What's in a Name?
Interview with Austrian Kultur, vol 11 No.2/01
New York-based Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is one of the world's foremost jazz performers.
Recently he founded his own record label: material records.
By Karin Hanta, a freelance writer and journalist who frequently contributes to Austria Kultur.Wolfgang Muthspiel is in many ways the quintessential 1990s musician, combining flawless technique, honed by classical training, with a restless musical imagination as likely to derive inspiration from Bach as from the blues or the Beatles," the London Times wrote in a review of the Styrian musician's performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall. One of the few artists to ever play a solo performance at the Vienna State Opera, Muthspiel has recorded with such jazz greats as Peter Erskine, John Patitucci, Paul Motian, and Marc Johnson. Together with his brother Christian, a trombonist, pianist, and composer, the Judenburg native formed "Duo Due" in 1982, which became a forum for new improvised music. In 1986 Muthspiel left Austria to attend Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship, graduating magna cum laude in 1989. At Berklee he met Gary Burton, who invited him to fill the guitar chair in his quintet, left vacant since the departure of Pat Metheny 12 years earlier. With Burton, Wolfgang was featured in close to 200 concerts at jazz venues around the world.
Most recently, Wolfgang Muthspiel has released two new projects: In collaboration with his partner, the Norwegian singer Rebekka Bakken, he has recorded a set of poetically refined songs on the album Daily Mirror. These songs combine both sophisticated jazz elements with the emotional directness of pop music.
With his brother Christian, he recorded Echoes of Techno, an album of "humanized" live electronic music peppered with witty passages and sampled materials.
Austria Kultur: Wolfgang Muthspiel, you seem like a Mozart of the twentieth century to me. You and your brother have attained stellar success in the jazz world. Could you describe your childhood a little bit?
Wolfgang Muthspiel: My father was a music enthusiast, but did not pursue an artistic career. He devoted every free minute of his life to music and directed a choir in which my mother also sang. We are four siblings - my brother Christian is a trombone player, my older brother is a bass player at the Vienna Volksoper, and my sister plays the piano. Our father inspired us to make Hausmusik by choosing pieces that suited our skills. We grew up in an ideal environment to become musicians.
AK: Did you ever feel any pressure to practice your instrument?
WM: On the contrary, we were dying to learn an instrument. I remember that a year before I got my first violin, at the age of five, I built one from different materials. Until I turned to the guitar at age 15, I practiced it with passion. We never felt any pressure or overburdened, we simply knew what was expected from us.
AK: Do you miss the violin?
WM: I have been playing it again for concerts and recordings for a number of years.
AK: What kind of musical dialogue do you and your brother engage in?
WM: At the age of 16 and 17 we seriously started working as "Duo Due" and discovered many different musical idioms. From the beginning, we composed pieces and improvised, not like in jazz, but as a spontaneous elaboration on a musical idea. That is how we developed a very strong musical bond.
AK: How does the musical dialogue with your partner Rebekka Bakken compare to the bond that connects you with your brother?
WM: It is a different kind of dialogue because Rebekka and I write songs with a predetermined composition. When I play with my brother we leave a lot of passages open to be improvised in the course of our session. When I perform with Rebekka, her voice is the center and I kind of play around it. With my brother, I am much more interactive.
AK: Why did you decide to move to New York City? It seems to me that many jazz musicians prefer to live in Europe.
WM: I went to Boston originally because I was interested in American aspects of jazz. I wanted to know how bebop works, for example. At one point I realized that many of my colleagues were moving to New York, where most of the talented musicians live.
AK: Have you ever played with Joe Zawinul, Austria"s other important jazz export?
WM: I know him and have studied and admired his work. It is remarkable that an Austrian musician wrote jazz history. He has come to my concerts and I hope that we can make music together in the future.
AK: What is your opinion on the jazz developments in New York spearheaded by Winton Marsalis with his program Jazz@Lincoln Center? Some critics say that the program focuses too much on tradition.
WM: Personally I find that the most interesting developments in the jazz scene do not come from Lincoln Center. I commend them for reviewing the old masters and I share their enthusiasm. However, I could mention many names of young, lesser known musicians who give new impulses to the jazz world: the British composer and pianist Django Bates, for example, or the Turkish artist Aydin Esen. Even though they respect and integrate traditions in their work, they blaze new trails by paying regard to ethnic, rhythmic, and harmonic parameters or modern composition.
AK: Do you think that contemporary composition and jazz music converge?
WM: Yes, I think that there is an area where the interests of both styles overlap. Most recently, some very fruitful projects have been realized. However, it is also a tricky issue. Some pieces written for classically trained musicians include improvisation. But improvisation has to be practiced just like classical music!
AK: Do you mix both styles in your work as well?
WM: Partly yes. In the duo with my brother Christian, I play modern chamber music with many improvisational elements. In the past, I was criticized for working in too many different idioms. I now feel very confident about that because it keeps me awake and fresh to new ideas.
AK: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician, though?
WM: Yes, definitely. After having played classical music, I decided to turn to jazz because I could not focus on both styles. Jazz is a very wide field and often projects cannot be labeled that easily. I am a European and as such I see the American jazz scene from a certain angle.
AK: Which angle is that?
WM: I often listen to concerts and am overwhelmed by the rhythmic and physical presence of jazz musicians.On the other hand, I long for the European sense of organization in composition.
AK: Has your work been influenced by Austrian folk music?
WM: When I go back to my childhood, I remember that my father really cultivated Austrian folk music. And folk music has nothing to do with folksy music, mind you. I especially cherish slow yodlers. I am sure musical traditions influenced me but I never devoted any conscious attention to them. I guess that some passages in my work are inspired by it, but I do not really want to analyze it.
AK: One of your works is inspired by Cy Twombly. Could you describe the project in more detail?
WM: That was the first time that we worked directly with visual material. The idea got its first impetus from a project commissioned by the festival Wien Modern where we were asked to perform works by the late composer Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, who used graphic notation at one point of his life. That is when we had the idea to use visual art as a pattern for composition.
AK: And Cy Twombly was best suited for your work?
WM: He was the one we admired most at the time. I try to have fun with everything I do and be involved with all my heart.
AK: You founded your own label, "material records." Do you think that you will be commercially successful with it?
WM: We have to wait and see. We are in the initial stage of development and have only issued one production so far, Daily Mirror. I am working on a few more projects. We have built a very good distribution network in Europe with the exception of a few countries such as France. We have also started to distribute in the United States and Japan. Of course, I do not have the public relations machinery of a big label, but on the other hand, I see that it is possible to reach satisfying sales figures without these funds. Jazz only appeals to two percent of all listeners. In this niche, it is sometimes advantageous to be a small and flexible firm. Big firms only support you when they think you will make money. The Daily Mirror project has a cross-over appeal. You don"t really need to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate the music.
AK: What are your new projects?
WM: I am now touring with an interesting string trio called "Triology." They are classically trained, but interested in different idioms. I am also playing in a duo with bass-player Mark Johnson. I have recorded a project with my brother, Echoes of Techno, and I am preparing a new album for material records.