Manuel Gottsching Exclusive Interview 2009

By Lorraine Kay

 LOS ANGELES, CA – Renown German guitarist and composer Manuel Gottsching will be making a rare live appearance in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 8,  at 8 p.m., at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. In fact, according to Gottsching, it is not only his first and only time he has appeared in Los Angeles, but only the second appearance in the United States ever, having performed E2-E4 at the Lincoln Center, in New York in August last year.

 The Sunday concert will present Gottsching’s “Concert For Murnau”, a live performance to F.W. Murnau’s silent movie “Schloss Vogelod “ (The Haunted Castle). (Murnau was one of the most important silent movie directors, he invented some film genres like the horror film, see his film “Nosferatu” which is his most famous one, while his “Schloss Vogelöd” is the first psycho thriller in film history, more about it at: http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/los/kue/en4151256v.htm). For this movie Göttsching is not playing guitar, but poor electronics. Originally this music was composed for a chamber orchestra and electronics. Later Göttsching changed it the way that it can be also performed by him solo without the orchestra, only on electronics, performed this way for the first time at the Opera in Wroclaw/Poland 2006.

 As an added treat for Gottsching’s fans, his music will also be featured Monday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at the Goethe-Institut, in Los Angeles, http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/los/kue/en4147036v.htm, as part of a sneak preview of “The Count and the Comrade”, a new documentary created by Gottsching’s film director and producer wife, Ilona Ziok, which was recently shown at the Berlin film festival. Plot, Trailer & More at:  www.countandcomrade.de.

In this exclusive interview with writer, Lorraine Kay, Gottsching talked about the rare performance of “Concert for Murnau”, his wife’s film and chatted casually about his approach to his experimental form of music.

Q. Your fans in the United States are very excited to finally get to see you perform live. Have you played in Los Angeles before?

A. No. it is the first time I have ever played in Los Angeles. Last summer was the first time that I have ever performed in the United States. It was my debut at the Lincoln Center, which was followed by two other smaller concerts in New York and in Philadelphia.

Q. Tell me about Concert for Murnau.

A. It is a composition to accompany a silent movie, originally composed for an orchestra and electronics. I performed this composition for the first time in 2003 in Germany. The movie is the second film by F.W. Murnau, one of the most important silent movie directors in film history and a kind of trend setter for many genres.  Made in 1921, the film got lost for many years and was recently found in Brasil. But there was no music score existing, so I wrote new music for it and have performed it since 2003 five times, but only one time with an orchestra.  At the Opera of Wroclaw in Poland 2006 (one of the oldest and most beautiful operas in the world) it was the electronic premiere of the music, followed by a concert at the Jecheon Music-Film-Festival in Korea, at Film Festival Biberach (Germany) and  in Beijing (China). The concert in Los Angeles is the US-premiere. I am happy to perform it in a real old silent movie theater in L.A., solo on Electronics. Originally, I released the music on an album called “Concert for Murnau” This is the orchestral-electronic version.

Q. How did you get started with the silent music composition?

A. Important to mention, the silent movie music is without guitar. Regarding the idea to do music for a silent movie I have to tell you that my wife, Ilona Ziok, is a film director & producer. Some years ago, during the shootings to her film “Kurt Gerron’s KARUSSELL” (where I also participated composing and performing on piano to German shooting star Ben Becker) Ilona met Mr. Willy Sommerfeld, an original silent movie pianist from the 20s, who back then was in his late 90s. When she decided to do a film about him I got to learn his way of accompanying silent films, without any score but improvising on piano – sometimes not even knowing the movie. This was fantastic because this old man could improvise for long movies – 90-minute movies up to 3-hour movies. The improvisation was a mix of what he invented at this very moment (improvising) and what came into his mind from the old music he remembered from the 20’s at the moment of improvising. If you want, you can check him out in the trailer to the film: www.willysommerfeld.de). Willy Sommerfeld died at age 103 in December 2007.  At the film premiere in Berlin he was 102 years old, and back then still performing to movies from time to time.

He was an inspiration for me as I thought, well I have also done a lot of improvising in my life, why not trying to do it to a silent move, using modern instruments which will sound completely different than an old piano. So, I said to myself, why not performing with drum machines and synthesizers for a silent movies to make it sound more “modern”, more up to date. I started with this idea, but it turned out to be different, as my work was commissioned by the Brunswick Film Fest, a film festival dedicated to music in films and films on music (one of the few existing festivals for this genre; in the US the Woodstock film festival might be kind of similar), and they wanted me to work with their State Theater’s Orchestra. So I composed some orchestra parts and some electronic parts, but the basic idea to have some modern electronic music for an old silent movie remained.

