An Interview with Günter Müller
Günter Müller is an improviser and the head of the estimable For 4 Ears record label. Available recordings of his music reach back to the mid-80s, his most recent releases include Time Travel, a lyrical, palpably grainy duo with Otomo Yoshihide andEight Landscapes, Müller's first solo outing. With the hopes of introducing unfamiliar audiences to Müller's work and perhaps uncovering a little bit of additional insight about Müller's recent releases, I conducted the following interview, via email.
Dusted: Since there aren't many available interviews with you, I thought we could start out by talking about your instrumentation over the years, being that it is fairly unique. Starting with some of the spatial ideas that you developed with Nachtluft, and continuing into your progressing interaction with different electronics, maybe you could explain a little bit about your working method.
Günter Müller: A drum set is a wonderful instrument because there are unlimited ways of putting things together that produce sounds and of changing the instrument. So, before I started to include electronics in 1981, I used to prepare the drumheads and cymbals with any kind of material to get new sounds. Adding electronics happened by accident: playing in a kind of loud free-jazz band I was frustrated not hearing some of my small instruments, so I got a contact mic and a small amp to amplify those little sounds. Then it was a logical step to put the contact mic everywhere on the drum set to explore a new world of sounds. It followed a long period with experiments, playing with microphones instead of sticks, adding effects, drum machines – I even built special drum sticks with mics inside. In 1985, when starting the trio Nachtluft, I got a second system so I could place my two speakers in a way to get a spatial effect of my playing that fit perfectly in the spatial 8-channel system of Andres Bosshard, who played tapes and computer. Jacques Widmer, who was the acoustic drummer of the trio often had a second set of percussion – mostly some metals – he set up on a different part of the site. We never played on stage, but always in special architecture or open air, always including the acoustic conditions of the site in our set up and performance. It was that trio that got me to think about the spatial aspects in music. Today I still consider stereo and volume as spatial aspects. When I started traveling more and more I intended to make my instrument smaller – now everything fits into a regular tourist suitcase…Actually I use a headphone as microphones to play some metals, a cymbal, sometimes a floor tom if there is any in the concert space. I play the headphones instead of sticks, meaning I beat directly on the instruments, but I also play with distance to get different sounds. The sounds are controlled by a volume pedal, then run into a 8-second delay and an equalizer. As I said before, I use the same system twice, for my left side and for my right. Since 1989, I’ve been including a mini-disc player and now an ipod for sounds I produce on computer (at home with no rush).
Dusted: One of the most noted and appreciated aspects of your work in improvisatory settings is your versatility, your ability to sound completely at home with any other player. In fact, some of the only criticism of your work that I've read is that you blend in too well, that your playing too quickly reflects the players around you. I was wondering how you would respond to this criticism and what elements of your life and personality dictate such a subtle approach.
Günter Müller: Thanks for the flowers...! I take this not as criticism but as a compliment! A central aspect in improvisation is to be open to everything that’s going on around you. At the same time I know about my possibilities to express myself in music –this not so much consciously, but more as a matter of trust. My goal is to listen and feel, in every moment of a concert, what elements I can add to support this music. That means, consequentially, that not only each concert has to be unique but also that my contribution has to be different depending on the musicians I’m performing with. And it should be obvious that within all my openness, I always try to be myself. Sometimes when I have to explain to somebody who is not familiar with it what improvisation might be, I’m telling that improvisation is a kind of concentrated moment of life, kind of model of what life could be when living actively, consciously, open-minded and with an open heart. So when you’re asking me which elements of my life and personality dictate the way I’m doing music, the only answer I know is that it’s me who’s playing.
Dusted: You mention the inclusion of mini-discs and an ipod to your improvisatory set-up. How do you go about preparing sounds ahead of time? As someone who compliments the people he plays with so much, is there a difference between what you'll have prepared for someone like Sachiko M and what you'll use with Christian Marclay?
Günter Müller: I’m taking different sounds into the computer to process them in different ways. I recorded most of the basic sounds from my instruments – from cymbals, feedback sounds from the floor tom, short patterns I was playing, loops from the delays. There are other sounds I did with Metasynth, others with Reason – a software that is a lot of fun and that I originally bought for my son. Sometimes I take any CD from my collection, take short snippets into Peak or ProTools to work with. For me working on these sounds on a computer has a lot in common with the improv process, meaning I always decide in the moment what I’m going to do, listen to it, keep on working – it’s not like I have a plan to follow. At the end I have loops between 40 seconds and a couple of minutes where you can’t refer to the original sounds anymore. These loops transferred to mini-disc and now to my ipod are used as a second sound source beside the acoustic parts of the instrument for my live electronics. Meanwhile, there are a couple of hundreds of loops. While playing a concert I have to choose which sound I want to use. Sometimes I feel that I want to use precisely a certain sound, sometimes it’s not so clear at all, so I have to search a bit. Sometimes I choose a sound by random.
