From the scores of the Indeterminist school to free-improvised noise and from New Music to rock, the German multi-saxophonist and composer has a moto: music must have a vision.
He plays several instruments of the saxophone family and is deeply involved with electro-acoustics, using it to perform the music of others, even if carving his own mark on it, or improvising and playing the compositions he wrote himself. Between a contemporary music piece by Berio, for instance, and the free rock of Text of Light, his band with Lee Ranaldo, of Sonic Youth fame, and DJ Olive, Ulrich Krieger says there’s an obvious connection: they’re both musical expressions of our time. That’s his vision for the future, beginning now: that each of us turns a real multidimensional being… an interview by Rui Eduardo Paes
Rui Eduardo Paes | Your work is done in two fronts: as a saxophonist, generally performing the music of names like John Cage or Phill Niblock, and as a composer. Only sometimes those two activities coincide in the same piece. Any special reason for that?
Ulrich Krieger | That is actually not true. There are quite a couple of pieces for saxophone(s) I wrote, performed and recorded by myself. This was true specially in the 80’s and 90’s. And I am planning to do a CD with my (solo) saxophone music performed by myself. There is a 60 minute long soprano sax quartet, ‘Up and Down 23’, I recorded alone and which will be released this year on Quakebasket. Also my 50 minute composition ‘Fathom’ for contrabass sax, two electric guitars and percussion was recorded with Lee Ranaldo, Alan Licht, Tim Barnes and me, and will hopefully be released next year. Both pieces were performed live a couple of times and I always played the saxophone. ‘Fathom’ will be performed at two festivals in autumn, and in June I will perform my piece ‘( ) …’ with Radu Malfatti, Antoine Beuger and others.
There is also a new 30 minute alto sax solo, which still waits to be premiered. But anyhow, since a while I don’t feel the urge to write for myself so much anymore. I used to include at least one original piece in programs with other composers. But I don’t do these kind of mixed-composer programs hardly anymore. These days I find it more interesting to write for other players and hear them perform my music. The last piece I wrote is for the Swiss KontraTrio (contrabass flute, contrabass saxophone, contrabass tuba). So the saxophone comes back in my composition, I don’t avoid it. But as far as my own playing goes I prefer to either play music of composers I love – to get into their heads, so to speak (Niblock, Cage, Bryars, Riley, Tenney, Scelsi – to name some of my favorites) or to improvise and collaborate with people directly, to have spontaneous exchanges. The kind of material I use in this context is very similar to what I would use in a piece I would write just for myself.
I always made a difference between pieces I write for other players, which have to have a different kind of form and the pieces I write for myself, which I call performer/composer pieces. These are sometimes not written down at all or only in a very loose way and which can develop from performance to performance. This last aspect of development, of work-in-progress, was a main interest in writing for myself (rather than just improvising). But a lot of my performer/composer works developed after a while to a point that I wrote them down, ‘finalized’ them so to speak and they are now also available to other performers (Rote Erde, …wie oben, so auch unten…). So the newer saxophone pieces are all written out. There are two compositions at the moment, which were from the beginning conceived as ‘work-in-progress’: ‘Book of Sins’ (guitar and electronics) and ‘Azrael 1’ (cello and electronics). Here I have two pieces for other players which develop and change from performance to performance and sometimes even take different directions after a while – and probably will be finalized at some point.
Rui Eduardo Paes | You’ve been working lately in the fringes of pop music, which you call your “old love”. Give me some examples and tell me why this kind of investment…
Ulrich Krieger | There is and always was a strong experimental current in pop culture. Saying ‘pop culture’ I mean more Rock and electronic music than actually middle-of-the-road commercial charts pop music. I grew up listening to New Music and Rock at the same time and there never was a (quality) difference for me between them – just different styles, languages. When I was 16 I would listen in one day to Schönberg piano pieces, then Velvet Underground, then Stockhausen, Bauhaus, etc. My projects Text of Light with Lee Ranaldo and Alan Licht and zerfall_gebiete with Thomas Köner fall within this ‘category’ of pop culture for me because of my formative background (as opposed to academic new music, free jazz, etc.). This is music which is surely experimental or avant-garde or whatever you want to call it…, but it is in no way coming from a ‘New Music’ background, but a rock music, industrial, metal, electronic, club and ambient background.
