My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Reinhold Friedl—pianist, composer, and leader of the Berlin-based 12-member ensemble Zeitkratzer—creates a universe of sounds mainly using the inside of the piano, and has developed this approach into a very personal language of orchestral proportions. Zeitkratzer is a versatile unit, equally at home with Cagean strategies, classic Minimalism, harsh noise, and improvisation. Friedl and I met in 1997 when he asked me to compose a piece for Zeitkratzer. With “Coriolis Effect” I presented to him a high-density rhythmic and sonic challenge that was met with creative enthusiasm and virtuosity. It was evident that Friedl was thinking about more than just the piano, or even music. More meetings in Berlin and New York and many espressos, meals, and discussions cemented both a friendship and working relationship. We recorded a set of duos in the legendary Tönstudio für Elektronische Musik in East Berlin, allowing us to manifest some small part of the potential in this intersection. These tracks were released on the Church of Grob label from Cologne as Anostalgia . Encouraged by the sound and response, in 2001 we made another set of recordings at the New York club Tonic during a month-long series of gigs for my 50th birthday. This material was just released on the English Emanem label as Feuchtify (a word most easily translated as to dampen or moisten). New sounds and strategies emerged, deeper, wider spectra, brighter details, crystalline, dry, wet. I anxiously await the release of Reinhold’s upcoming CDs with Zeitkratzer—I know they’ll be gripping and electrifying, stimulating to ear and mind.
Elliott Sharp You just came back from the Huddersfield Festival, with Zeitkratzer. What was that like?
Reinhold Friedl We played two concerts, one dedicated to old-school contemporary music—John Cage and James Tenney—and the second dedicated to contemporary noise. The first program included Cage’s number pieces “Hymnkus,” “Five,” and “Four6” as well as Tenney’s “Critical Band,” the hallucinatory, visionary piece that premiered in the 1988 Miami New Music America Festival. Gustavo Matamoros, the artistic director of the Subtropics Experimental Music and Sound Arts Festival, told me a funny story: Late in his career, Cage started to advertise that he was developing a sense for harmony—and it all began in Miami, after he first heard a performance of Tenney’s “Critical Band” by Relâche Ensemble.
Two other pieces by Tenney completed our program, “Harmonium #2” and “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion.”
ES And the noise pieces?
RF The noise program was a classical Zeitkratzer program, with one piece written by Merzbow, the Japanese king of noise, another by Zbigniew Karkowski, and a long homage that I composed to Iannis Xenakis in 2004, called “Xenakis (a)live!”
ES I’m curious about a couple of things. I get the feeling that some contemporary festivals are trade shows, people trying to sell their products—like Witten. What’s the feeling at Huddersfield: is it a festival dedicated to music?
RF It’s dedicated to music. It has been the typical classical contemporary music festival in the UK; but then the curators changed, and the new curator seems to more open-minded, really interested in new music, not only old contemporary music. But yes, all the big contemporary music festivals have that trade-show aspect. The musicians who play at them want to profit from the reputation and also sell something to other festivals. That’s not a bad thing. On the other hand, more and more festivals that have come up in the last few years try to present really new tendencies in contemporary music—independently from their academic or non-academic backgrounds—and try successfully to build up a new audience.
ES What is the audience like? One has the impression that the contemporary music audience is stiff and academic, but I feel like it’s changing. It’s very much younger in a lot of places, certainly in Germany.
RF At Huddersfield it was quite mixed: there were a lot of young people, but also an elderly, professional audience: white, barbed old men!
ES Bearded, we say. (laughter) Do you think the young ones responded equally well to the music of the last century as to the contemporary noise pieces?
RF It’s a difficult question. The Cage and Tenney program we played was two hours of music plus 20 minutes of breaks. Those who really listened to this long concert don’t want to shout “Bravo” afterward! (laughter) They just want to keep the kind of trance. Whereas after the noise program in Madrid, people really freaked out, and it was the same at Huddersfield: they were shouting “Yeah! Bravo!” and whistling. It was a bit of a rock ambience after the concert.
ES It seems to me that the younger audiences respond well to things that are acoustically based: music that isn’t just a bunch of notes, but something sonic.
RF Yes, perhaps, yes. Tenney’s “Critical Band,” for example, is such a contemporary piece. As it builds, it starts slowly to include very defined interferences, the so-called beating tones, thus making it sound electronic. If it’s well played, you don’t think that it’s played by acoustic instruments, but it keeps the sonic qualities that acoustic instruments induce.
