Volume 78 / Number 3 - June 18 - 24, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
On his most recent album, Goodbye, Ulrich Schnauss (right) combines pop song structure with piano melodies and is backed by the lush vocals of singer Judith Beck (left).
Ulrich Schnauss brings his organic techno to River to River
Dorit Chrysler & Chiaki Watanabe
June 24 at 9 pm
Presented by the River to River Festival
World Financial Center Winter Garden
220 Vesey St.
By David Todd
The music of Ulrich Schnauss—part IDM (Intelligent Dance Music), part shoegaze rock—attracts with lilting melodies and then transports the listener into a certain pixilated haze. Now based in London, the Kiel, Germany-born Schnauss adds Krautrock synthesizer to a foundation of ambient techno, elevating songs like the recent “Medusa” to the dramatic swoon of My Bloody Valentine. Part of Schnauss’ appeal is his music-historian’s sense of how styles fit together, and how his own electronica relates to the stage-rock he pulls it towards. But Schnauss isn’t quite a rocker. At his best, he rewards the listener not with catharsis but with subtle exposition, as in “Monday-Paracetamol,” where a slow crescendo renders an emotion as it slips away.
With his most recent album, 2007’s Goodbye, Schnauss continues his exploration of departure, distance, and other themes involving the solitude of a man and his laptop. The last of a trilogy including 2001’s Far Away Trains Passing By and 2003’s A Strangely Isolated Place, Goodbye moves Schnauss closer to a kind of “organic” techno which isn’t meant for the dance floor or headphones, into a style of his own featuring pop song structure with melodies crafted on the piano he’s played since childhood. For much of this last release, he’s joined by singer Judith Beck, whose vocals lend to the lush, ethereal quality of tracks like “Stars.”
Schnauss appears in a free concert on June 24th as part of this year’s River to River Festival at the World Financial Center Winter Garden. Opening will be vocalist-composer Dorit Chrysler, who’ll play her theremin to video projections by artist Chiaki Watanabe (aka c.h.i.a.k.i.).
What kind of performance will you be presenting at River to River?
Well, the way that I’m playing at the moment is quite different to the setup I use in the studio. What I’ve basically done is split up all the songs I want to play into little loops—or actually, all the sections of the songs are split up into loops with different elements like rhythm, synthesizer stuff, baselines, percussions, whatever—and I’m kind of improvising with these. I’ve got some MIDI controllers with me and an effects unit as well. I’m just trying to come up with a different version of the songs, like a different approach to the album version.
So in a sense you’re remixing your songs as you perform them?
Yeah, exactly. That’s the idea, like a live remix. [It’s] a bit like how a lot of dub-reggae stuff was done in the ‘70s, where basically all the elements are always playing but by using the mixing desk and fading stuff in and out, you create a live arrangement, and it’s a little bit different each time you do it.
How is that working out so far?
I’m just really happy that I finally found a way to present the stuff live that doesn’t feel like cheating and is actually worth using the term “live.” Because beforehand, I was basically just playing backing tracks from the hard drive and playing a bit of keyboard on top, and that never felt very good to me. I always felt like [I was] faking it.
Do you see new aspects to your songs as you recompose them?
Yeah, they’re definitely changing. When you’re rearranging stuff that way, you have to reduce things a bit, probably make them more danceable, which is a direction I wouldn’t want to take for an album, something that is generally aiming more at home listening. But for a live situation it’s a good thing, because it increases the energy level. I can react to the general atmosphere in the room. If there’s a strong energetic vibe, I can focus more on rhythmic elements of the songs, or if it’s a seated venue, I can focus on the more ambient aspects.
Stylistically, you’re known for merging indie songwriting with electronic instrumentation. What were the challenges to working that out?
The biggest problem is, if you’re working with a conventional electronic music setup, it’s in the nature of the setup to do quite repetitive stuff and music that is more groove-based, like a track rather than a song. Especially because that’s the background I’m coming from—in the ’90s, I was mainly producing drum-and-bass. It was challenging to integrate [a] songwriting approach into that way of working and not get carried away with the thing—to try to come up with an arrangement that has a constant flow and a movement. I think that’s challenging but also very interesting and rewarding as well—trying to combine these two different approaches and trying to save the advantages of both ways as well.
So what are the advantages of both approaches?
Well, what I like about electronic music is that most sounds that you use [within] that sort of instrumentation don’t have as much cultural baggage as, I don’t know, a piano or an acoustic guitar has. It’s not limited to a conditioned set of associations that we connect with them. I think it leaves more room for imagination. On the other hand, I think the big strength of songwriting music—and, in that case, rock music—is that it’s probably the most direct way of translating emotions. Electronic music can be quite abstract, and what I like about songwriting-based music it that it always has this very strong emotional, direct aspect, and I think if you combine both things, you end up with a hybrid form that I find very interesting.
A couple of years ago, you seemed disillusioned with the electronic scene. What are your feelings now?
What I didn’t like about the late ‘90s and early 2000s IDM and electronica scene was that it was becoming single-minded and very anti-influence from other styles, and at some point there existed like a certain rulebook of sounds as well. There was just a very small and fixed selection of effects, sounds, plug-ins, or whatever, that were okay to use, and none of the music went beyond those borders. That has changed quite a bit now, though. In a way, what I’m looking for is a climate where these boundaries between rock music and electronic music don’t really matter that much, where it is possible to come up with hybrid forms of all of these genres, because I think that is pretty much the only chance we have to create something interesting these days. If you have a very purist approach, it’s going to be very difficult to come up with something interesting, because most things have been done already. But if you’re open towards merging and mixing things, there’s still a lot of room to come up with something original.