Michael Wollny (Interview): "This One Last Completely Crazy Moment Before the Standstill"
What happens when one of the most highly acclaimed contemporary European pianists invites three like-minded, well-known colleagues to four nights of improvisation in front of an audience? The condensed answer now can be heard on "XXXX", the stunning new release of Michael Wollny together with Tim Lefebvre, Emile Parisien and Christian Lillinger.
When Michael Wollny, Tim Lefebvre, Emile Parisien and Christian Lillinger gathered at Berlin's jazz club A-Trane in December 2019, they did not know what to expect. The plan was to embark on a four-night improvisational adventure, divided into eight sets. No pre-composed pieces, no arrangements, no set rules. The common ground of the line-up: Wollny had played with all three of his colleagues in various projects. Wollny admits being nervous the days before the shows. Four nights and eight sets of improvisation offer a lot of room — a lot of room for exploration, but also a lot of room for failure. It turned out to be four joyous, ecstatic nights — nights that were being recorded.
A few months later, Wollny flew to Atlanta to meet with Lefebvre and recording engineer Jason Kingsland. Together, they created a dramaturgy of what has been recorded those four nights and condensed it into an album. Although being fully improvised (apart from the closing track — which Wollny will explain later in this interview), "XXXX" offers a coherent and cohesive listening experience, a captivating ride, four brilliant musicians seizing the moment.
Looking back, those four ecstatic nights marked the end of everyday life as we used to know it. A few months later, the world went into the first lockdown — and Wollny recorded, in complete isolation and introspection, his first solo album "Mondenkind".
I had the pleasure to talk to Michael Wollny via Zoom. Read the full interview below.
When you think back to those four evenings at A-Trane in December 2019 when those recordings were made: What comes to mind?
It seems to me like that one last, completely crazy moment before the standstill. Those evenings were actually planned as some kind kind of lab experiment at the end of the year, as a way to get on stage with old friends to do something we hadn't done before. In the end it turned out to be a four-day frenzy of music, atmosphere and enthusiasm; of club, closeness and intensity, everything was condensed in it. All the things we miss most at the moment happened during those four days.
Were there any rules that you set for yourself or agreements among the musicians? For example regarding equipment, effect pedals and so on?
We had no agreements in terms of lead sheets, setlists or compositions. I often texted back and forth with Tim in advance, sending each other clips of effect pedals for instance. We also talked a lot about Krautrock bands. About Cluster, Can, Neu! and Beak, the Krautrock project of Geoff Barrow from Portishead — which is in my opinion one of the best bands at the moment. But we didn't make any arrangements about who would take which equipment with them - that all came together on stage. We also changed a lot of things within these four days. On the morning of the second concert day Tim and I went to a music store in Berlin-Mitte to buy another overdrive pedal, because the old one didn't sound good.
In the liner notes it says that the piece "Nostalgia For The Light" was composed by you, thus meaning it’s not an improvisational piece.
I had taken this piece with me as a pre-recorded tape, which I had programmed at home on the laptop. The very moment it seemed appropriate, I fired it off and the others played to it. I also had it with me when I flew to Atlanta for the mixing session, thinking that maybe some of it could be used. It ended up becoming a standalone track, a coda to all this frenzy that comes before it. It became an afterthought of sorts. I had originally written the piece as an early phonola sketch for the Bauhaus project. But we didn't use the piece then, and it was still on my hard drive. It had its first rebirth, so to speak, as a play-along at the A-Trane and later its second rebirth in the studio.
On "XXXX" you play synthesizer, Fender Rhodes - piano too?
In the A-Trane there is this grand piano on stage, which I played on a very few occasions those nights. In the grand piano I had placed two Bluetooth monitors, which were connected to a tablet. I could play samples on them that didn't come from the PA, but from inside the instrument. This created a kind of sonic 3D effect in the club. In retrospect, of course, you can’t hear that, because the record offers a completely different sonic space than what happened on stage on those nights. But we had this three-dimensional sound idea on stage. There was not only the PA, but also the live acoustic elements, the monitors in the instrument, the Fender amplifier. The sound came from all these corners.
"It all merged into a momentary experience - you're so caught up in that moment that you don't even notice the superordinate."
Did you also use hardware synthesizers that night?
I had a Minilogue with me. I also had some pedals, a small mixer, effects units, a pedalboard with Space Echo and an overdrive. I also had the grand piano in the A-Trane running through this mixer, so that I could change effects through it. You can hear this at the end of "Too Bright In Here": there's a kind of bass solo rock part. At one point a keyboard solo comes in. But this actually is not a keyboard, but the grand piano with a whammy effect. This comes in different octaves, pitched upwards, a bit Mickey Mouse-like. To sum it all up: There was the acoustic piano, the Rhodes piano, and the Minilogue as the keyboard and then various channels and effects to blend those.
With Tim Lefebvre you’ve already played together in your trio, Emile Parisien was featured on your album "Wartburg" — have you also worked with Christian Lillinger before?
