Henning Schmiedt and Christoph Berg recently teamed up for a collaborative release on flau. ‘bei’ was released 14th April and it’s not only an intimate and versatile record with full of playful surprises but also the celebration of trust and open-mindedness. We had a chat with the master of the piano (Henning) and the violin (Christoph) about their improvisational collaboration, challenges, self-discovery and future plans.
You’re both from Germany, both masters of your respective instruments, but coming from quite different backgrounds. How did the two of you meet?
Henning Schmiedt: Christoph and I met back in 2013, we got introduced by our common friend Yasuhiko Fukuzono (aka aus, also the owner of flau records) during a concert in Berlin. Our musical roots have something in common, we both were fascinated by the freedom of Jazz and had affinity for Classical Music and Slow Music. Christoph grew up at the Baltic Sea and I was born in the mountains which I believe defines already a certain perspective to life and music.
Christoph Berg: Indeed, it’s funny that Yasuhiko had to come over all the way from Tokyo to Berlin to introduce Henning and me to each other, especially since I have been listening to Henning’s music ever since I started following the flau label which has been quite a while before. For some reason I thought Henning would live in Japan – you can imagine how excited it has been for me to find out that he was literally living just around the corner from my place.
Please tell us a bit about how your collaboration was born.
HS: We both have been collaborating individually with Yasuhiko and his flau label before. He contacted me already in 2007, for a release of my first solo album in Japan.
CB: Honestly, I don’t remember exactly how I first got in touch with Yasuhiko. But I’ve always been fascinated by his sound so that I asked him to provide a remix for my debut album “Paraphrases” in 2012. Since then, we’ve been collaborating several times…
HS: As HAU, a duo project between Yasuhiko and myself, we also invited Christoph as a guest musician. Taking this as a starting point of a collaboration between Christoph and myself, we decided to meet at my studio “Klavierraum”.
‘Klavierraum’ sounds like a rather cool name for a studio. What else is going on here when you are not improvising with Christoph?
HS: Klavierraum is a special room and was as well the title of my first solo album – the place changed over the years, but it was always home for my Klavier. Emotionally it’s a sheltered place for music. In the past happened many encounters with musicians, rehearsals, musical experiments. Not all of them found their way into public, but most of my solo piano recordings happened there and finally our ‘bei’ recordings as well.
Even though ‘bei’ feels like a precise and thorough piece of work, it’s born from an improvised performance. Could you let us into the details of the creative process, how did you get started and what was the idea behind working like this?
HS: The starting point for me was my interest and sympathies for Christoph, I just wanted to have a talk with him.
CB: Totally second that. We had some really inspiring discussions on musical topics. And we quickly found out that – even though our musical roots have some details in common – it would be quite interesting to see what would happen if we started making music together and improvised on some traditional and classical compositions, just for fun. While playing some existing compositions in the beginning we quickly realized that it would be much more interesting to improvise more freely…
HS: … since music is a nonverbal language and we are both musicians it felt natural to continue talking with Instruments exactly as if we were talking to each other with words. But a good talk with friends doesn’t need a script or a prepared topic. Nobody would consider to bring a written speech to a meeting with friends, it’s too formal, limiting any spontaneous thinking and joy. In most cases, chamber music would have been exactly this setting though. But in our sessions we got rid of prepared scores quite soon and we were not even referring to themes or musical schedules at all – instead, we simply started from scratch, only fixing the tempo or sometimes the general attitude.
CB: And this is where the creative process begins. At first you need to get rid of all limitations, rules and stuff like that (and there are many of them in classical music). Then you need a musical partner like Henning that you can trust and who is flexible enough to follow your musical ideas or who is taking the lead whenever he feels that your musical idea might be somewhat misleading. After a while this exchange of ideas is balancing itself and a back and forth – kind of a musical discussion – begins. Of course there are certain traps that you jointly tend to run into, but then again, you’re teaming up to find a way out and this is what makes the act of improvising as interesting as it is.
HS: I think the imperfections in playing, the small mistakes are hints or markers to catch our attention (and the listener’s attention as well) for an unnoticed but yet very important aspect of the music. It’s part of the process and necessary to understand the whole picture.
CB: Imperfection sometimes is the fuel of improvisation. Music tends to be more and more detached from human habits. Classically trained musicians are used to playing musical sequences again and again and again until they are perfectly in tune and in time. The music production tries to wipe out any inaccuracy with auto tune, quantization and technical automations like that. But we still love the recordings from back in the days when all these tools weren’t invented yet, don’t we? It’s the human touch of the recordings where nobody cared about hitting the wrong key once or twice or missing the timing by a sixteenth note.
HS: Any musician knows the magic of the first takes in a recording session. It’s usually the most authentic, fresh, genuine one, but often musicians decide not to use it because it lacks perfection. But perfection is in my view something that is very much against the nature of life. And perfection became something ordinary in times of computer generated music and photoshop, often only reached by manipulation. On our album “bei” Christoph and myself played only first takes, there was no second try.
