Name: Fabian Willmann
Occupation: Saxophonist, clarinetist, composer, improviser
Nationality: German
Recent release: The Fabian Willmann Trio's Balance, recorded in its current line-up with Arne Huber on bass and Jeff Mallard on drums, is out via Clap Your Hands.
Recommendations: Arvo Pärt – Fratres; Bridget Riley – Cataract 3

If you enjoyed this interview with Fabian Willmann and would like to find out more, visit his official website. He is also on Facebook, and Instagram.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started playing classical piano when I was six and at age ten inherited the saxophones of my grandfather. I quickly started playing in wind orchestras, saxophone ensembles and the school bigband, the latter of which really sparked my interest in music and jazz in particular.

Playing with other people was by biggest motivation (and made me chose saxophone over piano at that time).

Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?

I really like it when I get goosebumps listening (or performing) music. I find it so fascinating, that music can evoke such an irrational bodily reaction.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

It's a constant search, which can be scary, but most of the times I think it's a blessing to be able to work on one topic for the rest of your life.

The process feels like a spiral that’s moving upwards. Everything comes back after some time, but in the meantime you've developed and maybe found a new perspective on things.

In the end, it's always about the simple things, finding melodies, harmonies, rhythms that touch you.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

When performing music I try to take myself out of the equation to be honest. The music is always there and like a river, I cannot tell it how to behave, it's much stronger than me. I can channel it, maybe nudge it into a direction, but I don't want to fight it.

I want to let it flow and become a part of the creative energy that has been going on for centuries and will go on for many more.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

I want my music to be like nature, not in appearance but in operation. Something that makes sense, that's natural, that's simple and honest and can surround and touch people.

For this, preparation is key: I, myself, or my limitations on my instrument should not stand in the way of where the music wants to go.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

The goal is purity and precision, not progress. As Arvo Pärt put it: I'm trying to “find what's already there and has always been there”.

There is a difference between timelessness and novelty and I'm striving for something that's going to last rather than something that's never been done before.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

Persistence in a sense that music and practicing saxophone / composing  is a part of my daily life as it would be going to the office in a 9-to-5 job.

Other than that, I really enjoy working with Arvo Pärt's Tintinnabuli style at the moment.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

It's quite simple really. If I'm not touring or travelling for concerts I get up in the morning and cycle to my rehearsal studio to practice saxophone for a few hours, return home for lunch, answer emails, do some sports, listen to music, go to concerts, etc.

When I’m travelling, of course, every day is different, a lot of time on the train, at rehearsals, at concerts, in the hotel – repeat.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

In the piece “Murmuration” I tried to come up with the simplest melody. It only has a small harmonic twist in the B-part to keep it interesting. During the process this melody and harmony came quite natural but I still tried out all kinds of variations, only to come back to the original idea in the end.

Still, now I know it's the best version of the piece and since it's so simple it changes shape every time I play it, depending on the mood or people I play it with, which is very rewarding.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

I like to prepare a strong foundation, be it an idea or composition, and for me this takes a lot of time of solitary work. But ultimately the goal is to share music with people and have a collective creative process, especially in improvised music.

I can only plan for the best outcome I can imagine but with the input of other people the end product regularly exceeds these expectations, because they bring something to the music that I can't.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

I'd argue that a society that solely consists of engineers and doctors would be a very efficient and healthy one, but there's more to life than that. That “more” is what I'm interested in and that's what music and art can bring to people.

Through art we can understand life in a different, more emotional way.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

We all share the same desires, so it's only natural that music will deal with these topics and composers are inspired by them, too. For me it's all about love, but that includes happiness and pain.

Music is really a universal language to convey those parts of life, that language can't really describe, and share feelings with others – although you may not know them personally.

There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

There has to be a lot of data to properly relate scientific findings to musical parameters, but I think it's a very interesting field that should be researched much more.

There are also patterns and ratios in music that are closely related to nature and when looking for a universal aesthetic, one can come at it from both sides, scientific or musical. Both fields are definitely connected and can benefit from each other.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

Music doesn't have a physical representation, it's more like time – always there but also always moving, more a phenomenon than a real “thing”.

For me, music can also carry more layered and complex emotions and – which is interesting as well – evoke something completely different for different listeners. Music is a message but everybody perceives it differently.

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it’s able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

I can't fully explain it to be honest, no.