conversations & exchanges with Ottmar Liebert

Lawrence Russell | culturecourt

1. Eyeless in Gaza

§ It's raining. Can't see the other side of the bay which is shrouded in sea mist. The ghostly shape of a red coast-guard ship is just discernible, moving so slowly it appears to be drifting with no one at the helm... just like me, I think. Drifting without reason, blind to the future, blind to the past, 'Eyeless in Gaza' as the poet John Milton wrote. Aldous Huxley used that metaphor of the Egyptian Sphinx for the title of his 1936 novel about the bankruptcy of spiritual values in the modern world. The hero ruminates on various stages of his life (flashbacks) before going to Mexico to fight in a revolution, ends up a Buddhist of sorts, embraces pacifism and meditation.

Great insight, lousy novel. Vision first, story second. The last major writer to use the semi-colon.

The laptop chings. It's an email from Ottmar, my old amigo, long time no hear. He's in Lisbon, lucky dog, living la loca vida, has a pad on the north bank of the Tagus, not far from the old inner city quarters of Alfonsa and Barrio Alto where he can easily drop in and check out some gypsy fado, that Portuguese root culture folk music noted for its moody saudade (melancholy) and Iberian beauty. Galleries too -- they paint more than tiles (azulejos) in Lisbon or raise giant statues to the Navigators.

We talk about his latest album, Rain Poems.

"Short tracks," I say. "Beautiful, atmospheric pieces that celebrate the sound of water like audio haiku verses. I know you've done this before, but I sense something special here. I see you dedicated the work to Ryuichi Sakamoto."

"Yes. He died in 2023 while I was working on Rain. He was a very influential composer and musician. Love his work."

"Ever meet him?"

"No, never met Sakamoto. Followed his career and liked his work a lot. I remember his music for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence... might have been my entry point. I wasn't a fan of the YMO, but liked a lot of his solo work."

Behind the Mask was his, an international club hit. Early use of the vocorder on the vocals. 1978. The Yellow Magic Orchestra. A bit trashy perhaps although fun. Might owe something to the Joe Meek pop sound.

"Have you listened to any of his piano pieces?" says Ottmar.


"Vrioon or BTTB, for instance. BTTB means "Back To The Basics'."

"No, haven't heard those."

So I check out Sakamoto's piano works. I hear Debussy in there, a clean acoustic sound with haunting melodies. Ottmar's music is like that -- lots of space, lots of dynamics, melodies that seem to drift in from the other side of the mountain.

Mind you, he does use rhythm a lot more than these Belle Epoque romantics like Debussy or Eric Satie. Luna Negra, his gig combo. Great backing rhythm.

"Really like your 'Elephant Ear' track with those muted strings."

"I stuck a sponge under the strings. Just having fun with the sound."

"Very good. Abuse is the mother of invention."

"Well I'm not into smashing guitars and amps."

"Like the blues riff in Elephant too -- like shooting sideways spits of rain. Nothing frenzied, just a clean line that hooks the listener. Reminds me of that bluesy flamenco in Running the Dunes from Fete (2019)."

Much of what OL is doing in Rain Poems was present in earlier compositions such as Cocteau (ping ponging) or that great live track from a Luna Negra concert in Sao Paulo, Brazil (the ambient forest sounds blended into a percussive underlay). He's continually distilling the metaphor -- the extraction of music from the natural world -- to a Zen simplicity. Tracks like La Mesita, which is themed about a small bedside table (suitable for a lamp and a prelude to dream, say)... or the slow 'hit the road Jack' pattern of Raven Blue, a flamenco evocation of sunny shores and carefree hours.

"By the way, what are you drinking these days?"

"Why sake, of course. I like Soto."

"Expensive, isn't it?"

"Not for something as special as this stuff is. Yesterday the check out person at the grocery store called me the Sake guy. Is that why this excellent bottle of Sake is on sale for 25% off, I asked, because I am the only person who buys it? Yes, she said. That’s fine by me, I replied, more for me…"

"You were in Japan recently."

"Yes. Nice visit."

"Ah, some cultural appropriation."

"Appropriation -- don't get me going on that."

"Yes, let's skip the cultural politics. As the old madman Artaud said, blah blah blah, messieurs!"

I start walking around the room, feels like some of that Lisbon sunshine is breaking through the mist that sits on the water like a veil between Vancouver Island and the other side of the horizon.

