AMBIQ: Freedom Through Sound

The electronic-jazz trio discuss the origins and inner-workings of their improvisational collaboration.

AMBIQ is the project of Max Loderbauer (modular synth), Samuel Rohrer (drums/perc, electronics) and Claudio Puntin (clarinet, electronics). The origins can be traced back to Loderbauer’s relationship with Ricardo Villalobos. The story is quite simple: Puntin joined them for the re:ECM release concert in Berlin in 2011 and a conversation began about starting an improvised collaboration that blended classical instrumentation and electronics. Add Rohrer, a multi-talented musician and long-term collaborator of Puntin’s, and AMBIQ took form. Following two short recording sessions in 2012, the group played their first live show in September 2013, before releasing their debut full-length in 2014. Their sophomore album, AMBIQ 2, dropped towards the end of 2015, also on Rohrer’s arjunamusic label.

In an age of computer, grid-based music making, it’s refreshing to hear an electronic-oriented group that “prepares nothing,” other than the instruments and their individual experience, before recording or performing. Technically savvy, calmly adventuresome, and rooted in a respect for both their individual talents and shared deep listening, AMBIQ is a meeting point of genres and musical timelessness. To learn more about their improvised vision and philosophy of sound, XLR8R visited the trio in Loderbauer’s gear-heavy recording studio in the old Tempelhof airport. The trio also offered a 20 minute live jam from a recent performance in Poland, which is available for free download via WeTransfer below.

Left: Loderbauer, Center: Rohrer, Right: Puntin

Tell us where your minds were right before AMBIQ came together. Were you looking to move into a more electronic and instrumental realm respectively?
Rohrer: For a long time, I have been interested in opening up typical instrumentation: to find new possibilities of acoustic sounds while treating them with electronic gear. Starting with my instrument, I became more interested in improvised electronic music. I had worked with electronic musicians a few times before, but never had an "electronic" working band. So actually, moving towards electronic music started for me when I founded my label. It was clear to me that I wanted to create a platform built on both acoustic and electronic music feeding and influencing each other. I had this feeling that there is great inspiration in this combination and contrast. Even if I didn’t know exactly how it would come together at the time, that was the idea from the beginning.

Puntin: In actuality, there are just many sounds. And categorization of sounds is possible to make in a stylistic way or instrumental way, but basically that’s of less interest for a musician—because the whole universe of sound is all one. And styles are mostly not helping a musician to move forward. They are just categories. The more you are into [sounds], the more you are not involved in stylistic diversity. So it’s something for outside, for writing about music, to bring it in a certain order so people can say, “Ah!” or “Oh.” For us, this is absolutely not interesting in terms of musical things. In terms of other things like marketing, this becomes very interesting, because then you have the possibility to determine what you want to tell and what people will understand by categorizing their own experiences.

What sets Ambiq apart in the world of electro-acoustic production?
Loderbauer: There are now many crossovers with electronics and other musicians. But most of it has electronics with a certain beat and rhythm, which they give. It’s there, and everybody has to play together to the electronics. But the important thing with with AMBIQ is that it’s very different because we don’t use a steady clock sequencer.

Rohrer: It’s breathing, actually.

"Improvisation is my education and the way I work as a musician. To improvise and to be totally free in the moment of creating music, that is what I like the most."

What do each of you bring individually to AMBIQ? Can you elaborate on your backgrounds in music?
Rohrer: I basically come from jazz/improvised music. That’s what I studied and focused on since I started as a professional musician. Growing up with the record collection of my father, he took me to jazz concerts from a very early age. Later I studied music in Switzerland and Boston. Then in 2003 I came to Berlin. Improvisation is my education and the way I work as a musician. To improvise and to be totally free in the moment of creating music, that is what I like the most. Claudio and I have worked together for a while, so we looked for someone who has the same interest and ability, and who would bring in another quality to the group sound, which is the electronic world.

