Counterchange latest release, Eigenlicht, is by Portuguese-German multi-instrumentalist, producer, and award-winning film composer John Gürtler.
Gently teetering between krautrock-influenced synth mantras and saxophone improvisations, down-tempo electronica, sound design experiments, and moments of rich ambiance, Eigenlicht is a diverse album of electro-acoustic music. The 11 tracks were recorded between two studios and on location at Berlin’s infamous Teufelsberg, the abandoned Cold War-era US spy-radio and radar outpost named Field Station Berlin, surrounded by forest to the west of the city.
A document of Gürtler’s development, many of the pieces here were first laid down in his bunker-like former basement studios at Drontheimer Straße in north Berlin, before he eventually elevated above ground – both physically and musically – building his current Paradox Paradise studio and becoming an established film music composer. In 2019 John won the European Film Academy Award for Best Score, for his soundtrack for Nora Fingscheidt’s debut feature ‘Systemsprenger’ (System Crasher). We spoke to John about composing Eigenlicht, how he fits into the Counterchange family and how COVID-19 has been affecting him and other musicians.
Hi John, thanks for taking the time to speak to us at Monument.
Your latest record, Eigenlicht, is released on Inland’s Counterchange Recordings on the 9th of October. How did you get involved with Inland?
We’ve been studio neighbours since 2012 and have a mutual appreciation for each other’s music. From sharing a kitchen, synths and ideas we’ve become friends and collaborators.
Eigenlicht translates to ‘Own Light’. Was there a meaning behind this name?
Eigenlicht is also a scientific term from the 19th century describing “visual noise” (the white and black dots we see in the dark), the illusion of movement in darkness. For me, it stands for uncompromising and personal music that has not necessarily been made with an audience in mind.
Eigenlicht has the polish of a veteran producer. How long have you been producing music?
I built my first studio in Berlin in 2005 so I’d say that the almost daily act of recording and producing started there. Through my work as a film composer I’ve had the opportunity to create music influenced by many different genres. I shy away from preset sounds and sample libraries – it’s so much more effective to set up microphones and record a sound source you can touch – whether you’re a capable instrumentalist or you’re playing a completely unknown instrument for the first time – always hit the record button.
The record is a sonic exploration of synthesis, featuring intricate sound design and enthralling soundscapes. Could you explain how the record came together? Was Eigenlicht constructed with a project in mind?
Conceptually one part of the record is made up of compositions that were written as if they were meant to be played by acoustic instruments but I thought it would be more interesting when translated to synthesizers. The other part is mostly based around spontaneous improvisations and one-off takes in unusual spaces.
I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of having my electronic material sound acoustic and my acoustic material sound electronic. So there’s always a subtle electro-acoustic soundscape/field recording/background noise energy to every track.
Originally I’m a saxophone player, I’ve always been interested in finding unusual ways to use the instrument. A lot of the synths have been played with a midi wind controller that plays like a saxophone and can control any synth.
As I previously mentioned, Eigenlicht heavily features synthesizers. What were the ones used to make the record?
The album is based around the Macbeth Studio Systems M5 by Scottish synth developer Ken Macbeth. It’s a semi modular three oscillator monster with huge faders as opposed to tiny knobs… It’s extremely intuitive and musical. I love to play melodies on those faders instead of using a keyboard, or I use a midi wind controller to trigger the synth.
Other synths on the record are my first polysynth, the Russian ELEKTRONIKA EM-25, a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Moog Prodigy, Korg Micropreset and a Variophon wind synthesizer.
Until now Counterchange has been synonymous with club music, however, Eigenlicht is a largely ambient record. How do you feel it fits in with the Counterchange back catalog?
Ed (Inland) has played some of my music at ambient sets in Berghain’s Halle, or incorporated my sounds into his techno sets. Ed’s own ambient music and love of dark dubby effects and drones make for a great fit on Counterchange Recordings and I like the idea of the label extending its catalog – a new chapter.
Do you have any inspirations who would have played a part in the construction of this record?
The beginnings of electronic music fascinate me and some of the strongest influences are the musicality and expressivity of instruments like Oskar Sala’s Mixturtrautonium or the Ondes Martenot. Then there’s abandoned places and acoustic spaces like the old listening station atop of Grunewald, where I recorded “Old Devil’s Hill”. Also Aphex Twin, LFO or James Holden’s use of weird scales and subtle microtonality /detuned sounds have generally been a big inspiration to my music.
This year has been an unusual time for musicians, DJs, producers, and generally anybody involved in the music industry. Was Eigenlicht made prior to COVID-19?
Some of the tracks date back over a decade. Ed has kind of been the guardian of several unreleased and unfinished albums I’ve worked on over the years. We were always talking about releasing some of the music and being stuck at home or the studio on account of COVID-19 made us feel it was actually a good time to release some more introspective, semi acoustic ambient music.
How has COVID-19 affected your daily life? Has it affected your creativity?
In many ways things have been quieter. I’ve been very lucky so far to be able to continue to go to the studio and work on film scores. In March we did a lot of remote recording with musicians and obviously all meetings happened online. I just hope to see live and club music back as soon as possible, the long term effects of the “blackout” are very worrying.
Can we expect to see a live take (albeit through a stream) of Eigenlicht any time soon?
Yes, we are currently planning some live performance videos from the studio and hopefully a proper concert in the near future.