Ottmar Liebert in Tokyo 2023

Ottmar Liebert, nuevo flamenco guitarist extraordinaire in Tokyo

2. Educated Hands

§ I read more Huxley, listen to some Sakamoto. 'Vrioon' has some beautiful piano with an electronic pulse by Alva Noto, a German composer and multi-media artist from Karl-Marx-City. A friend comments: "Cool distortion and New Age superb." Right on. I can see what Ottmar likes about Sakamoto -- he has that Japanese 'ukiyo-e', the floating world vibe, that Zen sense of spaciality where the Infinite lurks and the mind melds.

Back to Rain Poems: musicians like to talk tech, gear, the tools of creation.

"I am using software called SPAT Revolution that was created by the famed Ircam in Paris," says Ottmar. "I'm not sure I like it better than regular stereo. Also only works with headphones or surround sound speakers."

Well, I ditched my surround sound in favour of good old stereo (have dozens of vintage amps & receivers stashed away) but do have a nice pair of Sennheiser HD 598s, so the spacial range of Rain Poems sounds pretty damn good, especially the binaural mix of the track African Rain. Here the ambient setting is a sibilant mix of rain and tin pot rattles. Could be Mali before the war, could be lots of places in West Africa. Or quite possibly the Iberian Peninsula, which gets a lot of its weather coming in from old Africa. The guitar refrain cascades like softly pleasant rain, and the rhythm engages trance.

Out-of-the-body 101.

"Very cool," I say. "Did you really record this in your flat in Lisbon?"

"All of it, the entire album, was recorded 'on the run' in Lisbon and my place on the east coast."

"You get around, brother. You're Star Trek."

"Thanks... again."

"Big kick in African Rain, like an elephant stomp."

"Yeah, that kick is huge. Not sure what I think of Spacial Audio. Will experiment some more."

"I suppose you can lose harmonic blend if there's too much space. But you've worked in binaural recording before."

"Yeah, The Fritz recordings. That was real binaural."

I remember writing about Fritz. Ottmar has always been seeking ways to get motion into the recording field. Seem to remember a vid where he strolled around the "Fritz" recording head in his Santa Fe home studio, setting up a slow sonic vortex. The Fritz mic head might remind you of an Easter Island statue or a post-modern sculpture. OL often seems to be seeking the sweet spot between here and the other side of the horizon.

'You got educated hands, baby'."

"Is that from a movie?"

"Yep. Dame steals the tough guy's wallet but he gets it back during a clinch, says..."

"You got educated hands, baby... so should I watch this?"

"Nope. One good line, that's it."

"Sometimes that's all you need, Lawrence."

I grunt, think, tell that to Huxley.

3. Artificial Intelligence

Note from a broker, Feb 23:

'NVDA market cap soared $300 Billion on Thursday, the largest ever one-day market cap gain by an individual stock - equivalent to over TWICE the market cap of the Royal Bank of Canada!

Stock indices worldwide rallied with NVDA’s surge above $2 Trillion.

Stock market sentiment is SO BULLISH that you gotta wear shades!'

What is NVDA? Nvidia - they make the graphics cards for computers, says my son. They’re making Artificial Intelligence chips now which is why the market’s excited.

Wonderful, I think. Like splitting the atom and selling shares in nuclear weapons. Be good for artists, some people think. Everyone can now get in on the act.

What does Ottmar think?

"No idea where AI will take us," he says. "Uncreative people will use it to pretend to be creative."

"The Dunning Kruger Effect...."

"Corporations will use it to write music and books so they don't have to pay artists. Some stores will play AI generated music so they don't have to pay BMI and ASCAP. Studios will use it to create virtual actors... it's all just late stage capitalism, IMO. It always gets worse before it gets better. In the past some of the things currently going on in world culture always led to wars... hopefully we can avoid that this time around. That would be an achievement."

"It certainly would."

"AI should help creative people with the tedious stuff... like discovering all of the 200 million protein blocks of life, rather than helping tedious people appear creative, which is mostly happening now. I am interested in what it will/can do in twenty years."

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4. Dharma Transmission

'The word Buddhism was only coined by Europeans in the last few hundred years. For two millennia Buddhists were simply known as people who followed the Dharma. The word Dharma, like many Sanskrit words, has a wide range of meanings and can’t be translated into a single English word. However, a general description that works well enough for this purpose is path. It’s a path or prescription that can be followed.' (Ottmar Liebert, Journal, Feb 23, 2024)

Being a literary fellow, I think naturally of Jack Kerouac's 'Dharma Bums' (1958), the lesser known followup to the famous keystone Beat novel 'On the Road.' Here the tragically hip get into solitude, nature and the rituals of Zen.

