WITH TOM BLANKENBERG
During this interview, I change seats, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to German composer Tom Blankenberg who has just released his second solo album, et, and takes the opportunity to say a few words about his music and his approach to it.
Tom, tell us a little more about you. What have been the highlights of your career so far?
I was born 1970 in Düsseldorf, Germany and still live here. I have always been interested in music but also media and movies; audio governs my life. I also like the technical aspects of it. So after school I started working as a sound editor and sound designer, and then did a lot of voice actor directing. Later, I added some camera and video editing skills, which made me a versatile audio/video post-production person. In my thirties, I was (and still am) very much into working on sound for documentaries, and I did videoclips and minor compositions for ads and short movies — nothing big. I could have gone on that way… But in 2011, I did a piano based composition for a short film, a student project, this was some kind of a breaking point and after that the whole solo piano idea started to grow on me, suddenly I was very focused on it. Maybe this was the one thing I was searching for all the years before... Then I began playing concerts in 2015 and also started touring a little; something I did not expected that I could ever do. It all lead to the release of my first album atermus. It was so well received by listeners around the globe and today people are still messaging me; they love it and still play it. Asking of highlights? This was definitely one of the highlights of my career so far!
What about et, your latest solo project?
After atermus, I was preparing more shows and a tour in Europe 2020, but then coronavirus struck the world… Caught in this vacuum, I worked on my latest album et. I had finished a few compositions for et in February 2020, and also already recorded a little. But they did not feel right in that very calm and quiet springtime of 2020… I reworked and re-recorded some of the tracks and also wrote some new ones, I finally finished recording at the end of August 2020. And now et is out!
Tell us about some of the inspirations — whether musical or not — behind the album?
I realised that I constantly rely on inspiration from my close surroundings. This album, et, emerged out of my apartment; there is no foreign landscape in it, nor traveling. There is proximity. I guess I would not do a moonsong or a sunset serenade, but I would easily compose music inspired by my kitchen. The piece “W123” starts with the audio of the double-horn sound of a Mercedes-Benz. I heard it outside of my window and started working on the piece. It then completely lost the connection or connotation to the automobile, but the title stayed. The piece “dear” is the beginning of a letter to someone you have not seen for a while and wish to reconnect with. But it is an empty letter, it is up to the listener to fill it with a name and words. I started working on “dear” and the idea around it in 2019, before the pandemic took place. But then when reality took over, we were all isolated for a while and “dear” was suddenly a letter to the isolated ones. My piece “acnor” was totally influenced by the virus and the theory of a contagion chain. Starting at C2, every new note introduced in that piece has just a maximum of two semitones higher or lower. “in touch with“, is like a spread or outbreak of notes… The day after the recording of the album was done, I realised that it was going to be a very classical and serious sounding album. Having a more indie music background in my teenage years I felt so “adult” at that moment. Then I just wanted to give the album an optimistic and light ending, and so I wrote the last piece, and named it with the working title “Smells Like Adult Spirit”; the abbreviation “SLAS” ended up.
Your music is a blend of many different things… Let’s play a game; how would you describe your music to someone who cannot hear?
You know what… I do like antipasto misto in Italian cuisine — it is to me, a benchmark test for Italian restaurants. To have all these different small bits of food and different flavours and surfaces, tissues… rather than one big pasta dish. So, I do mixed starter plate music! Fine, small, delicious and varying pieces.
How does being an autodidact benefit — or not — you in creating music?
Besides working on a few pieces together with a string quartet I just do my music on my own, so there is no need for a common language or a deep theoretical understanding for me of what I do. And I do not really compare my pieces to the ones of other composers. I just have this very vague reservoir of musical memories I can dive into. I feel pretty free, I just can do whatever I think that feels right. If I were a classical trained pianist maybe I would tend to compose pieces that are more difficult to play; but I am not and I feel very well in this simplicity and clarity. So I do not know if it is a benefit but I guess it shapes my music in some sort of way. When it comes to collaborations, I feel a little limited in musical vocabulary and musical theory…
What is your opinion on the current musical — contemporary classical — scene? Where do you see it going in the next few years?
I feel connected to the contemporary classical scene but not exclusively. None of my friends here in Düsseldorf are into contemporary classical music and the ones that I am running the label with are doing indie pop or electronic pop. Perhaps I am thinking more about the development of the music scene in general. I am very sceptical about this playlist thing though; as a listener I will always try to dig into artists catalogs and not into mood playlists. I guess, we need to connect with the audience and the artists again, so, I hope that there will be a lot of live performances soon, and people will value real life encounters and on stage performances again.
So after et what’s next?
I am constantly working on new music, but the project I am currently working on is a short-movie trilogy, which I am editing at the moment. I started working on the first part of it in summer of 2018, but it took shape last year while I was shooting a lot during the pandemic months. These movies are highly music-related; it is a video-clip-short-fiction-experimental-documentary mixture. I hope that it will be finished at the end of the year.
Thanks very much Tom. Last one for the road — one book, one album, one film —, tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
Books... I used to read on vacations and holidays normally... but there were not many recently! To be honest, I cannot remember what the latest book I read was. Albums… I really enjoyed and also was deeply touched by Garreth Broke’s Delusions End; there was something in it that spoke to me. Films… I do not own a TV or use any streaming services… I love to go to the cinema. So, I have not seen a lot recently, but I saw Bong Joon-ho's Mother last week on a streaming service of the local public library and I enjoyed it a lot. I had a 128’ long cinema experience on a 13" screen, I noticed how much I missed it…
Bouncing on Tom’s words, oh how I enjoy when composers cite each other; yes, Garreth Broke is a fantastic musician and so is his latest release! Read my review of et.