Name: Sebastian Studnitzky
Occupation: Trumpet player, pianist, composer, improviser, artistic director at X-Jazz
Recent event: Sebastian Studnitzky is one of the artists set to perform at Berlin's X-Jazz Festival. For more information about the festival, visit their official website. For tickets, go here.
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When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My father was a conductor and later director of a music school. There was a lot of classical music in our house and I started playing piano from the age of 4.
In my teens, I suddenly discovered Jazz and was totally hooked. My taste back then was super random, from Dixieland to Miles Davis, Charly Parker and Fusion. Fortunately, I had an amazing music teacher at my gymnasium, who also did the school band, and we started composing and playing our own music early on.
I always loved the freedom and thrill to improvise music. I was always fascinated by the sound of Miles Davis on the one hand, and also always liked the sound of classical music played on a muted, upright piano.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
I don’t listen to music too often. I mainly make music.
Of course, there are intense emotions involved. It’s hard to describe these moments of flow. The composing phases are very intense. It takes so long to start composing a new song, and when I finally start it goes super quickly. And almost every song idea makes it to an album. When I play music, it’s a very spiritual feeling. Fortunately, I don’t have to think about the actual notes or harmonies anymore. Playing feels more like a long wave.
When I do find myself in a situation listening to music, I mostly listen to the music of the big masters like Bach, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Stravinsky. But now, my son has reached an age where making music with him is a lot of fun, and we listen to and practice songs by The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Billie Eilish, and Michael Jackson. It’s a beautiful experience.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
Due to my early age experiences with music, I was called to be very talented. In fact, I could ride the wave of my talent for quite a while, and just play concerts, travel the world, and enjoy this amazing lifestyle as a touring artist.
About 10 years ago, I made a big change and said no to basically all offers from outside and completely focused on my own music. It included writing a big program for orchestra.
I understood the difference between being a good instrumentalist who is called for all kinds of gigs and being an actual artist, whose main mission is creating and performing their own music. It’s a completely different approach. It requires so many more relevant and extensive decisions.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
My personal definition about a good artist is one who follows their ideas and visions as radically as possible. Meaning, not letting yourself be influenced by the outside world, but trying to get things done exactly as you envision them.
Artists are dreamers who share their dreams with the audience. I love it when these dreams are pure, and not shaped, vulnerable and sincere. That’s what I’m looking for in my playing and that’s what I’m looking for in other people’s music.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I realized that my music contains certain ingredients. I like minimalism. I like to reduce melodies and harmonies to their core. I’m not ashamed of being too simple. I like to find the strong melody that keeps it together. That comes maybe from my classical influence, which includes listening to Mozart, and practicing a lot of Bach. That’s the one pole.
On the other hand, I like the wildness of improvisation. I love to surprise and to find new perspectives, to tease myself, the other players, the audience.
My music is somehow between these 2 poles. I don’t like to be too loud or too crazy or too expressive. I’m looking for sincere information which comes with a bit more introversion.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Music is communication, which means it’s constantly developing and changing.
I don’t see it as two different poles, nor as either/or.
I can have fun playing bebop with my buddies or playing Bach on a cembalo and I admire the great classical players or ensembles for their way of playing the masterpieces.
But of course, art is development. I think it’s a personal decision to find a good balance between getting knowledge from history, whilst developing the unheard.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Meditation and working with blank paper and pen are super powerful. A friend of mine introduced me to a technique which is about having these little moments of focus on what actually needs to get done, before start doing anything. That helped me a lot in the last years, especially during this strange Covid period. I made it a habit to start my working-routine with these moments of contemplating on what’s actually to be done and which actual steps I will do next and even putting these steps in an order / schedule.
The modern world has made the lives of artists very diverse. Practicing, communicating, planning, accounting, promoting, organizing. You can get completely lost in all these hundreds of tasks. Finding a structure on how to approach all this noise was the most powerful tool I learnt in the last years.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
My days are so different, depending on whether I’m on tour, or at home with my son.
Usually, I wake up quite early and start with a simple meditation and my morning exercise routine. I’m very thankful that I managed to implement these routines in my life to calm my monkey brain a little. Then there’s always a lot of administration to do, for myself, and the festivals I’m running. Since I release my music on my own label, I’m in charge of a lot of tasks around organization and promotion.
