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INTERVIEW: Gregor Schwellenbach
Daniel Baker , June 6th, 2017 11:47

Ahead of two UK shows at the end of this month, Kompakt's Gregor Schwellenbach discusses how he first got involved with the Cologne-based electronic music label and working with Can's Irmin Schmidt on The Can Project

Kompakt signee Gregor Schwellenbach's work stretches across a number of disciplines, working as a producer of electronic music, a composer for film, TV and theatre and a classically trained multi-instrumentalist.

His recent work includes creating ambient tracks for Kompakt’s Pop Ambient compilation series, co-writing ‘The Can Dialogue’ with Can founder Irmin Schmidt for The Can Project concert at The Barbican in April, a 20 year Kompakt birthday celebration album featuring classical reworks of tracks from Kompakt’s back catalogue, scores for TV and theatre (including his own piece ‘Drones’, a play about military drones using live drone performance) and string arrangements for various artists including producer Kölsch.

At the end of this month, he visits the UK for a pair of shows in London and Brighton, where he will present a new show of electronic, piano and ambient pieces, spanning his various talents.

With those shows on the horizon, we caught up with him in Cologne following a trip he took to Athens to collect field recordings for future work.

What have you been doing in Greece?

Gregor Schwellenbach: I was on a few recording trips. I recorded noises and silence for a theatre project. The company sent their stage designer, an actor and me each for one week but we didn't meet each other so nobody knows what the other has collected and then we will meet afterwards in two weeks and put our stuff together and see what comes out.

I read some other interviews you've done and the questions have all been quite similar, about you being a classically trained musician, doing music for film and TV, and going into the world of experimental music. Is that the narrative that you have for your career now, and are you happy with it?

GS: Yes I am. I'm very happy with the things I do. Maybe I'm just lucky I like to do so many things. I don't remember any musical job that I did only for the money. Even when I worked as a music supervisor on cruise ships I did it for romantic reasons. When I work for TV it's because I want to.

It's kind a of a communication thing to tell people I'm a classical musician but I love electronic music and so first I started playing classical and then I went to electronic, but for me it all came very naturally. I was always amazed when I realised that other people are different, and when I came back to Cologne after studying, I came back mainly because of the music scene. I would go experimental electronic concerts that were very arty and I would wonder why there weren’t any techno DJs there. I thought the scene would be very open and you'd see clubbers going to Stockhausen concerts which is kind of true but not as extreme as I expected. But for me it has always been about being open to everything that's interesting, and that brought me back to Cologne and to Kompakt.

When you are playing classical music, as it is so much more technically complicated that electronic music, is it harder to focus on tone and expression as you must focus so much more on technique?

GS: I think for a classical musician the goal is the same as an electronic musician. A very good professional classical musician must not think about technique. If I go to a big philharmonic hall, I expect a violinist to think about the same things as I would expect Brian Eno to be thinking about. You know when you have this classical education you're trying to get better and better, and you are never satisfied but when you want to work professionally you must find the point where you say this is what I do and I just go on stage with that. Be confident with what you can do and choose the things that are so easy that you don't have to think about them so you can start making music and feeling it. If you're trained for years then you need this deliberate, conscious step of saying I'm not ashamed of only playing those three notes if they are the right notes. You could play faster and better but you have to get over this stage to get strangers to fall in love with your music.

There are three virtuous styles of music; classical, jazz and heavy metal. I do love classical music but I don't listen to it much anymore and I never listen to metal, so I am not very interested in music that is difficult to play. For me it's the opposite. I'm totally in love with very basic elementary music. I could listen to a fifth for hours. In my years of working in theatre and TV I've learnt that my main skill is not the instrumental playing but the idea of what to play and my interest for so many kinds of music. Often people ask me to contribute to projects when they don't stay in just one genre. I feel more like a composer who just has to play his own things.

How did you start working with Kompakt?

GS: I was working as a studio assistant in Hamburg doing arrangements and conducting. I was doing my first job for radio, and in the briefing, I was told to do something that should sound like "Cologne Techno", and I was like is there a special way to do techno in Cologne? I am from Cologne! I started to listen to it and then I felt so at home with it. There is a playfulness and joy of being experimental, and it's not so dark like other techno. It's got more light. They make it with a lot of love and still don't take it too seriously.

