Ralph Steinbrüchel is a German musician and graphic designer living in Zürich, Switzerland. His productions – be it music or graphic design – follow a distinctly sophisticated aesthetic. Steinbrüchel’s musical work deals mainly with the texture and atmosphere of sound, and you could hear the results of his spacious arrangements on prominent labels like 12k, Room40 and LINE, just to name a few. Flowing calmly through the listener his music invokes a glowing space which invites the listener to travel within the sound. On the occasion of his recent release ‘Parallel Landscapes‘ on 12k, we would like to invite you to travel within our conversation with Ralph in which we go back to his roots, explore his inspirations and creative methods during the last 20 years.
Steinbrüchel also prepared a mix for us, which is also part of a special competition that is going to make one reader/listener extremely happy. The question for the special competition is to identify (or guess as close as possible) how many different tracks have been used in the mix. It’s not necessary to identify any of the artists and titles. The person guessing the correct (or closest) amount of tracks will win a copy of ‘Parallel Landscapes’, courtesy of 12k.
Deadline: 4 March, 2015.
2015 marks exactly your twentieth year in creating music, since you’ve released your first album ‘Frische Luft’ as Multiple Magenta Mess in 1995. When and how did it all start, how did you get involved with music?
Crazy, I never would have thought that so much time has passed. I still enjoy listening to music as much today as then and still search for discovering new stuff almost on a daily basis. From where my initial interest in music comes I actually don’t really know, but I remember of always being fascinated with music in whatever form. Basically I’m a very dedicated collector and listener of music since many years (actually over 20 years as you’ve seem to have noticed) and from listening to many different forms and genres of music the desire has grown for creating something on my own. Multiple Magenta Mess was a collaboration with my friend M-Dessert (which of course is not his real name). We actually lost contact a bit in the last few years, but we had fun working together for a while. The release ‘Frische Luft’ you’ve mentioned (translates to ‘Fresh Air’) is basically a live recording of our first performance on a tiny balcony (hence the title of the release) for an opening of a small fashion oriented shop here in Zürich (Switzerland). Funnily enough even the police came around towards the end of the concert and soon after we had to stop, but they still seemed to have enjoyed themselves for a while. The album was a self-released and -distributed release and of course only reached mostly a close circle of friends and families. All just for the fun of it and we didn’t really have a clue or a plan what we were doing. Our second release ‘Perfidia’ is a four-track vinyl EP which was very much influenced by the work of the labels Profan and Studio1 and was also self-published. I still have a few of the original copies on my shelf so if this might be of any interest to any of your readers feel free to contact me.
While this earlier project of yours was more melodic, with Steinbrüchel you’ve entered different fields of sound, experimenting with patterns and distinctive atmospheres. I wonder what the police would think about these arrangements… Tell us about the birth of this project which carries your own name, how did you start experiencing with these sounds that became so ‘typical Steinbrüchel’ during the last decade.
Well I really wouldn’t know how to describe the «typical Steinbrüchel» sounds as it’s more of a development in tiny steps and I actually don’t necessarily know or can describe what brought me to this point. If I would compare my first solo release to today’s work I would see and hear huge differences, but there still are connections. The collaboration Multiple Magenta Mess gave me the opportunity to follow other paths of music then the ones I’m following on my own. Musically these are not connected at all but they still display different facets of music that interest me. My solo work is more based and influenced on what kind of music I listen to and also on what kind of music I’m carrying around inside of me but don’t hear anywhere. Of course this has changed over time and is now completely different then when I started, but the basic interest and passion is still the same and also still feels the same. I’m still as excited and passionate about music as I was 20 years ago. The development of the «typical Steinbrüchel» sounds (if they actually exist) I would describe as a large magnifying glass over time and the longer I continue working on music the closer I zoom in: sounds get more fragile and detailed, smaller elements get more important, things get more quiet, the space inbetween the sounds gets larger, more melodic sides appear… After all music is very difficult to describe with words which I think is very good. But for me this is an endless zoom, as I believe this to be a journey with a neverending ending (or at least will not stop as long as I continue working with sound and music).
I would argue that this ‘typical Steinbrüchel’ sound exists, even though always changing. If one catches a glimpse of it without knowing what they are listening to, most likely they will recognize it. Since the number of new artists and releases has grown so much in the last decade, what do you think the most challenging aspect of creating music is these days?
