A light for the soul

Photo by Thomas Nitz

“Light is essential for my soul, I am like a plant...” Ulrike Haage was born in Kassel, Germany, near the river Fulda, and grew up listening to her parents’ collection of jazz records while she trained playing piano. Sound artist, pianist, composer, she has by the years developed a very eclectic music career which started as a teenager playing guitar and composing songs in a garage band but also playing classic piano and exploring improvisation. In her mind the sounds of Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky or King Crimson were always experienced from a deep and very special curiosity, always looking for new sounds, new spaces, new ways of expression, so essential to her art like the light she needs for her soul. In the middle eighties, she built the German Jazz band Reichlich Weiblich and worked on the theatre play Andi along with Peter Zadek. Then she met Frank-Martin Strauß, better known as F.M. Einheit, percussionist of the influential industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten, and they joined to Vladimir Estragon, a band created by the multimedia artist and multi-instrumentalist musician Alfred 23 Harth. As a result of their magnificent experimental spirits they release in the late eighties the album Three Quarks For Muster Mark, but the project died soon and Ulrike Haage continued developing her special creative universe. Music for fiction films, documentaries, dance, theatre and radio plays, as well as for children in her recent album Flügel und Katze, shows us that her music has no boundaries like the title of one of her latest solo albums In:finitum (2011, Blue Pearls Music) in which we can discover how she works on minimalism as a life attitude, giving to the silence some of the space it’s losing  in our daily life. As she says “a single tone has to have the expression of a whole orchestra”.

What’s behind your In:finitum?

Music! Great music, listen to it. Enjoy it.

Despite your jazz influences from your parents you played guitar in a garage band, how it was?

This was in my youth and felt completely alright. I was learning how to play guitar, I was starting to write songs and I was working with my friends in their first bands. We exchanged our visions and of course wanted to become famous musicians. Next to that I was starting to play classical piano and expressed myself in parallel by improvising on the keys of this fascinating instrument. Sometimes we met on Saturdays after school to listen to our collections of vinyl records together. That's how I came to know King Crimson and fell in love with drummers in general. These sessions were extremely exciting, because there was always new music to discover and to discuss.

Later, taking the name from a Beckett’s character, you founded the band Vladimir Estragon along with FM Einheit, Alfred Harth and Phil Minton releasing the polyhedral album Three Quarks For Muster Mark. Jazz, rock, electronic and even opera reminiscences. Why was that project so ephemeral?

This project was founded by Alfred Harth who asked me to join in. We said that we could each bring in a second partner. I brought FM and he brought Phil. That's how we formed the quartet. But FM and I were especially busy at that time with the Neubauten and the Rainbirds so the time of this quartet was slightly limited. It was also a child of a certain time. A time where we combined Free Jazz, Industrial elements and Pop and embraced extremes on stage.

And then the new Rainbirds flew. Remembering the title of one of your albums, In a different light, what was the different light you provided to the project?

I was asked by the singer and founder of the Rainbirds, Katharina Franck, to join in for concerts, future records and composing. I think that I brought my own cosmos into the band, more keys of course, different harmonies & collaborations with strings. I proposed for example a song for nine cellos and Katharina’s lovely voice and arranged it (todos contentos). Or I proposed that on each record we have one instrumental song that contained experimental elements.

You’ve composed many works for theatre and radio. What draws you to these projects?

I guess it is the exchange with other forms of art, language and expression. I love to work with words and actors. It brings the whole world of the body as a tool into the work. To produce for radio means to produce for a room without images. It challenges the imagination and asks the listener to participate. As a composer it gives me an enormous freedom. At least…I take it.

Theatre, radio and films. Sometimes, probably too much, directors use music to emphasise. How do you work that kind of compositions?

It depends on directors. I’m working a lot with documentary filmmakers, which is very nice. In general music emphasises pictures this is a fact. It can give a lot of power to images. First I am really observing the film, the edit, the people,  the theme and try to find keynotes and soundmarks for the film, from which on I develop the compositions.

What about the Ring project?

Ring was a wonderful choreographic project, with which we toured throughout the world. It was an interactive piece, where music choreography and the spectators were the motor of the spectacle together. The part of the public was infused with touches and compliments of their personal dancers and the live played mostly electronic music supported our way of reacting to the different situations in each show! Each ending was a big techno party, our own and quite sophisticated techno.

