Christoph Stiefel: Isorhythms and Circus Clowns
It's the end of a lengthy but enjoyable telephone interview with Christoph Stiefel and things are drawing to a close. Then the pianist asks if he can add one more comment: "This is my year. This is a really happening year for me: it's incredible. I've developed my style solo and with my Inner Language Trio for eight, maybe 10 years. I've always had plans to incorporate my ideas into other projects: with a dancer, a bigger band and a singer. All of these ideas came through this year. I dueted with singer Lisette Spinnler [Bima Sakti (Traumton Indigo, 2012)], developed a new project with Japanese dancer Hideto Heshiki called Tale Of A Honeybee, which came out so well. And the Isorhythms Orchestra is taking shape. So this year is really happening."
The Inner Language Trio has also released an album in 2012: Live! (Basho Records) is one of the year's most exciting releases, full of energy and imagination. It's great to hear a musician as talented as Stiefel speaking so enthusiastically about the fruition of his ideas, dreams and projects. It's especially pleasing because Stiefel, now 51 years old, has been a composer and musician for some time: this is no over-optimistic new graduate speaking. His early career was spent in a variety of bands, including that of harpist Andreas Vollenweider, with whom he recorded six albums during the '80s. His total discography runs to over 50 albums, including solo projects and recordings as a bandleader. Bands such as the Christoph Stiefel Trio, the Christoph Stiefel Quartet and the Inner Language Trio have included such musical luminaries as bassist Michel Benita, saxophonist Charlie Mariano and drummer Peter Erskine. It's an impressive musical résumé, yet he's still experimenting, still exploring new ground.
Born and educated in Switzerland, where he still lives, Stiefel has spent most of his career working in Europe, especially Germany, Holland and his Swiss homeland. Thanks to a serendipitous meeting with a British record label executive that looks set to change as Stiefel now has the support to enable him to expand his reach to the UK and, in 2013, to North America.
The name of Stiefel's latest ensemble, the Isorhythms Orchestra, gives an indication of something that has held his interest for the last few years-the concept of isorhythms, a musical technique that dates back to the 13th century. There are plenty of definitions of this concept around, but Stiefel's happy to explain his own personal take on it. "It's always difficult, without sounding too complicated, but there are two basic ideas: first, the rhythmic sequence, second, the melodic content. In isorhythms the melodic content doesn't have to follow the rhythmic sequence. So, for example, a rhythmic sequence may be a pattern of five and the melodic sequence could be six or seven. So the two overlap. The simplest example for me is when you have a rhythmic sequence of quarter notes-one, two, three, four-and the melodic part that is one, two, three: then everybody hears a waltz. The melody gives the illusion of a waltz, so that's what everyone hears.
"I can manipulate what the listener hears. If I start with the illusion that's what everyone hears, then if the drums play the rhythm pattern the audience thinks 'Wow, what's that?' If I start the other way round, with the underlying rhythm, then it's a different effect. I don't really know how much my approach fits the classical isorhythmic technique. I was studying the history of music a few years ago and the tutor discussed isorhythms. I had already composed a piece which seemed to use the technique so I played it for the tutor and he said 'Yes, that's isorhythms.'"
So the isorhythmic approach emerged in Stiefel's music without him being aware of the concept. "That's right. I just had the idea. That tune became the title track of the first album by the Christoph Stiefel Trio, Sweet Paradox (Jazzline Records, 1997)."
Although he found isorhythms almost by accident, the approach is not one that lends itself to easy assimilation by musicians. Stiefel can't simply turn up for a gig and join a local set of backing musicians. "No, it would be impossible. The difficult thing is to hear, play and think in these two realities. The listener can switch between the two but as a player you have to feel and play both at the same time. If you find the most talented and experienced players, like Peter Erskine, give them time to look at the tunes then it would be fine-I hope. But it's trickier than you might think." It's a style that requires a real understanding between musicians. "Yes. Then you start to feel free with it. If someone doesn't feel that freedom, then it sounds like he's really concentrating. When he's confident, free, then the feeling is 'wow!' That's my goal."
