Being Present: An Interview with Wolfgang Muthspiel

Photo credit: Laura Pleifer

Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is one of a handful of guitarists whose influence is as robust as his humility. Muthspiel began his musical training in classical violin, shifting to guitar in his teens. And yet, while he is now firmly entrenched in jazz-defined spaces, he has never let go of his love for chamber music and the intimate sensibilities required of one to self-express in that genre. Despite the temptation to draw lines of influence between his style and that of others—particularly Mick Goodrick, under whom he studied while at the New England Conservatory before moving on to Berklee—his profile is distinctly silhouetted. After spearheading Material Records in 2000, he began focusing on a series of small-group projects, including the MGT trio with fellow pickers Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan. MGT later recorded for ECM, starting an ongoing relationship with the German label for Muthspiel, which has since produced such masterstrokes as Driftwood, his trio album with Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade, and a handful of leader dates, including 2016’s Rising Grace. In the following interview, we dive a little deeper into Muthspiel’s background, interests and aspirations. 

Tyran Grillo: Everyone is a work in progress, of course, but if you were to characterize yourself as a musician and as a human being at this point in time, what would you say? 

Wolfgang Muthspiel: To define oneself is tricky, but I would say that I have two main playing fields in my life: the music and my small family. To strike the right balance seems to be the key and it is not always easy. But I am grateful to love what I am doing. 

TG: In terms of striking that balance between music and family, what have been some of the greatest lessons you have learned along the way? 

WM: I guess the lesson is: I want to be really present with music when that is going on and I want to be really present with family when that is going on. It is better to have longer stretches of each without trying to compensate all the time between the two. 

TG: You have performed and recorded with some amazing musicians throughout your career. Can you talk about the most gratifying of those experiences? 

WM: I learned so much with many great musicians who played with me over the years and lessons are everywhere all the time if one stays open. Musicians who have made a huge impact on me are Gary Burton, my first big sideman gig, and Paul Motian, who embodied so much of the essence and freedom of jazz. He was a modernist with a huge link to the tradition. As such, he offered me a priceless learning experience. But many contemporary jazz musicians that I play with have also been huge inspirations, like Ambrose Akinmusire, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, Brian Blade and Scott Colley, to name a few.

TG: Was there a “eureka” moment at which you realized that music was going to be your life? 

WM: I grew up with classical music but my siblings and I always improvised with each other as kids, long before we knew anything about jazz. When we later found out that improvisation is at the heart of jazz, we were hooked. Coming from a classical tradition and coming to jazz relatively late at age 14 brought its own blessings and challenges. 

TG: Can you expand on some of those blessings and/or challenges? 

WM: One of the blessings was being able to learn so much about harmony, intonation, practicing, discipline, tone and technique as a young child. One of the challenges was having to do a lot of extra homework later on about time, tradition, jazz language and repertoire. 

TG: Who were some of your greatest teachers, musically or otherwise, and how does their dedication continue to inspire you? 

WM: My main guy was Mick Goodrick, who was direct, honest and encouraging. I spent two years with him as a student and then we played a lot of duo gigs. He was the perfect teacher for me, the one I was looking for. He is a scientist of the guitar and a philosopher about music. As a kid I had many great teachers, starting with my violin teacher at the age of six. I was very lucky in that regard. 

TG: Can you talk a little bit about your artistic directorships and residencies? 

WM: I am the Artistic Director of an immersion year at JazzCampus Basel in Switzerland called “Focusyear”. There we invite up to eight players from all over the world to come to Basel for a full year. They are coached regularly by some great artists who come for a week at a time. They record an album, play concerts and get a full scholarship. This year’s coaches are Jeff Ballard, Chris Cheek, Kris Davis, Sullivan Fortner, Larry Grenadier, Guillermo Klein, Ingrid Laubrock, Lionel Loueke, Linda May Han Oh, Aaron Parks, Elena Pinderhughes, Tineke Postma, Jorge Rossy, Becca Stevens, Cuong Vu, Miguel Zenón and myself. I am fortunate to get to invite all these interesting artists and witness the growth of the ensemble throughout the year. As each teacher brings his or her own universe, it is a truly inspiring job. 