Samuel Rohrer
Samuel Rohrer

Puntin: My background is based on my childhood in Switzerland, where I grew up with mostly wind instruments. So I come from the wind instrument tradition, like marching bands, chamber music, jazz. Then, when I was 10, I started doing music seriously. And in the first 10 years after my music studies, I was mostly involved in jazz, improvised projects, and also composing, which I do a lot of now—composing for orchestras, choirs and lots of alternative setups. And electronic music for me was almost unknown until 15 years ago. But then I discovered some interesting connections between what I already heard and what I had in my ear. All of a sudden, I could connect my sound-visions to people, to instruments, to how these musicians create, and I became interested in that. I started to think about how I could combine my skills, my instruments, my sounds into another world where I could open up the horizon of sound sources. And this is how I work today. But all my sounds are starting from the clarinet, and from the glockenspiel or other acoustic sources.

Claudio Puntin

Loderbauer: I also come from a family with quite a musical background. I had a classical piano education first. As a teenager, I became interested in synthesizers. Later, I had a job in a good electronic studio in Munich. They were amazingly equipped for that time. They had everything there: Synclavier, Fairlight, etc. So I worked in this studio and got involved in the electronic music scene. And because I was doing service for Fairlight, I went to different studios and met interesting people. That’s how I met Tom Thiel, in a studio near Nürnberg. We moved to Berlin and did Sun Electric for 10 years or so. In 1997, I went to Chile for the first time and met Ricardo [Villalobos], Dandy Jack etc. Later in Berlin, Ricardo asked me to help him start with modular synths, which developed into an ongoing free-form improvisational collaboration. Around 2008 or so, Moritz von Oswald asked me to help form his trio with Vladislav Delay, in which my part was (and is) just improvisation. It’s actually the only way I enjoy making music. I hate to repeat things. I had this project together with Chica Paula. We played live a few times, which was nice, and we had a lot of fun. They were songs. But already then after two concerts, I was like “Oh no, this song again!” It doesn’t make me completely happy. Since then, I never prepare before I go on stage [laughs].

Max Loderbauer

How long were you in the studio before you began recording the first album? Did it take you a long time before you felt comfortable for it to come together?
Puntin: It was very quick, actually.

Loderbauer: We did a little bit, just checking things. We did maybe two sessions in my studio then we went to Candy Bomber Studios to record it. The recording happens in real-time. Of course we record more material than is on the album, but we just start playing for two, three, four hours, and then select the best bits of it.

So for that, did you just go in and start recording from the first moment you played? Like, “Let’s get the magic from the beginning”?
Loderbauer: Yea, and it’s stayed like this. We practise between studio sessions to forget [our habits]. That is our practice [laughs].

Puntin: But we don’t really use any themes or fixed material, we just create in the moment.

Do you ever feel that in playing too much it becomes less improvisational because patterns develop in your playing?
Puntin: It’s necessary to have that exact experience. It’s actually an interesting point. I mean, we are quite experienced in tricking ourselves. But it needs a strong process of making ourselves empty.

Rohrer: It would actually be nice to experience that moment, to realize we’re repeating ourselves. Then we have to overcome that point and find inspiration once again. But so far, we haven’t done too much playing.

Loderbauer: It was interesting when we had a little tour recently. It was three concerts in three days. That was quite something for us. It was a step forward for us to be able to play so much—normally we play together once every three months. So it’s still developing, and it will never stop developing into something.

Puntin: It’s also nice to not know everything that happens with your instruments or tools. Because then a new thing that happens, coincidentally, can be the basis of a fantastic new part of music. You have to be ready then! Also I think probably with your instruments, Max, there are things that are impossible to predict. And it’s great! That’s exactly what makes it special.

So the recording process is quite quick. Was the first or second album easier to make? How long is a whole session that becomes an AMBIQ album?
Puntin:I think the second album was faster. It was about two days. And we had seven or eight hours of material. Then we made a choice, and came to Candy Bomber for two days to mix it.

Loderbauer: Also, choosing [the track segments] wasn’t really hard. It was quite obvious which parts were really good and which ones just let go.

So there’s no editing?
Loderbauer: No.

Rohrer: It’s just shortening.

