Name: Ulrich Krieger
Occupation: Composer, performer, improviser, saxophonist
Current Release: "Silversonic", a collaboration between John Tejada's and Ulrich Krieger, is out now on John Tejada's Palette Recordings.
Recommendations: Here are two that come to my mind immediately:
James Joyce – Ulysses
Velvet Underground and Nico - Banana LP
If you enjoyed this interview with Ulrich Krieger, stay up to date on his music via his personal website.
You can also read Ulrich talk about alternative tuning systems. Or check out our John Tejada technology interview, for some thoughts by his recent collaborator.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My first small pieces were written when I was about 14 or 15.
First they were simple guitar-based rock/folk songs. These were influenced by a wide range of artists from Bob Dylan to Deep Purple, Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Yes, etc. But soon I started writing 12-tone pieces (influenced by Schönberg’s piano music), minimal music (influenced by Terry Riley’s In C and Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach), musique concrète (influenced by Pierre Henry), etc. I even tried some simple serial techniques (influenced by Nono)—basically every new musical style and technique I came across at that point that caught my interest.
I am really not sure what drew me to make music and especially write music. There was no music in my family, and no one played an instrument. But somehow music is the most abstract of the arts, but also the most direct for our sense and brains.
It was more of a coincidence that I actually started playing clarinet when I was 9 in one of those South German wind (aka oompah) bands.
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?
I think I answered much of this above. I emulated many different artists I liked and by doing so, learned a lot—although none of these pieces were really any good. (laughs)
Soon I started to realize that my ideas developed and were not fitting into any of these ‘boxes’ anymore. I found musicians that worked on fusing Western art music with rock approaches, like Frank Zappa, Henry Cow, Magma, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, etc. But the real kick came with post-punk. This was it for me: PIL, Pop Group, This Heat, Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc. Here I found the sonic exploration that I was interested in coupled with open-form approaches and re-definition of rock music—ass-kicking, open-form, experimental rock, based on timbre and rhythm.
And when techno came around and Tresor started in Berlin, I was drawn to it and became a fan of this new abstract, non-song-format dance music, especially Underground Resistance and early Jeff Mills.
Since then it has always been clear to me that my music lives in the uncharted limbo between genres (—don’t call it ‘crossover’, it is wrong and I hate it!).
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Hmm, difficult question. But in a nutshell, my art and creativity is an expression of my identity. And this is a wide field: gender and sexual identity, political and philosophical, but also my German heritage coupled with my American ‘imprint’ - I spent about 1/3 of my live here.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
For me the main challenge was that I never was of one scene. I studied classical saxophone, composition and electronic music in academia. One of the challenges here was that all my peers were middle-class, classical music educated kids and I come from a working-class family and a rock music background. And at the same time, while studying in academia, I always was part of the counterculture underground, if post-punk or later techno and extreme metal.
I went out nightclubbing several days a week—first Dschungel and later Tresor were my favourite spots to go to in Berlin. In the 1980s hardly anyone in academia understood my interest in ‘popular music’ and many in the rock scene were ‘sceptical’ about my academic background. That was one of the reasons for me to move to New York in the early 1990s. Here I found artists like Elliott Sharp, John Zorn, David First, Lee Ranaldo and many others, who had a similar no-boundaries outlook on contemporary music. There I met rock musicians, who knew more about contemporary art music than a classical pianist in Berlin and classical musicians, who easily were able to play in a rock band. The decision not to hide or abandon my background, but actually speak out for rock music, surely has made my career more difficult, but also more ‘me’.
Today this has gotten much better, but there are still many obstacles for young musicians, especially in Europe, if they go multi-stylistic.
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?
Time has been discussed in contemporary music by many, for example Stockhausen and especially Bernd-Alois Zimmermann (Die Kugelgestalt der Zeit). And I find it interesting to observe that long-form pieces are a particular American thing: LaMonte Young’s music in general, but also Terry Riley, Morton Feldman, Phill Niblock, etc. did music that can last several hours.
I have a liking for long pieces and the different experience of time these types of pieces can create, especially when you are interested in sound-based, non-narrative music, which is most of my work and also most techno. I do not want to tell a story, but create an environment for the audience to experience. A good example for this is my Fathom (contrabass sax, 2 JI guitars and amplified drums), a 50-minute ambient doom piece.
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?
For me sounds is where I normally start. I mostly do not start with a melodic, rhythmic or narrative idea, but with a certain soundscape I hear and want to create. I work from the big picture down to the smaller details. So, sound is at the core of my writing and defines the rest. Often even structural decisions are based on the sounds used in a piece.
I feel that in the 21st century the main elements are sound and rhythm (aka structure, micro and macro). I feel the older approach, starting with melody and harmony, is not really appropriate anymore, melody and harmony develop out of sound and rhythm, whether in art music (late Nono, Scelsi) or rock, metal and techno.
The individual note is not as important as the overall soundscape.
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?
I have been collaborating quite a bit over the years. But I must say that (score-based) composing is and always was an individual thing for me, very rarely have I collaborated on score-based music.
My collaborations are either of an improvisatorial manner, my duo with Carl Stone for example, which although improvised is a duo of two composers. [Read our Carl Stone interview] Or they are band-based (Metal Machine Trio, Faust, Text of Light, etc), which also means much improv, but then certain parts can get fixed—or not.
My collaborations with electronic musicians such as John Tejada, Boris Hegenbart or Kasper Toeplitz often start with improvs, but then develop the improvised source material into an electronic composition, either by spending time together or sending files back and forth. I am now planning a new project-collaboration with the French electronic musician Franck Vigroux.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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?
I kind of have a structure, if not an actual schedule. I get up around 10 am, have coffee and breakfast, have a look outside around the house, do some exercise (hopefully), then do email and read some news.
Since Corona the noon-to-1 slot is often reserved for Zoom meetings, because I often meet people in Europe. Then I try to do an hour of practising and after a short break I work on my most recent project(s). This might either be composing, recording, editing and mixing, writing, research, etc., whatever it is I am working on and that needs to be done.
I try to be done by 8 pm, have dinner, watch a movie and then maybe do some more, depending on how much I have to do. I normally go to sleep pretty late, around 2 or 3 pm, so there is still a few hours I can do something, if I feel like it.