bernhard günter
Interview by Dan Warburton
Paris, September 26th 2003


Photographs kindly supplied by bernhard günter

I understand you were originally a drummer.

The first instrument I actually bought was a tabla, because I had this MPS record called Jazz Meets Asia and somewhere in the liner notes it said that the tabla was doing what modern jazz drumming was doing, being both a melodic and rhythmic instrument at the same time. So I decided that was what I needed to get.. What the notes didn't say was that you need 40 years to learn it! It wasn't very practical in a rock band, either.. (laughs) So I asked my parents for a drum set instead, and they much regretted saying yes. I started playing drums at 12. I'm totally self-taught. I always liked blues and rock, but I also listened to contemporary music and free jazz. I also had a band where I played saxophone and flute, and we tried playing some contemporary jazz stuff, but it didn't last very long. In my teens I was hanging around with people who played me Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Kulu Se Mama and Africa/Brass. I've always loved his soprano playing. I like Eric Dolphy very much, and Archie Shepp too. Another important record for me was Shepp's Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival, on MPS [MPS 20651]. I think I wore my copy of that right out. At the same time of course there was Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Indian music... whatever was around. I saw Brian Auger live, and that was fantastic. I remember being impressed by the fact that he was wearing a T-shirt that said "McCoy Tyner Nobody Finer". I saw the McCoy Tyner Octet live in Paris years later, and had to agree with what the T-shirt said.

Did you also follow the German scene at the time?

I saw a Guru Guru concert that left my left ear tingling for about two weeks, which I didn't appreciate very much, but the concert was great. I saw Can, quite disappointing; very amateurish, even for my ear at the time. They had this Japanese singer who didn't know how to sing; the only thing that was OK was the drummer, Jaki Liebezeit. I went to see Amon Düül II.. with my mum! I had to explain to her that people were smoking Egyptian cigarettes because she asked me what the smell was! (laughs) I heard Tangerine Dream too, but I don't remember much about it other than it went on for about two hours and everyone was stoned.

Stockhausen was an important influence on a lot of 1970s German rock. Were you aware of his work too back then?

I wasn't very familiar with it at the time, no. Living in the town I grew up in there wasn't much to be found, so I had to go to the local library and see what they had. I heard things like "Gesang der Jünglinge". I used to tape things from the radio, but that came later.

Your music is usually found in the electronica bin, but I take it you'd be happier to refer to yourself as a composer.

Yes, I think that's what I am. When I started playing in bands I started to influence what the pieces were like, almost immediately. It was pretty hard to explain to people what I wanted them to do. That's why I eventually changed to guitar. I took jazz guitar lessons later when I was living here [Günter was in Paris from mid 1980 to mid 1986] from a guy called Stephen Sooch who used to be at Berklee. I knew how to write, because that was something we'd learnt in school. While I was in Paris I went to lectures at IRCAM and read books on contemporary composition techniques, serialism, micropolyphony, microtonality and so forth. I attended a couple of lectures on psychoacoustics, which I still find useful to this day in mastering. It helps me find the right frequencies to make the sound appear light, or heavy. I was also writing chamber music and using some of Boulez's techniques, like explained in "Boulez on Music Today".

So you were attracted to serialism, then?

Probably for the same reason that many composers were attracted to it: it had a sort of built-in insurance policy. It's like functional harmony; if you know how to do it you can't really go wrong. I was still pretty young and thought it was good that there was a method to write music to have results that were right, and I was attracted to that linear concept of music history going from Bach to Boulez, via Schoenberg, which I see now as desperately Eurocentric, especially after learning about classical Indian music. Ever hear of a 128 beat rhythmic cycle in European music? We don't have that here.

Did you keep up with the tabla?

No, I gave up. It was too difficult. I listened to the master players and realised I'd never learn to play like that.

What was your reaction to the French new music scene at the time?

I was interested in the instrumental music but I never liked the electronic works. They seemed too demonstrative, like training manuals. Everything was oriented on the feasible: we synthesize this thing because we are now doing research on it, and for no other reason. The result most of the time was just not interesting; it was just a research project. similar today to the people I usually call the MAX faction (laughs) where they devise algorithms that operate by themselves, the conditions set in the algorithms sort of being the composition. It may be interesting for the people who programme them, but as a person who wants to listen to music it doesn't communicate for me. I sometimes think they might invent an enjoyment algorithm for other computers to enjoy these processes.

