Spotlight: Robert Jürjendal

Robert Jürjendal studied classical guitar and composition at Georg Ots Tallinn Music School. In1992 he took part in Guitar Craft, a series of guitar and personal development classes founded by Robert Fripp of King Crimson. One result of these classes was the formation of Weekend Guitar Trio with fellow students Tõnis Leemets and Mart Soo.

Jürjendal’s approach to modern guitar couches his classic technique in tones generated by his Roland VG-8, and loops, often adding Eastern European elements including vocal soloists and choirs. His most recent release is Source of Joy [Unsung Records], a compendium of compositions that range from melodic respites to epic washes with an unfaltering sense of lyricism even during the most atonal moments.

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

It goes back to ’80’s–I studied classical guitar and played a lot of lute and guitar music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Later I turned more to the electric world and recorded ambient and prog rock compositions at Estonia Radio studios and at Tallinn Townhall studios. Almost everything was a studio production–I never played it to a live audience. A few years later, I played electric and acoustic guitar in a group Tõnis Mägi & 777 which was probably one of the first ethno-rock groups in Estonia.

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

In my childhood I performed musical experiments with an old 4-track tape recorder, which allowed me to record two separate unsynchronized stereo tracks. It was like making “blind” overdubs – a very cool and abstract way to create music. It was the most spontaneous time in my life.

Thinking back, I have always preferred to work with my own ideas and I still do: if I don’t do it myself then nobody does. For me the meaning of “experimental” music is a bit different: In the beginning of the process of creating new music there is a lot of space for the experimental. Things gradually change in the next step, where the original material is compared with “standard” views of music and a lot of interesting ideas will be lost because they seem “too experimental.” I have never thought I’m creating experimental music—I’m just doing what I like. Its important to keep your mind open and use all the techniques and styles you think are useful. Focusing only on experimental music can be very boring—music doesn’t need this. The same thing often happens with improvised music. It’s nice to have different sides and contrasts in music. For example, in pop or rock music things can be very experimental because the contrasts come out more effectively.

Whose music inspires you?

My first teacher recognized my strong musical interest and gave me all kind of music from Bach to modern composers and groups to listen to. I listened to a lot bands like In Spe (a famous Estonian prog group),  ELP (Emerson Lake & Palmer), King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Mahavishnu Orchestra. I remember there was also a period when I completely turned to the punk rock area. At first it sounded very fresh, but I tired of it quickly.

Music is not the only thing that inspires and helps me to exist as musician/human being. I prefer music that clearly shows the “face” of its creator. It’s not necessarily guitar music. Recently, I rediscovered a famous French composer Guillaume de Machaut—especially his motets for 3-4 voices. One of my favorite pieces is Lux Aeterna by Georgy Ligety. Many people know it as a soundtrack from Space Odyssey, a great movie by Stanley Kubrick.

These days I listen to much semi-composed and improvised  stuff, which is continuously open—every new performance gives a chance for challenge. I’ve always admired the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto. His impressionistic Music for Yohji Yamamoto (1995) for solo piano is just amazing. Other music doesn’t need improvisation because its structure is just so perfect. For examplePari Intervallo” by Arvo Pärt – a simple and beautiful composition.

How did you get better at your current style?

Talking about the establishment of one’s personal style is quite complicated. For me, it is being aware of one’s limitations and possibilities. Of course, a hard, day-by-day practice schedule can work miracles, but you still have to figure out your own, personal way in this world; otherwise, you are spending hours without a clear aim. Life is too short for this kind of activity. My current style is described as a strange mixture of musical experiments, classical guitar, improvisation, composition, prog-rock, contemporary music, Guitar Craft, polyphony, semi-acoustic guitar, Roland VG -8, silence, Lexicon JamMan, ambient, choir, E-bow, noise, electric guitar, sacred music, etc..

What are you trying convey with your music?

When I’m working on a new piece of music, I’m  always trying do dig as deep as possible. Once I get a whole picture it means I have reached the point where the piece has got a shape. In a sense it’s an abstract world, but for me it has always been carried by a positive energy. Hopefully, listeners will recognize this, and now we understand and listen to each other better than before. It’s a sort of mental language. If music is able to achieve this, it’s a great thing.

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

For most recordings I have still used my friends studios and recording equipment. But more and more I like to record certain things at home with a simple Zoom R16 recorder My principle is to record as well as possible and to use a minimum of editing. The R16 works fine to create music for films and theatre, which I really enjoy. I have uploaded some examples of my recent film music, which is all generated and recorded at home.

