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15 Questions to Bernhard Wagner

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi! I feel great, I just returned from a dip in Zürich's own river, the Limmat, and as I entered the house, my neighbor handed me a bunch of fresh mint shrubs. Yummy!

What’s on your schedule right now?
There are a few projects running simultaneously: Recently I recorded around 30 takes together with childhood friend and drummer Peter Haas ( Each of these takes consists of 20 tracks; most of them drums. I'm working on a rough mix, so we can decide what will go into the final product. I'm also screening tracks we recorded with a new trio project "Angie's Hovercraft" for demo material. Then, there's Stephan Thelen's ( project where we are at the same stage. But luckily, Stephan has the lead there, so I mostly comment and help selecting mixes we did for our demo CD.

Also, there's rehearsing and some fundamental technical changes I need to apply to my setup. I've been very satisfied with it, but it was optimized for compactness for traveling. The inherent limitations have started to really bother me.

Finally, since I can't make a living from my music, my weekly 3day job as a software engineer starts tomorrow...

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
The first record that fascinated me as a 12 year old was "Moving Waves", in particular the energetic track "Hocus Pocus" by the Dutch Progressive Rock Band "Focus". They probably planted the idea in my head to become a musician. Much later there was Lyle Mays whom I discovered via his cooperation with Pat Metheny. I first wrongly credited Pat for those sounds that were in fact created by Lyle Mays. There's also The Police, who influenced me more than I realized for a long time: Andy Summer's guitar, Sting's bass guitar, and the overall rhythmic structure.

For his approach and most of his music, Brian Eno has been a strong influence.
Do I see myself as part of a movement: I used to believe being part of a movement. Yet, I've become a bit skeptical about "movements" of this kind. As soon as there is more than two individuals involved, eventually nepotism and lobbying will raise their ugly heads and contaminate the mutual pollination, creative flow, and will ultimately undermine artistic growth.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
It's been a long time that I've been scrutinizing what's going on in the music scene. I've been too busy making music myself or listening to music from peers and other obscure or remote corners. From the occasional listening to public radio, hardly anything sticks to my mind. "Music scene" is too vast a term...

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
My first association is: There's nothing new under the sun. It's all been there. Often I discover something and consider it absolutely groundbreaking, only to later stumble across its roots and find out it's just a reincarnation of something else. I probably sound a bit pessimistic with respect to newness in music. Possibly for being an aspect in music that, by itself, doesn't interest me as much as whether the music speaks to me emotionally.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
It is a fundamental relationship! We might have been tricked into believing in a dichotomy between the score and the instrument used to render the score. This conception might be fostered by technologies like MIDI, sequencers, and synthesizers. But in most cases, while composing music, a composer has a specific instrument in mind with its individual tonal range, timbre, and other modes of expression.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
In his book "The Real Frank Zappa Book", Zappa gives a succinct, down-to-earth explanation to the term "composition":

Composition is a process of organization [...]. As long as you can conceptualize what that organizational process is, you can be a 'composer' - in any medium you want. [...] Just give me some stuff, and I'll organize it for you.
-- Frank Zappa: "The Real Frank Zappa Book", Poseidon Press, New York, 1989, p. 139

This definition applies to improvising as well. Improvisation can thus be seen as real time or instant composition. Yet, to me the two are different with respect to live performance: Depending on your level of expertise, live improvisation can be more risky than playing pre-composed material.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
A good live performance happens when musician and audience manage to communicate on a non-verbal, emotional level. This communication is much more dense and expressive than verbal dialog. This is the goal I pursue when performing. One way that helps me to get in touch with the unencumbered state of mind required for this kind of communication: Evoking a childhood experience and expressing the situation from the child's perspective: i.e. non-verbal, non-intellectual, highly naive, utterly emotional.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
Anyone has the right to put a frame around anything and call it art (also a citation from the aforementioned Zappa book). So as long as its creator declares it as music, it qualifies as music. To me, it doesn't make sense to try and objectify the border. Every individual should have the right to draw this border him or herself.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
The same answer as to the previous question applies, i.e. it's a matter of subjective judgment. The subjective meaning of these adjectives inhibits their use in an objective discourse. As such they are indeed "empty words".

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
As artists, I believe it is our duty to offer alternatives to a society's established views, behaviors, rules. However, inventing and creating alternative views are an artist's raison d'être: An artist is driven by a sheer inner need as opposed to a sense of obligation. Thus, complying with the duty is a byproduct.

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.
Generally: false. However, there certainly are types of music, which can only be appreciated with some kind of education. I like to compare it to learning a foreign language. In some cases, this education can consist of thorough listening over and over again.

Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?
With the Creative Commons and its sub-licenses, this experiment has already begun. However, ridding ourselves completely of copyright would be a challenge for the current system, since a main source of income for composers would be drained. As a consequence, much less material would be composed from the ground up. The foremost structure of music would be collages. This could be an interesting experiment, however I prefer to nurture a system that supports risky endeavors such as original compositions. Nowaday's copyright system, as well as the patent system, is under heavy critique. I don't feel in the position to provide a way out of the dilemma.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
See the lineup for the "1st International Loopfestival Zürich" in 2005 (! But seriously, it would depend on the demands of the festival. I would go into a phase of intense research and define a preliminary curatory selection of candidates, which I then would narrow down according to concrete listening, as well as the physical, financial, and temporal constraints given by the festival producers.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
My observation is that many an artist's magnum opus is not conceived as "magnum", but rather identified as such in hindsight. However, thinking of the most elaborate oeuvre I'd be tempted to tackle: It would consist of a big mixed choir, an opulent classical orchestration, and a rock instrument section. Probably it would be an opera. I don't know yet how it would sound, but it certainly would be an utterly personal statement.

Interview and Introduction by Matthias Knoll. Visit his blog here.

The Fourth Night

With Michael Bearpark:
Pedaltone (Burning Shed)

With the International Live Looping Trio:

Bernhard Wagner

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