There is no difference in the process of improvising with Sachiko or Christian or any other musician. I’m listening and I’m playing the sounds I feel I have to play right at the moment. From time to time, there are occasions I know I’m going to play with a certain musician or in a special project and I feel like taking sounds from those musicians to prepare ahead of time. Even if it’s impossible to recognize the original sounds or even the musician I took the sounds from, there is still a kind of energy, some traces of character or maybe handwriting. About a year ago I was asked to work in a project with Swiss sax player Urs Leimgruber and the contemporary sax quartet Arte. I had to process sounds from a CD they had done together, send them to Urs who wrote a composition for the quartet not really using my sounds, but getting inspired by them. My part during the performances is to improvise basically with these sounds. And there are two or three moments when I’m treating live Urs with my electronics. The different layers of sounds and their different qualities make this project very interesting to play.
Dusted: Two of your recent releases, the solo Eight Landscapes and Time Travel with Otomo Yoshihide, seem to be more thematically unified than some of your other work. Both seem to have direct references to travel. Eight Landscapes even seems to give the impression of certain airplane-related sounds at times. I was curious what relationship traveling has to your work.
Günter Müller: There are probably two aspects: First it is never easy to find a title for a CD. So with Otomo we were talking about having met so often over many years in different places of the world before finally playing together as a duo, and this brought us to the title. The second aspect might be much more important. I’m often looking at my music much more as soundscapes than as linear-structured events. I was choosing the pictures for the cover of Eight Landscapes because I see some common point in these pictures and in the music of my solo CD. You can see the photos as abstract pictures even if you know they aren’t, and you can listen to the music evoking associations to some very concrete pictures knowing this happens strictly in your mind. I like this shifting between what really exists in the music and in the pictures and what happens in your imagination.
Dusted: Jon Abbey (head of Erstwhile Records), at one point, described the type of music he champions as "dangerous improv". Do you see what you do in this light? Is there consistently a feeling of uncertainty in your work?
Günter Müller: I never talked with Jon about the expression ‘dangerous improv’. So I’m answering spontaneously, not as a result of profound discussions. I see here a kind of pleonasm, because to improvise always means to face the uncertainty, always means to get yourself into a dangerous situation in the sense you know it’s impossible to get total control. I like this uncertainty a lot, I’m sure I’m doing this kind of music mainly because of this. Yes, I think there is a lot of uncertainty in my music, but a lot of trust in it at the same time.
Dusted: Are there certain electro-acoustic improvisers that you can't see yourself being able to adapt to?
Günter Müller: Yes, if there is an improviser – if he’s playing acoustic, electro-acoustic or electronics doesn’t matter at all – who is not willing or able to listen and is only looking for his chance to show all his virtuosity, who is only blabbing and doesn’t care about what’s going around him. Just yesterday, I was talking about management and communication with a neighbor who works in the chemical industry. He told me that he often tells in his workshops that you have two ears and one mouth and that you should use them in this ratio. Right he is!
Dusted: Is there a part of you that has the inclination to assert control in music? It seems to me that a good portion of current electro-acoustic improvisation stems not only from improvisatory traditions, but from rigorously predetermined music as well, composers like Morton Feldman and Eliane Radigue being major examples. Do you feel that your work is solely predicated upon the act of improvisation?
Günter Müller: Improvisation always was and probably will be the main base for my music. I'm not at all interested in doing composition or conceptual things, even though I like a lot to listen to composers like Feldman and Ferrari amongst others. It's very interesting in this scene of electro-acoustic improv that there are musicians coming from different backgrounds as composition, rock, etc. This gives the chance to explore new things and new languages in improvising. For instance I recently did a concert with the improviser Tomas Korber on guitar and the laptop-composer Ralph Steinbrüchel who almost never improvises and who was very suspicious as to what would go on. After the concert that brought all of us into new territories, everybody – including him – was so happy that we now are working on these recordings to do a CD.
There is perhaps one thing that might have some influence in my way of improvising, even if it doesn't predetermine it. I'm talking about the mixing and editing on computer that I like a lot to do. I'm sure that my way of listening changed, as did my way to put in my material while improvising. It's certainly more carefully placed with much more attention to details. And it probably helped me to learn to keep my mouth shut, to forget about the urge to play even when I have nothing to say.
Dusted: Where do you see your work developing in the coming years?
Günter Müller: I don't know. It depends much what kind of projects I'll be involved in. What will happen and how my music will develop is probably a long-term improvisation, so…not predictable at all.
By Matt Wellins