Name: Stephan Thelen
Nationality: Swiss
Occupation: Composer, guitarist
Current Release: SONAR with David Torn: Tranceportation (Volume 1) on Rarenoise
Recommendations: One of the most amazing compositions that I know of is the first movement of Béla Bartók’s “Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta”. It is a slow and totally mysterious fugue based on the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Section. Structurally, on every possible level, it comes as close to perfection as you could imagine. A framed diagram of the piece has hung on the walls of my workspace for many years now, because it is so inspiring. But not only is the structure mazing, it is also dramatically breathtaking and emotionally compelling, a true piece of art on every level.

Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Stephan Thelen, visit his website for more information on him and his work.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started composing when I was 14. I was taking classical guitar lessons. I soon found that I wanted to change certain notes and rearrange some of the pieces that I played. My teacher sure didn’t like that. So I’ve always had this very strong sense of what I like and how a piece should sound.

Consequently, it was a logical step to compose my own pieces. When I was very young, I listened to The Beatles a lot, later on in my teens my cousin turned me onto progressive rock, first Emerson, Lake and Palmer and later Yes and King Crimson. From there, I became interested in classical music (Bartók, Shostakovich, Satie) and minimal music (Steve Reich).

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 was lucky and unlucky to fall under the spell of Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s guitarist. He was such a strong influence in my teens that it took me many, many years to find my own voice. I literally had to force myself not to sound like him.

In the beginning, it is probably good to copy things and learn a large vocabulary, but one day, you have to say “enough” and really ask yourself what your own voice is. For that, I found it helpful to go back to my very first musical memories to find out which things fascinated me at a very early age.

What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?

I had to learn that a good piece of music is not just a collection of good ideas. A good piece must have a coherent narrative and the possibility to develop an idea. Today, I like to compose a piece which is based on one single idea, but it must be an idea which has the potential of generating complex results in an organic way.

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?

My workspace is really very simple. There is a desk, a chair, a computer, a keyboard (my old Yamaha DX7), a guitar, a bass guitar, Dynaudio monitors, Sennheiser headphones and a few effects. I’m relatively independent of mood and I’m not interested in having the most modern, up-to-date equipment. I just need something that can get me the results I’m looking for.

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?

No two days are the same and I compose whenever I can. I also teach mathematics at a high school, so I usually try to organize my musical activities around my teaching obligations. But music is always going around in my head and I can think about musical ideas in any given place, for example while riding in the train. So there is no real separation.

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?

It certainly helps if you are not too tired. Being wide awake and relaxed is my ideal state of mind when it comes to creativity. I never took any drugs, except coffee. Often and perhaps contrary to most other composers, I find that limiting my options helps being creative.

Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces 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? 

My most cherished memory is the time I composed “Circular Lines”, the piece I wrote for the Kronos Quartet. I had already written a string quartet that I thought was excellent, but David Harrington wanted me to write a new piece especially for them and I was kind of nervous if I could pull it off again.

I started by recording two hours worth of improvised material on my computer, without thinking much at all. A few days later and with fresh ears, I listened to these improvisations and started to chisel away the parts that I didn’t like so much, just like a sculptor I suppose.

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?

Without the help of my computer and composition software, I would have a hard time composing. Being able to jam with myself is a really important source of creativity for me. So, on the one hand I really rely on technology. On the other hand, it’s just a tool and I’m much less interested in new technology than a lot of my friends.

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, including the artists performing your work?

I enjoy collaborations very much, but they are always different, depending on whom I’m working with. I prefer working with people who have an open mind, are willing to try things out and who are patient but focused.

How is writing the music and having it performed live 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 enjoy writing music because anything seems possible, it’s just you and the infinite possibilities of music. In a live context, you have to deal with many, many imperfections and that can be frustrating. On the other hand, there can be something unique and magical about a live concert or a live improvisation that you just can’t get while sitting alone at home, writing a piece of music. So both worlds remain important to me.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

Every composition has an “ideal” length, the amount of time that is needed to make your musical idea work perfectly. So for me, it’s a real challenge to start a composition by saying it has to have a specific length. Although – to a certain degree – I had to learn how to do that because most commissions do ask for a piece that fits in certain time-frame.

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 sound aspects are at least as important as the rhythmic, harmonic or melodic aspects, maybe even more. That’s why I usually (if possible) include some kind of audio recording when I send musicians sheet music, to give them an idea of how it should sound.

If I’m involved in the mixing of one of my pieces, I will spend a lot of resources in getting the right sound. Sounds can be so expressive and powerful that they can become the main focus of a piece. A good sound can inspire you to write things you would probably not write otherwise. One of the reasons why I like to write for string quartets is because the virtual sounds on my computer (from Vienna Instruments) sound so good.

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?

I have a strong visual connection to music, but not so much one based on synaesthesia. When listening to music, I usually see imaginary landscapes and “events” that occur in these 3-dimensional spaces. That’s probably why I don’t think of my music as “storytelling”, but more like describing spaces and inventing structures and imaginary landscapes.

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?

As a child, I always felt I was different than most people who were more interested in practical things, making money and consuming things. I felt most “alive” when I was able to create new things either by making music, painting or writing. I definitely think that the world would be a better place if there were more artists and if the children in school would spend much more time studying arts and music. There are many studies that confirm that children who learn an instrument at an early age have huge benefits compared with those who don’t and generally are able to live a much more balanced and “holistic” life.

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?

Never underestimate the power of music. I am sure that the basic concept will always remain intact as long as mankind can survive. A lot of developments in connection with the digitalization of music worry me (like Spotify). What I would like to see in the future is music that is more ensemble based, not based on the technical virtousity of a “star” performer.