Name: Markus Fleischer
Current Release: Schimmer, a duo release with Agnar Már Magnússon is out now and available from the Klangraum label.
Recommendations: Painting: Salvator Dali “La Gare de Perpignan“; Book: Yuval Noah Harari “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“
If you enjoyed this interview with Markus Fleischer, you can find out more about him and his work on his personal website.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing music around 1997. The first record I ever bought was J.S. Bach “Toccata und Fuge in Dm“. I was 11 years old. I heard that piece in music lessons at school and it completely floored me. What drew me in was that music communicated with me on a non-verbal level about things that cannot be expressed by words. That still is my fascination with music today.
For most artists, originality is first 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? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I love transcribing music! Transcribing is a fun way to really listen deeply to the music of your idols and try to crack the code of their playing or composing. For practice purposes I tried imitating my idols in the beginning. I never feared ending up sounding like a copy of them. The seed of my voice was there the moment I picked up my guitar. My voice on my instrument made changes and refinements over the years just like I - hopefully - did as a human being. But the essence of that voice was always there.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Some people say that you basically have one song in you that you rewrite your whole life. With me it is very different: I check out one compositional perspective and then move on without coming back. On the one hand that leads to a lot of variety but on the other hand it also - in my case - does not lead to a high output of compositions. I get bored quickly by old ideas resurfacing.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
If the recording involves playing with other musicians, I prefer to do that on ‘neutral grounds’ i.e. I will book a studio with a technician. The most important gear for me are good monitors! I see the rest of the gear as instruments. Every mic is an instrument with its own character.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
The human brain and especially the ear love inconsistencies and arbitrary variations. Surprise, playfulness and fragility is what tells humans from machines. Perfect technical performance of a classical piece is still the benchmark now, but maybe the industrial revolution 4.0 will make us embrace the more human side of making music. Coming from jazz music, I love improvisation. In real improvisation you constantly have to push yourself out of the comfort zone of your playing. Try to surprise yourself!
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I use every chance of catching good compositional ideas I can get. Sometimes I find them in my ears, sometimes in my hands. Sometimes the sound of a particular instrument is leading the way and sometimes manipulating musical ideas in my music notation program or in my DAW leads me somewhere. When the musical result is satisfying and intriguing, it’s great for me.
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?
At the very start of a new collaboration I much appreciate a phase of unrestricted brainstorming where ANY idea from anybody involved no matter how weird or far-fetched is fair game to everybody and is considered worth thinking about. Too many restrictions too early in the creative process will introduce unnecessary limitations. Over the course of time, editing is key to distilling a focussed musical concept. The creative process can be anything from talking about music, jamming, exchanging notation and/or sound files, listening to music or taking a walk in the park together.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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?
Most days start with walking my dog. When I pick up the instrument, I will warm up by mindlessly noodling around for five minutes. Then I always play one of the pieces by J.S. Bach that I learned by heart. For me it is the most nurturing way to start the musical part of the day. From there on it can be anything from composing to practising for a project to investigating a certain musical territory. I try to embrace all other roles in my life from being a father, a friend or a guitar instructor as beneficiary to my music instead of as a distraction from my music. At the end of the day, after all the years of practising and studying music, you can only play or compose what you are as a human being.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Let’s take my composition “Schimmer“, the title track of my album Schimmer - Fleischer Magnússon Duo. I was always intrigued by flageolets on the guitar especially the way the wonderful guitar player Ted Greene was implementing them. I found a chord progression using two note voicings mixed together with one flageolet. I liked the way the harmonies moved and the subtle yet surprisingly rich sounds those small three note voicing produced. I remembered a performance of Björk I saw on German television. There was a song where the tempo of a stereo tremolo effect gave the pulse to the whole band. I liked that. So, I chose a delay effect of 500ms to be the pulse of the song. I liked the fragile subtle voicings on the one hand contrasting the mechanical way of letting a machine (delay box) produce the tempo of the piece on the other hand.
The melody consists of two phrases each played two times, but each time harmonised differently. The first version of the song was arranged for cello and guitar. When I arranged this song for piano and guitar, I let the piano double the flageolets with octaves in a very high register giving those notes more purpose and punch. I gave Agnar the soloing part on the tune. Agnar Már Magnússon is an unbelievably good musician whom I highly respect and I would never tell him how to improvise a solo over any of my tunes. I only shared with him that to me this tune has an ambient character and trusted his instincts for the music. He played an amazing solo completely in line with everything I feel about that tune and he did it immediately. Thank you very much!
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?
Every composition that I created had his own ideal state of mind. So, for me there is not one ideal state of mind. Plus, if you wait to enter an ideal state of mind you might never create anything. I just start and use whatever state of mind is available to me at the time.
Performing on stage is different. When you perform on stage you have to be able to be in the musical moment and block out all distractions. There are a few things that help me. One thing is to concentrate on my breathing. The other thing is to think of the stage as an enchanted sacred place where you are not allowed to bring a heavy bag filled with bad ego, envy, wrong ambitions and all other kinds of negativity. It is a place where you should exist completely for the music and your dear colleagues. And most importantly: No matter what state of mind I am going to enter on stage, I try to take my audience with me!
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I like the idea that composition is slowed down improvisation or improvisation is composing in the moment. I am a big fan of Jim Hall. When I listen to him improvise, I always think: How can you compose so fast?!
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?
The hardest part about composing is trying to grasp sound, rhythm, melody, harmony etc. as one combined element as much and as often as you can manage. That is what I try to do. I believe the greatest composers excel at the ability to experience all those aspects as one thing while composing.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
To me hearing is hearing. It is a sensory world all by itself. But it certainly can fire up associations. I love when music or other arts let me experience associations without me understanding from where or why they come.
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?
In a poem by R.M. Rilke it says that music is language where language ends. 15 years ago, I was on a West Africa tour for the Goethe Institute. We regularly met musicians at the places we played at and rarely could communicate with each other with words, but we never had problems playing together. Taking into account all the trouble and difficulties we have in the world, clashes of cultures and religions, clashes of generations and countries, music is one of the few global common denominators.
Germany historically divides music into “serious music“ and “music for entertainment“. This division does not help anybody or anything, least of all the quality of music. For me being an artist is a lot about having the courage to leave one’s own artistic comfort zone and cross borders.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Music and its perception by the human mind, is linked together inseparably. If the perception changes, the music changes. In the history of mankind perception changed constantly and so did music and so it will be in the future. Who knows for instance how enhancements of the human brain with electronic implants will change perception? I don’t have a vision. Amid “Industry 4.0“ and AI on the horizon, I have the strong urge to think a lot about what being human means and what we do as humans when AI is taking over a lot of the work and purpose of humans. Maybe there will be a renaissance of all things connected to art!