Time to practice and compose is rather in the evenings / nights. This is the period of the day where art happens for me. But, of course, these routines are drastically interrupted when I travel. It was one of the positive experiences during the pandemic “break” to not travel so much but instead be able to establish some daily routines.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
My song "Omara" is maybe a good example of my working process.
I started by improvising a theme during one of my late night solo livestream sessions. And in the following days, I kept repeating these chords and the theme. And later, I revisited the recording from these nights and extracted the main idea and played with it. I added a beat and a kind of slow ambient jam. Also recorded some trumpet and asked a friend of mine – Bodek Jahnke – to add some percussion.
Since the piece is based on the form of my improvisation, it gets this organic flow.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I actually like both. When I play in bands too often, I miss the intimacy and mood of playing solo. And when I play too much solo, I miss the creative challenge of playing with others. They’re completely different situations.
Playing solo for the duration of a whole concert is a quite new experience for me. And I actually like it a lot. It’s a very intense inner journey, and it only works when you completely let go of influences from outside and completely follow your inner world.
And it’s very fascinating how the feeling for time duration changes. When I play with other people, I usually feel exactly how long we played … When I play solo, there is zero feeling for time. I no longer have a sense whether I played for a few minutes or for an hour.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
Puh, especially in these times this is a really difficult and deep question. Music and travelling and intercultural exchange have always gone hand in hand. Corona limited travelling a lot, so it was really a struggle to create without a clear perspective on when and how to perform in front of people, and to not feel the connection to a real audience, and missing all these small but important talks and meetings all around the world.
Now this crazy war is happening, which has a deep impact on the life of so many close friends and made me really depressed for quite a while. But I understood that music can give warmth to people, especially in such times, and I also know about the potential of communicational reach that I have through my channels. I really feel the importance to speak out and share information, and raise the voice and to support. These days, I write and call a lot with my friends and colleagues in Ukraine and Russia.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
In a way, I played my best concerts when big things happened in my life, and when the big topics occupied my mind so massively that playing felt like sleep walking and happened completely subconsciously. I remember the months when my son was a baby. The stage was the only place where I could relax – for the duration of the concert. It felt so good to just be there and play. This experience changed my playing a lot.
Since back then, I feel so good and so at home on stage. Of course, playing and composing music is my emotional valve. I’m not good at communicating through words. Some feelings are so deep I can only express them through music. It’s a big thing. Emotions can be coded into music and the audience is able to decode it again into emotions.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
First of all, I don’t find science rational at all. Science explains just a very small part of our world, but the really big questions are not answered at all. We still don’t know what caused the Big Bang and what was before and why it happened, and we have no clue what happens to our souls after we die and so forth. Science can give us the illusion that we know about things, but actually it tells us very loudly that we basically have no clue at all, and that the big questions are far from being answered.
Of course people want to explain things but I don’t think humans will be able to decode the big formula. I think this big formula is as complex as the world and the universe. In my experience, a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music usually sounds boring.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
On a bigger scale everything is everything. Music is life and whatever you do is part of the very big picture. I don’t see a special role for music, or let's say I don’t see music as more important and more special than making a really good coffee, or farming, or teaching, or doing any other kind of thing. The question is, how sincere are you doing it, how much of your personality are you putting into it, how much do you feel responsible for making it as good as possible.
For me personally, music is the field where I can express myself best, where I feel light and most confident, and where I carry most talent, so I see it as my responsibility to use this talent and these tools. The more I play and work as a musician, the more my challenges and decisions zoom away from the instrument.
Joe Zawinul once said, “When you start music, it’s all about your Instrument, later it’s more about music in general, and finally it’s about life”.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
It’s so interesting that you came up with this great question. That’s exactly what makes me wonder the most. How is it possible that we are able to filter this waveform – that music actually is from a physical point of view – and extract all this detailed information like, for example, sounds of instruments, timbre, groove, soul, vibe, emotions.
The physical side of it is (algo-)rhythm. Every note, every harmony, the sound wave is a rhythm or an algorithm. And humans are constructed in a way to be able to filter and decode these (algo-)rhythms.
I somehow believe there is something like a formula deep inside art. And I think it’s in the end the same formula that is inside everything, inside nature, inside love. I started thinking about that when I started (and never stopped) practicing Bach. This music is so wonderful that it proves that it’s not made by humans, but it’s discovered. It’s like mathematics. Mathematical beauty and formulas are there, they exist also without humans. Meaning and rhythm and algorithm is always there, and music is one way to code it for transportation purposes.