I can’t really understand nor support the arrogant and ignorant ways many New Music composers look down on Rock music. In certain ways there is at the moment more experimental, progressive things going on in this kind of music as in ‘classical contemporary music’, which is in a phase of mannerism and in a crisis. Here are some referential bands I like: Sonic Youth, Can, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Scott Walker’s ‘Tilt’ and ‘The Drift’ CDs, Throbbing Gristle, Henry Cow, Pan Sonic, Velvet Underground, Clock DVA, Brian Eno, Underground Resistance and early Detroit Techno, early Drum ‘n Bass, Merzbow, SunO))), Deicide, Meshuggah, John Zorn, The Pop Group…
Rui Eduardo Paes | A good part of your attention as a performer is dedicated to the minimalist tradition. That choice connects you to the memory of a specific movement of the 20th century. Of course, you don’t do only that, but this seems to be an aesthetic option. I know that the Sixties and Seventies minimalist procedures are reflected in today’s electronica, but when you name two of your recordings as “Early American Minimalism”, interpreting scores by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, it seems you’re revising history (doing history) and adopting a repertoire. Or are you enlightening the minimalist influence in the present, showing that all this (the “walls of sound”) started with those guys? What is the purpose, afterall?
Ulrich Krieger | Having performed mainly European New Music during the 80’s I actually got tired of the academic and ‘brainy’ limitations of this music as well as of the political bourgeois implications it carries. This is a music coming out of a classical tradition.
See, if you are just a ‘normal’ performer, nobody even considers asking you why you play Berio, Cage, Mr. Unknown, Tan Dun, Ms. Premiere and Reich in one concert or on one CD (who ever asked the Arditti Quartet this question?). But as soon as a performer starts getting selective and picky people start wondering … With composers it is just the other way round: everybody expects a composer to have not only a, but ONE aesthetic position. If you write pieces in more than one style everybody calls you a post-modernist (which is a four letter word in music) or questions your integrity. Why is that??? Instead of doing CDs with a mix of different composers (my first solo CD was like this: ‘Nightmares and Other Stories’), I decided to do CDs highlighting a specific composer or musical style or theme I like and find important to work on deeper.
The ‘Walls of Sound’ series consists of three CDs: #1 long tones and drones: Niblock, Tenney, Cage, Celli; #2 classical American Minimalism (pattern music): Reich, Riley, Glass; #3 will be European (extended sounds): Nono, Bertoncini, Krieger, Radulescu.
There is also the Cage series, which will be four CDs, and then there is one CD with the saxophone music of Henry Cowell and Percy A.Grainger, etc. Also I like to show the saxophone world that there is a whole world of repertoire which was neglected for so long by saxophone performers, which only play Berio (which I just recorded for Mode), Stockhausen, and a few other European mainstream composers.
See, the world is complex and our societies seem to want to press people into linear beings. But we are not linear, we are multidimensional, and I like to give my different interests, my different personalities different outputs. Minimalism is an important musical style of the 20th century. I like the early music, but I am not so fond of the later stilistic developments. So I decide to bring these early pieces back into the mind of a larger audience and sax players, special now that it is such a strong (and often unconscious) influence everywhere. And of course it is historic, meaning that I want to show these pieces as part of a historical canon, as repertoire, it is an important part of the musical history of today. This question/remark came often in reviews about the ‘Walls’ CD, but when you record a piano solo CD with Lachemann, Stockhausen, Nono and Ligeti, nobody ask you this question. Doesn’t this raise some questions in itself?
Rui Eduardo Paes | Do you still work with Thomas Koner ? If the minimalists were the grandfathers, he’s one of the fathers of today’s drone / static electronic music…
Ulrich Krieger | We still play together. The last thing we did was in a Berlin planetarium in January. I love our collaboration, which of course is very sustained, ambient, droning and dark. The idea of working with Thomas goes years back, when I was doing a concert series called ‘New Sax Electronica’. I started this around 1998, when I decided to stop doing the normal interpreter programs mentioned above. I didn’t want to play ‘New Music’ anymore, but I liked to continue with a solo program. So I asked musicians I like, NS which normally don’t write for other musicians, to write pieces for me: Duncan, Karkowski, Hegenbart, Ranaldo, etc., mostly musicians from a Noise, Rock, Electronic Music background.
Thomas was not so much interested to write for me, but he was interested in working with me and so this collaboration started years later. Today I agree with him. I rather collaborate directly with someone than having him write pieces which I then have to study. We have released one single on Die Stadt under the name of ‘zerfall_gebiete’ and will do more in the future.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Speaking of influences: how do you envision the influence of Cage’s music and thinking in the present? In this context, what is for you the importance of your “A Cage of Saxophones”, a colection of your own versions of his compositions?
Ulrich Krieger | There is a lot of great music he wrote for saxophone, which I wanted to perform and make a part of the saxophone repertoire. There is a very academic way of performing Cage and much misunderstanding about him as a composer. I wanted to record theses pieces in a way I like them to be heard, my vision of them, which is much more sensual, also showing Cage’s influence on Ambient Music (‘Atlas Eclipticalis’, the number pieces, ‘Ryoanji’, and others) and newer developments. There are two kinds of performers (to simplify things): 1) the one who plays everything you ask him to. This is for people who are happy just to play their instruments (you find them mostly in orchestras and ensembles – I’m not criticizing!); 2) the other who, although performing other composer’s music, has is own artistic idea and intention. This means to select what you play, because you want to say something with it.
