Two Swiss percussion greats meet again at the Ruhrtriennale: Lucas Niggli, as the drummer of Steamboat Switzerland in the music theatre project D•I•E, and Fritz Hauser, the musical brain behind the concert performance POINT LINE AREA and soloist in Spettro. A chat about risk, shooting galleries and genies in bottles.

© Fritz Hauser and Lucas Niggli © Caroline Minjolle

Johanna Danhauser (JD): How did you two meet?

Lucas Niggli (LN): Fritz got to know me in 1991 at a double concert in the Migros Tower in Zürich. I knew his music from being in the audience: I’d been to his concerts when I was a young percussionist.

Fritz Hauser (FH): That double concert was really good. Lucas was there with his trio Kieloor Entartet and I was doing free improvisation with Adelhard Roidinger and Urs Leimgruber. When we got there in the afternoon, they had tons of equipment with them and were busy doing endless soundchecks. We just put down our three instruments and went for a meal. In that free-jazz phase, we’d stopped doing toxic soundchecks. Because we were touring by train, I’d had to put together a percussion kit that I could transport single-handedly. You’ve still got the whole shooting gallery, haven’t you?

LN: I need less and less. But it’s true, we did tend to do very elaborate projects. These included experiments with live electronics, when computers were still these massive things. We wouldn’t let the amount of equipment put us off. That perfectionism is actually something we both have in common, Fritz.

FH: Anyway, you stuck in my memory as a young musician full of energy. Later on, we played in the trio Klick with Peter Conradin Zumthor. That was the first time I’d experienced being in a percussion ensemble with equals: it wasn’t about playing faster, louder or more complicatedly but about encouraging each other to go further. And we could talk openly about composing ideas without anyone getting upset.

JD: Percussionists are often alone in bands. But both of you actively seek out contact with colleagues in a large proportion of your projects. What do you get out of that?

LN: You learn so much from other people: which instruments they choose, how they build things, listen, practise …  In a percussion ensemble, I find playing in unison is spectacular. This synchronised playing has something dance-like about it. And yet, percussion is actually an individualistic instrument.

FH: You don’t really need any other instruments, once you’ve realised how versatile percussion is.

JD: Fritz, you’re taking it to extremes with more than 50 percussionists in POINT LINE AREA.

FH: Yes, but above all, with so many percussionists I can generate incredibly quiet soundscapes. Piano is like lighting: in order to create consistent darkness, you need a lot of lights. That mass generates a violence of sound that can also unleash incredible dynamics. They all have the same set of instruments, but the possibilities are endless. The composition is conceived as a timed score, so we all start our stopwatches together and nobody needs to look at a conductor. It can produce wild confusion that is ultimately synchronised by the music, like a ghostly hand. But there are also more than 50 different drums, cymbals and: different people. Individuality is very revealing when you are playing percussion, but we will work very precisely with this heterogeneity.

JD: In contrast to this large-scale project, you are also giving a solo concert in the Gebläsehalle.

FH: Spettro! We created this in my house in Italy. »La casa delle masche« (»The ghost house«). People say there are ghosts there. Barbara Frey and I talked a lot about the weird energy there and then we decided: we’ll make music like the ghosts do when we’re not around. I usually start my solo concerts poetically, branching out, but Spettro is fundamentally different. There’s a lot of Barbara in there: her ideas and her critique. We’re not looking for impressive technique, but for alchemy. It’s about whether we can let the music’s genie out of the bottle, about focus and surrender. After Spettro there will be an afterglow. I love improvising after a concert, when there’s no pressure. When the audience still hasn’t gone home, you can go that step further. 

JD: How can you communicate experiences of this kind to students or schoolchildren?

FH: I tell my students they’re wasting their time practising at 30%. You’ve always got to be totally there. Even if you have hardly anything to do in a concert, that one beat has to come with the right energy, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart.