The piece Nunatak was created in dialoguing with the paintings of Anna-Eva Bergman. I think your music is deeply visual, at least that’s my experience with your compositions especially the ones from the recent years. How the light inspires you? 

Light is essential for my soul, I am like a plant, I get depressed when the weather is always grey - like a lot of times in Berlin. And the abstract paintings from Anna-Eva Bergman or Hans Hartung inspire me because there is a lot of space to think and develop imagination in their paintings. For composing I prefer abstract art to concrete art, it does not impose anything on me. The light and colours in Bergman’s paintings are very subtly nuanced as she used also gold and silver foil.

Your latest release is a duo with Eric Schaefer under the title For all my walking. Could you tell us about the creation process of the album?

Eric and I were in Japan for three months. We walked together in the mountains and visited important Buddhist temples. We gave some concerts and travelled to cities like Osaka and Tokyo. During this time we studied the haikus of Basho and Santoka. The result was music we composed specially for our Duo and our instruments, the prepared piano and the suiruon, an instrument made of pottery, played like a xylophone with mallets.

We then wrote a text to accompany our musical concept and invited a Japanese lyrical sopranist who sung and also spoke parts of the text. The result was first premiered in October 2013 on SWR radio and will now be released in May 2014 as a CD, with Sans Soleil. It is a very personal musical CD.

Music, theatre, dance, cinema, radio, painting...what’s art?

Art is everything that turns our day-to-day perception into more then the predictable. It can be your own pencil, when it does not write a word but draws a line.

Do you think the avant-garde music will become classical some day?

For me it is already. We are already in the middle of another time.

People listen to music or consume music?

Strawinsky said that Radio kills the music, because we start to consume it instead of studying it. I do not agree, as I discovered an enormous amount of music through special broadcasts which widened my horizon. I think that people in masses can be lazy and just consume two minutes of each piece of new music, but that has probably to do with the torrent of songs that come out each day in our times, each hour in our world today. It is true that the permanent availability of music on channels like spotify or simfy makes people think that they know everything and can talk about everything. This is surely not true, as you have to go deeper into the music, when you want to know more. And the live experience of any music is still unbeatable.

Where does your minimalism come from?

This has to do with my history. I grew up with bebop, cool jazz, all these great musicians, hardly any still living, who played their soul out of their bodies. With a lot of tones. Perhaps that's why I always preferred Monk or Garner or Miles Davis to others. Sometimes I just found it too much. I decided that a single tone has to have the expression of a whole orchestra. I worked a lot on articulation and sound on my instrument (the piano). During my classical education I discovered composers like Moondog, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. And I loved their first works a lot. I guess all this influenced my choice of going in a more minimalistic direction. 

Too much noise in the world?

I just gave a seminary at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg where I am also artist-in-residence for one year. It was about sensitising our ears to our environment and reflecting what we hear in our day-to-day life. The chronology of my themes also brought us to the extremely modern subject of acoustic ecology as places of silence rapidly disappear. The discussion was endless, as first you have to open your ears and notice what you hear before you can say what silence is, what noise is and what’s required to be less disturbed by noise in order to enjoy the sounds of silence.

Life is a lament?

Do you quote the song ”Lament” that I wrote after the death of the pianist Esbjörn Svensson? Sometimes things do touch us very deeply. And the answer to these feelings can be a piece of music, a requiem, a lamento, no? A lot of the greatest music came out of deep shock, positive as well as negative.

Could you tell us a dream?

A real one or a wish? My main dream is that people use the achievements of the “siècle de Lumière” to tolerate and appreciate each other on earth so we become a creative free intelligent planet where profit mismanagement out of greed, the cold monsters politics, like Jean Ziegler says, should be prosecuted by law. I quote the Four Freedom Speech of Roosevelt from 1941: People ought to enjoy – Freedom of speech and expression – Freedom of worship – Freedom from want – Freedom from fear. 

Ulrike Haage | Videos here

An interview by Juan Carlos Romero
Ulrike Haage website www.ulrikehaage.com
Photo by Thomas Nitz courtesy of Ulrike Haage
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