For me it is very much like composing with found material, material I never would come up with myself. Cage’s influence at this moment on New Music is not so strong. We have quite a conservative and academic backlash here – also specially with young composers, not only the old guard. But Cage’s influence, often even unnoticed, in all kind of genres and art is broad…
Rui Eduardo Paes | With the post-post-modern chamber orchestra Zeitkratzer you did also an acoustic version of Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”, a work that is pointed out as opening the way for current noise practices, from Merzbow (you also had a colaboration with Masami Akita) to the band Wolf Eyes. Tell me how was that experience. You presented it live with Lou himself…
Ulrich Krieger | This was great. It was a lot of work to transcribe it off the record. But it was worth it. ‘Metal Machine Music’ is probably one of the most misunderstood musical compositions in the 20th century. It is neither Rock ‘n Roll nor ‘New Music’ (nor Free Jazz) – and at the same time it is the absolute essence of all of it. So it was misunderstood from all sides – remember it was done in 1975! Today there is an audience for this kind of thing, but back then just very few people got it. Lou Reed first didn’t believe that it is possible to do a version for classical instruments and was very reluctant and very surprised that after all this time some guys, who were still kids when the record came out, now have such a strong interest in it. We then did a concert with other pieces of Lou from a theater collaboration with Robert Wilson. Lou was very pleased and after we approached him again about ‘MMM’, he gave his ok, but only after first hearing a 5 minute demo.
Luca Venitucci and me transcribed the piece independently in order to compare it afterwards. This was done so we could see what each of us has heard in this thick, dense sound world. And surprisingly enough we had heard pretty much the same. There were some minor things each of us hadn’t paid attention to, but then the other had. I had made a precise plan for an arrangement already before the transcription, because I knew which instrument could produce which sounds. So only after hearing the piece with these instruments in my mind we started the transcription. Lou loves it and it was great to perform with him.
Rui Eduardo Paes | I remember an Italian journalist saying that your playing (or better still: your hearing perceived in the performative act) is very analytical. Your interpretation of written music is in itself not only a study but a critique of that music, a kind of transposition for another plane of things?
Ulrich Krieger | Yes, this is right. And very well coined. If I play music by someone else I can’t just play the notes. I have to get into the head of the composer, his thinking, his intention, and specially his philosophy. Only through this, playing other composers works makes sense for me. I have to deconstruct a piece and then put it back together again, and then it has to become sensual again. I have to understand the piece, its structure, its aesthetic in order to make it come alive. It has to make sense for me, which means I have to make it MY piece, I have to have a personal vision of the composition I play. It has to have a meaning for me – if it is the meaning the composer thought of or not doesn’t really matter. But I never change the content of a piece, never change notes or structures, etc. So it is also a compositional process by first de-construction and then re-construction. I work with a material I never would write myself.
Rui Eduardo Paes | And what about improvisation, a field in which you’re also developing some work? Do you consider it a critique of music, in that case not of the score, but of memory, background, taste, aesthetic choices or whatever? Or improvisation is for you something completely different, calling other type of considerations? If so, what are those considerations?
Ulrich Krieger | All the fields of music I am working in have different special focuses for me. In composition you are able to use whatever material you like, you are not limited to just your own instrument, you have much time to really figure out detailed structures and sounds. In playing other composers music the task is to get into another person’s mind, playing something I never would come up with. Improvising is to react, to have to make decisions on the spot. Also it is about creating music with others a single musician would not come up with, to join forces for something that hopefully will be more than the sum of its single elements. Text of Light is a good example of that.
Text of Light is an absolute free improvising group. We never rehearse and never perform concepts. Through the background of everybody the result is not Free Jazz nor (European) Free Improvisation, but a kind of ‘Free Rock’, which is very sound oriented and ecstatic. Very often we ourselves cannot always say who is making which sounds – our sounds melt. Our concerts range from ambient to noise, but often we are pretty loud, but not only.
Rui Eduardo Paes | In an improvising way, with Text of Light you’ve been trying to answer to the question: “What is the sound of a Stan Brakhage film?”. But does not a Brackhage film function in some way as a score? What problems (either in the good and in the bad sense) are born from playing live music during cinema presentations? And specifically what problems are implicated by the cinema of this experimental director? Do you try to translate to music his cinematic concepts or things flow in paralel without attempting to fuse?
