Interview with Christoph Funabashi
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
I started playing when I was 13. A good friend played the drums and I was very fascinated by that. In order to form a band I picked up the guitar.
What did you study and what is your musical background? What were and are your main musical influences?
My early musical memories are listening to the organ at church and singing along with the old chorals as well as listening to The Beatles’ Blue Album at the age of five or six. When I started playing guitar I was very much into Heavy Metal. Later I listened a lot to punk rock and indie bands like Bad Religion, Weezer, Pavement or Sonic Youth – the kind of music that I played with bands and still like a lot. Around the same time I came into touch with classical music through the fine music lessons at school and when I heard a symphony orchestra playing live for the first time I was really flashed. Debussy’s piano music was kind of my entrance into modern music and soon I listened to Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith and the Second Viennese School – the latter remaining a strong influence throughout. When I studied music (with the main subjects classical guitar, popular music and composition) I tried to inhale as much music as possible. Inside the classical repertoire I was very much drawn towards either old or new, playing Bach, Dowland and Mudarra as well as Krenek, Petrassi and Takemitsu. Jazz was pretty new for me at that time and opened a whole new world from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis to Sun Ra and John Zorn. If you ask me for a guitar player then it’s Pat Metheny who I admire most – for his tone, his incredible technique and his remaining creativity in quite diverse styles. I’m one of the few persons who actually like his “Zero tolerance for silence“ very much.
Well, you are not alone, I like that record very much too. Why did you decide to play and record The Book of Heads?
I had already been attracted by John Zorn’s music for a long time when – after finishing my classical studies in 2003 – a friend gave me Marc Ribot’s recording of The Book of Heads as a present. I didn’t know these pieces existed until then and was immediately fascinated about them. They seemed to contain a lot of my musical interests – from classical to rock and jazz to contemporary experimental music – in a very condensed form and with a good portion of humor. Playing mostly contemporary chamber music and composing myself in the following years it was not before 2010 that I came back to these pieces, finally got the score and at first began to study just a few etudes for a concert. I felt a strong connection to Zorn’s approach and diving more and more into it – studying, experimenting, playing it in concert – I realized there was a lot these pieces gave to me and I had the feeling that there was also a lot that I could give to these pieces. Realizing there were no further recordings of this great work it was kind of a natural idea to record it.
What kind of difficulties have you found playing these passages? I saw the scores… sometimes they are like… comics…
All is a mix of graphical notation, standard notation and written indications – sometimes very clear, sometimes quite enigmatic. For example you may have “pop balloon”, “balloon crunch” or “damp with balloon” at some places – at others it just says “balloon”. In addition the scores are very small and sometimes it’s very hard to decipher his handwriting – I always took this as part of the concept. So the main difficulty – but also the most fun – is to find out what one has to do and to find a solution how to achieve it. There is a constant shift between following the score very literally and inventing things on your own. Technically most challenging I found the passages where you have to execute multiple things at the same time e.g. playing circle slides, wet finger whoops and tapping a rhythm on the guitar body simultaneously right after popping a balloon with the foot in etude 3 or playing on two guitars in etude 30 with constant changes between bowing with two violin bows, ordinario playing and playing with the foot on one of the guitars lying on the floor – in the improvisation at the end I also play on my metal music stand. For most guitarists this is quite uncommon and I often thought some pieces could also be executed very well by classical percussionists who are used to do all kinds of crazy things in contemporary compositions. John Cage’s “Water Walk” was in fact a great inspiration for me. But then there are also pieces that are quite “guitaristic” or involve typical genre quotations.
Why did you decide to record it with Schraum label?
Schraum is a very fine label with a catalogue of releases by artists mainly from the Berlin impro and contemporary music scene but also by other European and Non-European musicians. So this record with its blending of composition and improvisation seemed to fit very good with it. And the label is run by people I knew before and like to work together with.
Yours is the second Book of Heads’s complete recording… what do you think are the main differences with Marc Ribot’s versions?
