Brendon Bussy

Ulrich Müller (Interview Part 1) – A Wonderful Contradiction

Posted in Interview, Music, Sound by Brendon Bussy on November 29, 2011

Munich based musician and composer Ulrich Müller recently visited Cape Town. I bumped into him last December at an As Is gig – the free improv group I play with. Not heard of him? Well that’s probably because, despite his being well established as a composer of music for dance (with 48nord), his work as a performer inhabits the territory broadly known as ‘Electroacoustic music’, subcategory ‘Free Improvisation’. Which would no doubt make him anonymous for South African and certainly many other audiences – an unfortunate state of affairs.

Well this time here for a holiday with his partner Tanja, we managed to work in some very enjoyable jam time and also time to talk, which led to an interview. Here follows part 1 of the interview (part 2 to be posted shortly)….

Ulrich Müller

Part 1 – A Wonderful Contradiction.
In which Ulrich speaks about his musical interventions in Munich and his performance and composition philosophy.

BB: Reading your bio I see you’ve been involved with an extraordinary range of interactions through new media and performance. I’m particularly interested in your 10 years of work with the “t-u-b-e” sound gallery – the length of the project sounding like something of record to a South African used to an experimental music scene characterised by one night stands. Are there any highlights that best describe the activities during that period?

The t-u-b-e
 My curator-colleague Jörg Stelkens and I actually had a lot of what I would call highlights at the t-u-b-e. All of them were very individual and I can hardly find a common denominator. So I’ll first try to give you a more general approach to our work at the t-u-b-e and then at least a few hints using concrete examples.

Basically it’s important to know that the t-u-b-e was exclusively dedicated to experimental electroacoustic music. Thanks to the former head of music of Munich’s department of culture, Christoph Hoefig, the t-u-b-e had a rather good financial frame which made a regularly program possible. This demonstrates an important aspect of sustainability for any cultural work – regularity and therefore responsibility is the only reliable way to create, establish and develop both a strong artistic scene and an audience.

Another but not less important aspect was the beautiful space we had. It was a former storage cellar of a brewery. An old barrel vault, whose shape was actually one aspect when we were choosing the name t-u-b-e for the venue. It was equipped with a flexible set of platforms which we could arrange in many different ways in the space – and comfortable pillows to sit or even lie on the pedestals. A nice lighting system allowed us to create a great, comfortable and concentrated atmosphere in the space.

The „main piece“ or heart of the t-u-b-e was our 8.1 surround sound system for which Jörg programmed a spatialisation program, that allowed us to move sounds through the space even in different directions at the same time. Additionally we had a rather good 5.1 recording set, which made spatial recordings possible. All t-u-b-e performances were recorded in this way and a few of them are already published on a dvd. This all together created the very special identity of the t-u-b-e. The artists could make use of any technical feature we offered.

Beyond the regular program we had what we called „productions“. At times we invited artists for a week or two to work in the space and create a new work, assisted by Jörg and me. And we also offered a couple of 3 to 4 day workshops among which, the „circuit bending“ workshop of Nic Collins was my personal highlight. It was a great weekend with a fantastic, creative group of participants and the final concert under Nic´s „conducting“ was pure fun.

The end of pure laptop music
What turned out aesthetically during those ten years, is that the era of pure laptop music is history. No one wants to see somebody staring into a screen anymore and creating sound out of nothing, just referring to a more or less abstract computer program without any physical or visible reference to what he is doing. So a visual reference using video is an important aspect of the presentation of electronic music (see Phil Niblock, Ludger Brümmer).

In a more structural sense, which touches on the texture and shape of the music there were three main paths of development which I can see:

One was the combination of laptop with acoustic instruments including all possibilities of sound processing by artists like Matthew Ostrowski and George Cremaschi, John Bishoff and Kenneth Atchley and Phill Niblock (for whose performance at the t-u-b-e I had the unique pleasure to play guitar with Gunnar Geisse). And people like Matthias Mainz, Go Guitars and Jason Kahn, Hans Tammen, Werner Cee and Eivind Aarset…..and many, many more.

