9. September 2014

An Endless Feeling of Freedom

Marco Blaauw interviewed by Tobias Fischer

A trumpetist on a mission, Marco Blaauw is constantly pushing his instrument’s borders – as well as his own.

Some listeners, and we’re not exaggerating here, have referred to Marco Blaauw as a ‘superhero’. Hubris? Hardly. In fact, anyone who’s witnessed the Dutch, Cologne-based trumpetist blow his horn will probably consider even this superlative an understatement. Little wonder: Over the course of his colorful career, Blaauw has pushed the supposed limits of his instrument beyond the imaginable, pitting it against electronics on his Blue Dog release, performing it in full flight for a Stockhausen opera, expanding the vocabulary of the instrument and exploring new designs with a dazzling array of functionalities and timbres – the most impressive example of which is his futuristic double bell trumpet. Resting on his laurels, meanwhile, has never been his thing. And so, Blaauw’s latest full-length, Angels, once again sees him covering new ground by working with a wide range of highly individual composers. One of them is Blaauw himself, as he contributes “deathangel”, a personal piece which sees him opening himself up emotionally and displaying a more vulnerable side. He may be a superhero on his instrument – but on the inside, it is undiluted humanity that makes Blaauw’s music so appealing.

Angels and its predecessor Blue Dog appear to fall into a particularly lively and diverse period for you. What have been some of the most rewarding experiences for you over the past years – and what have been some of your personal artistic challenges?
I feel very privileged as a musician, doing so many different, exciting, challenging and rewarding projects, such as: My work on the Stockhausen repertoire, (MICHAELs REISE, flying in a gimbaled cage over the orchestra); with Ensemble musikFabrik – especially recently with the music of Harry Partch. In his “Delusion of the Fury”, I was playing the Kithara and Chromelodeon, singing and acting (I love theatre); the solo concerts, alone and with orchestras; and the very cool exchanges with students, recently in Banff, Montreal, Lucerne and New York.

There is a tendency in the media to claim that the live situation is the only thing that matters for artists today. You, on the other hand, have always released CDs alongside your concert activities. Why is it important for you to keep recording your music?
I would like to quote Mauricio Kagel in his respond to my second solo CD HOT:
Performing solo works is like storytelling for me. When recording a solo piece in a studio, I still try to be a storyteller but allow myself to go much more into the smallest details: Where does the sound come from, what kind of acoustical space does it need? How long can the fermatas and silences be, how far to take other dynamic finesses? The simple editing of tracks in a way that would never be possible in a live situation, due to mute or trumpet changes. The recording studio offers a whole range of extra possibilities to express my music and myself.

You’ve mentioned that you like to see the Musikfabrik as just one stage of your development and that you’d like to explore smaller formats as well. What are some of your reasons for wanting to explore these smaller ensemble settings, such as on Blue Dog and Angels
Simply because I want to play that repertoire; it is an essential part of my musical world. It has always been my goal to further develop the trumpet and its technique and repertoire, preferably in close collaboration with the composers. As a result many works have been written for me and I am proud to present them on these CDs!

Blue Dog was an exploration of electronics. What were some of your conclusions after that project?
I’ve always had a big interest in working with electronics, especially with sound effects that expand the range of colors of the trumpet – i.e. distortion; creating an acoustic overdrive to make a sound like Jimi Hendrix on the trumpet. In 1999/2000 I invested all my savings in sound equipment and started working on special sound effects. It wasn’t long until I got lost in this enormous world of possibilities and had to admit that learning to use this equipment was like learning a new instrument. It still occupies me.
Blue dog was a great project with 4 wonderful composers and 4 totally different approaches to the use of electronics. I really like the results.
After Blue dog I recorded Play Robot dream, a CD with duo improvisations with Yannis Kyriakides, which was released before Blue dog. I intend to keep working with electronics. The track “deathangel” on the CD Angels gives an idea of the sounds I am working on at the moment. It is a part of a larger project that hopefully will come out on CD in 2015.

