Name: John Gürtler of Field Kit (with Hannah von Hübbenet)
Current Release: Field Kit on Nonostar Records
Recommendations: Serenade by James M Cain (1937) / Mark Hollis, Mark Hollis (1998)
If you enjoy this interview with John Gürtler, find out more about him on his website www.paradoxparadise.berlin
When did you start writing/producing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
There was always some Ennio Morricone and John Barry in the back of my mind, but at the time I was into a lot of experimental and electronic music. When I started scoring for film, I was song writing and composing, playing live and discovering the studio as the ultimate instrument. The possibility of exploring and combining musical sound design and practically any musical genre to create individually tailored music for any film made a lot of sense working from the studio.
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?
I was always a little reluctant to follow my teacher's instructions and didn't always get along, especially if they would say you need to be able to do it just like the masters, only then may you develop your own voice. Originally a saxophonist and mainly an improviser, piano and writing are mostly self-taught. That may be one reason why the piano still feels fresh and exciting to me every time I play, there is so much to discover!
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I grew up mostly with my Portuguese mother who introduced me to a lot of music, especially classical and Brazilian. Early on, my sense of identity came to be through a deep connection with the saxophone and expression through improvisation. Creating sounds and music is like a physical urge to me.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In film music, the main creative challenge in the beginning is to find someone who will let you score their film, who will take you seriously. Having done a master’s degree in film music was a big step towards that, mainly through meeting many young film makers and being able to work with them. Every new project is still a challenge from having the right ideas to actually making them work and improving the film as a whole. Communication is key and can be the biggest challenge of all. Often, it's best to get in the room with directors as opposed to working remotely.
What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, meeting the expectations of the director?
The film always comes first in the end. In the beginning, it's fine to have wild ideas and experiment and produce whatever comes to mind! But the closer you come to the final stages, the clearer the communication has to be with your director, so that you are working towards the same purpose and have a clear, collective vision of what serves the story best.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of film 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?
Dramaturgical sound can be absolutely fascinating and I admire the work that is continually evolving through all film genres. Often it is a much smarter solution than an all-too-obvious score and I am always looking for ways to come close to it or find sounds in any given project that can be used as a musical element in the score.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with the other creatives involved in a film production?
I always ask to be involved as early on as possible. While reading a script I will often get up and sit on the piano and take notes on my phone. But those initial ideas can carry on for months if not years. I enjoy producing music that will be used on set or as a source track. I try to have a first round of produced layouts ready for when editing begins. The relationship to the editor and director are key when working before a picture locks. I encourage the editor to work with stems and try music in places it was not intended for. But most of all I need an active collaboration with my co-composers Jan Miserre (and Hannah von Hübbenet on some projects) and session musicians who are open to improvisation and experiments in sound.
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'll bring my youngest son to school, then on a good day I'll take a walk in the park, play piano and collect ideas before my studio partners arrive. Some days get eaten up by mails and organization so I'll stay on till late if a couple of hours just aren't enough to really get ahead on a project or bring a good new idea. I usually cook a curry for our studio community a couple days a week for lunch, followed by coffees.
Usually there'll be a couple projects simultaneously so we will split up into different rooms and work on different projects or cues. Or if it's a hard nut to crack we'll try and come up with something together or record and produce whatever we are working on. Sometimes you just need an open-ended feeling to set up synths or microphones or whatever until something meaningful happens, you can't just cut to it. There are so many things around the actual writing and producing that need to be done, it often feels like you are drowning in a sea of tasks. And the later you get home, the more likely it is you'll continue working in your sleep, getting up at night to type or record ideas into your phone. It's pretty much 24/7 so you really have to love it!
Can you talk about a breakthrough soundtrack in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The soundtrack of Above and Below by Nicolas Steiner that I created with Jan Miserre and Lars Voges under the pseudonym Paradox Paradise (now still in use as the name of our Berlin studio). The score covered so many interlinked genres and immersive sounds, utilizing man hole covers as drums and musical performances from within the film to create a somehow nonetheless homogenous score. At that time, I was still very interested in song writing and working on an album so that there is a kind of album-quality to the score, featuring Lars and I as vocalists on several tracks.
Then there is System Crasher by Nora Fingscheidt which won best score at the European Film Awards 2019 and best electro acoustic score at the 2021 Camille Awards. It encompasses a certain way of working I believe in, starting early on, recording before the shoot, composing during editing and always looking for an original and individual sound, which is only there to serve the film. It is absolutely wonderful to see that kind of effort being appreciated.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think the best ideas are formed mentally when sleeping or walking, after that they are formed at the piano in my home and only in third place would I put the studio, probably because that's where there are the most distractions and where there is always quite a lot of multitasking going on, which can be a creativity killer. For me it's important to connect with nature as much as possible and to read novels, which help with having 14-hour days and keep your mind on something other than your work. Sometimes you need the perfect combination of an open-ended studio session combined with a nearing deadline to make a breakthrough.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Playing music on vinyl at home does have a healing effect on me that works towards reducing stress. I love how music on vinyl is less fleeting, where the listener has to decide on an album as opposed to a shuffled playlist. Generally, I feel getting away from screens has a certain healing power, and music can help people reconnect with their emotions or put them in a positive mind frame.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
As long as you approach the use of cultural signs and symbols with respect, you should be able to use them as part of your creative freedom. Film producers and directors should not expect composers to copy other works of music. Using them as one reference amongst others is ok, but too often composers are asked to make close replicas of existing music. I am against that and it's one of the main reasons I ask to be involved early on. To avoid "copying the temp".
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I've been involved in many different kinds of film and music formats that have touched on social and political issues. Through the emotional reactions of audiences towards film and music I've been lucky to be a small part of those issues. As an artist, I hope to inspire the creativity and individuality that I demand from myself in others too.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Words are sometimes misleading and it's hard to pointedly express complex emotions. Music works in layers and can express so many things simultaneously, in that way it is more immediate. Having said that I draw a lot of inspiration from reading novels!