Bernhard Schimpelsberger (c) Gui Sussekind
Bernhard Schimpelsberger (c) Gui Sussekind

Only a few lost souls are sitting in Café Rüdigerhof this late morning. One is leafing through the Kronen Zeitung (Austrian tabloid newspaper), another is sipping their first beer, rain is pattering against the windows, while hot tea steams from a pot at a corner table. BERNHARD SCHIMPELSBERGER drains the bag. “Would you like some rooibos tea?” the drummer-percussionist asks, grinning. SCHIMPELSBERGER is a master of Indian rhythm. He spent years under his guru’s wing – as one of the few drummers to transfer the North Indian tabla to drums. After some years in an Ashram in London – he wanted “to be more Indian than the Indians” – BERNHARD SCHIMPELSBERGER lives in Vienna. Here he develops new brooms (literally) and asks himself whether what he does is still relevant.

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Hey, that’s an old recording device!

Yes, stone-age!

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: I like it when tools take on meaning in the creative process. Some become companions, you use them for years and give them meaning.

Is that also the case with your percussion tools?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Percussion can be anything – it’s about translating the inner rhythm. Each instrument has its own timbre, dynamics and personality. With that comes its own story that emerges from the creative process.

“Percussion can be anything – it’s about translating the inner rhythm.”

One that only you can have?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Yes, it is always about the individual possibility of the impossible. You start composing. Thirty minutes later you have something. Maybe you play it once and put it away again. Or it becomes a piece that accompanies you for a lifetime. The thing is: you never know at the beginning of the creative process! It’s much more about the hope of finding something that is actually impossible – with the help of tools and instruments.

You can always only know that you’ve found something once you’ve found something, you mean?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: The path is the goal. The longer I make music, the less I care about the result. I want to gain experience – on the way of trying, learning and failing. You know, I play few concerts where everything is perfect and you have the feeling that everything comes together, but: that’s precisely the beauty! The moment cannot be reproduced. Once it’s over, it stays over. If you try to repeat it, you are only reacting to the past. This leads to disappointment, because the situation cannot be reproduced. Only the moment outshines the past.

“The path is the goal. The longer I make music, the less I care about the result.”

How did you think about it before?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: When I was 15, I started to get involved with Indian music. Three years later I followed my guru to India. With him it was always about learning, never about the result. It was a common path away from the mainstream. One that only a handful of other drummers besides me have walked. That’s why I was alone in musical creation as a drummer for a long time and had to think about how I could apply this knowledge.

Video: MEREDIAN – Bernhard Schimpelsberger

Before we talk about this knowledge – would you like to tell about your time in India?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: I have always considered it a great privilege to spend time there so early in my life and to learn from my guru Pandit Suresh Talwalkar. It was an experiment for both of us from the beginning. Today I can say: our lives have been equally transformed.

The guru-disciple relationship is based primarily on discipline, isn’t it?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Yes, but: If the disciple has the discipline, then the ball is in the master’s court. The student has to inspire the master to teach him. The more sensitive the student is, the more he listens and the more successful he is in killing the ego, the more inspiration the master can find.

That means: You have killed your ego?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: For Western people this is crass, yes.

Because we grow up here in a society where it’s more about building up the ego than getting rid of it?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: More and more! Think about how difficult it has become in Europe to live in unconditional relationships. Especially with social media, especially for young people – who loves unconditionally today when everything is available? There is no limit. What you have therefore loses value.

Things could always be even better. This does not create trust …

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: But rather a compulsion to share everything at all times. I went for a walk with my guru every morning. During this time, a lot could happen – or nothing! The only thing that mattered was the moment that something could happen. They were moments free from disturbance. Today, when young students go to India, they are constantly showcasing themselves. As an older musician, I ask myself: Where is the moment?

“one does not force the moment, but approaches it.”

The moment when nothing has to take place and precisely because of that something can take place?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Yes, one does not force the moment, but approaches it. That can also be translated into Indian philosophy. It has influenced me on several levels, for example, on the musical-rhythmic one, which presupposes a systematic and scientific examination. One must occupy oneself with it for a long period of time. Not only to understand the mathematical formulas, but also that it passes into one. This goes so far that I can speak new calculations into my cell phone in the middle of the night and half asleep – and they come out! This shows me: The language has passed over into me.

Video: Rhythm Diaries – Bernhard Schimpelsberger

You embody them.

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: But that takes time. As a young musician, you do everything with full energy and naivety. The more experience you gain, the more directed this energy can be. This leads me to another aspect of Indian philosophy: the personal one. I am now at a point in my life where I ask myself: what do I do with my experiences? I have been to India and Great Britain, and now I live in Vienna. But here you can’t play like you can in London.


Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Because the musical language is understood within an existing scene in London that doesn’t exist in Vienna. If I use Konnakol, the Indian rhythmic language, in Vienna, people might like it – but I can’t get artistic satisfaction from the exoticism. As a musician, you need a mirror that understands the expression, but at the same time evaluates it.

At the same time, you combine your lifelong involvement in Indian rhythm with Western forms of music – doesn’t that allow people to connect with you?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Well, I don’t want to use any genres, but I want to internalize the knowledge of the cultures. In this I am looking for my own voice. One that combines the sensitivity – for example of the rhythmic complexity of India – with the democratic culture of jazz and enlightened European thinking. I may have lived in India, been to Cuba, Brazil and South Africa. But I feel I’m European. I want that to be recognizable in my music.

How is that recognizable?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: I am in the midst of a great redefinition, which one can only understand if one knows my history. After my time in India, when I wanted to be more Indian than the Indians, I spent a few years in London. There I was active within the Indian scene, playing with great musicians like Anoushka Shankar and Akram Khan and building a standing.

Was it about the recognition of being Indian as a European?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Of course it was about recognition, but the creative process was important. In addition to my Indian projects, I also had ones in rock, jazz or flamenco. To say that you can do something better than an Indian is still not enough in the long run. That’s why I don’t present myself as an Indian artist in my image as an artist. It’s much more about my perspective, through which I can develop my own understanding of music, my own language. In this process, I ask myself: what music do I want to play? How do I want to make music?

How do you answer these questions?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: The idea of Indian music is: You sit down and play. This is rarely loud, because instruments are tuned to each other and would lose their philosophy if they were amplified. I have recently developed brooms with which I can create new sounds. I’m also working on frame drums, which are very quiet. That allows me to play acoustically with string quartets or Indian instruments, for example.

You adapt your setup to the other person.

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: It’s a constant process. With my uncle I welded clamps and brackets for years – I found solutions how to mount my setup on standard stands. Whereas I used to ride at 70 kilos, I’ve cut the weight almost in half over the years. That’s a reality I’ve created.

What do you mean?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: I always ask myself: What reality do I want to live in? This can concern my setup, the type of music or the decision with which musicians I want to work. But what always remains important is: listening! If you listen, you hear more, but you also get input about what can happen. That’s why I always adapt my own language so that my counterpart feels as if he or she is at home.

That sounds humble – you’re accommodating the other person in listening.

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: I signal that I want to give something. At the same time, it could be interpreted as selfishness. You go into a moment without being a disturbing factor to experience something. I’ll give you an example: I participated in rumba ceremonies in Havana, in which I tried to adapt in everything: how to stand, how to behave in space, how to perceive the music. Just not to disturb the moment, but: to experience it!

Video: Bernhard Schimpelsberger – The Guru Purnima Concert (Full Concert)

This brings us back to the suppression of our own ego.

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: I can remember a situation over 20 years ago in Varanasi. I was there with my guru, it was already four o’clock in the morning, we were playing and the lights went out. Still, we didn’t stop. It went on. It was all about the music!

“Maybe that’s the big arc in my musical work: to permanently ask yourself if what you’re doing is still relevant.”

That resonates with a lot of gratitude and respect. The only approach with which one should approach cultural techniques, right?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Music is the deepest language. You can be on tour with people for two months without exchanging numbers. Others play a note – it doesn’t even have to be perfect – you get touched and feel connected. You may grow up in different life realities and have different financial backgrounds, but: musically you can experience each other. When else can you do that in a world where social distances are great and getting greater?

You break down the hierarchies – at least for a moment.

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Yes, if I manage to fit in and not interfere with my own values, it’s a show of respect. At the same time, it is not just a matter of taking. One also gives the other person the chance to experience one’s own culture through the mirror of the other.

One gives and one takes. The balance has to be right.

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: Nevertheless, the danger of cultural appropriation remains.

Do you have any experience with this?

Bernhard Schimpelsberger: I have not been attacked so far, no. But if it should happen, I would accept it, because I know that I go into new situations with a strong curiosity to experience something. I acquire languages that are foreign to me and quite far from what you experience when you grow up in the provinces of Upper Austria. You have to ask yourself certain questions in this process: Are you doing it right? Is it okay? Maybe that’s the big arc in my musical work: to permanently ask yourself if what you’re doing is still relevant.

Thank you for your time!

Christoph Benkeser

Translated from the German original by Arianna Alfreds.