Markus Reuter – String Quartet No.1 ‘Heartland’, Matangi Quartet [Solaire Records 2019]

Markus Reuter – String Quartet No.1 ‘Heartland’, Matangi Quartet [Solaire Records 2019]

Apr 16, 2019 0 By Marcello Nardi

Italian version

INTERVIEW March 2019

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. (Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel)

-Good morning! I hope it was not too much yesterday!

A kind message it’s always a good way to thank someone after an interview. However, this time it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer, showing a professional courtesy which is out of the ordinary. The interviewee is Markus Reuter, whom I had the pleasure to chat with the day before. I expected an intense, insightful, articulated chat. And my expectations were more than exceeded. So I truthfully answered him that I was still digesting our conversation and I highly appreciated it. While I was transcribing it, I realized how much the dialogue just started from a reflection about his latest work, the first string quartet he composed, entitled Heartland, and then moved very soon much farer, like branches in a mind map, discussing about the vision behind the music itself. Paving multiple roads at once, indicating a myriad of directions, the conversation hinted at a multiple layered picture, with many fertile and meaningful ramifications appearing at each statement. While sentences discussed the music at a surface level, developing an analysis of how it was written and interpreted, nevertheless each concept unveiled an elaborate vision behind the music. This is the kind of thing to expect from a conversation with Markus Reuter. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I am still digesting it: an architecture of meanings interconnected over multiple floors, like the infinite library pictured by Jorge Louis Borges in The Library of Babel, through a multitude of semantic layers. The method Reuter used to write Heartland plays in a similar manner, like an endless disclosing of layers over new layers. At the start of our chat, Reuter says: I just remembered that when I started composing last summer, a friend asked what kind of techniques I am using. I tried to explain. I remembered a game child play: there’s this technique where you take this white piece of paper, you use colored wax and then you put thick black wax on top. Then you take something like a knife, you cut away the black and you see underneath the color. Stencil, it’s the word. It’s like a moving part on a world, like you have a complex music composition here on the bottom, but on top there’s a shape moving, which allows to see only some things. This is actually how Heartland was composed. It’s like a shape with holes that moved on top of a colored surface

I remember that, immediately before our chat, Markus Reuter was moving out from a lesson with a student. I mentally prepared our conversation like a learning experience, similarly to what the student experienced before me. I asked him about what was the content of the lesson, which, of course, included an overview of the instrument Reuter is mainly known, the Touch Guitar. This was just the starting point for moving deeper not only into the techniques of playing the instrument, but also into composing. When we are talking about Touch guitar technique, or about music in general, we need to know how to start a note and how to end the note Markus Reuter says, elaborating what he discussed with his student. Then we can develop everything else, simply from this basic idea. All my music making started from this basic understanding. I want to be able to pull a beautiful note, to compose that single beautiful note and this to become the cell, from which you create a bigger structure.

The indication on the top of the score in Zauberberg, the longest of the string quartet pieces executed by Matangi Quartet with its ten minutes, says ‘interlocking, active meditation’. Indeed a tour de force of subconscious explorations in a fugal form, made of rhythmically moving patterns of almost all quavers, Markus Reuter understandably defined it as an ‘hocketing nightmare’. A tour de force from both execution and listening point of view. No apparent tonal or thematic coherence is allowed here, while an unending melody constantly switches through all four instruments creating a swirling fractal made of sound. Neither the music is going in atonal territories, nor it is lacking coherency from thematic point of view, but nevertheless can’t be labeled as ‘tonal’ or ‘thematic’. The repetition of patterns is barely matching minimalism techniques: it’s merely the focus on the listening act that shares something with many minimalistic works.

