Spotlight: Gunnar Geisse

It was discovering a video of Jan Bang playing with Marc Ducret that ultimately led to an interview with the third member of the trio: Gunnar Geisse.

Losing the two middle fingers on his right hand in a mountain climbing accident in 1992 may have led Geisse towards composition during his recovery, but, on the evidence of his latest video, it has not slowed down his playing. Check out how he employs Jam Origin’s MIDI Guitar to its full potential and read here about the setup he uses to do it.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I played orchestral music, contemporary classical music, music for theater like musicals, operas, operettas, rock music and music for radio and TV commercials. Most commonly I played electric guitar, a little banjo and mandolin, once a charango, sometimes a concert guitar.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

That happened early, long before I became a professional musician. It was a concert for me at that time. At Moers Festival, my band and I watched Ornette Coleman carried on stage in a casket, and then step out in a disco glitter suit. My band had a competition gig at a little festival. I immediately bought some plastic saxophones and decided not to play our regular program, which was pretty much standard jazz, but to just improvise. The competition was a disaster. We ended up last and there was almost a fight between the proponents and the opponents, but from then on I knew what I wanted to do with my life: to improvise and play what I liked. After that experience, I decided to learn the electric guitar properly, from the ground up, with everything you can learn on that instrument, but without dropping my initial intuition.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

There are so many musicians who inspired me or listened to that it’s almost impossible to list them all. In the beginning were, of course, Hendrix, Dylan, country music (my brothers were listening to AFN a lot while fixing old radios, so that I could play electric guitar thru the speaker), but also jazz like early Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian. I had to listen to classical music, usually Bach, all day—which I don’t regret—especially before I went to sleep. Either my father was playing piano or one of my elder brothers was playing organ. My father always ended up improvising.

Later it was Scofield, Metheny and Frisell. All kinds of Jazz from bebop on, I loved and still love the feeling of the music of Peter Brötzmann.

Then, all the beautiful contemporary classical music, often one or two pieces of a composer, like “Le marteau sans maître” from Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen’s piano pieces I-X, Lachenmann’s viewpoint; Xenakis, Xenakis, Xenakis, “Kraanerg” is one of my favorites because of the mixture of extreme orchestration (very high and very low reeds/brass) and electronics; Olivier Messiaen; the French spectralists, especially Hugues Dufourt “Les Hivers”, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Jani Christou, James Tenney “Panacousticon,” Morton Feldman’s early pieces for painters and his “For Samuel Beckett,” Cage’s 4’33’’, Luc Ferrari, and of course Scelsi, I love his string orchestra compositions! A lot of these pieces I played with an orchestra or chamber orchestra, as long as there is a plucked instrument so to speak.

Keith Rowe, Oren Ambarchi, Toshimaru Nakamura, Alvin Lucier, and Phill Niblock just to name a few guys from that realm. Music from the Middle East with string instruments like the dotar (Uzbek, Iranian), Gagaku.

These days I don’t listen to much music, but sometimes I love to listen to Harrison Birtwistle, to the improvisations of Richard Barrett/Furt, to Autechre, electronic music, to Alexander Schubert’s or Yannis Kyriakides’ compositions, to some of the new incredible jazz players (and there are a lot), music of my musical friends, randomly any other music, but actually to my own stuff the most.

How did you get better at your current style?

Practicing, playing on stage, reading books, thinking, becoming interested in art, becoming interested in science, psychology, meditation, awareness, discussions with musicians and artists, museum visits, living, how to look at life

What are you trying convey with your music?

I will answer this question in two ways:

A. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has answer, it sings because it has a song.”

B. Life is complex; it’s not just black-or-white, it’s colored, beautiful and ugly and everything in between and something beyond, colors we don’t understand and colors we agree to and colors we deny exist. Because art may reflect and express that complexity of our human existence and condition, art is ambiguous by its nature, as is life.

I’m interested in questions about reality and perception, model and realness, simulation and trueness, image and representation, awareness and reflection, tradition and renewal, structure and form, dualism, sound and the aesthetic of changes conditioned by time.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why? I

I’ve just switched to a Traveler guitar, cause I don’t want to pay for an extra seat in the plane. I use a MacBook Pro, an RME Fireface for routing purposes, a MIDI foot pedal for master volume control, and a MIDI controller from Faderfox.

I use Ableton Live and Jam Origin’s MIDI Guitar for realtime conversion of audio signals to MIDI messages (electric guitar but also any other audio signal, from noises to voices). I process the original audio sounds.

I have about 70 tracks open in the session. Every track contains an instrument: a soft synth or a sample, which I’m triggering with my guitar. Some of them are even filled with instrument racks or drum racks: I stacked and tweaked the soft synths until I was satisfied. I’m still improving it.

Most of the sample instruments are in drum racks I built myself. They contain samples I recorded or sampled in many different situations: field recordings, my own guitar music, recordings of bands I played my compositions with, and commercial libraries. As you can imagine, it’s a lot by now. That’s why I have this pimped up Mac and it’s working hard!

I’m using the MIDI controller to switch between instruments, for volume fading purposes, altering parameters, and so on. Each controller is managing a number of parameters at a time. I’m using the ordinary Ableton plugins for signal processing and some Max-for-Live applications.

In the New York Solo video I’m not looping much, only now and then in little spots, maybe in combination with a frequency/pitch shifter and a grain delay. The only clips I am using are empty, with no audio information or MIDI notes, just pure envelope settings.

The music is heavily improvised; I know the overall structure, the process from A to B, but leave a lot of freedom to go somewhere else, to use this instrument instead of that, and to modify this plugin on the fly. Sometimes it’s even hard for me to tell what I did in a particular moment.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I love both, each for their own benefits.

How have you built up an audience for your music? 

Did I? That would be great.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

I really love playing solo at this moment in my life, feeling like a painter. I do what I want to do without having to react to somebody’s music, even though I generally love to communicate with musicians and the music that happens on stage, which I miss playing solo.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

I just released it online on my YouTube channel: Gunnar Geisse—For Jeff Wall (New York Solo). It’s the audio/video recording of a solo concert with my “laptop guitar” at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn,


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  1. Pingback: Spotlight: Richard Bonnet | guitar moderne

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