|From Basic Channel to 'ReComposed' - Moritz von Oswald has shaped the development of electronic music like few others. We talk to him about his new album, Herbert von Karajan, and the breadth and space of dub.|
Looking at the world's most influential musicians, two polar extremes can be made out: on one end of the spectrum we find the autistic genius, who creates an idiosyncratic musical universe entirely within the confines of his own imagination, and on the other the explorative traveller, who not only bridges the gaps between musical cultures, but also possesses the rare gift to make the result entirely his own.
Moritz von Oswald clearly falls into the second category - part curious flâneur, who traverses musical worlds in a light-footed stride, part creative genius, synthesizing powerful and original music from his diverse influences.
Von Oswald first became known to a wider public through the Maurizio and Basic Channel projects, which he initiated during the early 90s with long-time partner and owner of Berlin's famous Hardwax record store, Mark Ernestus. In rapid succession the two released a series of 12" recordings, which proved tremendously influential on the development of modern electronic music. Combining techno and dub elements with elaborate analogue studio and mastering techniques, Basic Channel defined a unique and immediately recognizable sound aesthetic, complemented by a minimalistic and completely anonymous packaging, which emphasised the time and placeless quality of the music contained.
From Studio One to Karajan
While countless followers began to appropriate the Basic Channel sound - and still do to this day - von Oswald and Ernestus set up the Chain Reaction imprint for like-minded artist like Vainqueur, Substance and Monolake, while continuing their voyage into uncharted territories. Main Street's emotional deep house gradually gave way to the free-form dub explorations of Rhythm & Sound and the more roots-influeced dub style of Burial Mix, a project which started as a 10" series together with 'Tikiman' Paul St. Hilaire and which eventually was to feature the vocal talents of many original dub reggae artists like Cornell Campbell, The Chosen Brothers, Willie Williams and Sugar Minott. Ties to the world of dub were further strengthened by the Basic Replay re-issue series and an extensive re-issue programme for Lloyd Barnes' legendary Wackie's label, making many classic recordings available to European listeners for the first time.
Moritz von Oswald meanwhile embarks on yet another ground-breaking journey, bound to connect the long divided continents of electronic and classical music. The autumn of 2008 sees in short succession the release of 'Auricle / Bio / On', a collaboration with Luxembourg-born piano wizard Franceso Tristano with von Oswald responsible for mastering and sound design, and what is possibly his highest-profile work to date: Reworkings of music by Maurice Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky, 'ReComposed' by von Oswald and Detroit techno legend Carl Craig, based on original master tapes recorded between 1985 and 1987 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan.
Von Oswald's fascination with classical music might come as a surprise to the casual observer, but can be seen as a musical career come full circle, once Moritz von Oswald explains his personal connection to classical music in general and legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan in particular. A classically trained drummer, von Oswald was not only a member of influential German new wave band Palais Schaumburg (together with Thomas Fehlmann among others), but also used to sit in as a drummer for recording sessions and performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, precisely the orchestra which Herbert von Karajan led to worldwide acclaim for well over three decades. While he regrets that he never had the chance to personally work with Karajan as a conductor, he had been highly impressed by seeing the aged maestro perform at the famous Salzburg Festival, just around the time the source material for 'ReComposed' was recorded.
'ReComposed' meticulously dissects the original single track recordings and reduces the composition to their core elements (dubbed 'Movements'), creating tension through repetition and subtle variation rather than drastic shifts. Released on Germany's most famous classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, the project becomes a widely noted success: Instead of imposing their point of view on the source material, von Oswald and Craig develop a musical language that works within the framework of both classical and electronic music - a musical lingua franca as a counter-thesis to many such projects' cultural imperialism.
Jazz is the Teacher
Now in 2009, von Oswald returns with yet another new undertaking: The Moritz von Oswald Trio. Composed of Moritz von Oswald on keyboards, Max Loderbauer (nsi., Sun Electric) on modular synthesiser and Sasu Ripatti (Luomo, Vladislav Delay) on percussion, the illustrious group has just released its first album 'Vertical Ascent' on London's acclaimed Honest Jon's label.
Moritz von Oswald Trio: Max Loderbauer, Moritz von Oswald, Sasu Ripatti // photo: Paul Hance
Compared to the long gestation of 'ReComposed', the Moritz von Oswald Trio came together in a much more spontaneous way: Asked by Berlin's Club Transmediale festival for a live performance, Oswald assembled the group and took it to the stage after only one rehearsal, a testament to the experience of the three musicians involved. While initiated as a live project, a recording of the group was planned from the beginning, and a label was quickly found in London's Honest Jon's Records. A natural choice since the imprint has long-standing ties to the von Oswald camp. Not only has von Oswald mastered many of the label's releases but it was also Honest Jon's onwer Mark Ainley who had originally encouraged Rhythm & Sound to rework The Chosen Brothers' track 'Mango Walk' in 1998, which resulted in the stunning 'Mango Drive' version, and which laid the foundations to their partnership with the Wackie's label.
Instead of classical music, improvisational jazz and minimal music serve as a reference frame for 'Vertical Ascent's' four long tracks. Their length allows for improvisational freedom, while at the same time posing the challenge to the musicians of keeping the tension - tension that is created through sound rather then rhythm, von Oswald explains, an approach which has served him as a guiding principle since his Rhythm & Sound days. The concept of dub once again finds its expression in the breadth and space of the live-recorded tracks, perhaps most evident in the sparse 'Pattern 2', which von Oswald cites as his personal favourite.
Movements and Patterns
From 'Q 1.1' to 'Vertical Ascent' - one could claim that Moritz von Oswald's ongoing journey through musical cultures has taken him a long way from the club music context he so profoundly influenced. This observation is however rejected for being too simplistic by von Oswald - while the predominance of 4/4 bass drums in his music might have waned, his sound oriented approach to music making has remained unchanged over the years. He mentions Carl Craig playing the trio's 'Pattern 1' at Berlin's famous Berghain club, which managed to enchant the crowd despite the absence of a prominent kick drum solely through the tension of its elements.
Another assumption would be ill-founded: that Moritz von Oswald's musical development has made him impervious to the recent boom of dub-oriented club music. Dubstep is a genre he has been following with interest, and he cites Mala and Pinch as his favourite proponents of the style. To von Oswald it is once again the length of the tracks that works in the genre's favour, a feature which not only relates to his own production style, but also differentiates dubstep from the abundance of short, functional music. Asked about the renaissance of dubtechno, a style that most closely follows the templates established by Basic Channel some 15 years ago, von Oswald appears more distanced. He had never intended to suggest the fusion of dub and techno as a concept, he explains, and the fact that it has become a genre on its own has been the work of others.
After 25 years of music making, Moritz von Oswald's mission as one of the great mediators of modern music seems far from over. Jazz might be the teacher and dub a continuing source of inspiration, but Moritz von Oswald is as certain to defy expectations with his future endeavours as he has so famously done in the past.