A project looking for cultural dialogue through music by bringing together musicians from different countries. Bass clarinetist and saxophonist LISA HOFMANINGER and percussionist JUDITH SCHWARZ are embarking on an exciting journey in their duo SOUND COLLECTOR, which will take them – currently, unfortunately, only online – around the entire globe, to Romania, Turkey and Iran, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and other countries. The goal is to let musical identities and traditions collide and to create something new out of them. In an interview with Michael Ternai, the two spoke about how the project came into being, which challenges need to be overcome, and which kind of themes they are incorporating into the pieces.
What is the intention of the Sound Collector project? Which idea spawned this project?
Judith Schwarz: We already were part of the NASOM [New Austrian Sound of Music] program a few years ago with First Gig Never Happened, playing an insane amount of gigs over the course of two years, visiting many countries and also experiencing great things. But what was missing, was the time to really reflect and work out all these experiences. Which people did we meet at all, which inputs did we collect and take with us?
When we got back into this program with our duo, we thought we’d use it a little differently this time. In our first duo program, it was still like we were getting the inputs from each other, from the different instruments we play and our approaches. We thought it would be cool to fuse our duo language with that of artists from other countries and cultures, as part of a longer process. We named this project the Sound Collector.
The original idea was that we would do residencies, that is, join forces with other artists and work out things together in their countries. We also discussed this with the NASOM organizers, who were also very enthusiastic about the idea. And actually we were ready to go, but then Corona came along, which made it impossible to implement the project. But we held on to the idea and worked out a concept that would make it possible to continue these collaborations from Austria.
The question that arose was: how could we ensure communication that would make it possible to compose and record together over a distance. After the three collaborations we have done so far, we can say that we have managed to make it work.
Lisa Hofmaninger: At the beginning, we had doubts whether this project could be realized online, since we had never worked in this direction before. But the collaborations we have completed so far have shown us that it is possible. Even though it’s not quite the same now compared to the residencies we had planned, of course. But we hope to be able to make up for that sometime later. I think we have laid a good foundation now. Given the short time we’ve been working with the musicians, we already know them extremely well. And they have also come up with those new things that we were looking for musically.
How can one imagine the project in practical terms? How do you find a common working method and direction over the distance?
Judith Schwarz: It’s helpful – at least in our experience so far – that you always start with an overall theme that you agree on with your cooperation partners and that serves as a source of inspiration. The themes emerge from the stories, the situation of the country, and the experiences of the artists, which are then linked to our perspective on the theme. This is the common denominator for all of us, from which we begin to work musically.
Then we start composing, we record, and then we send things back and forth to each other. In a way, you shape one another in the process and respond to the way the other person makes music and how they want to make music in the first place. Because there are differences. Some feel more comfortable when the music is created purely acoustically, others when they have sheet music at their disposal. Then again, there are composition concepts that fit exactly for this one ensemble, and so on. In the end, it always takes a lot of imagination in which direction it should go.
What actually distinguishes this project the most from your work as a duo?
Lisa Hofmaninger: Judith and I have been working together for a long time. We have already rehearsed a lot together, exchanged ideas regularly and also composed some things together. You can simply tell that we’ve known each other for a long time. The new thing for us in this project is that we are also writing things down for the first time. We have worked things out together in other bands before, but there was a starting point presented either by one or the other. Here one’s idea immediately meets the other’s idea and so the whole story develops. That is something very special for us.
Yet you weren’t completely alone, the two of you? You also got support for the project.
Judith Schwarz: Exactly, with our sound designer Arthur Fussy, Alex Fitzthum – our colleague at First Gig Never Happened – and the visual artist Johannes Kerschbaummayer we have three people on board who are giving us great support in this project. For the first collaborations, Arthur recorded me, and Alex in turn recorded Lisa. On top of that, Arthur then added all the individual tracks, including those from the cooperation partners, to turn all this into one whole piece. Finally, Johannes Kerschbaummayer created abstract music videos, inspired by the resulting composition and our continuing thematic thoughts. This workflow made other things possible then as well. We did the final arrangement of the piece together at his studio. And in the process, our imagination went further and we created even more worlds, as if we had recorded things just the two of us.
How many pieces have actually been created so far? And how many more are to be created?
