Dynamo – an interview with BartolomeyBittmann

BartolomeyBittmann (c) Stephan Doleschal

The Vienna-based duo BARTOLOMEYBITTMANN has a  wide musical horizon that extends far beyond the classical roots of MATTHIAS BARTOLOMEY (violoncello) and KLEMENS BITTMANN (violin and mandola). One which they showed off during their performance at the KICK JAZZ FESTIVAL 2018. The two artists talked to Martin Schütz about the beginnings of their collaboration and the importance of their compositional work as well as the music on their recently released album “Dynamo” (ACT).

“People wanting to be surprised, carried away and moved by a concert”

The duo BartolomeyBittmann was founded in 2012. How did you find each other and which motivations and considerations were or are the basis of this cooperation?

Matthias Bartolomey: We got to know each other during a joint project in 2011. I played in a string quartet in Vienna at that time. There was a project with Drew Sarich, a well-known musical singer, who is also a good friend of ours who had also written a song cycle. Klemens then arranged the songs from this cylcle for string quartet. During rehearsals we got to know each other better. I had just finished my studies at the Mozarteum and had a classical career ahead of me, when I noticed that it wasn’t really for me. I was more interested in working with Klemens and seeing what happens when you put the two of us in a room together.

We then met and using our string instruments took the first steps towards groove-music based on a piece prepared by Klemens. We immediately noticed the spark, because we both shared this feeling for time and groove. We enjoyed making music together from the very beginning. That’s the most important basis for any form of collaboration. In the weeks and months that followed, while combining piece by piece and figuring out what the project might be all about, it became clear to us that – if we continue – we want to fully commit ourselves to the project and put in the necessary energy and time. It was important to us right from the start not to let this run as a side project, but to take time and space to define what can be done with this line-up.

Kick Jazz 2018: BartolomeyBittmann (c) Mueller
Kick Jazz 2018: BartolomeyBittmann (c) Mueller

Th duo performs under the subtitle “progressive strings vienna”. What is progressive about the duo? Does this refer to the self defined goal of developing a contemporary repertoire for your instruments anchored in a classical music tradition?

Klemens Bittmann: It describes the main idea and philosophy of the duo, which we discovered together and probably both had as an idea or vision which we longed for before we ever came together. This developed into a kind of core statement for us: develop a new repertoire, compose new music that corresponds even more to the aesthetic sensations and sound needs of our time and our listening culture, without having to abandon our instruments. Even though they have a very strong classical connection and come from a completely different era, our instruments carry within them what for us are the essential pillars of our musical work: Groove and Time. The term “progressive” finally came about out of the necessity to classify or label the music of a new ensemble. And since terms like “crossover” are rather unappealing to us, because they open up a huge category in which we don’t feel properly recognized, we have chosen the term progressive. Also because the term is not wrong. This also applies to the other two terms in the subtitle: strings, because we only play string instruments with the cello, violin or mandola and Vienna, because we met in Vienna and spend most of our time here.

Matthias Bartolomey: Everyone has a connection to the place where he or she lives. But if you live in one city for a longer period of time, it will define you. And, of course, impact your music.

“WE ALSO SEE OUR DUO AS A KIND OF GIANT PLAYGROUND.”

The new album only contains original compositions. Does the compositional work also pursue the goal of giving your music an even greater independence and thus preventing repertoire-specific stylistic categorizations?

Matthias Bartolomey: Yes. Our focus also was on the compositional work from the very beginning- not only on the third, but also on the first two albums. We were conscious and very focused on the development of our own repertoire and, in a broader sense, also somehow on the development of our own genre. Of course we have many different influences from rock, jazz and classical music. But we also understand our duo as a kind of giant playground, which allows for a lot of possibilities, whereas our music definitely got more distinct and specific. And when people who already got to know us and our music don’t even ask what we are doing tell us: “That’s how you sound. That’s your authentic style”, then that’s the best compliment one can give us. The goal is to build our common style from the various influences that have shaped us. This was also a fundamental decision, as there are many ensembles that focus on playing arrangements from different genres. We have decided not to go down this path.

Klemens Bittmann: It is be important to add that we compose everything together. With us, it is not the case that one alone composes a piece and then brings it to rehearsal. Our pieces are developed in a joint process of trial and error. This means that we have a very technical, musical, approach to composing. Of course, you only jam something that you like to play or what you can play. Things that we as individual musicians tend to find playable flow into the compositions and thus also influence our roles within the duo, for example with regard to voice leading. I also think this is a very exciting aspect of our music. We associate this with the idea of composers from the Renaissance and Baroque periods composing in a very similar way – together with their instrument.

Variety is a word that immediately comes to mind when listening to the music on the new album: sometimes lyrical and soft, sometimes with a hard rocky drive, sometimes a jazzy melody, sometimes with a rhythmic accompaniment reminiscent of bluegrass, sometimes with alternative ways of playing such as the conversion of the cello body to a percussion instrument and the generation of air sounds through fast bow movements. How did you develop and expand your vocabulary of forms of expression? How are roles distributed and what strategies of making music together have you established over time?

