electronics to the drums I had to find my own way because I didn't know any musicians working in a similar way — it was much later that I met Paul Lytton. Looking back it was the chance for me, because it forced me to develop my own language.
Interesting for me are always musicians who try to go beyond borders or at least show that borders do exist and musicians who are coming from different backgrounds — so for me Fred Frith and Massacre have been important in a time it was almost a sacrilege to play a rock beat or something that could remind you to a melody, the short pieces by John Zorn or by Christian Marclay have been important in a time when improvisation did last 60 minutes in minimum, Morton Feldman became important for me when everybody played these fast moving cut up pieces, and I listened to and started playing with young laptop musicians in a time when even so called free musicians have been considering a computer mainly as a complicated typewriter. But in general I was esthetically always more attracted to music that was engaged more in sounds than with let's say virtuosly fast and clever played stuff. So at the moment I love listening for instance to the releases of the label 12k.

It was a great time of experimentation which made many drummers turn to electronics or alienation of drums: you, Chris Cutler at the same time (he even owns the same Digitech PDS-8000 like you), Eddie Prevost, Paul Lytton you mentioned above and some others. The most astonishing is that all of you developed your ideas almost simultaneously. Did you know each other or did you hear the recordings of each other? Did you ever discussed with them in retrospect what actually happened?

I was listening to Chris Cutler with Cassiber, but I haven't met him personally in that time, I had no idea untill now that he used the Digitech as well... I met Paul Lytton in 1991 and Eddie in 2000. So I can say that we developped our instruments indipendently.

What do you particularly like about 12k?

Besides the high quality of production and design I like this kind of mostly quiet, sometimes more static, soundscape-like music. I see much in common between their and my sounds, even there probably is a difference in use of them because I totally improvise. Since my collaboration with Ralph Steinbrüchel I'm even more aware of this kind of music.

Tell us the story of Nachtluft.

Nachtluft was Andres Bosshard on cassette-machine, it means a system of up to 12 cassette players, an Amiga computer (it was about 1984) and a multichannel sound system, Jacques Widmer on acoustic drums and often a 2nd place with scrap iron, and myself on drums and electronics on 2 mono systems. We never played on stage but always in different places on special sites, the audience moving in between us. We did a mixture between sound installations and concerts, always including the acoustic conditions of the sites we were playing.
Looking back to this time, it was the late 80s and early 90s, I can say that the work with Nachtluft was a kind of school I experienced and learned lots of things I still live on today. We did so many research and discussions about acoustics, about noise, about when environmental sounds become music and when a music instrument becomes an environmental sound, about volumn and silence, about electronics and acoustic instruments (this in a time when electronics still have been suspect for most of the musicians and audience). We used special recording technics, low-fi up to sophisticated, to get different acoustic expressions, and we used the recording studio and the mixing board as an instrument to improvise with.

Did some of you write down these thoughts?

No.

I'm also interested in the making of Planet Oeuf. It was the first group release with your participation.

There are 2 solo cassettes before Planet Oeuf. Anyway, Planet Oeuf was a kind of workshop, some improvisors had invited Phil Wachsmann and Phil Durrant to work with in 1985. It was so satisfying that we decided to make this record (the first real record for most of us).

What is your attitude towards reduction?

I've got 2 different attitudes towards reduction. First pragmatically as a former drummer carrying a huge drum set, an electronic equipment including a PA system around the world for years — and now as a lucky guy travelling with all my instruments in the hand luggage. And in musical terms I'm going more and more into reduction for some years meaning in focussing in less things at the same time — I'm sure it is the result of doing music for many years now but also of my age, realizing a desire in concentrating in less things in life and knowing more precisly what I don't want anymore. Sometimes I feel when I'm reducing the material I'm using for making music I can in the same time explore much more and more profoundly my possibilities. I'm not at all the first who says 'less is more' and 'reduce to the max', but it's still very true.
For me it was very interesting to realize the latter very clearly (reduction in music) because of the first (reduction of the equipment). I was supposed to tour together with Norbert Möslang in Japan in 2004 with much travelling in public transportation. So several weeks before this tour I decided doing a solo concert in Paris without the drums, only with iPods, delays and equalizers for the first time. It worked very well and I realized that I got many new ideas because of the fact of the limited instrument. After that gig I did almost all of the following concerts with my reduced instrument.

Tell us about your ideas of selecting drums. What did you want to achieve?

One of the first steps in reducing my drum set was dropping the bass drum, later I played 2 cymbals, a snare and a floor tom, then I dropped the snare and one of the cymbals. That's why I was speaking of selected drums. The idea was, as I told before, to avoid playing patterns automatically without thinking or listening. Later I realized I could do it without carrying all that stuff. And then, as I just told before, I realized that I wanted to focus on the iPods and electronics.

What can you tell about the Swiss music community?

