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Arthur Hnatek: On putting the EDM into Jazz & making acoustic music with electronic appeal

Photo credit: Mehdi Benkler

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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I think we’re a bit tired of the typical crazy-long post-production process with automations and editing all over the place. We love this idea of recording the finished sound to the computer. Which in return means really long sound-checks!
—Arthur Hnatek
Miles Davis and like-minded free-spirited vanguards of his day opened jazz up to countless influences during one of the genre's heydays in the late '60s and early '70s. Ever since, the boundaries of jazz have been broken down more radically, disseminated and increasingly blended with everything from current trends in popular music to classical music and more experimental contemporary currents, including electronic music. But despite the seeming boundlessness of mixing genres and creating new sub-categories of genres, EDM (electronic dance music) and jazz musicians still tend to keep to their own camps and only overlap sporadically.

Of course, one can't ignore how electronic elements in general have been prominent and progressively gaining ground in jazz , pioneered early on by Sun Ra and then jazz fusion trendsetters from Miles Davis to the likes of Chick Corea or Joe Zawinul on the one hand and, in a parallel stream developed and applied with a more avant-gardist as well as atmospheric approach by experimentalists such as Brian Eno or Jon Hassell on the other. The latter two, among others, expanded on both elements from the popular world of electronic music as well as the more intricate aspects of electroacoustic research that followed in the footsteps of the mid-century Musique concrète.

The complex relationship between electronic and acoustic sound has continued to be explored in all kinds of different ways. Lyrical but straightforward in the hands of Scandinavian ECM flagships such as Arve Henriksen's Cartography or Nils Petter Molvaer's Khmer, ecstatic but textural with projects like Food's Mercurial Balm (ECM, 2013) or This is Not A Miracle (ECM, 2015) and then finally free and abstractly executed by protagonists such as British free jazz legend Evan Parker and his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. These merely represent a fraction of the names and currents within the vast spectrum electroacoustic music has to offer.

Compared to the nuanced dynamics and abstract structures found in electroacoustic music, EDM represents a very straight-forward approach to electronic music, intended for working the body rather than the mind. But it too has evolved over the past couple of decades and, when in the hands of curious and capable minds, taken on completely new shapes that prove just as ambitious as any of the above-mentioned streams of electroacoustic music. Admittedly, the term EDM is frequently subject to very free interpretation and can encompass anything, from more intricate IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) experiments through downbeat electronica all the way to breakbeat or dub, depending on whose definition of the term one relies on.

Which is where Swiss drummer Arthur Hnatek fits into the picture. Besides being a sideman for the Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, Hnatek is known for integrating traits of the more danceable genres of electronic music into his repertoire. As with electroacoustic music, live sampling, looping and other forms of computer processing as well as a fair share of modular synthesizers belong among the main tools that are used to create the deep mists and textures of sound that define the more ambitious EDM and IDM offshoots. Tools, which Arthur Hnatek—a graduate from the New School for Jazz in New York—gladly embraces in his electronic solo projects.

Hnatek & electronica: digital vs. analogue EDM

Electronic music has been a part of Hnatek's musical DNA from the beginning. Ornamental electronic soundscapes and digitally created beats already graced his self-produced 2013 effort The Arc Lite Suite, while a more upbeat and thoroughly electronic approach graces 2020's also self-produced Swims. The 2021 EP Ritual, a collaboration between Hnatek and Brooklyn-based producer Jacob Bergson, finally reveals the drummer's passion for EDM, IDM (intelligent Dance Music) and electronica in its entirety and sees him combining everything from breakbeat, dub and EDM to drone music with, occasionally interrupted, four-on-the-floor stamina.

"My interest in making electronic music has always been there, but it's only recently that I've started to release it. Just me, solo, performing with drum machines, electronics, modular synths and my acoustic drum set. But everything I do, be it with my new acoustic trio or my electronic music, it comes from the same idea. An idea based on the interaction between electronic culture and the purely acoustic forms of music—in my case jazz music, including the element of reaction to each other and improvisation. Even when I'm a sideman, I have the feeling that that's my approach to making music and that's what comes through."

