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Interview with Manuel Göttsching

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm fine. I'm in the car.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Driving home.

You just performed the classic E2-E4 live on guitar in Berlin. How did that go? What does that piece of music still means to you today?
E2-E4 is still one of my favourite pieces, maybe my most influential one. I was very happy to perform it with ZEIKRATZERs, an orchestra and with completely different instruments, a kind of (nearly) “unplugged” version. This only proves once again that E2-E4 is a very flexible composition, which can be performed in various ways, simply a very good piece of music.

You’ve also done quite a few movie scores lately. What’s the special attraction with that to you? Are you of the opinion that a good soundtrack should merely serve the images or should it work on its own as well?
What attracted me first with movies was to accompany a silent film live with electronic instruments. My wife had just produced a film about the last silent-movie pianist in the world, still performing at the age of 101. So why not having a modern version playing with groove box, sampler and laptop, I thought? I have not exactly planned it to be a soundtrack, it was meant more as a kind of concert to a movie. I thought of playing it with my electronic instruments in the way that I had done some fashion shows or the radio play Walking the desert, a live event. But then the idea came up to play with the musicians of the Staatstheater Braunschweig. This was also intriguing, to write some scores for a small chamber ensemble for the film and to perform both, some parts electronic and some parts with musicians. I was not involved in writing film music apart from very few examples. One was Le Berceau de Cristal, which was also a very special situation. The French director Philippe Garrel was a very close friend, who simply liked our music and came to the concerts. I compiled a tape with music of one hour and gave it to him without having seen the movie before. His film is also a kind of silent movie with an experimental touch. No action, no words, only Nico, Anita Pallenberg and Dominique Sanda, the female ICONS of the 70s, on screen. And the music in full length accompanying the beautiful pictures. For „Der Junker und der Kommunis/The count and comrade“, a film by my wife, I composed some pieces for guitar. Those ones could stand equally for the scenes in the movie as well as for themselves, even if  they are very short. But in this case the pictures inspired me, indeed.
Yes, first of all, film music should work with the pictures. That is what it is made for in a movie. It should not necessarily stand for its own. But as I said, you can also start with the composition and then find some pictures for it. It is a different approach.

Would you do music for another film in the future?
Yes and no, it depends on the premises. If I am forced to look too much into some pictures over and over again, trying to find something special, to adapt something, I get lost. I rather prefer to see the entire movie once to get a feeling for the atmosphere, the story, and then forget about the pictures and start thinking about the composition in general. Or - even better – I would start only with a rough idea without knowing the film at all; the more you know about it, the less is your imagination.

A friend of yours once mentioned that it takes quite long to get you into the studio, but once you were there, you were a remarkably fast “worker”. Which leaves me two questions: Does that mean you believe in the magic of the moment and the power of spontaneous improvisation?

Yes, it is improvisation and it has to be the right moment. You have to catch the good moment before it’s gone: E2-E4 was played in one evening, just in one hour. On the other hand, Inventions for Electric Guitar took about three or four months, New Age of Earth the same. But this was a different situation, as I worked on certain techniques for these two productions.

I had my own studio where I lived, so my studio was my home, it is until today. When I work in other studios I am open-minded. While working with Schulze or Santos it was without many preparations, just out of the blue. For some other projects I prepared the compositions in my studio finishing them elsewhere.  I tend to make things easy, therefore I need to be well prepared, that means to have a programme, to know what I want, so I have not to argue or to discuss but use the studio just as the proper technical facility to achieve what I have planed. The basic work I always prefer to do in my own studio.

