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London, 2024

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 the German composer Voide aka Axel Schmidt who has just released a new project entitled Milkwood on Tom Blankenberg’s Less Records. 


Axel, tell us a little bit about yourself and your career so far.


So, I am 54 years old and live in Cologne. On the one hand, I work as a psychotherapist who is also very fascinated by people's unconscious psychological motivations. On the other hand, I have been involved in various musical and film projects over the years. My relationship with the piano was initially a difficult one in my childhood. Piano lessons and teachers did not really inspire me, it felt more like a blockade and I hated playing from sheet music. It all took a turn with my emerging enthusiasm for rhythm instruments, I bought myself a drum kit at fourteen and could not be separated from it, then started playing in bands. A few years later, I rediscovered the piano, starting with listening to Keith Jarrett and completely immersing myself in the cosmos of his improvised music. I was fascinated by the alternation between lyrical, reduced melodies and rhythmic passages, but also by the passages in which he created overlapping carpets of sound with the sustained sound of the piano. I was then increasingly fascinated by other music of "spaces and voids" and rhythmic minimal music, Arvo Pärt, Pat Metheny, Steve Reich, but also "old music" such as much of Jordi Savall and his ensembles. And there was another continuity in my musical influence: the connection between film and music, so that over the next few years I repeatedly worked on film scores and music for art installations. 


Tell us about Milkwood, your latest project.


Voide is a return and, in a way, a reflection on my musical beginnings. I called the album Milkwood because I first heard the radio play "under milkwood" by Dylan Thomas in my youth, in adolescence, and was completely fascinated by the interweaving of voices to create a lyrical, poetic basic sound. This was also a time when I was influenced by music that was characterised by melancholy and vastness and was a kind of home for me.


How did the collaboration with Tom Blankenberg start? Can you tell us more about your musical relationship?


Since I played drums in various indie bands in the Cologne-Düsseldorf area for a long time, I knew Subterfuge, the band Tom played keyboards in. When I heard his solo piano pieces for the first time, I was immediately captivated, especially by the way he is able to create vastness, space and closeness with his pieces. I have always liked music that creates its magic through the decay of piano chords, the sustain. Tom's music has an absolutely independent basic sound. But then we met almost by chance in the Skyline mastering studio of his brother Kai Blankenberg, who mastered the “Milkwood“ recordings. This led to contact and exchange, partly due to the fact that we are both passionate about documentary films and have both already made documentaries. This led to his invitation to release the album on less records (the label of Tom Blankenberg and subterfuge). Tom then invited me to play with him and Thilo Schölpen at a piano matinee in Düsseldorf for the Piano Days 2024, which was a wonderful concert event in an art gallery with an incredibly open and curious audience. 


What is your approach towards musical aesthetics, and particularly within the genre of solo piano?


For me, playing solo piano is like a dialog with an organic being, the piano, a conversation, entering a common space. It feels like you become one organic being when playing with the piano. For the recordings, I prepared an old Belgian piano with felt; for me, it has an incredibly warm, enveloping sound that embodies something like comfort and security in its qualities. It is all the background noises, the rattling and creaking that make it a truly authentic being for me. The quote from Leonard Cohen came to mind: "there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in". I experience this dialog with the piano as a meditative resonance chamber into which I can immerse myself, in complete contrast to a world that is spinning ever faster.


What about ECM; you mention it is an artistic influence, can you tell us more about it?


ECM music has accompanied me from my youth until today. I mentioned Keith Jarrett, but a lot of the music that has appeared on ECM new series still inspires me today. I think it is the fact that this music conjures up images of an almost synaesthetic quality in my head: wind, sea, desert. And of course I have always been fascinated by the work of Jan Erik Kongshaug, the style-defining sound engineer in collaboration with the musical vision of Manfred Eicher, the producer, and how they manage to achieve the unique basic sound of all ECM productions.


What else has inspired you for Milkwood, and in your art in general?


I think in terms of music, I am more inspired by other art forms like film, visual art and dance than by listening to other music or musicians. Interestingly enough, I have to say that I am also mostly inspired by the exchange with other creative people: architects, painters, visual designers or filmmakers feel much more resonance than in exchanges with musicians. I find the common effort to find a language for what moves you creatively, this common search movement, very unifying.


So after Milkwood, what’s next? 


I have a great desire to explore other aspects. I have various collaborations with visual artists and architects for sound installations coming up, a live ambience project in the context of psychedelic therapy, and I just really want to play drums in an "acoustic" techno band again. That is another fascination of mine. This may sound like a wild jumble, but it simply represents very different facets of my enthusiasm.


Thanks very much Axel. Last one for the road — one book, one album, one film —, tell us about your latest cultural pearls?


Film; The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer moved me deeply, and in this way I also revisited the film music by Mika Levi. Between the narration of the soundtrack and the images, a "third movie" emerges for me. I have rarely experienced this intensity. Music; a rediscovery that always touches me deeply: the only and all the more fantastic solo record by Mark Hollis, the former Talk Talk singer. Book; of course, also a rediscovery — Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas, in a new English-German translation by the German poet Jan Wagner. I keep switching back and forth between the English verses and their German translation and find the two languages exciting in their poetic differences. 


Bouncing on Axel’s words, Jonathan Glazer and Mica Levi. Oh, yes. If you do not know about them yet, they are a must check. Glazer has created a universe straight out of the Krubick world, and Levi is the perfect fit for musical embellishment. Read my review of Milkwood.

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