LN: I teach improvisation in the Classical Department at Zürich University of the Arts (ZHdK). It’s one of the most beautiful things: familiarising these brilliant instrumentalists with the language of directness and risk, so they can develop their own vocabulary. Musicians who are experienced improvisers are just better: they’re aware of the whole room and have a more intense presence. They don’t lean back and play the notes in a routine way – they have an entirely different impact. Improvisation is something unusual at a university, where ideas of »right« and »wrong« often predominate. It’s much nicer to work with the students on asking questions than presenting finished solutions. It’s liberating to play something unforeseen without focusing on wanting to be »good«. Everyone has their own sound.

FH: About a hundred years ago, I did a live improvisation with Pauline Oliveros for Swiss radio. I’d asked her beforehand what she would do if she couldn’t think of anything. She said: »Well, I won’t play.« And then Pauline sat there with me and this huge accordion, like she was on hot coals. Nothing happened. After a couple of minutes there was a – ffffffffff – as she opened up the accordion. The instrument had drawn breath and it began. It takes calm and confidence to free your mind. Improvising is like baking your own bread. It’s just different from going and fetching something from the bakery.

JD: And what’s it like when Michael Wertmüller bakes something for Steamboat Switzerland?

LN: Michael and I have been friends since our time together in the percussion line-up for the Swiss Youth Symphony Orchestra in the late 80s. He’s written so many different pieces for Steamboat Switzerland – from trios to operas. With him, we have a composer who’s a kindred spirit, who challenges and continually surprises us. Steamboat Switzerland combines the power of a rock band with the complexity and virtuosity of new music. Michael knows we’re not lazy and that we’ll also nurture unplayable stuff. There are also times when we’ll be cursing about it, but he’s not a composer who will insist that everything is sacrosanct and has to be played exactly as it’s written. We grow into each other.

JD: How have you found participating in stage projects as a musician?

LN: I find these hybrid forms of music theatre incredibly exciting. For example, we did Valentin with Herbert Fritsch and Michael at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, which was heavily led by the text and acting. In an opera, the composer has a different role. You slowly develop an understanding for other disciplines and jobs in the arts and then the categories begin to dissolve. Like the cliché that classical musicians can’t groove and jazz musicians can’t read notes. That’s obsolete. Music theatre is becoming much more porous as a genre. I prepare my students to remain flexible and to be willing to explore new territory. This is precisely what D•I•E is about: breaking down boundaries. I’m really looking forward to this clash.

JD: In D•I•E, Michael is composing for classical singing voices, but also for a rapper, a post-punk band, a string quartet and electronics. This raises the question of training in a different form, because not all musicians actually can read notes or are used to a conductor. At times, Michael has to find very individual solutions in order to communicate his ideas as a composer to the musicians.

FH: I’ve actually always been inspired more by other art forms than by music itself.  I’ve worked with dancers, with writers, with actors and with visual artists. I’ve danced myself. Hybridity is one of the foundations of my work. But there are often difficulties in the process, because the needs and expectations of the artists and their crafts are very different. A dance company, for example, has to train very differently to an acting ensemble. Somehow, you have to bring those different energies together. For example, I’ve often spent days in Barbara’s rehearsals just listening to them work on the text. It was important for me to understand their language, to get a feel for the atmospheres and then I could get involved at the decisive moment. We can all learn an enormous amount from each other, as far as intensity is concerned.

JD: Have you had any contact with the Ruhrgebiet before or is this your first encounter with it?

FH: I know the Ruhrgebiet from a band tour I did in the 70s. You could hardly breathe, the air was so dirty and there was no decent food. It was a slog, but there was a great energy here that seemed quite bold to us Swiss, from our clean little country. I also remember a concert at the Gasometer in Oberhausen 20 years ago – it blew me away! The height made me so dizzy I had to cling onto the railings. These vast spaces also have great acoustics: you’ll clap and the echo comes back half a second later. We don’t have these dimensions in Switzerland, so that’s why I search for this breadth of sound, in the echoes in church, in reverberations.  

