Markus Reuter: (R)Evolutionary Touch Guitarist
German touch guitarist Markus Reuter stands at the forefront of the international ambient music community. From his various collaborations with King Crimson alumni and electronic music pioneers Ian Boddy and Robert Rich, Reuter has crafted a busy schedule of his own recordings, lent his own ear and expertise to engineering and production work in parallel with leading classes on the unusual 8-stringed instrument he uses to promote his art. This interview is the first of two parts documenting Reuter's efforts on a world class scale.
All About Jazz: Please describe your working relationship with drummer Pat Mastelotto. Do you do most of your idea exchange via mail? How does that work for mixing projects like the last three Tuner projects?
Markus Reuter: Pat Mastelotto and I met on a train a long time ago. We got to know each other without having the aim in mind to eventually work together musically, so when Pat first asked me to create music together with him, it was never business-driven or otherwise caged in, but a totally blank canvas, which was (and still is) great. We also share a personal, non-music related history, and we think of each other as family.
Contrary to common belief that we work over the internet (one of our initial promo blurbs started this rumor), I have visited Pat in Austin, Texas at least a couple of times every year for the last five years. We've produced, composed, arranged, and recorded the albums Totem (Unsung, 2008), Pole (Unsung, 2007), Tovah's Escapologist (Lola, 2008), Chrysta Bell's [forthcoming] Strange Darling (TBS, 2011), and Moonbound's Peak Of Eternal Light (Unsung, 2008) at Pat's studio. The only project that we've done entirely via the internet is Steven Wilson's Insurgentes Rmxs (Kscope, 2009), [which] we did in early 2009. The Tuner live recordings were edited in Texas, too. The Müüt (Live in Estonia 2007) (Unsung, 2008) album I mixed with Clemens Schleiwies in Munich, Germany. Our Estonian friend and drummer Arvo Urb, of Fragile and This Fragile Moment mixed Zwar (Live in Europe 2005). Zwar has not been officially released yet and is only available via our own online store.
When Pat and I started working on Totem, Pat was still strongly associated with the free-improv/jamming approach of the King Crimson ProjeKcts. There was also his duo with Trey Gunn called TU. I realized back then that I was not prepared to go the same "abstract" route in order to come up with musical material, but I wanted to use the opportunity to come up with composed music that is not based in the tradition of "jamming." At the time, I thought there was way too much improv material out there (not only from the KC camp), and since my interest seems to always lie in what's being neglected at the moment, it was natural to compose rather than improvise. This is also reflected in the name Tuner, which by request from Pat came about as an extension of the TU concept, but right away the literal "tune" was very important to us. Tuner (being a proper English word) is also much less abstract than TU. These were just some of the initial thoughts and ideas that we had.
AAJ: What do you think Pat brings to you from a rhythmic and percussion orientation that makes it fun and challenging for you to work with?
MR: To me Pat is a musician, first of all. And he's playing the drums. He's so much more than a drummer. He's been a driving force in lots of successful pop music, too, and is a recording studio veteran. He's not only about the placement of an individual kick drum hit, for example, but also has a unique grasp of musical forms, be it complex new stuff or songs. He zooms in and out of the music at enormous speed. Pat has impeccable taste, and I never doubt his reactions to my ideas. If he doesn't like something, I let go of it right away, and I think this respect is mutual.
So the basic tenet for a Tuner studio record is that we use it as a vehicle for the things we always wanted to do, but never had a chance to. At least that's where the recent development goes. Our upcoming studio record, Face, is based on a few ideas, which can be permutated endlessly. While the resulting music is very complex, it is still quite accessible. Interestingly enough, the results remind me somewhat of Mike Oldfield's Amarok (Virgin, 1990), but in a more stringent and focused way.
AAJ: What kind of expectations do you set/challenges for yourself (together with Pat) to play as Tuner live? What pieces were just plain better live than in the studio for you and why?
MR: Live performance as a duo is always a challenge, and I'm tired of the duo configuration. Live sampling technology and pre-prepared parts helped a lot and, much to my surprise, both the live shows as well as the live discs were very well received.
