Interviewee: Sebastian Gürtler
Nationality: Austrian, German
Current Release: Philharmonix Vol. 1 on Deutsche Grammophon
Recommendations: One of my favourite books is "History of Western Philosophy“ by British philospher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. It took me almost 2 years to get through it! But it was worth it.
Another piece of art I would recommend would be the Alhambra in Granada/Spain. When I first saw it, i was really blown away by it’s beauty and how it’s located in between the mountains around. Defintely worth a trip.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Sebastian Gürtler of Philharmonix, visit the ensemble's website, which offers biographies of all members, music and current tour dates.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I gave the best answer to this in my new composition “Der Herrgott und die Geige” (God and the fiddle), which appears on our new CD with Philharmonix! I got my first violin when I was five. I wanted to play it because everybody in my family played an instrument. Music was, and still is, really important in our family. Even my father who is a retired doctor still plays for 2 hours a day for fun. I hope I will also do so when I am his age!
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?
This first phase of learning has two aspects: First you must copy and interpret the sound, to reproduce what you have just heard. Then you try to reproduce what is behind, what you have heard, i.e. the context, such as meaning, emotion, and the bigger picture that the musician develops and make audible for his audience. A big step in my own musical independence was the moment that I started to write my own music. When you need to transmit what you think, feel or see into notes, you have to find your own language. But this learning process is never finished. And I find that the more you know, the less you know!
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
The first real big challenge I faced was standing as a soloist in front of a big symphony orchestra for the very first time, to play Shostakovich’s 2nd concerto. I was so nervous, I almost arrived late for the concert! But musically speaking, playing in a small group without conductor was, and still is today, the most challenging work. It keeps you alive because you have to adjust in real time. Each day can be different as you have to deal with the other players’ musical opinions, moods, personalities, qualities and weaknesses. Basically, it’s like a marriage!
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I like to change my practising environment when possible, because little changes can often have a huge impact on what you’re doing, though usually I don’t have that much choice: it’s usually my flat!
You are right, though: the mood is a tricky thing. It can ruin everything. If it is good, everything turns out easy. When it’s bad, it’s difficult to concentrate and especially hard to motivate yourself. Once you can fight down your mood and still try hard to get something out of it, the result is often more durable because you did more constructive work than when its going easy. That’s my personal experience.
Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
Well, I am the type of person who has tried out a lot of instruments and I am also very sensitive to my violin’s daily “mood”. And so is she respectively! ;) I began with a yellow Chinese fabric instrument and ended now, after many romances with many violins from all nations, with an instrument by Nicolas Amati made in Cremona in the middle of the 17th century. I really do love this instrument. It has a unique quality of sound which makes it so indispensable and special. Although it’s not what we call a canon, it always floats above everything else, like the little fat layer of a beef bouillon.
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?
The only routine I have during my day is food! I need it in the morning, midday and evening. It gives me energy, calm and joy. I have no fixed schedule. But once I am in the music, there is nothing else. Especially when I write a new piece and I am full of ideas, I cannot turn off my brain cells and I tend to get on other people’s nerves.
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?
In the case of an arrangement, the first step to get to know a piece is sitting at the piano. Once I see what the harmonic and rhythmic structures are, I can play around with the material and create new ideas. In the case of "Feliz Navidad" for example (which appears also on the new Philharmonix CD), this first process was done very quickly. But I had no clue what to do with a song that is so overplayed in the whole world and consists of only 4 simple chords. But then came the idea to make a version, where none of the players, except the piano, play a single normal note on their instruments. Clarinet and Viola are shaking eggs and knocking on a woodblock, other string players play only pizzicatos.
Actually, you can’t recognize the piece at the beginning at all. But nevertheless, people hear it and say „Ah… it’s Feliz Navidad!“ because there is a feeling that reminds them of the original. It’s in the air.