Interview: Frank Bretschneider

So you’re playing NODE Festival in a couple of days’ time?

It’s on Saturday (15th June), yes. It’s the live premier of Super.Trigger. I always have visuals with the concerts, and I’m busy preparing the visual stuff for this premier of the new album.

How are you feeling about that? 

I’m pretty happy. I have worked on the album about one year and it was ready about a month ago…when you work so long on this stuff it’s hard to listen to it anymore, so you can get pretty tired. But I’m in a good mood, and I can still listen to it, so that’s a good sign I guess!

Ther are so many intricate details on this new record. How do you pull it off live?

I have transferred the single parts to my Octatrack. Some parts as short loops – one to four bars, some parts with just the single samples, drums, synths, bass. This way I’m able to perform it live and change it by making it longer or shorter, timestretch it, using filters or whatever. And I use the MIDI section for controlling the visual so at the same time, I can trigger the drum samples and loops together with the visuals, always in perfect sync.

I imagine that NODE will provide you with a good audience for your premiere, given that it’s a Raster Noton night.

I hope so. I’ve never been to this festival but it seems to be nice. Grischa Lichtenberger and Vladislav Delay are playing too and it’s open air – it should be a nice summer evening, and I’m looking forward to go to Italy.

Do you have a preference when it comes to the venue? Do particular spaces work best for your music? 

Not really, I mean I played all kind of venues, clubs, churches, museums, galleries, industrial spaces, big places, small rooms. And it depends on so many circumstances, the time, the mood, the weather, whatever. But of course, it’s the material too. To perform this new album in a gallery is probably not a good idea, it’s based on rhythm and to reach maximum effect it should have a certain volume. I’d prefer to present this ideally in a club like Berghain, but I also like to play the more “experimental“ stuff in gallery spaces to a more “listening” audience.

On that, I see you’re playing Kippschwingungen soon? 

Yeah, in like two weeks. And that’s going to be in a big gallery; there’s an exhibition by this Italian artist, and then there’s going to be a concert and a party afterwards too.

Is it essentially an improvisation live, or is it more structured? 

It’s structured. Kippschwingungen is based on live recordings of the Subharchord: a special, really old school synthesiser made in East Germany during mid 60s. I had a two weeks project residency to work with it, and then I had two live performances. Now it’s not available anymore – it’s actually a museums piece and too heavy and sensitive to transport. So I used the live recordings and transferred them to the Octatrack machine – so I can play it live and change it and also improvise, but trying to keep the original structure.

What was it like using the Subharchord for the first time?

I didn’t had any idea actually… I never heard about the instrument, it was completely forgotten and lost for a while. Its pretty rare, only eight machines were built and three are still alive, in Berlin, Oslo and Bratislava, respectively. Then Manfred Mirsch, who knew about it, investigated and published an article in German Keybords magazine, and he found two machines: one prototype – not ready to perform with – at AdK (Academy of Arts) and the other one at a studio space, not in a good shape but still ready to be used to perform. He found the developers and engineers (namely Gerhard Steinke) who were involved in creating the instrument, all in the age of 70/80 and still very enthusiastic, and they made it work again. Actually it was developed as an effects machine for TV and film studios, so it’s pretty different from any other synthesiser.

In 2007 I was invited to work and perform with it. I had two weeks to explore it – what it is, what I can do with it – and it turns out that it is very special and challenging and powerful.

So by the time you came to record the Kippschwingungen album, were you at a stage where you knew the parameters of what the Subharchord could do, or were you still exploring its capabilities throughout that recording? 

No, at that time, in 2007, I didn’t think about an album – the purpose was a 40-minute live performance at the end of the residency. I didn‘t have any chance to figure out all the possibilities, so I focused on what I found the most fascinating, the extraordinarily narrow-band “Mel”-filter and the built in “Rhythmisierungseinrichtung” (rhythmization installation). Also you don’t have the possibility to store any settings, so I made me a kind of template to write down the settings for all the filters and knobs. The live performance was recorded then, for release on DVD.

Only in 2011, I was asked to perform the music again, but since the instrument wasn’t available anymore, I re-arranged a bit the live recordings and developed a visual element too. And as I was working on the music again I thought, “Wow – this could actually make a nice album”. So I asked Richard Chartier from LINE to release it.

FRANK BRETSCHNEIDER AND THE SUBHARCHORD

 

I’d be intrigued to see those visuals myself. Personally I find the music very visually evocative as it is. 

It was a bit tricky as there are no regular beats. It’s easier to move the visuals with beats, but this piece is more a kind of long drone, so I had to think about how to make this visible. I usually work with Modul8, kind of VJ software. It has this transformer section, which includes a particle emitter, and I used this for the visuals. It’s actually pretty simple: I divided the audio stream into three frequencies, and for each I have a colour – red for the bass, green for mid and blue for high frequencies, so RGB – and when each frequency reach the same level it becomes white. So it moves and changes colour with the music, and I can control it via MIDI to change sizes and for additional movements. It works pretty nicely – looks a bit like coloured plasma.

So the audio and visual move together in unison.