I guess there isn't one Swiss music community, but there are several small groups of musicians working more or less regularly together. And musicians of these groups sometimes get together for some single or even ongoing projects. I'm pretty sure that there are quite a lot of musicians here doing improvised or electronic music compared to the amount of inhabitants. On the other hand there are only a few places to perform, so all are forced to go abroad to get possibilities to play. I always thought that there were many very interesting musicians like Voice Crack or Stefan Wittwer from the old days or now Jason Kahn or Steinbrüchel, or Bernd Schurer and Marcus Maeder from Domizil amongst others.

Tell us the story of For4Ears.

In the 90s there haven't been so many labels like today when CD-, CDr-, and MP3-labels are increasing. So at one point there was for me the question either to go and knock on several doors begging for attention for our music and getting frustrated about negative judgements, or to go and start your own thing. We had released two records with Nachtluft for Unit Records. This was alright but in fact we had to produce the records by ourselves after getting the okay from a commitee. So after talking with some musicians and RecRec as the possible distributor and a sleepless night I decided to start For4Ears in early 1990. I did For4Ears with the idea to give a platform for my projects and for those of musicians I sometimes have been playing with. This because I wanted to work on a personal basis and because this gave me a reasonable argument to keep the label rather small.

When and why did you start using minidisks and iPod?

I got my first minidisc player in Tokyo in 1998 with the idea to get some prepared loops of specific sounds, musical fragments that I did on computer. In fact it was a decision against using a laptop, this because it is much easier to handle a minidisc player than a laptop when playing electronics and drums simultaneously. And I can carefully prepare my sounds in my studio in no rush. In 2002 I switched to iPods just because of the capacity.

It seems to me that using an iPod — a mass culture musical readymade — is an act of art per se.

I got an iPod of the first generation, it wasn't already this mass gadget as it is today. Anyway, I chose it because of its very simple way to transfer the sounds from the computer and because of its very easy and fast handling. As I told before, this was so important because I still played with sticks or mics at the same time.

How do you work with sounds? And do you prepare sounds when you work with particular musicians?

Meanwhile I've got about 800 different sounds, most of original recordings of drums and cymbals. There are many sounds of the 2nd or 3rd generation, means that after processing a 1st generation, I improvise with them and get new material out from these recorded material. I organise my sounds in several chapters and numbers. So when improvising I roughly know where I can find a sound I'm looking for, but very often I get to a sound partly accidentally, a fact I like a lot.
Sometimes I listen to some of my sounds during soundcheck with the idea to make a selection for this special concert or this specific instrumentation of the group. Sometimes It happenes that a musician asks me to create some new sounds from his earlier recorded material to use when we would play together. Most of the sounds you wouldn't recognize anyway, but it gives me the opportunity to create new sounds from other instruments.

Do you have any particular processing methods or algorithms, any particularly beloved ways of processing, any plugins, any techniques you can share?

I love pitchshifting. And I use some filters in Peak, I use them in a 'wrong' way, means till the sounds starts clipping rhythmically and produce faults. This clipping gives me a kind of textured sounds.

How did you hook up with Jim O'Rourke?

In 1992 a friend of mine introduced me to this 23 years old Jim O'Rourke — I never had heard about until that moment — when I run into them in a record store in Basel. Jim was told that I was in Nachtluft, I was amazed that he not only did know the group but also was very fond of our music. One word gave the other and we decided to play together when he would be the next time in Switzerland. We did as a duo a bunch of concerts, festivals and two still wonderful CDs. His music and particularly his understanding of time in music had a huge impact for my listening and my playing. For several months I did concerts in duo with him and in duo with Christian Marclay, means I shifted between two totally contrary worlds.

What do you mean saying that Jim had an idiosyncratic understanding of time in music?

In that time I used to play with fast changing materials. Jim played long soundscape-like material, slowly modulating. As a duo we sometimes did a piece of 30-40 minutes building up one huge crescendo with more or less the same material.

How come your collaboration with Voice Crack?

We all did know each other since a long time, but hadn't worked togethet until Jim brought up the idea that we imperatively had to work together. Actually we did the first concert and also the first record as a quartet. Afterwards we had made many concerts as a trio, sometimes with guests as Oren Ambarchi or Phil Samartzis, and after the split of Voice Crack I particularly continued playing with Norbert as a duo and now as a trio with Jason Kahn.

Tell us the story of poire_z.

Erik [eRikm] sent me a tape asking if I would be interested in doing a CD on For4Ears. Because I didn't want to infringe my rule only releasing music of musicians I had worked with before, I gave him a negative answer however I really liked his tape a lot. In a couple of months we got the chance to play together. Finally it was a concert in France where I was invited to play with Erik and another concert with Voice Crack as well, so we decided to do an evening in several combinations and as a quartet as well, so this group was born and lasted quite successfully until the end of Voice Crack. Also with this group we did some collaborations, e.g. with Phil Minton, Marclay, Otomo and Sachiko.

