MEINRAD KNEER on double bass vocabularies

German bass player Meinrad Kneer has just released his solo album ‘Vocabularies’ on his own label Evil Rabbit Records. An album with only double bass? Yes! The idea of a complete album played with only double bass may seem odd and probably boring, but it is far from that! Through the years Meinrad has developed his own vocabulary on this giant instrument and proves to be a master of improvisation and creator of intriguing sounds. In spite of the fact that every piece is improvised, there’s a story in every one of them and the balance of moods, atmospheres, feelings and tones makes the album a fascinating piece of music with some real ‘wow’-moments. Meinrad Kneer is not just a technical master of his instrument, but also a great musician who creates real content throughout the eleven pieces of ‘Vocabularies’ with final piece 'Music For Bumble Bees' being the ultimate 'wow'!. (Geert Ryssen)

I had an interesting Q & A with Meinrad that puts more light on his playing and his art.

The album is called ‘Vocabularies’. Is it like a study about what you can do on your instrument?

‘The title of my solo album refers to my perception, that each improviser is building a completely personal vocabulary of techniques and sounds on his or her instrument in a life time, which makes him or her instantly recognizable to the experienced listener. Of course this vocabulary will change over time and is therefore constantly in evolution and development. Now, after being somewhat 25 years in the music business, I thought it’s time to harvest and look for what I’ve been achieving so far. The recording is essentially meant to document the state of my artistic development at this point in my life.’

The idea of a complete solo record with only double bass may put of a lot of people off at first sight. On ‘Vocabulary’ you show that it shouldn’t!

‘Well, being a double bass player, I love my instrument and its almost endless possibilities and therefore I think it is definitely worth recording a double bass solo record. Of course, like always in music, the player(s) should have something to say to begin with. For me, the instrument is equal to other instruments like the piano, guitar, saxophone, etc. Many amazing bass players have proven that double bass solo recordings can make a beautiful world of their own, just check out Barre Phillips, Barry Guy, Dave Holland, Peter Kowald or Mark Dresser, to name a few. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t see myself in one category with these extraordinary players.’

Are you in search in an active way for new sounds on your instrument?

‘I can’t answer that with a clear yes or no. Being an improviser, I usually find new possibilities while improvising with other players in search of a specific sound that is needed in a specific improvised moment, or while soloing in a group setting. The difficulty is to remember what happened later on and then to be able to reproduce it. But of course, by studying the masters, like for instance the one and only Stefano Scodanibbio, one learns and picks up new techniques. Working with other instrumentalists like the endlessly inspiring violinist Jon Rose or also electronic musicians, you are almost forced to develop new material and sounds while playing. So in the end, it is a mixture of finding and adapting.’

Did you surprise yourself of what is possible with four strings, a pair of hands and a bow?

‘To be honest: no, I wasn’t surprised by myself. I know what I can do on the double bass and what I cannot do. There are certain extended techniques I have been working on over the last few years, but at the end it’s much more important to make these techniques serve my musical ideas and to put them in action without hesitation, in other words, to master them in order to fit into the music.’

How much improvisation is there in the composition and how much improvisation is there in the creation of the sounds you produce?

‘The pieces on the cd are all freely improvised, I didn’t sit down first in order to create a framework or a basic composition. At the same time the musical form is very important for me, I want to tell stories through my improvisations and hope that it works out. I chose to record the music at home in my studio, so I have my equipment available whenever the inspiration and the urge to create is there. This is quite a luxury! If I would have made recordings in a studio setting, with a set time frame, the music would sound different, I’m quite sure. Now, I could collect material over a few weeks and then choose the tracks that fit together and form a nice musical bow. It was difficult at the beginning to kill some darlings, I had to kick out more or less half of the recorded material in order to find a working dramaturgy and a good length for the solo recording.’

What goes on in your head while you are playing these pieces?

‘That’s a difficult question… Preferably I don’t think of anything while improvising and let myself sink into the music in search of a kind of trance-feeling. I would describe this state of mind as a deep concentration, where there is only sound, time flow and physical self-control. Not to let yourself drift away, is the true difficulty here. To find a perfect balance between control and letting it flow is the challenge and the goal. Sometimes though, like in ‘Die Auseinandersetzung’, or the pieces called “Short Story l, ll and  lll’, I clearly see in front of my inner eye a little story or a situation happening, which becomes translated into music through my hands.’

There’s three parts of ‘Short Story’ and also of ‘Sketch’. Are the parts in some way connected to each other?

‘The short stories on one hand and the sketches on the other hand were improvised directly one after another and I think they are connected through a specific energy. As mentioned above, the short stories were little abstract stories in front of my inner eye, giving a certain musical development to the music. The sketches happened to become sketches by their short duration and the mixture of different - mostly rhythmical - playing techniques. They are to me something like a landscape.’

The album is very well recorded with a great and deep sound. How did you do it?

‘I’m glad you like the sound! I’m lucky to have friends who helped me with this. First of all, my friend and great guitarist Andreas Willers borrowed me two of his beautiful microphones and then the sound wizard Alexis Baskind helped to make a perfect microphone set-up for me at home, which helped us to mix and master it easily later on. Alexis is also a double bass player, so he really understands and knows how to meet my specific wishes. By the way, Andreas Willers will release a beautiful acoustic solo guitar CD on Evil Rabbit Records in autumn 2020, so stay tuned!’

Do you intend to do solo concerts?

‘Yes, that’s the goal. It’s quite a challenge but also a humbling experience to play a set of improvised solo’s in front of an audience. I would love to get the chance to develop solo playing more and more through live concerts.’

I guess playing these pieces is besides a musical thing also physically a very demanding experience. Right?

‘Playing the double bass is in many ways a physical experience. To carry your instrument and, if needed, an amplifier around is already hard work. Then of course playing intense improvisations makes you sweat regularly. It’s a matter of learning to manage your energy. After high energy concerts – solo or with a band -  you definitely need some time to recover.’

There seems to be a tendency in improvised music to play more and more with line-ups consisting of two or even one musician. Is there an explanation for that?

‘Playing in duo or solo is for most musicians a special challenge, which is practiced by more players now it seems, but finally I guess that the fact of getting less and less funding for our art in common, makes musicians choosing to play in smaller settings. Many venues/promotors have not enough money to book quintets or bigger groups anymore… In order to pay the musicians as fair as possible, the groups have to shrink. Sad, but true!’

Yes, sad but true, but then again, every situation is a challenge for the real artist to find new ways of expression and to present themselves. 'Vocabularies' adds a very good album to the series of solo records I have been reviewing lately like those by Sophie Tassignon (vocal), Mia Zabelka (violin), Susanne Fröhlig (recorder) and now Meinrad Kneer. I wish them luck and success with their new ventures!

‘Vocabularies’ is out on EVIL RABBIT RECORDS (ERR 30) - Artwork by Monique Besten