Gregor Schwellenbach is a musician and performer of up to twelve different instruments and he is constantly on the road, as well as travelling the lands from pop to contemporary music and back.
His arrangements are sought after in film and TV, as they are in theatres across the country. Knowing every subcultural trick in the book and camouflaged as an inspired amateur, he nevertheless likes to draw the card of being a classically trained composer when the right moment presents itself. Furthermore, he programmed electronics for performance spectacles, conducted music for ads, produced radio plays and even wrote an opera about sugar.
His taste for subversive concepts, his merciless ludic drive and his courage for catchy melodies instantly connect him to Kompakt Records’ music, whose electronic dance floor expertise now finds itself properly scored by the master of soul-stirring polyphonic studies.
Decoded Magazine managed to grab a few minutes to talk to Gregor recently, and here is what he had to say…
Hi Gregor, and thank you for taking the time to chat to Decoded Magazine. What have you been up to with you day? What is a typical day in the life of Gregor Schwellenbach?
Today I practiced the piano in the morning, then I picked up my beautiful string players and we rode to my studio for a rehearsal: We will play a piano-and-string-quartet-concert in Bonn tomorrow. It will be a double feature with Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project, so it’s gonna be a very special occasion for me.
What was your first experience of classical music, and what was the inspiration behind you wanting a career in the music business?
As a teenager, after some years of piano lessons, I was only truly interested by Pop music and I taught myself to play the guitar and percussion and to improvise on the piano. Then I met some very good teachers who introduced me to playing Jazz, and that was the moment when I realised I wanted to become a professional musician. Just before I left school I decided to turn to classical music. On the one hand that music surrounded me from a distance for all my life and at the same time it felt like a romantic, almost exotic style for an 18-year-old with punk friends. I started playing the double bass in youth orchestras and enjoyed wearing suits, hanging with posh girl violinists and discussing the spirit of different recordings of Mahler symphonies. I thought that was kind of cool, actually, I still think it is.
You have released some beautiful music on Kompakt over the past four years. How did your relationship with Kompakt come about, and what can we expect over the coming months from you?
Unusual as it is for a classically trained musician, I love the spirit of Techno music, especially the one from my hometown Cologne, and especially the one from the label Kompakt. In an attempt to understand my own fascination I once transcribed some tracks and turned them into pieces for piano or string quartet, to see if the spirit is only in the sounds and the production or also in the notes itself. Years later I showed those pieces to some guys at Kompakt and they asked me to do more of those pieces to celebrate their 20th anniversary. That project was the beginning of some beautiful collaborations with this label and some of their artist.
The mix you have compiled is a very impressive journey into many sounds and genres. What inspiration did you draw from to compile the mix, and what were your aims when beginning to compile the mix?
I live in a busy street in a nightlife district and I compiled this mix at night with my windows open to make sure I only pick tracks that I really want other people to hear. Almost every track has a connection to Germany or is German. You can also hear my affinity to classical music: Hans Otte’s Satieish proto pop piano, David Lang’s chamber instrumentation, Myra Davies’ quoting of a Wagnerian plot and Seeger covering Beethoven.
Your music spans electronic music, composer for film, TV and theatre and a classically trained multi-instrumentalist. Can you tell us about some projects you have enjoyed working on over the years and why they stand out?
Recently I produced ‘Six Pianos’, a piano record with minimal music by Steve Reich and Terry Riley featuring Hauschka, Brand Brauer Frick, Grandbrothers, John Kameel Farah and myself. I felt like manifesting the feeling we are a generation of pianists that have a natural background both in bourgeois piano lessons and dancing to electronic music. I also enjoy my regular collaborations with Kölsch, I think our styles are an unexpected yet fantastic match.
I am especially proud of the diverse music theatre concepts I developed, from a musical romantic comedy only using German punk rock songs to a drone opera on the topic of military drones. But my most spectacular project was a midnight concert at the Cologne cathedral. It’s two gigantic organs are controllable via MIDI and I developed a setup that enabled me to improvise with algorithms and create intricate loop layers with those acoustic organ pipe sounds.
You compiled a stunning release on Kompakt where you re-imagined some of the label’s classics in your own classical musical style. Some of the comments on Resident Advisor were a little dumbfounded I thought. What were your aims with the reworks of each track, and what are your thoughts on some of the negative comments you have received?
There were two critical comments on genre-crossing projects in general and I even share their suspiciousness: I don’t see the worth in a simple transfer of genres. However, beyond genres I found an individual approach for each piece to comment on my love for techno using my skills as an arranger for acoustic instruments. You mustn’t misunderstand the project as an up value of a genre by making club music difficult to play or having classical musicians trying to be cool. It’s rather an examination or a divergent perspective on my beloved inspiration, and once you hear it you’ll understand that.
Many people may have asked you this but I am going to anyway… You are a classically trained musician so what drew you towards electronic music?
If I knew why I would never have to make that record. The whole project was born out of the question why I feel at home in this music so much. All I can say for sure is I love to get lost in electronic music.
The Can Project is something I have been very interested in and it is related to the music you compose for film. Can you tell us a little more about the project and how it began?
In 2013 I was the musical director of a film music award ceremony and Can founder Irmin Schmidt was on the jury. Being a huge fan of Can and Irmin’s film scoring work I played a piece by him in a rather maverick arrangement, and Irmin liked my version so much he called me half a year later to ask if I would write a piece with him, that should catch the spirit of a Can concert in a symphonic form. You know, Irmin was a professional conductor before he started Can, and he wanted to conduct again to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary at the Barbican.
In the second part of that performance, the other living Can members were supposed to reunite. Very sadly Jaki Liebezeit died shortly before the concert and also Holger Czukay became unable to attend, so eventually, Can’s first singer Malcolm Mooney was the only original member performing with a band put together by Thurston Moore.
There are some fantastic classical musicians out there at present including Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds, Rival Consoles, and A Winged Victory For The Sullen, and all have made an impact in some part in the electronic music world. Why do you think they have had such a big impact on electronic music?
Electronic music is an open system that is able to include every influence and background. While the Can generation needed to rebel against conventions, today’s classically educated musicians don’t have do decide between tradition and subculture. We can embrace both, use classical skill and take them to the club to try and create something new.
Can you talk about some of your biggest influences today and over the years in both classical and electronic music?
My classical influences over the years include Maurice Ravel for his open yet warm harmonies, György Ligeti for his mesmerising sound fields, Steve Reich and Terry Riley for creating trance by using pulses and JS Bach for finding beauty in the clarity of strict systems. On the electronic side, Kraftwerk made me look forward to the future as a kid, Brian Eno showed me to limit myself to the essentials, Aphex Twin taught rampant creativity and Wolfgang Voigt how to do your own thing.
Today I am trying to learn from Olivier Messiaen’s tonal systems and Nicolas Jaar’s transparent sound layering.
Cologne has some superb local dishes, and a personal favourite would have to be either Schnitzel or Mettbrötchen. What is your favourite Cologne cuisine and why?
That would be Kölsch, the local beer (not to confuse with the producer of the same name, that’s actually a coincidence). It is served in tiny glasses, so there is always time and money for another one and it’s easy to invite strangers.
Finally, I would like to thank you for your time, and the great mix. Do you have anything you would like to add before we head off in our separate ways?
Thanks a lot for sharing my mix. I am playing two UK shows at the end of June, see you there!