Ulrich Krieger | We don’t try to play a soundtrack at all. We often don’t even watch when we play. I played whole concerts with the back to the screen. The film is an influence.
It is so by simple being there, knowing there is a Brakahge film going on at the same time. So we don’t use it as a score at all. Sometimes some of us watch for a while and get influenced by what they see, but it is never an illustration or copy of visual material to musical material. And that influence then again influences the others who don’t watch. For some people it seems to be difficult to understand. It is two things happening at the same time in the same room. There is no 1:1 connection between the films and the music. It is all non-direct, more sub-conscious, if you like. But of course it is a clear aesthetic decision and part of the concept of the band to use (mostly) only Brakhage films.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Text of Light have a strong rock accent – afterall, it includes Lee Ranaldo, from Sonic Youth fame, and Alan Licht. What interests you in rock?
Ulrich Krieger | Rock music and New Music are musical styles of the second half of the 20th century. As I said before, I don’t make quality distinctions between musical styles – only within the styles. Experimental Music always interested me. And every musical genre has its interesting experimental sub-genres and fringes. I grew up with Rock music and just never saw the necessity to go away from it. It is a vital, lively and down to earth art form. I always was involved in different kinds of Rock music: Not just in my teenager days, in the early 90s I had an improvising, techno-rhythm based, ambient-noise trio called Murilag. I had a noisy free improv Rock band, The Koan Pool, with David First in the mid-90’s. Now I have a band-project called Blood Oath in which I try to mix death metal, doom metal, free improvisation, and noise. Rock music is a part of me – much more than classical music ever was. Rock music is an authentic art form and it is very creative in the usage of sounds.
Rui Eduardo Paes | And what about jazz? Your saxophone sound and playing is completely alien to the saxophone jazz tradition. Or not?
Ulrich Krieger | Hm, yes and no. It is true that again my sax sound and concept of playing comes mainly from the two big mainstreams I love: New Music (and therefore the classical music tradition – I did study classical saxophone after all) and Rock. Jazz focuses mainly on harmony and melody. Structure and sound was never such a big issue in Jazz. Of course individual sound was always important, but never as a compositional tool. This only changed when Free Jazz came and here my real interest in Jazz started. I did play BeBop as a teenager and in my early 20s, but I soon abandoned it. I wasn’t so interested in playing melodic solos over a rigid harmony structure. But I always was a big Ornette Coleman fan – I guess I know nearly all his records, and I love Miles Davis. But again my preferred periods are the electric, rocking, funky ones: Miles in the 70’s and Ornette in the 80’s. My personal interest lies in sounds and structure (which also means rhythm). I once did a concert with my versions for sax and electronics of Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme’, Aylers’s ‘Ghosts’ and Sun Ra’s ‘Blues on Planet Mars’. And with my sax quartet Intersax I covered more Coltrane and Sun Ra.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Your recent concerts with a saxophone quartet included pieces by such diverse names as Stockhausen and Coltrane, Sun Ra and David Bowie, Cage and Pink Floyd, and you even played the Star Trek theme. What was the “conceptual” frame for this broad openness?
Ulrich Krieger | Since long I am interested in Science Fiction and its implications on society. In our days, where even the left is conservative and everybody tries to save something (the ‘good ol’ times’ mostly), nobody has a vision for a new society, nobody wants to see what the real problem is. We are living in a time of the end of one society and the birth of a new one. Very much like around 1700. Science Fiction is an art form, which has this potential of visions. It is strong in film (unfortunately recently mostly ‘ferry tall like’) and in literature, where it still has much of its vision, many of the authors of SF are scientist, mathematicians and physicists. But within music it seems to be difficult to deal with SF. Sun Ra, late-Coltrane, Stockhausen, are some of the composers who are interested in Science Fiction, visions of the future and the cosmos. I wanted to do a project about SF in music and not about a specific musical style.
There is interesting Jazz, New Music, Pop, Rock, and film music. I was interested in seeing how these different musicians approached this theme from different positions and angles and what are their differences and what are the overlaps. At the same time there was a video being shown made completely out of Science Fiction film footage with different thematic sections. Of course I could have chosen music from just one style. But if you are dealing with the future and visions it seems like a contradiction to restrict a concept to one point of view only.
Rui Eduardo Paes | You’ve been using the computer as an extra instrument. Another world for your intervention, or simply a tool more?
Ulrich Krieger | The computer for me is an instrument like any other. I love its possibilities. I substitute old electronic hardware with it. It is lighter, more efficient, andJmore open. I have been working with electronics on my saxophone since the late 80’s. So this is just a overdue step. I would need more time to learn some of the programs better. And of course it is an extension of the ‘acoustic electronic’ sounds I play on the sax.
Ulrich Krieger’s web page
selected recordings with Zeitkratzer