I think the most challenging aspect (at least for myself) is still the same as back in the days when I started experimenting with sounds and music: it’s finding your own music (as a language and in character) and following your own path, staying true to the essence of «your» music but at the same time still developing (well at least trying to). If I succeed(ed) in this and if a «typical Steinbrüchel» sound exists or not is not up to me to judge. It’s also not something that I spend any thoughts on or time with. For me it’s very important that the sounds and music that I create stay very close to me and are therefore very personal. I simply try to create in sound what I feel and hear in my mind. Sometimes this can be of more emotional based nature or other times it can be completely conceptual or often a mixture of both.
How would you explain your ever-growing passion for music? What is it that makes you constantly keep going with your explorations? If you think about your sonic inspirations, whose music do you find the most exciting nowadays and why, could you name a few examples?
I don’t think that I can explain my passion for music. For me it’s just a big part of my life and something I spend lots of time with. What fascinates me is the form of music itself: it’s fluid and flows through time and therefore it can’t really be captured, it fills the space like the air, it can be large or small / loud or quiet, it comes close and disappears again. For me music is like a three dimensional audio based sculpture in space.
I listen to lots of music and also continuously search for new stuff that I might like or that might be of interest (for me not necessarily the same thing). My inspirations are not only sonically based, but also come from the areas of art, photography, graphic design and movies.
When it comes to films and photography, whose work do you get the most inspiration from?
I’m more influenced by photography as by films. What I really connect to with photography is the fact that an image is static (even if it’s a picture of a movement) and through this it has a unique depth to it. I like a variety of different photographers but two very different examples would be Thomas Ruff and Taryn Simon.
The work of Thomas Ruff is very varied, but it always plays with the basic nature of photography. Many of his series work with the question what a picture is and what it’s essence is. One of my favourite series of his work is the series «Mars». For this series he used high-resolution photos of a Mars satellite from NASA, but edited the still images so the landscapes has a perspective view and through this a depth that almost feels real in comparison to the original photos from NASA that are completely vertical shot and therefore look almost like a flat two-dimensional structured image. Additionally the edited photos were also coloured in different tones and therefore each visual has its own character and mood.
The work of Taryn Simon is very conceptional. She also works in series, but each serie is based on a single idea and she spends a very long time researching the subject matter before even starting to work on the photography part. Lots of her work is a reflection of different conditions and things going on in today’s world. And every series is technically absolutely flawless in terms of quality and lightning. Just wonderful to discover and follow.
Another example which just comes to mind is the work of the Swiss artist Raphael Hefti. Someone I’ve just recently discovered. One of his series of works is based on explosions of a coloured chemical substitute which he sprinkles in complete darkness onto photosynthetic paper and then sets fire to it. Through the light of the explosion an abstract image is generated onto the photosynthetic paper. Through this approach the artist creates photographic images without using a camera. So the question remains if the end result is a photography and if not what is it then?
Plenty of musicians can eventually see their work expand to moving images. Would you like the idea of working on a film score or would you find that a bit restraining considering your own artistic freedom?
I like the idea of possibly working on a film score, but would find it restraining at the same time. It would certainly depend on how much artistic freedom I’d have and also on the subject matter of the film. But in general I would find it very interesting to see what happens when moving images are be combined with my sounds.
Since we were talking about the last 20 years, where do you see your sounds and music in generally heading in the next 20 years?
I have absolutely no idea and no clue and that’s the most exciting and interesting part about it.
You have been involved in a wide range of collaborations. If we consider your whole oeuvre, we could say that it is a proportional representation of your solo and collaboration works. What do you find the most rewarding when you are involved in working with someone? Do you feel more confident when working alone or does it feel like a personal and professional challenge if you are sharing the creative process?
Collaborations for me are a possibility of taking a step out of my own small world, trying out things that I might not necessarily do when working solo. Working on a collaboration can also be very inspirational, seeing how other artists think and work. Collaborations give me another perspective and that also has influences on my solo work. Getting involved in a collaboration is often also a bit of a scenery change after spending a longer period on a solo based work, but after a collaboration I often feel the need of getting a bit closer back to myself and focusing on my own work again.
Since you are working with graphic design, your releases should not only be conceived as a mere audio product but as a whole piece of audiovisual art. For your new album ‘Parallel Landscapes’ you’ve prepared a special booklet with Taylor Deupree’s photos and an essay written by Lawrence English. How do these compliment the album, how did you get the idea to put all this together?
As I’m working as a graphic designer in my daily life, it feels very close and natural to me to connect the soundworld together with the designworld in some way. The packaging and presentation of my music always has been a very important part to me. Probably every release I’ve worked on so far always had some conceptual or design based background or connection.
