Why are you a classical concert pianist
An interview with Gregorhabenbach
"The threshold brook is a classical pianist," I thought before my interview with the Cologne artist. So for me he was always considered exotic among the artists of the electronic label Kompakt. In addition to classical piano and experimental acoustic music as well as arranged orchestrations, his portfolio also includes minimal and house. His "electro hit" Cassiopeia from 2015 already has over 1.2 million clicks on Spotify. In a dialogue with Gregor I talk about his music, his many facets, the double bass, Cologne music and vanilla ice cream.
Gregorhabenbach was born in Sankt Augustin, lives in Cologne and feels there too »ze Hus«. He proves this during a performance on WDR, when he performs a live medley from "En unsrem Veedel" and "Yesterday" - with a twinkle in his eye, of course.
Songwriting - Tools and Methods to Increase Creativity - Gregorhabenbach - Weekly Review # 51
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Gregor, your work includes theater, television and radio play productions. In addition, you produce classical, experimental and electronic music, and you are not too good to play Kölsche songs live as an entertainer. Is there actually something you don't do?
(laughs) The Kölsch songs don't actually belong to my portfolio, but if I think that's what the audience needs at the moment, I can do that too.
I try not to do anything that I don't actually want to do for an artistic motivation. I'm lucky enough to enjoy doing the things that others may be forced to do. For some time now I've been privileged not to do projects just because of the money or because I feel compelled to do so. In fact, I only do the things that I feel the need to do. It is very fortunate that I can afford it.(Photo: Jan Höhe)
How does it come that a pianist is under contract with an electronic label?
I play the piano, but actually I don't see myself as a pianist. I'm not a particularly virtuoso pianist either. My piano playing comes from the need to make music. I also play the piano more like a composer or an arranger who has a certain melody in his head and wants to implement it. What the pencil sketch is to a painter, the piano is to me. I create a sketch of the music I have in my head on the piano and can have it produced and recorded there.
I feel much better at Kompakt in an electro-techno environment than with a label that specializes in acoustic music. When someone asks me what music I make, I also say exactly that: ›I have a classical education, but I have a contract with an electronic label!‹ Then you get a certain idea of what I'm doing and how my set works .
I like the compact clique, which, because of their playfulness, their autonomy and probably also because of the local connection, was totally formative for my taste in music. I think it just suits me and I like to combine my music, which is related to a classical tradition, with the techno scene.
The compact clique also resulted in many co-productions and features from you. How does the cooperation look like?
That's always different. What is totally typical, however, is that I take on the acoustic part in electronic productions. So I play all the instruments that have to be played in, regardless of whether they are guitar, double bass, which by the way, I've studied, piano or synthesizer.
I get the midi tracks outlined the way it is supposed to sound. I then first write down the notes and change them so that when the piece is later recorded by the instrumentalist, the spirit that the artist wants to express with the track is preserved. To do this, I need both of my skills: firstly, I have a good feel for electronic music and recognize what the producer is about and understand what the emotional message of the track should be. I can convey that to the instrumentalist well.
Then I record the whole thing, do a premix and edit everything, and then I give it to the producer in a kind of sample library.
How did you come to study double bass?
I switched to jazz when I was 14. But I didn't want to study jazz because it was too one-sided for me, I wanted to study something universal and started with the classical piano. However, various professors then told me that I was not good enough for the classical piano. I had chosen the double bass as a second instrument, but then realized that the double bass gave me the chance to study. Then I declared the piano to be my second instrument and studied school music with the double bass as my main instrument.
Do you have a studio for your productions?
I have a studio together with Matthias Keul, who for me is a Cologne keyboarder legend. I heard his music as a teenager. He has an old Steinway grand piano that I like to use for piano stuff. Over the years I've also bought a lot of vintage equipment from the 70s: lots of radio preamps, old microphones, the new ARP Odyssey with the big keys, lots of old toy keyboards from Yamaha and Casio, which I can use for sound I really appreciate it, and a Rhodes MK1 that I always wanted to have as a child and was the only affordable instrument for me as a keyboardist. However, at the time everyone advised me not to buy it; I should save my money and invest in a digital MIDI synthesizer. Unfortunately, I listened to it. So back then I didn't buy a Rhodes for 400 marks, but 20 years later for 1,000 euros.
I produce small things myself in my studio. If the line-up is larger than ten musicians, I add engineers. I have already worked with ten or twelve-piece wind and string groups or with large orchestras, which then have their own technicians and rooms for recording. Then I just have to write the notes.(Image: Michael Schaab)
You have just founded your own label gallery. Why?
I wanted to put out music that didn't fit other labels. For Kompakt, for example, it has too little to do with club culture. But I didn't want to go to another label with individual releases either, because I feel very comfortable with Kompakt. So I thought it made sense to start my own label where I can put things out.
