Kim Longin (Ronin Rhythm Records) spoke with Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner about Sonar's music and its origins.
KL : Can you talk about the main influences on Sonar's music?
ST : In connection with Sonar, I would name four musicians who were important influences. The first has to be Robert Fripp,
best known for his work in King Crimson. Robert is not only an innovative composer and a highly influential guitarist, but also is
one of the strongest personalities I ever met (with an absolutely wicked sense of humour). The King Crimson incarnation of 1972 - 74 was
probably the most mysterious and powerful band I ever heard and that's what Sonar ist unltimately about, for me at least : mystery combined
with power. The King Crimson incarnation of 1981 - 84 was also important because of the two guitar setup and the gamelan inspired idea that a rock
group can also play like an orchestra without soloists. Both Bernhard and I have attended Guitar Craft courses which were also a strong influence.
The second name I would mention is Steve Reich. From him I learnt that a good composition is often one which is based on one very simple idea that
has the potential to yield very complex results ("How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life"). "Concentrate on one idea and get as much out of
this idea as possible", seems to me to be a good principle for a satisfying composition. I also learnt that it is good to be influenced by
Eastern ideas, but that - as musicians from the West - we should use Western instruments (in our case electric guitars and drums) to achieve
our aims. I think Steve Reich is the true father of Minimal Music. Most musicians try to tell stories with their music, which is fine of course,
but Minimal Music is more about creating atmospheres and sonic spaces. It always fascinates me that when you repeat a pattern a few times, you instantly
stop "telling a story" and start creating an atmosphere, or a window to other worlds, as Jon Hassell might say. In connection with Steve Reich, I also had a
very interesting experience : one night, I was at a Palais Schaumburg concert in Zürich and they were playing with this incredible physical energy, I
mean really, really cooking from the first bar of music. But the next day, I felt empty and completely drained out. Then, a few days later, Steve Reich and
musicians were also playing in Zürich. The concert started very quietly and they took their time to build the energy up, the type of energy from the inside
that gets brighter and brighter. After the concert, I felt wonderful for days, full of this beautiful, glowing energy.
The third name is Glenn Branca, a New York avantgarde composer. I don't really actually like his music that much, but I think that some of his ideas ( the raw,
unfiltered energy, the multiple electric guitars and the alternate and open tunings) helped define the vision for Sonar.
The youngest musician on my list is Nik Bärtsch. Together with Don Li, Nik really brought Groove Music and
Minimal Music together in a way that still fascinates me. He is also a very good business man, somebody who - if he
does something - he does it right.
KL: What was the original concept for the group?
ST: I really wanted to do something completely different with Sonar. There is so much music around today and there are tons of fantastic
musicians, but I very, very rarely hear something new and exciting, it all sounds more or less the same: the same harmonic material, the
same chords, the same beats in 4/4 (or perhaps 3/4), etc. It's funny: musicians today have so many options, but the more they have, the less
they seem to do with them. Everybody seems to have accepted a "universal agreement" about how music must sound and - in a state of half-sleep - just
do what everybody expects of them.
So I made a conscious decision to do something different. First step: limiting my options and changing the ways I used to work. That involved
retuning the guitar, putting away my effects, trying to forget everything that is culturally considered given and trying to go back to my earliest musical memories and the things that pulled me into music in the first place.
KL: Let's talk about some of the tracks on the CD. Tromsø is a very interesting piece of music. Can you tell me something about it?
ST : That piece has a very long history. The opening motive was actually the first thing I did when I got an Echoplex machine as a teenager in the late 1970s.
I was just playing around with this little tape loop machine, when by chance this noisy but interesting pattern in 9/8 emerged from nowhere. I recorded it onto
a cassette tape recorder and never forget this strange little melody that seemed to have come from outer space. Many, many years later, I
finally started to use the motive, first in a piece for piano and sampled voice, then in "Europa", a suite for chamber ensemble. The pieces in the suite
were named after cities in Europe, and that piece sounded very "northern", so I called it Tromsø, although I've never actually been there (You
can listen to a computer version of that piece here). When
I was gathering material for Sonar, I slightly rewrote the piece to fit the tritone tuning and wanted to call it "Structure 9", but the rest of the
band liked the title "Tromsø", so that's what it's called now. I'm very happy with that piece, it has a certain "grandeur" and a nice long build-up where
the tempo almost imperceptably shifts to double time. A lot of people think that the rythmic 9/8 kicks (played by bass guitar and drums at the
beginning of the piece, by the bass guitar at the end of the first part and by one of the guitars at the end of the second part) are lifted from Nik Bärtsch's Modul 26, but that's not the case.
These kicks are "inside" the rythmic structure of this 9/8 pattern, that was created more or less by chance and has been waiting to be used for over 35 years.
KL : How did the tritone tuning emerge ?
ST : That also has a long history. During the late 1980s, I was working on a very Bartok influenced piece that had a fast run in the diminished scale C - C# _ Eb - E - F# - G - A - Bb- C (a scale called
Golden section scale by the musicologist Ernö Lendvai). It seemed impossible to play that run in the standard tuning, but I soon found out that tuning the guitar to
tritones made it possible. I was already using Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft (or New Standard) tuning, so I decided to keep the lowest note a "C" and then continue with a F#, C, F# etc. I recognized
very quickly that the tritone tuning had some very mysterious sounding natural harmonics and I thought that it might be interesting to write music for it. I kept
this idea in the back of my head for almost 25 years, until the time finally felt right in 2010.
