Tuesday, April 9, 2013

An Interview with Hans Tammen – Endangered Guitar

I’m always curious about how someone’s physical relationship with a guitar goes from the usual strumming to what some people call “tabletop guitar” – it seems like everyone has a different story about that. How’d it happen for you?

It was a gradual process – an acquired taste. I started with Rock music and classical guitar in the 70s, and played all sorts of Jazz in the 80s. After that I made a transition to music heavily influenced by the British Improvisers style.

The easy guess here would be that you’re talking about players like Fred Frith or the late, great Derek Bailey. Am I on target here? If so, it seems like you’re also talking about a pretty large jump away from more traditional forms of Jazz to some very different ideas about form and style and idiosyncracy. Can you talk a little bit about your influences?

As for guitarists, hearing Sonny Sharrock around 1977 screwed me up bigtime. I was listening to Coltrane, and he blew me away with his energy, but the jazz guitarists I heard at that time were just playing pling-plong guitar, that was it. Then someone played the live version of “Memphis Underground” from Herbie Mann’s record “Hold on, I’m coming”, and this guitarist just exploded, banging the guitar with a slide and such…. you could say I somehow discovered extended techniques. Right after that I heard Miles Davis’ “Agharta” at some party, and I tried to get a hold of every Miles record where Pete Cosey was playing. I discovered the British Improviser’s scene on a “Music Improvisation Company” record where Derek was playing.

That transition towards the tabletop-guitar wasn’t that large of a jump, because it took years. Anyway, towards the 90s I lost interest in melodic or harmonic development, and became infatuated with odd sounds. First I experimented with pedals and effects that were available at that time. But I quickly figured that the stompbox-approach wasn’t working for me, and I was way more flexible in musical situations when I used all sorts of metals, sticks, stones and other tools. The sounds I could coax from my guitar were so much richer and more interesting than when I used pedals.

Towards the end of the 90s I regularly had my guitar lying flat on my lap. In my solo concerts – I’ve been playing solo regularly since 1994 – I often had several “voices” going on at the same time. Things like balancing a cymbal on the strings, while playing two independent sounds with my hands – stuff you can hear on my solo CD “Endangered Guitar” from 1998. In addition to that, I did reintroduce pedals into my setup, and inserted them into different channels from various piezo and other pickups situated on my guitars. It was a more and more complex setup, and lent itself to eventually putting everything onto a table. Putting the guitar on a table allowed me to exercise more control over subtle movements, because I didn’t have to balance or hold the guitar anymore. I also could execute certain ideas quicker – my tools were right in front of me, and I’m was simply faster in getting a hold of them or putting them back.

The trajectory you’re describing is interesting – it’s both a kind of story about emergence in terms of searching for more immediate and physical means to do something that interests you, but also this parallel interest in… quickness? lightness? fluidity? You’re looking for ways of maximizing possibility in every way you can. Although it seems like an obvious question, how did Max come into your life?

Well, I married a Max programmer….

This is why you should always ask the obvious questions in an interview!

No, it’s no joke – I discovered Max when I met Dafna Naphtali, who’s worked with Max as a performer, teacher and programmer for some 15 years. Dafna gave me a head start. It also helped that I programmed business applications for small companies in Germany at the end of the 80s. Today I think I was already looking for some interactive element in my solo concerts, but I wasn’t aware of that then. As with so many performers who come from a “traditional” instrument background, I just wanted to rebuild my complex setup within the computer. But as usual in these cases, after a short period of time you’d come up with a million other ideas.

Could you unpack that a little? When you talk about what you were missing in your solo work, what kinds of things – outside of your own interaction with the physical system of the instrument and its treatments your listeners were you looking for? I’m not just asking about how being a programmer fits into this, since I think we’re really talking about something a bit larger – the way you think about improvising in general….

After all, I’m an improviser, and I appreciate the high art of improvisation in other parts of my life as well. But it becomes stale if you just rearrange what you have in your toolbox, like some people playing the same licks in every solo. I think my playing became so controlled that I was looking to add some unforeseeable elements again. It took me a while to figure that out – at the beginning I rejected every notion of randomness in my Max patch, but eventually I introduced a bunch of routines that allow me to be surprised within certain boundaries.

Generally speaking, I do live sound processing of my guitar, and control the patch through my guitar playing. What I play controls the sound that I played before. When the live sound processing gets too crazy, I pull it back – because when it just sounds like a laptop, the guitar is useless. Over the years I became less zealous about making my guitar sounding anything else but a guitar. It’s probably a phase many “experimentalists” go through, and at a certain point you’d ask yourself why you actually schlepp this instrument around. Currently I think that it is not important at all to sound weird – an evil sound doesn’t make the revolution, and a beautiful sound doesn’t bring Hitler back to life.

I guess this is as good a place to ask this question as anywhere: It seems as though there are a couple of generic approaches to using Max that emerge among people who actually become fluent with its use. I’d describe one of those as the “patch as piece” approach, where each major outing requires something new versus the “instrument” approach, where someone creates a larger structure that is then “learned” in the way you’d develop any other set of skills with a more conventional instrument. Where do you see yourself along that continuum?

Certainly among the latter. I very much like your word “learned’ here – yes, this is a new instrument, and it has to be learned. I practice working with new routines, like I practiced scales many years ago.

Have you tried porting your patches to 5 yet? What’s that experience been like, if so?

So far, so good. My Max 4 version is stored away, and I’m performing with Max 5 for quite a while now. I had to make lots of GUI changes, though, because I use every available pixel on my screen – it took a while to adjust the elements.