Were your first electronic compositions a kind of reaction against the IRCAM research aesthetic?

No, I happily ignored it. I'm very good at happily ignoring things. Like John Cage. People think I must be influenced by Cage, because he has an international patent on silence or something, and I'm not. I happily ignore him, except a few of his early works that I really like: "Four Walls", some of the prepared piano pieces and the "String Quartet in Four Parts". You know that story about Schoenberg telling Cage that he could not be a composer, because he had no feeling for harmony, and if he continued it would be like banging his head against the wall. Cage reportedly answered that then he would spend his life banging his head against this wall. Well, he didn't - he avoided it! When you listen to Cage's work you don't hear harmony at all; the String Quartet sounds like baroque music: it's modal, it doesn't have functional harmony. Cage didn't bang his head against the wall, he built his musical house at a safe distance from it. Maybe it was Schoenberg's remark taught him that.

What does Schoenberg's music mean to you?

The most beautiful things Schoenberg wrote were the free atonal pieces. Those early piano pieces are some of the most beautiful music in the world. But if you look at the twelve-tone Schoenberg, it amounts to a photographic negative image of tonal music. He didn't get rid of tonality as much as reconfigure it the other way round. If you want to deal with tradition you have to take it to a different level, give it a new meaning. That's what Morton Feldman did: he did away with all tradition while conserving the essence of tradition. A piece like "Palais de Mari" sounds like Debussy and Ravel but it's nothing that Debussy and Ravel would ever have written. That's one of the things people misunderstand most about Feldman. I think it's great that he's hip today because people will finally start to understand what his music is about; I can tell you from personal experience that my first idea of Feldman was completely wrong. I loved it for the wrong reasons. I was so fascinated by the silence and how much weight was given to each note, I realised I had to find out more about this man. At the time, finding records of Feldman's music was really difficult. I bought things that I eventually got rid of when I realised they were very bad interpretations. I thought it was some kind of generalised rubato, and when I found out it was all exactly notated I nearly fainted. You see, some people use Cage's indeterminate scores as an excuse for playing all kinds of crap. He should have at least built something in them to avoid that. I like to think that's what prompted Feldman to stop using his grid notation and start writing what he really wanted to hear. It should be said, however that on the formal level, and in terms of orchestration, Schoenberg remains one of the greatest composers ever. "Compared to Schoenberg all other composers are baby food," to quote Feldman.

I assume then that you don't like the idea of indeterminacy.

You could say that there's an element of chance in what I do, but that's true of everything in life. I sometimes make a wrong movement with the mouse and something happens that I didn't mean to happen and it sounds OK and I keep it. The closest I've come to something that is indeterminate in performance is an eight-channel installation for Michael Schumacher's Diapason Gallery in New York. I have four CDs on line with different fades and different pauses. It's kind of the Eno thing - if you start the four discs off at the same time it'll play for few hundred years before it gets back to where it started.

You're happy though to acknowledge Feldman's influence.

Feldman's the man. What I learned from Feldman is the importance of scale: the relationship between different elements and their relationship to the whole, what Boulez would call microstructures and global structures. Normally, when I'm a third of the way into a piece I know what the final duration is going to be. I know how much will be repeated, and how many new elements will have to be introduced.

How do pieces begin?

The way I usually start work is with some material that I've treated to a certain degree. That's the starting point. One thing leads to a huge field of possibilities. I add a second thing and the field shrinks, immediately. You have a relationship between the two and there are consequences. Then I add a third thing, and.. you see what I mean? When I have that I may repeat one or introduce a new one, and that also has its own consequences. Some people say composing is creating problems and then solving them, but for me it's more like creating possibilities and choosing between them. Sometimes I start with a very vague concept. "Time, Dreaming Itself" for example was originally called "Descendre, lentement" - the idea was that both pitch and speed would descend progressively over the duration of the piece to compose. The slower it gets the closer you get into the microscopic details of the sound, so as it slows down it's also getting magnified.

Where do your source sounds come from?

All kinds of things, sometimes field recordings, sometimes things from other CDs. A single violin note could lead to a whole piece. I look into sounds to find their potential, their possibilities; to see what they might want to do and what where they might want to go.

I understand you won't tell people where your samples come from because you've changed them beyond all recognition.

