An Interview With Moritz von Oswald

Michael McKinney speaks to the German electronic music pioneer about how his latest album Silencio explores the history of Italian opera, listening to music in three dimensions, and more.
By    January 29, 2024

Image via Alain Benoit

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Simplicity in composition is nearly always a lie. If you stretch out a single note, slowing down and taking time to revel in its intricacies, it can reveal entire worlds. Moritz von Oswald understands this. The German electronic-music pioneer studied percussion and opera before finding his way towards synthesizers; in the time since, he has built a career upon sounds that beg to be played forever, each repeated drum-machine stab or synth gurgle only deepening their trance.

As part of Basic Channel and Rhythm & Sound, von Oswald was a major player in early dub techno, creating a universe of barely-there techno pieces that sound like a dancefloor coated in amber: A kick drum that doubles as a heartbeat, an ever-growing cloud of static, and very little else. Just as dancefloors will always have a space for out-and-out club tools, ready to be looped into infinity, a headphone connoisseur’s playlist will always want for music that is texturally rich and a bit emotionally unsettled. von Oswald’s music, again and again, does both.

If you trace this approach—nominally minimalist but functionally maximalist—it’s not long before you find yourself deep in the history books. In 1987, John Cage unveiled a new composition, entitled Organ² / ASLSP (As Slow as Possible). (In 2001, a church in Germany started playing it; they are estimated to complete the piece in 2640.) The works of twentieth-century minimalists, like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, are concerned with wringing as much as possible out of microscopically changing ideas, wrapping near-identical rhythms around each other until they become wholly unrecognizable. The annals of liturgical religious music are filled with outright psychedelic sounds, with densely clustered voices stretching towards the sky.

This may seem like an unusual reference point for von Oswald, but he is no stranger to disorientation. Since the end of his work with Basic Channel, he has moved into all sorts of parts unknown: Shimmering and shuffling jazz fusion; dubbed-up and freaked-out folk music; and even the occasional foray into zonked-out dub techno. His latest record, entitled Silencio, underlines the importance of rhythm to his work; even in his most wigged-out compositions, there’s something of a pulse.

Silencio doesn’t quite discard that rhythmic focus, but it does sideline it: Here, von Oswald cedes the podium to a 16-piece choir and drops the floor out. It’s mind-bending choral music that sounds immediate and ancient at once, collapsing centuries of compositional practice into something that feels, somehow, suspended outside of it. The record’s sixty-odd minutes feel equally inspired by liturgical Mass and deep-space synthesizer music. It is beautiful and spine-tinglingly unsettling, and frequently both at once: A mass of stained glass, human voices straining towards infinity, and whisper-quiet electronics.

Late last year, a call over Zoom, Moritz von Oswald went deep on Silencio, talking about his connections to opera, his interest in “reduction,” the value of listening architecturally, embracing imperfections, and lots more.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

What’s some of the first art that you remember really connecting with you?

Moritz von Oswald: The first art I connected with was the art of my mother. She was an artist, and she studied. She went to the Hamburg art university, which still exists, and I was confronted with [visual art] by then. It’s the first thing I perceived very closely. It was always important to me; it was a very delicate thing which developed the consciousness to care about [record] sleeves. It moved something in me, this visual experience.

In the field of music, something is starting when things are given more and more importance doing sound installations in museums. In that way, there’s a connection developing between visual art and music, and I like that. My mother influenced my music, too. I took it very personally. My father studied to be a concert pianist, and my brother was a guitarist. There was always music around us, and always different kinds. My father had a classical background because of his family; my brother was doing jazz.

Do you practice visual art at all?

Moritz von Oswald: Practice? No, I can’t do that.

My understanding is that you found your way to music towards classical percussion. How’d you find your way towards making music yourself?

Moritz von Oswald: I discovered a drum set in the back room of my school. When I saw it, I knew it was going to determine my life. My brain was reacting very deeply to everything that was coming out of this instrument: Sound-wise, rhythmically, everything. It was remarkable.

How did you find your way towards electronic music?

Moritz von Oswald: The first time, it was a synthesizer I saw in a shop. It reminded me of the sound of percussion instruments—its depth and immediacy. I was very close to it because of these similarities. This is something I can say came through drum sounds, because drum sounds sounded really close to me.

My understanding is that a lot of Silencio pulls explicitly from Italian opera. Where did this interest come from?