The deeper Hnatek explores the world of electronic music, the more the process resembles his approach in an acoustic setting. And in consequence, the more he is open to sharing his electronic compositions. "My approach to making electronic music used to be very computer-based, using software and midi controllers for the entire process. Nowadays I've shifted towards an analogue approach and I think that's why I never shared any of the older stuff over the years. Because it felt very stiff. I don't think I was able to use the digital tools in the way that they were meant to be used—the way other producers and composers use them and are able to create incredible things and truly human music just with the computer. But for me, I needed to find a way to combine my roots as a jazz drummer and build on an acoustic basis, to then kind of 'destroy' it with the computer.

"What I do now is, I start off with some kind of acoustic drum pattern or shape and subsequently I start layering other instruments, including modular synths and other electronic gadgets on top of it. That's when the more melodic and harmonic parts of a composition come into the picture and I can kind of deconstruct the different textures with electronic elements. This process sometimes leads to hard 4/4 beats and dub stuff, other times it's a little crazier than that. But what's really becoming clear to me is that, more and more, the idea of playing acoustic drums in a band on the one hand and creating electronic music on the other are becoming very similar processes at their core. And to get to that point, where I can feel that comfortable about it and connect the two, has taken me a long time."

To Hnatek, the striking difference between an acoustic instrument as a source versus a purely electronic signal, is the fact that one can infinitely tweak the latter, while the former is of unalterable substance. "When you start out with the software, it's never done. You can always continue to change the music and edit it at your will. Whereas I love the idea of recording performances, including their flaws, and that's it. You can't go into them and just change everything. You have to figure out how to make it work."

Reciprocity can be found between the electronic music protagonists Hnatek admires and how they in return are largely influenced by and admire jazz music. The drummer counts Aphex Twin among the main figures who introduced him to the depths of electronic music back in the day. Today he'll pick up anything from the WARP label and draws inspiration from British producer Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points, whose 2021 collaboration Promises (Luaka Bop) with Pharoah Sanders represents another fruitful exhibition of electronic music merged with jazz qualities. "I'm also very fond of Four Tet. It's funny how many of these electronic personas are actually themselves huge jazz fans with extensive record collections. They know the history and really appreciate the improvisatory notion of jazz music. Chris Clark is another electronica artist I admire and like me and many other electronica artists, he's a drummer first. As is Ryan Lee West aka Rival Consoles, who I admire, too."

The central rhythmic component of electronic music, especially prominent in the EDM variety, suggests itself to the competences of drummers. Said component also translates to Hnatek's drumming approach in the context of his jazz formations, which display large amounts of rhythmic intricacy in the form of polyrhythms, uneven meters and constantly shifting patterns.

Arthur Hnatek Trio: Static

Even though Hnatek's approach on Ritual incorporates a notably acoustic foundation, sonically it still remains a purely electronic affair. But It's not his only new music in 2021. The drummer's other and more prominent new release is Static (2021, Whirlwind Recordings). It's the debut album of his new trio, where he addresses the electronic aspect of music making from the inside out, in a way turning the approach of his solo ventures, like Ritual, on their heads. The result is a perspective built on a purely acoustic foundation and created by means of a completely organic and analogue recording process, indebted to the versatile language and dynamics of jazz. Rhythmic intricacy is at the center and core of every piece on the album. The music wouldn't however have the same emotional effect and substance, if it weren't for characteristic melodies and harmony.

"Even though I start with the drums, I don't write my compositions with the drums. My first idea might be based on a tempo or a time signature or maybe a pattern that I like and which I want to play around with. It's more like the mathematical foundation for a song, rather than the song's compositional direction.