When one thinks about EAI, one comes to idea that mostly EAI came to existence due to releases on Erstwhile, For4Ears and Cut. What can you tell about this relationship?

It is a weird thing with this term EAI. There are a plenty of musicans who have been doing this kind of music long before it was EAI. And I might say that For4Ears did release many albums you would consider as EAI before knowing about this term. I might be wrong, but I guess that Jon Abbey used this to get a specific branch for his label. Erstwhile is a producer's label and Jon directs his attention maybe more to marketing than a musician running a musician's label? So I'm quite sure that Jason gives not only a shit about Cut beeing an EAI-label but would even deny that.

What is the concept behind "Cym_Bowl"? How did this recording come about?

There is this nice and enthousiastic guy Kurt Liedwart running his label Mikroton. He was asking me if I'd like to do a solo CD for him. Conceptually I had the idea to follow even more to the focus on what I already had for my solo I did for Cut. I recorded some bowed cymbals, processed the sounds in many variations for feeding my iPods, improvised, recorded and processed again to get enough played material to assemble some pieces. This gave me the 'cym_'-pieces. And '_bowl' happened by accident, when a young guy was visiting me bringing a Tibetan singing bowl just to show it to me. The moment he left the house for smoking a cigarette I decided to take his bowl to record some few minutes. Starting from a 12 minutes recording of the bowl, that I had played with a bow as well and recorded with moving the mic inside it, I finally got some dozens of processed loops for my iPods. Afterwards I improvised again only with these new sounds to get the material tor assembling the final piece.

Do you have new projects? What will we hear in the future?

There is mkm with Norbert and Jason, we have hours of recordings waiting for getting edited and I hope we will have some more concerts. And last december Alfred Harth, Joachim Irmler and I started the live version of Taste Tribes after we released a CD as a virtual trio. As well with this trio I hope to get some more concerts. Recently Jason and I did recordings together with the drummer Christian Wolfarth, but we haven't decided yet if and what should happen with it.

You are among rare musicians who eagerly promote improvisation and state that they are not interested in compostion. Why and what is your own vision of improvisation?

Improvisation as I understand is not a genre of music, it is a method of doing music, in fact it's a method how you live. Improvisation can be seen as a concentrated situation of life, it happens at the moment, little or not at all predictable, full of surprises, sometimes disappointing, sometimes providing moments of highest hights. You never know before what a concert, a combination of musicians, a place, an audience will bring in next minutes. This is one of the principle reasons I'm making music. That's why I'm not interesting in compostions as a live musician. But if you consider working on computer for editing and assembling material to get a piece of music as composition I'm very interested in, I love it.

Nachtluft dealt mainly with your spatial ideas. Can you tell a bit about them? Do you still continue to research of them?

I told about the spatial ideas before. Now I'm following those ideas only very rarely, simply because most of the places provide a stage and anything to be changed would soon be getting complex. The only thing I still keep is playing stereo and if it's ever possible playing in front of the PA system without monitor system to get the same sound quality as the audience. Sometimes, if it's possible, I prefer setting up in front of the stage or in the middle of the room, the audience beeing around us. But it doesn't happen very often, I did it recently with Keith Rowe and we also do it with mkm when possible.

You blend too well with any player and you sound and feel at home in any collaboration. Why and what makes you take this approach?

It's true that I feel easily comfortable playing with different players most of the time, but I wasn't conscious that I got that specific reputation untill I had read it several times in reviews. In a way it is a consequence of my perception of improvisation as I described it before. My goal is to create some music together, not as a soloist beside other soloists, but together. In everyday's life I prefer discussions when everybody is really involved instead of listening to somebody's speech (who is telling afterwards it had been a successfull evening — because he could talk all the time...).

Tell us about mkm_trio. How did you come to the idea of making a trio? And what does mkm_trio bring new into your music and life? Do you have any particular concepts behind this project?

mkm was in fact born by accident. When touring with the Signal Quintet in Japan, only the three of us had been invited for an artists talk at the Tokyo University. Of course, we didn't only talk but also played together (the first time in trio). We all had instantly the feeling that it worked so well and gave new ideas, new moves in our music that we decided to keep on. Beside some concerts in Europe we did a long very successfull tour in Mexico and South America. If I try to say what is special with this trio, it's first of all a huge amount of trust in each other, giving each of us the possibility to play very concentrated and very relaxed at the same time, knowing you're never get lost even if you try some totally new and crazy stuff. And also, every concert is completly different from the others. Now you could say this is obvious in improvised groups, but the range of variety that happens in this trio is extraordinary. But there is no concept to do that, I only describe what happens, there is no concept at all beside that we set up as a block on one large table, Norbert and Jason facing each other and me sitting in the middle..