Q. You will be also presenting another film with your music at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles. Can we talk about that a moment?

A. Yes. Ilona is a film producer and a film director. I participated in some of her projects, performing on piano for her film “Kurt Gerron’s KARUSSELL” which was very successful all over the world, also in the USA, I mentioned this already. And I composed the music to her film “The Count and the Comrade” shown during the Berlin film festival. And this one I will present at the Goethe Institut in LA. There is by the way a funny co-incidence: “The Count and the Comrade” and the US-film on the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler “Valkyrie” have in a way the same subject, the German resistance to the ”Führer”. United  in their resistance to Hitler, two seemingly incompatible men illuminate a turbulent era of German history, until today: Count Carl-Hans von Hardenberg, one of the rebellious officers behind “Operation Valkyrie”, the plot to assassinate Hitler, and the fervent communist Fritz Perlitz. Both,  VALKYRIE and Ilona’s COUNT AND COMRADE are real stories. But in Ilona’s film there are real people who were involved back then. Her film is a documentary and it does not stop at the resistance….

Q. Do you enjoy doing music for films?

A. I composed some classical music and classic guitar music for THE COUNT AND THE COMRADE  and I also worked on her film “Kurt Gerron’s KARUSSELL”. There I performed on piano my composition to a famous German poem “Ode to Berlin”. The music to those two movies is very different from the music you might know from my records. I’m not really into film music that much.

Usually when I play music I just start and then I let it go, only following the direction the music develops. I don’t want to see anything and I don’t want to have any restrictions. So in the end if a film director can use my music the way I do it it’s fine and I’m happy with it. Philippe Garrel’s “Le Berceau de Cristal” (starring Nico and Anita Pallenberg) was done this way, very successfully. But it would be difficult for me the other way around – to start composing precisely on to the pictures. Some composers are talented to do so, for them it might be inspiring to watch the pictures, but I have a problem with it. As soon as I get into my music, the music begins to tell its own story. 

Q. I read that you have been interested in music since you were very young. When did you first get into composition?

A. Actually I was trained in classical guitar. What I really liked in classical was playing the pieces composed for training your playing techniques, commonly called “études”. All the famous composers have written those pieces for students to practice, and they are perfectly made for starting to improvise. And I really liked that, this was my first experience in improvisation.

This was my background, starting to improvise with variations on classical guitar music. Later I also used elements of popular music, blues, rock, Latin, jazz. For my own compositions I began with basic structures for the pieces, like to have a beginning, an end and have a part in the middle. I started to build step by step, more and more into the music, playing very slow, playing fast, playing soft, playing loud. In this way I created a scheme of only very simple elements, which I then used as the background for improvising. This was in the early years 1968 to 1972.

Then I became quite influenced by composers like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phil Glass. I started to build my own music in a way like this. I used patterns and repeated patterns in a way that you can hear on “Inventions for Electric Guitar” – a typical pattern type music from the composition.

I also composed music in song structures but actually I wasn’t so much into songs, I was more into other forms of music and tried to develop this. Today, basically I still begin with improvisation and sometimes I would leave it like that, but sometimes I feel I have to build up a composition according to a concept I have.

Q. What was your first composition?

A. Most important is certainly “Inventions for Electric Guitar”. It was my first solo album which I recorded in 1974. It is a very experimental piece of music. The only instrument is the electric guitar. I tried to use all the sound possibilities of electric guitar.

You can hear my earlier compositions on the Ash Ra Tempel albums, the very first Ash Ra Tempel (1971), and the second one “Schwingungen”(1972). This music is a little bit different because it was with a band and we were still more into rock music. Back then I was influenced by blues music and the music of the 60s. I liked the group Cream that played just basic beginnings of a blues piece then starting improvising, playing an end. I always liked Jimi Hendrix when he performed live because it was completely different. He just took rough parts of his pieces and did long improvisations. This is what I tried to do, and to mix those elements. This is what you can hear on the Ash Ra Tempel albums.

But for “Inventions for Electric Guitar” I developed a complete structure that I wanted to perform. I had to because I recorded it all by myself. I liked the idea of recording multitrack and playing it myself. I began with a structure on one track and then to record the next track and the next track. I did not use any loops, I played each track all through the entire length of the pieces. This gives a much greater variety and richness in the repetition of the patterns.

Q. I was surprised when I heard that your background was Jimi Hendrix and Cream and all that because when I was listening to your music I wasn’t hearing that.

