Peter Michael Hamel

Peter Michael Hamel is a German composer, improviser, musician, writer, teacher and maybe under-recognized artist. He is now 71 years old and this implies an active career of over 50 years. He has been involved in a number of pioneering collectives such as Embryo and Between, he’s written an essential book (“through music to the self”), released an extensive amount of records and composed a wide range of scores in which he consistently embraces elements from a wide variety of musical traditions ranging from traditional Indian music, improvisation, contemporary classical music... He is a holistic composer. He does not discriminate chords for being too harmonic nor does he avoid dissonant tone clusters for being too difficult. This, almost like a cliché, makes him hard to pin down to a certain scene or current. He is a composer for, and of, the now. When he’s improvising he IS in the now. When he is composing, he is creating circumstances to place his audience and performers in the now. “Others have divided themselves, I haven’t.” He states in an interview for BR Klassik in 2017 for his 70th birthday. He did not have the urge to put himself in a corner. He rather stood in the middle to see all the corners, and the walls making up the space. I had the pleasure and honour of talking to the man. In this article you can find a reworking of the interviews I did.
01 March 2019 | AG 14

“Experimental music, non-European music like Gamelan and African Percussion... without intent...,” he replies when I inform about the seemingly effortless blending of styles and currents in his music. But there is more. The stylistics is only the top layer, the facade so to speak. There is a deeper integrative line of thinking that allows this musical framework to exist. It encompasses the holistic thinking of people like Teilhard de Chardin: “Holistic according to Jean Gebsers”, “Theory of an integrative state of Consciousness”, Sri Aurobindo “Integral Yoga”, Teilhard de Chardin’s “Transcendence”. 
But during the process of composing there is NO INTENTION, just like with Cage.”
No intent. Spontaneity. Open mind. These are key attitudes in Hamel’s work. The secret to unlocking the self through music. To be in the eternal present through non-intention, tapping straight into “being” or “beingness”. “To stay in the presence of the eternal NOW. Sounds become Music when/if they transcend tomorrow and yesterday, future and past,” he replies when being asked what role improvisation has in his music, both performed and composed. “Spontaneity, all the time a new situation, a new Instrument, a new "Trial and Error" deconditioning my ability, into the present, without preconceptions and including the audience and the room”, he continues about his prepared piano work. He’s on an ongoing trail exploring the now, setting conditions that are deconditioning his own musical sense. Spiralling around an epicentre of repetitive musical patterns, not unlike the music of Terry Riley, whom he met on several occasions. Riley himself being an admirer of Hamel says: “Peter's heart did not seem to be aligned with the post-Webern traditions that had emerged so prevalently in Germany. His sensibilities were attracted more to American minimalism and Indian music and to some degree Rock and Jazz and what would turn out to be New Age”, he explains, “In this sense he stands apart in the field of modern music of Germany. He has recognized the vast importance of improvisation and being "in the moment" in music performance.”   
He emphasizes that the “eternal now” is also attainable with written music, with scores, like his good friend Sergiu Celibidache has attempted in directing a.o. Bruckner’s "4th symphony" or Debussy’s "Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune" and also with Hamel’s symphony "Die Lichtung" which he directed entirely from memory (77 pages with 44 lines of music). The reference to Celibidache is a logical one. This director was deeply involved in Zen Buddhism and was equally interested in the nowness of a performance, even as a director. Very often adjusting his directions according to the performance space and its acoustics. For that same reason he was not at all interested in having his performances recorded since he was convinced that these could not match
the true live experience.

