INTERVIEW: Henrik Schwarz

When Henrik Schwarz guested at CDR Berlin in October 2011 it was fascinating to hear his insightful talk on his production process. Onward to summer 2012 and he contributed to CDR once more at the iOS Music Meet. Ever-in demand for his ability to move dancefloors, we managed to sit Henrik Schwarz down shortly before one of his London shows last year to talk more. Part 1 of the interview focuses on a move between his studio and concert halls.

Beginning by asking Henrik about the machines he uses seemed fitting, since machines have opened up his musicality, from production to playing; the electronics creating and shaping a musician.

With an agreed starting point, Henrik introduces his studio set up, “In a way it’s always changing but from the beginning, from the very early beginning, the computer has been the core of everything I do because it actually made me become a musician. Before I couldn’t do it. I was experimenting with tape machines but I couldn’t do anything. I even had drum machines after I had a computer. That was also when I started all these sampling things.”

“So still today the computer is, of course, the centre of the whole thing. It has been since after I sold all my drum machines and synthesizers that I had back in the days. Yeah, I went through all that so I know how to plug in cables and stuff, I know how to… solder.” he laughs after being reminded of the correct word in English.

Reminiscing, he continues, “At some point I was just hooked by the computer in a way. That’s why I sold everything because I thought let’s focus on that. Sometimes I feel it makes sense to focus. So I was working inside the computer for many years. Now, analogue is coming back in a way, just at the moment. Since a couple of years I’m also talking to microphones and pre-amps and stuff like that.”

“At the moment it’s mostly Ableton live for production but I also use Cubase sometimes to mix if I have the feeling that Cubase could add a certain touch to the production. Because I believe that things are sounding different, even if the manufacturers say it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just a feeling that changes you how you treat everything but I have the feeling it’s different. So sometimes I use something else.”

“The inner structure of a program seems to have an effect on the music you make with it. Cubase might look a bit cheesy with all the wood and old school surfaces but I think it is the most musical program with the best sound made for musicians. Logic looks and feels for people who make a more structured music – people who like control. Ableton looks like software and it is a tool for people whose most important instrument is the computer. I like all aspects – it has an effect but maybe it is not so important.”

“I am a very visual person, my eyes are always open and curious. If  I look around I can recognize easily when something that I know has changed. If I see something interesting I look closer and probably that becomes a bassline a couple of weeks later.”

Despite software being central to Henrik’s productions, digital means have not entirely taken over, “I have a couple of analogue synths still. A Matrix 1000 and a 101 that I never sold, that has the fattest bass ever!” he enthuses. “I have a, what is it called? A Dave Smith tetra, a Micro Korg, a Rhodes… that sound’s very important. For a long time I had a stage piano which is very important for all the piano sound. Now, since two years I think, I bought a piano, a real one because now all over these years I’ve learnt a little bit about harmonies and how to play things. That’s why I started to take lessons also.”

Enquiring about Henrik’s wide range of different, but connected projects, “It’s quite a lot,” he admits, eyebrows raised, “When I stopped my remixes two years ago I thought it’s time to have a look at what I’ve done and think about some new ideas. Then for some private reasons I was involved in some other projects and didn’t do much productions for one and a half years but, still, I was thinking about what I could do.”

“One very big project that’s now running for three years is a classical orchestra that’s playing my stuff.” The initially invitation required Henrik to find his own way to shape the brief, “What I didn’t want to do was just be a DJ that’s playing some beats to what the orchestra plays. I think that’s the most horrible thing you can do,” he explains, clear of how he did, and does, seek to co-create, “Although in a way I think that’s what they wanted me to do. But, I asked them if they had somebody to help me with the notes, because my idea was to write something new for to them and just let them play. We decided we were going to take ten of my old ‘favourites’, write them down [using Nuendo (Steinburg)] and rearrange them.

The man sent to assist Henrik was Johannes Brecht and the pair quickly clicked, so much so that Henrik invited Johannes to release a separate project on Sunday Music.

Nature intervened in the plans and the scheduled concert was cancelled due to rain. Rehearsals had taken place though and undeterred by the [non]event, Henrik calmly adjusted to the developments, “I was actually happy that the performance didn’t happen because we realised that it was really difficult to make an orchestra groove or, like, grab the essence of what it was.  And also I found out that I didn’t want to use any drums or bass drums. But I was so hooked by the sound that I thought this would be worth diving deeper into.”

Over three years on, and three rewritten scores/arrangements later, an agreed sound has been found.  “We have removed all the drums and found a great setup of instruments to make it sound really great.” The recording of this eleven-piece classical orchestra took place last summer and, is forthcoming as Instruments. [Versions of which can be heard on Henrik’s Boiler Room set – scroll up].

A twenty-piece orchestra performed the scores for Instruments at the Berliner Philharmonie in November 2011, a show where Henrik watched on, opting out of performing, “I’m just a composer. I didn’t want to have any electronics involved. No speakers, no microphones, no bass drum. [With an orchestra] The bass drum is actually the worst element you can bring. It’s not a frequency problem, it a problem of, erm… semantics.”

“If you add a bass drum to it weakens everything. They just don’t fit together! Even if it was there before. It’s really strange and I don’t know the reason yet but it destroys the energy. Just the opposite than if you play the same thing in a club. It’s something that needs to explored. It’s a very, interesting, very very interesting field to work in.”

Listening to Henrik wax lyrical about this area of sonic experimentation, words from Tod Dockstader come to mind:

“It seems unlikely to me that electronic music will ever replace the traditional orchestra, as some critics and composers have feared. Even when it has been designed to supplement the orchestra, it suffers in comparison with the live sounds, and the combination is usually cumbersome: the orchestra plays, then sits in resentful silence while a loudspeaker roars and whispers fuzzily. But the speaker can’t roar as loudly or whisper as quietly as can the orchestra, and until tape recording and reproducing is improved dramatically, resulting in much wider dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio, electronic music can’t match, much less replace, the clear voice of the orchestra.”
(‘Notes for Eight Electronic Pieces’, Folkways Records, 1961)

Henrik Schwarz’s take on combining orchestral traditions with music that originated via electronic methods of composing, certainly doesn’t falter in the way Tod Dockstader justifiably foresaw, rather Instruments succeeds by fusing the tonal excellence of classical instrumentation with the excellence of Henrik’s compositions and (re)arrangements.


Watch on: Henrik Schwarz workshop at CDR Berlin and at the iOS Music Meet.


Many thanks to Naiel Ibarrola for the illustration.  Part 2 soon come!