"For this trio in specific it was very important to me not to feature a piano, because the piano takes a lot of space away, and I wanted to play with melody and harmony in a more linear way, as opposed to having a chordal instrument taking away our possibilities. This way I have more freedom composing in counterpoint. Melodic counterpoint, but also pattern-and shape-based counterpoint between bass, saxophone and drums. I try to keep the compositional aspect as simple as possible, meaning that I want to be able to capture its essence on one page or so. That enables us to dig deeper into our interplay and develop the composition as we go, improvisationally and spontaneously. Sometimes the instructions will be at a bare minimum, like 'stay on the A longer' or 'play the coda for five bars' and then the rest will be free improv around that structure."

Sideman to pianist Tigran Hamasyan's trio and the co-leader of the international quartet Melismetiq, Hnatek's work with his own trio is consequently graced by a high level of experience and understanding for the melodic and harmonic sensibilities of jazz, while taking a closer look at beat-concentric music and electro-acoustic production. His sidemen, bassist Fabien Iannone and saxophonist Francesco Geminiani, share the drummer's enthusiasm for the more experimental characteristics of sound and complement Hnatek's vision with an equal amount of passion.

"Working with this trio for me is like going back playing with old friends. What I mean by that is that, opposed to my other project Melismetiq, where my good friends live in very different parts of the world, Fabien and Francesco live close by and we can just meet up more spontaneously.

"Like me, both Fabien and Francesco have a very wide interest in music. We all come from this jazz background and have studied its tradition, too. Francesco for example, for a long time was a very straight-ahead player, very much into standards and traditional jazz. But these days he's an amazing coder, too. He writes his own reverb and he's really into synthesizers. There's that "brainy" mathematical aspect about him. So he completely understands the ideas that I had for this project and the repetitive aspect about the music we make. The exact same goes for Fabien. He's a great upright bassist but is also into ambient music, has a great studio and is a fabulous sound engineer."

The wide range of shared musical interests as well as the shared deep background in jazz naturally bind the Swiss trio together to the point where their musical exchanges happen automatically and don't require much preparation. "When we meet, we don't necessarily have to talk about what we're going to do anymore. We just go ahead and do whatever we want to. That was the original idea for this project and that's pretty much how it has unfolded. We started out very slowly. We worked only in the studio first, then we got a residency at Live in Vevey, a city in the French part of Switzerland, before we were awarded the Swiss ZKB Jazz Price in 2019. That award maybe pushed us towards the idea of finally recording an album. And I think that's when things really started to gel. When we were in the studio with Valentin Liechti, who, besides being an old drummer-friend of mine, is a great sound engineer!"

Sound in general, and its textural depth are as important to Hnatek as the artisanal performances of his trio mates. In that regard, Static is as much a sonic experience as it is a showcase for group interplay. "The main aspect when recording the album for us was to look for and create the best possible drum sounds. As you'll hear on the record, the drums of course take up a lot of space, sometimes subtly and melodic and at others huge and bombastic, almost aggressive. The goal for us was to play exclusively acoustic instruments, with the occasional electronic effect, and get the most interesting sound out of that recording. That means that the whole sound came from how we were miking the instruments and how that sound was processed later on. At the end it was really just a performance in the studio, with very little overdubs and post-production. But we recorded it as if it was electronic music."

On Static, one snare-hit will sound like layers of material banging against another structure with subsequent echoes returning the favor. Upright bass and saxophone follow suit and, besides being treated to reverb and echo effects, reveal grainy sonic events. But what appear to be post-production tricks, are actually processes very much rooted in electroacoustic imagery only. "That's something that I really love about working with Valentin Liechti specifically. I think we're a bit tired of the typical crazy-long post-production process with automations and editing all over the place. We love this idea of recording the finished sound to the computer. Which in return means really long sound-checks (laughs)! Because we're trying to have a finished drum sound before it hits Pro-tools [the recording and post-production software]. That meant that it was really important for us to hear the processing in real-time. What we were doing was setting up microphones in unusual positions and have Valentin mess around with the kick-drum sounds, playing around with the analogue reverb and most of all with how loud I was playing the drums. Some of the loudest sounds on the record were actually played the most quietly. Valentin will crank up the gain on the mics and I will play as soft as I can. You'll hear that on the title track or "Midi Sans Frontières." I've never played that quiet in my whole life (laughs)!"