Moritz von Oswald: I studied opera in high school. We went deep into the history, the sound, and the concept. I was interested in the brightness of the sound, and in recognizing how far a vocal can go. About opera, I say, you have to like it or not. But once you like it, you can’t live without it. I connected with it quite immediately in high school. [I was also drawn to it] because the orchestra, and percussion, are in a dig in front of the stage. It’s how films were scored when that started: The orchestra did music in front of the screen. So there were some similarities: A certain kind of kinship between film scores and the performance of operas. There’s a special immediate energy, which is amazing and very powerful.

Are you talking about the structure of how the place is laid out, or the architecture of it? What are you speaking towards?

Moritz von Oswald: Do you mean energy-wise? It’s the concentration, and the perfection that comes from playing without having any visual connection between the stage and the music. The visual connection comes through the conductor. It’s beautiful when it works well. The choir is in the back of the stage, too. When this connection works, it’s really hard to resist that energy. This is why opera attracted me: the conductor, the audience, the orchestra, the choir, and the singers. [laughs]

Was the Berlin performance structured in a similar way?

Moritz von Oswald: It was an experiment. The church was kind of an empty space, and it was hard to get the sound in line. It had stone walls, so it was difficult to manage the reverb and reflection, but we got it. I tried to play in a very reduced way. I don’t like the word “minimal”, but I wanted to reduce my contributions. There was a huge respect from the Berlin audience; it was quite packed. I really like that Berlin is interested in all of this: Something really experimental. This was really surprising; it’s not a pop event. Everyone was well-prepared: The choir, the singers, the choir leader. We gave back what the audience brought: interest and respect. This is something I’m always up for, giving respect. It was a good moment.

You referenced your discomfort with “minimalism,” and you brought up the idea of reducing, instead. Can you help me understand that tension?

Moritz von Oswald: I wouldn’t say it’s on purpose. Getting something across with some very reduced [approaches]—minimalism, if you will—is more attractive to me than gluing things together, or making a soup, if you will. For me, sometimes, it feels better to have only one note whose colors change. I pay attention to: How do we change the sound of this? Not through any weird effects. That would be gluing things together.

I would say: If you had one rope, and you had a really nice knot with this one note—one rope—it can be very complex. If you say, “I have two ropes, which can weave,” I’m also interested in that. Really nice textiles can come out of this. If you get people to concentrate on what is happening in very reduced material, then this is possible. I wouldn’t say I want to educate, but concentration can change the perceivement of tone materials.

If you have, for example, one rhythm that is put together really well, and you listen to it for a day, it will grow. I don’t mean something from a drum machine, although that would work too, of course. These are all coming from something I can follow, like the one-note concept. This is something I feel; it makes me happy. If it’s too much, it’s too many layers. Layers can be beautiful. I’m trying to compose different[ly], because I’m satisfied if I don’t put together too many things. Maybe there’s something really complex, like tone blocks, which can be really beautiful and very strong.

Image via Helge Mundt

Talk to me about your connection to dub. You, of course, have a very long history with it. I’m curious: What about it spoke to you when you first heard it? How does it inform your work now, if it does?

Moritz von Oswald: It’s the rareness of moments which are coming through very deeply, and sometimes, very briefly. I like to have quiet moments. Sometimes, in dub, if you pay attention, some small things appear. It’s that concentration that I remember [from] when I first heard it. I understood it as very rare to find these [moments]. They only appear if you’re really quiet. It’s the same thing: if you pay attention, and if you listen apart from what’s happening to the music, there’s the center, and there’s the sides. It’s about trying to perceive what’s happening on the side, or above, or behind. This is my understanding: To listen architecturally; not only for the foreground, but also for what is happening [elsewhere].

Are you saying that, through dub, you learned to listen spatially?

Moritz von Oswald: I see it maybe as a kind of picture which is always three-dimensional. I perceive it like this: there are different levels, and there’s a background, and a foreground, and there are sides.

Does that idea of listening inform your current work?

Moritz von Oswald: I would say it comes from [the] heart. It’s about exploring. I could go to my listening room in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t call it a studio: It’s a sound room. I could start and not stop. It doesn’t have to be very loud. This is also something I learned from classical percussion: Sometimes, it’s almost inaudible. If you listen to the beginning of [Ravel’s] Boléro, it’s ultra-piano: pianissimo. If you played it louder, the conductor would say it’s wrong. There’s no right or wrong, but it’s not the intention of the piece. The intention of that piece is to grow; in the end, it’s like a release. Piano and pianissimo can be really quiet. If you listen to a classical concert, and if it’s a good room, then the pianissimo is still audible. Maybe not for everybody, but I can hear it.