The first release The Body As Archive is very experimental and ultra-minimalistically composed music that I wrote for a film, but then noticed that it also works on its own. The second is a live recording of a concert at which I played with Kurt Wagner from Lambchop. The third release will be organ music by Johann Sebastian Bach, which I produced for a movie that will be released in 2019.
How did the idea come about The Body As Archive, such a minimalist and experimental music with very reduced instrumentation?
The film is a documentary about the connection between choreography and neurology. A very abstract question that is nonetheless sensual. Together with the director and the producer of the film, I then considered what the concept might look like and listened to old productions of myself and other music together. We noticed that a very minimalist line in the film works very well.
I then just tried to be very abstract and sensual, and then came up with the idea of only playing instruments that I play myself, i.e. piano, synthesizer, Rhodes and double bass. Nothing is programmed there either! The result was music that has no melodies, no harmonies and no proper rhythm. Often it's just the sound of the instruments themselves. When you try to scientifically understand a subject like movement, you analyze it and put it on a shelf. So I tried to pick the sounds apart and to line them up one after the other in order to trigger this search for order and structure while at the same time being in a sensual world. I wanted to express that with the music.
The music of The Body As Archive is very different from your house hit Cassiopeia. Is there a difference in the genesis of these different types of music?
Cassiopeia is a prime example and a special case because it was relatively easy to create. Live I always played a Kölsch song as an encore. That same summer he always started his set with one of my tracks. That's why we wanted to do something together. He then sent me a sketch that I changed a little. Then I recorded the piano and strings within a day. It was also very easy because the track is totally basic: a beat, a house piano in A minor, four bars of violin music, and that's it. When it came up, I knew what to do, I enjoyed it, and I just did it. Maybe that's why it's my successful piece, what I've ever done.
The Body As Archive on the other hand is a film composition. Then I first created a vague picture of what kind of music this film actually needs. It was a struggle and search and a process that took several weeks with a lot of trial and error. At some point the knot burst and I had an approach.
A big difference is that with Cassiopeia the simplicity of the track is the provocation. He just goes to 12 and is actually too simple for many of my techno friends. But that's exactly what I think is good, because it's a kind of music that makes me happy. I think: “You can say what you want, I still think the track is good!” It's like vanilla ice cream, there are many different types, but still the one that you like.
At The Body As Archive is the provocation that there is nothing else that sounds like it. It's big and bulky and has that “what's this about?” Effect because it's so minimalistic. I think you can only hear it with great concentration. Of course, this has a lot less reach because it's more of an art project. That's the other end of my spectrum, between music that is appealing and music that demands a lot from the listener.
Do you start with the piano in songwriting?
That depends on the project. I either start electronically in Ableton, where I load samples and sounds and play around with them. Sometimes I jam in the studio with my instruments like guitar, bass and all kinds of keyboards. I often go for a walk, sing something to myself and then write it down in notes. I seldom start with the piano - with it I tend to implement what I have in my head. There is no standard.
Where does your diversity come from?
I am interested in a lot of things and want to find out a lot! I got into making music through film, theater and television music. Before that, I only made music for others for 10 to 15 years. Only then did I start making music under my name. I always need some inspiration first that comes from outside. So before I get started myself, I first analyze a topic, perhaps from a book or a film, and want to understand it, collect a lot of information, and only then do my ideas arise. Maybe that's why I do a lot of collaborations or include other people's music.
What are your next projects?
I am often labeled a classical pianist. For me it is like a pendulum movement, I have just produced two art records and before that two electro pieces, currently I am a normal composer, but at the moment many people think: "Oh, you are the pianist who also does techno." That's why I will probably do something a bit clubbier next!
Gregor gave me his album before the interview The Body As Archive sent, and I have to say: With me he definitely achieved the “What's that supposed to be?” effect. The music is very experimental and minimalistic. In one piece, The Body As Archive Pt. 3, one only hears isolated double bass tones, with no recognizable rhythm and no melody. The same note simply sounds over and over again at irregular intervals and with a long finish. You can also hear the noise of the microphones, the room and the creaking of a chair, which actually gives the whole thing a very special character. Even if I can't do anything with music like this, because I always need a melody and a scheme, it is actually the case that you listen more carefully because you always wonder if there is more to come. And waiting for something to happen. That is exactly what Gregor wanted to achieve.
His track Cassiopeia is of course the complete opposite in terms of genre. Nevertheless, his way of composing and using few resources in a targeted manner is recognizable. What is unique to me is that, despite the simplicity, he manages to be so multifaceted in different genres and to stay true to his motto.
I'm really looking forward to seeing Gregor on November 24th. to experience live at the art concerts we organize. You can find information about the rest of the program on page 24 of this issue. Perhaps there will also be Cologne music and vanilla ice cream.
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