If you start talking copyright with this kind of work, then trees are going to start demanding royalties for the use of the sounds of their leaves.. I make sure that what I sample no longer remains part of the work I've taken it from. You won't recognise it anymore. A good example is the wave-like sound at the beginning of "Crossing The River", which in fact is the sound of Japanese monks shuffling the tatami during a ceremony. I slowed it down and treated it until it became what it is in the piece.

Do you have a big record collection?

No, maybe about 100 or 120 CDs. At the beginning, when I learnt there were other people working in experimental electroacoustic music I wanted to check them out, so I bought this and that, and then after a while people started sending me things and eventually there were so many that I decided to sell them. A year ago I sold about 400 CDs off. There were just too many. It's no fun having all these things that you know you won't listen to again. I still have about 250 LPs though. The vinyl sound is very nice - when I master CDs I try to get close to that analogue sound. I don't like it too linear. I do things with EQ that approximate the frequency lines of tube amplifiers, to give the music the bit more presence and warmth that is associated with analogue sound.

None of your work has been released on vinyl. If somebody offered you a vinyl release, would you accept?

That would depend on the piece, though the volume level would probably be so low it would disappear in the background noise. You need to be in a certain state of calmness to appreciate this kind of music, otherwise it's going to unnerve you because it's not hectic enough. There are times when I can't listen to it myself. When I first heard the demo Steve Roden sent me of "Crop Circles", I didn't get into at all. I wrote to him and said "I'm sorry, it doesn't work for me" and he said "OK, never mind.." And then one day I put it on and half fell asleep while it was on and realised what a great piece it was. I was relaxed enough to really let it talk to me. I wrote to him again and said "Hold the press, I like it, I'm releasing it, I love it!" (laughs) When you're in the right mood, with your body relaxed and your attention focussed, it works well. If you give it a little time it'll get you in that mood. One person wrote to me saying that for him my music was therapeutic; when he comes home from work he puts on Time, Dreaming Itself and feels better. What use is made of music depends on the listener; I always say there are as many pieces as there are listeners. You don't know what the person will hear, how the piece is apprehended, or actualised. Every work of art remains potential until someone comes and activates it. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder, as it were.

Is there a label you use to talk about this music? Do you like Steve's term "lowercase"?

I'm asked this all the time. I'm always defending myself against words like "minimalism" and "experimentalism". My experiments are private; I don't go public with my experiments, I go public with the results of my experiments. I'd describe it as an art form of enhanced attention. Josh Russell in Los Angeles, who released two compilations entitled lowercase music, presents concerts he calls "a day of attention". I like that. I like why Steve coined the term lowercase, but not what people have made of it. I'm not sure I think lowercase describes what I'm trying to do, though I use lowercase letters for my name as a way of saying my work is more important than my person. On my trente oiseaux label releases the artist's name is always in lowercase and the title of the work in capitals.

How did trente oiseaux come about?

It was Francisco López who he encouraged me start my own label, in 1995. I'd already released [un peu de] neige [salie] and Détails Agrandis on Selektion but I didn't want to release my own music because I thought that was done by too many artists creating a label just for their own work. Then again if you want to make a living from your own music you have to release it yourself. It's not something that will buy you a Bentley, either. Anyway, the first records released were Francisco's Warszawa Restaurant, and then there was a work by Marc Behrens, Advanced Environmental Control, and then Daniel Menche's Legions In The Walls and Ralf [Wehowsky]'s Revu et Corrigé and it continued from there. The original placement of the text on the covers was a collective idea by Francisco López, Marc Behrens and me. Marc also did the covers for quite a while. Everything from Steve Roden's Four Possible Landscapes onwards is designed by me. Nowadays I release editions of 500, 600 if it's something by Steve or me. If I repress I do another 500. It only costs 98 Euro more to repress 500 than 300. They take longer to sell out, but eventually they do. Even slow gestures / cérémonie désir (for Haike) has sold out, though some people complained about the fact that it's only 23 minutes long. I wanted it to stand by itself though, as it is quite a personal statement. And it sure doesn't feel like 23 minutes to me.

What are the latest projects on trente oiseaux?