Many people will have read the Zen poet Matsuo Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the 1694 travelogue wherein Basho details his journey between shrines and temples in Edo period Japan. Basho is considered the master of the haiku form, a short poem that seeks to evoke the transitory nature of things as well as their interconnectedness. This is essentially what Ottmar Liebert is doing with Rain Poems, creating a series of short audio poems using ambient sounds -- rain, bamboo rattles, etc -- as mood patinas behind his evocative flamenco guitar melodies / riffs.

Next time we talk he's at his other domicile, east coast USA, getting ready to hit the road, gig here, gig there. I ask him about the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. Late period Takemitsu compositions are water-themed.

"I think I discovered him with his soundtrack for the movie Ran by Kurosawa. Used to like to listen to his recordings, especially late at night. Very evocative and unlike anything else."

For me, it was his score for Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes, although at the time I thought the sound track was just SFX.

Takemitsu was all over the place with his experimentation -- solo piano, orchestral, electronic ambient / acoustic ambient, etc. He liked "loud silence" as a technique, caesurae every bit as important as the 'absent' notes. He liked guitar. His 1981 composition Toward the Sea features contrapuntal flute and guitar.

"I love this," says Ottmar, and quotes: 'Various examples of Takemitsu's S–E–A motive, derived from the German spelling of the notes E?, E, A ("Es–E–A") When spelt in German (Es–E–A), the motive can be seen as a musical "transliteration" of the word "sea". Takemitsu used this motive (usually transposed) to indicate the presence of water in his "musical landscapes", even in works whose titles do not directly refer to water.'

Beautiful, I think. An instance when a personal coding becomes a sub-text for the mystical intent of the music. Artistic synesthesia, so to speak. This man was deep. According to the BBC radio documentary Into The Garden he listened to the radio a lot when he was ill for years after growing up in Manchuria. There's a drifting quality to his work, both sonically and intellectually, like a butterfly inspecting a beautiful garden. He just liked noise of any sort, pastoral or urban. Takemitsu appears to have been completely intuitive from the get-go. Would've been a great guy to have had a drink with in some dive, talk the talk with. I think Ryuichi Sakamoto owes a lot to Takemitsu. No Toru, no Ryuichi.

Well, as the saying goes, we all walk in the footsteps of the master.

Rain Poems Limited Edition

Ottmar Liebert Rain Poems 100 signed Limited Editon ["When they are gone, they are gone"]

5. Rain Poems: On the Road

February 2024 California
OL – Flamenco Guitar
Jon Gagan – Electric Bass Guitar + Acoustic Upright Bass
Robby Rothschild – Drums + Percussion

Ottmar's been on the road last half of February, playing venues in California as a trio. Jon Gagan on bass, Robby Rothchild on percussion... a tight unit, friends for years... tight, like three samurai riding in to save the village.

It's been raining big time on the west coast, especially in the SoCal area. The Pineapple Express from Hawaii, blows in seasonally off the Pacific dumping lots of moisture and red dirt from the islands. It's brutal this year, causing landslides, dumping subdivisions, cars and trucks like toys cast off mercilessly by experimenting kids.

The trio open the tour at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, south Orange Country, a venue they've played many times. All the famous cats with 'educated hands' and educated lungs have appeared here -- Chris Isaak, Tom Jones, The Thunderbirds, Duke Robillard, Pat Boone, Joan Osborne... Judy Collins... Herman's Hermits... Huxley & the Sphinx.

"33 years ago we performed at the Coach House for the first time," says OL. "The venue opened in 1980 and was already legendary when we arrived in 1991. Hundreds, maybe even around a thousand signed photos line the walls. Everybody has played on that stage."

And how about Rain Poems?

'Edition of 100. Each CD burned by me, signed and numbered. Offered for sale to Backstage members at $54, which is the price of a CD from the 1980s adjusted for inflation. Anyone who isn’t a Backstage member can buy the CD for the price of $108. Shipping is a flat $20. The album can be purchased on Bandcamp on March 1st. First come first serve. When they are gone they are gone.'

Wish I was there to see old Luna Negra. Not so long ago I could've driven down the coast easy, two fast days, maybe. Now I'm just looking at the bay, the soft misty rain, the grey band that covers the water. There's an opening, and a large orca whale breaks the surface. Black mantle, white belly, tail like a machete. Then it's gone, except for a ripple heading north.

© LR Feb 28 '24

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