Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
When I was a teenager, I never thought of pursuing a career as a pianist. I used to play a lot of classical and romantic piano repertoire but just for the personal joy of playing. I was much more into rock and punk music. The life of a classical musician seemed to be quite boring and bourgeois to me, even after starting my piano studies at university. At this point I was totally uninterested in any contemporary classical music and pieces I heard by composers like Boulez or Stockhausen sounded too academic for my taste. At the time, I didn’t know about contemporary genres like minimalism or any electro-acoustic music and I never imagined that there could be “classical” composers out there influenced by the same music as me. My view completely shifted after I started listening to “The people united will never be defeated” by Frederic Rzewski. The eclecticism of this work, the political attitude, and the combination of elements from both popular and classical music made me reconsider my view of what a pianist is able to express on stage. From this point on I wanted to be a professional pianist.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Frederic Rzewski definitely had a large effect on my decision to pursue a career as a pianist but, for my own musical style, there are a wide range of influences. I admire composers like George Antheil and Henry Cowell for their uncompromising and radical approaches towards the piano as a noisy sound monster, but also composers like Erik Satie or Philip Glass who are able to create an almost transcendental sound out of the most simplistic material. At the moment I’m very much into post-rock, which to me feels like a mash-up of both of these sound aesthetics. This mood somewhere between mania and meditation is what I try to transfer to the piano when doing my own arrangements.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
At the end of my studies after I was about to leave the comfort zone of the university, I recognised that I was a classical pianist but with quite a strange repertoire and an unusual way of setting up my concert programs. I felt too superficial for the contemporary music hardliners, too progressive for the classical traditionalists but still too serious to be part of the popular culture. Falling between these schools became my niche. I liked the idea of being kind of intangible for the audience, and it gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself with every new project or album. But that’s sometimes a long journey.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Every recording is a very unique project to me, reflecting just a current idea or an aesthetical statement at a certain point of my life so I would say that there isn’t one particular album I’m most proud of. There is, however, obviously always a moment after finishing each album when you feel a great sense of pride as a result of all of the hard work put in: from the first conceptual idea to the last mixing session.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I stopped playing Beethoven piano sonatas in concerts after I recognised that my interpretations had nothing more to add to the interpretations I’d already heard by all those great pianists. I’m convinced that you can only be a true musician if you have something new to say through the music you play. My motivation as a musician is not to try and imitate what hundreds of pianists have previously done before me but to explore hidden links within different genres by reworking pieces or discovering rarely performed works. I hugely favour American piano music; from George Gershwin’s colourful jazzy rhythms, to the dark and sensual soundscapes of George Crumb, to the works of the American minimalists. This music suits me best.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
The process usually starts with a piece that I’m obsessed with at the time. This work then forms the conceptual basis for a new program. In the case of “Beauty in Simplicity”, there was a track called “A new error” by German techno group Moderat. This work reminded me of Philip Glass’ piano works. My first thought was then to prepare a program that picks up on classical minimalism but also explores elements of Techno and Ambient Music. There is a strong aesthetical connection between Brian Eno and the music of Erik Satie so there was suddenly a new storyline going back to the 19th century. For the next step, I went through a lot of original piano music repertoire as well as tracks I wanted to rearrange for piano. From this, I compiled a set ranging from the Paris salons to Berghain held together by the compositional ideas of patterns and loops.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I really love playing in planetariums. I started this two years ago with my “Insomnia” program and I am planning on doing this with my upcoming album “Beauty in Simplicity”. It’s a place that gives me the opportunity to create a very special concert experience by combining the music with fulldome visual art and building up a three-dimensional soundscape. You’ll hardly find this kind of hypnotic atmosphere in any other concert venue.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I think it was when I first performed Rzewski´s “The people united will never be defeated” back in 2009. I worked on this masterpiece for almost two years until I had the courage to go on stage with it. I was totally absorbed into the background story of the piece. Playing this piece felt like being part of a revolutionary fight using the notes as weapons. There was just so much adrenaline released during these 65 minutes of music.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
There is always a sense of ambivalence in the life of an interpreting artist: are you a servant of the performed work or should the work serve to the performer? I feel successful if both of these are fulfilled: by making another’s work my own either on stage or during a recording.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
As a pianist I can say: don’t expect to be a universal genius, focus on a repertoire that fits your personality and makes you authentic. If you were a pop musician, no one would tell you to play jazz today, heavy metal tomorrow and drum ‘n’ bass the day after, just because it’s all part of the pop culture. Classical pianists are often expected to cover more than 300 years of music history. A classical education requires you to play Bach just as well as Mozart, Chopin or Stravinsky. Find the mistake.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Like a famous German entertainer once said: “having nowhere to be and being tipsy”.
Kai Schumacher’s new album Beauty in Simplicity is released on 1 September
Kai Schumacher delights in pushing the boundaries between classical and popular music while avoiding the wellworn clichés “Crossover.” Boasting an impressive pedigree, Kai studied at the renowned Folkwang University Essen with Prof. Till Engel, passing his „Konzertexamen“ with distinction in 2009. Since then, like a musical mad scientist, he has been constantly experimenting and combining seemingly incompatible elements with surprising results. His solo performances are acts of pure musical – and stylistic – alchemy, serving up heady mixes of Dadaism and Dancefloor, Avantgarde and Pop culture – sometimes all at once!
When not engaged in genre-defying pursuits, Kai Schumacher‘s repertoire focuses on American piano music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His debut recording of Frederic Rzewski‘s monumental “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (2009) was hailed by Fono Forum magazine as a “pianistic sensation” and voted CD of the month. On his second album, “Transcriptions” (2012), he bravely turned to the musical heroes of his youth – Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, Slayer and others – remixing them and transforming the concert grand into a four squaremeter sound monster, a mechanical sound-effects board, complete with prepared percussion. His third album “Insomnia” (2015) is the story of a nocturnal odyssey, at once soothing and disturbing. It´s five restless “hymns” to the night feature the works of five American composers written over the past 80 years.
On his current album „Beauty in simplicity“ (September 2017, NEUE MEISTER) Kai Schumacher is combining original piano compositions with his own arrangements for „enhanced piano“ to create a repetitive set between meditation und mania. Including works from three centuries ranging from Erik Satie through Steve Reich to Moderat Minimal Music meets its classical pioneers and descendants in Ambient, Techno and Post-Rock.
Kai Schumacher also works as a producer, regularly appears as an orchestral soloist and has toured throughout Europe, Asia and North- and South-America.
(artist photo by Bonny Cölfen)