Interview: Bruno Spoerri

A sit-down with a Swiss electronic music pioneer

Bruno Spoerri’s career spans more than five decades, during which he’s not only played a key role within Switzerland’s jazz and electroacoustic music circuits, but has been responsible for countless TV and film scores. He recently also made headlines for winning a legal battle against Jay Z, who used a sample from a Spoerri composition without clearing it. The recording engineer, arranger, writer and composer celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year, and yet he shows no signs of slowing down.

In this excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview with the Alpenflage show, he takes us on a wild ride through his musical universe and the history of jazz and electronic music in Switzerland.

Nik Spoerri

Do you remember what triggered your interest in music?

My mother was a violinist and my father was an engineer. I started piano when I was four or five years old and learned it quite fast, but unfortunately when I was about 10 I took lessons from the best piano teacher in Basel. He was good, but he wanted so much from me that I stopped playing piano. I hated it.

When I was about 14 some of my friends began to play jazz and I wanted to play too. The only place in the orchestra that was available was as one of the guitarists, so I started to learn guitar. After one year I figured out that wasn’t my instrument, but the guitar teacher told me, “Oh, I have an old saxophone,” so he gave me that and that started my love for the saxophone.

How was jazz perceived back then? Was it a very popular thing or was it more something for a small group of insiders?

It was the music of the young students and it was hated by all teachers. There was one teacher who loved jazz, a French teacher. He was a jazz fan and all the others hated it. Jazz was one thing that separated us from the parents.

You got seriously involved in music at a very young age. Was it always a goal for you to become a professional musician?

Absolutely not. My mother even told me I could become anything except a musician, because she saw that I wouldn’t be going into classical music. Classical music was a haven. If you wanted to play jazz, that was an awful future – she knew how it was to work in cafes, to work in restaurants, and she said, “No, that’s not your future.”

Aside from being a very early adopter of jazz in Switzerland, you also showed interest in electroacoustic music at a very early stage. Was there a particular event that sparked this passion for electronic music?

In 1955 when I was 20 there was a big congress on electronic music in Basel. I went to that concert, and first was Ginette Martenot, who played a concert for the Ondes Martenot, for French electronic instruments. Oskar Sala played his Mixtur-Trautonium. It was a fantastic concert – I’ll never forget that. Everyone who was there hated it, even the orchestra who had to play with them, but that was a revelation for me. From then on I was interested, but there was no way to do anything in electronic music because there were no instruments around. You couldn’t get into the studios. There was no chance to learn it.

What made you actually start making electronic music?

I read the little bit about electronic music I could find in the library of the university. It was a very secluded art, something that was only made in big studios where they had a lot of money, and you had to be a very good composer. Ten years later I had a very strange chance to get into professional music, film music, and from that moment on I had a little bit of means. I found out that the American composers and American fans had another way of making electronic music, a cheaper way, a do-it-yourself way with little instruments that they made themselves. That triggered my interest again, so I started to try out what was possible.

You never really intended to become a professional musician, but somehow it happened. How would you explain that?

My life is lived from accident to accident. I played in a jazz group, and the piano player was working in an advertising agency. The boss of this advertising agency knew that he made music and asked him to do music for a little film. The pianist thought he couldn’t do it, so he asked me. Some months after that, I got a call from the boss of that advertising agency that he wanted to open a film company that did only TV advertising. In 1965 in Switzerland, TV advertising had just started.

I don’t know how he came to ask me because I didn’t know anything about film, I didn’t know much about sound recording, and I was not a composer, but I had some routines for making film music. He asked me and I thought, “Well, I’ll try it.”

I had to learn how to handle a sound recording machine, I had to learn how a recording studio functions, I even had to learn how to cut films. There was a sound engineer very near to us and he taught me a lot. He was a very, very good sound engineer and one who tried to do special things. He also knew a little bit about electronic music. I think I learned my trade from him.

Bruno Spoerri - Les Electroniciens

At what point exactly did you discover and start working with synthesizers?

There were some journals from America. One was called Electronic Musician, and another called, I think, Electronic Music Review, that was published mostly by Bob Moog and people around Moog. I ordered it, read it, and I saw that there was somebody called Walter Carlos who built his own equipment. Bob Moog also built equipment and I began to write letters to these people in America. I wrote to Bob Moog and he sent me a big paper about the synthesizer that he was developing. That was very interesting, but much too expensive. I couldn’t afford that because the first synthesizer that he advertised cost about $10,000. $1 was about four to five francs in Switzerland then, so I never had the money to do that.

My first instrument was the Ondes Martenot because that cost about 5,000 francs, which I could afford. Then I had to wait until I got a little bit more money. I saw an advertisement for an English company called Electronic Music Studios, and they offered the EMSB CS3 synthesizer for about 6,000 Swiss francs. I ordered this one and got it within a few months, and that was really the beginning.

