Interview with Seth Josel (September 2010)

Interview with Seth Josel (September 2010)

Well, my parents, who aren’t musicians themselves, were open-minded and offered me the possibility of private instrumental lessons when I was a child; I wanted to start on drums, but they thought that might be too loud for the apartment in which we were living. A cousin had been studying piano, thus guitar seemed like the sensible “default” choice.
I also studied viola in high school for a year when I was around 13. The school orchestra was desperate to fill the section, and my teacher had been highly encouraging, but I soon faced a dilemma and choose guitar – probably a bad practical choice, all things considered.

You were born in New York, but you live in Berlin, why did you decide to come to Europe and why Berlin?

In 1988, I received a Fulbright Grant from the US Government, one of these luxurious one-year grants, to study in Cologne. I had been over here twice before in order to concertize, and I was fascinated, to say the least, in what I perceived to have been the different role that culture and the arts play here, as opposed to back home. I wished simply to immerse myself in such a seemingly culture-friendly society for a while. I was a so-called exchange student, having finished my Masters and pre-doctoral work at Yale, and was supposed to return to the States and spread the good news about the Germans per se, but I stayed instead. Believe me, it wasn’t planned that way! I had always thought there was time to return and start teaching in the American University system. I didn’t think it needed necessarily to begin at the ripe old age of 28. After struggling for a year or so, I received a grant in 1992 for a residency at the Akademie Schloß Solitude in Stuttgart. Upon conclusion of the grant, I moved to Berlin. This was a strictly personal decision at the time, having to do with a woman whom I had met at the Schloß. Had we not met, I would have returned to Cologne, for the MusikFabrik was already on its way to establishing itself as a force in the German new art music ensemble scene and I had already been a permanent member.

How did you start your collaboration with Peter Ablinger? I was really surprised listening to your last record “33-127”, how did it start the idea for this particular record?

A friend from Los Angeles whose taste I trust implicitly actually recommended him as someone who was writing interesting music. I went out and bought all the discs that were available at the time and spent a long time listening to and thinking about Peter’s music. It was an obsession for a while. In particular, I found the ensemble and orchestral pieces amazingly innovative, moreover completely void of compromise, a sort of relentless quality that I find highly attractive. I then initiated contact with Peter, sent him some recorded material, and he seemed intrigued by the idea of writing a piece for electric guitar. A few months later, unprompted, I received this huge package in the mail, and there they were: 127 miniatures! Brian Brandt from Mode had been interested in producing a disc by Peter. The piece was not conceived for presentation as a whole, neither in concert nor on CD; hence, the idea of doing a double CD – because its entire length is more than 80 minutes – never even crossed my mind. Peter thought 33 would be a good starting point, and so it came to be – and it was probably the most grueling learning/production process I had ever been involved in, for those middle sections with the ambient noise are fiendishly difficult and anything but idiomatic.I have really enjoyed your “The Stroke that Kills”, solo CD with works by Beglarian, Curran, Dramm, Fiday, Johnson, Matamoros, expecially the Beglarian’s music “Until it Blazes”. Your version is quite different from the one of Emanuele Forni recorded in his “Ceci n’est pas une guitare”, have you ever listen to it? How did you decide to realize this record?

Thanks for the compliment!
I am embarrassed to say I haven’t yet listened to Emanuele’s version. Mea culpa!
New World Records is an American label, as the company name suggests; it was therefore clear from the start I’d need to design a recital of American music. Paul Tai, the executive producer, was keen to do a solo electric guitar CD, it became simply a matter of developing a programme. This took some time, I must say, because, as you well know, there isn’t a deluge of repertoire available. One thread, which I hope the listener notices, concerns a textural motive, in terms of “electric guitar + …” – that is, multiples guitars, or guitar with delay(s), or guitar with tig welder, etc. In addition, there is a kind of post-minimalist strain therein. Lastly, I was interested in the American expatriate experience, being one myself, and so selecting music by David, Alvin and Tom became an important mission of sorts. In general, I tend to be allergic to buffet-like CDs, e.g. here one piece, there another, all thrown together rather haphazardly. It’s been my experience as a collector and avid listener that if one is not doing a composer portrait CD, it’s quite a challenge to come up with a compelling constellation of works. The dramaturgy has to make some sense to me, or else I am simply not interested.