And how do you make the actual studio recording work?
Loderbauer: Let’s say we have four hours. If we improvise, we always play like it’s a concert. We don’t play and stay with the same mood or element forever. We don’t have in our minds, “Yea, yea we can change this later.” We always try to play the tracks as they are so we don’t have to edit afterwards. Form, building up, stopping, finishing the track—it’s all happening just as we play.

Puntin: The [recording] process is sometimes so magical. I remember a session with Samuel’s band in the South of France that was really magical. We were there for five or six days. It was a quartet with two bass players and bass clarinet and drums. And it was South of France—perfect culinary ambience. So we had a short peek at the music. After an hour, we went to eat, we went to drink. And we did this for three days. We almost didn’t work, but we felt each other and the place. And then we went in the studio and nailed the thing, which was so easy to do! Everything was clear! But we didn’t work on it. It was just the vibe that changed because of the nice place, nice food, nice people. The energies came together. But one needs a lot of experience to let that happen!

You mentioned earlier that you spend only short periods in the studio together. Do you ever feel that this limits your exploration of the project?
Rohrer: Well, that’s the interesting thing. Because when we have a session—let’s say we play for one hour. Maybe the beginning is very inspired. And then there’s half an hour where we play but we feel something’s not working. But we need to do that in order to come together again and create something inspired. And this would be interesting to do not just in one hour but in one week. We would have these great days, and then this drop into of emptiness where we would get totally fed up with everything, and then we would go further. And after five days, maybe we would reach a point where we do things that have never happened before. I don’t know, but I would love to do this once and see what happens. Of course it would be a great luxury to have so much time and to just focus on one thing for over a week.

"...one of the most important things in improvisation is knowing that it also cannot happen—and to be ready for that. But knowing this, you are faster in changing, which makes the period of not happening shorter."

There must be days when you can’t find the groove. Do you fight through it or stop?
Claudio: We worked a lot before we developed a stage quality that made us happy. And still, one of the most important things in improvisation is knowing that it also cannot happen—and to be ready for that. But knowing this, you are faster in changing, which makes the period of not happening shorter. There is actually a musician here in Berlin, his name is Christopher Dell, and he wrote an interesting book about improvisation. It shows similarities to many other living situations. Actually, almost everything.

Loderbauer: It’s not that this is a constant thing. In the live situation, it can be that in the beginning there’s something wrong, it doesn’t work. Then later, we find ourselves. Or the other way around. As Samuel said before, when you’re in a studio situation and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t make sense to stop then because it doesn’t work. You have to just find an exit.

Ambiq with Ricardo Villalobos - April 24, 2016.
AMBIQ with Ricardo Villalobos - April 24, 2016.

When you play live, do you incorporate ideas from the recordings into new improvisations? It’s not like the audience is going to sing along, but maybe they might recognize and connect to certain sounds or melodies.
Puntin: Actually, we were talking a lot about this and thinking whether this makes sense. We tried it without big success. I mean, it’s an interesting question. Sometimes we will recognize a part of something, previous elements, and then just build up other structures on the same elements. But I think we are too experienced [laughs]. But seriously, we are too experienced to not be able to create a new thing of the same quality.

Rohrer: It’s not the songs which are recognizable, but the combination of sounds and the style which is created through them.

You have one track on the first album where there is a recurring steam kettle-type sound. Are there any defined sonic characters like this that you bring up in your improvisations?
Rohrer: Maybe we don’t prepare it, but yes, of course, there are always things that show up again and then we react to it in a certain way. You start to know what works and what does not. But it comes mostly unconsciously.

Puntin: In my case, it’s very difficult to enter into electronic endpoints with an instrument that has a tempered tuning, or a certain attack in a sound. It is immediately recognizable and immediately connected to certain musical styles. So I have to let everything go, and then maybe pick up something that works. But sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and even if everything is perfect, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mix. It’s the same with Samuel also having acoustic instruments, which have similar bell-like characters. The first impact is the loudest and then it diminishes in volume. So for me, having a wind instrument, I can do the opposite. And as soon as I play a note, it seems to be a melody.

Loderbauer: And I can do both [laughs].

Puntin: And he can do both! But in another space. So these spaces have to connect to become something of sense. And this is quite a tricky thing to do.