A. Yeah, it was a lot of blues that I liked, John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, because I was a guitar player and of course I loved all these guitar players. This was interesting to me because I came from classical guitar and I didn’t know how to play electric guitar. It is completely different. So I started with blues scales and very simple things. When I was more into it I began to do the experiments with electric guitar sounds and finally I went away from the blues and rock thing, trying to bring the electric guitar into a new dimension comparable to a classical instrument.

I like to switch around. I always take elements of music. I take elements of  blues, I take elements of  rock music, I take elements of  classic music, I take elements of  jazz, I take elements of  electronic music and then trying to make my own music out of it, trying to combine it.

I like to listen to nearly all kinds of music so I get an idea, for example this idea came to my mind some time ago to combine minimal music –what you probably know it from Steve Reich or John Adams, but my way J – with Italian Belcanto, – popular in early 19th century opera arias, and how to get it together. Not so easy, because they are both fundamentally different. Minimal music means very decent changes within a limited range following strictly the rules whereas the Belcanto on the other hand means an extremely emotional solo melody using the full range extensively. But this could be an interesting idea to work on and to bring them together.

Q. What inspires you? Do you have a muse?

A. Nothing special, it’s just I have to have a feeling to start something. Most of the time I only have to begin playing and something develops. Sometimes I have ideas or a melody or a rhythm or a special sound and then I start to work on it.  Because of the technical aspect it might come out completely different. Sometimes it is better if you just switch on the machines and play around for awhile and then suddenly something is happening.

Q. Did you ever play in a cover band, like as a teenager?

A. I did, yes. That was my first band when I was still playing classic guitar but of course I was a teenager. I loved the popular music at the time so I started with my school friend, who was later the bass player on the four Ash Ra Tempel albums. I was 14 or 15 back then.

We started with a cover band. We played some Rolling Stones, some Beatles, stuff like that. I liked Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac a lot. It was only for a year and we really had a strong desire to continue and make our own music. But it was a good beginning because we had learned to listen. We did not have scores, I had only the music on the radio and so I was taping the music from the radio and I was listening to it and trying to reproduce it because I was interested on how to achieve certain sounds. I wanted to know -why does this sound like this and how can I make it that sound. But it was just for fun and we played for school parties, and everyone liked us.

So we felt inspired to continue, to go on. We wanted to make our own music and then we heard a very strange album from the group Blue Cheer which was a kind of hard rock/heavy metal blues or some very strange mixture and we decided we can do it ourselves so we started composing ourselves.

Q. Who was the bass player for this band and started with Ash Ra Tempel with you?

A. His name was Hartmut Enke. He was my school friend. With him I  started the cover band, then we created another band playing totally free improvisations, and then we formed a blues band. We were always looking for how to make our own thing, and finally we came to Ash Ra Tempel in 1970. Hartmut played with Ash Ra Tempel for three years and four albums, then he left music for good.

We were very young at the time. When we formed Ash Ra Tempel we both were 17 and we were still in school so we took it all very easy in the beginning. But I had already four albums released before I left school. 

Q. That is amazing – four albums and still in school.

A. Well it was a very special period in Germany. There was practically no German music scene existing and there were many influences from America and from England. Many German musicians, also older musicians, wanted to create something new, and a lot of very experimental groups and bands emerged at the time like Can, Amon Düül, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. The audience was very open at the time, the people really enjoyed all these experimental concerts, so there was this special atmosphere to make something new and on our own.

Q. Do you have a fantasy band?

A. No, I don’t think in terms of a band. I think more in terms of a composer, so what really attracts me is sitting here and trying to find new structures in music. I really like to sit down and play around with instruments and the computer programs and to find new ways.

I like to watch how music develops over the years, I think about what we started with – these electronic sounds in the 70s, what came out later in the 80s and what developed with the techno music and all this. It is really interesting to me how music changes, how the audience reacts and how today you can go on stage with a laptop and the people like it. 

I imagine that 20 or 30 years ago no one would understand it. I mean there were no laptops, okay. Today it is well accepted. Young people have no problems that it is music and they like it  and I remember big discussions in the 70s about this technical power, about playing synthesizers and whether it was real music, really an instrument. This has changed a lot over the years.

Today, in terms of composition, I am also interested in working with an orchestra. The music of “Concert for Murnau” was composed and originally performed with orchestra in 2003, and I performed an exciting version of E2-E4 with a 10 piece orchestra (Zeitkratzer) in 2005. For the Berlin Film Festival’s 60th anniversary next year, I will work on a new composition, maybe in connection with a movie and maybe with a philharmonic orchestra, I have not decided yet. This is something what attracts me, too. Working with a big orchestra and to write for classical instruments.