The most important in music is where to start and where to stop

The initial bars, with its descending theme bouncing from violins to viola and then cello, sets the pattern for everything that happens further in the piece. The attention will focus more on the subtle variations covered under the surface, than on the melodic movement itself. Around the 29th bar the starting motif seems to resurface. An unexpected unison in the otherwise uniform development of a single melody at bar 64 is demanding a sudden attention. A variation of this motif seems to go back few measures later, at bar 76, until, at bar 83, the initial pattern of the piece reappears again, like a marker, to ignite again the perpetual movement of the work. There’s a change of point of view, like a camera rolling during a movie, from bar 100 to 115: the instruments move to the mid-register and the attention focuses on intervals leaps less than before. Cello suddenly stops playing from bars 171 to 176: a spinning wheel, made by violins and viola alone now, which is like gravitating in front of the listener. It’s a magic trick revealed. The constantly enlarging and narrowing rhythmic structures are now visible, each with a different pace. Everything that barely caught the attention becomes slowly clearer. The funny thing is that there are some cadenzas that are just happening automatically -Reuter says, pondering on the generative approach used for composing this piece. If you pay close attention, it’s basically a theme variation. At the beginning there is this theme, which appears a lot of times, but it’s always in a variation. During these variations the [composing] grid remains almost the same and the spacing of the notes at rhythmic level is the same. Everything becomes elastic, so a theme and the intervals can be multiplied by a 1.2 ratio or whatever. It keeps the same shape, but it gets scaled to a wider range. Everything is always elastic. The prolonged descending chromatic pattern from bar 191 to 197 played by all four instruments reloads the charge and prepares for the initial phrases to come back again a couple of times, before the end of Zauberberg.

While the focus is never on the marker at level of music structure and everything develops in an horizontal and ceaseless sense of time, it’s the listener the one who plays the music. Him/herself is setting the pace. What happens in the piece, what is written on the score, results being a device to create an illusion. Markus Reuter crafts this ‘illusion’ on purpose, indicating what triggered it: I believe that the magic is to look at progressions of melody, harmony and rhythm that are very long phrases […] with Zauberberg I did an experiment: it is going through the phrase twice. So, basically, it’s repeating in the middle, but it’s very hard to realize it does that. The strings shadow themselves almost always in mid-register, the listener is forced out of his comfort zone in a place of meditative exploration, surrendering to any single movement of the notes. This illusion is, however, not a trick: it’s like reverting the focus on listening act itself. At the foundation of his writing approach there’s a conception of the melody that plays a primary role, even over counterpoint and traditional harmony. Where we think in terms of themes and progressions, of chords creating a tonal center in a vertical manner, Reuter, instead, looks at music from an ‘horizontal’ standpoint: my harmonic language is the result of the melodic progression. Everything is melodic, in a certain way. We can see it with this quartet: in most of the cases there are four melodies that move. These melodies create the harmony. I never start from the idea of taking an harmony and then writing a part, but it’s always the individual parts that create the harmony.

There are five shelves for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains thirty-two books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color […] The content was also deciphered: some notions of combinative analysis, illustrated with examples of variations with unlimited repetition (The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges)

The German composer first built himself a reputation of a virtuoso instrumentalist: he is mainly known for playing the previously mentioned Touch Guitar, which he developed both from a crafting and playing point of view. This is a further evolution of Stick and Warr Guitars, which King Crimsoners Tony Levin and Trey Gunn brought to the attention of the world in 80s and 90s, consisting in a guitar with eight strings, which are not plucked or strummed, but are instead to be tapped. In the expansive 44-pages booklet accompanying the physical release, Tobias Fischer not only recounts the story behind the quartet, but also gives a comprehensive summary of Reuter‘s career. This started when attending Robert Fripp‘s classes at Guitar Craft in the early 90s. He then started developing a distinctive language made of ambient soundscapes and rock progressive influences. Mostly known to prog fans for his work with Crimson ProjeKCt, for a ten years career with Stick Men, along with Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, for the duo Totem again with Mastelotto, for the ambient collaborations with electronic musicians like Ian Boddy, Robert Rich, Bernhard Wöstheinrich, he started cultivating an interest in writing for classical ensembles much earlier then the moment he actually started. It’s not until 2013 that he decided to embark in writing and orchestrating a demanding nearly one hour long piece for a lager ensemble. Todmorden-513 claims again the usage of the word ‘tour de force’, with its five hundred and thirteen chords moving one to the other at a fixed timing. This is the very first piece indicating the direction the German composer was heading to, through an investigation into how to apply algorithms to music writing at a new level. Sun Trance, a piece written for a mixed ensemble of electric and acoustic instruments, and a piano piece were two intermediate steps for reaching the next level of the research. Heartland, in a certain sense, is the testament of that exploration. Reuter mentions composing it required a special ‘charge’ applied to his writing process. He further contextualizes what the word ‘research’ means to him in relationship with this special charge: in research there’s no aim to have, when I am doing a research I am not expecting results. But when I am making a decision to compose pieces of music, it has a different character. It may be in principle the same technique, the same process on the surface, but the difference is that when I started to write Heartland I knew it was gonna get released in April this year. It’s a difference. For me it’s different. Just saying it because the way I am using this word ‘to charge’, it’s like charging batteries. Charging the process of making Heartland, it required a very specific kind of charge. It would have been very different than a pure research project. 