With Silencio, you’ve said that you’re using melodies that you’ve carried with you for years. Can you tell me about that?

Moritz von Oswald: The first time I could put it down, I knew this was the right melody to develop. It felt familiar, and it felt really close to me. I didn’t carry it around with me without reason. To get to it very closely felt right.

Did you know this was going to be a choral project from the beginning?

Moritz von Oswald: Yeah. This was at the time when things were getting difficult; singers didn’t want to rehearse because they’d have to get close to each other. When recording started—that was something I’ll never forget: Realizing that what I have carried around with me was going to be real. At some points, I couldn’t imagine getting it done because of all these challenges. I’m really glad with how far we got.

Were there any particular composers, or eras of composition, or pieces, that you were looking towards with the latest record?

Moritz von Oswald: If I did refer to anything I’d heard before, it was mostly from scores. There’s a quite famous technique in scores called a suspension. It’s fantastic to musically announce the mood of an upcoming situation.

I assume you’re talking about suspended fourths and that kind of thing.

Moritz von Oswald: Yeah. This is something I was really influenced by. It also comes from opera works, which were copied by many, many film composers. I won’t say any names, but we’re talking about the 19th century. If someone’s interested in this approach, it can be explored.

The idea of suspension—where a piece doesn’t immediately announce its emotional intent—is that something you were chasing on the latest record?

Moritz von Oswald: For me, the emotions developed when I was doing it. I could have continued this project for two more years. I wanted to stay in the state I was in. It wasn’t because of the equipment I was using; it’s because of the attraction I found in one note. When I played it to people who didn’t understand what I’m doing, I realized that they wanted to hear more. Somehow, though, it grew.

You’ve got strong associations with beat-driven music. Does this feel like a left turn to you, or is there a throughline from this to your previous work?

Moritz von Oswald: Good question. [laughs] We didn’t come up with the term “dub techno” when we were creating the music. I leave that to other people.

I’m curious about your relationship to improvisation as a style. You’ve done work in jazz; you’ve done work in folk. If my understanding is correct, you tried to get the choir you worked with to improvise. What draws you towards that?

Moritz von Oswald: There’s a track [on Silencio] called “Infinito.” I was trying to explore how far you can go if you ask a singer to sing one note for as long as they can. And then the next singer takes over the same note, and it will go on endlessly: Infinito. It wasn’t really improvised, but it was, sort of: the moment when the note was taken over was left to the singers. It wasn’t like, “I think you can hold a note for a minute.” I kept all the breathing in the recording, and I love that noise—its imperfection. You can, of course, edit it out, but I didn’t want to do that.

I wouldn’t say I learned that from jazz. But I like mistakes, if you call them that. If there’s something noisy on a track, it’s better to leave it than to try and wipe it out, or “correct” it. I don’t know what is right or wrong. You know what I’m saying?

Yeah. It’s about bringing humility to your own work.

Moritz von Oswald: Yeah. I don’t want to get too far into this. If things are out of tune, I like it, because there’s some rubbing, and energy, there. I’m attracted to things in music which other people call not perfect. I don’t know what “perfect” is, or what’s right or wrong. And I like that I don’t know.

Do you try to chase that friction in your music? It makes me think of, for example, the microtonalitiy on Silencio.

Moritz von Oswald: With microtonality, you can’t go better, I think. It’s been done in contemporary classical music composition. It’s always been very attractive to me, and very important. Sometimes things feel out of tune, but I don’t know what that is—”out.” I know what is in tune.

How connected, in your estimation, is your art and the technology that you use to make it?

Moritz von Oswald: You mean the synthesizers and electronic machines?


Moritz von Oswald: These people are friends. I’m not working against them; I’m communicating with them. Sometimes, very late in the night, when they’re calling me downstairs from my listening room, I need to go. [laughs] It’s a bit humorous. What I’m saying is they scream, but they’re trying to reach me, and I’m open for it.

What’s the last thing one of them taught you?

Moritz von Oswald: Less is more. One snippet of noise—even a crackle—is sometimes enough. Feedback, too. I’ve tried to get close to some instruments in the studio, and they have a presence: Humming, side noises. It never disturbed me; even if it sounds broken, I’m trying to live with it. I’m not trying to repair it. With humming and feedback, I want to go deeper into it. I want to use these elements, and accept and respect them, even if it sounds broken.

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