A Piano-Heaven Interview With:

Ralph Zurmühle

 

 

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Swiss-born pianist and composer Ralph Zurmühle has released three stunning piano albums to date: Between, Communion and Our Mother. Now living in Spain, he has also become involved in various film and other media projects. The critically-acclaimed composer has kindly taken the time to offer a highly insightful response to questions about the origins, style and feelings relating to his music.

Enjoy the interview...

 

S.C. Congratulations, Ralph, on your latest CD, ‘Our Mother, which I absolutely adore. It has been self-released, which in the current climate, is quite a challenge. Are you pleased with the response to your latest album?

R.Z. Thank you, Stephen. I am very happy with the response to ‘Our Mother. The reactions are very positive.

There was a five-year gap between ‘Communion’ and ‘Our Mother’. Were you engaged with other activities, or is the new album the product of five years' work?

Between’ was the first solo album and it had the typical advantage of a first album- meaning, in part, I could use material that went back several years- for example ‘Prayer In the Night’, the soundtrack for a video performance by Arno Oehri from 1994. Besides, from 2000 to 2002, I was in a very creative phase. I produced huge amounts of material, but I used only what seemed to me to be really worth releasing.

Changes in my life and a focus on other interests made me go on a slower pace in the next years. So, ‘Our Mother’ needed more time. In 2004, I already had a lot of good material, but I wanted to use just the “best of the best” and had to be patient. Then the multimedia project ‘Horizon’ with Manuel Solà “happened”. At first I didn’t intend to publish the soundtrack for ‘Horizon’ on the CD, but then later on I realised that it would be a very enriching element to accompany the other compositions, which are quite different. So, at the end of 2005 I had everything together, except the cover art. Believe it or not, it took me nearly another two years, until I found that photo by Liam Frankland. I refused to release the CD with cover art that did not truly express the music presented within it.

‘Our Mother’ sees a return to solo piano (apart from one track)- something that you diverted from slightly with ‘Communion’. Was it a case of solo piano being right for the subject matter of this album, or a preference for piano over synthesisers?

All three CDs mostly consist of solo piano tracks. I always prefer the piano. If I can transmit the idea with the piano, I will do it with the piano. A quite obvious example is ‘Farewell’, where in a certain moment the bass line “sounds” like a cello. It turned out perfectly this way, using only the piano.

But sometimes, it happens that I have to use other sounds. This is the case in ‘Communion’, referring to the trilogy at the end. There was no way I could have created these compositions with the piano alone. Long sustained notes (like strings) were imperative.

In an album packed full of beautiful music, the highlight of ‘Our Mother’ for me is the twenty-plus minute track, ‘Horizon’. Would it be fair to say this piece has generated the most response from listeners? Can you talk us through how this wonderful piece came about? Was it improvised? What was the inspiration behind this track? To me, this is music for drifting away into the horizon. Can we expect more music in this minimalist style in the future?

‘Horizon’ was composed for a multimedia project by Manuel Solà and other artists around a sculpture in a dark room, called L’horitzó (which means “The Horizon” in Catalonian). It was one of the most exciting and best projects I have ever collaborated in. For more concrete information about this project, it’s best to visit my homepage.

When Manuel presented the project to me, there was not much time left for composing the soundtrack. I worked day and night for three days in front of my piano and my laptop watching the film material that was to be projected on the sculpture. One step led to the next step until the twenty-five minutes were complete. The project went to several locations, among them the Metronòm in Barcelona. There is a seven minute video, which is really worth watching. It can be found on YouTube, my Homepage or my MySpace site. Although it can’t transmit entirely the feeling of being in this dark room with that statue seemingly floating in the air, the video represents the project very nicely.

Later I released the soundtrack of the first twenty minutes on the CD ‘Our Mother’. I had noticed that the music on its own had a very special effect on the listener. Indeed, this piece especially generated a lot of response. That was very surprising to me.

I am sure that there will be more minimalist pieces like Horizon to come in the next CDs. I always prefer an economic minimalist style. When you look at all three solo CDs I have released so far, you notice that this is not really something new in my repertoire. Just listen for example to ‘Prayer In The Night’ on ‘Between’ or the first part of the ‘Communion’ trilogy. But I agree that ‘Horizon’- with more than twenty minutes of playing time- is definitely the most conspicuously minimalist piece I have ever released.

Two people have contacted me asking the same questions regarding a piece from ‘Between’- so I'll put them to you now. Did you have lyrics in mind when you composed ‘I'll Find You There’, and can you share the story behind this track? Is sheet music going to be made available for this piece (and others)?

No, I had no lyrics in mind. It is a track that expresses for me a kind of premonition of meeting someone in the near future. There is a lot of joy and tenderness in that piece.

Sheet music is not available right now, but it will be, at least on the web. When people write to me by email inquiring about this, I usually send them the personal notations of their favorite track(s)- the sheets that I have- without charge.