ES That’s happening with new music now, in its recent incarnation—or its revitalization. There’s more excitement in this realm than in the improvised music realm. You go to improvised music concerts and it’s very polite, but now, you see a bunch of people onstage with music stands, and people get very excited. It’s ironic. What’s your perception?
RF Well, it’s difficult to say. If I remember the old-fashioned contemporary music concert, I would say yes, it’s becoming normal again to have people shout and say “Bravo,” like they did for centuries at normal classical concerts, too. On the other hand: Yes. A huge part of so-called free improvised music is more defined, even before being played, with its common rules and practices, than anything written on a music stand can define! I mean the post–English/Company/Derek Bailey school. So perhaps the aim of this kind of improvised music is ultimately to copy the social style of contemporary music concerts—and that’s ironic, indeed.
ES How are the newer pieces, say, by Masami [Akita, aka Merzbow] and Zbigniew, notated? Pretty traditionally?
RF We notated the Merzbow piece ourselves. He sent what I call an acoustic score for it, and then came for the rehearsals.
ES An acoustic score: a recording?
RF A multi-track recording, and we decided who is playing what, which kind of sound, like a kind of pshhp, something like that, and then we wrote it down on timelines—timelines in real time—and we’d play it. You follow each track with one instrument. Then we did a kind of chorale in reverse, which we derived from our playing. Most of the material is quite an undefined sound.
ES So the multi-track that he sent you isn’t heard in the performance?
RF No, the multi-track was just the acoustic score that we used to make the written one.
ES And so you had to transcribe it for the orchestra?
RF We transcribed, and then he came and stayed for three days, and we wrote it out together.
ES And Zbigniew?
RF That’s a funny story, because we invited him to come and do a piece, and he did one that was 30 minutes and very, very difficult; it didn’t really work. But then he took the eight-track recording of the performance with him, and out of all of his material, he made a new piece of 40 minutes and 30 seconds, and then he gave us a multi-track of that. It’s essentially a graphic score. It’s funny because each player tries to get the sounds of the whole ensemble (laughter), so finally it’s really defined by all of us.
ES And left to the individual players to orchestrate, or to you as the director?
RF Oh, we did all that together for this piece.
ES And this brings me to a question of the nature of a concert: essentially, you’re the leader of the group, but yet, does it function cooperatively?
RF In which way?
ES Well, in the decision-making process for a piece of Karkowski or Masami’s, where you have to translate non-notated material to a notation system, the input of the players, it seems, becomes very important.
RF Yes, for sure, Zeitkratzer would not exist without the input of the outstanding and extraordinary players who are not only members of the group but who define its very special sound. So without their input, the whole concept of the group would be impossible. On the other hand, it’s really me who makes the decisions, especially concerning future programs, cooperations, or projects. I also prepare the material as far as possible for new pieces, but in the rehearsal work everybody gives his maximum input and we try not to lose too much time with struggles, but rather to find good solutions.
ES Is it an easy process, or a difficult process?
RF I would say in the last years, it’s been easy. It’s quite clear how we work; it’s really quite smooth going from traditional work to this kind of thing.
ES Zeitkratzer is best known in the US for the recent European performances of “Metal Machine Music” with Lou Reed. Now, it seems to me that that was a different incarnation of Zeitkratzer. My sense is that the decision-making and organizational processes were distinct in that version of Zeitkratzer. Or am I mistaken?
RF Mmm, you are wrong.
ES Yeah? Okay.
RF Well, not completely wrong. First point: the group was organized in exactly the same way, which means I made the decisions and I did the work. But in another sense, the project was unusual and new for the group: we had never before really “covered” a piece—most of the other pieces are composed and written exclusively for the group—so for that we needed to transcribe it, which Ulrich Krieger and Luca Venitucci did in a great way. Second point: we had never worked with a rock star before, which turned out to be quite dangerous for some of the contemporary music players—some even thought about becoming rock musicians themselves, because they liked so much performing to an audience of more than 1,000.
ES How did the Lou Reed project come about? Did Lou Reed say, Let’s do this?
RF No, this was actually a suggestion from a friend. “Oh, you should do ‘Metal Machine Music.’” There was the idea, but there was no possibility of getting in touch with Lou Reed—I didn’t even try, because it was such another world. Some time later, I got a call from a manager who tried to propose Brian Eno, and then he said, Oh, let’s not do Brian Eno, let’s do something with Lou Reed.
ES It was very serendipitous.
RF Yes. So I met Lou Reed, and first he didn’t like the idea at all. He took me for a complete nut. I met him after a concert in Germany, at three o’clock in the morning, and told him, Okay, we want to do “Metal Machine Music” with three string instruments—violin, cello, bass—accordion, trumpet, saxophone, and piano. He told me later that he thought I was completely crazy. But finally he said, Let’s do something else. Together we did a sort of test piece—we had to do that first—but we also recorded a short version of “Metal Machine Music,” and he freaked out, he really liked it. After that we just went to work on that transcription of “Metal Machine Music.”
ES Does that remain active in Zeitkratzer’s repertoire?
RF Yeah, we still play it. We performed it in Rome this past January.
ES Are there any plans for the US or New York for Zeitkratzer?
RF Not at all, at the moment. It’s too expensive. (laughter) We have so many invitations, but including our sound man and our light designer, we’re 12 people; we need to travel and we need hotels… . That cost alone is too much for some US organizers.
ES But Zeitkratzer tours around Europe quite often.
RF It’s not really touring—we play festivals or concert series.
ES Do you find yourself coming in contact with local composers and performers in every place you go?
ES Have you been excited by things that you’ve been hearing or people you’ve been reading?
RF Some yes, some no. There are always interesting people around, but you have to work to check it out. It’s hard work to listen to a lot of music and to find something interesting.
ES Can you think of any places you’ve been that were more receptive or more exciting for new music than others? At times, when I’m touring, I feel a place’s vibe; people are charged up to hear things, there’s a lot of talk in the local press and radio about what’s going on in contemporary music. In other places, it’s completely dead.
RF You never know, when you’re coming, if people are into it or not. We played in Madrid this year. Everybody said there’s nothing happening with contemporary music in Madrid. We played the Auditorio Nacional, and 800 people were there for this difficult program, and they really liked it. Then you go to Vienna, which everybody tells you is the center of contemporary music. You play at concert halls and you think, Okay, this is a kind of 19th-century museum. Or we’ll be invited to play at strange festivals, where you don’t know why you are invited, it’s not a contemporary music kind of thing, but they invited us because there’s something with video. We were once invited to a Spanish festival, Huesca, which is a small town, and nobody was interested in contemporary music. It was just a normal festival with bands and everything. We played “four minutes, thirty-three seconds” by John Cage. A part of the audience freaked out and became aggressive; the other part of the audience really liked it. They had never seen anything like it before, so that was a very good experience.
ES So, you have been in places where, after your performance, people were hostile, or the promoters wondered why they had invited you?
ES Does anything stand out, where after the concert it was very uncomfortable?
RF No, fortunately. We are 12 strong men in the band. When I played solo, I had people running onstage and trying to beat me up. I think a lot of us had this experience.
ES Maybe Europeans are very polite, ultimately.
RF At least in the contemporary music scene, for sure, they will tell the truth only afterward, and then it’s to somebody else. I don’t know how it is in America.
ES You had mentioned to me that you were involved in some fashion projects. How did these pan out? Did they continue or fall apart?
RF We performed one project called “dry clean show,” and a condensed version of it called “global concern” in different European countries. It started in the autumn of 2003 when I was invited to compose the music for the project at the festival Steirischer Herbst in Graz, Austria. It was quite successful; we enjoyed doing this project. Especially the musicians and the models, 13 models were involved, and we had a lot of fun both doing it and partying.
ES These were songs with lyrics? Who was singing?
RF Marc Weiser, who does electronics with Zeitkratzer, and Burkhard Schlothauer, the violin player, were the two singers.
ES Were these songs that individual members wrote, or that you wrote?
RF The songs were written by Marc and Burkhard.
ES So everybody in the group is a composer to some extent?
RF Mmm, yes. Let’s say in the sense that at times everybody in the group is constructing music. It’s composing in that sense, not “being a composer” in the sense of Richard Strauss, what it would mean to sit down and compose as daily work.
ES Do you see Zeitkratzer as your outlet for composition, or do you compose for other ensembles as well?
RF I also compose for other ensembles. I didn’t compose that much for Zeitkratzer; I’ve only written three pieces for the group in seven years.