Christian and I have known each other for a very long time. We got to know each other through Joachim Kühn. At that time he played in a trio with Joachim — and I played in a duo with Joachim. We met for the first time at a festival. About ten years ago we played a trio tour together with Jonas Westergaard on bass. This followed basically the same premise: We played freely, there were no composed pieces. Looking for an interesting counterpart to Tim, it finally occurred to me that I should ask Christian, even though the two are so different. I was somehow convinced that those two would come together. Already at the sound check that proved to be true. It was a kind of explosion.
Was there a kind of carefully approaching the situation, getting used to it, at the beginning?
Yes, a little bit. Tim knew about Emile a long time before they met, and I think he also got involved with Christian's music in the days leading up to the concerts. Each knew what the other was doing. The fact that there were no expectation when we got together — for example, that we would make a record, that wasn't the purpose at all — made everything very easygoing. But I also have to say that I was quite nervous the nights before. The idea of getting these four people together: that can work well, but if it doesn't, then eight improvised sets can seem quite long. There's enough time to fail over and over again. This risk was not really calculable until the soundcheck. I don't know what we would have done if it hadn't worked at all. There was no safety net. It was more a case of getting to know each other in advance by exchanging text messages and then later by talking to each other on site. You noticed right away that everyone respected each other very much, that everyone wanted to play and try things out.
When you later listened through the material, were you able to remember what happened on stage? Or was it such an ecstatic, in the moment experience that you had no concrete memories at all?
I had no recollection of the dramaturgy of each set. I remembered specific moments, where things exploded. But I couldn't place it in time. It all merged into a momentary experience - you're so caught up in that moment that you don't even notice the superordinate. You only realize that when you listen to it.
"The intoxication of these evenings should thus become the guiding formula. A sonic trip."
You later flew to the USA to work on the record and mix it together with Tim Lefebvre and Jason Kingsland. What was this process like?
At times, it can be dangerous to feel too good about yourself while you’re playing — that can lead to nasty surprises. In January 2020, I sent the tapes around - and everybody was enthusiastic about it. Tim then immediately brought Jason into the picture. The two are friends, always working on projects together, and Tim thought he would be just the guy to work on these live recordings. We started by trying to find a time slot when we could all meet at Jason's studio in Atlanta. Tim was on the road with Wayne Krantz at that time, Jason was recording Atlanta bands. At some point there were these four days when we all had time. But even then, the goal wasn't so much to condense it into a record. We thought the material was interesting, we saw a lot of possibilities in it. I figured I'd just fly out there and we’d see what happens. The only expectation I had was to have had an interesting experience at the end, to see how one could approach such music in the studio. Or to maybe have some loops at the end that you can build something out of. But the closer that got - actually already on the flight to Atlanta, where I sorted everything, it turned out that this was really good material that you could most definitely create a dramaturgy out of. In the studio, things were happening in a very nonlinear way. Jason didn't know the recordings yet, and it started to develop this spatial stereo image right from the first listen on. We were very impressed with the technical quality of the recordings, with how well the separation was possible in a club like that. It was very loud in the A-Trane, I could have easily imagined that no real track separation was possible at all on the recording, that everything was distorted. But it was very well recorded and pre-sorted, Gleb Zagrebin, the engineer at the club really did a huge job there. Jason started making small sound tweaks on the first listen. We concentrated on one scene, for instance we worked on the drums, giving them this dark, kind of broken sound. Then with the same approach, we jumped ahead two nights and worked on other ideas. It was puzzle work and we didn't have a final vision yet. The third night I went back with the biggest pieces of the puzzle and tried to sort them out. That's how that arc came about that is now this album. There was only one thing we didn't have: an ending. This now consists of that tape of which we had spoken earlier and which now acts as a coda.
But you didn't fundamentally defragment and rebuild anything.
Exactly. I went in with the expectation that we would be editing quite a lot. That we'd take out parts, loops and that maybe I'd play over it a bit. But in the end real editing and modification didn't take place at all. You can always hear what was played in the club, in total there are only three or four jumps from one evening to the next - but just sonically reworked, exaggerated, perhaps brought even more to the point.
What's the song title "Michael vs. Michael" about?
That was Tim's idea. In this track, I play a solo, which we then duplicated and sent through a pedal in post-production. The left channel has the original solo, the right channel has the duplicate going through some kind of time distortion. These two solos get in each other's way, overlap, take things away from each other, run together. Two identities that come into conflict and reconcile.
"XXXX" stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. Can you talk a little bit about that title?
We made up both the album titles and the song titles afterwards. We first had this idea of the
imagery of laboratory, chemistry, reaction and fusion. This chemical formula, which can be seen on the cover, is a hallucinogen. The intoxication of these evenings should thus become the guiding formula. A sonic trip. "XXXX" comes from the strategy game "Context", this made sense to me in terms of the improvisational context. You're in a mode of finding your way around a new territory, you’re building it up, sometimes aggressively taking something over, ripping it out, making it your own, and pushing it off again. States of Exploration - in the end, that provided a coherent picture for what took place on those evenings. Also, it's a title that doesn't assemble anything I've done lately. The X as a cross is also a sign of demarcation. It can stand for Tabula Rasa. It's a tightrope walk. For me, a title is something that can open up spaces. You create references that resonate through it. But the more you talk about it, the more you narrow it down again.