You have created “Sheer Pluck”, a database of contemporary guitar music, would like to talk about this work?

Well, I am not quite sure what to say except it is the place to go presently for anyone interested in contemporary guitar repertoire. Klaus Heim and I worked very hard at the beginning, designing and conceiving the site, one which not only would be user friendly, but which would go beyond the mere surface of composer name and title. My experience in new music, as well as my musicological background, helped to provide for an integral academic foundation. We have received a tremendous response from both players and composers throughout the world. What more could one ask for?
Klaus is single-handedly running the show at present, and he’s doing a magnificent job – a heroic effort really. I actually haven’t worked actively on it since 2004, though I am feeding him data from time to time, especially involving premiere performances et al.

The first question is always the classic one: how does it start your love and interest for guitar and what instruments do you play or have you played?

Berio in his essay “A remembrance to the future,” wrote: “.. A pianist who is a specialist about classical and romantic repertoire, and plays Beethoven and Chopin without knowing the music of the twentieth century, it is also off as a pianist who is specialist about contemporary music and plays with hands and mind that have never been crossed in depth by Beethoven and Chopin. ” You play both traditional classical and contemporary repertoire … do you recognize yourself in these words?

Indeed, there is something very profound to which Berio was alluding, and I definitely am in agreement with his statement. In all frankness though, my concert appearances with traditional classical repertoire these days are far and few between. Certainly my musical training – not only as a guitarist, but with an extensive exposure to theory and musicology – provided me with a diverse array of analytic skills and exposure to a vast array of (especially) Western art music. I believe this provided me with an excellent foundation, and it has been my goal to bring some of the experience and expressive qualities which I developed as I was studying and performing traditional repertoire to new art music performance. Notions for instance of precision, intensity, line, pacing, gesture, color: these are parameters equally worthy of consideration in contemporary music performance. It’s a question mainly of context, and aesthetics of course.

Talking about Berio you have played his Sequenza XI, would like to talk us about this score and your experience playing it?

Some might raise their eyebrows when I say this: I feel it would have been a great 8-minute work, but it unfortunately became 15 or 16, probably because of circumstances surrounding the commission. Why do I say this? Well, on an analytic level wee can see that every note comes from somewhere, has some distinct relationship to what preceded it. The piece is organic much in same way that Beethoven’s music is organic. I like to think of it as a spiral-like process. In my opinion – sorry for sounding pompous here –, the work’s basic material simply does not justify a 15-minute composing out of that material. That’s a highly subjective comment of course, but one that has been supported by some close friends of mine, composers of a high rank. My experience as both an audience member and performer has led me to believe that it’s extremely difficult to capture and hold an audience’s full attention during an airing of the work – this, in stark contrast to the way the trombone or viola Sequenzas. Regardless, it is a milestone indeed – that is, one of the most important composers of the 20th century composed a major work for the guitar.
After the exclusivity period expired, I was keen to study it of course, and it quickly became a central piece in my programmes, even at the time when I started working with electronics and electric guitar which in hind site was insane, given the work’s inherent challenges. Anyway, I remember two performances in particular, one in Bonn for a very unprepared audience, as far as new art music is concerned, and one in Tel Aviv right before Gulf War I began. That was eery indeed.
Re performance: firstly, there are some important structural elements in the piece, including an array of symmetrical constructs on the foreground. Berio, from all accounts – and I know several composers who have consulted with him – was extremely meticulous. It seemed logical to me therefore to attempt to strive for a reading that would discern the subtle shifts in the organization of time, despite the “improvisamente” indication at the heading of the first section when the opening “chorale” comes to a conclusion. I also felt, in reference to my preparations for the recording, that it was necessary to adhere to his tempo indication very strictly.
The somewhat sad postlude to my Sequenza history is that Mode’s boxed Sequenza set appeared almost immediately after Berio passed away. I had been planning to send him a copy

Mode Records is one of my favorite music label, how did you start working with them? Will you record again with Mode?