Music is a state of consciousness for Hamel. “My prepared piano drives from a silent state of the performer, “the voice of silence”, “Storm over Asia and calm” was the first recording on 1972. The prepared piano is a newly built Instrument symbolising my state of consciousness.” Preparing a piano allows Hamel to reset his mind, to create conditions that force him to be in the moment, that force him to play a conventional instrument in new ways. The piano is, after all, one of the most rigid instruments for an instrumentalist to perform on. There are hardly any parameters of expression besides dynamics and pitch. A piano does not allow for bending tones, glissando, vibrato, overblowing. It’s an instrument that symbolizes a high point of technical virtuosity, strict organisation and allows for very controlled performance with very little to no room for accidents and imperfections. The piano is the ultimate tool and platform for the Zeitgeist of classicist and romantic anthropocentrism and egocentrism. Breaking the boundaries of the piano is the same as going against the establishment. Satie was one of the first composers to realise that, and by doing so, he opened the doors for the modern and the avantgarde, breaking down the idea of the suffering creative genius, of the godlike status of composer and virtuoso performer alike. Music as furniture. Music as ways to separate yourself from the ego. Music in the shape of a pear. Music with room to forget oneself.
“Cage’s prepared piano is written down. In score. The preparation is fixed. "Sonatas and interludes" written in 1947 has been related to Scarlatti sonatas in form: two pages with repetition signs,” Hamel states, implying his own preparations are not fixed and his performances are improvised hereby allowing him to truly explore and improvise on a newly created instrument. When asked if he doesn’t feel limited by the strictness of the instrument, he clarifies: “That is the reason to prepare the instrument: to get vibrations, interferences, modulations, different associations like bell sounds or drum sounds.”
Music, experiencing and performing it, is a spiritual thing. It’s a tool to forget oneself, to transcend the individual through connecting with an audience. Considering the difference between improvising on his own as opposed to in front of an audience he is unambiguous: “There is a big difference! An audience is cooperating and an important part of a Performance! But if IT happens I do forget listeners and myself for moments.” Stressing the IT, referring to the moment the transcendence kicks in, the trance, the zone in which audience and performer become one great unlimited stream of communication and awareness. Being in sound. Being sound. Nada Brahma. “Nada Brahma - the world is sound” is the title of a book by Joachim-Ernst Berendt: “Berendt’s “Nada Brahma” has been fairly inspired by my book “Through music to the self”. Berendt has been a friend and the producer of
 our record “Hesse Between Music” in 1974. I knew him since 1961 when he invited John Coltrane into his television series "Jazz gehört und gesehen" SWF Baden Baden. But Jochen, as I called him, did build up a kind of religious mission (his father was a priest).” Both books have become very important works in relation to improvised music. Riley again: “His book, “Through music to self”, is one of the most important writings on the nature of sound and it's origins in ancient traditions. This book has had an enormous impact on the thinking of many musicians and thinkers confronted for the first time with the treasury of ideas it revealed. It amplified some of the experiences I had had in my own pursuit of Indian Classical music. Especially in its connection to the mystical and sacred traditions which are at the root of the classical music of India.”

Hamel seeks to transcend himself, his audience and genres. His quest is that of a mystic: to seek that which we have in common, that which makes us whole. To make musical connections on a level that defies genres and cultures; music that is closer to the root, to the origin. Music that looks at the similarities that unify rather than the differences that separate. He incorporates both the European and the American line of musical thinking, injects that with Eastern and African music and in that process also uses synthesizers. This is a composer who has as much to do with Kosmische Musik as with American Minimalism, although he doesn’t like that idea: “I worked with repetitive Patterns in the 1960s, before I came to know Terry Riley! Before there was the label of minimal, which I dislike,” stressing this fact referring to Terry Riley: "My Music is maximal!" The repetitive patterns have a maximum effect, for sure: “I have abstained from alcohol for eight years now, and should’ve known a long time that with this music I need not drink. This is my surrogate, my freedom. It is being able to fly, it’s swimming, it’s healing,” he further explains in the interview with BR Klassik.
“Germany and Europe are conscious of their past. There is the old idea of Progress and the narrow minded EUROCENTRISM,” Hamel deliberates. I asked him to contemplate the difference between the American and the European Academic tradition. “I do work without the so called Avantgarde LOBBY! These days it can be called Aprèsgarde. Conservatism means copying "modern" music. I called my music integral music or integrative music; a dialogue of different cultures.” Meanwhile we can only marvel at the idea of Hamel meeting up with Karel Goeyvaerts, whose early pieces "Litanie 1-5 for different ensembles" has been of influence on his own oeuvre. They met in Utrecht and Rotterdam in the 70s through mutual friend Frederic Rzewski.

Finally, when I inquire about his former musical partner and friend, Walter Bachauer, I seem to hit a sensitive spot. I was being curious. I love the albums Bachauer made under the moniker Clara Mondshine. Especially "Luna Africana" is a sublime masterpiece. I wanted to know more. “Oh my dear! This Question is touching me. Walter was a deep friend. In West Berlin from 1969-1989. He committed suicide in february 1989. Whenever I meet Michael Hoenig in Ibiza we remember him. Michaels band you should know: Agitation free. Walter was a great Radio redacteur. He was a genius as musicologist. He was the director and inventor of META MUSIC FESTIVAL 1974,1976 and 1978.” He was also member of the amazing “Between” collective, often dismissed as a krautrock/new age ensemble, yet this group is so much more. The output of this collective illustrates a similar vision as that of Hamel’s solo work: holistic and free of categories with Bachauer on electronics, Hamel on keys accompanied by some great improvisers on reeds, strings and percussion. The music of Between flows between worlds, between states of mind, between now and forever...
I didn’t mean to upset the man. I was just trying to measure the depth and awesomeness of these composer-musicians. I feel like I have nevertheless.
Peter Michael Hamel is playing on the KRAAK Festival, and that’s big news and it’s an honour to feature this giant.