What did you find the most challenging during recording this album?
CB: I think, first of all it has been extremely challenging for me to get used to not having control over all parts of the creative process. Even though I have been playing in several ensembles and bands before I felt that I got used to being a solo artist way too quickly. Making music in a duo setup requires an enormous amount of attention and consideration that I seem to have forgotten since starting my solo projects. And I’m convinced that having Henning as a musical partner is a very comfortable situation for me, because he’s used to making music with others and he is extremely forgiving and anticipating whenever I’m tending to be misguided by my habits as a solo musician.
HS: For me the challenge starts before the recording. I try to visualize the situation and the results I would like to have. If my vision is genuine and appropriate it’s usually way easier. In the recording process itself the challenge is more like swimming in a river and coping with the currents which is fun with a partner like Christoph, who got perfect pitch and an extremely developed sense of communication and taste. Of course we didn’t use all music we recorded, we tried to focus on the most interesting parts and forms, which we arranged as small pieces, miniatures in a later purification process.
You were basically composing while performing at the same time. What is that you loved the most about this process?
HS: I love being creative in general because I believe we are connected with our inner selves the most in these moments. This has a strongly harmonizing and even healing effect. For me it has been a new experience to create an album in real-time, being inspired by a partner like Christoph – an experience of trust, give and take at the same time at such high level of awareness.
CB: It is a very unique experience indeed. Maybe this might be the only way to compose music without making compromises at all. Usually you start reconsidering things, finding workarounds for sequences that are for instance not in line with the classical music theory. But if you compose while performing there is no time to reconsider anything; either you play what comes to your mind right away or it’s too late and the moment is gone.
It feels like this was also a part of some sort of self-discovery, you did not only get to know each other better but also yourselves. Was there something ‘deep down’ that you have managed to unlock with this collaboration?
CB: Leaving one’s own comfort zone is always challenging and leading to some sort of a self-discovery. And by sticking with the first takes – and all the flaws that are revealed within those first takes – we were definitely leaving our comfort zones.
HS: All thoughts about concepts and ideas have to come to an end when you finally play music. Then it’s just about feeling the energy, to open yourself, release and to resonate with the moment. If it works it’s pure bliss – and in this recording I was blessed to experience some of these rare moments.
CB: Since I am sometimes finding myself not accepting anything else than “the best I can do” when it comes to my own stuff it has been really healing and satisfying for me to find out that there is a certain “magic” connected to first takes. Something you cannot recreate. For sure we could have added perfection to the recordings by rehearsing and re-recording it. But we would have lost the intimacy of this very moment. This trade-off has been a tough one, if you ask me. Not sure if that was “unlocking” anything, but at least I realized that there is something really appealing about (sometimes quite obvious) imperfection.
Do you have any dream collaborations with another artist that you would love to work on in the future?
CB: Referring to the HAU release that Henning mentioned earlier I could totally imagine to join our forces with Yasuhiko and with cellist Danny Norbury. We all have been collaborating with each other in various duo setups, but an quartet project between us – piano, violin, cello and electronics – that would be fantastic. Thanks for raising this question. I’m actually getting very excited about this idea.
HS: Yes that sounds like a marvelous project – it’s maybe expanding the instant chamber music idea to a new level! Within the flau family there is a big variety of styles and temperaments. They are magically combined by Yasuhiko’s great talent as curator of flau and usually connected by a certain sense of understatement, minimalism and slow music.
Future plans? What are you both working on next?
CB: With two new records coming out now – since I am also releasing my first solo album in nearly five years later this month – it’s hard for me to talk about future plans. As usual within the span between finishing a record and releasing it, my excitement and attention right now is all focused on our duo release “bei”, and on “Conversations”, my new solo record on Sonic Pieces. But I’m not spoiling when I’m referring to an interview that you recently did with my dear friend Marcus Fjellström: One of my next projects will be practicing Marcus’s opera “Boris Christ” that he transcribed for violin and electronics recently. And I’m the lucky one he was asking to take over the violin part.
HS: Right now I am finishing as well a new Solo Project called “Schöneweide”. The name refers to the neighborhood of Studio Klavierraum in which the music was recorded, a place close to the river in an old studio complex in Berlin. The challenge after recording a new project is to bring it live on stage. I noticed that it is necessary for myself to keep a live situation open for spontaneity, for changing modalities of the tunes like dynamics, speed, color, loudness, register; even creating whole new parts like free introductions. I love to react to the mood and story of a concert place and of the people I meet.
It will be a challenge for future concert of “bei”: Christoph and I will have to keep the initial idea of a free and spontaneous talk and as well the structures we found in the recording.
CB: As regards the duo project between Henning and myself I am absolutely sure that we will continue working on duo pieces, also expanding on the ideas behind the compositions on “bei”, playing live concerts one day.