Let's discuss the composition process. Are you a musician who meticulously writes his music, continuously tweaking it, or are you a one-take man who just goes with the flow..... or are you somewhere in between?

I would say that I am somewhere in between. Many years ago I had a strong tendency to the “one-take man who just goes with the flow”. ‘Between’ is more of that energy than ‘Our Mother’ where I dedicated more time to details. Today, I would define myself as being right in the middle between the two extremes you are mentioning.

In general, all my compositions are based on improvised material. I don’t sit at the piano saying to myself: “Let’s compose something.” That’s not the way I usually work (although sometimes there is no other choice). I enjoy the moment, concentrate, and let come to me whatever there is. Sometimes something extraordinary “hits” me. When it does, I will stop after a while and record this idea. Later on, I will work on it again, “giving it form”. Some pieces will need more time until I am happy with the end results. Others are just perfect the way I played them the first time in the improvisation and therefore need just slight adjustments.

The piano used in your CDs produces a beautiful sound. Can you share with the readers the make of your piano, and what technology you use (synthesisers, music programs, etc.) within your work?

I use a Yamaha Grand Touch GT 1, a digital piano. It’s one of the best digital pianos in the market. And that’s why, compared with a real acoustic grand piano, the advantages compensate mostly the disadvantages. With the GT1 it is much easier for me to be spontaneous. I can record whenever I want to, the piano is never out of tune and the entire recording process is so much easier (line in – line out, no microphones). Of course, although the technology of today is very advanced, no digital piano can replace an acoustic one by 100%. But the “crux” is the recording. Here I have a huge advantage and, compared with many CDs that I have heard recorded with an acoustic piano, I am more than happy with my final product.

‘Between’ and ‘Communion’ were re-recorded and mixed in a studio, whereas I edited ‘Our Mother’ myself. At the time when ‘Our Mother’ was ready to be recorded, the studio that I had used before no longer existed. So I decided to give it a try and do the engineering myself. I didn’t use any special or extraordinary software; I just added very carefully some reverb and a little tweak for the general setup of the sound. I didn’t use any compression as they had done before in the studio, so that on ‘Our Mother’ the full dynamics can unfold. I can say, that I am a kind of proud of the sound quality that I created on ‘Our Mother’. I am very happy with the result of my first “engineering” endeavour.

A little question about track titles. They vary enormously within a CD! For instance, on ‘Between’, we have ‘Indian Child’, ‘The Goddess in My Dream’, ‘The Queen and King Dancing’ and ‘Improvisation for La Plana’. Would it be fair to say that your CDs are made up of very much individual tracks which each tell their own story, rather than a CD with a recurring theme (especially on ‘Between’)? Are there any tracks on your CDs that have interesting origins- could you share them with us?

Yes, you could say that each track tells its own story. Usually the title is given later when I associate the music with a certain event or situation. What I want to say is that the emotion inside of me is often abstract, that “it has no name” in the moment when I play the piano. Only later, listening to the new piece I then suddenly realise the “story” behind the song.

The origin can be an interesting person, an unusual moment in life, a place, anything that inspired me to feel some way or another. Let’s take ‘Our Mother’, the title song of my most recent CD. This song happened in a difficult moment when I had the need to feel as close as possible to Mother Earth.

Another example could be ‘My Pal Watson’ which is dedicated to a very special dog. A nice story is behind ‘Sublime Moments’. The piece expresses our daily lives with no big ups and downs. But there are moments in our lives which we carry within us for a long time, whereas we don’t even remember what we had for lunch the day before. These moments don’t have to be “big” moments, rather seemingly unobtrusive moments like the smile of an unknown person passing you in the street.

From track titles, to CD covers. I'm intrigued by the covers to ‘Between’ and ‘Communion’. They're quite abstract in form. Whereas the lovely cover for ‘Our Mother’ is more conventional for the music contained within- i.e. it suggests a relaxing album, your other two CDs have covers that are quite daring- and fascinating! Can you explain their significance (and that of the symbols)?

The cover art of ‘Between’ and ‘Communion’ is based on paintings by Armand Pons, a Catalonian painter and friend of mine. I chose those paintings more out of instinct without thinking too much about their significance. I am convinced that Armand had other ideas about those paintings when he created them than what I “saw” in them years later. But of course, they are related in some way to the CD’s theme. For example the significance of the number three, trinity duality and unity etc. can be interpreted in the cover of ‘Communion’.

For ‘Our Mother’, at first I wanted to have something similar, but it didn’t work out. I realised that it was time for a change in style. The photo by Liam Frankland was just the perfect match to express the beauty of our Mother Earth and her vulnerability. Of course, it seems more conventional, because it is not abstract as the other ones. There is less room for interpretations. Nevertheless, the photo expresses for me the important aspects, which I associate with the CD’s title and the music within.

Your music is featuring in a film called ‘All Secrets’. Can you tell us how this came about? Is Soundtrack music something you would like to become more involved with in the future?