AAJ: What do you think are the best three pieces that you have done with Pat as Tuner and why?
MR: For me the "best," that is to say the "defining" pieces we created so far are "The Morning Tide Washes Away" [Totem], "11 11" [POLE], "Tied into a phrase" [Müüt] and our cover of King Crimson's "Industry" (Zwar). "The morning tide" marks the first time I used a certain compositional approach that I'm still exploring, for example for Face and my "Symphony," called Todmorden 513.
"11 11" was the musical discovery of overlapping and independently shifting rhythmic patterns combined with beautiful melodies. "Tied into a phrase" is a successful improvisation that meets my standards of an 'instant composition.' I'm stunned by our version of "Industry" as it somehow captures something that I feel is uniquely King Crimson. It's also quite something to hear the great power in my own playing on this track, a power that does not reflect the me I know.
AAJ: Why did you and Pat reissue Totem?
MR: We reissued it because the first edition was sold out quickly and we wanted to make a couple of small changes to the mixes.
AAJ: Please describe your work with Ian Boddy. How would you best describe the sonic and ambient constructs that you create? How have your collaborations with Ian changed and evolved over the years? Can you select three specific pieces in your work with Ian and explain these pieces reflect your best ideas/execution with him and why?
MR: Ian was introduced to me by our mutual friend, Sid Smith, in September 1998. Ian's become a dear friend and very reliable business partner over the course of time. He has released lots of albums and other products that I was involved with in one way or another in the past ten years and contrary of common practice in the business his reports are always on-time, which is a quality that says a lot about a person.
When Sid introduced us, I sent Ian some of my soundscapes, which became the foundation of our debut album Distant Rituals (DiN, 1999). Ian and I first met in person in early 1999, to finalize the album together. Our first album was mostly Ian's idea, almost entirely based on my Touch Guitar loops, which in and of themselves were already complete compositions. He further shaped the forms and the sound, and we recorded only a few overdubs. Pure (DiN, 2004) entirely draws upon compositional miniatures I came up with [compositions from the same batch also appeared on Totemand on Tim Bowness' solo album, My Hotel Year (One Little Indian, 2004]).
Our most recent release, Dervish (DiN, 2009), is our most successful collaboration to date. We both let go of our past and using a very loose concept we came up with this work, which some reviewers have called the "state-of-the-art" in electronic music. The sounds were almost entirely sourced from my Touch Guitars U8 guitar. By the way, there is also a stripped-down companion album called Unwound, which focuses on the original guitar textures. It is available as a digital download from Music Zeit .
AAJ: How much of your collaborations are based on spontaneous improvisation? How much planning do you do separately or jointly on the compositions?
MR: "Spontaneous improvisation" as in "playing together" --- none at all. For Dervish, we had actually prepared samples and also some musical ideas before meeting up at my studio in Innsbruck. I had sampled my touch guitar (single-note ambient pads sounds, straight and looped) and Ian turned them into software instruments that could be played with a keyboard and/or with from within the sequencing software. Ian also brought a sample library of the Hang Drum into the mix. Once we met and came up with the concept for the record (each piece is based on one of the seven 'modes of unlimited transposition'), we dropped most (if not all) of the musical ideas we had developed at a distance and started from scratch. The process of composing the pieces was entirely improvised with equal input from both of us, and the aim was to always find common ground.
AAJ: What would you say is your ambient music benchmark? How do you measure your own work against it?
MR: I don't think I measure my own work against a specific "ambient music benchmark." There are general musical and sonic ideals I'm after nowadays, but some of David Sylvian's and Brian Eno's works were certainly very influential. By the way, Dervish is not an ambient album at all, at least not in the traditional sense and from my point of view.
AAJ: You and Ian work jointly on the rhythmic structure of the pieces, correct? "Joker," for example, has a few Crimson-like odd-tempo elements, but it is played with a lighter touch.
MR: Generally, I suggested the rhythmic structures. There are usually two or three different cycles/time signatures running at the same time in each piece.