Q. What type of guitars do you use?

A. Most of the time I use a Gibson SG. I have an old Gibson SG Les Paul from 1961, and I have a new one, that is an SG Supreme. I like the SG because the neck is very comfortable, the fretboard and you can play very well the high notes on the fretboard. That’s what I like.

I also like the Fender sound. I have some pieces that I prefer to play on the Fender. But for the experimental pieces I prefer the SG because it is more suitable for experimental sounds.

Q. Are your guitars customized for the experimental stuff?

No, they have the normal pick-ups and tremolo. I don’t play with guitar amps. For many years I have played directly into a mixer which I always have on stage, with delays and various effects.

I use delays and echoes and reverb. The composition  for “Inventions” is based on a specific echo which is about  350 milliseconds. I also play the guitar with an old tone bar that is used for pedal steel or Hawaiian guitar, but I use it like a bow for the violin to get a special string sound. I play a lot with a volume pedal, wah-wah pedal, and other standard things but for me it is okay to get my sound out of it.

Basically, I really prefer to use standard effects, standard boxes, but trying to play my own sound with it, so I don’t have any special effects  or special technical devices. I like to use very simple things that every body can use, but to make some sounds with it.

I found out over the years that you don’t have to use so much technology. It’s the way that you are playing, your playing technique, which can express a lot. You just learn it over the years and then you can reduce the technical aspects. You don’t have to use it anymore. Of course you need a good production and you need a good sound, yes, but I found it more interesting to use all the playing technique that you can express. It’s very simple. In the beginning you just hit the guitar and don’t understand anything, then you evolve.

Q. I know you say you like to keep things simple, but do you like to use the new technology and the new advancements? How much do you try to use?

A. Yes, of course, I love it. I love to work with the computer. I love to work with the recording programs because it is much easier than with the old tape recorders and mixing decks.

There is one program which I really like to use for live performance, called Ableton Live, which is in some aspects invented for the DJ culture where you have a different understanding of how you make music and produce music. Ableton is a Berlin company, and I have used it for four or five years now.

 I don’t use it for everything, but for some compositions it’s really a beautiful program. Especially for “E2- E4”, which could have been invented with this program if it had existed in 1981. The basic part of the composition I play with this program, because it is fantastic to use on stage. You can use it like a complete instrument. 

There’s another piece of mine which is called “Sunrain”, this is from my album “New Age of Earth” from 1976, which is so beautiful to play with this program because it is very pattern orientated, very short patterns, which you can mix in various ways. I’ve made a new version of “Sunrain” for my solo program, which you can hear on my recent “Live at Mt. Fuji” CD.

Q.  Do you use MIDI?

A. Not with the guitar. I used one of the very early Roland guitar synthesizer in 1978, still with the old CV-trigger/gate technology. It was quite nice but a little bit slow so it was not actually guitar playing anymore. I connected it to a mini-moog, and then I had all the sounds of a mini-moog played on the guitar, which was quite interesting but in the end I preferred to play the mini-moog with the keyboard because it is easier and you have better control. Actually I like the typical guitar sound, and  for many pieces I just use simple guitar sounds. For example, for the “E2-E4” I use just the very straight guitar sound without any effects. Only a little reverb and that’s it.

Basically, I did a lot of experiments with guitar sounds and with synth guitar at the end of the 70s but later I returned to the pure guitar sound. Sometimes distortion is okay, with an old amp. And I still like simple things like the wah-wah pedal. That’s nearly all.

Q. Are you doing any recording right now, or just promoting these concerts?

A. The original idea was to perform INVENTIONS FOR ELECTRIC GUTIAR on 4 guitars as world premiere at UCLC LIVE, but we had to cancel this concert due to many reasons. At the moment I am focusing on the preparation for Los Angeles performance of my music to Murnau’s silent movie.

Then I really need one year off, with no concerts. I really want to do a new studio album, but there is also the Berlin Film Festival’s 60s anniversary 2010 where I have been asked to do the Gala concert , so lets see….

But my fans in California are welcome to attend my concert for Murnau and my wife’s movie to which I did the music!

 Tickets should be ordered in advance, as the silent movie cinema is not very big and could be sold out soon. Following this appearance Gottsching plans to begin his working on a new studio album, so  this will remain his only visit to California in 2009.

 Visit http://www.ashra.com/ for details and links to concert info.