Name: Wolfgang Muthspiel
Current Release: Angular Blues on ECM
Recommendations: First things that come to mind:
The Book “The Loser” by Thomas Bernhard.
Toru Takemitsu: Requiem.
Night Watch by Cy Twombly
As I reread this before sending it off, I realise that these three works of art are kind of related.
If you enjoyed this interview with Wolfgang Muthspiel, his beautifully lay-outed website contains background information, videos, music and current tour dates.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences? What was is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
After eight years on violin, I started to play the guitar at age 12. The violin was triggered through my family. I am the youngest of four and my father was a passionate amateur musician, who led several choirs.
The guitar was a move towards something of my own. In the beginning it was singer/songwriters like Simon and Garfunkel who made the instrument attractive, later classical and finally jazz guitarists.
But the very first image of the fascination with music is sitting at a piano as a child and losing myself in it without being able to play.
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 the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I was heavily into Pat Metheny and I owe him a lot. I still love his music.
Generally I find that whatever gets you going as a young player, you should use. It can be very helpful to try on other people’s language for a while. Eventually, this should lead to your own sound. Sometimes it is important to decide what NOT to play any more, which can then open a new path to yourself.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
I studied both jazz and classical guitar and was really into both. My challenge was to decide for one, because I could not keep both at the level I wanted. The two are very different, also technically. But in a way that also formed my sound.
Another challenge was to get out of my comfortable scene in Graz, Austria and face another kind of intensity around jazz music in Boston. This move was essential for my development.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results – and possibly even your own performance?
I play mainly two guitars. The acoustic nylonstring guitar, made by an Australian luthier Jim Redgate and an Italian archtop jazz guitar made by Nico Moffa. They are both made for me, with me in mind, and I am very lucky to have met these master luthiers. Each one has a sound that already has a lot to do with my aesthetic. Each one leads me to certain musical worlds. I play very different things on each of them.
Generally I could say, that going to the guitar and dealing with music keeps my world sane. I can enter a world which is different than our material world. I can then reenter this material world enriched and cleansed, or I can come out of it with interesting leads to pursue.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
I would say that for me polyphonic harmony with conscious voice leading is an endlessly transformable field. Also the relationship between composing and improvising. This relationship is complex, because the composition hopefully spells out a specific space and mood, which the solo can then live in, or expand or transform or destroy. I feel I am still at the beginning of many aspects of music.
How is playing live in front of an audience and 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 love concerts because one does not feel the pressure of the one perfect take, and one tends to experiment more. But somehow for me, the truth is in the recording. Also in the recording of the live concert. Some things are well received live, that don’t hold up in a recording. Others are not noticed much, but are the deepest moment in the recording.
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 routine differs from touring periods, teaching periods or periods when I am actually home. In the home periods I usually get up with my wife and daughter (4 years old) at 7a.m. and I bring her to Kindergarten at 9. Then I have breakfast outside and my working day begins. Ideally with playing, which then leads to either practising or writing. This might last a few hours. I usually also talk to my manager and do some organisational things. Twice a week I go to a classical singing teacher. At 3 I pick up my daughter and then we have a family afternoon.
In Basel, Switzerland, I am the artistic director of an immersion year for extraordinarily talented jazz musicians. This program is called Focus Year.
Outside of being a musician this is my main job, and I love it. I go to Basel for six days a month and look after the program, it’s coaches and participants.
Could you take me through the process of improvisation on the basis of one of your performances 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?
This is hard and will take some time, when do you need this article to be finished?
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?
To me the ideal state of mind is one of joyful exploration without a concrete goal.
This can happen in many situations, also non-artistic ones. I long for a physical/emotional response to music and I try to stay away from abstraction. I strive for simplicity rather than complexity.
I love the aspect of craft in music. Honing your craft can be a stimulus for creativity. A simple étude can get you to an interesting jumping-off point, if you are really aware in the process and listen to every little detail.
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?
I use some effects and I use some loops. I use notation software, certain programmable metronome apps and things like the app drum genius. I sometimes improvise into my notation software and then edit and condense the material.
Of course as soon as you amplify music, you're dealing with technology. I usually perform with a sound technician of my choice. It is an endless search for me to find a satisfying amplified sound, that fits the room we are playing in. I am the kind of player that needs this sound in order to be stimulated. I still have not found an amp that I find ideal.
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?
When I compose, it stays on the instrument and in my imagination as long as possible. Then, if it has to, it goes to Sibelius and from there it can be expanded. However, it is easy to be influenced by the program itself, so I never try to make it sound good in Sibelius, I purposely use the worst sounds, so that my imagination stays with the people I write for, not the software.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
I think I answered this above but might add, that I look for musicians who play according to the sound of the room or hall, especially the drummer and bass player. Unfortunately jazz is played in many environments that are not made for it, and the result can be a disaster, if the musicians do not play with and for the room. On the other hand, if you let the room also guide you, its sound might become an interesting element to play with.
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?
A tone, one simple tone, can have so much meaning or be so empty. This depends also on context but not only. A tone can be loaded with the image/state of the player when he produces it. This is independent of pitch and time. I am talking about just the sound, the player makes. So whatever he/she sees, feels, thinks is in that tone. The vibration is in that tone.
Another miracle: Each music creates a specific inner shape or state in the listener, which you could never confuse with the shape/state another piece creates in the listener. This shape is created regardless of the sound quality, whether the music is listened to on a great or on a terrible sound system. It's the exact same shape twenty years later. It is a concrete form inside the listener. How do these combinations of sounds in time create these shapes which are so concrete and graspable, yet not visible to the eye or to any measuring device?
What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Maybe It becomes space or pure energy
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?
Art is the one thing that feeds me most on a daily basis and also in the way of stimulation. What art has given me in my life is immeasurable. Thank you to all the artists, writers, composers, musicians, actors, directors, poets.
My art is not directly political, but every art is a statement on our world. I feel that the way good jazz musicians communicate in music embodies a high level of listening/reacting/enforcing/guiding/creating. This is also a metaphor for being with each other as a society. It can be done with truth and without prejudice. It is not always harmonious, but it is based on listening.
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?
Why would the basic concept of music not be intact?
Music is just like an instrument on which someone plays and expresses. There will always be those players/writers/inventors and that need of expression, and it will always be changing.