Once the players have that confidence, then they can take off and improvise almost as if they were playing a straightforward 12-bar blues. "Exactly. The tunes differ, though. Some have a very precise isorhythmic structure, others have less. For example, on 'Isorhythm #2.2' on Live!, after the theme anything is possible. When we are improvising we have two directions we can follow rhythmically and that gives an extra thrill. I can play a free, Miles Davis kind of direction or I can relate to the drum kicks, to that part of the figure. So maybe the drummer and I will follow the kicks and the bass player will decide to do something else. Or the other way round."
This approach offers up lots of different things to listen to. Each musician can be heard almost as if they are independent of the others, so that each tune can be heard as three separate pieces. Stiefel laughs before replying: "Oh, I know what you mean."
Naming The Tunes
Many of Stiefel's tunes have titles that incorporate the word "isorhythm" plus a number. Live!, for example, includes Olympus Mons/Isorhythm #28, Pensar Positivo/isorhythm #18 and Isorhythm #2.2. There's a method to this. "It's chronological. When I started to compose like this I didn't think it would last so long. Jazz is already complicated; this might just be taking things a bit too far. For the musicians, because they always want as much freedom as possible and to the audience it might be really Hell. But then I thought well, it is complex but there is something that is fascinating to play and to hear. I started to number each composition, then after a while I went back to using standard titles. I became aware that journalists were more interested in isorhythms than anything else about my music but I felt that I didn't want the concept to be too important. It is crucial for me that this does not happen. I went up to number 30. Then I thought well, it's all music. I don't want to become too obsessed. I don't want to be too radical. There's a danger that if the concept becomes too important then the music suffers."
While some music critics may well get overly concerned with the theory and the technical aspects of writing and playing isorhythms, the sound of Stiefel's tunes clearly puts the technique secondary to the music. "That's what I want. I don't want to make too big a thing of the concept. I don't know how long I'll go on composing these rhythms, I follow my heart."
From Rhythm To Isorhythm
Stiefel's musical education started, as it does for so many players, with the classical tradition: but he was soon listening to more contemporary sounds. "As a youngster I had classical lessons, but I was fascinated by rhythm and also by the blues. You can imagine a young pianist fascinated by rhythm and blues: of course I love boogie- woogie. That music gave me everything. It took a long time before I got to hear Herbie Hancock or George Duke. At first, I didn't know they existed. I knew Oscar Peterson, but I never heard the rest of the good stuff. Rhythm for me meant funk, rhythm and blues. Then I heard Duke, Hancock. Bang! I bought a Fender Rhodes and everything changed."
Although Stiefel came from a musical family-his mother sang classical music for 30 years and his two sisters and one brother all played music-he originally planned to become a lawyer. "It was never in the family's plan that one of us would become a jazz musician. That's like becoming a clown!" Consequently, he went to law school but, he says, "I would go to the piano room to play in every break. Even for just 10 minutes."
Having played in his first band at the age of 14, music was always a vital part of his life and then in 1984 he got the chance to become a professional musician. "I met Andreas Vollenweider. He was very successful. He was on the CBS label, playing sell-out concerts. He needed a keyboard player and the drummer recommended me. Suddenly, I was part of the band."
With Vollenweider, Stiefel toured the United States, Japan and Australia: then he left the band after five years to develop his own music. "I spent a year struggling with how I would do this. Then I decided I had to do it, had to become a jazz musician. I had never studied music formally. I was now 28 years old and I went to the piano teacher from the conservatory for private tuition for about four or five years, to study Bach and Mozart for piano technique. I also wanted to study composition and took some lessons. But I'm not the sort of guy who can study for four years before I do my own thing. So after the teacher told me I was writing isorhythms I had one more lesson and then left."