Well, one day I got an email from Thomas Suski, a Polish director living in Scotland. He asked me if he could use some of my music as a soundtrack for his film. I said "yes" and I eventually became involved in the editing of the soundtrack as well. It’s one of those connections that happen through the Internet. Of course, later on we talked on the phone about details. Strangely enough, so far, I have never met him in person. That was the first time for me that a larger project just happened because of my presence in the Internet.

Photos, paintings and films are always a great source of inspiration to me as a musician. Yes, my intention is to get more involved in composing soundtracks. I’d like to add, that regarding music scores I follow Andrei Tarkovsky’s opinion in his book Sculpting in Time, that music shouldn’t be used in films just to intensify the impression of the visual image, being a kind of “emotional aura of the objects shown” in the movie. “It must be an essential element of the realization of the concept as a whole, opening up the possibility of a new impression of the same material.” That’s why I love Tarkovsky’s films, because he chooses music and noises very carefully creating a kind of communion between image and sound.

You're a very respected musician and seem quite well known around the world. For someone who's never signed to a major label, that's quite an achievement in this day and age. How have you done it?!

Well, thank you, Stephen, but I am not sure if I am as well known as you say.… at least not yet :-) Last year, I started to use the Internet for promotion (Homepage, MySpace, Internet radios, etc.) This helped me to get my music out into the world.

I know that originally you concentrated on classical and jazz music, but you seem to have moved away from this (certainly jazz). Do you still play in these styles for the purposes of relaxation? Who were your musical influences? Did you come from a musical background?

Yes, I play all kind of music at home, jazz as well. Musical influences are broad, from classical music to ethnic music, from jazz to rock. My musical background is my mother who plays the piano as well and set me on her lap in front of the piano when I was five years old. That’s when and how my love for the piano began.

When away from the piano, how do you relax? Do you find your local environment (in Spain) inspirational for composing music?

Going for a walk in the nearby forest is the best way for me to relax. Many things can be relaxing, including a very enjoyable meal with a glass of a good red wine.

Also, playing the piano is sometimes relaxing. It’s not about sitting at the instrument, practising eight hours and then running completely exhausted into the nearby forest. In order to improvise and compose I have to be relaxed as well. Of course, there are the emotions when playing, but on the other hand, sometimes I use the piano specifically just for the purpose of relaxation. For example just playing ‘Horizon’ at home brings me to a kind of alpha state.

With regards to Spain, I have lived in places here which have been very inspirational for me. One in particular was situated in the middle of a huge pine forest with a view of the Pyrenees. ‘Improvisation for La Plana’ on ‘Between’ is dedicated to this place.

Let's discuss the three album titles of your CDs. Can you explain a little about each choice of name?

Years before the release of my first album I thought to myself, ‘Between’ would be a good title for my first CD. Then there are two pieces ‘Farewell’ and ‘Leaving Home’, which express a kind of “in between” state, when you leave the “old” and you have not landed yet in the “new”.

‘Communion’ has to do with the connection with “invisible” forces. The title also refers to an ancient ceremony performed by the Essenes called the “Communion of Love”.

‘Our Mother’ refers to our Mother Earth. Inside the CD are the words of an Essene prayer called “Our Mother”, a translation from Aramaic. This prayer is testimony that the early Christians gave as much importance to “Our Mother” as “Our Father”. Our Mother Earth and our relationship with Her is a very important issue in these times. Often it seems that only the native people really care about this beautiful planet meanwhile we here in the Western civilization do our very best to destroy it. Well, this ancient Essene prayer is a reminder that the roots of our Christian culture also talk about the importance of our relationship with the Earth. It was always thought that we humans should “take care of the earth”, but somebody messed up the translation in Genesis talking about “dominion” and “subduing the earth”.

Finally, what next for you? Are you composing new music?

Yes, there are always new ideas floating around, but right now I can’t tell you what next will be. There is a project pending with Manuel Solà. There is already some material for the next CD, but first of all I’d like to focus on moving into a new home. That will happen soon, and I am looking forward to beginning a new phase.

 

Thank you, Ralph, for a fascinating interview and for your very insightful responses to my questions. May you have continued success with your musical career.

 

Ralph Zurmühle has received two Piano-Heaven Gold Awards for Between’ and ‘Our Mother’. Click the album titles for full reviews of these exceptional albums. ‘Communion’ is also very impressive and well worth checking out.

 

S.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph Zurmühle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph performing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RALPH ZURMÜHLE: Between

Between

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RALPH ZURMÜHLE: Communion

Communion

 

 

 

 

 

RALPH ZURMÜHLE: Our Mother

Our Mother

 

 

 

 

More Information

Ralph Zurmühle's Website

 

Ralph Zurmühle on MySpace

 

Ralph Zurmühle's music on YouTube

 

Ralph Zurmühle's music is available to buy from CD Baby and other retailers.

 

Read another interview with Ralph Zurmühle by Kathy Parsons at MainlyPiano