You’ve composed music for fashion shows, thetrical performances and movies and for genres as diverse as Floating/Spacey Music, Modern Classical Music, Experimental (don’t castigate me for the use of these highly subjective descriptions). Which might bring you in a position to judge about the claim of some that some styles are by definition more sophisticated than others (hence the distinction between “serious” and “popular” music). How do you feel about this claim?
I think the terms “classic” or “serious” are the most misused words in music, and “modern classic“ is just the peak of nonsense. In fact there was only a certain period and style in music called „classic“.  But as a common term, everybody says „classic music“, even for baroque or middle age or twelve-tone music. I could live with the term “classic” if it is used for any old music, which has proven quality and influence. But the term “serious” is a real killer, especially in contradiction to “popular”. This is pure racism, officially existing as a classification by the GEMA only in Germany. Music had been played for many purposes but the so-called serious musicians/composers were all entertaining people. Beethoven and Mozart had played in small salons to entertain the upper class, what about Verdi? His operas were mass attractions. If this is serious, then any ABBA, Madonna or Robin Williams stuff is very serious. This can only happen in poor Germany, whereas in England a Paul McCartney, an Elton John or even a Mick Jagger are honoured as a “Sir”. I’m only fed up with this classification, and I must strongly recommend studying the history of music and their composers to prevent “serious” damages to their contemporary colleagues.
Music only makes sense when people are open to hear it, this implies its popularity, if it is a funny music, a sad music, music for a funeral, music for a wedding, religious music or dance music. If nobody wants to listen to it, if you don’t find an audience there’s obviously something wrong with your music, and this is the same rule for a simple song as well as for a “sophisticated” piece of  - let’s say - John Cage. 
Popular music, the way we interpret that term now, has not been around forever – it has developed in the course of time, epecially over the last century thanks to technical possibilities and the needs of society. In the old days, music was strictly separated by guilds. There were clerical musicians, musicians at court, travelling artists and even a guild for musicians specialising in funerals. Mixing these influences was not so much impossible for musical, but rather for social reasons. Those playing at court naturally enjoyed a better life and turned out to be more famous, simply because their works got to be printed and published. Folk music was merely played in the villages. After all, it was not recorded and disseminated all over the world. It was exclusively passed on from one village to the other and a small parts of it have even been saved. This means that the differenciation between “serious” and “popular” music constitutes nothing but an embarassing step backwards and resembles the effort of re-introducing the old class society. If the so-called classical music in the sense of old music (by which one would mean popular, tried and tested) is subsidised, in order to save a piece of culture from extinction, then this is commendable. But to categorise a newly created piece of music a priori and to judge it in such a manner is simply censureship.

Just as much as society has changed and evolved and created new possibilities thanks to inventions in the realms of technology and the media, so too has popular music developed. Since the beginning of the last century, all efforts to establish a clear border to this kind of music have failed more or less. The music turned out to be more and more intellectual, the public was unable to follow and then failed to attend at all. It was only in the second half of the century and thanks to composers such as Steve Reich and Phil Glass that one started to become interested in contemporary music and concert halls were packed again. I don’t want to oppose experiments of all kinds, after all I do count myself as a part of these. But this does show that you’re not a composer, if noone’s listening – regardless of the particular genre you’re in.

In which way, would you say, is your personality reflected in your music, what makes it different from that of other artists?

My life is music. And my music is my character. I don't know if this is different from other artists.

A question closely related to the former: What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as a part of a movement?
I am a child of my generation. This is a part of the development of my music – the music I listened to in the 50s, the music I listened to in the 60s, the development of music in Germany, the revolts of 68, progressive music, Beatniks, Underground, counter culture and the efforts of doing everything differently. These were the times in which I dealt with music intensively, in which I thought about myself, my music and how I could express myself through it. This process still continues until the present day. The difference being that the external inspiration has become less important. It was those first years, when I just set out to create music, between the age of 10 and 30, that were most influential. Which is not to say that my development has frozen, but I am not influenced by tiny details as much as I used to. I really can’t tell who influenced me most. I listened to the radio a lot as a child – operas for example, but also American music, early soul. Then, in the 60s, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, beat music over all. At one time, I took a strong interest in Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and other blues guitarists, because I had just started playing the classical guitar, but knew close to nothing about its electric pendant. I therefore wanted to find out, what other people did. Eric Clapton and his band “Cream” were a good example, because they engaged in long improvisations during concerts and then went on to release them. I just listened to those again and again, and tried to play along. It was a little harder to actually find out what Jimi Hendrix was playing, because he could bend the strings in such an incrediblel way. But those were my role models for practise. Only rarely would scores of beat- and popmusic be available, hardly ever of those inmeasurably long improvisations. I therefore had to listen to the music and keep trying until I had managed to find the answers to my questions. I was about 16 at the time. Of course, I wasn’t planning on becoming a perfect imitator. But at least I could learn how to do this, in order to develop something entirely different later on.

