Kai Schumacher

Rausch

There aren’t many classical musicians who would recommend a Berlin electro-punk album from 1993 on Facebook. Or toast grunge mastermind Kurt Cobain on the 25th anniversary of his death with a link to his deeply personal song “Lithium”. Whether it’s Atari Teenage Riot or Nirvana, pianist Kai Schumacher’s stylistic assurance and depth of knowledge allow him to move effortlessly through the realm of popular music.

Schumacher espouses progressive approaches, but would never dream of drawing rigid boundaries between pop and avant-garde. He has released four solo albums since 2009, including “Transcriptions” from 2012, on which he adapted grunge and indie rock songs for piano. “Rausch,” however, is the first album exclusively to feature his own compositions. Schumacher abstains from using overdubs; in fact, no electronics are used at all. Instead, he employs his own form of “prepared piano,” manipulating the instrument’s mechanism and strings to produce an unusual array of sounds.

Even the names of the eight tracks break with convention: titles such as “Kantholz” or “BRNFCK” are more likely to be heard in metal or techno settings. The album’s title, “Rausch,” also conveys a multiplicity of meanings. In English, it can be translated as “intoxication”, “delirium”, “rapture”, or perhaps “exhilaration”. So does it refer to excesses? The blurring of sober everyday life through music? Or are we to be transported into a state of sensual exuberance? Kai Schumacher makes his material dance, lets it float above us, plays on our acoustic perception. And all this with a “broken” piano ...

In “Rausch”, he once again explores the frontiers of artistic genres. “I’m well aware that attempts at crossovers in the classical world are often a disaster. But just like in pop, the idea of fusing genres isn’t wrong in itself. The 1993 soundtrack to the US thriller ‘Judgement Night,’ for example, consciously brought together hip hop and rock/grunge bands. Slayer and Ice-T, DeLa Soul and Teenage Fanclub, or Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill. It was a super-exciting experiment.” Similar projects attempted later, he says, tended to get caught up in clichés. Schumacher knows from experience that it’s not just about virtuosity or smart combination techniques; the right mindset, an individual style, and a feel for the flow of the music are also essential.

“As you do in my line of work, I started the piano at a young age and was already playing Shostakovich’s second piano concerto with orchestra as a teenager. But that came at a time when almost anything else seemed more interesting than practising on the black and white keys every day,” he says. Raised in the south-west of Germany. A youth centre near Baden-Baden, concert attendances in Karlsruhe. Punk. Hard rock. Guns N’ Roses. Experiments with his own bands between the ages of 16 and 18. “What I always cared about was giving music its own, up-to-date form of expression and allowing it to take a political position, if that’s what it wants to. That’s what always annoyed me about the traditional reception of classical music: the desire to achieve the most perfect performance destroys the creative spirit of the musical work. It’s practised to death, as it were,” he says, with a wry smile. And in memory of the thousands of hours of sessions he’s done himself.

On paper, at least, Schumacher was raised in a classical music environment. After attending a local music school, he goes on to study at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, graduating from Professor Till Engel’s master class in 2009. With distinction and a little glitter. Bavarian Radio (BR) will soon describe him as a “punk pianist”. During his final year, Schumacher ventures to make an album of a great modern work, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” by Frederic Rzewski. This composition is a set of variations on the Chilean revolutionary song “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido”. It’s a clear statement by Schumacher, who is keen to emphasise the social dimension in classical music. “It’s generally known that many classical works were controversial, scandalous, or politically contentious at the time they were written. This aspect of them, however, is often ignored these days,” he says.

On “Rausch,” Schumacher returns to the present day with energy and verve. At a young age, he had already extensively explored the works of minimalists such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, or John Cage. His 2017 album, “Beauty in Simplicity,” on which he recalls elements of ambient and post-rock, can very much be seen as the “overture” to his new album. “By the time I played the ‘Simplicity’ concert in the Elbphilharmonie, the composition process for ‘Rausch’ was already largely complete. So the first half of this year was something like a musical transition phase. In Hamburg, I was also playing pieces by Erik Satie and Steve Reich, which I combined with arrangements of songs by the Berlin electronic group Moderat.” Schumacher also mentions the “Six Pianos” collective, in which he, together with colleagues such as Gregor Schwellenbach, John Farah, or Daniel Brandt and Paul Frick (from BrandtBrauerFrick), mixes music by Steve Reich with compositions by the involved musicians. Unconventional live performances alongside his former work as a solo artist. Now, the release of “Rausch” marks the beginning of a new chapter of his life and career – he celebrates his 40th birthday in November 2019.

Schumacher recorded the “Rausch” motifs, already existing in the form of diverse fragments, in the Ruhr with studio engineer and sound designer Jonas Gehrmann, his longstanding musical partner. The industrial region with its working-class roots and both a down-to-earth and rather unglamorous sheen has become for him a valued sounding board for his work. “There’s no chance of getting caught up in a narrow scene here, that’s for sure. The ‘reality check’ on any artistic project begins when you walk out your front door and go off to work,” says Schumacher. “Instrumental music can only convey a message through its intensity. I put together the pieces on ‘Rausch’ with this in mind.” For example on “Kantholz” (“Squared Timber”), which refers to an (alleged) attack on politician Frank Magnitz. The member of the far-right AfD party issued a press release detailing his injuries caused by “Kantholz” – a hasty assertion quickly refuted following a police investigation. “‘Rausch’ is a kind of snapshot, and one that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with piano music,” says Schumacher. A clear statement in the world of modern classical music. A profession of loyalty to music on the threshold of the new “twenties”. 

 

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