Name: Michael Rother
Occupation: Guitarist, producer, improviser
Current release: Michael Rother und Vittoria Maccabruni's As Long As The Light is out via Grönland.
[Read our Vittoria Maccabruni interview]
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Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
Although I basically consider all acoustic sounds a possible source of music, the guitar is my main instrument.
I started playing guitar at the age of 15 as an autodidact, learning the basic techniques by imitating my heroes of the times and playing in a band called "Spirits of Sound" in Düsseldorf. After a few years I realised that I needed to forget and overcome what I had learned in order to be able to really express my own personality and my identity as an artist.
However, I still love the sound of the guitar and the many possibilities it offered in sound creation and manipulation. You can play very soft and delicate music but also very harsh or rhythmic sounds on a guitar, especially if you treat it with effects like a fuzz box. The guitar has remained my main instrument although I eventually added electronic instruments, keyboards and computers.
The guitar provides me with the vital elements of spontaneity and inaccuracy. For me, it´s always about finding the right balance between man and machine.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
The phases of improvising and composing are hard for me to separate.
I usually don´t play on an instrument for hours on end until I find a "gold mine". There´s no sure method. Sometimes I stumble upon a sound or a harmony that immediately leads me to an idea, at other times, melodies just come floating while I´m recording overdubs for a specific project.
I never know what happens next.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Effect treatments are sometimes the key to new music, like when a painter finds new colours. I often find distorted sounds fascinating. They feed my imagination. It´s easy to turn a musical idea into a very different mood, simply by changing the sounds, and this process can continue forever.
I have learned that you have to select and focus. That´s when it really becomes hard work for me sometimes because I generally find it hard to leave all the other possibilities behind - but you have to.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
I like the analysis.
In a small group of musicians playing acoustic instruments it´s of course easier to hear what everyone is performing than in a loud environment like at a big festival and you are playing with a very powerful drummer like Steve Shelley. It´s often quite difficult in a live environment where you don´t control the level of each instrument & player and when you also have to work with monitoring problems but it´s true that many musicians - me included - want and need to hear what they themselves are doing.
I have wonderful memories of playing with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius in the band Harmonia. On good nights it was all about listening to everyone at the same time and developing the music on the spot.
[Read our Hans-Joachim Roedelius interview]
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 for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
This is a big mystery for me. I don´t know the answer to the question. In fact, I´m not sure that I would even want to know it.
It´s sometimes frustrating when I have the feeling that I could run around on any instrument for hours without finding anything that pleases me, and at other times it all comes so easily. I have learned to accept that there is no guarantee for being creative at all times. It comes as a gift.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
At concerts, I try to make sure that my gear is in good shape and that I´m rested and relaxed. It´s important for me to be able to focus on all the details of my performance on e.g. my guitar and on the sound treatments which I control on a mixer.
However, I also depend on many factors that are beyond my control and which largely determine whether I enjoy being on that stage in that specific moment, or not. I do my best to communicate with the technicians at soundcheck and make sure that the team understands my intentions and gets the levels right. A great sounding monitor system usually lifts the quality of my performance because of the joy I then experience. I then take more risks and add more spontaneous elements to my performance, and If the band and the audience are also enjoying the moment, and we share smiles all around, a great evening can happen.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
I try to be flexible in regards to my expectations in a venue where I am to perform and I have played in many different types of environment.
I was invited to play in concert halls (Barbican, London), huge churches (Foligno, Italy), infront of large festival crowds (Green Man Festival) as well as in small underground clubs. Each setting poses different problems or adds specific possibilities.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
Studio and live performances are two very different situations for me which I both need. On stage, I get very much joy from experiencing the happiness my music brings to others.
On the other hand, the focus on creating new music and developing ideas in the studio is important in order to keep moving forward.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Looking back, there were many breakthrough moments.
My first concerts as a 16 year old boy with Spirits of Sound, the first concerts with Florian Schneider and Klaus Dinger as Kraftwerk, meeting and working with Conny Plank, the collaboration with Roedelius and Moebius in Harmonia, my first solo album which I recorded with the great drummer Jaki Liebezeit, the collaboration with Brian Eno, the live project Hallogallo 2010 with Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullan, the film scores for Houston and The Robbers, my tours in recent years with Hans Lampe and Franz Bargmann, my new collaboration with Vittoria Maccabruni and the release of our first album ....
The motivation was, and always is, the wish to create music that expresses my visions and feelings in a hopefully unique way.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
All music connects to our inner feelings which are related to the sum of all the experiences we have made and witnessed in life. Joy and pain, confusion and understanding, birth and death.
In the case of instrumental music, the reflections are naturally more abstract and open to one´s interpretations than if one listens to lyrics and a story that is told but sometimes a melody or even a single note can bring tears to our eyes because something deep inside us resonates.
This mystery will always be part of the music. I embrace it.