There aren’t too many artists just as Christian Naujoks out there. The Hamburg/Berlin-based visual artist, composer, singer, and dj released his critically acclaimed debut album Untitled on Dial Records three years ago, merging classical composition with house and r&b elements. But with his recently released sophomore record True Life / In Flames (Dial again), the Lübeck-raised and Leipzig/Weimar-educated artist raised the bar even further, focussing strictly on the concert piano, marimba, and his gentle voice. Intimacy, warmth and distance are some of the stripped-down pieces’ emotions, and finding references towards John Cage on top of it all made this a perfect candidate for an in-depth interview.
I met up with Naujoks at Berlin’s Wirtshaus am Ufer for an interview and a bowl of lentil soup with sausages, discussing the initial album recordings, the necessity of good stereophony and his live setups. Whereas he’ll be presenting his recent works at Berlin’s .HBC on March 15th, he just played a release concert at Hamburg’s louche Golem, a mixture of artist hangout and neighbourhood bar.
Christian Naujoks: ‘Golem‘ is actually a pub. Okay, it’s more like a really great bar. There is a wall of bookshelves, and within this wall there’s a secret door which leads to a club. Alvaro Piña Otey who runs the place became a kind of luminary of Hamburg’s nightlife over the past seven years. He was working at ‘Weltbühne’ together with Tino Hanekamp, and he also was involved in ‘Uebel & Gefährlich’ as well as ‘Herr von Eden’s fashion store. Alvaro is a very nostalgic person, a bit of 1920s mafia style. That’s why there’s a jukebox at Golem, which was filled by Hamburg’s musician’s, such as Richard von der Schulenburg, Lawrence and such. There’s even a hidden cinema. I love this place!
Also, they have this old piano inside the bar, and I played the piano the one or other night in a pretty drunken state … These spontanious concerts where also the first starting point for my new album True Life / In Flames. Plunking on the keyboard together with Pete (Peter Kersten, aka Lawrence) and such.
For my recent show at Golem they got a piano maker to overhaul the instrument, my producer Tobias Levin brought really great microphones. But that night was just like NDR talkshow: Everybody was already waiting at their tables when I entered Golem, and I was thinking: “We need to wait for a little bit longer until everyone’s a bit drunk …” But it all worked very good. The place was packed, but everyone was listening stock-still …
How will this work out during your live show at .HBC then? This place is very different from Hamburg’s Golem, I think.
All of my concerts are very different. Sometimes I’m playing very adult shows with very little conversation besides introducing my marimba player Martin Krause. But then there are also nights with lots of talk, jokes, and laughter. I’m not too sure yet how it will go down at .HBC, but it will definetly be a solo piano performance.
But it’s not a home match just as the Golem show was?
True true. Especially since the Hamburg show was free of charge, because we wanted the neighbourhood to come, and not to exclude anyone of the regulars. But I’m very much looking forward to .HBC, because the acoustic of the room is so special. They have a regular concert piano over there
Are you still playing songs off your debut album, Untitled?
Well, the .HBC show will be a piano show only. But the overall musical selection will be different. Of course I’ll be focussing on my new album, but also including new and unreleased pieces. I like the idea of concerts having their own format, and not just reproducing an album. There usually are improvisational elements, but the structure of the show will be mostly taken from the new album, True Life / In Flames.
You already mentioned that you’ve written some pieces from the new album at Golem, but how does the album process work for you in general? Do you write at the desk?
Usually I start off on my computer. With the new album I pretty much composed the whole record digitally at first, using piano and marimba samples, but also recording vocals. I don’t own a classical piano, so I’m bound to my computer where I’m working with a keyboard and Logic. My writing process is very dynamic: for some pieces I use a kind of notation – not necessarily the classical one …
A language of your own?
I wouldn’t go that far. I’m using letters, barcodes and such, just as a typewriter. A more popular description than the stern classical notation. That’s also the way how I informed my marimba player Martin about the music. He’s a classical educated musician who’s working with film orchestra Babelsberg, and he’s used to be playing from a paper sheet.
So this was a very unusual way for him to record?
As a soloist he has a very broad repertory at his disposal, reaching from Johann Sebastian Bach to John Cage and Iannis Xenakis. And when dealing with John Cage or contemporary composition by people such as Cornelius Cardew and Tony Conrad, you’ll of course come across terms such as indeterminacy in composition, meaning that an instrumentalist isn’t strictly bound to the notation of a composition, but discovering his own spaces within the piece. It’s more like notes being a blueprint and not the finished opus. I like to think of it as communication between the original musical idea and its interpretation, a musical conversation.