LN: I know the Ruhrtriennale from a concert at Zeche Carl. As cultural creatives, we make these places a source of energy in a very different way from coal-mining, but you can still feel their old function. When you see pictures taken from space, the Ruhrgebiet is literally glowing. I’m fascinated by how the region is so densely populated – it’s a cultural crucible. This open and porous feeling of so many different cultures in a confined space makes for a very creative environment.

JD: Percussionists are the musicians of a thousand instruments. Which one is your personal favourite?

FH: For me, it all started in the circus: everyone else was looking at the lady on the tightrope but I was watching the man doing the drum rolls. After the snare drum, the second great encounter in my percussion career was with the cymbal. I couldn’t afford a gong or a tamtam, so, to begin with, I got engrossed in the sounds of the cymbal. I love Arthur Schneiter’s sound stones, with their idiosyncratic overtone structure that makes the body swing. At the same time, I’m really enthusiastic about my new tamtam. You hit it and it opens a door to another world. I’m a fan of reduction and surrender. I take the little gong on tour with me and will spend an hour scraping around on it.

LN: The heart of it is and always has been a basic drum kit. I use it to keep my four limbs fit. And then, of course, there’s a whole load of preparations, extensions, brushes, sticks and beaters. I want to get as many different colours as possible out of the set and make sure that the three prime materials – skin, metal, wood – are always available. One of my favourite sounds is water drums. You play on half-empty pumpkins of various sizes floating on the surface of the water. A magical sound that you can also tune very nicely.

JD: Lucas, you spent your childhood in Cameroon. Do you have influences from West African musical culture?

LN: I’ve got a lot of instruments from Cameroon in my studio. I’m not especially interested in the rhythms. I’ve been much more influenced by how drums are used in rituals and everyday life. For example, large tongue drums have a similar function to church bells for us. When I spent a length of time in Cameroon around 1990, I learned how to make drums and could also follow a chief drummer performing in a mask ritual. He found it impossible to play slower or to explain what he did. He just played. So I learned to listen differently: not analytically but in broad arcs. It was the opposite with my friend Rolando Lamussene from Mozambique. He had learned really long, complex compositions, but when he was rehearsing, he couldn’t just start from bar 29. We always had to take it from the top, because that was the only way he could learn the piece. The first time we met again, three years later in the percussion quartet, Rolando was the only one who didn’t make a mistake. He had it down, but he’d learned it by heart.

JD: Does the new generation of percussionists include more women?

FH: There’s some movement. The last time I was a member of the jury at the Concours International de Genève, both the First Prizes went to women, who brought with them a different kind of music, and, of course, incredible competence and pleasure in playing. In my percussion class at the Conservatoire there were seven of us, all boys. After that, the first time I met a woman playing percussion, it made a strong impression. In my first orchestral project I wanted as many women as possible, because they raise the overall level. To put it bluntly, it becomes less like a sport and more like an art form. As in many professions, there are also social deficits that can prevent women working internationally as freelance percussionists. They often have to choose between a career and a family. I support young women musicians and percussionists to continue as much as I can.

LN: The marginalisation doesn’t have so much to do with our instrument as with its appeal and the available role models. Why are there so few female jazz musicians? We just have to look at the teachers. The proportion of men is far higher. Sadly, not enough thought is given to this imbalance in culture either. I found the repeated focus on women in the season after #metoo rather hypocritical. It ought to be something we can take for granted! Curators need to ensure that women are included in the programme without making grand statements about it. Sometimes, this needs a bit more research and more courageous funding. Barbara Frey put that very well in Zürich: Walk your talk!

JD: How do you each feel the other has developed?

FH: I got to know Lucas as an ambitious young musician and a perfectionist. Nothing could be fast or complicated enough for him. Over time, you’ve developed into a complete musician, one I enjoy being associated with, on stage and off.

LN: Fritz is actually the antithesis of my way of playing percussion: he’s calm and controlled, almost a little stiff. As I’ve got older, I’ve been fascinated by his clarity, which still manages to be mystical and enigmatic. He can say something very profound with very little. Most of all, Fritz, I like your sense of humour – it’s very un-Swiss.


Translation: David Tushingham