The new art music community is rather small indeed. I met Brian Brandt in the mid-90s sometime through Ulrich Krieger with whom I then went on to co-produce Mode’s portrait of Gavin Bryars. This disc explores Gavin’s “experimental” music from the early 70s. In addition to that CD and the Berio, you are probably aware that Mode recently released Chaya Czernowin’s “Maim”; and of course many folk are eagerly awaiting my reconstruction of Feldman’s “The possibility of a new work for electric guitar.” This will be appearing sometime next year. Brian and I speak regularly, and, although the CD/DVD business is in a miserable state presently, I am sure we will find another compelling idea sometime soon.

What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?

I have been involved occasionally in improvisational projects, last year with Karlheinz Essl, and lately with some Berlin folks from the Electronica scene (Exercise One, Jacopo Carreras and Dinky). These projects often provide me with the opportunity to explore some ideas and expressive elements, ones that I can’t necessarily bring to my interpretations of notated music. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with texture and sound, more specifically processing. I can integrate many more analogue pedals – which I prefer for their warmth – in an improvisational context and also devise somewhat unorthodox signal chains. When everything clicks in a live situation, it is a glorious, exhilarating feeling. By the way, someone whom I greatly respect, and who has an interesting take on all of this is Richard Barrett. I recommend that the readers have a look at his music, some of which is about capturing the spirit of improvisation, though with a notation that for most is unfortunately difficult to comprehend.


In 1968 Derek Bailey asked to Steve Lacy to define in 15 seconds the difference between improvisation and composition, the answer was “In 15 the difference between improvisation and composition is that in composition you have all the time to decide what you say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have only 15 seconds” .. Was the Lacy’s answer a little too much ironic or is it a true one??

I think you’d be best served by asking a composer, or someone such as Richard Barrett, who both composes and improvises. If I might be allowed to do some promo on his behalf: his duo “Furt” – with Londoner Paul Oberman – has an unmatched visceral power and throws an interesting light on his compositional activities.

What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises …

When I think about “error,” inevitably I recall the Stravinsky anecdote. He said he liked to compose at the piano in case his finger slipped ….

It seems to me that there is a small music scene about classical guitarists dedicated to an innovative and contemporary repertoire, as well as you come to my mind the names of Marco Cappelli, David Tanenbaum, David Starobin, Elena Casoli, Seth Josel, Marc Ribot who played John Zorn music … shall I speak about a music scene? Are you in contact with these musitians? Are there other guitarists you know and that you can suggest us that they move on these innovative musical routes?

Yes, I have had dealings with most of these folk over the years, in different contexts and situations. They are all making significant contributions, in one way or another.
Well, Maurizio Grandinetti is a good friend. He plays very well and has done some extraordinary things, both as a soloist, but also as a member of Ensemble Phoenix. He’s also someone who can elegantly travel back and forth between classic and electric guitar. The Swedish guitarist, Magnus Andersen, has had a number of extremely important works written for him, among them Brian Ferneyhough’s “Kurze Schatten”. Recently, his student Stefan Östersjö has done some fantastic work, most notably tackling Rolf Rhiem’s monstrously difficult “Toccatta Orpheus”, of which there is a video on line. Of course, Jürgen Ruck is a towering figure in Germany, having been associated with Ensemble Modern since the early 90s. Tom Pauwels, the Belgian guitarist, is quite active. Lastly, someone who goes unrecognized, but who has premiered well over 100 works with the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam, is Helenus de Rijke. I don’t know of any living guitarist who has more ensemble experience – i.e. playing with conductor – than he.

