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15 Questions to Thomas Lehn & Marcus Schmickler

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Thomas Lehn: Fine and currently in Vienna.

What's on your schedule right now?
Marcus Schmickler: I just finalized a new piece that premiered on Nov. 4th at WDR3 radio. It is revolving around the sonification of a generalisation of number classes and mathematical problems, specifically the surreal numbers. The piece is motivated by two ideas, by exploring the relationship between music and economy as well as trying to sonify something as cognitively problematic as the complex numbers.
Thomas Lehn: Marcus and I just recently had a performance at the Acousmonium at the Kontraste Festival in Krems, Austria, and we plan a tour in Scandinavia around our appearance at All Ears festival in Oslo mid January 2012. On top of that, I myself have been busy with rehearsals with the ensemble]h[iatus, working on a project in collaboration with Irish composer-performer Jennifer Walshe, presented at November Music in s'-Hertogenbosch on Nov. 12th and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on Nov. 24th., and on a realization of Treatise by Cornelius Cardew for the Schlüsselwerke Festival in Cologne on Dec. 3rd. For 2013, the ensemble plans a collaboration with Australian pianist and composer Anthony Pateras.
For the upcoming year, a couple of projects are confirmed, for example a tour of a new trio with Jêrome Noetinger and Xavier Charles in March, a tour with violinist Tiziana Bertoncini in Canada, and a performance of a new composition by Austrian composer Peter Jakober for solo synthesizer and ensemble with KlangForum Wien at festival musikprotokoll in Graz. I am also working on a realization of the electronic composition Symfonia by the Polish composer Boguslaw Schäffer.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?
Thomas Lehn: Vienna is very rich and vivid in terms of its cultural life, and music in particular. Maybe not as huge as in Berlin, as so many musicians have been moving to Berlin now, but quite similar, with the only remarkable difference being that Vienna finds more small presenters of actual music which dispose of budgets to pay the artists. Austria has been resistant against the pervasive cuts of cultural budgets of the free scene. In this respect, it seems unsurprising that more than in other cities, many musicians in Vienna perform quite a lot in town, as they're being payed. Since I've only lived in Vienna for a short time, it's difficult for me to give a detailed picture. But I am aware of quite a wide range of local activities of the musicians here, working out performances and projects together in a variety of constellations at many different places.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
Marcus Schmickler: It must have been at the age of five, when Ennio Moricone and Scottish bagpipe records were my favourites. But when you say 'your instrument', you probably mean the one that I'm using now, which is the electronic music studio and computers. Roughly at the age of twenty, I discovered through listening to electroacoustic music, experimental music and free jazz, that I didn't find it rewarding to establish my own style in jazz guitar playing and found it more interesting to use all kinds of musical and non-musical sounds as material. So I went to a conservatory, while trying to follow my own ideas.
Thomas Lehn: Talking about the piano, I've played it since my childhood; the EMS synthesizer since 1994. Strong musical influences arrived for me from many different sides. But some of the most remarkable local experiences, early during my studies at the Music Academy in Cologne, were the concerts presented at the Beginner Studio, which were curated by composer Walter Zimmermann. Unfortunately, he moved to Berlin around 1982/83 and the program was stopped. Although at that time I had not much experience with contemporary music at all, the strong impact of the Beginner Studio on me was the fact that composed and improvised contemporary music including avantgarde jazz had been presented there. And the entire program always had been very well selected and taken care of by Zimmermann. Among others there I heard live for example Morton Feldman, Per Henrik Wallin, Steve Lacy, Lol Coxhill, Beth Griffith, Evan Parker. Also the new music concerts at the old Kölner Kunstverein (I remember for example a formidable performance of the Feldman piano plus stringtrio with pianist Siegfried Mauser) and at the West German radiostadion WDR (f.i.: duo Lytton/Lovens, trio Teitelbaum/Braxton/Lewis but also the NachtCageTag project on Cage's 75th birthday) were very important to me. Not to forget the Stadtgarten in Cologne, where I remember the Gil Evans Orchestra, and an unforgettable David Tudor solo performance. Just to name a few examples ...

