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Interview with Johannes Schmoelling

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Thanks for asking. I am fine and in Berlin at the moment.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Together with Andreas Hedler, my webmaster, I am working on the cover design of my new CD “INSTANT CITY”, which we’ll release in August of this year.

What does music mean to you?
Music has always been a part of my life and will remain so. I learned to play the piano at an early age, then turned to playing the church organ and went on to study music. With Tangerine Dream, I was able to both professionally produce music and to compose for a living. I am very greatful for that opportunity.

Of latetely, you have been actively engaged in radio play-productions. What attracts you to this genre?
As a little kid, I used to spend each Sunday in front of the radio, listening to the fairy tale radio plays for children with a sense of excitment. Now I am able to produce these plays myself within my own studio, I would like to convey the same feelings I experienced as a child to the listener. Thanks to the radio as a medium and to CDs, I am able to spark fantasies and scenarios, which can only be communicated through listening. There are no borders or rules – everything is “permitted”, whether we are talking about the dialogues of the actors or the music. It is this very acoustic diversity which makes the radio play so interesting to me.

Before you joined Tangerine Dream, you were writing music for theatre productions but felt there was “not enough music” to be found there. Now you’re back wiriting for the stage. Has the situation of modern theatre improved since then in your opinion?
Absolutely. I vividly and personally experienced the changes in different styles of theatre productions, which took the art from the “director’s theatre” to a more visual modern approach, in Berlin. Robert Wilson staged his “Death, Destruction and Detroit” at the Schaubühne in 1978, where I was working as a recording engineer at the time. Wilson would use continous music and atmpospheres for each and every scene, thus reducing the relative importance of the actors’ texts. Thereby, the acoustic listening experience in theatre entered a different dimension. To me, that was the beginning of a completely new style.

Both you and your former band collegue Edgar Froese share a passion for Johann Sebastian Bach. What is it that you love so much about him? And: Have Bach or his compositon techniques been mirrored in your pieces in any way?
J.S. Bach, to me, is a musical universe on his own. I love the clarity in his composing, with not a single unnecessary ornamenation, his straightforwardness, while still maintaing a high level at emotionality. And yet his music remains modest. I am deeply moved each time I listen to his passions, by its deep religiousness. And then you have the exact opposite with the Brandenburg Concertos – a completely secular, earthly music, sparkling with emotions. There is a direct link to Bach’s piano concerto in a major on “Recycle or Die”, an improvisation. Apart from that, without me being able to pinpoint the exact whereabouts,, some of Bach’s fugue techniques or splinters of his compositional methods can be found in my work. But this definitely happens on an enitirely unconscious level.

As you have a back ground in Classical music – how do you feel about categories such as “serious music” for Classical and “entertainment” for modern productions? Did you at any time during your career have the impression that you were “wasting your talent on a music less worthy”?
To me, these are nothing but drawers used to categorise and commercialise muisc.Personally, I differentiate between music, which touches and moves me, stimulates new thoughts or feelings and music, which bores me or has nothing to tell me.

You were part of a band for about seven years. Didn’t you sometimes miss the typical group-interaction between yourself and other musicians during your solo years?
As a young organ player, I learned to come to terms on my own at an early age and apply my own sense of criticism as a gauge for myself. This awareness has led me through my entire musical work like a red thread. Working in a band might be easier in a creative sense, because you can mutually stimulate and support each other. On the other hand, you need to be able to strike a compromise – as it is always the case, when people work together on a creative level. And these compromises do occasionally lack in quality. Which is why I like to continue my solitude when it comes to the musical creation process. 

A lot of your compositions are carried by intrictae, haunting and highly emotional melodies. Do you sometimes feel it takes more courage to compose in this vein than presenting the typical abstract electronics that the critics would applaude?
I don’t think within these categories. I create the music I hear within myself and which I would like to put into sound. That’s all.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
I often experienced that, by searching and finding sounds, I stumbled upon ideas for compositions. Or, to put it even more explicitely, that these sounds revealed an inner strcuture, which directly and inevitably resulted in a compositional idea. With this in mind, I am happy to be able to compose in the 20th and 21st century, instead of the 17th century, and to be able to use my equipment, which allows for an electronically generated music

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
Whenever I think of live-performances, I have to think back of my first concert with Tangerine Dream at the “Palast der Republik” in Eastern Berlin on January 30th 1980. We were pretty curageous back then, as we had only been practising and working on the album in the studio for a mere month. We had never before been on stage in this line-up. As far as I remember, two thirds of this concert consisted of improvisations, i.e. listening to the others play and then adding your own part to it, without knowing where it would take you musically. Music as an adventure - you can fail but at the same time you can achieve something big. Music as a risk. That’s how I like to envisage a live performance.

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?
In my opinion, you can only truly be honest about your music, if it reflects your personality in all its details, This means that only if I have something to say in musical terms, only then will it be me who thinks these things and does them. And by acting thus, I gain the right to do this and it remains with me. That’s how culture has been working for thousands of years and that’s how it will always work. The creative factor can not be socialised, it is always the individual who creates.

Some feel there is no need to record albums any more, that there is no such thing as genuinely “new” music. What do you tell them? Is “new” an important aspect of what you want your pieces to be?
I, too, often ask myself whether I still need to release music on CD, whether I still have something relevant to say in the language of music. Hasn’t everything been done and said? While doing so, however, I quickly realize that these are questions, which only a saturated and “full” society would ask itself,, a society which considers itself the final destination of a certain development. I don’t think that people in the baroque epoque asked themself this question. I don’t think J.S. Bach asked himself this question for that matter. He had a sizeable family to feed and his music, on many occasions, served this purpose only. It is merely because we’re in danger of suffocating in abundance that these topics surface at all. Each era and its society will have its very own music. And this will remain so in the future.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like? Which of your previous albums comes closest to this vision?
I don’t have such a dream. My albums are like a psychogram, they reflect my development, thoughts and feelings of that particular time. If you like, they are a diary in sound. Glenn Gould, the fantastic Canadian Bach interpretor once claimed in an interview that the first album was always most important work in an artist’s career. In my case, that’d be “Wuivend Riet”. I’ll leave it to others to judge the merrits of that statement. 

Pink Floyd just reunited for Band 8. When can we expect Tangerine Dream in its Schmölling/Froese/Franke lineup again?
You’d have to ask Edgar Froese or Christoph Franke. I am unable to answer it myself – at least at the moment. 

By Tobias Fischer

Solo Releases:
Wuivend Riet (1986) Erdenklang
The Zoo Of Tranquility (1988) Theta
White Out (1990) Polydor
Lieder Ohne Worte - Songs No Words (1995) Erdenklang
The Zoo Of Tranquility (1998) Erdenklang
White Out (2000) Viktoriapark
Recycle Or Die (2003) Viktoriapark
Instant City (2006) Viktoriapark

With Tangerine Dream:
Tangram (Virgin) 1980
Quichotte (Amiga) 1981
Exit (Virgin) 1981
Logos Live (Virgin) 1982
White Eagle (Virgin) 1982
Hyperborea (Virgin) 1983
Poland - the Warsaw Concert (Castle EMS) 1984
Le Parc (Jive Electro) 1985
Kyoto (Eastgate) 2005

Johannes Schmölling

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