Why didn’t you go on to become a Jazz- or Bluesmusician?
I’ve always had difficulties with Jazz. To me, it was an old-fashioned kind of music. What I associated typically with Jazz were old men with beer-bellys and beards, who would meet at ten o’clock in the morning on a Sunday for brunch and then then start swinging. I felt slightly repulsed by this. Of course, this was hardly real Jazz, but rather its nemesis. Over time, Jazz has diversified extremely. There was Free Jazz, Cool Jazz and Jazzrock. An important factor has also been that the guitar only played a secondary role in Jazz, when compared with the winds – it was more of a rhythm instrument. Jazz originates from a time, when the guitar was not amplified and therefore not a dominant instrument. This would gradually change. Originally, the guitar is a very quiet instrument, simple but effective, which could be used for polyphonic accompaniment and as a solo instrument. Franz Schubert, for example, composed all of his pieces on the guitar, simply because he could not afford a piano. It was only until the guitar was upgraded with the famous “pickup” that it received an entirely different dimension – and this counted for Jazz as well, only that the cards had already been dealt. You simply couldn’t lay off all those horns. Later, Jazz guitarists like McLaughlin and Al di Meola turned up. They never really convinced me, because it was rather the speed of their fingers than the brilliance of their music which was impressing. Paco de Lucia is a different story, because he adds some traditional (Spanish) elements. The guitar gets along better with the Blues. Rock n Roll and later Rock Music, up and until Metal, are just the logical progression - faster, harder and most important of all: louder. In fact, I played in a blues band until I was 16, 1668/69. Until this very day, blues elements can repeatedly be found in my music. 

How do you see the relation between sound and composition?
Composition is sound, the entire music is sound.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

I like to feel fresh, well-rested and in good spirits. I can only talk about my own performance: What I like to do, is play vivid and lively music. Depending on the occasion (for example when playing film music), there can be slightly more or slightly less “form”. The concept can have been prepared a long time beforehand or develop intuitively from the moment. The only thing that matters is that the performance is open. If too much is programmed and practised, you risk loosing any kind of real ambiance, because the sole thing you do is to try and avoid mistakes. To me, a good concert always involves a few askew notes, which were not part of the program. It is these notes that make the whole thing lively and unique.

Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical metarial as a basis for their own compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?
This would not be an improvement – this is the way things are. That’s the way it is. And things have always been like this: Your own composition is always based on some fragments or chords you’ve heard somewhere else. The only thing a composer does is piece them together in a new way. This has absolutely nothing to do with copyright. Only someone, who does not compose himself, could ask a question like this.
If my material is stolen by DJs, it might not be such a pleasant thing. On the other hand, it’s a compliment all the same and proves to me that I’m creating a music, which is abundantly interesting to be used. Quite a few people don’t actually consider this theft at all. In my opinion, things should stay within certain boundaries: If you start counting and applying miliseconds and millipercentages, things start getting rediculous.  

