Name: Oskar Schuster
Occupation: Musician / Composer
Current albums: Sneeuwland, Tristesse Télescopique
Musical Recommendations: Barbara (French chanson), Beirut, Ramona Lisa
When did you start writing/producing music – and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I was around ten years old when I first tried to create my own music on a Commodore 64. But as I couldn’t quite figure out how the software worked, I gave up soon. I started with composing on a more serious level when I was 14 and have never really stopped since then. My first and most important influences were The Beatles and Chopin.
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?
For the first ten years, I was trying to compose in very different genres. Especially as a teenager I used to write hundreds of pieces, some sounding like classical music, some like pop, some like rock, some like techno, etc. I didn’t have my own style and didn’t really try to develop it until I was 25 when I decided it was time to either give up music or to take it more seriously and choose the artist life. I then changed my approach on creating music completely. Whereas before I mainly used the computer to compose or sometimes wrote songs together with friends, I now focussed on composing on my main instrument, the piano, and tried to develop a unique and recognizable style.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
There are so many challenges. Finding your own voice is one, but then there’s also the challenge as a “bedroom producer” to compete with the big producers out there and to try to get your music to sound as professional as possible.
Tell us about your studio, 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?
I actually don’t have a studio, I literally produce my music in my bedroom. As long as I’m happy with the sound of my piano it doesn’t matter if it’s in my bedroom or in a professional studio. And because I try to get a very special sound, recording my music in a professional studio with a Steinway piano would probably even hinder me.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?
My main instrument is my old Bechstein piano, my main tool is Logic Pro on my iMac. Apart from that, I love to use old mechanical devices such as typewriters, analog cameras, music boxes and antique clocks as instruments. They are quite important in my music.
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
It’s true that production tools play a very big part in compositional work. The problem for me is that you can get lost in all the possibilities, all the sounds and all the ways to alter them. There are endless possibilities and it is hard to choose the best way to translate a compositional idea into real sounds. My experience is that coincidence plays a big part. When I start working on my recordings / arrangements, I generally have an idea in my head of how I want it to sound, which instruments I want to use, how I want it to build up etc. But as I start arranging and playing around with different things in order to realize my idea, I often get carried into a different direction and end up with a track that doesn’t sound anything like I had imagined it in my head before. That isn’t a bad thing, though.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
I could pick a certain piece, but it’s generally always the same: I start with improvising on the piano and collecting small fragments of melodies and chord progressions that I come up with. I then spend months "molding" these fragments into song structures, changing little things, playing them, making draft recordings and listening to them over and over. When I feel that the melodies and structures are ready and don’t need to be changed anymore, I start recording the piano tracks. The piano usually serves me as the basis for the arrangement which I then build on top of it, mostly with electronic instruments and samples from the before-mentioned mechanical devices.
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?
I don’t think it has an impact on originality. Every human being is different, no matter how many there are. If an artist is able to really express his unique feelings, it will always be original because there is no one else like him. For me, originality is extremely important - I believe it is synonymous with genuine art and that unoriginal art can’t be genuine. Most of the artists I admire and that inspire me are very original, sometimes even defining their own genre of music, for example Sigur Rós, Beirut, CocoRosie, Kraftwerk or Lana del Rey.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
For me, improvising is the first part of composing. By improvising, I get my ideas. But the main part of composing is putting those random ideas / melodies in context and giving them structure.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
Musical composition means creating a structure of sounds on the "canvas of time". So, in music, everything is about structured time whereas in visual arts everything is about structured space.
What's your perspective on the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema, for example – and for you and your work, how does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
I always connect my music with images somehow. I actually cannot compose without having my laptop on the piano and watching some inspiring photographic or cinematographic images while playing. It helps me to get into the mood of the piece I’m working on. I also love to create my own artwork and my own music videos. So for me this connection between music and visual arts is very natural. I also think of my pieces as little stories sometimes. Music is abstract but it can tell stories and paint images in your head.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I think there are many different roles and functions of music and art. For me personally, art is something that can help humans connect to spheres that are more and more neglected in our societies. Western societies are very rational whereas art and especially music cannot be explained rationally. It’s something mystical, helping people to feel a certain connection to the universe and its wonders which they have lost nearly entirely in their lives.
Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
What I find interesting is that, even though my music is purely instrumental, the listeners really seem to understand the feelings I was trying to express, sometimes better than myself.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
I honestly don’t know much about that. I try to use the possibilities of the Internet as much as possible to promote my music but I think concentrating on creating something outstanding and being authentic is the best promotion, so I focus on trying that.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
There are many ideas and visions I have which I can’t realise because of the lack of money - for example integrating a string ensemble or a choir into my music. I don’t think the music actually would get better with less limitations but I don’t like limitations in general, so that bothers me sometimes.
Everything you need to know about Oskar Schuster can be found on his website.