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
Thomas Lehn: Besides the fact that there might be many more such moments, one early one for me was the Canadian TV broadcasting of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variation presented on the German TV program on the occasion of Gould's death. It fundamentally changed my understanding of and my relationship to 'classical music' at that time, because Gould was radically pointing far beyond the classical 19th-century-orientated education, in which I found myself quite lost at the beginning of the 1980s. The striking thing was that, on one hand, he vividly showed that it is possible to access the inner 'objective' structure of a composition, to use this itself as a master guideline for the appropriate integration of mind (sense) and physics (body and instrument) for practicing and performing, but having at the same time the freedom to 'excute' this structure in a variety of ways without destroying or working against it or imposing something completely disconnected (like so many classical musicians and teachers do). Furthermore, he showed an approach to a very own characteristic instrumental sound and a music-based contact to the instrument, which at that time I only knew from jazz musicians. Klaus Oldemeyer and Jürgen Uhde taught me a similar approach of going into the compositional structures as a base for finding ways into the freedom for interpretational solutions.
I would not mention this, if I wouldn't think that my piano background has on some levels an impact on the way I create my music with the synthesizer - whereby the tactile aspect is only – albeit a rather obvious - one among others, built more around the musics architecture and 'organisation of sound' and its intangible phenomena.

Keith Rowe once asserted that it is often certain people that 'give one permission to do things'. How was that for you - in which way did the work of particular artists before you 'allow' you to take decisions which were vital for your creative development?
Marcus Schmickler: It is a strong statement and I would not say that people 'allow' me to do certain things, rather they 'inspire'. They might create a contingency that can be radicalized, they encourage and also create a framework that one can use for reference. But ultimately it is about getting into a discourse with these 'permissions' by questioning and transgressing them. But speaking of Keith, he was definitely a big influence for me and very encouraging as a young guitar player, to look at my instrument differently.

What are currently your main artistic challenges?
Thomas Lehn: I always thought the biggest challenge was how to deal with musical vocabulary and all its stereotypes stemming on one side from my own 'individual' and on the other 'collective' musical 'history'. Characteristic sounds or sound structures (created with whatever kind of 'method'), which of course are part of forming a musicians artistical 'identity', are at the same time personal musical clichés, which tend to become uninteresting to me when repeated comfortably and without a deep self-critical point-of-view or without taking the risk, to intentionally put them fundamentally in question in the moment of creation. Without that radical questioning, I don't believe it's possible to deepen the listening experience (whatever 'depth' may mean to a human individual) and to develop it further.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Marcus Schmickler: I'll try to cut it short: As a composer and improviser, I think of them as totally different methods. As an audience member, I don't care really. Within my own practice, composition is something that has a totally different approach in labour, that I mostly do on my own or if with others than in a very different work flow, trying to solve distinct preconceived issues. Improvisation is something that I like as a dynamic group process that has an open-ended, possibly unpredictable event quality.
Thomas Lehn: In its nature, improvisation is just another, but regarding the aspects of time and execution fundamentally different, method of composition. Improvisation operates in real time and demands full artistic responsibility while the music is created, performed and listened to at the same time. 'Mistakes', if not anyway considered being naturally part of the process and appreciated, can only be 'corrected' by relativizing them by following actions. Writing a composition gives time for decisions and the possibility to modify or delete parts. While in real time composed music, the roles of the author(s) and performer(s) coincidence in the same person(s), written music needs interpreters, who need to be able to understand what the composers intentions (or non-intentions) are.
Both methods of composing have their advantages and disadvantages. The great benefits of improvisation are the immediacy of musical creation and the pleasures to share this act at the same time and space with other musicians. On the other hand, composed music allows one to organize sounds or sound constellations in very specifically structured ways, which would not be possible to do in improvisation. In improvisation, musicians can form their sounds in immediate contact with their instruments, completely free in whatever fine scale of differentiation or resolution; these would be impossible to notate or, respectively, to then be executed by an interpreter. At times, I've explored improvisations by transcribing and notating them and had to realize the enormous complexity of its sound and structures, and the necessity to find and create a quite complex graphic vocabulary to notate it appropriately.
Most of the so-called 'extended technics' of musical instruments have been explored by people improvising (majorly by the improvisers themselves, but also by composers themselves or by their collaborative interpreters experimenting improvisatorically with instrumental sounds).

How important are practising and instrumental technique for achieving your musical goals?
Thomas Lehn: I do practice the piano, mostly in phases, at times more at times less or not at all. But if I do, then it's either just for the pleasure of playing with the pieces (I have a pool of pieces which I always come back to), vary them, view them from different angles, or to prepare certain pieces for performance. I don't 'practice' the synthesizer, but here and there I'll work on its programming and patching, mostly before performances or in particular for certain projects, where specific sounds are required.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance?
Marcus Schmickler: It is an interesting and rich relationship. It's so interesting, that I recently wrote a thirty-page piece for the radio about it. In a nutshell, sound emergence is deeply connected with space for the musician but also for the listener. This connection is deeply rooted in our architecture with the design of churches and concert halls, studios and other public spaces. Within production and performance, we're interested in artificial or virtual spaces on all kinds of levels. The space corresponds to the music that is played within the same and vice versa. It is not by chance that I haven't performed any stereo concerts for the last ten years or more, I only do multichannel concerts. Spatial placement and movement is an important musical parameter for me. It generates special experiences for everyone, an experience that people wont have at home, only at the concert. I find Barry Blesser’s book 'Spaces Speak, Are you Listening' an interesting resource to understand more about this dichotomy.

