Name: Katharina Schmidt
Occupation: Sound artist, field recorder, drummer, radio presenter
Current release: Katharina Schmidt's most recent album is a collaboration with Indonsesian composer Fahmi Mursyid. Titled 52°27’ N 10°59’ W it is available via Focused Silence.
Recommendations: Djuna Barnes’s novel – or maybe it’s actually more of a prose poem – “Nightwood” deserves to be known by more people: It’s weird and sad and exhilarating, and it’s gorgeously written.
I also love Gregory Crewdson’s photography, especially the series Fireflies: It’s very raw, very different from the meticulously staged, otherworldly scenes of his later work, and to me, it perfectly captures the magic of summer nights.
If you enjoyed this Katharina Schmidt interview, visit her official website. Or listen to her music on bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - 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 playing instruments in earnest in my early teens, first taking up drums and then piano.
I discovered the MTV Unplugged series at that time and those unplugged recordings seemed to me to be laying bare something I hadn’t really been aware of before. There was a sense of transparency about the process of music making, like I was getting to see all the little cogs and wheels in the clockwork that is a musical performance. I found that hugely intriguing. That was in the early naughties, so a lot of the music that influenced me early on was 90s indie, alternative, and brit pop, albums like Nothing Left to Lose, The Bends, and Debut. I actually still love those.
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?
If you get a formal education, emulating others is part of the deal. So in many ways, I found my voice or a new sense of ownership and responsibility for my music when I finished grad school.
That sense of only having to answer to yourself about your work is both very scary and very exciting. At the same time, I think that transition from copying to saying something in my own voice happens all the time on a smaller scale. Trying to copy others – or even just trying to understand what exactly they’re doing and what exactly you find appealing about that – can be one of many tools for creative work and for learning something about yourself – your taste, your abilities, or even just your gear.
For me, it’s usually the case that along the way the copy morphs into something that is actually my own, some new idea; sometimes because I intentionally make that decision, sometimes I just don’t get it right but land on something new that I like just as much as the thing I was trying to copy. Sometimes I just keep playing around and discovering as the awareness of some “original” I was trying to copy just slowly fades away.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I think in many ways it is the other way around for me: My creativity influences my sense of identity. Music is so close to who I am and really, the allure of being a musician is that it’s deeply meaningful work.
There’s a passage in Virginia Woolf’s diary where she writes that when she’s doing creative work she is “better company, more of a human being.” That sums it up very well for me.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I was younger, I was really in thrall to this idea of talent being a binary thing: either you have it or you don’t. That of course creates very high stakes for everything you do and it took me a long time to understand that it’s not that way at all: Appreciating and accepting the craft of music making has actually been very liberating for me in that way and I really admire artists who I know are very invested in all the nitty gritty details of their music. And also, that process of sorting through all the nitty gritty is actually very enjoyable, once you stop expecting some sort of masterpiece to just come to you fully formed and allow yourself to play, essentially.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I started out playing acoustic instruments and that still really influences both how I choose my tools and how I relate to them.
I once read that people who trained as instrumentalists always apply that “instrument paradigm” to everything: They make feedback music with microphones and they’re like “Microphones are instruments now if I use them to make music.” I’m totally like that. I always engage with things as instruments and while I have worked with a ton of different technologies over the last years – hardware effects, software synths, prototypes of new interfaces – I am always looking for some expressive, haptic quality.
What has changed over time is the sonic palette I’m looking for, so that has necessitated some new tools. But what fundamentally hasn’t changed is how I want to engage with those tools.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
One thing that has really opened a lot of doors was discovering generative systems. I remember reading Steve Reich’s “Writings on Music” during my first semester in college and being totally intrigued by the idea of music as a gradual process, the concept that composition can mean setting up a process that you will then allow to unfold on its own and it will generate all these emergent patterns and melodies that you couldn’t have known about and that may be different each time you let it loose. I was really intrigued by that concept, as making music can be so much about “control” and “mastery” and this idea of composition is more about letting go of control, almost like a collaboration with the material itself.
In many ways, this is how I think of generative systems: I love setting up processes that I can then listen to as they unfold over hours – be it loops with slightly uneven lengths that keep shifting against each other or automated synths or Max patches or whatever – and I want these systems to have some degree of opacity. When I play solo shows, I always try to set up the patches and sessions I use so that I will not know exactly what is going to happen; I want to be challenged and surprised by them – so in a sense they’re simultaneously acting as instruments and as collaborators.
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 through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
It’s great to work solo and have complete control over the creative process and its outcomes, but I love collaborations. I think that’s really the great thing about music being not as solitary as other art forms like writing or painting: Working with people who have skills different from your own let's you be part of something bigger. I always think of collaboration ideally as a sort of amplifier for the ideas and skills everyone brings to the table individually.
I really like improvisation as a mode of collaboration, especially to get started. Then of course at some point, the challenge is to go from jamming to organizing material, making decisions and finding compromises. This is in many ways where you sort the wheat from the chaff, also in terms of collaborations themselves, as there are some where that more committed, structured phase of work is simply not happening.
Also, in recent years file sharing as a form of collaboration has enabled me to collaborate with people whom I have never met in person, which has been amazing in many ways: It’s not only that you get to work with people from all over the world, but in these collaborations that are really pared down in terms of social interactions, you just go straight to the bones of the work to be done.