You’ve been working as a composer of electroacoustic music and at the same time remained very active as a saxophone player and composer in the jazz world. Was the fusion of these two genres something that you were actively pursuing, or was it something that was inevitable because of your involvement in both fields?

In my heart I always was a jazz musician, so for me improvisation was always more important than composing. Of course, I composed a lot, I arranged a lot – that was a necessity – but my heart was always in improvising. From the beginning I also tried to use electronic means in jazz groups. Just when I had bought the Ondes Martenot, I used it in a jazz quintet. We did some concerts where we tried to combine that with sort of Art Blakey, Horace Silver music. I tried to electrify my saxophone after I found out about Eddie Harris. I tried to obtain the first so-called Multi-Vider so all the attachments of the saxophone could be combined with the synthesizer. I really tried to always improvise with electronic instruments.

Bruno Spoerri - Hallo World

In 1978, you released Voice of Taurus, a record that could be described as early electronic dance music. What was the inspiration and the process behind this record?

There were several inspirations. One thing was improvisation, but that was also the time when the first so-called techno music came about. I heard the tracks of Jojo Kamelski, the first real dance tracks that were of interest to me. I made the record for a record company called Gold Records, which of course wanted something that could sell, so I thought I had to do something catchy, something that had a dance rhythm. I did at least two tracks that were very danceable, and the rest was more experimental.

It seems that you’ve always been at the very forefront of music technology. You were probably one of the very first people in Switzerland to own a synthesizer, and you started working with computers as early as the mid-’80s. Tell me about the early days of computer music.

I must say I hated computer music at first. I was once in a session where Max Matthews showed his experiments, and I thought that it sounded awful. I always thought computer music wasn’t flexible. You couldn’t do spontaneous things, you couldn’t improvise with it, but I tried it out. I thought there was no way to do something really interesting, and that changed only when I got into contact with some people who were really advanced. The first was Gerald Bennett, an American composer who lived in Paris. He worked at IRCAM and then he came to Basel as a teacher. He showed me some newer things that sounded interesting.

But the real spark for me came from America. I got to know all these avant-garde people like Bob Moog, Wendy Carlos and especially a guy called Joel Chadabe, who was the boss of a company called Intelligent Music. I went to America, met him there, and he told me, “I have something interesting for you. There’s a new computer called Macintosh, and I can make improvised music with that.” He had a young guy who wrote software for him named David Zicarelli, and together they made a software that was called “M,” and then other one called “Jam Factory.” You could improvise with these instruments. You could do variations on melodies. That was just the beginning of MIDI, too, and that caught my interest. I bought one of the first Macintoshes in Switzerland and began to work with that, and that was the beginning of improvising on the computer.

I didn’t know who Jay Z was. I had never listened to him.

You recently made international headlines with the legal case against Jay Z and producers Timbaland and Swiss Beatz, who sampled your track “On the Way” for their song “Versus” on Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail album without clearing it. Can you give us a brief rundown of what happened and how you learned about their use of the sample?

Two years ago I got a call from Andy Votel. He is the boss of the company Finders Keepers in England, the label that brought out all my old tracks. One day he called me and said, “Listen to that record. I heard something and am almost sure that’s your tune.” I didn’t know at that time who Jay Z was. I had never listened to him. I got on the Internet and listened to that track and it was absolutely clear that it was two bars from my track. We tried to get into contact with his company. They didn’t interact. No answers came, and in the end I started to tell the story to some journalists because I thought perhaps that would give some pressure, but that didn’t help either.

I had a friend who had fought some samplers before, so she knew how to do it. In the end she got the contact of one of the chiefs of Universal, and so we made a compromise. In the end, it worked out quite well. I got a little bit money, but I’m still waiting for some more because it’s very, very complicated. The financial result is not very big, but it’s not the most important thing for me. I think the important thing is that we got some success, and it got me a lot of publicity. It got me some concerts that I didn’t get before, so I’m very happy with it.

You seem to have been taking on the role of music historian and documentarian of early jazz and electronic music in Switzerland. How did this come about?

I was always interested in jazz history, and then the jazz school in Lucerne asked if I could teach it for them. I did that for about 10 or 12 years, and I learned even more about jazz history then. I thought, “I should know more about all these people who came before me.” When I was 65, I was pensioned, and at some point was together with the man who led the jazz school. I told him, “I think somebody should do a history of Swiss jazz.” He said, “Do it. We have a special budget for that, so we can pay for a book.”

I worked with other people for three years on that, and the same thing happened years later when I started working for the Swiss Center for Computer Music. They said, “Somebody should do a history of electronic music in Switzerland.” I got interested and did that, too. I got to be a historian by accident.

By Samuel Reinhard & Stephane Armleder on October 7, 2015

On a different note