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 out to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Thomas Lehn: It depends on what you mean with the term 'material'. 'Material' could be the pure single 'sound material' or it could be a 'constellation of sound materials in time' i.o.w. any formed sounding content. Considering 'sound material', to me any sound of the entire spectrum between a sine wave and white noise is both 'emancipated' and 'traditional' at the same time; a pitch might have been a taboo three, four or five decades ago, but using noises, having emancipated over time, are today as traditional as pitches are (actually, it's nothing new to say this). However 'constellations of sounds in time' seem endlessly transformable (whereby it maybe discussed what 'endlessly' here means in regards to the audible spectrum of the human ear, at least we can consider a very high number of constellation possibilities ...). For myself, I can't tell in an exclusive way, if and which 'material constellations' turn to be particularly 'transformable' and 'stimulating', as I experience a variety of those as possible and fruitful.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a  group compare to a solo situation?
Marcus Schmickler: When we play music, we're not playing it in order to hear it ourselves but for the audience. But seriously, these two rules offer a rather boring conception of what the internal infrastructure of music making can be. In some aspect, this also resonates with the problem of sound and space but also with more complicated issues, such as whether or not two people can ever hear the same or make sense out of that very same. This is due to his or her spatial position, but also because people perceive the 'same' in different ways. Do we actually know what sameness is? For me, the interesting thing about playing in a group or in duo like the one with Thomas, is that there is a factor of companionship, friendship, common understanding beyond language, that can be great in front of an audience.

Some people see recording improvised music as a problem. Do you?
Thomas Lehn: No. One could just as well ask: Why should ANY music be recorded? I don't see why improvised music in particular should not be recorded: Because of its nature? Because of it being a 'Kunst ohne Werk' (art without work)? Because of the impossibility to repeat the improvised piece in the same way? This arguments seems to be quite superficial and shortsighted, as in fact performances of a composed pieces of music are also all unique, non-repeatable acts. All music is great to have access to through media. However, to me, the important point is that music on media can never fully substitute live music. The experience of live performed music is the (back)ground of any immediate musical experience and a kind of requirement for being able to listen to music captured on a medium. Media do not capture the entire sensual experience of the live situation of a performance; recordings are always a reduction of that what was originally happening; and in this respect it does not matter, whether the music has been improvised or interpreted. However one big exception is, when talking about pure electronic music or music concrète, which is created to be stored on media and realized - 'performed' - by loudspeakers.

Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
Marcus Schmickler: There's a deep connection between numerical values and music. At the same time, we don't really know what those are or where they come from. There is a tricky tendency to 'value' music by numbers, sales-charts and all kinds of numerical ratings. This is a Trojan horse which will ultimately abolish cultural diversity. Even public institutions that hosted the emergence of innovative arts over the last sixty years are increasingly getting into a predicament of numbers. This general tendency is what I find problematic. But as far as releasing records goes: the situation has become more tenuous, but it doesn't seem to make sense to blame it on these kinds of technologies. Of course, there is an aspect of arts and labour: What do artists live from, when their products are for free? We can't blame the service providers or single users. It is more a question of what kind of culture do we, as a society want. And what kind of solutions do we allow ourselves in order to maintain this in-depth variety in the arts. The lack of solidarity and the social injustice is more of a problem in this context, also amongst people in the music industry: If you look closer at how the copyright administration works and whom it serves. It is the same injustice that we're looking at with the financial system right now. One percent earn roughly 80% and 99 percent get the rest. The accomplishments of social nets for artists are being put to the test. It seems that in Europe, people are still asleep, not many people seem to wonder what is really happening, yet.

Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.
Dorothea Schürch
Peter Jakober

Intro by Hannis Brown.
Image by Marcus Schmickler.

Thomas Lehn & Marcus Schmickler Discography:
BART (Erstwhile) 2000
Rabbit Run/ w. Keith Rowe (Erstwhile) 2003
Kölner Kranz (A-Musik) 2008
Navigation im Hypertext (A-Musik) 2008
Live Double Séance [Antaa Kalojen Uida] (Editions Mego) 2011

Thomas Lehn
Marcus Schmickler

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