TG: How would you characterize your composing? 

WM: I love composing. For me, it is an act of finding rather than constructing. I love to go on the hunt for a song. It is part of my daily music-making when I am at home. I usually work with concrete people in mind, who I write for. I imagine them in the room with me. 

TG: Have you composed for film? 

WM: I have scored for a 1931 silent film by F.W. Murnau called Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. The score is for cello, trumpet and guitars and we have performed it live in front of big screens in a few concert halls. There is also the music I made with my [trombonist] brother, Christian, for a film about our father, Kurt Muthspiel [1931-2001], which is called Super 8 Music. It is made from Super 8 home movies and provides a lasting statement about our family. 

TG: What is your role as teacher? 

WM: I try to encourage the music that is inside my students. I also ask them to get their shit together. I encourage them to go for what they burn for rather than learn everything a little bit. 

TG: Can you talk about what it is has been like to work with Manfred Eicher? 

WM: I got introduced through Ralph Towner, who brought our trio with Slava Grigoryan to ECM. We did the album Travel Guide together and I got to know Manfred. This is when our relationship started. It is a privilege to work with Manfred, who is completely dedicated to the art of recording. His ears and intuition for the flow of music have a big impact. 

TG: At this moment, who are some of your most inspiring musicians, artists, writers, etc.? 

WM: I owe so much to artists. Be they writers, visual artists, actors, directors or musicians, they make this world rich and deep. They transcend the pragmatic materialistic superficiality and remind us of our souls. It is almost impossible to make a list, but here is a small excerpt. Writers: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Tobias Wolff, Thomas Mann and Toni Morrison. Painters: Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin and Henri Matisse. Musicians/composers: Witold Lutosławski, Olivier Messiaen, Django Bates and Duke Ellington, but also old masters, including Bach, Mozart and Schubert. Musicians/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Prince and The Beatles. Jazz musicians: Keith Jarrett and his bands, Miles Davis and his bands, Wayne Shorter and his bands, Billie Holiday, Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny. Also: Paco de Lucía, Glenn Gould…the list goes on. 

TG: What is one of the most meaningful musical experiences you have had? 

WM: Once in a while, the music plays itself and when that happens, it is blissful and encouraging. It is a zone one wants to be in all the time. These moments become shining lights and reminders that this freedom exists. 

TG: And what is your most profound experience as a listener? 

WM: A reoccurring miracle is that we can enter the world of music as listeners so fully and truly live in it. This is a completely different world than our earthly world. I believe that many listeners have this experience. When the piece is over, we return to our physical existence. Where were we before? And every time I enter certain pieces, I have the same experience— in some cases, the same experience as 40 years ago. 

TG: Is there anything in particular you have yet to do musically that you hope to accomplish someday? 

WM: I would love to play at the Village Vanguard because it is soaked in vibrations of great music. 

TG: On a similar note, is there anyone you wish to work with that you haven’t already? 

WM: I am open for new adventures and don’t have a list of people I want to work with. But, in my fantasy, I would have loved to play with Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis. 

TG: Do you think being a musician today means anything different than a few centuries ago? 

WM: I feel that a few centuries ago, you had to be of a certain class, race and gender to even be considered. In that way, it is more open now. At the same time, we also live in a time of shorter attention spans and so much information that a good musician can be overlooked or undervalued easily. 

TG: What is the most meaningful comment someone has ever made about your music? 

WM: Whenever I realize that there are people out there who live with my music, I am incredibly motivated to give them the best I can give. To have listeners is so valuable. However, I believe that it is healthy not to listen too much to comments about your own music and just keep going with it. 

TG: If you could travel back in time and meet yourself when you were just starting out as a professional musician, what would you say to yourself? 

WM: I would say: “Go for it and have fun.”

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