In October 2017 a series of articles on the subject of generative composition practices, published on an authoritative source like NewMusic USA, caught my attention. Those were written by an author I was looking after, Joseph Branciforte, who is a composer, recording engineer, label owner and multi-instrumentalist based in New York. Incidentally, he was the mind behind a band linked with avant progressive rock, named Cellar and the Point. (Another unexpected connection with prog here). Branciforte, who is currently exploring how to apply algorithms to live notation tools, gave an interesting overview of the current status of generative composing. While the power of the tools at composer’s disposal is infinitely higher today than those of previous generations, still generative approach is not any news: while composers prior to the 20th century were unlikely to have thought of their work in explicitly algorithmic terms, it is nonetheless possible to view aspects of their practice in precisely this way. From species counterpoint to 14th-century isorhythm, from fugue to serialization, Western music has made use of rule-based compositional techniques for centuries argues Branciforte. It’s important to keep spearated music writing using computational tools and music writing through generative methods , which is often pictured like something that arose with invention of the computer after 1945. To clarify, while computer aided composing it’s something that has been linked with the technology development, integrating generative practices in writing started much earlier. Iannis Xenakis was one of the first to explore the computational capabilities, notably in another string quartet, ST4-1,080262 (1955-1962). Musicologist Paul Griffiths points at how the technology shift impacted not only the writing process, but also the listening practices: where traditional tonal music had offered time lines hospitable to the the listener -lines along which musical processes could be followed- Xenakis was presenting states and unpredictable changes of state. He was not alone: Stockhausen’s moment form was explicitly a venture in the same direction. Indeed, the movement towards a new kind of time -a time without reasons and purposes- is the most general and perhaps the most fundamental feature of music since 1945. […] Like the ideals of composing, the ideals of listening were, in the mid-1960s, becoming objective and combinatorial. [Paul Griffiths, Modern Music and After, Oxford Press]. Linking generative composing and listening act, like Paul Griffiths does, induces re-thinking a different dimension of the relationship between the piece and the listener. Composing means shaping a dimension of listening and, even if Reuter might not be looking at Xenakis and Stockhausen like models for his music, he is charging his music with a distinctive listening dimension like the masters did. Heartland creates a very specific environment in which the listening act is closer to the meditative states of mind.

I want to be able to compose one single beautiful note, and I want this to become the cell from which you create a bigger structure

Setting an algorithm to create music is a different thing than a composer surrendering his role as creative mind behind the work. Again Branciforte made a very declarative statement about it in his series of articles: there’s an argument that outsourcing these decisions to the computer is an abdication of the fundamental responsibility of being a composer, the subjective process of selection. But I’ve begun to see algorithm design as a meta-compositional process: uncovering the principles that underlie my subjective preferences and then embedding them into the algorithmic architecture itself. During my conversation with Markus Reuter, he wanted to elaborate how his writing methods affected his attitude to communicate as a composer: the question of the subjectivity versus objectivity is really complex. I wrote this score, the pitches and the rhythms. But there’s going to be a translation process, which will happen by and from the performers […] I didn’t allow them to play any different notes. They had to play the notes and the rhythms in the way they were written: still they were responsible for making it music. That’s why the question of objectivity in a certain way it’s kind of difficult. Saying that the composer ‘delegates’, or even ‘surrenders’, part of his subjectivity to the players or the generative tools is incorrect. Still, in his role, Reuter incorporates this constraint into the composing itself. Making the point even clearer, generative writing in Reuter‘s vision of music allows him to charge the music with his subjectivity, while never letting down any of his responsibilities: it’s a process of things broken up into different parts. Basically I am taking three or four things that I can’t control. As example, we have the two levels mentioned, the colored palette on the bottom and the thing moving upfront. Both are not composed, but generated through a mathematical process. My artistic responsibility is to charge the process in such a way, that we get a result that is inspiring.