Talking about innovative composers, what do you think about John Zorn and the New York musical downtown scene, so ready to get and recode every musical language, improvisation, jazz, contemporary music, cartoon music?

Frankly, I haven’t spent a lot of time listening and thinking about John’s music. I used to listen to Naked City CD about 15 years ago; it was a revelation at the time. Eliott Sharp is tireless and has done some great things of course – and, well there are countless others.

I’m a Rhys Chatham and Sonic Youth fan, I know that you have played with Chatham, can you tell us something about this experience?

I worked with him in two vastly different settings, one in NYC and one in Rome. The NYC concert – at Lincoln Center Festival Outdoors – was rained out unfortunately; the Rome concert went on as scheduled for it was in doors. I have fond memories of the way Rhys inspired and motivated a wildly diverse collection of players, from rank amateurs to seasoned professionals. The players varied in age, from 16 to 50 year olds. For me, it was mind blowing in a way. My ego was reduced to practically nil. I participated because I wanted to have the experience of being in this ocean of electric guitar sound – in short, for the sheer thrill and ecstasy. In Rome we had the house shaking – and the audience went beserk afterwards! Rhys has that thing we call magnetism and charisma. You can’t teach that. It’s either there or not – and he’s got it! Aside from that, the music itself is fairly simple in a way, lots of pulsating stuff, octaves, single notes, fairly conventional rhythmic figures, etc. Most of the players he assembles for his massive works with ca. 100 electric guitars can’t read music, so he’s forced to keep his musical gestures somewhat elementary. This is not to say that the sonic aggregate result is not rich, for it is – and fantastically so!

I have, sometimes, the feeling that in our times music’s history flows without a particular interest in its chronological course, in our discoteque before and after, past and future become interchangeable elements, shall this be a risk of a uniform vision for an interpreter and a composer? The risk of a musical “globalization”?

Oh dear, that’s complicated. I think there is music that stands outside of history, and I think there is music that takes history quite seriously and is commenting on past experience in some way shape or form. What I find now is through the internet and the concomitant facility with which information can be exchanged, that composers in the U.S. in particular are much more in touch with what is going on over here. I couldn’t necessarily say that 20 years ago. You’d have to have traveled far and wide to find someone who could talk with authority about Helmut Lachenmann’s string quartets, for instance. Today, they are almost part of the canon, and many of the American College the students know the scores intimately. That’s noteworthy progress, I would say, and in that sense the world has indeed gotten smaller. In performance, I have noticed similar trends – also in respect to Helmut’s music. There are actually ensembles over there that are now familiar with his playing techniques and sound world and who are performing his music. To get back to your question, though, I think that profound cultural differences still abound, and that affects directly the expressive and aesthetic content of any given score or performance. For instance, if one were to hear Ensemble Intercontemporain and Asko Ensemble play a major work by Louis Andriessen back to back, one would hear two very skilled performances, but two very different aesthetics in terms of sound and color. Most of this has to do with the instrumental schooling, especially as it applies to the woodwinds.


Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?

It’s an unfortunate part of the business, a necessary evil of sorts. It often takes excessive amounts of energy from the real purpose of our lives, and that is music making. I find some of my colleagues highly offensive in that respect, and overbearing. (Also with reference to Facebook, the level of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion by some is tasteless and insufferable. I put them “hide”….) I am committed to the light touch as it were, e.g. moderato. I find it works to a certain extent. Of course, I wish I had a manager, but I don’t. Hence, promotion is a necessary component of my professional life – irrespective of whether I like it, or not. On occasion I therefore have to send out spam in order to inform people that this or that disc has appeared. Only in rare situations, do I feel compelled to send out concert notices. If I do it mostly concerns a local event; in that case, I use email as an ersatz invitation card. Anyway, right now a disturbing number of people are all consumed with fb, myspace and websites, whatever, and it’s reached a level that is somewhat disconcerting.