ES When you’re composing for other people, do you feel like there’s a core aesthetic that you draw upon in yourself that you apply to other groups, or does every situation call for something else?
RF I hope there’s a kind of aesthetic—I’m convinced that there is one, but I’m not able to describe it. It’s more or less in the nature of the question that I cannot answer it. The interesting point is perhaps that I learned so much, working with all those outstanding performers and instrumentalists of Zeitkratzer, that I feel now more able to apply all those techniques. And to apply them in a more traditional way, following the dictum of György Ligeti, to notate everything possible in the old and traditional notation. It’s satisfying to see that you really can leave your composition to be played without your being there.
ES It’s quite important. It’s possible to actually notate these extended techniques that we do for an ensemble; it works, it translates.
RF Yeah, it’s an interesting question, how to work in notation. By the ’60s, Ligeti had already returned to the old notation, declaring it as kindness toward the musicians. And it was easier for them to play it!
ES Also the harsh reality is that we don’t have the budgets for many rehearsals. You have to give an ensemble something that is quicker for them to present.
RF It would be interesting to get out of this close, contemporary music circle and get to “normal” people, who don’t know about the special rituals and treatments in contemporary music, to have them play that music.
ES Does your composing come out of your work on the piano and inside the piano, or is it from a separate inspiration?
RF I think it’s completely separate. It’s more like concealing a structure of different layers or images, and it’s always about sound. But sometimes the piano can be an inspiration, even if it’s a piece without piano. At the moment I’m composing a piece for string quartet for the BBC, and there I have got a structure from my work inside the instrument on the piano strings. I try in a certain sense to apply it and to exacerbate it with the medium of a string quartet.
ES This also ties into this notion of having “normal” people play your music, but in a different context. Does having your young children around the house change your ideas of what you’re going to compose? What about “children’s music”? That’s something that I’m thinking about a lot now.
RF Children’s music?
ES Music for children, or the kind of music that children respond to. Do you play your Zeitkratzer recordings for Anton and Jakob, or do they hear you practice on the piano?
RF They hear me practice, and they know Papa is in England, he is playing piano, when I’m actually just playing piano on the air (laughter). But actually, I’ve never played them my CD recordings.
ES Do your children naturally gravitate toward instruments; is that something that they enjoy?
RF They enjoy it very much. They enjoy dancing, and Anton, who is two and a half years old, plays drums all the time. He also asks to play piano almost every day now. Already both he and Jakob are doing solo shows with a small plastic guitar, singing about ambulance cars, mom and dad, the police, et cetera.
ES So perhaps you’ll be in trouble?
RF Well, we’ll see. An interesting discovery is the experience of trying to improvise a second voice to a given or a completely new song. Sometimes we sing canons at home; my wife sings a lot and tours with different bands, so we try to sing traditional songs and to improvise an additional soprano or bass. It’s not easy, but it’s fun to learn.
ES It’s quite interesting to see the inventions. My twins are just 14 months old, but they sing spontaneously and you can recognize the structure in it, see how they self-generate music. Obviously sometimes they’re translating what they hear, typical children’s songs like “Old McDonald’s Farm,” but the way they sing it, it comes out completely different. They pull out certain parts that are catchy and group them and repeat them; it’s almost a remix.
RF True, true. They just take parts of it, they remember. Like Anton the other day with his small electric guitar. He had heard a song that used the word “baby” all the time. So he took it and mixed it up with his own fire-worker song. Do you call them fire-workers?
ES Firemen. (laughter) Are there any recordings of Zeitkratzer that have come out recently or that will come out?
RF Two CDs, including DVDs, should be out soon from Asphodel. One is the Zeitkratzer version of Metal Machine Music, and the other one is my composition “Xenakis (a)live!” It’s a double release, because the Xenakis composition “Persepolis” and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Musicwere both made in the first half of the ’70s. The idea is to show that in the ’70s there was a contemporary music scene as well as an experimental rock scene dealing with the same ideas: sound, noise, densities, loudness—all of which became a reference for so many musicians years later.
ES And when will that come out?
RF As far as I know, it’s previewed for this spring. At least the mastering by Bob Ludwig is finished.
ES And is Lou Reed on that?