As you have just mentioned, the X can also signify a fracture point. Shortly after those evenings at the A-Trane came the first lockdown - and you recorded the album "Mondenkind" in complete isolation. How did you experience the recordings?
Between these two records stands the biggest thinkable contrast. One was made in the club, very close, intense, with exchange, communication and ecstasy. The other: Alone, in a big room, a lot of space that can be heard, loneliness in a positive and negative sense. "Mondenkind" was created at the very beginning of this time. The impression of the lockdown was a completely new one for all of us, nobody knew this complete caesura in everything until then. Recording a solo album under those impressions intensified this feeling. This feeling of being alone in this big room; being confronted with yourself, being isolated.
The recording session was planned long in advance. There was an idea to record in this very room, a classical space with a very different sound aesthetic than a jazz acoustic studio. The grand piano was in a concert space, the microphones relatively far away. Conceptually, that was the most important decision. Complete focus on an acoustic instrument in an acoustic space: that was going to be the solo album. That connected conclusively with the lockdown situation. You feel the loneliness more the bigger the room is.
Was the music of "Mondenkind" already finished before the pandemic started?
I had a large selection of pieces, but there were also relatively many changes in the last four weeks. I know that from other projects: A lot can change in final phase before a recording or a concert. The pieces, the selection, the conception, all of that has already existed before Corona. Some of the pieces on "Mondenkind" are free improvisations - I had also planned that long before the session. But I didn't yet know what it would be, how it would fit with the other material, and what might emerge as a result. It ended up being these interludes that glue the album together. It was an absurd moment to have planned a solo album for so long and to get a lockdown just before recording. It made it that much more surreal.
The album length, 46 minutes 38 seconds is by no means a coincidence — but a reference to astronaut Michael Collins, who was completely isolated on the dark side of the moon for exactly those 46 minutes and 38 seconds. Can you elaborate that idea?
During the studio recordings, I was thinking intensively about the situation with Michael Collins. This loneliness in the big room, this being shielded, this sending out signals between all this technical equipment: there were several tangents, so that this story spoke to me in particular. I was always fascinated by the fact that there were these 46-minute or so total blackouts on board. At the same time, I was working on selecting tracks and always had an approximate playing time of 46 minutes. At some point I thought, "Wait a minute, something's overlapping, something's working together." At the end of the day, to get to that exact time, we took five seconds off a track.
I still think very old-fashioned in terms of albums. A collection of music that revolves around an idea, a kind of suite, a collage of complementary, stimulating themes and content. In addition to the music, I have the option of covers and titles, for example, to communicate something to the listener. But the length of the entire album is also part of this staging. I've always been very fond of bizarre album lengths, albums with a total time of 55:55 or 1:00:1. I always thought that can't be coincidence. That makes everything particularly round or particularly symmetrical. On this album, I now tell a story about time and being alone, and if you listen to this story, in the end you were alone with the music for just as long as Michael Collins was back then. That seemed coherent to me. It's just a small detail, but to the person who notices it, it directs their thoughts in a certain direction. I think a bit like director in that tems: all the details of the production are subordinate to the story, everything can be important, nothing has to remain random.
"Conservative work can produce the wildest results, if only there is enough room for experimentation."
You are a professor at the Leipzig University of Music and Theater (Hochschule für Musik und Theater). The academic environment is known for being somewhat conservative and purist. Your work, on the other hand, is often transcending genres and is experimental. Have there ever been contradictions?
Universities are, at best, protected places for many options and possibilities! For me, it's always inspiring that you get an extremely large number of impulses in universities — impulses that can lead to ideas in completely different channels and directions. I also experienced this in my days as a student: we had a faculty of individuals who all stood for very different things. You could open different doors and look in. That was never entirely free of contradictions, but somehow also so instructive and encouraging for that very reason.
So I know universities as places of diversity. In Leipzig, we try very hard to make room for experimentation in appropriate places, and my concept of jazz in general is certainly rather broad.
At the same time, I am methodologically conservative as a teacher in that I am convinced that one can find one's own way precisely in the confrontation with history, with tradition, with where everything comes from. Just last year, for example, in a seminar we again studied in depth the history of jazz piano from 1850 to 1950 — a lot of listening, a lot of transcribing, a lot of replaying and understanding. In order to be able to really act freely and independently, you have to develop great confidence in your own ideas, but on the other hand you should also know the context. And I think it makes sense at this point to distinguish between process and result: I would argue that conservative work can produce the wildest results, if only there is enough room for experimentation.
So it remains a question of balance, and contradictions are part of that rather than trying to avoid them at all costs. In other words, universities are places where you can find things out, and as Joachim Kühn says: the more you know, the freer you are! I experience that here every day.
"XXXX" is released via ACT Music.
More info about Michael Wollny can be found on his official website.