And regarding your ‘Moments’ pieces on the album we’re talking about this kind musical conversation? You used and varied two pieces by John Cage and E. E. Cummings on True Life / In Flames, how come that these ended up on the record?
I think that time changed our reception of music. It’s 2012 now and we don’t live in the 1950s anymore, so I was very well aware of the fact that people will come across this reference very soon, as well as they’d be receiving it just as the way we just discussed. And as soon as people start dealing with my pieces, it eases the next step towards diving into classical composition in general. I know that by typing ‘It is at moments after I have dreamed’ into Google one will find this YouTube video for “‘Experiences N°2’ Robert Wyatt / Brian Eno” right at the top. It’s a very transparent approach. And regarding Cage I’d like to refer to this very interesting collection of interviews For the Birds, which developed at a very late point of his life and career. He’s describing a very free principle of authorship in there.
And why excactly did you choose these ‘Moments’ rather than other pieces?
Because I came across the poet E. E. Cummings pretty early, actually while writing my first Untitled album. I think his lyrics are just gorgeous, and I later remembered this Cage piece with Robert Wyatt. I was working on an instrumental piece at that time, namely on the piano pattern that later became ‘Moments I’. And after I had recorded this at home and was listening to the finished sketch, I started humming Cummings’ words alongside the piece, thinking: “This totally fits“. Okay, the pitch is a little bit different, and I originally used the piece simply to train my voice. And while humming around in a different pitch I realized that it made perfectly sense, although I got the lyrics a little bit wrong while improvising. And I did just that during the recordings at Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle, using the improvised fragments that I still remembered. I like the idea to think of it as an echo, as something floating through the collective unconscious, of the internet, the record store, Discogs, or my very own memory.
Although Discogs is a very strict platform which is all about fact knowledge such as duration, composers, tracklisting …
I wanted to encourage another mode of perception. A part of John Cage’s aesthetics is plurality rather than single entities. His very own compositions are made of very different references. Just as he said, “for the birds“, there’s something in the air. I don’t like the idea of strict references, like a catalogue listing all coordinates of a body of work. I’d like to keep things free. And this is also my artistic position: I can’t tell if I’m a performer, a composer or just a regular consumer. There are certain different cultural techniques involved, and I can’t always tell, what my artistic role excactly is at a certain moment …
How did Pete as one of Dial Record’s label heads react to your idea working on a musically more severe record?
He very much encouraged me in doing so. Pete is a good expert when it comes to classical and piano music. I gave him a number of my computer sketches for him to listen to and he was very interested right from the start, he liked it a lot. But after listening to this one additional recording I did on Tobias Levin’s studio piano, he was all like: “Sorry Christian, until just some moments ago I thought the album would be finished. But listening to this another time I’ve got to say that you need to record on a real piano, re-record the whole thing!”
So this was the starting point for your recordings at Laeiszhalle, a kind of coincidence? How did these go down by the way? I guess you can’t just lodge in at Hamburg’s concert hall for a month or so …
The initial idea was to record on a piano under the best possible circumstances. But Tobias Levin’s concert piano is pretty old, some pieces didn’t work too well on this. So that’s when we started to search for alternatives with a great acoustic and a contemporary concert piano. That’s how we landed at Laeiszhalle – through detours, nooks, acquaintances, and networks. And we were able to use this room for a very short time. There were never any recordings done at all at this place before we went in, it was a complete exception!
It just so happened … This room was originally intended and constructed for quartets, and its architecture grants a high sound volume upon few tone generators or musicians. And through its architecture, the sound is fanned directly into the audience room. It’s an amplifier, an instrument of its own. I thought that it would be great to get the record done in full over there, completely with the marimba and all. Although we needed to do some overdubs, since there are pieces for two pianos and two marimbas, for example in ‘On to the Next’.
Was it important to you to see this special place pictured on your record’s artwork?
It was more a kind of steady progress, we did the shoot together with my good friend Dirk Stewen. When I started the first pieces of the album I didn’t know the room at all, but after visiting the place I realized that it is a real sound device – and that it needed to be shown on the cover …
‘True Life / In Flames’ by Christian Naujoks is out on Dial Records. Catch up with him live on March 15th at .HBC Berlin.
Photo: © Daiga Grantina / Dial Records
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Published March 14, 2012.