Lisa Hofmaninger: So far, three pieces have been created. The first one is “Improduction”, with which Judith and I introduce the Sound Collector project and the team. We released that in April. The second piece, “Nothing Can rule…”, which will come out now, is the one with the Romanian singer and musician Ana-Cristina Leonte. We met Ana last September in Bucharest and actually composed and improvised the basic framework of the piece in a few hours and even performed it that evening. Then, back home, we deepened it even more and polished it further. The third piece we have finished recording is the one with the Turkish duduk player Canberk Ulaş, which will be released in June. The next piece is focusing on Iran, with the Diane Ensemble, a women’s choir led by Siavash Lotfi. That will be titled “Feminity.”
Is it fair to say that the people you’re collaborating with are basically people you’ve met in the past? Or are there also musicians you haven’t met before?
Judith Schwarz: Both. Ana Leonte, for example, was suggested to us by the Austrian Cultural Forum Bucharest. So we were very curious ourselves to see who would come. We also didn’t know Canberk Ulaş before we contacted him. A friend recommended him to us. It was different with the women’s choir. I had already met the director of the choir, Siavash Lotfi, personally when I played once at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Tehran. I simply remembered the choir because I saw how hard the people in the choir had to fight to be allowed to perform. I thought it might be a great opportunity for them to participate in our project.
We actually got to know the other cooperation partners in the context of jazz festivals at which we played ourselves. We have never made music together with them, but we thought the project would be a good chance to finally maybe do that.
Is the main goal of the Sound Collector project to conduct cultural dialogue through music? To connect the different musical worlds, so to speak?
Lisa Hofmaninger: That is also a goal, but our idea goes beyond pure musical exchange. For us, it’s also about dealing with the issues in a more profound way and seeking to deal with socio-political issues.
Judith Schwarz: Of course, there’s also an exchange of musical traditions. But I think that the musicians from the cooperation countries, as much as they have grown up in their musical traditions, can no more be reduced to them than we, who have grown up in the Austrian musical tradition. It is even astonishing how little these traditions resound in the music of these artists. The musicians we work with are not traditional folk musicians, but play modern jazz just as we do.
In finding a theme, it’s important to me to find one that we can relate to and grasp. Like racism, for example. Racism in its various forms is just as much an issue in the countries as it is here. I think we have found a good common ground over such issues.
Lisa Hofmaninger: You discover a lot of things that also affect you. That’s the exciting thing. Because you have to reflect and think a lot in order to establish a connection to the topic – from both sides.
Sometimes it’s not easy to find a topic, even if sometimes it seems easy. It is also important for us to take a topic that is not the most obvious one in the respective country, but perhaps a more hidden one. And that requires a lot of research work and good communication with each other. The most important thing is to talk a lot about the topic with each other and then see what intuitively comes out of each individual.
How can you tie this to an example? What was it like with Ana-Cristina Leonte?
Judit Schwarz: It started with the fact that we were there for a few days and then had a lively contact with the people from the Austrian Cultural Forum, who told us a lot about the country and also about how the conflict between the state and the people is being fought out there. And that there had been a time after the fall of the Wall when there had been a spirit of optimism and change was in the air, but that this had now turned into a kind of resignation and passivity. At least, that’s the impression one can get as an outsider. But then we got to know Ana, who is a very strong and self-confident musician and at first didn’t want to talk much about Romanian traditions and political conditions. But as time went by, the conversations became more and more private and we also exchanged more about personal things, like what it was like for her to have to be alone at home in a relationship during the first Corona lockdown in Romania, how you have to set up limits, what it’s like to be determined from above and suddenly have to follow. Hence the title of the piece “Nothing can rule…”. Ultimately, this piece is about self-determination, about its good and not so good sides.
Lisa Hofmaninger: She didn’t really want to talk too much about what her music was actually supposed to express. She always said that art stands for itself. And then we simply tried to talk to her about private things to see how we could get together. And then we quickly found the same denominator.
Are you also planning to present the Sound Collector project – if it ever were possible – in the context of a concert with all participants?
Judith Schwarz: What the Sound Collector project really has brought with it so far, is that we have gotten to know the artists really well, and we are still in contact with them exchanging our ideas. There’s really a basis there now. And we also got the desire to do a kind of Sound Collector festival in Vienna. Of course, that would be awesome if we could perform all the pieces with everyone involved. And who knows, maybe that will happen. Yet it’s more realistic that we will travel to the different countries over a longer period of time, rehearse a joint set-up with the cooperation partners and perform it there. Or vice versa, that they come to Austria and we follow it up from here. What will definitely happen is that we are going to release the project as an album on the ORF-Ö1 label. Besides that, we are also trying to use all the compositions for ourselves and, in addition to the Sound Collector project, we have developed a duo program under the title “Sound Collector unpolished” in which we will bring these compositions to the stage as a duo with the input of our partners.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld