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Markus Reuter: (R)Evolutionary Touch Guitarist

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German touch guitarist Markus Reuter stands at the forefront of the international ambient music community. From his various collaborations with King Crimson alumni and electronic music pioneers Ian Boddy and Robert Rich, Reuter has crafted a busy schedule of his own recordings, lent his own ear and expertise to engineering and production work in parallel with leading classes on the unusual 8-stringed instrument he uses to promote his art. This interview is the first of two parts documenting Reuter's efforts on a world class scale.

All About Jazz: Please describe your working relationship with drummer Pat Mastelotto. Do you do most of your idea exchange via mail? How does that work for mixing projects like the last three Tuner projects?

Markus Reuter: Pat Mastelotto and I met on a train a long time ago. We got to know each other without having the aim in mind to eventually work together musically, so when Pat first asked me to create music together with him, it was never business-driven or otherwise caged in, but a totally blank canvas, which was (and still is) great. We also share a personal, non-music related history, and we think of each other as family.

Contrary to common belief that we work over the internet (one of our initial promo blurbs started this rumor), I have visited Pat in Austin, Texas at least a couple of times every year for the last five years. We've produced, composed, arranged, and recorded the albums Totem (Unsung, 2008), Pole (Unsung, 2007), Tovah's Escapologist (Lola, 2008), Chrysta Bell's [forthcoming] Strange Darling (TBS, 2011), and Moonbound's Peak Of Eternal Light (Unsung, 2008) at Pat's studio. The only project that we've done entirely via the internet is Steven Wilson's Insurgentes Rmxs (Kscope, 2009), [which] we did in early 2009. The Tuner live recordings were edited in Texas, too. The Müüt (Live in Estonia 2007) (Unsung, 2008) album I mixed with Clemens Schleiwies in Munich, Germany. Our Estonian friend and drummer Arvo Urb, of Fragile and This Fragile Moment mixed Zwar (Live in Europe 2005). Zwar has not been officially released yet and is only available via our own online store.

When Pat and I started working on Totem, Pat was still strongly associated with the free-improv/jamming approach of the King Crimson ProjeKcts. There was also his duo with Trey Gunn called TU. I realized back then that I was not prepared to go the same "abstract" route in order to come up with musical material, but I wanted to use the opportunity to come up with composed music that is not based in the tradition of "jamming." At the time, I thought there was way too much improv material out there (not only from the KC camp), and since my interest seems to always lie in what's being neglected at the moment, it was natural to compose rather than improvise. This is also reflected in the name Tuner, which by request from Pat came about as an extension of the TU concept, but right away the literal "tune" was very important to us. Tuner (being a proper English word) is also much less abstract than TU. These were just some of the initial thoughts and ideas that we had.

AAJ: What do you think Pat brings to you from a rhythmic and percussion orientation that makes it fun and challenging for you to work with?

MR: To me Pat is a musician, first of all. And he's playing the drums. He's so much more than a drummer. He's been a driving force in lots of successful pop music, too, and is a recording studio veteran. He's not only about the placement of an individual kick drum hit, for example, but also has a unique grasp of musical forms, be it complex new stuff or songs. He zooms in and out of the music at enormous speed. Pat has impeccable taste, and I never doubt his reactions to my ideas. If he doesn't like something, I let go of it right away, and I think this respect is mutual.

So the basic tenet for a Tuner studio record is that we use it as a vehicle for the things we always wanted to do, but never had a chance to. At least that's where the recent development goes. Our upcoming studio record, Face, is based on a few ideas, which can be permutated endlessly. While the resulting music is very complex, it is still quite accessible. Interestingly enough, the results remind me somewhat of Mike Oldfield's Amarok (Virgin, 1990), but in a more stringent and focused way.

AAJ: What kind of expectations do you set/challenges for yourself (together with Pat) to play as Tuner live? What pieces were just plain better live than in the studio for you and why?

MR: Live performance as a duo is always a challenge, and I'm tired of the duo configuration. Live sampling technology and pre-prepared parts helped a lot and, much to my surprise, both the live shows as well as the live discs were very well received.

AAJ: What do you think are the best three pieces that you have done with Pat as Tuner and why?

MR: For me the "best," that is to say the "defining" pieces we created so far are "The Morning Tide Washes Away" [Totem], "11 11" [POLE], "Tied into a phrase" [Müüt] and our cover of King Crimson's "Industry" (Zwar). "The morning tide" marks the first time I used a certain compositional approach that I'm still exploring, for example for Face and my "Symphony," called Todmorden 513.

