Features I by I 24.05.13

Bangers under the baton: listen along to Gregor Schwellenbach’s classical arrangements of Kompakt techno classics

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Notoriously convivial Cologne-based techno label, Kompakt Records, turns twenty this year.

Rather than simply releasing a massive best-of boxset, producing a variety of celebratory merch items, and holding a series of birthday rave-ups (actually, they are doing all of these as well), they’ve asked composer, Gregor Schwellenbach, to create an album of classically-inclined arrangements of some of the standout tracks from the label’s back catalogue.

Having trained at Hannover’s prestigious Hochschule für Musik und Theater and studied with composers such as Heiner Goebbels, Michael Nyman, and electronic music pioneer Rüdiger Rüfer, Schwellenbach is steeped in a tradition stretching back centuries. His own compositions have been performed at esteemed international festivals of new music and for a wide variety of national theatres and broadcasters – he’s even written an opera about sugar.

For Gregor Schwellenbach spielt 20 Jahre Kompakt, the Cologne-based composer chose twenty tracks from throughout the history of the label in discussion with DJs, producers, and label heads. For the most part though, Schwellenbach says, “the label let me do whatever I wanted.” It’s a policy that has drawn some of the best talent in electronic music to the German indie: “Treating the artist like a friend.”

For a more detailed view of the process from floor-filler to chamber suite, we went through each track one-by-one – complete with sizeable clips of each for you to sample – discussing the composer’s decisions, techniques, and inspirations.


Jürgen Paape – ‘Triumph’ (1998)

[listen to the original here

“I am obsessed with tracing back traditions,” Schwellenbach admits, “That must be one reason why I studied classical music.” So naturally when developing the concept for this album, “I looked for catalogue number KOM1 and found that the label started with a consummately timeless rhythm.

“With a beat as strong as Paape’s, Schwellenbach knew he had to “keep that rhythm as exact as possible.” Instead of sticking to a standard orchestral percussion group, however, he sought to utilise, “all the sounds from the inside body of a Steinway grand piano. I didn’t make elaborate preparations,” he elaborates, “only some strings were dampened by velvet and paper. The rest is simply plucked, scratched, and knocked strings, construction bar, and soundboard.”


Justus Köhncke – ‘Was Ist Musik’ (2002)

[listen to the original here

Right from the start, Schwellenbach knew he had to include at least one Justus Köhncke track. “When I moved back to Cologne in 2001,” he explains, “I took seeing him walk down the street in my new neighbourhood as a proof of having chosen the right place to live.” This proved easier said than done. Köhncke, explains Schwellenbach, is “the kind of producer whose tracks often catch you by the sound itself rather than by a melodic hook or a specific bassline.

Finally, he was drawn to ‘Was ist Musik’, for its “Kraftwerk-like melody,” its “universal text,” and perhaps most important of all, the fact that, “it’s got violins in it.” So naturally, the composer adopted a string quartet arrangement, “the perfect instrumentation for this song that lays claim to being a universal statement on music in general.”


Closer Musik – ‘Maria’ (2002)

[listen to the original here

It was Wolfgang Voigt who drew Schwellenbach’s attention to ‘Maria’, but the composer, “immediately liked it.” At first, the rhythms and the harmonies of the original suggested “some Steve Reich kind of sound-meshes.” Only at the eleventh hour, just before mastering the record, did Schwellenbach change his mind and decide, “that a very slow piano version might be even more interesting.”

One of the key differences between dance music and ‘concert’ music, Schwellenbach says, is that a contemporary classical composer “wouldn’t dare to try and control the listener’s emotion. His goal is to create music that no one ever heard before,” he explains. “The listener’s emotion seems to be hardly more than a desirable side effect. In contrast a producer of electronic dance music will try to make people dance first of all.”

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Gui Boratto – ‘No Turning Back’ (2009)

[listen to the original here

The main element for this arrangement was an accompaniment figure taken, not from Boratto’s original but from a remix by the Wighnomy Brothers. “The minor seventh chord, broken in dotted quavers,” explains Schwellenbach, “is an elegant link to ‘Maria’ and seems to be a typical Kompakt trademark.”

Most of Schwellenbach’s classical arrangements are a fair bit shorter than the original tracks they are based on, but few have been abbreviated as much as ‘No Turning Back’. “While I shortened more or less every track,” he explains, “I tried to keep the concepts of the forms: even or uneven, songlike, static or random.”


Ulf Lohmann – ‘Because’ (2001)

[listen to the original here

For his arrangement of the lead track from Ulf Lohmann’s debut EP, Schwellenbach called in flautist Dorothee Oberlinger, “a global superstar in the field of early and contemporary music.” Here she’s using a sub-bass recorder, but Schwellenbach’s favourite thing about her contribution are the moments when “she can’t help but moan to the music,” a reaction she was apparently completely unaware of. “She is breathing passion into electronic music,” says Schwellenbach.