In the press release to Angels, you mentioned there is an underlying relationship between all of the pieces on the album. How would you describe this relationship?
Every piece is an entity speaking: Liza Lim’s “wild winged one” is the voice of a creature, singing, howling, laughing, crying, stuttering, grumbling, biting, suffering, remembering. Rebecca Saunders’ “neither” is like the echoes of 2 creatures whose physical presences have faded. Richard Ayres’ “no 37” are four loud creatures coming down from the sky, landing with lots of noise in a shocked crowd, only to immediately depart again. And so on …
Here’s a quote from the CD’s introductory text:

The repertoire on this CD comes from wonderful composers with totally different backgrounds and totally different stories to tell. Somehow I felt these pieces were related. By practicing, playing, performing and recording, each piece took on its own identity, developed a unique personality. They became alive to me. Beings, existing of vibrating air. Spiritual, Angelic. Only then did I find what they had in common and a reason to combine them. Their sound world reminds me of what I was hearing as a young boy, dealing with fear.  Many years have passed for me, only to find out that that fear was a just small exercise for what has turned out to be an existential part of life. I am happy to play the trumpet. The enchantment remains!

With regards to the connection between the tracks, how would you rate the importance of programming for a concert or an album? You once said there is no ideal way to program a concert, but how is that for a CD, where you can fine-tune every detail?
The recording studio is an ideal place for fine-tuning a program. It is quite easy to shuffle pieces around till you find an order in which every piece has enough space to speak. How the listener will receive that order is hard to predict. And maybe it’s not that relevant. More and more people seem to find music through the Internet and listen to single tracks, which makes the format of the CD less relevant. I don’t mind that. I would even recommend using the repeat function on the player sometimes, to give yourself a chance to get involved deeper with every single story. I like CDs and the ability program a nice format, but I am also convinced that every track can stand by itself.

Working with a composition as a musician can be a complex process. Tell me about your perspective on the art of interpretation, please.
This process is indeed always very interesting. I would like to describe it in steps:

0: the exchange where the composer presents his or her wish and idea about the piece, and where I present the possibilities of my instruments. Sometimes this exchange leads up to experiments where new sounds and their notations are developed.
1: reading the score, trying to understand the language of the composer and the essence of the work.
2: the technical study: learning the language. How can I play this on my instrument, what does it require?
3: practicing (and being patient with myself, the piece and the composer, while hopefully the composer is patient with me) and improvising with the materials and the concept.
4: try-out, run through of the piece, start telling the story, rehearse different versions, different expressions, taste different flavors.
5: take some distance and, if there is a chance, meet the composer again. For me this is often the best part. I like to ask about their story for the piece and compare it to mine. Then I play for and work with the composer.

After that, it’s time for the performances for an audience. Often I don’t know myself where my interpretation comes from. I reproduce what is written in the score the best I can. Ideally, what happens then is that music starts to speak by and for itself. It is quite easy to get in the way of that process. If I try to manipulate my sound, time, dynamics, articulation etc. in an effort to make “interesting” music, it usually fails and turns out very boring. Good music speaks for itself. It is really quite magical when that happens. It gives an endless feeling of freedom.

Your own composition “deathangel” sounds like a very personal piece, thanks to the inclusion of conchs and your father’s voice. Tell me a bit about it, please.
Creating my own music is a passion that I have ignored too long. On Angels, I saw a chance to present an idea I have been playing with for a long time.

