Hans-Jörn Brandenburg is a Berlin-based composer who has worked — primarily in theater music composition — with Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, The Tiger Lillies, and Kronos Quartet. For many years he has collaborated with Robert Wilson, the American avant-garde theater director and visual artist, on the music for some of Wilson’s best-known productions.
Hans-Jörn is completing a residency at the Watermill Center, a renowned performing arts complex on the eastern shore of Long Island that Robert Wilson founded. Hans-Jörn’s music project, which he is calling pian-O-pera, involves a piano and a Seaboard RISE 49. ROLI visited him at the Watermill Center on the day of the pian-O-pera open rehearsal to discuss his long and diverse career as a composer — and his habit of incorporating new instruments and new sounds into any project he undertakes.
ROLI: Tell us about your work on pian-O-pera.
HJB: I’m not sure how to pronounce it yet [laughs]. But this is my idea for my artist residency at the Center. I would like to do an opera on a very small scale. It can involve one or two actors, so it can be done nearly everywhere — like a room this small — or on a big stage. I’m lucky to work with two important pieces of equipment. I’m using a piano and a Seaboard RISE. Both give me the opportunity to really expand sound-wise in so many different directions, and I’ve been exploring these directions in the past few weeks. This was my goal in coming here.
ROLI: What drew you to the Seaboard?
HJB: When I first heard it, it reminded me of an old instrument: the clavichord. At around the same time they were building harpsichords they were building clavichords, an ancient keyboard instrument. You don’t pluck the string of a clavichord; you touch it. After you touch it, you can press down a key and the pitch changes. It’s kind of like aftertouch. This was built over 300 years ago, and it was the favorite instrument of Johann Sebastian Bach. In a different way, this multidimensional Seaboard gives lets me explore new types of aftertouch. To me it feels like suddenly I am able to express myself like a violin player being so close to the string — to the source of the sound.
ROLI: Does the Seaboard change your approach or mindset when writing or performing?
HJB: Yes, it has many times. I’m a musician composer, and I try to get inspired by all kinds of instruments. In addition to keys, I play a little viola. I have string instruments at home from double bass to violin. I also invent new instruments. One of my heroes is Harry Partch. Not many people know him, but he made a whole new range of instruments. He needed to build new instruments because he invented a new kind of tonal system. This kind of thinking I like very much. Like Tom Waits, he liked to turn things upside down and create something new.
ROLI: What are your thoughts on technology’s influence on art, and how art influences technology?
HJB: I think there should be more contact between artists and technology designers. We have this DJ culture where musicians really depend on technology. I know a DJ in Berlin who tells me he wishes he could play an instrument, because he’s always kind of scared something in his setup will break down. I’m sure that DJs are giving instrument designers new ideas. All sides could gain from more interaction.
ROLI: You bring a very diverse palette of sounds to your music. We’ve watched you move between dance music, reggae, African music, dark and eerie minimal music, and uplifting contemporary classical music. Can you tell us how make music in so many different genres?
HJB: I don’t like boundaries. I’m always looking for things that make me astonished. That’s what I’m looking for and why I try to touch many genres. I started in pop music, then I went into theater music and also avant garde music. It’s a long and colorful journey, and I don’t want to miss any place in this journey. For example, my son is 27 and is studying African performing arts in Namibia. It would be great to share music with these young students in Africa — and they would love to see the Seaboard there. They are so creative in ways that you don’t hear on the radio. There’s only a small circle of new developments happening in DJ music now, but in Africa a new form of jazz is emerging, and it’s one of the most exciting things for me.
ROLI: You’ve said that you search for sounds and music to use as a language, and theater has been important for that. Can you elaborate?
HJB: For the last 20 years I’ve been working in theater music. I worked a lot with Bob Wilson, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, CocoRosie, many composers. In theater you really have to adapt to different styles. It’s a bit like working for the movie industry, but working for movies is more restricted aesthetically. Especially in theater in Europe, you have the freedom to create a totally new musical space for each production. We did a Shakespeare play and created music inspired from medieval times and combined it with weird, new keyboard sounds. For some Chekhov plays we used string quartets with electronics. I believe you can do more to communicate your ideas in theater than in movies.
ROLI: What other projects are you currently working on?
HJB: I have a trio in Berlin called the Tanger Trio. We’ve started recording our new album with the Seaboard, so it will be a part of that record. The Seaboard is a perfect way to blend the acoustic world and the electronic one. It can be very hard to combine those musical worlds, but through these microtonal options — the expressions and changes in intensity through different touch gestures and movements — the Seaboard lets you blend sounds in great new ways. I’m really looking forward to doing that more when I’m back in Berlin. I like the different worlds of sound in Equator, which combines acoustic sounds with the sounds of retro synths and complex pads. The extremes are very interesting. There are so many paths to take, I’m excited to be exploring it.
ROLI: Are there anything you’d like to say to the aspiring musicians?
HJB: My daughter is ten years old. I teach her piano, and she’s really into the Seaboard. I like to see people who have never played a piano before start to create with this new instrument. They show new ways of creating we may never expect, because they are experiencing it with a fresh mind. I would suggest to everyone making music to explore and try new things. I’d also really like to see what my son Darius Brandenburg (aka 10 Foot Ballerina) and all his friends studying African performing arts in Windhoek, Namibia would create with the RISE. We should spread this around the globe.