Henrik Schwarz

Kid in a Musical Candy Store

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His instruments are bits and bytes, not violins or trumpets: Against all odds, a German DJ successfully mixes club culture and big orchestra sounds.

  • Author: Knut T. Jordaan
  • Photos: Ben Wolf

He is a DJ and producer of house music who experiments with musical styles from jazz to classic. Recently, he tried to marry club culture to the massive sound of symphonic orchestras. Henrik Schwarz, 43, who hails from a small town in Southern Germany and became an internationally acclaimed DJ in his second home, Berlin, combines digital and analog music as am ambitious art project. He has a new CD out that proves his success. Yet, he admits in our interview, at some points he nearly gave up.

Mr. Schwarz, when and how did your love for music begin? For me, it started with „Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C. When I heard that song for the first time, I just had to run to the store and get the album. From then on, I spent all my money on music, particularly hip-hop CDs.

You were 14, when „Walk This Way” was released. Were you already into making music yourself? No. To this day, I have no idea why I never learned how to play an instrument. I just couldn’t focus, I think; I was interested in so many things. When I was 18, one of my buddies bought a computer. We connected it to speakers and started experimenting. Since then, I never stopped.

Who were your musical influences? I was listening to hip-hop, jazz and soul. Techno was something I didn’t really care for at that time. Actually, I thought it was terrible. One evening, Jeff Mills from Detroit performed at our local club; he’s a techno pioneer. And he changed everything for me. I wasn’t interested in anything else anymore.

Did you start working on techno music with your computer? No, computers weren’t very powerful at that time. I had to buy so much hardware — a mixing panel, sampler, synthesizer, drum machine. I started working as a DJ, though, and played mostly techno. But, frankly, I thought the music was just a fad. I started working on my own sound. But all in all, music was just a hobby for me.

Schwarz, who previously worked as a graphic designer, says he owes his career to technical progress: By the end of the 90s, CD burners were on sale everywhere. That afforded him the means by which to play his own music when DJ’ing. During one performance a record manager for the Moodmusic label heard him play „Marvin” and asked for the CD. Schwarz hesitated — he had only the one copy— but ultimately gave it to the guy. Turned out to be a wise decision: A year later, Moodmusic published Schwartz’s first electro album, „Supravision“. „And then,“ he says, „everything happened very fast.“

Your music is shaped by very different, often contrary digital and analog styles. Why are you attracted to opposites? Well, I am not attracted to consensus, that’s for sure! I always loved to walk at the borderline. In the beginning, I rather intuitively brought those very opposing styles together in my music. Now, it has become my principle: I don’t ask what is harmonious but, rather, what is the opposite of what would be harmonious? Only then, you create new things.

How do you work? You are at your laptop, and there are musicians with their instruments, and you all kind of jam together? I think it is wonderful when musicians come together and just let go. Sometimes, they create great music that way. But that is not what I am interested in. It is just regular music, after all; a learned sound or style. I am an autodidact; I have a totally different perspective. I look for a sound musicians would normally never produce.

Talk about that process. It works best when I am able to sample the instruments into my computer while the musicians are still playing. Let’s say it is a little tune: I change a bit on my computer, then I play my recorded and altered version to the musicians and ask them to repeat after me. For example, pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and bassist Dan Berglund are two of the best musicians in the world. When they find it difficult to play what I did to their tunes, I know that I am on the right track. Because when they finally master the new melody, something magical happens.

So your sound goes against intuition? Yes, it does. But of course, it is not my thing to just come up with something really weird. I want to create a musical impulse.

Henrik’s newest CD of impulses, „Instruments”, contains seven songs originally conceived as techno tracks that Schwartz rearranged for symphony orchestra. The project started as a unique festival event in cooperation with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, then grew over the years and became a true labor of love for Schwarz. He fought a long and hard for his perfect sound.

So how does it work, changing techno into classical music? I wasn’t really aware how big a mess this whole thing would be when the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra asked me to work with them. I only knew that I didn’t want to be the trendy DJ who mixes some funky beats with classical music, I hate that! So I asked myself, what will it sound like when I kind of translate my electronic original songs into orchestral music? Problem was, I never learned how to write scores. I started working with a young arranger; together we tried to do real remixes of my songs, played by analog musical instruments instead of computers.

How did you work on scores, since you never played a „real” instrument? I read a lot. And I interviewed professionals to learn everything about classical music. I mean, you deal with a great tradition, you cannot just stumble into this business like an idiot. It was a lot of work. Initially, I wanted to create some form of hybrid and use my songs, rearranged for orchestra, mixed with some of my sound effects. But after the first rehearsals I knew that I had to be more drastic: I couldn’t use electronic bass drums, no drums at all, just the instruments you find in a classic orchestra. Rhythm gave us our biggest problems: You see, a computer plays bass drums with an almost dopey regularity; no body consisting of humans and organic instruments will ever be able to copy such precision. Some of the music literally falls apart, though when not played with that level of accuracy. I had to demand precision all the time. It didn’t always work.

How did the arrangements work? I couldn’t translate my beats one to one; that would sound dull and tedious. Rather, I tried to transform electronic patterns into an instrumental flow. I felt like a kid in a musical candystore, because, in theory, I could have any track being played by any instrument.

So when were you satisfied then? We did our first concert in 2011, in Berlin’s Kammermusiksaal. I was really stoked because, normally, this is where the world-famous Berlin Philharmonics perform! It was a super-crowded evening: Half the audience was the usual classical music lovers, the other half clubbers. When the orchestra started playing my score... Wow, to this day I get goose bumps when I think of it. The audience loved it, and I knew that all the work had been worthwhile. But then I decided to release a CD. That began a new odyssey.

Schwarz starts casting musicians and forms an orchestra. He searches for the best microphones. Finally, he stages a performance in a Berlin church. It goes well, but Schwarz, always the perfectionist, is not happy. He longs for the big orchestral sound. He doesn’t want his record to sound „like a nerd’s guilty pleasure.” His next effort, performed this time in Amsterdam’s famous Concertgebouw, also fails: The orchestra doesn’t hit the right notes. Is it my lack of experience, Schwarz asks himself, or am I too ambitious? Is it simply impossible to unite techno and orchestral music?

Henrik Schwarz @ Spotify

In April, you released the CD. Tell us, how did you finally succeed? The Red Bull Music Academy had organized a small festival in Japan. A group of young Japanese musicians was attending, The Tokyo Secret Orchestra. At the very first rehearsal I knew: That was it. The musicians were extremely well prepared, and they just did it. I was so happy. If this attempt also had failed, I would have cancelled the whole thing.

Will you stick to classical now, or go back to techno? Maybe this Fall, I will start something new. I really don’t know yet what kind of music it will be. I am just so exhausted right now. It took four years to finish this project. I think I will work on some electronic 12 inches, and then just relax.