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