It seems to me that openness, unpredictability and freedom are the values that you take care of and protect the most.

I see you understood perfectly what I mean.

I'd like to ask you about your Signal To Noise series and the whole Japanese tour in 2006. In my opinion it was a kind of drawing a line to all previous work of all members of the tour, a kind of boundary which everybody crossed. Nobody sounds the same as before 2006. Music became denser, took on much more layers, especially yours.

Hm, I never thought about it this way. Maybe you're right. It was a very intense tour, we did so many concerts in different groupings in a quite short period, so that might have been a good ground for each to develop his own music. In a way I hope there have been and still will be many occasions where I do not sound the same way as before...

There's one aspect i'm curious about. When Keith Rowe came to play in Moscow, I talked to him a lot and when I asked about you he said that, beside all goodwill and respect, the Swiss school is much criticized for a lot of editing and processing of live recordings, recordings of live improvisations. Nobody has any idea how the original recordings sounded, so people don't know how the concerts sounded. To what extent do the concerts recordings undergo the editing, processing, mixing process?

There are two very different ways to look at live recordings. One way is to get them as documentary of live events. And the other way is to try to get out of the live material some piece of music that will work as a disc at its best. I'm absolutly convinced that the perception of listening to the same music live differs completely from listening it from a tape in your living room. There are all these obvious facts like completly different athmospheres, rooms, sitting in the middle of an audience or sitting alone on your sofa, heavy smoke or fresh air, sitting in bad position with bad sound or sitting in front of your stereo. But I'm sure that also the perception of time is always different. And last but not least you can listen to a live improvisation only once, but you probably want to listen to a record some more times. All these points made me and pretty much of the musicians I'm working here regularly like Norbert, Jason, Tomas and others to see a record as an object at its own since a long time. Or you could say that starting from a good live recording begins a new work that can end in a CD that really will work as a CD. All this doesn't say much about the degree of editing, processing and mixing. For instance we did record the material of "Filament 2" as a live event in a studio with the idea that we would edit and mix it afterwards and if necessary in a quite heavy degree. Some weeks later I met Otomo again and we both had been sure that nothing had to be changed. So on the CD you can here the complete recording session even in the order of the pieces as recorded. A completly different example is "buda_rom" I did together with Voice Crack: we had some good material from 2 different concerts and we liked having both for that CD. So we decided to make the slightly edited version from the Budapest concert and some short tracks from the Rome concert that we would heavily edit and process, one of them is even backwards from the second have on.
I personally like it a lot working with the possiblities of a studio — this already with Nachtluft doing improvisations with the mixing board or doing an LP and a single to be played at the same time on 2 equipments. The CD Steinbrüchel and I did together was a very satisfying example. We both did individually remix the same concerts we had done together, not knowing how the other would proceed. Finally you can listen to Ralph's versions and mine of the same concert one after the other. Beside the idea to make an optimum out of the recorded material for a CD, those experiences have a much higher value for me than knowing how the music was originally played. What counts is what you can listen from the CD and that you like it.

When we talk about editing and processing live recordings do we mean the same things? For me EQing isn’t actually processing, it’s a slight editing (I mean premastering EQing, not filtering out everything before 90Hz and after 95 Hz — it’s processing), trimming starts and ends is editing, pitchshifting is processing, etc...

Some of the live recordings are edited, means trimmed or several parts of the concert are put together, mixing the single tracks, controlling the volume is always something important I do. Rarely I also use pitchshifted tracks from one musician if I feel like.

There's another aspect to it. Toshi Nakamura once said that improvisation as almost uncontrollable activity leads to a lot of shit happening and one has to edit it and deal with it to make a work of art.

Yes, but I wouldn't say that you only have to drop the shit parts...

How do you judge or evaluate that improvisation is good?

Hm, it's hard to say. Sometimes it happens that you have a bad feeling after a concert and when you will listen to it you are amazed how good it was. But most of the times you feel it is going well when things are coming together in a quite natural way, when creating material you never did before, when everybody can deal well with surprising moments, when you get a good feeling together while playing.

In 1995 you came to play in Russia with Nachtluft trio. What do you remember about it?

To be very honest, I remember a quite chaotic time with lots of waiting because everybody was always late and with lots of surprises like playing in a sophisticated club with live video and the most expensive equipment after having a big discussion with the organizer about money problems on the way to the club. I have some very impressive pictures in my memories like a young girl trying to sell one single porn mag at the entrance to the tube, or a woman selling breakfast in her hotel room for some little money in much better quality than the hotel restaurant, or that the price of the food in the same restaurant was each time the double when we came back next time or the shops on the streets with thousands of copied music and video tapes. Well, not too much good memories, so it would be a reason to come to Moscow again to update and rectify them.