RF He has a great five-minute solo on the Metal Machine Music release. On the CD it’s exactly the live version we played in Berlin with Lou in 2003. We did the mix in San Francisco, mostly with my sound man Ralf Meinz—who owned one of the best studios in Germany for many years—together with Lou Reed. And Bob Ludwig mastered the mix in New York. The sound is hilarious, and the release includes a DVD with a special 5.1 mix and a video from the live show. The same for the CD of my Xenakis homage; it comes with a special video, created for it by Lillevan, one of the best-known video artists in Germany. And more CDs will come out quite soon, one dedicated to John Cage and the other to James Tenney. We did the recordings at Huddersfield.
ES Also from Asphodel?
RF No, it will be on my own label, Kirschbier.
ES Do you think that the state of music is healthy? Is music now becoming more “about” music, or is it anti-music, or is it using predominantly non-musical materials?
RF That’s a very difficult question. First of all, I don’t think “healthy” is a good category for music. Remember all those tests done that studied the effect of music on cows? It turned out that cows give more milk if they listen to Bach and Mozart. So perhaps it’s healthy to listen to Bach and Mozart. But I don’t know if you can apply that to human beings—and I don’t know if the cows liked the music, it just made them produce more milk. The discussion about music “about” music is funny, because it is so difficult to write music about music—sometimes Mahler succeeded; Ravel did with his “Valse”; but who else? There are a lot of texts in contemporary music festival books telling you very intelligent things about the background and the references of a given piece, but normally when you listen to the piece, you don’t realize it. So there is a lot of what we call in German “hot air.” And finally, the interesting thing in music is that the acoustic medium is so broad and flexible, it can include a lot of different and even contradictory concepts—so what should be anti-music? John Cage’s silence piece “four minutes, thirty-three seconds”? The noise-music first introduced in Western art music, when Mozart used the Turkish cymbals for the symphonies?
ES Can you try to name that essence of music that you’re looking for?
RF If I could tell you that, I would probably not be interested in music anymore. I like the handcraft aspect of the musical work. And I like to be surprised.
ES So, to have the explanation might be unnecessary? Should the music stand on its own without explanation? Don’t you think the text is sometimes helpful for a listener? I’m asked the same question. I think about things, and they go into the composition, and yet at the same time, ultimately, people have to feel the acoustic realm in their guts and in their ears.
RF Yes, but sometimes it’s the other way around; somebody tries to write a bad piece and it comes out a good one, like Ravel with his “Bolero.” He tried to write a really boring piece to upset the dancer who commissioned it. And out comes a very nice piece that a lot of people love. (laughter) It’s difficult to see the relationship between your own thinking and your composing. I prefer the answer that Paul Klee once gave, when he was asked about the relationship between life and art: “It’s like a two-voice invention by Bach.” What does that mean? It means that there is imitation, sometimes counterpoint, possibly some accompaniment. So in this case, it could be helpful for the listener to think about all those things, even to listen to explanations from the composer himself—and to realize that they can be a counterpoint to the listener’s perception.
As a musical interpreter, I personally prefer to study a new piece without the presence of the composer. I’m convinced that very often the result of the interpretation is even better when the composer is not at the rehearsals. I love to hear versions of my pieces in a concert situation, where I haven’t heard the rehearsals. It’s sometimes the same feeling, like seeing your children making their own way, becoming independent—
ES I agree. Even hearing three different interpretations of the piano solo “Oligosono” that I wrote for Jenny Lin, by completely different performers, I can’t say that any one of them is more valid. I worked with Jenny, so hers is the one that I feel closest to, but other performers bring out things I didn’t even realize were in the score.
RF Yes, definitely. It’s an idiotic idea to think that there is “the best” interpretation of a special piece. How poor would the world be if that were true! I hope one day in music, we will also learn to understand the idea of the “open artwork” that Umberto Eco developed for literature. He defines a good work as one that has many good interpretations. So a Bach sonata, for example, would be a good artwork because ten pianists have played it completely differently, and it always works. Actually, you can even play a Bach piece very badly and it still works. So it might even be possible that a good composition could be played in a very bad way, and yet it still works.
Elliott Sharp leads Orchestra Carbon, Tectonics, and Terraplane, and his compositions have been performed by the Radio-Symphony of Frankfurt, The Ensemble Modern, Kronos String Quartet, and many others. His chamber opera EmPyre premiered at the 2006 Venice Biennale. He has recently scored the feature films What Sebastian Dreamt, Commune, and Spectropia. His critically acclaimed album Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk!, on which Sharp plays the music of Thelonius Monk, was released last fall by Clean Feed.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.