KL: What about the piece Steel Cathedral? Why did you choose that title?
ST: During the final section of the piece, we were building these layers of guitar tracks and it sounded to me like a
cathedral of guitars. I also knew about Frank Lloyd Wright's project for a Steel Cathedral that was never actually built
and about the Bulgarian Iron Church that Christian had seen in Instanbul. Because Sonar is very interested in the connection
of sound and architecture and because guitar strings are made of steel, it seemed to be the perfect title for the piece.
BW : The second part emerged from an exercise I imposed on myself: for every quarter note of a 4/4 bar, play just one
sixteenth, and make it a different one for every quarter note. This gives you 4! = 24 possibilities. I started practicing
them, but somehow only the first permutation stuck, because it has this deceiving effect: When you first hear it, you might
be misled into hearing the first three beats as quarter notes, when in fact they are each 5 sixteenth notes long. So when the
bar is completed, you're thrown off completely, even though it's a mere 4/4 beat. "Lisbon", one of the pieces in Stephan's "Europa"
suite that was mentioned earlier, also uses the same rhythmic idea and exposes this effect very nicely. (You can listen to a computer version of that piece here)
KL: "A Flaw of Nature" was released on Nik Bärtsch's label Ronin Ryhthm Records. There are certainly affinities between your and Nik's music. How do you delineate your approach from his?
ST: I believe the affinities are primarily formal: our interest in Minimal Music, polyrhythmic grooves and the
superimpostion of odd metres. Sonar's music actually sounds completely different, mainly due to the instrumentation and the
somewhat darker harmonic material. Our music is also based on a rock tradition whereas Nik's music comes from a more Jazz and funk background.
BW: You could probably say that as Nik has carved out a niche for himself under the jazz label, we're carving one out under the rock label due to our guitar-centric approach
KL: Why did you abandon all your effects?
BW: There are several reasons: The most important one: It's a conscious limitation of sonic choices.
Our focus in this project is the exploration of a tonal system that hovers between just and equal temperament.
Applying effects, we'd risk blurring the naturally emerging sonic world. Our observation by this self-imposed limitation is that
we naturally shift our attention from the operating and configuring of effects to subtle variations in playing the
instruments: Where the guitar pick is positioned along the string, at what angle it hits the string. Something I've never needed to
do before in my musical career: Change the guitar pick type depending on what piece we're playing. The added bonus is that changes in
sound are attainable instantaneously, they become part of playing the instrument (as opposed to a divided attention between operating an
effect unit and playing the instrument). Finally, it's much easier for us to set up and play anywhere with this minimal setup.
ST: After decades of playing with effects, I now find it much more satisfying and honest to work only with my hands and my imagination. You can spend all your money buying expensive
equipment and all your time reading manuals or you can just try to get as much out of a simple electric guitar as possible.
KL: Stephan, you have an unusual electric guitar. What kind of a guitar is it ?
ST : It's a custom made guitar by Matthias Wolfensberger, a luthier from Switzerland. He took my old Steinberger GT guitar apart and basically redesigned it with a new alder body in the shape of a Les Paul custom.
KL: Can you tell us something about the title of the CD, "A Flaw Of Nature"?
ST : Basically, it has to do with the fact that our well-tempered tonal system is not perfect: octaves and fifths (the two basic musical intervals) don't exactly fit together.
If you start with a low note on a piano, say a C, and you go up 7 octaves, you should get the same note as if you would go up 12 fifths, but you don't, at least not exactly. Andreas Wahlbrink, a music teacher I know, called this a "flaw of nature" and I liked that expression
very much. Many people tend to idealize and to romantisize Nature, thinking that it always has the perfect solution, and the title politely
objects to this view. In Sonar, because of the tritone tuning and the extensive use of natural harmonics, we use our own tonal system, that is slightly different from the well-tempered system.
KL: What is a Möbius Loop?
ST: The Möbius Loop (or Möbius strip) is a well-known two-dimensional geometrical object with some very peculiar properties. One of those is that your orientation
will be reversed if you go once through the loop, so you have to go through it twice to get back to your orignial orientation. That's exactly what happens with the part that Bernhard plays: after one bar of 11/8 the
pattern is reversed, so that he has to play it again so that it becomes "untangled".
KL: Stephan, you have a PhD in mathematics. Does Sonar play mathematical music?
ST: No, I woudn't call it mathematical music at all. The only mathematics that we use is basic arithmetic like the least common multiplier or simple structural
symmetries. In my experience, most mathematicians love music, but the contrary is usually not the case... Musical composition and mathematics are related of course, but in the end, good music must fascinate you in a non-rational way,
otherwise you might as well go read a book.
KL: I suppose there is also a connection with Mayo Bucher's CD cover?
ST: Yes, the magic square where the 3 numbers in each row, column and diagonal add up to 15. What we share with Mayo's work is the love for seemingly simple things
like integers that have a high iconic meaning. I always loved Paul Valery's quote "there is nothing more mysterious than clarity" and that seems to apply perfectly to numbers, especially integers.