Klemens Bittmann: We were lucky to play a lot of concerts quite quickly. So, not only to rehearse in a small room, but to also be able to immediately perform that on to stage. I feel that playing together with Matthias doesn’t provide as many new variations for me as through the continuous testing of emotions while playing live in front of an audience. And our way of playing resulted more or less from the fact that we try to attain a certain sonic greatness when we play live. But there are always performance-related reasons for this. I perceive our music very physically. I already see making music in such a way that it is about working on instruments. This aspect is also taken into account by using the instrument to create airborne or percussive sounds. This is not only due to the fact that we already have many effects in our ears due to our listening culture and want to reproduce them, but also because we want to experience them as a physical moment.

Your current CD is called “Dynamo”. Derived from the Greek word “dýnamis”, which means “power”, the photos of the nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf, which never went into operation, illustrate the Digipak. Likewise, associations with concepts such as movement, energy and technology are no far reach when the word “dynamo” is used. Is it a symbol of the cornerstones of the duo’s philosophy? What thoughts led to this title?

Matthias Bartolomey: Absolutely. Looking back, I’m not so aware of what the initial inspiration for the title was. But for us this term plays a role in many areas of our existence as a duo. Especially with this third album, we both have the feeling that what distinguishes our music as a duo and the stories we tell has already become very clear. And since the energy factor is high level, the term “dynamo” was just a perfect fit. Another aspect is that as a duo you are “only” a couple. If you want to sound as big, broad and powerful as possible and imagine the whole thing in the character of a rock band or in a symphonic context, then you reach to certain limits. But it is possible – for example by chordal thinking and by moving many strings – to sound bigger than two single voices. In addition, we can switch between different sound worlds by Klemens playing both violin and mandola. When Klemens plays mandola, for example, my role a cellist fulfils a completely different function. In this case it is often a matter of grand melodic arcs, whereas in the interaction with the violin I provide a foundation as groove-layer. This creates musically interesting possibilities.

Using the mandola creates further opportunities for possible sound combinations within the duo. Is it an instrument that has accompanied you for a long time in addition to the violin, or has this instrument acquired a new significance for you through working in a duo, for example in order to be able to create a greater variety?

Klemens Bittmann: Both. The mandola has accompanied me for 15 years now. The idea for this was simply derived from my need to have a chordal instrument to complement my violin in order to be able to take on a completely new role. This is something that can be very strongly accentuated in a duo – both when composing and when playing. And so, of course, my role within the duo also changes, depending on whether I play mandola or violin. It is also a much greater challenge for me to play the mandola in a duo instead of in a larger ensemble, such as a multi-member fusion band. I believe that my development on the instrument in recent years has been very much parallel to the development of our duo. For example, it is a completely different thing to accompany Matthias alone on the cello than to play a chord instrument in a larger band. And so my original instrument reached certain limits, so that it had to be developed further. The instrument I play now was built by Markus Kirchmayr.

BartolomeyBittmann (c) Max Parovsky
BartolomeyBittmann (c) Max Parovsky

The inspirations for the pieces on the new album range from “Asterix” to Michael Köhlmeier to Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the medieval minnesinger and poet Ulrich von Liechtenstein. How do such inspirations find their way into the process of composing?

Matthias Bartolomey: The pieces we compose are songs, but they have no lyrics. That’s why we found it nice to record associations to the individual pieces on the Digipak of the physical CD. The inspirations themselves come partly from things that happened in the corresponding phase of composing. But the point is not to make a concrete statement about the respective piece, but to really offer an association by linking the feeling to the music, for example, with a certain passage of text. An example of this is a passage from Michael Köhlmeier’s book “Das Lied von den Riesen” and our piece “Krystallos”, which refers to the name of a character from this book. And that came about because we created a performance with Michael Köhlmeier, in which he read from this book. We were very interested in this character But the titles of our pieces and we add relatively late in the composition process. First there is a musical base, then the joint composition work. After the piece is finished, we get the ideas for a conclusive and atmospheric title for the respective piece. I can’t remember that we ever first knew the title of a piece and then composed the music.

You perform in very different venues: from the Konzerthaus Wien to the Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus (Chamber Music Festival) to Jazz Clubs. How do you manage to enthusiast bookers from different musical spheres about the duo?

Matthias Bartolomey: I think a lot has to do with the fact that we wanted to get our message out into the world right from the very beginning. Of course, each one of us worked his own channels. For me, the focus was on classical music and for Klemens, the focus was on jazz promoters and locations that were very diverse. But that is the situation we find ourselves in today anyway. The boundaries between the genres are becoming increasingly blurred. This may have negative aspects in some areas, but I think it also has positive aspects in many areas – also for us. We want to create our music authentically so that the audience can take something with them. Whether it’s a jazz promoter who likes our groove, or we’re playing in front of a classical audience that’s perhaps a little surprised at first: we’re happy in both cases. Breaking with the usual patterns is also a sign of our times. That people want to be surprised, carried away and moved in a concert is something that benefits us very much.

What are your plans for the near future? Will there be a release tour for the new CD?

Klemens Bittmann: We haven’t planned a fixed release tour, as we give a lot of concerts throughout the year anyway. 2019 is already filled with many concerts after two very intensive years, although there are some focal points and venues we are particularly looking forward to. We will basically present our current programme, but we will handle it the way we always do, by incorporating a certain need for topicality – also with regard to the compositions – into the programme again. It simply makes sense for us that even new compositions that develop and are in a state in which we would like to present them, always complement our “Dynamo” programme. The term “Dynamo” is a good description of what is on the CD and it is also what is up to date right now. That doesn’t mean, however, that this can’t be added to again and again in the course of the year.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Martin Schütz – translated from the German interview by Dave Dempsey