“Appropriately enough for a recorder track, as a substitute for the two note piano motive I chose a cembalo, the standard keyboard sound of the baroque era.” Ironically, this kind of close attention to the timbre of the sound is itself very un-baroque. As Schwellenbach explains, “In earlier times listeners didn’t pay as much attention to the specific sound of a drum or a string pad as to harmonies and melodies. It was not before the 1950s that composers like Cage and Stockhausen taught the audience to listen closely to the musical quality of the sound of, say, a bicycle or a fridge.”


Kaito – ‘Everlasting’ (2001)

[listen to the original here

‘Everlasting’ was not just the beginning of Hiroshi Watanabe’s Kaito project, it would also give a running jump to Schwellenbach’s series of techno arrangements. “I first heard this track at one of the notorious Total Confusion parties at the Studio 672 in Cologne,” the composer recalls. “It’s one of the first Kompakt tracks I reworked, long before it became an official project. I remember I did this recording one night in very little time after finishing a deadline-job for television and it made me feel very free.”


Voigt & Voigt’s – ‘Vision 03’ (2003)

[listen to the original here

“I really like the fact that all the single musical elements – like the 4-tone-melody, the bassline or the three-over-four synth – are really simple, but put together they have a clear character and an emotion,” Schwellenbach says of this track which he has transformed from a thumping, fluttering post-disco epic to a sombre piano vamp. “Improvising on the piano with those elements I found out which parts to use in my version,” the composer explains. “I ended up being stuck on the melody, the string chords, and especially the steady minim.”


Closer Musik – ‘Departures’ (2002)

[listen to the original here

“When I asked Justus Köhncke for a tip which Kompakt tracks are interesting to rework he didn’t have to think for a second.” ‘Departures’, Schwellenbach soon discovered, is “one of the most complex tracks I came across. Not only is the theme in 5/4 time (whereas the drum breaks set off phrases of 8 bars in common time). But also the melody is so strongly syncopated, that you tend to feel the heavy kickdrum as an offbeat. For the listener this creates a comfortable dizziness, for an instrumentalist it’s a real challenge.”

For his tense, terse reworking, Schwellenbach replaced the kick drum with a combination of a metronome’s tick and his own hands beating against the piano soundboard. Finally he added an orchestral bass drum for extra whoomph.

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Closer Musik – ‘One, Two, Three (No Gravity)’ (2000)

[listen to the original here

For this track, originally recorded on a 4-track recorder, Schwellenbach was immediately “fascinated by the polymodal harmonies.” But it took him a while to find the right sound for his version. “I went to eight different toy shops and had the shop assistants show me their humming tops. I also bought some humming tops on eBay,” he tells me. “But in the end I found this well-tuned pump organ in a Berlin studio and thought this is the perfect instrument for my purpose. ”


Voigt & Voigt – ‘Gong Audio’ (2007)

[listen to the original here

The gong sound on this track from 2007’s Speicher 54 12″ reminded Schwellenbach of Indonesian gamelan music. “So I went to the Cologne Ethnographic Museum. I met with Hartmut Zänder, the museum’s gamelan expert, and he taught me more about the concept of Indonesian music (as I taught him the concept of electronic dance music).”

“We found many parallels: both kinds of music work with a meditative flow of steady loops. The different parts are equally structured, not hierarchically. And both kinds of music work with physically strong low frequencies.” It took a group of eleven drummers to perform the track – the recording of which took place live in the museum itself using their 150 year old gamelan orchestra.


Triola – ‘AG Penthouse’ (2004)

[listen to the original Loading Video…

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It was not so much the throbbing night flight of the Triola Im Fünftononraum version, but the weightless exotica of the version on the 2002 Pop Ambient compilation that inspired this finespun, almost ethereal, version for harp (played by Jane Berthe). “I wanted to represent the ambient side of Kompakt,” Schwellenbach says.

He also admits to being keen to cover something by Jörg Burger, who the composer remembers as “that cool indie-bass player when I was a teenager [Burger played in Les Immer Essen and several other Cologne groups in the mid-80s] who later turned into such a style-defining electronic musician.”


Mayer/Voigt – ‘Unter Null’ (2003)

[listen to the original here]

“This is one of my dearest tracks from the big time early 00s, totally representing the Kompakt sound of Cologne,” Schwellenbach says. “At the same time it reminds me of late 70s Krautrock.” The catchy keyboard melody at the heart of the banging original (from 2003’s Speicher 7), gave Schwellenbach the freedom to “expand rhythmically and harmonically, explore a totally different musical style and still keep the well known original melody recognisable.” What results is “a lesson in the universality of 6/8 time.”


Supermayer – ‘Two Of Us’ (2007)

[listen to the original here

With its electric basses and glockenspiels, 2007’s Supermayer record was “a paradigm of opening the Kompakt sound to non-electronic instruments,” Schwellenbach says. Inspired by the approach of its original authors, the composer decided to push this “to the extreme – by substituting the synths with a bitonal acoustic string texture and a solo double bass.” The effect, he says, it to make the impact of the track “more plastic, like in a live action adaption of a cartoon film.”