AAJ: Please tell me about the string arrangements you created on "Angst." How challenging was it for you to go back after the performance was already complete and fit a suitable accompaniment?
MR: The string arrangements were written and recorded last: The three-part guitar melody I had written in the studio in Innsbruck, and the string parts were overdubbed in order to create dense clusters within the octatonic scale on which the piece is based. It is supposed to sound "awkward and wrong."
AAJ: So is the Unwound download actually the recordings you gave to Ian to start working with?
MR: No. Unwound is based on the soundscapes (i.e. guitar loops) I recorded in my studio whilst we were composing the pieces. It was Ian's idea to isolate the textural elements of the compositions (including some of the string quartet performances) and turn them into an ambient album. I think Unwound came out great. We were even considering putting it out as a CD since we like it so much, but then decided for the download route.
AAJ: How did you meet 05ric and decide to do a project together? Are you familiar with his two recordings with Gavin Harrison? What appeals to you about those recordings that made you want to work with Ric? What do you think of the Extended Dynamic Range bass and how do you compare it to the touch guitar you use? Can you list any similarities/differences/approach/styles that you would like to detail?
MR: 05ric has been a Tuner fan for a long time, and he kept asking me to work with him for at least three years before I gave in and finally sent him some material to work with. His original idea was to have a band with him, Gavin, Pat, and me. He had also invited Trey Gunn to contribute when we started working as a duo in 2009.
I did not totally get into the two albums Ric released with Gavin Harrison for these reasons: there's a sonic density that is hard on my ears (I'm very sensitive), and harmonic grounding was missing for me. So when Ric requested me to send him musical ideas, including "soundscapes" (by this I mean 'guitar-based loop compositions'), I felt confident that those would inform his compositional process in a positive way. Ric confirmed this in later discussions. In the end Ric played almost all the drums on the album (except for one loop from Gavin), too, and he's doing an amazing job. I'm very happy with how the blld material prima mini-album turned out, and I actually listen to it for pleasure. We pronounce blld" as "build," but the name (for me) comes from the words "ballad" and "blood."
Ric's guitar/bass-playing comes from a completely different place than mine. For me playing is just a tool, but for Ric it's much more about personal expression. He's what people call a natural player, and he uses the Touch Guitar (he has also picked up the U8 as his instrument of choice, btw) as much as a conventional guitar and bass as he does as a tapping instrument. I'm more about refining the touch-style approach, and I practice the instrument more as an exercise in meditation rather than with musical aims in mind. That is, in my practice I work on details like for example specific movements of the fingers, and my approach more closely resembles something like a martial art. I don't have the urge to play music all the time. I enjoy the reduction to the basics and the kinesthetic aspect of working with the touch guitar.
AAJ: Please describe your long-standing working relationship/friendship with centrozoon and Tim Bowness. How did centrozoon get together, and why does it still remain an appealing concept for you? What recordings would you consider watershed and why?
MR: centrozoon was Bernhard Wöstheinrich's project, initially. I joined in the mid-nineties, at which point other remaining members left the band. Bernhard and I then worked on what became the core sound of centrozoon, which is based in experimental improvisation. In the early 2000s, we had a relatively short but exciting stint working with Tim Bowness, who joined us as singer and lyricist. The initial sessions with Tim were as experimental as the centrozoon duo, but in the production process the music got molded into a form of modern prog-electronica.
I just spoke with Tim the other day, and he suggested the rerelease of the albums we produced together, as well as the DVD of a live concert that was filmed in 2002. There is potential for a reunion with Tim in the future, but the next step for centrozoon is an album with new member Tobias Reber, a Swiss sound-artist. The centrozoon recording I consider watershed is definitely the cult of: bibbiboo (Unsung, 2002) . It was recorded in the year 2000, but so far has not lost any of its freshness and uniqueness.
AAJ: Please describe your working relationship with Robert Rich. How did you first meet Robert and determine there was an interest in working together? What is it about his approach to ambient and space music that makes him a strong collaborator? Are you planning on working on any new projects?
MR: The collaboration with Robert came out of mutual respect for each other. I think it was Ian Boddy who put us in touch initially, or maybe a guy from one of the American labels I'm working with. Anyway, we met at Robert's place in Mountain View, California, and conceived, composed, and recorded the album Eleven Questions (Unsung, 2007) in just six days. Robert is one of those true geniuses who are very good at almost everything. He's got an abundance of energy, and he is the kind of perfectionist that I enjoy working with. Nothing but the best is what he's after. He's also such a joy to be around.
We've actually worked on a couple of projects together after our collaboration album. There's an Estonian duo called UMA whose debut CD I produced. Robert was part of the team and mixed and mastered the album. Robert also mixed my work "Todmorden 513," which was a challenge because of the scale of the composition. Robert likes starting mixes with all the faders up, which was quite overwhelming with the seventy-plus tracks (most of which were sub-mixes already) of "Todmorden 513." It goes without saying that Robert tamed the beast and his mix is all and more than I had hoped for.
AAJ: Please describe your evolution/journey as artist from using a guitar to Chapman Stick to Warr Guitar and then your own guitar design, the U8.
MR: When playing guitar and keyboards in my teens I never felt I had to practice, so I never practiced. My talent was sufficient for covering what was needed. But when I started out on Chapman Stick in early 1993, I realized that I have to practice a lot in order to get anywhere on that instrument. This is something that I now realize was also related to the nature of the instrument, which has more of an "invention" than "instrument" character. This also shows in the fact that there's a certain idiom and 'way you should play' attached to the Stick (and, to an extent, to the Warr Guitar), which has always been and still is off-putting for me.
So, after having spent time with both 10- and 12-string Sticks, I made the switch to 8-string Warr Guitar in '97 or '98. Eight strings, tuned in fifths, cover the full musical range and still feel like "one instrument" rather than two instruments turned into one. And, since I've always seen myself as a composer and ensemble player, going for eight strings was most natural. I explored the instrument playing live and in the studio with the Europa String Choir (with Cathy Stevens, Alessandro Bruno and Udo Dzierzanowski), and we released an album on Robert Fripp's DGM label in the year 2000. The album, Lemon Crash (DGM Live, 2000), was mixed by David Bottrill, who I later worked with more closely when producing the Tovah Escapologist record.
In 2008, I started designing my own instrument with American luthier Ed Reynolds. I registered the brand Touch Guitars® and the top of the line model, called the U8, went into production after I tested the prototype for almost a year. The idea was to produce a musical instrument that is entirely based in the tradition of guitar-building, and that is also informed by my inside knowledge about the playing technique. After almost fifteen years of playing this kind of instrument, I finally understood that none of the existing builders actually plays the instrument well enough, and so I was curious about what I would come up with. I was also lucky to work with one of the great luthiers, Ed Reynolds, who's known for working as a consultant for several first class guitar companies.
AAJ: Can you describe the basis of what I would call the "international touch guitar community"? How do other players interact? Is there camaraderie between players?
MR: I've been involved in the scene for a long time, and while there are quite a few wonderful and unifying aspects, the development of the playing technique and the development of a tradition has been made very difficult by certain factors, like the abovementioned musical idiom and, most horribly, certain 'unhealthy' looks and mannerisms that people adopt when starting out to play. There are too few good and accepted role models around these days.
In the mid-nineties, I started writing a column in the TouchStyle Quarterly magazine, which was issued by Frank Jolliffe, and soon after, I started working with a first study group of mostly Spanish players. The basic work we started back then was the cradle of "The Family," the approach I'm now teaching. I have several long-time students that work with "The Family," which uses the relationships within a family to metaphorically describe the often-contradictory aspects of the touch-style technique.
There are exercises called "The Mother," "The Father," "The Son," "The Black Sheep," etc, all of which are interrelated and very effective. We're not studying music as such, but working on movements. In early 2009, the Touch Guitar Circle was founded, and we're meeting regularly to work together and to refine and expand 'The Family.'