"11 11" was the musical discovery of overlapping and independently shifting rhythmic patterns combined with beautiful melodies. "Tied into a phrase" is a successful improvisation that meets my standards of an 'instant composition.' I'm stunned by our version of "Industry" as it somehow captures something that I feel is uniquely King Crimson. It's also quite something to hear the great power in my own playing on this track, a power that does not reflect the me I know.

AAJ: Why did you and Pat reissue Totem?

MR: We reissued it because the first edition was sold out quickly and we wanted to make a couple of small changes to the mixes.

AAJ: Please describe your work with Ian Boddy. How would you best describe the sonic and ambient constructs that you create? How have your collaborations with Ian changed and evolved over the years? Can you select three specific pieces in your work with Ian and explain these pieces reflect your best ideas/execution with him and why?

MR: Ian was introduced to me by our mutual friend, Sid Smith, in September 1998. Ian's become a dear friend and very reliable business partner over the course of time. He has released lots of albums and other products that I was involved with in one way or another in the past ten years and contrary of common practice in the business his reports are always on-time, which is a quality that says a lot about a person.

When Sid introduced us, I sent Ian some of my soundscapes, which became the foundation of our debut album Distant Rituals (DiN, 1999). Ian and I first met in person in early 1999, to finalize the album together. Our first album was mostly Ian's idea, almost entirely based on my Touch Guitar loops, which in and of themselves were already complete compositions. He further shaped the forms and the sound, and we recorded only a few overdubs. Pure (DiN, 2004) entirely draws upon compositional miniatures I came up with [compositions from the same batch also appeared on Totemand on Tim Bowness' solo album, My Hotel Year (One Little Indian, 2004]).

Our most recent release, Dervish (DiN, 2009), is our most successful collaboration to date. We both let go of our past and using a very loose concept we came up with this work, which some reviewers have called the "state-of-the-art" in electronic music. The sounds were almost entirely sourced from my Touch Guitars U8 guitar. By the way, there is also a stripped-down companion album called Unwound, which focuses on the original guitar textures. It is available as a digital download from Music Zeit .

AAJ: How much of your collaborations are based on spontaneous improvisation? How much planning do you do separately or jointly on the compositions?

MR: "Spontaneous improvisation" as in "playing together" --- none at all. For Dervish, we had actually prepared samples and also some musical ideas before meeting up at my studio in Innsbruck. I had sampled my touch guitar (single-note ambient pads sounds, straight and looped) and Ian turned them into software instruments that could be played with a keyboard and/or with from within the sequencing software. Ian also brought a sample library of the Hang Drum into the mix. Once we met and came up with the concept for the record (each piece is based on one of the seven 'modes of unlimited transposition'), we dropped most (if not all) of the musical ideas we had developed at a distance and started from scratch. The process of composing the pieces was entirely improvised with equal input from both of us, and the aim was to always find common ground.

AAJ: What would you say is your ambient music benchmark? How do you measure your own work against it?

MR: I don't think I measure my own work against a specific "ambient music benchmark." There are general musical and sonic ideals I'm after nowadays, but some of David Sylvian's and Brian Eno's works were certainly very influential. By the way, Dervish is not an ambient album at all, at least not in the traditional sense and from my point of view.

AAJ: You and Ian work jointly on the rhythmic structure of the pieces, correct? "Joker," for example, has a few Crimson-like odd-tempo elements, but it is played with a lighter touch.

MR: Generally, I suggested the rhythmic structures. There are usually two or three different cycles/time signatures running at the same time in each piece.

AAJ: Please tell me about the string arrangements you created on "Angst." How challenging was it for you to go back after the performance was already complete and fit a suitable accompaniment?

MR: The string arrangements were written and recorded last: The three-part guitar melody I had written in the studio in Innsbruck, and the string parts were overdubbed in order to create dense clusters within the octatonic scale on which the piece is based. It is supposed to sound "awkward and wrong."

AAJ: So is the Unwound download actually the recordings you gave to Ian to start working with?

MR: No. Unwound is based on the soundscapes (i.e. guitar loops) I recorded in my studio whilst we were composing the pieces. It was Ian's idea to isolate the textural elements of the compositions (including some of the string quartet performances) and turn them into an ambient album. I think Unwound came out great. We were even considering putting it out as a CD since we like it so much, but then decided for the download route.
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