What do you think about the discographic market crisis, with the transition to digital downloading in mp3 and all this new scenario?

I made passing reference to this above, when talking about Mode. I have one thing to say: stop the file sharing! It’s as simple as that. My generation grew up buying vinyl; we spent our left over cash purchasing records, listening to them together and talking about them endlessly. As for Gen X and subsequent ones, they could damn well do the same! They are living off the same restricted budgets that we were, so what’s the difference? They spend more money on lattes and cappucinos I guess…. The prevailing attitude is they can have everything for free, whether it be music, news, TV – you name it. This is fundamentally corrupt!! In my discussions with students, I have often found them to be hopelessly clueless about the economics surrounding a CD production – about cover and booklet design, text composition, studio costs, producer and engineer costs, etc, etc. In short, there’s a micro-economic activity behind the scenes, so to speak, which needs illumination; and I am not even talking about royalties or honorarium for the performers! Perhaps if folk were better informed about the process, they would think twice the next time they download something illegally from Napster or equivalent, or copy a file from a friend.
My other rant is that the iPod has sounded the death knoll for the album concept. For instance, the second side of Abbey Road: it’s a suite, really. If people’s habits are mostly about downloading select songs, which group is going to be prepared to take such an enormous risk? Moreover, which label would actually support such a concept?
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …

Only 5?!?! Oh dear….

– Glenn Gould’s first recording of the “Goldberg Variations”
– Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
– Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire
– Pat Metheny – The Pat Metheny Group
– The Beatles – The White Album

What are your five favorite scores?

You like the number 5, don’t you?

Cornelius Cardew – Treatise
Bartok – 5th String Quartet
Stravinsky – In Memorium Dylan Thomas
Brahms – B Minor Piano Trio
Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

A lot of guitar therein, don’t you think?

With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?

Hm…. Dawn Upshaw and I were supposed to do the Argento cycle while we were students at MSM. She got sick shortly before the concert and we had to cancel the appearance. I’d like to do something with her someday!
I’ve never had the chance to play under Peter Eötvös’ baton. From what I have heard, that is a very special experience.
I confess I have a hard time listening to new art music at home – and for that matter most classical music. More and more I feel divorced from that whole ritual; I much prefer going to hear a concert, especially when you have the Berlin Philharmonie in your backyard! I mostly listen to indie Rock or Jazz, when I have the time. My taste in that regard is fairly catholic, I must say – from Sonic Youth to Yo La Tengo to Public Image Limited to Radiohead; from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock to Bill Evans to Bill Frisell.

Your next projects? When we will see you playing in Italy again?

Well, by the time this is published, I will have had an unbelievable start to the new season (August/September):
I will have premiered a full evening work with performer, guitar cello and visuals by John Anthony Lennon. I will have played John Adams’ “Naïve and Sentimental Music”, the mandolin part in Stravinsky’s “Agon” for the MusikFest in Berlin, in additional to three performances of Mahler’s 7th with the Konzerthaus Orchestra. Miss Moth, my art rock project with the inimitable Chris Newman, will have its UK debut in late September.
I am not sure when I am coming to Italy next. The gig last Spring with Arturas Bumsteinas at the Angelica festival in Bologna was great fun!
Some of your readers might be interested to know that Ming Tsao and I are currently writing a performance technique handbook for the Bärenreiter. They have a series of handbooks dealing with contemporary performance; thus far, there are five books already published: flute, oboe, saxophone, bassoon and accordion.

A last question …. the Blog is read by several students .. any good advices to give them?

1. Stop the file sharing!
2. Work hard – and you shall be rewarded, sometimes though not in the ways you expect.

This is really the last question .. which is more a reflection: Luigi Nono said “Other thoughts, other noises, other sounds, other ideas. When we listen to, we often try to find ourselves in others. To find our mechanisms, system, rationalism, in the other. And this is a quite conservative violence. “… Now .. does experimentation free ourselves from the burden of having to remember?

Oh gosh, no!


Thank You very Much!