Recently, Trey Gunn has also been teaching, and he's using modern technology like Skype for it. Trey and I have also started making attempts at sharing our knowledge with each other. Trey is coming from the perspective of a great player, where I'm more focused on analytical aspects.
The Touch Guitar Circle has recently introduced "working-at-a-distance" to our tool box, and we've complete a couple of courses using this approach already. I really feel something has been set in motion here, and we're looking forward to having more people working with us.
AAJ: How did your recent recording project with Toyah [This Fragile Moment] come together?
MR: It was initiated by Dr. Margus Laidre, former Estonian ambassador in London. I had first met Toyah and Chris Wong when touring Estonia with Tuner and The Humans in October 2007. Margus called for a meeting in a hotel in Tartu in May 2009, the day after The Humans had their debut performance with Robert Fripp. All the becoming members of This Fragile Moment were present and we decided on a concept then. Just a few weeks later we all got back together in a studio in Tallinn and recorded the album.
AAJ: In your collaboration with Toyah, which pieces began as lyrical prose and vocal before a rhythm track was added? How long did it take to do the recording?
MR: All the musical and lyrical material was improvised live in the studio. No overdubs. I think we recorded about 30 to 40 pieces in three days. Only a small selection of tracks made it onto the album. There's enough material for another album, I think.
The production and mixing process were very time-consuming and difficult, also because there was no budget. The recording was very rough and mostly lo-fi since we recorded in a single room and didn't use headphones. So there was enormous bleed on all the microphones, including the vocal mike, which was giving me a headache. Arvo Urb was responsible for the initial choice of the material to be used for the album. I then took over and restored the recordings and mixed them in "audio verité" fashion; that is, I tried to be true to the way it sounded in the room. I think it's sounding pretty good given the circumstances.
AAJ: The title track is pretty serene piece. Is that mostly you with some accompaniment from the other players?
MR: Yes, that's me improvising some chord changes and the others "following" beautifully. Both Robert and Chris are classically trained and really have their ear-training and theoretical knowledge down.
AAJ: Are there any plans for a live performance of the material or any follow-on collaborations?
MR: No plans at the moment, but we are available should there be any demand.
AAJ: How well has the disc been received so far?
MR: The album was put out on my label, Unsung Records, but there was no promo budget and the label was in financial trouble, so basically it has not been promoted at all, yet. Given that, the sales are actually OK. I don't think I've seen any reviews except for one in Estonia's main newspaper, which apparently said the album is spectacular.
AAJ: How did you meet the other players involved in the project?
MR: I had first met Toyah and Chris Wong when touring Estonia with Tuner and The Humans in October 2007. I met Robert Jürjendal when he called me as producer for UMA. Arvo Urb is a long-time collaborator of Robert and a legendary Estonian musician who was involved in some classic Estonian prog groups. It was wonderful to play with Arvo.
AAJ: For the Tovah project (not to be confused with Toyah Willcox): how did you meet her and come to work together?
MR: I met her via the Turkish producer Cenk Eroglu, who's a good friend of Pat Mastelotto and who was also featured on the BPM&M record. I sent Tovah my solo album, The Longest In Terms Of Being (Unsung, 2001), which she loved very much, and she then asked me to produce her album.
AAJ: What types of arrangement constructs did you create/have to work with to meet Tovah's vision of the recording?
MR: Tovah wrote her songs on piano, so I had chord charts and a melody as a starting point. Her vision of the album was something like "Peter Gabriel meets Kate Bush," and that's the brief I started with. In addition to that, she wanted each song to represent a different style.
AAJ: Were the recording sessions straightforward? Was it clear what direction this project would go from the beginning? Was there a clear concept and if so from whom?
MR: It was a pretty straightforward and very enjoyable process. I composed, arranged, and played most of the instrumental parts. But I took an interesting approach with the guest musicians: I had them improvise their parts against a simple MIDI backing track and then cut-up their performances, and based my playing around their parts. Pat Mastelotto played a big role as well. In a way this album shows another side of Tuner, working within strict boundaries and song structures.