I love the sounds of the archaic predecessors of the trumpet. The two conch shells played into the grand piano, create a fascinating resonance. The Bukkehorn is a Norwegian folk instrument made out of a billy goat’s horn. Using only 5 holes, it’s able to play a melody using the dominating overtones of the conch shells. This results in a soundscape of natural dissonant and consonant intervals and harmonies, seemingly without beginning and end. In contrast, I chose a layer of 4 extremely filtered trumpets using wahwah mutes. The filter magnifies the overtones produced by the mutes. In between these worlds, I layered in a story told by my father. He’s from a generation that grew up in extreme poverty and is growing old during times of advanced technology. He speaks in his mother tongue, a Low Saxon dialect, and tells a story about death. As a 14-year old boy, he would often visit the hospice of his orphanage to hold the hands of people crossing the threshold between life and death. His special relationship and history with death, combined with sounds produced by the remains of dead animals, inspired the title “deathangel”. This track is about 8 minutes from the radioplay that I am working on now. The radioplay is commissioned by SWR Ars Acustica, who will broadcast the full-version in January 2015.

As a member of Musikfabrik, you also contributed to a recent release on the Another Timbre imprint, performing a piece by Richard Glover. How did you approach “Gradual Music” and what’s your perspective on Glover’s process-based approach?
I just listened to the whole CD and loved it! The approach wasn’t much different from the steps described above. Richard’s idea was very clear, easy to understand. The performing part of it was challenging: extremely soft dynamics, standing with your back to the audience and to my colleges due to playing as close as possible into the strings of the grand piano, and the careful intonation in order to hear the beatings between pitches and the moment where it locks into a perfect interval. It was a lot of fun to perform and I was pleasantly surprised with the result of the recording.

Your investigations into instrument design seem to suggest that you can develop music by developing your instrument. Tell me about this, please.
Extending the possibilities of my instrument offers composers more colors and techniques to use for their composing. It does not necessarily develop music, but can. The motivation for investigation comes from two sources:
Trying to solve instrumental problems that occur in new scores and the curiosity to expand the pallet of colors and the range of the trumpet, trying to get as close as possible to the singing of a human voice. I am still excited about where the instrument is taking me.

What are some of the areas, specifically, where you feel the trumpet can be improved or expanded upon?

  • the range, in high- and low register, is still developing,
  • the noises, so called tone-less sounds, recognized by composers and used in many different ways
  • the development of multi-phonics has only just started
  • there is an increasing interest in microtonal possibilities
  • the mutes, or acoustic sound filters, keep developing
  • trumpet and electronics is a young relationship
  • notation: we can of course produce lots of exciting sounds on the trumpet: to notate it, so that it can be passed on to other players and future generations is a whole different issue. History has proven that a new development can only be established in our music tradition through proper notation. Without this administration, any new sound or technique is in danger of disappearing along with its inventor.
  • the image of the trumpet: for many ages the instrument was used in armies and on towers to give signals and alarms. It took very long in music history until the trumpet’s potential of being a solo instrument was recognized. Although its position is changing, there is still very little good repertoire.

As someone who’s dedicated the past two decades of his life to contemporary music: Where do you see it right now?
I see lots of changes and developments. Some of the new music I’ve played seems classic to me now: what seemed to be horribly difficult and complicated 20 years ago seems easily accessible today.

There is also a change in quantity: despite meager support from public funding and private sponsors, there seem to be many more new music initiatives than 20 years ago and the level of playing is very high. Master students nowadays have many institutions with new music departments to choose from. As I am writing this, I am on my way to the Academy for New Music in Lucerne for a week of intensive exchange, master classes, lectures, workshops and performances. An event I could only have dreamed of when I was studying.

Ensemble Musikfabrik started an initiative in 2009, where young players between 14 and 21 years old are selected to play in Studio musikFabrik. Ensemble members coach the young players who get to play music especially written for the ensemble, combined with challenging repertoire from the last 50 years. Contemporary music keeps going strong. Naturally, it will keep developing its content, soundworld, instrumentation and context, because times and societies keep developing. Its role, however, will never change. Mirroring the time in which we live, contemporary music will always be young, vulnerable, new and unknown, confronting, challenging, intriguing for our ears, and will hopefully continue to create wonder and beauty in our lives.

Marco Blaauw photo 1 by Jose Verhaegh

This interview was first published on tokafi – published with kind permission of the magazine.

Homepage: Marco Blaauw
Homepage: Wergo Records
Homepage: Another Timbre Records