Part 1

Name: Charlotte Greve
Occupation: Composer, improviser, saxophonist
Nationality: German
Current release: Charlotte Greve's Sediments We Move is out on October 15th 2021 via New Amsterdam & figureight.
Recommendations: Tracy Maurice & Tommy Crane - Preservations, short film; Room to Dream - book by David Lynch

If you enjoyed this interview with Charlotte Greve and would like to know more about her work, visit her official homepage or her Instagram account.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started composing when I was about 16 years old - back then I was mostly playing flute and everything I wrote were just simple melodies with a few chords. My early influences were Paul Desmond (mostly for sound), Cannonball Adderley (mostly for his melodies and energy) and Wayne Shorter (mostly for his compositions). Three extremely different saxophonists. Simultaneously I was listening to a lot of RnB and Metal.

I grew up around a lot of music - my parents sang in choirs and my brother was playing guitar and drums as a kid and was always writing songs that I then improvised over. My parents divorced when I was 4 or 5 and music, ever since I remember, was always a place of joy, safety, recognition and community building.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

As a young teenager I first wanted to become a classical flute player and then I wanted to become a jazz saxophone player. The latter happened. I went to college for jazz performance in Berlin and New York City and then stayed in New York ever since August of 2012. My musical world up until then, and my voice as an artist and composer, was relatively straightforward contemporary jazz/improvised music. One thing that was there from the very beginning was my focus on sound, really on the sound of a single note. If that worked, I could branch out from there but that was something I never wanted to compromise on and this priority has never changed.

As I was diving deeper into the music scene of New York and being surrounded by a number of musicians who pursued several different musical paths at once, my own musical output changed. I started experimenting with electronics on the saxophone, eventually buying my first synth and eventually starting to sing and write lyrics. Living in New York, I became more courageous in exploring and refining my own voice as an artist. As it turned out, there are several layers - most of them being represented in my new record, Sediments We Move. It’s like having lived here helped me to uncover all the layers of both my personal and musical character.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I think the two are impossible to separate - especially recently I have been reflecting a lot on my own actions, patterns and really my identity in this world and all that fuels my creative output and helps creating more music that will then in return process new realizations.

If I cannot connect to my identity in honesty, it’s next to impossible to write anything that I feel connected to or that I can play with my full self.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

The biggest challenge for me has always been to keep my practice and writing time even as a routine. Everything has always come in big waves of one thing and this balance is still hard for me. It’s either all and everything at once or absolutely nothing - that goes for regular practice, composing or any sort of creative output.

Composing music and creating things such as songs, bands, albums, thinking of concepts, has been a strength of mine, especially in the beginning when everything was new. One of my teachers, John Hollenbeck, who I studied composition with, called it “The honeymoon phase” - the more you write and create though, the more the honeymoon phase disappears and things that you like don’t just fall into your lap. When that first happened, I tried different approaches to composing and used more technique than intuition.

These days I’m landing at a mix of these approaches, where I try to connect deeply to whichever music it is I actually want to be playing and hearing myself play & sing, home in on that intuitive pull and then use different composing techniques, visual shapes, images, concepts, words and stories to bring the music to life. All the while trying to always stay true my musical and non-musical message.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

The period over which I create a piece can go from 30 minutes to several weeks and neither of them has a generally better outcome or is related to the actual length of the piece. However, I will say that some pieces are appearing like a big wave that just needs to be put on paper and every time that happens, it feels like the biggest gift.

From my current record Sediments We Move, "Part IV", which is one of the best things I think I have written so far, essentially came to me in one day. The entire day I wrote just this piece and by the end of the day I knew it was done and it didn’t need any edits.

But then again, some works reveal themselves only even over several years of playing them and suddenly you understand: Ah, this is what this wants to be! With some things I write, I know what they want to be and what I’m writing towards. And with everything I’m writing now I try to listen carefully to what each individual work wants to be. But sometimes it can take longer than I initially expected.

Another thing for me about time is that I don’t do anything without a deadline. The power of the deadline is one of the biggest tools for almost anything I create. I write better things under pressure, I practice better under pressure, it’s just how it is. As mentioned above, I tried to balance this out and follow a better routine etc. But everyone works differently and I just know I’m either 100% on or off.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

Everything comes after the sound and all the details that lie within it - my deepest inspiration has always been coming from long tones and slow melodies that are being executed with a specific sound that is full of intention. That means there is not the one ideal sound or timbre for me, but a sound is always ideal if it’s full of intention and I can really believe it. From there I can branch out and anything compositional can come after I have homed in on the original source of the one note full of intention.

The second deep source for me is rhythms but I always hear them connected to a long tone that lies within any rhythm.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?

I enjoy different ways of collaborating because they all teach us different things. On the last Wood River album, which I released in 2020, I worked with a producer for the first time. His name is Grey McMurray and from that collaboration I took away so much knowledge and an overview of a new kind of production process. At the same time, it was a great way of practicing to fully trust another extremely creative person. Giving part of the decision making over your own extremely personal songs to someone else was trippy at times but when it’s the right collaborator, it’s like finding a box full of precious things.

Collaborating with an ensemble like a classical choir, like I did on my current record, was one of the biggest musical challenges, especially in the context of a live show. However, it was one of the richest experiences I had and getting to know such a different body of sound really sharpened my own musical imagination and flexibility.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I wake up and I make green tea for myself and black coffee for my partner. If it’s very early and I’m too tired to think, I call one of my friends in Germany. A routine I started in the pandemic (that is very on and off for me as well but every time I do it helps me focus), is meditating. I drink some green tea and then start meditating, most times for 15 minutes with an app called the breathing app, that plays 2 notes, one low and one high and helps to direct the breathing. Then I answer a bunch of emails, often about many different topics.

Then I look in my handwritten diary to see if it’s a music day. That helps me to stay sane, I could never do the phone calendar. Things are written in different colors and if it’s indeed a music/composing day, around 11AM/12pm I go to our music room, put my phone in airplane mode and I start by listening to voice memos I’ve recorded or I start improvising on the piano or saxophone to set the stage for a music dive.

I fast until about 3PM and then have lunch with my partner, afterwards either more music or I teach private students or I do more computer work. Sometime before dinner I go running or do some kind of workout at home and then I spend a good amount of time almost every day thinking about what I will cook for dinner. At least twice a week I cook an elaborate dinner, because it grounds me.

At night either I go to see a show or read or collect some thoughts about writing and/or personal intentions in my notebook. When I’ve done a lot of work, I enjoy watching trashy TV or I read a book and fall asleep around 1AM.

In general, I would say that life & music & work is all intertwined, both in my own actions and in my personal connections & community. Except for some of my teaching, my schedule is extremely flexible and ever changing.

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