Even if it’s marked as an eight movements piece, the tracks are meant to be separate from each one and to be performed independently. Still they keep a red thread and there’s a vibe resonating through all the recording. The initial movement, Boon, starts from a baroque fugato-style built around a rhythmic pattern that is variated through all the piece. Like fragments of cadenzas from Bach or Vivaldi, the melody descends without any tonal rest. Each chordal and melodic changed is abruptly placed on an accent the listener would not expect. Those perpetually overlapping patterns elicit the generative practices, that led Reuter composing the piece, and create a sense of movement, that plays in a similar fashion to Zauberberg. A never-ending sense of changing the point of view. In a passage of our chat Reuter elaborated it in the following way: I had this realization when I was in school and I realized that everybody was sitting on same chair. When I sat on different chair, I was seeing from a completely different situation, completely different room. Even the characters changed, the light changed, the colors changed. Everything changed. Then I started experimenting with this kind of change of perspective. When I made this big step, to see things from a different perspective, I started realizing the role these small changes played in the process. This metaphor has become more and more important for me as I started traveling so much. With the touring it’s like to be able to take so many different perspectives, to see so many different culture. It’s important being aware that, if you stay in one place all the time, you see just one perspective. Heartland is a very good example of this game with perspective. I never thought like that before, but it’s basically like a world. What I am doing is I am traveling through this country and what people hear is actually like following my perspective.

The insightful booklet included in the release tells candidly the challenges and the discomfort Reuter faced while writing Heartland. He ran through bleak moments, logistic challenges; there was lot of doubts and of questioning himself about whether he was capable or not to complete the task. While writing the scores the summer before he needed the support of a coach, found in Markus Popp, who was a prominent musician in the 90s. So, when listening the pieces for the first time recorded on October 17th and 18th 2018, it was like a relief, an epiphany for something that could actually work. With Heartland it was very hard -Reuter remembers. It was incredibly hard. Maybe the hardest composition I’ve ever made. Because I was always unhappy, never satisfied. Always thinking it was not good. I was even meeting with the creative coach, Markus Popp. It was interesting because, considering all the meetings we had, one meeting to the other my concept changed completely, really completely. It was for me the biggest struggle this project, also because of the format ‘string quartet’, and because what it means to release something like that, to put myself out there as a composer. This shade of doubt is clear in the work, and it plays like a building block of Heartland, creating the vibe it holds: deep inside I’ve no doubt that I can do that -the composer says, but, if I put myself out there in front of people, it’s for me still very uncomfortable. I think that this uncomfortableness or this not being sure, has kind of become a really big part of the emotionMaria-Paula Majoor, first violin of the Matangi Quartet, echoes that feeling from the performer’s and listener’s perspectives: I think it’s nice to feel there’s a doubt. That also gives the space for interpretation and also for the listener to create his own interpretation. 

Possibly the richest piece from textural and dynamics point of view, X has taken a shine to you has been inspired by writer Scarlett Thomas‘s Our Tragic Universe, which gave also a title to the companion movement number 5 in Heartland. With its prolonged, medidative pitches and almost no thematic movement, this is also the best example for the creative vibe before mentioned. Even if the piece insinuates that potential melodies might finally arise, at the end the listener almost surrenders contemplating a scenario where nothing is happening, and there’s no real need for happening. Listener’s attention is anesthetized through a prolonged stasis around legato semibreve and barely perceptible pianissimo bars. Moving from the conscious to the unconscious states of the mind -not only from composer’s perspective- is something at the core of Reuter‘s vision of music. You want to use the metaphor of a door the composer says elaborating his vision, like you had the door between conscious and subconscious. I am interested in these doors, in opening them, in making sure that the information transfer can happen between conscious and unconscious and that there’s a process going that is kind of circular, that there is something that comes from the unconscious to conscious and can also go back to the unconscious. If you want to visualize it, it’s almost like zooming out and then zooming in on a picture.

