Name: J. Peter Schwalm
Current album: The Beauty of Disaster on Rare Noise Records
If you enjoy this interview with J. Peter Schwalm, you can find more information about him on his Facebook page or his bandcamp profile.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started composing when I was 15 years old. A friend of my mother's gave me a TASCAM 244 Porta Studio; a four track tape machine recorder. That possibility of adding track by track opened up my horizon of creating and composing music. My biggest influence when I started making music was "Bitches Brew" by Miles Davis. The sound, the editing, the effects, the drumming and the energy caught my attention.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think that many artists already have a voice when they start working and creating music or art. Most of them just don't believe in themselves straight away. Then what follows, is the phase of learning new things and getting "distracted" by teachers and universities before they realize that they already had a voice of their own.
I give workshops at universities. They're all about helping graduates find their own voice again, or for the first time through improvising. A part of the workshop is to deal with the interpretation of compositions by other artists. You can get rid of constraints and requirements more easily by working with the material of others. The idea behind "Live Remix" is based on this principle by the way. After three days, most of the students are then very relaxed and free - and their own qualites are slowly being revealed.
For me personally, it was a longer process to find my own voice and become self-confident. Growing up in Frankfurt did not open up my musical horizon in a big way. I always felt that there must be something else, something more interesting, also something more based on sound. That's why classical music became more interesting to me than any other kind of music. Experimental tracks were an exception on my first releases. Looking back, it feels that they already showed a direction I would take.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
The biggest challenge for me so far was a project for which I had to compose and conduct music for a choir. I did not know much about how choirs normally work. But that was fun and I learned a lot from it as I did not know that choirs go down with their tuning, when singing without instruments or any other melodic guideline.
There are always new challenges. Be it when I am asked to compose the music for a movie, or a play or a ballet. In retrospect, it is always interesting to see whether the various projects had your tone or style. But I must also say that the challenges in electronic music also very much depend on the type of technology that I am using. For me it is always a challenge to finish a piece of music, as every piece has its own personality and therefore its own arrangement.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
The setup of my studio is the key to creativity and it keeps changing all the time. As in the last years, I work with an analog mixing console. The setup is also changing very often as it gets adjusted to any change all the time. This has to do with the fact that a part of my live performances are based on direct processing and creating sounds, and the requirements must be met for this purpose in the studio. I can produce and edit more original sounds with this setup. Working with plug-ins is only just one part of the entire process. The studio must be configured in a way so that I can always play everything, edit and record without re-configuring anything. I also keep a harmonica ready at hand, so I can make a note about a melody or chords, without turning on the whole studio. The returns of the effect devices get any extra track, so that they can be processed by the neighbor effect.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? What do you start with when working on a new piece, for example, how do you form your creative decisions and how do you refine them?
I have different kinds of working methods; it really depends on whether I start with a particular sound or on a piano or another analog instrument for example. Every tune on my record is based on a different approach. "Angstphantasie" for example is a composition that is based on the "Multitrack Composing" technique that I developed over the years. It starts with single notes (not chords) that I add one after another in my sequencer without listening to the previous takes. At the end I listen to them together, all at once, and start building up a piece of music. I have developed this technique as I found out that the actual moment of surprising myself really is important and inspiring for me.
An opposite example of creating a piece of music is "Zirkeltrilogie". The original version is a tune that I composed in quite a classical manner. It was a minimal piece of music with rhythmical elements playing the chord changes and melodic fragments. I was bored from most of it, so I started to "re-mix" it completely. I used distortion- and reverb effects to create soundscapes from the tonal structure. I repeated this process a couple of times and layered the stereo recordings of the treatments until I had enough material to create and form a new version; just like creating new colors and new shapes. The structure and arrangement of the tune stayed the same; same with the drums, piano and bass.
What, if anything, do you personally draw from the cosmos of electronic music and digital production tools that is inspiring for your daily practice? In how far do you see the potential for a mutual creative pollination between the two?
I actually don't see them as separated from each other. For me, the analog element is very important, since the proportion of intuitive creative work in at least my studio and live setup are supported by the kind of setups. Digital controllers actually mimic analog ways of working and analog hardware. Digital production has primarily the benefit of saving incredible amounts of time during the daily work process.
How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?
For me the one can not really exist without the other. But that´s just my personal view on my way of working. And I don´t just mean the treatments of sounds or the use of electronic sounds. I also mean the sound of analog instruments and the final mix in a studio production.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I am constantly on the experiment with the tempo of a piece during the creative process. A fast piece behaves differently when it is played slowly, and vice versa. I find this very interesting, because it gives me new ideas. Mainly, because it gives the listener more room for understanding, but also because there is a space for overtones that can´t be perceived when played more quickly. I am speaking about overlapping of tones.
"Endknall" is an example of a composition in which I simulated this effect with different sound editing. In tonal terms I am working with time stretching. The repetition of various passages in one piece also has to do with the notion of time. Through repetition of the same chords, new tensions arise that normally would be resolved.
The emotional effect is an important element in the music, and how often we want a space where we can experience this achieved effect more often? Where we can stay longer in that certain mood?
This is probably the birth of ambient music even if Brian Eno's definition and invention had a different origin and idea.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
I'd also like to add "arrangement" to those terms already mentioned. Everything has to do with everything else here. Impulses from improvisation have an immediate, distinct character. And the moment of contemplation ... the composition. A composition receives a distinct character through the original energy and impulsive peaks of improvisation.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
The result is important to me; conceptional ideas are only a tool to create music and to make progress. I can show and explain these techniques and tools if somebody is interested, but I really want listeners to feel something when they are listening to my music; In an ideal situation, they would feel the same as me.
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Originality is important for me of course, no matter how it has been created and discovered. I think that we live in a time where it is easier to produce a record than ever before and this definitely brings out more interesting results than ever as the whole distribution system has been liberated. Composers think less and less about music boundaries. Also because of the acceleration of mixing up the old music genres. The limitless possibilities through digital networking has created a whole new liberated state of mind in the younger generations. I like the musical results of composers who come from classical music and add electronic elements to their ideas.
How would you define the term "interpretation"?
In my case, "interpretation" is the redesign of my favorite elements of a tune combined with my ideas and my contemporary approach.
How do you see the relationship between location and sound?
Obviously there is a relationship between location and sound when you look at it from a technical point of view.
In how far do you feel the current system of concert halls is still the right one for your music – or for contemporary music in general?
I think that sound really depends on what a talented sound engineer does with all the tracks he is getting from the musicians. I also like to create multiple sound setups in smaller places like galleries. I experienced different results with different sound engineers in the same concert hall.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Not easy to answer this question. I am a political person but I think that my music does rather reflect the tension between despair and hope, which is quite personal.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realize for technical or financial reasons?
I'd like to do a cover version of Slava Tzukerman's "Liquid Sky" very soon. I am thinking of a version for electronics and string quartet. Also, I'd like to record some of my music with a small symphony orchestra … but who would not want that.
Do you have any thoughs on what music itself could be beyond its current form?
Music catches my attention when it appears inexplicable. If it is not clear how it originated. When all the single elements become one. If it feels like parts of the music just emerged. Some of the music on "The Beauty of Disaster" pursued this idea.
That is perhaps the moment when we also get to the topic of "generative music“, I guess.