Creating music with this much dependence on its sonic aspects is easier with a team of musicians to whom those aspects are just as important as they are to the leader. "Many of the drum sounds will go through chains of compression and pre-amps, but that too happens in real-time. Besides his acoustic instruments, Francesco also used this exciting reverb that is able to play pitch. So when he plays a note, the reverb will follow the harmony melodically and kind of improvises chords along the way, too. There are some songs where he's just playing melody, but it sounds as if a synth were accompanying with soundscapes. That's actually generated by his equipment and we can hear that in real-time over the headphones in the studio."

Equally marked by the extroverted nature and structural repetitiveness of EDM as by the improvisational spontaneity and technical prowess found in jazz, Static has the potential to appeal to aficionados of both sides of the spectrum. "On the one hand we cover Squarepusher's 'Midi Sans Frontières,' which is originally a very electronic composition that I'd wanted to do with Melismetiq but ended up playing with Fabien and Francesco for this album. On the other hand, all the other compositions on Static were intended for this trio specifically and come from the idea of group improvisation grounded in jazz. We were originally playing these tunes in a very "jazz way," but they became this whole other thing in the studio."

Arthur Hnatek, Shai Maestro, Rick Rosato & Ari Bragi Karason: Melismetiq

Static presents a balanced combination of Hnatek's dualistic musical personality; nevertheless, the drummer also continues to cultivate a more traditional form of jazz with various other projects, notably when working with the co-led international group Melismetiq. The quartet, which features pianist Shai Maestro, bassist Rick Rosato and trumpeter Ari Bragi Karason, released a self-titled studio album in 2017 as well as a live album in 2020, Melismetiq Live. A formation that only rarely plays together, due to the members having homes in very different parts of the planet, Melismetiq comprises a group of old friends who, without the pressures of having to record a solo record under their own name, indulge in collective improvisations in a liberated, festive and lighthearted manner.

"When we started playing together, we were all still students in New York. But since then, we've all moved to different countries. The fun thing about Melismetiq is how democratically we work as a quartet. It's true that at some point I started being the one who kind of manages things for us, but musically it's completely a four-way thing.

"I'm convinced, that in the Melismetiq environment we all sound our very best. At times we're able to go way beyond how we sound on various records. In Melismetiq there's no pressure because we're not releasing our music on a major label or anything. There's this care-free attitude that liberates us. That's why we rehearse very little. For our last album Melismetiq Live, which was all new music, we rehearsed for about ten minutes and didn't really talk about any details before being on stage either. We'd met at Shai's house maybe two days before the show and we hadn't played in maybe two years. we each brought one or two ideas to the table, went through them quickly and then we brought that directly to the stage.

"And that's the main idea with Melismetiq: To bring material that's as simple as possible so you don't need to rehearse the structure very much but that just lets you improvise freely. As a result, our music can be very melodic and kind of upbeat. The lack of much through-composition is also the reason why we have so many different versions of our material and why everyone feels so free to take risks. We're very happy about how we work together and it's always a very joyful occasion."

Even though distance separates the members of Melismetiq from each other, and the Covid pandemic is doing its part to keep them even further apart, Melismetiq remain active and plan on playing together again sooner rather than later. "That's actually a running joke between us currently. The other day Shai was saying 'let's try to play at least two times this year' ," which under normal circumstances wouldn't be too much of an ask but under the circumstances of the Pandemic sounds quite ambitious.

"Shai is spending more time in Israel these days, so that brings him a lot closer to me. Ari is always down to come and visit, so we're talking about doing something together in Switzerland, maybe even in the Moods jazz club in Zürich. The club's been doing a lot for the local seen this past year, streaming concerts and having residencies. But that's still up in the air, there are no specific plans at all for the moment. We're definitely going to try and get together one way or another with Melismetiq and play live, just like when we did last time. Which means mostly hanging out (laughs) and playing one or two shows, which we'll maybe record."

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