Max Loderbauer
Max Loderbauer
Samuel Rohrer
Claudio Puntin
Claudio Puntin

It seems that space and silence are so essential to your work. Could you speak about their roles in your music?
Puntin: It’s difficult to speak about things that are magic, especially things like silence and space.

Rohrer: But it’s a fact that silence is really important in music.

Loderbauer: One of Samuel’s trademarks are his not-playing moments. I’ve never heard any other drummer doing these kinds of stops.

Rohrer: You can create much more tension sometimes with not saying anything than with saying all of it, to leave it open. It’s a way of playing with your own expectations and the ones of the listener.

"That’s also a special thing about AMBIQ. We don’t have to play to a set timing. We are completely free with what we play."

In your press release, it says that Samuel “navigates beats and anti-beats.” Can you elaborate on what this means in terms of AMBIQ’s music?
Loderbauer: The anti-beat! How dangerous! [laughs].

Rohrer: I don’t know who came up with that. But it’s something very natural to me—either you play the beat, and you play a rhythm as everyone more or less may expect. Or you just don’t do this. You start to stretch every note, to actually play rubato, but somehow still in a rhythm and groove. So it becomes something in between. And I love to do this.

Loderbauer: That’s also a special thing about AMBIQ. We don’t have to play to a set timing. We are completely free with what we play. And in combination with electronic instruments, that doesn’t happen very often.

Rohrer: It’s just a nice way to create tension. The beat, compared to the anti-beat, is like the solution for me. You can build a tension with not playing the obvious beat for a while. Or the opposite: I play it, I sit on it, and then I start to open it up and stretch it.

Puntin: [The anti-beat] is analogous to the tonalities. There are so many notes in between. Have you heard about the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas? He’s a very interesting composer. He opens up acoustic environments with all the things between tempered notes.

Loderbauer: It’s actually a new kind of, I guess, school in "classical music." I listened recently to something from a Polish composer, and another one in Austria. It’s this thing you could call spectral composing. They work a lot with overtones and harmonics. For example, there’s this piece by Georg Friedrich Hass. It’s amazing. It sounds like electronic music, but it’s a small traditional ensemble of 12 people. Through these layers of harmonics, he creates a different sound. It doesn’t sound like strings anymore. It sounds like electronics.

Puntin: The interesting thing is that while you hear this, your perception changes. So when it comes back to a tonal situation, you kind of feel empty, it feels almost wrong. It changes completely! And I think we also juggle around with this.

This resembles the work of Hayden Chisholm and his “Love In Numbers” record, playing with overtones and applied Fibonacci sequences. Do you work like this at all with AMBIQ?
Rohrer: Oh, Hayden is a good friend of ours!

Loderbauer: Well, I find it very interesting theoretically. But in the process of improvisation, there is no time to think of Fibonacci sequences.

Puntin: But actually, you start to develop it naturally.

Rohrer: If you listen to music, it also opens your acceptance of other harmonics. Which, if you didn’t know this, and you’re improvising, you would always think, “Oh, that is wrong.” But if you heard this before, and you experienced the effect it has, then you’re not worrying about these notes anymore.

Puntin: Exactly. You can construct things like rhythms in very consequent methods, melodies in certain rhythms. It moves, for instance, like seven notes in six beats, so every time it repeats it’s materializing another angle until it comes together on the one. It opens up every possibility of little changes. And if you have this in your background, it gives you more rhythmical freedom. I love morphing steady things and creating little variations in the picture. It’s a kaleidoscope coming out of practicing and letting go. Everything becomes possible. Hayden is doing this a lot, especially in a microtonal way. I remember when he was young, he started with this quarter-tone thing on alto-saxophone. He influenced many people. I had a student who started to do this with 128 notes in one octave and to learn this on alto-saxophone. He does a scale [singing precise ascending quarter-tones between notes] and it’s totally crazy, to think of a horn which is built for playing chromatic notes doing something like that! And then he tuned his keyboard, which is a big keyboard, and from one end to the other is one octave!