Some feel there is no need to record albums anymore, 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 always want it to be new - or something new to be part of it. I assume most would. There might be some exceptions, musicians who don’t want to come up with anything original, but rather aim at creating something in the style of something else. Apart from that, absolutely everyone, including Pop stars or so-called modern Classical composers, wants to create something new. If you’re painting a picture, you want it to be a new picture as well. Then again, there’s painters who are happy with the mere copying of certain styles. If that’s to your liking: Please go ahead. But speaking for myself, I like to make new music and to think about the development of music, mine included. In the last 50 years of my life, much has changed – how will things continue in the next 50 years? I ask myself, how much influence the minimalists have had. What kind of influence have electronic devices, such as drum maschines, had?  In which way has multichannel recording technology influenced producing and listening? Have car radios had an impact on cultural history?

I am not interested in downloading tracks to a cellular phone in a commercial way – but I do find it to be an interesting phenomenon, which tells us something about the way human beings listen to music and how they experience it. Everything gets shorter, more compressed. You really have to make an effort to write a 30-minute long piece of music and then insist on people actually listening to it. You have to assert yourself and convince the listener, that his patience will pay off in the end. I keep pushing my music on, keep doing what is of interest to me and I take on new challenges again and again. Take “Schloss Vogelöd”, when I tried to write an orchestral score, which ended up sounding (almost) exactly like I had envisioned it. That was a fresh experience for me and extremely interesting. I would very much be interested in repeating something of the kind, especially considering the fact that the short period of preparation didn’t allow for all musical ideas to come to their own. When it comes to electronic music, we’re still in the (Techno) stone ages, when it comes to using all possibilities and all of the resulting styles and genres.

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?
Hartmut Enke used to answer this question: „We see ourselves as part of the ensemble within the polytical system and identify ourselves...“ Tim Leary used to say: „Tune in, turn on, drop out.“ So what could I say? Music is a mirror – that’s what it says on the cover of “Die Mulde” (my latest CD) – and therefore all art is a mirror of its time, of society, etc. I don’t believe that you can create an art, which is entirely disconnected from all that surrounds it, from your earliest childhood memories and all the laws of nature. Quite on the contrary, art is nothing but a sublime form of historiography. It’s the way human beings see time and space.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I would invite Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Erik Satie, Beethoven – all of those not with us anymore.

Many artists dream of a magnum opus. Do you have a vision of what it would sound like or has it already been released?
I do not have a notion of my big masterpiece – maybe I’ve already written it, without noticing it. In the end, it won’t be me, either, who will decide if there was anything masterly in my work, but time. I would say that I’ve done a couple of pretty good things – which does not mean that I’m about to retire. There’s just too many things that interest me, things I still want to do. Such as extending my work with orchestras. On the other hand, I just bought myself this wonderful guitar, with which I would love to do a solo project, something I’ve been planning for years. I’m also looking forward to playing some Rhythm and Blues again. And then I would like to continue with my electronic material. There’s so many ideas and I would love to be able to realize as many as possible. Who knows what will come out of it

Ash Ra Tempel (1971) Ohr
Schwingungen (1972) Ohr
Seven Up (1973) Ohr
Join Inn (1973) Ohr
Starring Rosi (1973) Ohr
Inventions For Electric Guitar (1975) Ohr
New Age Of Earth (1976) Isadora
Blackouts (1977) Polydor
Correlations (1979) Virgin
Belle Alliance (1980) Ariola
E2-E4 (1984) Inteam
Walkin' The Desert (1989) Navigator
Dream & Desire (1991) Musique Intemporelle 
Tropical Heat (1991) Navigator
Le Berceau de Cristal (1993) Spalax
Sauce Hollandaise (1998) serie poeme
@shra (1998) Think Progressive
Friendship (2000) Manikin
Gin Rosé at the Royal Festival Hall (2000) Manikin
@shra Vol. 2 (2002) MG.ART
The Making Of (2002) MG.ART
Die Mulde (2005) MG.ART
Concert for Murnau (2005) MG.ART
E2-E4 Live (2005) MG.ART

Manuel Göttsching / Ashra

Picture by Alexander von Reiswitz

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