There'll be a trente oiseaux evening in Berlin, where I'll play (and record the day after the concert) with Reinhold Friedl and Michael Vorfeld. I have designed an instrument called an electric cellotar [see photo opposite], which is a five-string baritone guitar played with a cello bow, not unlike an Indian sarangi. I've recorded about two hours of cellotar material and I'm working on a piece with it. For once, I'm sampling myself. There are also two improvised music projects where I play the instrument live, one with Mark Wastell [amplified textures] and Graham Halliwell [saxophone feedback]. I saw them play in the Basque region of Spain where we both played at a festival, and really liked their work, but I felt it could be enhanced by some additional intervallic content. I offered to play with them, they sent me a CD with a 24 minute improvised piece and I put that on my system, plugged my cellotar in and played along. I recorded two versions on Minidisc, made a CD, sent it to them and they liked it. We'll meet in November to rehearse, record and do a gig in London. [Update from January 2004: Our recording session in Norwich went really well, and our project has become an actual band we've named "+minus" - my first since 1989 - and our first CD will be out on trente oiseaux in February 2004. The band name refers to the fact that some of our pieces make use of some of my older abstract noise pieces as a kind of basis track, and some don't. The concert with Reinhold Friedl and Michael Vorfeld went well, too, and the material we recorded will eventually be released, too, but first the eight-track recording will have to be mixed and mastered, which is not an easy task, as the music is quite dense and intense, though mostly low volume. I'll be playing with Friedl/Vorfeld in Strasbourg on February 12th, with +minus in Geneva on March 24th, and +minus will do four concerts in England during the last week of May, dates to be announced. I'm very excited and happy to be back to creating music out of the very moment, and it feels good to have strings under my fingers again after so many years of trackball and faders. I will of course continue doing concerts with my electroacoustic music, and some concerts, like the one in Geneva, will present both this kind of music and the trio. - bg]
The latest release on trente oiseaux is The Golden Boat by another Londoner called Keith Berry. I was impressed by his incredible command of timing. It's perfect in terms of how and when things happen. He also achieved an outstanding sound quality for his work. I think there are quite a few artists coming up right now that have assimilated everything that's been around in the last ten years: glitches, instruments, samples, musique concrčte, field recordings. Keith is one of them.

How did you discover his work?

He sent me a demo. I tend to come across interesting things because people send them to me. They're interested in finding out what I think about them, though sadly I no longer have the time to reply to everyone who contacts me. Every once in a while I come across something that makes me say: "Wow, things are happening!" It's wonderful to work with people a generation younger than I am - it keeps me on my toes.

Is that how you came to release Reynols' Blank Tapes?

Yes; I didn't know their work before and I don't know it now. I don't have any of their other records. They sent me a DAT and I thought it was an interesting idea, and it sounded good except for one piece I told them to leave out because it was too harsh to fit the CD as a whole.

Peter Rehberg recently said people who were into silence should try to understand noise, as if they were flipsides of the same coin, in a way. How do you react to that?

It's easy to make statements like that, but in practice it's hard to see it as being true. It sounds like a nice concept. Maybe you could say the two are similar in that the dynamics don't change. Merzbow has only one dynamic, and so does Sukora. Sukora has this one record [Tower, on Meme] where you hear next to nothing all the way through; I found out later he was just rubbing the microphone very gently, for 72 minutes. Placative quiet music has no dynamics, and placative loud music has no dynamics, either - and I'm not interested in either. My music isn't soft all the time. It's not about loudness or quietness, it's about dynamics.

Why did you agree then to remix Merzbow for the Scumtron album?

Because Russell Haswell asked me to. I thought it was a kind of an interesting idea, so why not give it a try? I chose the piece I wanted, and it became the quietest Merzbow track ever (laughs). Achim Wollscheid told me that Masami said it was too intellectual for his taste. That works both ways, sort of.

Do you think there's too much lowercase music around? Ever feel you've spawned too many imitators?

In each period of history there has always been a lot of music, and not much of it has survived. In J.S. Bach's time, too, there were many people writing, but he prevailed. That is maybe what Feldman means when he said "life will take good care of them" when asked about his students. It's not always fair; maybe some people are forgotten who are really good, but also many are forgotten who simply deserve to be forgotten. I think there are many things around now that will not stand the test of time. Others will. That's the way musical history works. The fact that I'm reissuing un peu de neige salie for the third time eleven years after its initial release, and people are still interested, means that on a small scale I suppose it has stood the test of time.

Interview 2003 by Dan Warburton. Check out interviews of related interest with Pierre Boulez & Paul Lansky