Mood Music for Surrealists: Vincent Pongracz & the Synesthetic Octet

Photo of Synesthetic Octet (c) Astrid Knie
Photo of Synesthetic Octet (c) Astrid Knie

Austrian musician/composer Vincent Pongracz‘s Synesthetic Octet may stand for a variety of things, musically speaking, but the commonplace is not among them. Their style is tough to pin down – a mixture of contemporary classical music, hip-hop, and jazz, both rhythmically complex and deeply grooving. The Synesthetic Octet’s new album Plehak is out now on JazzWerkstatt Records; Michael Ternai recently spoke with Vincent Pongracz about his new approach to recording, experimenting with sleep deprivation, and trying to strip things down to their essence.

It’s been a few years since the last Synesthetic Octet album; you’ve released a couple of quartet albums since then. What made you want to record with the larger ensemble again?

Vincent Pongracz: The idea sprang from the monthly Synesthetic Wednesday series that we’ve been doing in rhiz. It was a platform for the quartet at first, but after a while, we realized that a concert a month in Vienna is actually too much. In the end, I continued the series on my own, with a mixture of “Synesthetic” projects and special guests – and eventually, I decided to write a program for the octet. It came out really coherent; we played it once in 2022, and a year later, we had the pleasure of playing at the Vienna Konzerthaus. We rehearsed for two days to prepare for the concert, and took the opportunity to record as well.

The album came together in those two days?

Vincent Pongracz: Yes, things really fell into place. I wanted to make an album without too much technical effort, and we were all already deep into the material. I also figured out a new recording technique for us, using only one microphone. The previous albums were all pretty thoroughly produced, but this time it was different: everyone was in the same room; no one wore headphones. It was a great challenge for us all, and it worked really well. The album is mostly made up of almost complete takes; I didn’t really have to correct much afterwards.

Video: Synesthetic Octet – “Plehak” (teaser)

“Sometimes I wish I could get more distance”

The music seems very spontaneous, partly because the sound is so unpolished.

Vincent Pongracz: I don’t think I even hear those kinds of differences much anymore. Sometimes I wish I could get a little more distance from what I do, to really hear what it is…but though I can’t judge that aspect, I do think that the uncompromising way we approached the whole thing is somehow audible. In any case, I had a whole lot of fun working that way.

In contrast to the production methods, the individuality of your language has stayed largely the same, completely unique and hard to categorize. What’s new, in the musical sense?

Vincent Pongracz: With this album, I wanted to clean up, get rid of things I didn’t want to keep anymore. I took quite a lot of time to see what was still working for me, and also to develop new technical concepts. Harmonically, in particular, a number of things are different. I also wrote some things more precisely, like the guitar – there are passages that are easier to play now than they used to be. My rapping is rhythmically more extreme than it used to be as well…I had a lot of fun experimenting.

I first heard your music a few years ago, and it was something I had never heard before in that form. I had to work a little bit to get into it. Now, I feel like it really grooves, in spite of all the tricky rhythmic business.

Vincent Pongracz: That was kind of the challenge. We also worked without a click track this time; it was a challenge to get the flow into everything. I think it worked out well, although the vocals aren’t always totally tight – they kind of float on top. The voice has a rhythm of its own, but it’s a different layer from the written music.

For this album – not for the first time – you’ve put together an exceptional band. When you present your ideas to the musicians, are their roles already defined, or is there room for development?

Vincent Pongracz: There are improvised sections and free sections, of course, but we don’t see one another all that often, so we initially concentrate on internalizing the written music. After we’ve been playing things for a while, though, you do notice that more and more details organically creep in. And I think the freedom here really lies in the small details – in the microrhythm or in the sound.

Video – Synesthetic Octet – “Sdreek”

“One piece came to me in a vision”

Your music has a logic of its own – what’s your creative process like? Do you always start with a concrete idea?

Vincent Pongracz: It varies. Sometimes I start with an idea or a sketch that I develop according to a specific blueprint. Other pieces emerge from the process. I’m going to exhibit my paintings at the concert – my music is kind of like painting. Some pieces I just painted; with others, I follow a blueprint. One of them came to me in a sort of vision. The deeper I get into specific material, the stronger the pictures in my head become. All kinds of things inspire me – specific sounds, colors…it’s similar when I write music.

When I was writing this program, I experimented a little bit with sleep deprivation – I purposefully slept
less to see what effect it would have on me. Although I think I did it wrong…[laughs] I usually try very hard to keep to a regular sleep schedule, but recently I was at jazzahead! in Bremen. I stayed awake much longer than usual, and I was exposed to a lot more music than usual. And I really did have very strong moments of inspiration, very strong feelings about music. It was a revelation.

Album cover "Plehak"

How does painting connect to your music?

Vincent Pongracz: I don’t think they’re really dependent on one another. When I work visually, it’s usually visual input that inspires me. I love going to museums, and I look at everything. It’s less about looking for inspiration; I try to get as much of a feeling for the artist as I can. I want to get an idea of their work – what motivates it, how uncompromising they’ve been in their lives and their art. The greatness behind it all can be inspiring – and that transcends discipline.

“I’d like to strip things down to their essence”

What do you want to be uncompromising about your music?

Vincent Pongracz: I’d like to reduce things, to strip them down to their essence even more. Most of it is a sense constructed according to habit. I’d like to deepen my process. This program is already two years old, so it seems a little artificial to me now – if I wrote it now, it would probably be more reduced and perhaps rhythmically simpler.We just made my new quartet album, though, and it goes exactly in that direction.

Another unique element of your music is your rapping – no lyrics; you rap in an invented language. What was the inspiration for that?

Vincent Pongracz: I don’t write lyrics – if I knew someone who writes good lyrics and can rap well, I might ask them to do it. I was just curious how my music would sound with rap, how rapping would work with 5/8 or 7/8 grooves. I also see the way that I rap as a kind of suggestion as to how one could rap.

There’s a lot going on in your music, stylistically and rhythmically. Do you actually have a limit, a point where you’d say, that’s too far?

Vincent Pongracz: If so, you just have to kind of fake your way through it. [laughs] The limit is probably when you get the feeling that it’s all too far out, that you need to take a step back for it to get interesting again. I want to make music that I’d like to listen to myself – a kind of mood music that really transports a specific mood. Music that I’d listen to in the car.

Interview by Michael Ternai, translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger.