Henrik Schwarz: Instruments
Henrik Schwarz has been a crucial figure in the international house and techno scene for more than a decade now.
But more recently, the German producer has gotten his hands increasingly dirty with projects that erase genre distinctions. He has scored a silent movie with the Berlin State Ballet and the painter Norbert Bisky. He has played part in highly-acclaimed jazz collaborations with Bugge Wesseltoft and Dan Berglund. Now he has taken on the world of classical.
The question that has driven Schwarz’ exploration is this: ”What remains of my music when it get’s played by classical instruments and I leave out the most important part – the beats?”
Looking for answers, he came up with the idea of taking music from his own EDM catalog and rearranging it for a chamber orchestra. During the last few years, such classical-electronic crossovers have gained more and more popularity, but Schwarz didn’t want to just mix two things together.
“Most of the time, they just added electronic beats to the orchestral arrangements,” he says. “This somehow seemed half-hearted to me.” So he took the next step and left out the electronics completely.
The newest of these efforts, and arguably the most stunning, is his new LP, Instruments – our Classical Album of the Week.
We met up with Schwarz in Berlin to talk about this latest project and how he came to push the typical genre boundaries.
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In the past you have produced electronic dance music and played in a jazz trio. Now it’s classical music. Is this evolution a matter maturity?
I’ve heard that question before and thought, “What!? No!” For me it definitely has nothing to do with age. Actually it’s quite the other way around: I would have loved to do such a project way earlier but I wasn’t able to do it just until recently. I didn’t have the know-how.
In addition it might not be too easy to find a whole orchestra to play with…
Exactly. I wouldn’t have had any chance! I’m really thankful to now have a standing that makes such things possible.
Do you see yourself more like jumping back and forth between the genres or don’t you differentiate between techno and classical?
For me, techno has always been the type of music that can easily be combined with a lot of different styles. This is what makes techno so special to me. It is relatively easy to incorporate flavors from classical, funk or jazz. That’s one thing that I’m always thinking of: How can one combine two things that are completely diverse at first sight?
Lately you’ve been playing concerts with an orchestra as well as solo club shows. How does the audience differ?
I had a great experience during a performance of Instruments in Berlin. The audience was completely mixed: one half seemed to be the typical classical enthusiasts, while the other half seemed to be the average club crowd. But it was the club people who really dressed up for this occasion! It was great to see this kind of fusion. Those are the moments I make music for.
I recently went to a concert of the Berlin Philharmonics and got the feeling that the older part of the audience is still keeping up with the strict “classical dress code,” while younger ones – still true classical fanatics – appeared dressed like they had come directly from work or home. What do you make of this?
I’m actually really happy to see something happening. I think a lot of old convictions are slowly starting to lose enforcement. While working on Instruments I got to talk to a lot of people inside the classical world and everybody is really thrilled about the change that is going on at the moment. I’m really excited to see where this will lead to.
Would you consider yourself as a renovator of classical music?
Actually I have problems using the term “classical”. I simply don’t see myself as a classical musician or composer. I just started writing this kind of music and it still doesn’t feel like the kind of classical we all know. It feels more like a whole new thing.
Not so academic, more open-minded.
You previously wrote music for a ballet project staged at the famous techno club, Berghain. Could you imagine performing with a live orchestra at an electronic music festival?
The Masse project at Berghain was very important for me because it was the first time I noticed that there is a great interest in things like this. The tickets for the show were sold out after a couple of minutes. That was a crazy feeling! I want to get something started with such experiments, but you can’t expect too much – it’s still a young “movement” if you want to call it that. We still need to find out what’s possible and what’s not.
But I’m kind of disappointed that Berlin, as a creative capital with an important music scene, is not really supporting such things. And you need some kind of support because such projects are impossible to carry out alone. We need more people and institutions to support these ideas. Not just the Berghain or the Berlin Ballet. Where are the orchestras? There is hardly any creative exchange right now…
Besides that, festivals are just not that interesting to me. In my opinion an orchestra always needs a suitable hall. Otherwise the sound can’t evolve. In a good concert hall you don’t just hear the music – you can almost see it like a sculpture floating above the orchestra.
Could you imagine removing the chairs of an opera house or concert hall to create a different mood?
Well, not now at least. Instruments is not an album to dance to, although your mind is always free to. So actually I’d prefer the people to be seated.
But I’ve been to such events. It’s the same thing everywhere: Trying to attract a younger audience, concert halls invite famous DJs, put the chairs away and set up some special light effects. But why? The sound is awful! There is way too much echo in these locations. In general I’m missing diversified programs of classical locations. For me it becomes the same thing again and again and again. Why are they not brave enough to show some music that’s new and different?
How did you write the songs?
Well most of them were already existing in some kind of way – mostly in an electronic version. I call them ‘electronic parents’. You can clearly see a relation between the parents and their children but they are already grown up and independent. However there is one song I composed from scratch especially for this album. I wanted to really write a song in a technical way – looking for harmonies and structures in the notes on paper and not by just playing around on the computer.
Can one hear a difference between “In Björndal” and the other ones?
Regarding the tonality and the harmonies – definitely!
How come you’ve been collaborating with so many different artists recently?
I’m still working as a solo artist most of the time, but of course the collaborations get more attention. In the first place I’m extremely happy and grateful that I am able to work with so many great artists. Every project feels like an experiment for me – and I love to put all my energy into them. What every project has in common is the search for the boundaries of what’s possible and what’s not.
For me the computer has become an instrument in its own right, so I’m looking for all kind of variations of computer plus instrument-x. How does a computer fit into a jazz trio? What is its part? I ask myself a lot of these questions…
Mentioning your jazz project with Dan Berglund and Bugge Wesseltoft, what was it like playing live shows with them?
The audience was awesome! Again, such a nice combination of open-minded women and men. I think all kind of music lovers came together. During the shows I almost got a guilty conscience – I mean sometimes we were really improvising and creating strange sounds. But they proved to have really well-trained listening muscles and liked it a lot!
Any plans for the future? Do you already have a new project in the works?
I wanted to try to keep a slower pace, but I already know what’s coming next. There is an album that I wanted to finish two years ago but then put it aside for Instruments. Everything is already written. I just need to go into the studio and record the songs.
Were these songs you’re talking about already influenced by classical stuff?
Actually I’m not sure yet how they will sound in the end. But I could imagine it to be more like computer plus band: E-bass, drums and a guitar and that kind of instruments. But let’s see!
I have to ask this: Who are your favorite composers?
Richard Strauss is unbelievable! I never get tired of his music. One of my favorite pieces is “Le sacre du printemps” by Igor Strawinsky – I’d call it the first techno song ever written. I can definitely see why people got crazy and confused when it came out.
Maurice Ravel is also one of my favorites. His music just keeps on fascinating me every single time I hear it. I love György Ligeti as well as Witold Lutosławski. Actually there is a nice little story concerning him. My father-in-law forced me to go to a concert with him and at that time I wasn’t really into it. But when I heard Lutosławskis “Cello Concerto No. 2″ I almost fell out of my chair! It’s just so good!
Closer to pop and rock, but really exciting is that guy from Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood. He made some scores for films which are really good. And I just recently discovered Thomas Adès. All I know about him is that he’s from England. I think I can hear some electronic influences in his music. Maybe we share the same background? Or maybe it’s just my imagination.
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