I have completed a soundtrack for a beautiful half hour Estonian nature documentary that comes out in April 2014. Working at home is a big pleasure —I live in the country; it’s silent and there is a brilliant view through the windows. In the end, I leave the mastering process to other people who have more knowledge.

I haven’t used software effects—my entire effects arsenal is physical. I just bought a POD 500X, which has some very nice editing possibilities. I’m currently using an old Roland VG-8 and Lexicon JamMan (an original), Lexicon 100 (for reverb, delay and pitch), Eventide ModFactor, Electro-Harmonix HOG, Roland Space Echo, Boss RC50 Loop Station, Moog “Murph,” and a volume pedal.

I use most of the effects during the tracking, even the delay and reverb, because it’s a part of my musical language. Adding effects in the end is fine if the principle of the recording project is “to get something new out of the material.” Normally it needs a lot of cuts, copies, and pastes—it’s just a different way of creating music. Talking about effects is sometimes overrated—if you are a guitar player then you know the way you are using a pick can dramatically change the sound. If we don’t consider this then we might as well use the guitar just for triggering samples.

My basic guitar is an Ovation semi acoustic steel guitar equipped with a MIDI pickup for the Roland VG-8. Its tuned in 5ths: C -G -D -A -E -G (Guitar Craft tuning). This guitar is pretty old (1987) and has a lot of scratches, but I love and trust it. It’s amazing how well it stays in tune, no matter how much you bend strings. I also play a semi-acoustic  Breedlove C15 Custom, which is a very elegant instrument and has an excellent sound for bright, light, and clear musical textures. It runs into the Roland system as well. On my last album, Source of Joy, for Tracks 10 and 11, I recorded the lead part with Breedlove through a Roland VG-8 synth pad. I turned the gain up as far as possible and the result was a smooth and intense distortion. For Track 1, I created a guitar ensemble loop with a natural nylon string classical guitar. Using just one guitar is a good way to get the characteristic sound of the guitar ensemble. Sometimes I’m do things that are not common—like adding a distortion to a 12-string guitar. You can hear it in the introduction of Track 2. One of my principles is to use the guitar to imitate orchestral sounds and textures. On Track 12 I use right hand slide to produce string ensemble tremolo; the mix is 50% guitar and 50% guitar synth. I sent the signal through a long delay of Lexicon JamMan and got a dynamic loop with an orchestral atmosphere. I often use E-bow for long melodic lines. The track 1 and 6 lead parts are recorded with Gretsch G3151 and an E-bow. The problem with an E-bow is that the sound you get is often too impersonal. You have to use a lot of tricks to get some really new things out of it. Of course, the result is sometimes much more musical on semi-acoustic guitar even though you can’t do fast arpeggios on it. For example I like the horn and flute like E-bow sounds in Track 12. I’m making my first discrete steps with the Touch Guitar U8 —a very nice model improved by Markus Reuter. But it will take time before I go on stage with it.

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

I enjoy both situations, but they are different worlds. Playing live takes the maximum from the moment—you can’t turn the time back, you have to focus on music for one to two hours without a break, which is great. This needs much more energy and ability to communicate with the public and with other players than recording. Luckily you will receive back the energy that you have spent, but it doesn’t happen always. It’s unpredictable and depends upon many circumstances. The process of recording music is somehow similar: you have to put energy into it as well—it’s very hard to add it later artificially.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

In Estonia, people react sometimes very slowly. It may take years and years, and then you meet somebody who says that the performance you gave ten years ago has changed her/his life. You have to be very conscious—especially if you are playing with different people and different groups—of the importance of not losing your own sound. It will help the audience to recognize you much better.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

The list of artists whom I have collaborated is very long. Thinking about future I’d like to work with people who understand me as I am. Sometimes people want you to make music that doesn’t come from you. I prefer to work with the musicians who understand my principles and aesthetics. Otherwise it’s just wasting a time.

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

There are several projects running simultaneously. One is a recording project with Jan Bang, a sampler /live remixer from Norway, and the other with Volkmar Zimmermann—a German guitar player from Copenhagen with whom I established an ensemble, Five Seasons, which plays contemporary written music.

But the latest project is a duo with my daughter Lotte. She is an artist and musician who puts a lot of attention to the visual side of the performance. It took many years until we found the right moment to start collaboration. We recently performed and got really good feedback. It’s a rocky and improvised ambient project—after awhile I’m allowed to play as loud as I wish.. Not sure when we will begin with the recordings, but I will let you know.









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