The intent with «Parallel Landscapes» was to create an object which is connected in many ways. Is it a visual oriented booklet with some music added or is it a music oriented release with some visuals added? Where do these different disciplines overlap and what comes out of the combination? How and where are they connected? What happens to the haptic of paper with colour printed onto it compared to the audio which was painted with sounds? The paper of the booklet you can hold and feel with your hands and look at with the eyes and maybe even smell the ink on the paper. The music you can listen to with your ears and possibly parts of it with your body depending on the circumstances of the listening environment. Are they connected in any way? Does the visual experience of the booklet change when flipping through the pages while listening to the music? These and many other questions played a major part of the thoughts behind the project. The core factor was to try to bring together my two passions of sound and design together as close as possible. Also as today more and more is being consumed in a digital format (music, books, movies, etc.) the aim was to connect different design aspects (paper, ink, format, packaging, etc.) as close as possibly together with an audio based work.
When it comes to the question of ‘physical’ and ‘digital’, which format do you prefer personally? Do you still buy lots of records and have an enormous collection? Do you buy paper books and have a generous library for yourself or you enjoy the new methods of e-reading? Should one draw a line somewhere in this digital era to keep traditional devices alive?
My preference is clearly physcial and object based as for me music is much more then «just» a digital file. I see the packaging of music as an essential addition to the music itself, even if that might seem a bit old-fashioned. If I wouldn’t have this opinion I wouldn’t have spent this much time and effort on a project like «Parallel Landscapes» as it also deals with similar questions. Obviously over the years a nice collection of music has come together at our home, but I for instance also love books and have so far never read an ebook. But this also has to do with the fact that most of my books are in some way related to art (art, design, photography, fashion, etc.) and for me this genre of books doesn’t work as digital files.
On a screen everything looks the same and so many things get lost, like the look and feel of the paper, it’s colour tone, if it’s uncoated or coated paper and therefore if the colours are matt or shiny, the binding, the cover, the weight of the paper and of the finished book and for instance even the size of the book. On a screen everything has the same or similar size and therefore you actually have no idea if the book has the size of a billboard or a business card.
For ‘Parallel Landscapes’ you still used the ideas of sine waves and pure tones but in a more softened manner. The palette stretched across electronics into a variety of found and acoustic sources. What are these sources in this case?
Initially the sounds on «Parallel Landscapes» were created for a night of performances organised by the label Slaapwel. The performances started late in the evening and continued during the night and the visitors spent the night there. Therefore I created very quiet and soft sounds. I also used this material for a few live performances until a structure slowly started to come out of it which I then composed into the tracks featured on the release.
As many years have passed since I’ve created the initial sounds I don’t really know anymore what sound sources I’ve exactly used. Possibly some recordings of objects and acoustical instruments. I often spend a while recording all sorts of sounds and noises of different character and length. When that archive of recordings is large enough I edit and process the sounds quite a lot until they have the shape and form that I’m looking for. The next step is the layering and compositional part were at least half of the sounds won’t be used in any of the tracks. Therefore I always have loads of unused sounds, but I often rather create new ones and follow my momentary interests and instinct.
When you keep working on something for such a long period, does it ever occur to you that it feels dated and you lost interest or you always find a way to keep it fresh throughout the whole process?
I just work very slow and often also spend longer periods where I work on something else that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with music. For myself the music doesn’t sound dated, but I also don’t see it attached to any particular time span. It just grows very naturally over time until I find it to have the right form and structure.
What’s next for Steinbrüchel? What are you working on right now?
I have absolutely no idea. There are some ideas floating around in my head, but all still very vague. Next on the list is for sure a longer phase of searching and researching, then actually working on anything specific.
Do you plan any live performances in the near future? Do you like the idea of performing live?
I enjoy performing live, but don’t have any plans at the moment. Through my day job and family obligations I don’t have to much time for music so I’d rather spend the time at home instead of being on the road. Also I’d like to shift the performances more towards something like «listening events» in more quiet and unusual spaces with multichannel possibilities as I don’t necessarily see my music in a traditional live performance context anymore.
Who would you like to read an interview on Sounds Of A Tired City?
An update on what Markus Popp (Oval) is doing would be nice.
If you would have to choose your most favourite album cover what would that be and why?
I for sure can’t choose a specific cover, but I for instance admire the superb and consistent work that Kim Hiorthøy is doing for the label Rune Grammofon. Another example could be the work of The Designers Republic which has been a big influence on sparking my interest on the visual side of electronic music. Especially the work for Autechre, for example ‘Chiastic Slide‘ and ‘Oversteps‘ are among my favourite covers.
SOUNDS OF A TIRED CITY #27: STEINBRÜCHEL
You can download the mix HERE
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