AAJ: As a producer, what types of tradeoffs did you make for balancing sounds for the mix? What were the sonic priorities you decided on for the recording, and why?
MR: I used a wholly intuitive approach as I decided on the sounds used for the songs. I played lots of acoustic guitar, which seemed the right thing to do at the time, as well as lots of touch guitars and also some old-fashioned "double speed" guitar, mellotron, and stuff like that. The palette of percussive sounds is also very rich and varies greatly on a song-to-song basis.
David Bottrill and I collaborated on the mix of Escapologist. I spent about two weeks with him in Toronto. Sonically, I let him do his thing. My role was to make sure all the interlocking layers of the arrangements were presented evenly and that the emotional aspects of the music got translated in the way intended.
AAJ: Can you explain Lee Fletcher's role on vocal arrangements (for example, for harmonies on "Come to Me")? How did you interact with him on certain tracks?
MR: Lee is a man with a very strong vision and great musical imagination. My part was to make sure he could do his job without distractions. Lee basically wrote all the harmonies and countermelodies on the album. He sang them to Tovah, and both of us then made sure we got the best performance from her on the recording. We made the stylistic choice to limit her vocal dynamic range in order to get more subtle variation into the music, which worked very well.
AAJ: Can you tell me how your forthcoming project with Tim Motzer got started? How does it compare with some of your other recent projects?
MR: Funnily enough, Tim and I met via MySpace quite a few years ago. I had heard of him via the Nine Horses (SamadhiSound, 2005) album ,and he'd known me from Tuner, I think. I then made an effort to meet him when he was on tour with poet Ursula Rucker. We eventually met in a club in Munich, Germany, and we were like brothers right away. A year or so later, we started a post-jazz group called Gojjo with two other amazing players from Philadelphia (drummer Doug Hirlinger and trumpet and EWI player John Swana).
The ambient project between us got started when I was booked to play a live set on Philly's Star's End radio show (on WXPN, hosted by Chuck van Zyl). I asked Tim to join me for the show and I simply plugged him into my electronics and we improvised the whole 1-hour set together. Most of the pieces on our album Descending are sourced from my recordings of the music played on that show. The contributors were invited to provide overdubs at a much later stage in the production process. During the live performance, I gave vocal cues to Tim, telling him where to go harmonically and so on. At one point I said: "Play chromatically descending pitches, no exceptions," and that's where the title of the album (and the title track) comes from.
AAJ: To close, can you tell us about three or four plans for the next year or two?
MR: My plan is to concentrate on live playing in the next few years. As an artist though there is usually no choice but to go with the flow. My internal orientation is clear, but one can never be sure how, where and when things are coming to the surface. So I'm keeping an open mind and I'm also looking forward to being surprised.
Chrysta Bell Strange Darling (TBS, expected 2011)
Markus Reuter/Motzer, Descending (1K, 2010)
Markus Reuter, Todmorden 513 (Unsung, 2009)
Tuner, Zwar (Unsung, 2009)
Markus Reuter/Ian Boddy, Dervish (DIN, 2009)
Steven Wilson, Insurgentes (Kscope, 2009)
Tuner, Müüt (Unsung, 2008)
Tovah, Escapologist (Lola, 2008)
Moonbound Peak Of Eternal Light (Unsung, 2008)
Tuner, Totem (Unsung, 2005),
Markus Reuter/Ian Boddy, Pure (DIN, 2004)
Tim Bowness, My Hotel Year (One Little Indian, 2004)
This Fragile Moment, This Fragile Moment (Label, 2002)
centrozoon, the Cult of Bibbiboo (Unsung ,2002)
Markus Reuter, The Longest In Terms Of Being (Unsung, 2001)
Europa String Choir, Lemon Crash (DGM, 2000 )
Markus Reuter/Ian Boddy, Distant Rituals (DIN, 1999)
Markus Reuter, Taster (Unsung, 1998)
Page 1: Alex Spechtenhauser
Page 6: Richard Reed
All Other Photos: Harry Triendl