Stiefel has worked as a solo artist, bandleader and sideman since then, with a firm focus on Europe. "Absolutely, yes. It's not easy to get concerts: maybe it's okay for Brad Mehldau, but for most of us, it's difficult. I write, teach, do many things so I have to think about where I want to focus my energy. Germany is good, because I'm a German speaker. It helps if you speak the language when you are contacting promoters and so on. It's harder to build up an audience in other parts of Europe, or the rest of the world. I have recently built up a following in Holland, but to go to South America or the States, I wouldn't know where to start."
An opportune meeting changed all that, giving Steifel the chance to break into new countries. "It was a real accident. A few years ago a German radio station got three pianists together-Nik Bärtsch, Gwilym Simcock and me-all interested in metric modulations. Then in 2010 I went to Jazzahead! in Bremen, hoping to meet someone from the English scene, knowing that Gwilym was successful and thinking that people might be interested in my music. I began talking to a British guy, we were having a really nice discussion. I mentioned Gwilym and how we seem to have similar ideas musically. He turned to his wife Christine Allen, and told me she was Gwilym's manager.
"We had a short chat and I gave her a copy of Fortuna's Smile (Neuklang Records, 2010). She thought the CD was really brilliant. She told me she could probably get me one or two gigs in the UK-but that nobody would come! Because nobody knew me: British audiences want to come to see what they know." Stiefel and Allen kept in touch and eventually Allen signed the Inner Language Trio to her label, Basho, for the release of Live!, making it the first band on the label to have no British members. "She booked me to play with Gwilym at the Steinway Piano Festival in London. That worked out really well-musically it was thrilling and Gwilym and I became friends. It's been fantastic for me. Now I have a series of concerts, including the London Jazz Festival, to promote the release of Live!." These recent developments have also given Stiefel the chance to play in the USA for the first time since leaving Vollenweider's group. "It's been impossible to arrange to play in the States so far. However, I do now have plans to visit the States for five weeks around the end of 2013."
Live! And Beyond
"I never released a live album before. Most of my favorite pianists, people like Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau, have done it and I feel myself that when I'm on stage and it's a good night I play without any fear. Then something extraordinary can emerge. In the studio this is very hard: I need the public, the audience, to drive me on.
"The radio station, Bayerische Rundfunk, had already arranged to record the concert in the Jazzclub Unterfahrt in Munich so I thought I will organize my own recordings at two other gigs. I didn't definitely plan to make an album, just to see how it would go. We did the recordings and some of the music was really happening but I still had doubts. In the past, my reason for recording an album was to present my new compositions. On Live! this isn't the case: 'New Waltz For Nina' is new but all the rest are old tunes. So I put the recordings away, then listened again later. Then I saw Christine at the 2011 Jazzahead! and asked her to listen to it. I gave her the unmixed recordings and asked her for her thoughts-she loved them and that was that."
Stiefel has yet to finish law school: "I thought, well I can always go back and take the exam." Indeed he might, although he may have quite a bit of revision to do. The way things are going though, it's unlikely that he'll need to make such a major career change. Like he said, 2012 is his year.
Christoph Stiefel Inner Language Trio, Live! (Basho Records, 2012)
Christoph Stiefel and Lisette Spinnler, Bima Sakti (Traumton Indigo, 2012)
Christoph Stiefel Inner Language Trio, Fortuna's Smile (Neuklang Records, 2010)
Christoph Stiefel Inner Language Trio, Christoph Stiefel Inner Language Trio (Neuklang Records, 2008)
Christoph Stiefel Trio, 7meilenStiefel (Neuklang Records, 2006)
Christoph Stiefel, Isorhythms For Solo Piano (Pangan Records, 2005)
Christoph Stiefel Trio, Dream Of The Camel (Enja Records, 2001)
Christoph Stiefel, Sweet Paradox (Jazzline Records, 1997)
Andreas Vollenweider, Book Of Roses (Sony, 1991)
Andreas Vollenweider, Dancing With The Lion (CBS, 1988)
Andreas Vollenweider, Down To The Moon (CBS, 1986)
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All Other Photos: Courtesy of Christoph Stiefel