Writing a string quartet means confronting with a music form that is at the core of western music. A daunting task for any, it meant accepting an even bigger challenge for a non-academic composer like Markus Reuter, who candidly sympathizes more for unsung heroes like Mike Oldfield and Klaus Schulze than contemporary composers. While Beethoven‘s late quartets played an influence on him, he didn’t get exposed to many other quartet works during Heartland‘s writing. Tobias Fischer in the liner notes higlights that Messiaen‘s Mode de valeurs et d’intensités is, instead, a valid comparison to his work, being one the most important contemporary ‘grids’ of composing patterns that influenced so many in the post war 20th century. While french composer’s influence comes back and forth in the generative patterns -and sometime even in the misty and shimmering chord combinations, still Reuter plays like a maverick in the contemporary composition world with an unique hybrid style. The shifting rhythmic patterns in the baroque-like Netcong 63 move like barges in the open sea, undulating and drifting away over a wicked atmosphere. The process comes first and foremost. So the rigorous and almost steady half-note tapestry of The Magic Universe is a riddle, almost unconceivable.

While Markus Reuter puts the ‘process’ of composing on top of the list, still his music is deeply emotional. Emotion is something that is uncovered in the process -he explains. In that sense, the emotion is the result of research. It’s not correct that, when I start writing, I have no idea about emotion, about how it will sound or about what emotion it will give to the listener or to me later. I don’t really know about what is the final result of the piece, but I have an idea about what the process itself feels like to me. And that’s not the same thing. Along with his career as a professional musician, Reuter holds a PhD in Psychology. Better said, music and psychology look like two sides of the same coin. While his music is deeply informed by a generative approach, Gestalt theories resonate deeply in his vision. All the scientific studies I made he explains, it includes psychology, which I studied in the 90s. When it comes to shapes, like Gestalt theory and stuff, it’s really something that is just so natural for me to think in those terms. I think Gestalt theory is extremely important in music and composers of music, even music listeners, they don’t realize that they basically do this all the time. Composer Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff in their A Generative Theory of Tonal Music elaborated Gestalt theories in the realm of a linguistic-based theory of music, and it’s interesting to see the word ‘generative’ linked again with the perception theories. Explaining the bridge that connects perception and form, Gestalt theorists created a list of principles that shed light on how why we create segments in our perception, and since what is at the basis of meaning of reality. This chunking of elements that becomes a bigger shape is something that explains what music is. I work with those elements [Gestalt theories] a lot, but mostly subconsciously or even consciously. When I worked on Heartland, I was listening and creating these initial cells of melodies. I listened to these for hours. I had one generated sequence, that sometimes could be very long. It was something that maybe didn’t repeat for three days. Then I put them on and I let them run for whole day, while I was working and doing things. I just left it running, to kind of get into insight and to really understand what was this about. Was there a Gestalt in there that I want to bring out? That was also difficult to say, because in this process of writing these basic materials, I could get stuck on one thing, because I was listening to something and I couldn’t’t turn it off. Sometimes, when you discover something that becomes so fascinating, it’s very hard to make a decision where to start or where to stop. This is what I said before, the most important in music is where to start and where to stop.

Music like a journey of discovery; this is something fascinating leaking by the words of Markus Reuter. For example, when I discovered the structure of the piece Heartland Bleeds, I realized it sounded like a sequence of pieces from the 70s. With its frequent starts and stops, the nervous and joyous explorations of the technical capabilities of overtones and harmonics of each instruments and the wider jumps of registers, Heartland Bleeds is like a spectrally-arranged single note melody -quoting the liner notes. Reuter further contextualized it in our interview: I am very much German composer, or let’s say Central European composer. I’ve grown up in the 70s, which means I listened also to the Berlin school music and this kind of stuff. I am really a fan of Klaus Schulze’s music, because of the mood that the music creates. The mood is something that I can find now in things I do. Even if they are much more complicated, still they can have the same freshness. It’s like listening to Kratwerk for the first time, which in the 70s it was like a totally unique mood. That’s what I am trying to do with my music.