I haven’t thought so much about that and if I’m honest I don’t like to. I also enjoy listening to James Moore’s and Alessandra Novaga’s versions. It’s different people playing the same piece and all giving a very personal touch to it. On the other hand I also sense there is a certain connection between the different interpreters. About his game pieces John Zorn said that with all the freedom there is and with all the directions the pieces can go one should not forget that they were developed at a special time and place and presented an improvisational language he developed together with “like-minded musicians”. In a way I feel as a “like-minded musician” and felt very honored when John showed his interest in the preparation of my recording, listening to my demos and exchanging some e-mails how to approach the pieces. What I can perhaps say about my recording is that I took great care of the overall structure. Of course the order of the 35 etudes is given but there is a lot of improvisational freedom to think of transitions between pieces or building up contrasts, grouping etudes together and so on. Sure, each etude can stand for its own and I heard many people say it’s the perfect CD to listen to at random. But I tried to give it a flow just like on a good pop album.
What does improvisation mean in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
I know there is a long tradition of improvisation in baroque music especially on the organ. But also soloists in an ensemble have a certain degree of freedom and the concept of the basso continuo is in fact very similar to jazz comping. Learning about the diminuations was of course important for me when I studied music from that period. About the classical and romantic period I really don’t know but I’m not an expert. I guess most people here will know Derek Bailey’s fantastic book on improvisation which gives a very good overview of the practice of improvisation in different times and genres. Personally I first encountered improvisation in blues and experimental rock music and later turned towards jazz and contemporary improvisation.
If you listen to a different interpretation of a song you already played and you want to perform do you take care of this listening or do you prefer to proceed in complete independence?
Of course listening to other musicians is very, very important. But when studying a piece – especially a classical, written-out piece – I like to concentrate on the score and the background information that I have and try to go my own path first. If we take the Book of Heads: I was familiar with Ribot’s versions, with Eugene Chadbourne, with a lot of Zorn’s music and with a lot of the sources his music comes from – but once I had the score I didn’t listen to Ribot’s recording anymore until I finished the record. I tried to read the score as precisely as I could and tried to put all my creativity into it.
I sometimes feel that in our time the history of the music flow with no particular interest in its chronological course, in our disco-music library before and after, the past and the future become interchangeable elements, could this be a risk for an interpreter and a composer of a uniform vision?
Knowing the historical developments helps to understand music intellectually and I find this very interesting and satisfying. But the reasons why we feel so connected to certain music are often very personal and unconscious. Therefore I find it legitimate to jump around through times and genres, picking up what one likes. But as an artist you should also reflect on what you’re doing and treat your sources with respect.
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you… the classic five records for the desert island …?
The first disc would surely be with music by J.S.Bach. Maurizio Kagel once famously stated that there are all kinds of musicians – they play different styles, have different aesthetic views, some do believe in God, some don’t – but they all believe in Johann Sebastian Bach. In this regard I’m a believer. And the most beautiful recording of his music that I know is Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations. It’s really a disc I can listen to over and over again, anytime, in any situation. A band I also kept loving over all the years is Bad Religion and if I have to choose between their earlier albums it’s “Generator” from 1992. As third I’d like to pick a jazz album and that would definitely be the Masada Quartet – Live in Sevilla 2000. What an amazing and inspired performance this is! If I can choose just two more albums that would probably be “The Great Escape” by Blur and “Music for three” – a rather unknown disc of a piano trio of Werner Bärtschi, Martin Mumelter and Wen-Sin Yang playing the music of Charles Ives and John Cage.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
Upcoming concerts are trios with Pia Abzieher and Felix Mayer as well as with Rolf Pifnitzka and Knut Holtsträter – people with which I’ve already been associated in Rolf’s larger free impro ensemble Mykorrhiza Pivnicza. Also there is a new improvising acoustic guitar duo called “whisper/whistle” together with Torsten Papenheim which I’m really enthusiastic about. And the electric guitar quartet e-werk just premiered my “toccata” and will soon play it again at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin – I’m really looking forward to this.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important than talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
I’m not sure on what kind of vision this is coined but I’m always skeptical about masterplans. I’m aware of a lot of elements that repeatedly occur in my works but I think it’s deadly for an artist to have a recipe. Each new work starts with a vision that takes more and more concrete shape during the working process.