Jürgen Paape – ‘Ofterschwang’ (2009)

[listen to the original here

“Jürgen Paape used unmodulated samples of Bavarian Brass Bands for this groovy track,” Schwellenbach tells me, something he was drawn to “because it proves that the typical Cologne-style ‘Schaffel’ groove doesn’t only quote blues and glam rock but it is rooted in a tradition of European folk music.” So Schwellenbach’s arrangement followed Paape’s lead in opting for “a most authentic Rhenish instrumentation: a music school brass band from a Cologne suburb. We recorded a charming version and used a part of it as an accompaniment for this short piano version.”

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Jonas Bering – ‘Melanie’ (2002)

[listen to the original here]

Schwellenbach calls this slow builder from 2006, “an almost immaculate counterpoint.” He chose to arrange it for harp, “because the sound and especially the envelope curves of a harp match it perfectly and the classical connotations of the harp lead you to forget the original context even more.” With such clear melodies in the source material, arranging it was a doddle, Schwellenbach merely shortened it a bit and changed the key to C major, “because it’s the key that makes the best harp sound.”


Saschienne – ‘La Somme’ (2012)

[listen to the original here

Schwellenbach says he liked this track, recommended to him by the Kompakt staff, for its combination, “of sweet melancholy with masterful experience in electronic beat producing. Also I liked the idea of using a 5/8-beat on a Kompakt album.” In working on his own arrangement, he was looking to bring into line “with all those nice miniatures from the piano literature, from Erik Satie to Aphex Twin.”

Another difference between the divergent traditions of club and concert hall, in Schwellenbach’s view, “is the way people are listening. But it’s charming to play with that: Sometimes you see people nodding like technoheads at a Stockhausen-performance, sometimes people at Berghain are meditating intently to the contemplative music like it was a composition by Luigi Nono.” Kompakt, of course, has always been at the forefront of opening techno up to this latter, more contemplative kind of appreciation.


Michael Mayer – ‘Speaker’ (2002)

[listen to the original here

Schwellenbach wanted a Michael Mayer track that would work on the recorder because he happened to know that Mayer and Dorothee Oberlinger used to live next door to each other. “‘Speaker’ offers what I was looking for: a thrilling groove consisting of a few, simple minimal elements.” He chose a metronome to replace the bass drum, a device he refers to as, “the evil twin of the bass drum, hated and equally needed by every classical musician.” The piano solo was a last minute addition, intended “to give the track more spaciousness.”

If there is one thing that Schwellenbach finds in common between the attitudes of the DJs he meets in Cologne’s club scene and the composers he meets in the academy, it’s “curiosity” he says. “Composers in both fields are willing to open their ears to something new. In other words: If you add a kick-drum people in a club will listen to just anything.”


Oxia – ‘Domino’ (2006)

[listen to the original here

“Everybody knows this track,” Schwellenbach says. “It’s one of Kompakt’s greatest hits.” It was Wolfgang Voigt who suggested that “the bursting energy of the treble semi-quavers might work well on strings – and he was damn right.”

A lot of the techniques used by Schwellenbach on the Spielt 20 Jahre Kompakt album, though classical sounding, would have been utterly foreign to composers from before the twentieth century. “In former centuries composers would have worked with counterpoint and development,” he tells me “Things would have sounded very different.”


Studio 1 – ‘Grün 4’ (1995)

[listen to the original here] 

“Platonic minimal techno,” is Schwellenbach’s apt description of Wolfgang Voigt’s classic series of untitled and anonymously released 12″s. The purity of the Studio 1 concept led the composer to develop his own conceptual response: “substituting every sound with sounds produced on a double bass.”

The result is as playful and bouncy as its parent track, but when Schwellenbach first played his version to Voigt, “it was Wolfgang himself who seemed to get a little bored by his own composition after a minute or two.” So Schwellenbach decided to add the frenetic piano solo to take the piece in a slightly different direction. “The rigour of the minimal beat,” he tells me, “pushed me to maximum freedom in my piano improvisation. ”


Superpitcher – ‘Tomorrow’ (2001)

[listen to the original here]

The “wistful breadth” lent by the classical guitar sample in Superpitcher’s original inspired Schwellenbach to go with an arrangement for classical guitar quartet. “I have a cheap classical guitar in my studio to try out voicings,” he explains, “– and I used it a lot.” From there he took it to Christian Buck, an experienced interpreter of Steve Reich and other modern composers. “He perfectly understood what sounds I wanted to get,” Schwellenbach says, “and he added some of his arrangement tricks in places, especially in the intro.”

If there’s one quality Schwellenbach, as a composer, has learnt from this intense engagement with techno, it’s a certain “structural intuition – the great feeling for timing a DJ has. Tracks produced by a DJ mostly have the perfect amount of repetitions before there’s a break, they know when it’s time for a change.”

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