Next was the use and development of new interfaces such as data gloves (Matthew Ostrowski), sensors (Tomomi Adachi), software like STEIM´s junXion, which turns acoustic instruments into interfaces (Gunnar Geisse) and self build interfaces/instruments (dj sniff/computer interacting turntable).

Third was the whole field of hardware hacking, respectively circuit bending (Nic Collins, Joker Nies) and self build instruments (Tomomi Adachi, BMB.con) and many more.

And there were many, many combinations of all of these approaches, like the awesome Trio Hans Tammen, Mario de Vega and Joker Nies which played the very last show we had at the t-u-b-e. Which was actually a worthy end to these great ten years which ended on December 31st 2010.

The personal and the music
BB: I know this is a tricky area, but I’d like to know your thoughts on a definition of the music that you make. Perhaps let me frame it this way: What are your intentions when you make music, or more broadly, sound? For yourself, your audience….?

UM: I believe every artist works first for himself. Personal approaches, imprintings, education, social environment, more or less neurotic dispositions, physical abilities etc….etc…., all define the field of one´s preferences and antipathies. So in the world of art.

But the more aware someone becomes of what he is actually doing, the more another aspect comes across: The métier [the occupation]. It´s the thing itself, the music with all its implications, with which one is concerned now on a more objective level: Theory, history, technology, sociology etc. I feel that the process of my musical work is kind of an ongoing oscillating between these two edges – the personal and the field of music.

It´s always some kind of a creative struggling between the effort to express myself in a spontaneous and kind of naive way and on the other hand, of objectifying what I want to say about a wider range of criteria which experimental music of the present might (or should) consist of.

But I would be a liar if I would deny that the audience also plays a certain role. I don´t want to shock or hurt the people who are listening to my music. So I try of course to do my best to set up the best possible conditions for the presentation of my work. Beginning with being in maximum possible control of my setup (technology, devices and instrument), sound quality, aspects of visible presentation such as traceable (as much as possible) relations between (visible) action and sound, stage setting, light etc. Many things which can help the people to step in and to follow what I’m doing.

Working with large groups – the Munich Instant Orchestra
BB: Listening to your demo cd ’emergesound’, I was drawn to your works composed for the Munich Instant Orchestra (a mostly acoustic ensemble?). I especially enjoyed the large scale setting which sounds like it was recorded in a concert hall. What kind of instruction did the performers have, and was your approach different from working within a solo or small group context?

UM: I founded the Munich Instant Orchestra in 2006 together with my 48nord colleague Sigi Rössert and trumpet player Rich Laughlin, again under the aegis of the awesome Christoph Hoefig [of Munich’s department of culture]. It was conceptualised as a bigger ensemble of at least 16 people from Munich together with friends from the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Site specific music in ‚difficult’ spaces
The idea was to bring aspects of improvisation and composition (what I call comprovisation), and a combination of acoustic instruments and live electronics together with a rather radical approach to spatialisation – site specific music. This involved making music for acoustically ‘interesting’ (in the sense of complex and therefore difficult) spaces such as empty museums, shell constructions of public buildings etc, where the musicians are spread over the whole building, and sometimes even have to move in the space. This means that a main parameter of the actual composition is the architecture itself. So the presentation becomes a mixture of sound installation and concert – why we called them „installation – concerts“.

I love the various processes of work with this group. The one big line which follows the more traditional relationship between composer and instrumentalist but allows a certain improvisational freedom for the musicians to express themselves as individuals. The piece „Krisis“ is a good example of this aspect of work.

The other and even more interesting approach was the experiment of a collective comprovisation (the „munich instant IV“ piece), which was developed in a one week workshop, where I had the role of a moderator, bringing all the different ideas coming from the musicians together to a point were we could actually set up a very refined framework for a one hour piece.

And of course this is a very different (and much more exhausting) process of work than the work with a smaller ensemble. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to bring all these great musicians together for longer working periods which are paid properly. So up to now we have had only a few times the pleasure to work together, but we still hope that in the future we will find possibilities to continue this exciting work.

