Christoph Stiefel: Isorhythms and Circus Clowns
Once the players have that confidence, then they can take off and improvise almost as if they were playing a straightforward 12-bar blues. "Exactly. The tunes differ, though. Some have a very precise isorhythmic structure, others have less. For example, on 'Isorhythm #2.2' on Live!, after the theme anything is possible. When we are improvising we have two directions we can follow rhythmically and that gives an extra thrill. I can play a free, Miles Davis kind of direction or I can relate to the drum kicks, to that part of the figure. So maybe the drummer and I will follow the kicks and the bass player will decide to do something else. Or the other way round."
This approach offers up lots of different things to listen to. Each musician can be heard almost as if they are independent of the others, so that each tune can be heard as three separate pieces. Stiefel laughs before replying: "Oh, I know what you mean."
Naming The Tunes
Many of Stiefel's tunes have titles that incorporate the word "isorhythm" plus a number. Live!, for example, includes Olympus Mons/Isorhythm #28, Pensar Positivo/isorhythm #18 and Isorhythm #2.2. There's a method to this. "It's chronological. When I started to compose like this I didn't think it would last so long. Jazz is already complicated; this might just be taking things a bit too far. For the musicians, because they always want as much freedom as possible and to the audience it might be really Hell. But then I thought well, it is complex but there is something that is fascinating to play and to hear. I started to number each composition, then after a while I went back to using standard titles. I became aware that journalists were more interested in isorhythms than anything else about my music but I felt that I didn't want the concept to be too important. It is crucial for me that this does not happen. I went up to number 30. Then I thought well, it's all music. I don't want to become too obsessed. I don't want to be too radical. There's a danger that if the concept becomes too important then the music suffers."
While some music critics may well get overly concerned with the theory and the technical aspects of writing and playing isorhythms, the sound of Stiefel's tunes clearly puts the technique secondary to the music. "That's what I want. I don't want to make too big a thing of the concept. I don't know how long I'll go on composing these rhythms, I follow my heart."
From Rhythm To Isorhythm
Stiefel's musical education started, as it does for so many players, with the classical tradition: but he was soon listening to more contemporary sounds. "As a youngster I had classical lessons, but I was fascinated by rhythm and also by the blues. You can imagine a young pianist fascinated by rhythm and blues: of course I love boogie- woogie. That music gave me everything. It took a long time before I got to hear Herbie Hancock or George Duke. At first, I didn't know they existed. I knew Oscar Peterson, but I never heard the rest of the good stuff. Rhythm for me meant funk, rhythm and blues. Then I heard Duke, Hancock. Bang! I bought a Fender Rhodes and everything changed."
Although Stiefel came from a musical family-his mother sang classical music for 30 years and his two sisters and one brother all played music-he originally planned to become a lawyer. "It was never in the family's plan that one of us would become a jazz musician. That's like becoming a clown!" Consequently, he went to law school but, he says, "I would go to the piano room to play in every break. Even for just 10 minutes."
Having played in his first band at the age of 14, music was always a vital part of his life and then in 1984 he got the chance to become a professional musician. "I met Andreas Vollenweider. He was very successful. He was on the CBS label, playing sell-out concerts. He needed a keyboard player and the drummer recommended me. Suddenly, I was part of the band."
With Vollenweider, Stiefel toured the United States, Japan and Australia: then he left the band after five years to develop his own music. "I spent a year struggling with how I would do this. Then I decided I had to do it, had to become a jazz musician. I had never studied music formally. I was now 28 years old and I went to the piano teacher from the conservatory for private tuition for about four or five years, to study Bach and Mozart for piano technique. I also wanted to study composition and took some lessons. But I'm not the sort of guy who can study for four years before I do my own thing. So after the teacher told me I was writing isorhythms I had one more lesson and then left."