Name: Pascal Schumacher
Occupation: Vibraphonist, composer
Current Release: SOL on Neue Meister.
Recommendations: I would like to mention the work of the upcoming Mexican, Brussels-based photographer Ilan Weiss, who likes to turn digital photography into paintings to give them back a certain spirituality. Have a look at his series Marines. I recently relistened a lot to Bang on a Can’s version of Music for Airports by Brian Eno, initially composed in 1979. Definitely a major piece of art!
If you enjoyed this interview with Pascal Schumacher, visit his website for more music, information, insights and current updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started taking classical percussion classes when I was 7; first in a local music school and then at the Luxembourg Music Conservatory where I am teaching now.
Of course my teachers and their recommendations were my very first influences. There is no doubt that my first musical and sonic ‘wow’ moments were when playing in large orchestral projects as a timpanist. I remember a concert at the radio concert hall of SR in Saarbrücken, Germany. We played there with the students orchestra of the Conservatory ‘Russian Easter’ by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I was playing the timpani part. That sound experience that I experienced there is now, 25 years later still very present in my mind.
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? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
After my studies of classical percussion (including naturally a lot of contemporary music) I was more and more attracted by jazz music, not as a drummer but as a vibraphone player. Of course studying the masters of jazz vibraphone, such as Milt Jackson, Dave Pike, Sadi, Bobby Hutcherson. It is very normal to transcribe and copy their solos and try to get as close as possible to their way of phrasing and thinking. This is from my musician perspective, when I was starting to compose and think music my heroes were Esbjörn Svensson, The Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau … All my early projects went into that direction but I always felt that I didn't fully belong there. It took me quite some time to leave this heavy heritage, fed by my long years of studies, behind me and find my own voice. I noticed then that this voice has always been there.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Compositional challenges depend always on what setting you’re composing for. I remember the first time when I wrote a major piece including harp; I first had to spend time with harpists to understand how the instrument functions and what is possible and what isn’t. This was really fascinating; because once you understand an instrument you’ll write completely different music for it. From a production perspective, of course the first big challenge is to understand and learn to choose the right DAW for every situation.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I never had a proper recording studio, but I like to slowly gear up my practicing studio and record there … Over the years you get more and more experienced in how to do this.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I am convinced that it is a process that goes in both directions at any moment. Of course in a first moment I was trained as a musician, in a second moment I had to learn to become a composer and then I had to discover that I needed to learn how to use some machines … Sometimes I love them but most of the time I hate them, but then I love them again because they can give wings to my music. But I still have to learn so much about them.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
This very much depends on what kind of project I am working on! I definitely do not have one single magical formula which works best for me. Every situation is a new one and is fed by all my previous experiences.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I have collaborated a lot, and my collaborators have a lot of credits in all I have done so far. Well chosen collaborators make you grow, on many levels, much faster than my teacher did back in the days. Recently I started a solo project, but even in that project I have a strong collaboration with my sound engineer that matters a lot to me.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Every day is different, but they all start with a precious breakfast moment with my wife. When she leaves for work I hope to be able to play the vibraphone, to go running, to do cycling, to listen to and discover new music, to compose, to read, to call my mom … but most of the time I first have to reply to a mountain of emails.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Many compositions of mine start as an improvisation. I love to play around and often record these moments. Then after a cup of coffee, or a walk in the forest I listen back to my improvisations and, if I am lucky, there are bits, little ideas or motifs that trigger my interest and I decide that they deserve more development. At this point many things are possible and it depends if I am composing for string quartet, for vibraphone solo, for dance, for orchestra …
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The ideal situation is to have a lot of time and nobody around for a long time. The most productive situation is to have very little time and a deadline to respect. In most cases we are first in situation number one, doing a lot of thinking and trying out and suddenly you are in situation number two and the deadline boosts your productivity and you don’t get much sleep et voilà … you deliver what it is!
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Every concert is a unique experience and every concert experience helps to make each composition evolve and move a little bit further away from the initial ‘writing music in studio’ stage - and this process is what it is all about!
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The answer is in these questions. Sound is the absolute basis to any emotion that can bring inspiration. This inspiration might generate an idea. That idea should engender first motifs and little sketches. Those sketches can then become the basis for composition or an improvisation or a combination of the two.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I can sense harmonies and tonalities very strongly. This affects the way I treat them. I would not call it synesthesia, but there is a different perception if I enter or leave a certain harmonic or tonal surrounding. Instinctively, the sound treatment will adjust.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Being surrounded by art has a very calming effect on me. When no words are needed to feel and to imagine things … My music does not transport any political statements; at least not for now, which does not mean that I am apolitical.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I have the feeling that at no moment in history music was as omnipresent, resourceful, alive and available as in our modern times. On a single day, I can stream new released singles, buy vinyls, watch a streamed concert and go in the evening to the Phil to see a Mahler symphony, and then when coming home I can listen to a podcast by my favorite web radio (Le Grigri) on mixtape. Music will never die and its repertoire is growing every day.