Interview – Everybody has to find his own way


Christoph Stiefel is a Swiss jazz pianist and composer based in Zurich. Active since more than 30 years, he ran through a unique development, beginning with a career start without any diploma of a musical academy.
In 2014, he was invited to play the 3rd Hauskonzert at chrigu’s home in Fribourg.
The next day we had an extensive conversation about jazz and everything. That’s why it took so long.

Today you will also play at Theatre du Bilboquet here in Fribourg. It is an evening with music and red wine. Do you like these variations of cultural events?

Sure. Well, for me it doesn’t change much. In general, the only thing I don’t like is, when concerts take too long. Like Vijay Iyer, an Indian jazz musician. The first set took 70 minutes, then you thought: ok, this is it. Then he came for another more than 70 minutes. This was way too much. Especially in America, this doesn’t happen normally. There they have the „set-system“. One set of 60 minutes, then the audience changes. Like that, as a promoter, you have the chance to program also expensive artists and secure the budget for experiments.

The Blue Note Sessions by Keith Jarrett took also quite long.

Yes, but they endured for seven sessions. Nothing special regarding the set times there.

Do you agree with his particular theory of improvised music?

I do not know something like „his particular theory of improvised music“, but I sure like his playing a lot. Some of his recordings I like less, for example Bridge of Light, – for me that’s too sweet.
And I don’t like his judgements of other artists. When he decides about his own recordings, he has to listen to it 70 times. But other musicians he rejects after listening to them for 15 seconds.

At a certain point I passed on his cosmos. You can not compete with him, he is a genius.
His musical world is fantastic, but after a while, it might feel, like you smell everyday the same perfume…you finally want to go on and discover new odors. When you have left Keith Jarrett’s music after many intensive years, it feels different, when you go back to listen to him after a while. I always observe this kind of process with my students, but Keith Jarrett will always be a very special figure in jazz music.

Any comparisons?

Herbie Hancock. Very early, in the band of Miles Davis, he just played revolutionary stuff. He worked a lot with diminished scales. He was probably the first musician in jazz who included a lot of interesting early 20th century developments of classical music.

What is on with your group?

With my Inner Language Trio we will play at Cully Jazz Festival, then in London with my new septet and so on. To work with seven members is very interesting but requires also a lot of basic work (In the meantime, the Septet-CD „Rhythm-a-tized“ was released internationally in march 2016 by Challenge Records). I just had a sabbatical semester from Jazz School Lucerne. First New York, then Australia. It was great.

Do you work permanently with a management?

I had and have some agents. But the problem is, mostly, they don’t deliver! No gigs, no anything.
Either you have a project, which you promote yourself, or you wait for something to happen by an agent. But there is so much music around, it is difficult for everybody.
An agent just sends out emails. There your project appears on the fifth page or so. This leads to nowhere. For four years I had a German agent with a lot of experience. But also he could only organize four gigs in four years.
Colin Vallon has the same problem. He signed at ECM, but to get gigs is still difficult for him.
And, my Isorhythms are much more difficult to promote.

A Jazz Manager from Berne told me, that he knows these problems very well. Too much offers out there.

I know him. He was in an important jury in Germany once. Although he supported me, it didn’t work out with a gig for me there.
Around 20 % of my gigs come from external requests. And this is already a high rate. The rest I organize myself. Soon there will be an emission about my music on the most important jazz radio from Germany. Also the gig in Cully is quite a surprise. I’m not sure if it happens because of my new CD, my new, young collaborators or whatever. The responsible manager there just booked us for this years edition. A lot to consider for me always, how and where to invest my time precisely.

Kind of a strange business.

You name it. You should never think that labels are above all interested in art. They are enterprises. At the end it’s always the outcome that counts.

Is it appropriate to say that Keith Jarrett was a very important factor for the development of ECM.

Yes, but not only him. Once in Lucerne for a colloquial, Manfred Eicher (chief of ECM) said, that with the money coming in from the sales of from the „Köln concert“ , he could engage an additional employee at ECM. Other artists like Jan Garbarek were also very successful and helped ECM to grow.
Today no one is booked only because of his contract with ECM. These times are gone. You will get some interest though internationally. I think in the classical music scene it is quite the same.

I remember my previous teacher saying that it is absolutely not recommendable to try to become a pro nowadays. It is too difficult. And recently I met a young Chinese pianist who graduated in Bern, very gifted, but until today he couldn’t find any engagement in whole Switzerland.

Never forget the mental factor in the whole happening. You have to be very, very resilient to survive in this business and, at the same time, try to continue your own endeavor in music.

I also realize this with my new teacher in Bern. There is a latent competition situation since he is there. And he already had some serious issues with the professors there, also when he was a teacher at the HKB himself.

I always have an open ear for young colleges. It’s just hard to observe them struggling with the rules of the business. And if I can, I give them tips how to organize their career.
In the educational sector of cultural management they sometimes state that I’d be one of the most successful self managing swiss jazz musicians.
Most of the young artists claim that today only special musical concepts would work out, not the music itself. But in my opinion this is not the case. It is not the concepts only, but it is the tremendous energy, time and creative input, some artists put into their projects, which makes the difference, instead of just playing great.
Like Nik Bärtsch: He exclusively works on his own projects, The Ritual Groove Music.
It just blows you away when you see it for the first time. My music has kind of similar rhythmic structures, but my music it is also about melodies, harmonies and improvisation..
The only problem is, that even with all those efforts, there is still the possibility, that it doesn’t find enough admirers.

My credo is, you always have to try to analyze and understand the situation you’re in. Then there is less reason to be frustrated. Since ten years I visit the Jazz Ahead in Bremen (biggest Jazz fair in Europe), which means always an investment around 1000 CHF for me.
I once met a leading manager of Universal there. I showed him my music, he liked it very much, but still he refused a collaboration. But, not without a 30 minutes explanation about his decision and their marketing strategy’s, which was very interesting for me. It just didn’t fit into their strategy. And, for example, a Jazz Festival promoter told me, that they received 3500 records as offers for the their last festival.
When you know about all of this, you don’t feel like complaining so much any more. That’s just the business.

Then this new studies in cultural management really make sense?

Yes, depending on the experience of the professors perhaps.

How did you join the academy in Lucerne?

I first worked in Zürich. The responsible person in Lucerne was an internet pioneer and ordered 3 Macs for the school as quite the first in whole Switzerland. And he wanted me to teach in the amateur keyboard sector. They observed me for 4 years, and then they offered a professional class to me. Still today I’m not elected as a regular piano professor. But „Performance Master“ students can choose me as their teacher, if they want to.

Until now I’m totally ok with the fact that I didn’t visit an academy yet.

It’s often the case that you have to learn a lot of things there without a visible link to your personal future. If you do not study music, it is different…Take Arvo Pärt for example: He was a trained technician originally. And later he emerged into composing. Or Eric Satie. He worked in music only besides.

He finished his definitive studies only in his forties. Before he worked in the comedian sector.

Everybody has to find his own way.

John Cage once stated: If he would have to decide between Beethoven or Satie, he would choose Satie.

Well then…

Thank you very much for the interview and have fun tonight at Theatre Du Bilboquet!