Are you speaking specifically of Berlin when making a comparison?

GS: At that time it was Frankfurt, Berlin was a bit later, but those are the three German cities that had their own techno sound. The Cologne sound for me was based around Kompakt and A-Musik, as well as a lot of other experimental stuff coming out of the city at that time. I moved to Cologne so I could try to be a part of the scene. It took very long because I was working so much in theatre that I didn't have much time to hang out, I would show up to their parties maybe every four weeks, but I listened to their music. They were like my cool neighbours that I hoped one day to meet. But if saw one of them in a cafe, I would be like 'oh, there's Michael Mayer on the next table', but I didn't speak to him.

The fascination with the music stayed with me for years and I wanted to find out why I liked it so much and to learn the grammar of it, and that's why I tried to write the sheet music down. Writing it down gave me some ideas of other versions of this music and I wrote the first string quartets and piano pieces based on transcriptions. Years later I met the guys and I showed them my old pieces and then it went very quickly. I had a meeting with Kompakt and I showed them the pieces I had done years before. I didn't think they were worth releasing but after some time they called me and said they wanted more pieces to make a small release, and then after I had done more pieces, they said let's not make it a small release, but their twentieth birthday project.

This changed the way I made music. Before this my music was made for other people, projects for TV, theatre. I was known by directors but not people who would go to a record store. I didn't even have a release to my name. After the Kompakt record came out I met all the guys that I liked and they could all see what I thought about their music, and it all started from there.

How did you go about reinterpreting each piece? There is a lot of different instrumentation on the record.

GS: I always started with the elements that you could write down, and the fun thing in techno is those are the least interesting elements. Techno is very much about sound and when I write down the notes it's only the pitch and the time that I can write down, and pitch and time are not very interesting in those pieces.

There were some quite disparaging comments on Resident Advisor when it came out, not about you or the album itself, but more suggesting that you were creating legitimacy to an underground art form, and that you can't hold a techno producer in the same level of regard as a classical composer.

GS: I think it's very stupid to think that music played by software is bad but if it's played by a violinist then it's better. There are a lot of projects where music from subcultural scenes are transferred to classical context and I don’t always see the worth in it because sometimes it seems to me that it's for people who want to go to a club but they don't dare to because they fear going to a club but they would go to a symphony concert hall. Sometimes I think I have the soul of a priest who wants to convince people that if you open your eyes there's more good music that you haven't seen yet.

Sometimes some people say techno is now high culture because it's played in a symphonic hall which is very wrong because high culture is not defined by instrumentation or its outer forms, and I only quote the outer forms of classical music. The way I compose is still house-based. I don’t really make classical versions. They are classical looking versions but the form is house-based.

How did the Can Project come about?

GS.: The contact came from my film work. I'm pretty well connected to other film composers in Cologne, and there is a film music festival in Cologne each year. One year, I made the music for the award ceremony and Irmin Schmidt of Can was in the jury. Amongst other pieces I played one piece of every jury member in this ceremony. For Irmin I chose something called ‘Zicke Zick’ that was originally made by samples of metal scratches with an atonal piano solo over the scratches. I transcribed the metal scratches to string notes and I had a string quartet. When we performed it Irmin was sitting there in the audience, and he liked the performance.

I was excited to meet him in person; I knew he would be there and I thought that if I played a piece of his music then maybe I will even get a photo with him after. Half a year later he called me to ask me if I would write the Can Dialogue piece for the Barbican show. So I got my photo but two years later at the Barbican!

Are you putting out anything new this year?

GS: I recently recorded ‘Six Pianos’ by Steve Reich for Film Records, with Hauschka, Erol Sarp [of Grandbrothers], Daniel Brandt, Paul Frick [both of Brandt Brauer Frick] and John Kameel Farah. I am working on a new album but I don't know which direction it is going in yet, but it is time for me to go for a more electronic direction, but I'm not sure.

Gregor Schwellenbach plays live at London's Paper Dress Vintage in Hackney on June 28 while the following night he will play Brighton's The Rose Hill. Tickets for the former can be found here while you can get tickets for the Brighton show here