Yes, right. The audio comes from the Octatrack and goes into the laptop running Modul8.

Let’s talk about the upcoming record, Super.Trigger. How long has it been in the works?

For like a year or something? I mean, I don’t start at zero; I’m continuously working on music, so I always have unfinished stuff, ideas, phrases, loops, just sketches of things. After the more experimental stuff I’ve done over the past few years, I really wanted to do something more rhythmic again, like I did in 2007 with Rhythm. I started to put together the stuff I already had and combined it with new ideas, which is the way I always compose my music.

I’ve read that you find yourself having to take a break from working on the music and come back to it later. Was that the case with Super.Trigger too?

Yeah, it’s always the same. I work on it for a week, and then I have to leave it. I don’t work that fast; other people probably just make the music and it’s there, so there’s nothing that needs to be changed. I always work on it for a while, have some doubts about it, have to step back, leave it, work on it again… and finally at some point I know this is something good enough to release. I’m always very careful with the stuff that I do. I need a lot of time and material to put an album together.

You have some musicians that record the bare minimum required to put an album together, and others that record lots of material and then trim it down into an album. So I guess you’re more towards the latter. 

Yeah. I mean, you have a different relationship to the material after working on it for a year – it sounds very different. For me, it’s better to collect as much material as possible and then to make my decision as to what I want to put on the album.

Where do you source or generate your sounds? 

I still have my old Nord Modular and for two years I’ve used an Elektron Octatrack. On the other hand I’ve been doing music since the 80s and try to work on music every day – so I have a quite nice library: recordings, loops, sounds and noises, all these tiny bits and pieces – this is my pool. I use Ableton Live or the Octatrack to go through these pieces and put them together. In a way a bit like a Lego construction kit; a playground. And slowly I develop ideas and a basic song/track structure. For the final composition and arrangement I use Logic.

Some sounds on the album are particularly striking. For example, on “Over.Load”… 

Okay, so this is a bit of an exception. This includes two samples from a band I had in the 80s, called AG Geige. We did some tapes and two albums and a third one that was never released, but I really loved the rhythm and the structure of one of the tracks. By chance I found it when I was going through my library, and thought, “Oh, this is nice – I should do something with it.” Actually it was already released in 2005 on a 12“ for Berlin label Underscan, but somehow it got a little bit lost then, so I thought I want to have it released again on the new album. It contains little samples of that AG Geige track, and there’s also the singer on their still – I didn’t have the individual tracks anymore, so you can still hear him on there.

Only just – his voice his very quiet.

Yeah. He sings about food, actually. He’s cooking something for guests, but he’s realising that the food isn’t very good – it’s black and burnt and of bad taste, so he’s always apologizing and promising to make it better the next time.

Is this lyrical theme typical of AG Geige? 

Yes. Our singer (Jan Kummer) worked as a stage technician in a theatre at that time and was influenced by all of the drama that happened on stage. Just imagine a small provincial theater with some ambitious actors and overdone expression. So he transposed all of these experiences into everyday stories: about the corner shop, a train ride, visiting a restaurant, but also environmental damage or somebody reading secretly the letters of other people at a post office. But in a kind of Dadaistic/surreal way. And always improvising all of these stories. Really funny.

Is it strange to hear this stuff now, given that you’ve made so much music since?

Well, a little bit. In the mid 90s, when Olaf Bender and I started the Rastermusic label, I was finished with all of this early stuff; I didn’t want to hear it anymore or know about the band. But for some reason it’s always coming up and its not really possible to escape – there’s is still some interest, like just a new documentary about the band, and the kids of our singer and keyboardist they have another band who pretty successful in Germany. They’ve already had a golden record last year and opened for Rammstein recently. And so of course, when they talk to the press they’re like, “Yeah, our parents already played in a band”. So it was never possible to escape and I have to deal with and accept it as part of my story, with some worse and some better parts.

Do you feel like there are any similarities between the way you approached music then and now? 

No. I have to say that I never had any training in music – I’m a self taught musician, and everything that I know I had to learn or experience myself. So I see these early years in the band as just years of apprenticeship, learning about music and making experiences. It was just like scratching the surface and nowadays I’m more experienced and I have my skills and it’s a very different approach, but I still try to encode the secrets of music.

Going back to the new record…I found it much more musical than your recent material. Was that intentional?

Thank you for using the term musical. This is something I‘m very much interested in; as I said before, to figure out what music is. So it seems I’m getting a bit closer nowadays.

I really admire all of these really great musicians and bands, the moments they’re get “tight“ when they play together and interacting with each other, when music speaks for itself and reaches a certain amount of “soul“ or “deepness“. I love to listen to black music: funk, r&b, jazz, dub, hip hop… They have a really certain feeling for rhythm. On the other hand I‘m unfortunately this kind of white intellectual middle class German guy, probably a bit overeducated from listening to experimental, highly abstract “avant-garde” music.

So I try to bring a bit together both worlds, my love for rhythm and the joy of listening to urban contemporary music with my desire to explore and experiment and to see what I can do with computer generated music.

 

Frank Bretschneider’s website – http://www.frankbretschneider.de/

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