Free Improvisation and freedom, a wonderful contradiction
BB: I’d hazard that, despite the implied ‘non – definition’ of the name, Free Improvisation does have some distinctive traits, its primary signature being an agreed (amongst the performers) tendency towards constant change. In particular, if I would compare it to African modes of improvisation, I’d say that means no distinctive and sustained rhythm. Is this a valid observation?

Jeff Parker ("Tortoise" guitar player) and Ulrich Müller - rehearsals for George Lewis´project "Sequel", Gulbenkian foundation, Lisbon 2009.

UM: In a very pure sense, definitely yes. For what it’s worth, to be called a really free improvisation, any distinctive rhythm, as well as any melodic and/or harmonic framework, is an obstacle. It kind of absorbs the energy of the free evolution of a musical stream. The stream that emerges from permanent and complex processes… of momentary interactions between musicians or man-machine interactions. Or more simply – the free stream of musical thoughts.

But there is a serious concern I have to mention. The freedom I spoke about doesn’t exist in such a pure way. As long as we speak about people in the sense of individuals with their own histories, imprintings, musical approaches etc ….. in the sense of what I said before – there is no improvisation without a lot of suppositions.

And today I believe that it is necessary to clarify these suppositions by creating parameters which provide benchmarks, or reference points, for one´s musical acting during an improvisation. Or to say it with the famous words of Italian improvisor and composer Giancarlo Schiaffini: „You can´t improvise improvisation“.

Let´s begin with basic considerations: One of the most principal things is the instrument one chooses. Is it a piano, a guitar, a trombone, a laptop or – as in your case – a self built instrument (combined with laptop and devices)? Each of them creates a sound world of its own and in the case of the laptop the many possibilities of creating and processing sound are hardly possible to overview.

Next is ones ability to play the instrument. The more one masters it, the more it is possible that one can express oneself in a spontaneous yet complex way. But where is the edge, where the benchmark to refer to? And isn’t there a ‘virtuosity – trap’, where virtuosity turns into a mental obstacle? And what of one´s preferences and antipathies? Which style or genre of music does one like, which not? More noise, less harmony or the other way around?

A working framework
The range of possibilities of unconscious suppositions seems to be too wide to only be dominated by the avoidance of becoming a victim of the force of one´s habits. Better to set up some framework, constructive things we can struggle with in a more conscious way. And this brings me in a rather paradoxical way back to traditional qualities of musical structuring like rhythm, harmony, melody, sound etc.. but even these structures with their narrow borders shouldn’t stop one from constantly sharpening your ability of musical perception.

What I aim for is to make possible what is called emergence. Meaning that a system of a certain complexity can spontaneously develop qualities which were not recognizable as inherent parts of the system itself. These qualities are really actually new ones and a proof that the whole thing is not only more than its parts – it is actually something deeply different. Emergence can also happen in music. A complex process but when it happens it might become an improvisor’s heaven – at least for moments. That´s why I called my demo cd and also my new website (still under construction) „emergesound“.

A wonderful contradiction
So back to your question. My actual answer is: Definitely yes – and definitely not. Improvisation as an act of creating the unforeseen is a contradiction in itself but a wonderful one. Therefore it is of course good to refer to this set of traits you mentioned, like the idea of constant change, including all the dangers I spoke about.

And at the moment I actually tend more and more to what I called comprovisation, in the sense of creating a set of parameters at least as a kind of Ariadne string, like a guideline that leads one out of the labyrinth of a permanent unpredictability to which an un-reflected and therefore mislead spontaneity can lead.

But at the same time one should neither deny the idea of unpredictability nor spontaneity as the main sources which supply improvisation. Actually I´m thinking about a way to bring the brilliant idea of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s „Formelkomposotion“ (formula composition) together with improvisation. Let´s see to what it will lead me…

[part 2 of the interview will follow shortly]

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2 Responses

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  1. φphi said, on November 29, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Thanks for the very nice interview. I’m rather pleasantly.. well.. surprised at encountering this kind of musician in these climes. I should try to get out more.

    Was the improvisation/jam recorded? I hope..

    Just his luck to run into another enthusiastic muso on holiday.

    And ours.

  2. brendon said, on November 30, 2011 at 9:24 am


    Yes the jam was recorded – will see if I can put something up soon…

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