I am interested in these doors, I am interested in opening these and making sure that the information transfer can happen between conscious and unconscious.

People always wonder ‘Markus, how can you be so productive?’. This is actually true, Markus Reuter is incontrovertibly an over-productive musician. While we are speaking, he contributed to Stephan Thelen‘s Fractal Guitar released earlier this year, he is set to appear at least in another couple of MoonJune recordings in subsequent months, is going to release a three discs album of ambient recordings for his Bandcamp VIP members and is working at some songs with Trey Gunn. Not to mention that he will be joining fellow MoonJune players to record new albums live in Barcelona, at La Casa Murada, later in May and will be touring with Stick Men in Summer and Fall. So, yes, the question behind his over-productivity still remains open. It’s really strange to say -he admits. For me, I understand everything. I mean it in a strange way. I don’t mean like everything is obvious for me. When I meet a person I feel the feelings of the other person. I know what the other person is thinking. I am just exaggerating ok, but what I mean it’s I have like a connection to a spiritual world where things are just kind of always in a way clear. There’s a lot of clarity in my way of experiencing the world. Which also means that it gets too much very quickly. It’s almost no filter. What I am trying to do with my work is to basically create a filter that gives me something back from the world that I find that inspires me.

Heartland is a work about processing, about creating a grid for a structure of notes to erupt. Still it is an intense travel in a unknown land, made of flowing moments. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi made a widespread theory of how the most creative and intense experiences, as creative artists and listeners, take place. In his description, the ‘flow’ is a condition where concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous. But how do such experiences happen? (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi , Flow, HarperCollins). Csikszentmihalyi answers his question indicating that flow takes place in a balance between two conditions, anxiety and boredom. Within the narrow window that separates the anxiety about the performance and the boredom for not taking a sufficient level of challenge, flow operates like a creative trigger for the experiences of playing, no matter it’s an athlete or a creative artist or even a listener experiencing it. Interestingly -but not surprisingly, given his studies-, when Reuter discusses his creativity, he recognizes the value of boredom in the creative act. He echoed that in these words: I am really interested in what is human, what makes an human ‘human’. Even in something like boredom is interesting, if you think about it. Animals that are not domesticated, like wild animals, are they ever bored? (I then argued cats were animals which often experience boredom). But they are also domesticated, they don’t live in the wild anymore! -he replies. So what I am interested is the reason why we are here on this planet and we think we exist. I am interested in what makes this existence special. Boredom is one of these things! In a certain way, it’s like a motivation, it’s an aspect that makes people create.

So what is next after Heartland? For me Heartland it’s the end, for now. Not the end like forever, but it’s kind of I can start from zero, if I want to. Are you going to be bored -I argue? You know, when I am bored I practice guitar. Practicing guitar is more like a research mode. When there’s no apparent result, there’s no recordings, it’s just like feeding my body with new movements. Not new ideas, but new movements. Heartland is Markus Reuter‘s vision at his best. Creating bridges between conscious and subconscious, between his vision and single notes, between the listener and the performer, it’s a work of depth, challenges, meditation and shimmering beauty.

Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species—the unique species—is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure (The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges)

Markus Reuter
String Quartet No.1 ‘Heartland’
Matangi Quartet
Maria-Paula Majoor, violin 1
Daniel Torrico Menacho, violin 2
Karsten Kleijer, viola
Arno van der Vuurst, violoncello

  1. Boon
  2. X has taken a shine to you
  3. Netcong 63
  4. Dwell on a Star
  5. The Tragic Universe
  6. Zauberberg
  7. Heartland Bleeds
  8. The Magic Universe

Solaire Records SOL1008