So when you’re playing together as people, it’s coming together intuitively. But technically speaking, are your instruments communicating with each other too?
Loderbauer: Yes, Samuel gives me trigger pulses from drum hits and I run certain things in the Buchla with the triggers. That’s the nice thing. Samuel gives the timing of the tracks, he can do his anti-beat, and the electronics are following his actions. It’s not like most other cases where the drummer is following the electronics because of some clock dependencies. It’s very open. I just get the triggers and I have to do something with it, something which makes sense and is musically relevant. And I can use those triggers in very different ways.

Rohrer's live setup
Loderbauer's live set up
Loderbauer's live setup

It’s clear you use drums, clarinet, and modular synth. But do you ever use voice or sampling?
Puntin: I use voice and Max has a new machine that he uses for a lot of sampling. And I have a little micro-cassette recorder. I always record on it during the concert, and then I’m ready to play it through the microphone with effects.

Loderbauer: And it’s very noisy.

Puntin: Yes, only these mid-to-high-range frequencies on tape [laughs].

Puntin's live set up
Puntin's live setup

Do you think about the tunings of your instruments before you play or is it more open?
Rohrer: It happens in the moment when we play and depending on what we hear.

Loderbauer: It’s based on hearing. Because with my synth, I can’t really play in tune properly. The scalings are weird. It’s completely open. And with Claudio’s perfect ear, it’s always together. That makes it interesting because it’s not the tunings and the melodies of tempered tuning, it’s open.

Puntin: But everything boils down to a musical concentration, coming together in a purest, simple way. But you cannot escape the physical and emotional effects. This is why I use some electronic devices to change my instrument sound into something that helps me to do that.

Do you have gear that you rely on to do that? Or how do you achieve the sound you want?
Puntin: Well, it depends a bit on the source. I try sometimes to change the source into something that is already different, then to go through gear. Because then the reaction is unique: playing differently, like playing quarter-tones, like microtonality. It’s a wonderful thing that works perfectly in this set up. And then all of a sudden the tonality is gone, and then... ah! freedom! Or little gears like toys, which make distortion. Then I am in. And if I play only clarinet, then I am out [laughs]. It doesn’t work! Well, sometimes it works, but rarely. I don’t know for you, Samuel, is it the same?

Rohrer: That’s always a challenge actually because the two of them can have more of these drone sounds. And I’m very often the dry, short note part. It’s a challenge to find a balance or to blend into these floating sounds. So, for example, I have contact microphones I put on the cymbals to treat the sounds. I’m still experimenting with these, but it gives me more possibilities to blend in and move away just short bell sounds. Basically, I am looking to surprise myself and to give myself new ideas through the unexpected.

Puntin: Yea, coming from this, it’s also interesting to see how we developed live with the monitor situation. Because you can only decide as a trio what your contribution is. And you can only decide this if you can hear everything as it is. So the close-monitoring is quite a difficult thing. More and more we changed it into a sound field with distant monitoring, which is the same sound outside and inside.

Loderbauer: Actually, it would be perfect to play in the audience.

So for your recent show with Villalobos, is this something you were able to do?
Loderbauer: We had side-field monitors. Because in this situation, I have my four channels from the synth coming in, and the volumes to blend in. I have to do the mix right there. I have to hear exactly what the audience is hearing. Otherwise I’m too loud. It’s the same with all of us. Because it’s quite a dynamic thing. It can be a very low volume, or it can go crazy.

Puntin: To create a situation of good hearing is one of the most important things for us. I mean, for everybody, but in this case, since you never know what happens in the next second, you need it dramatically.

Loderbauer: It’s so much about sound. Not just melodies and harmonics, but the sound is a very important thing. And if I have these little “pwwaank” monitors on stage, I don’t hear the sound as the audience hears it. So it’s essential that we have the same sound as the audience.

Outside of practising music, do you have things you do as musical bodies that contribute to your work?
Puntin: To be in a state of animated attention, in any sense, which elevates attention 24 hours of every day.

Rohrer: There’s thinking and overthinking. Being awake and aware versus blocking yourself with too many thoughts. To live as an intuitive being. It’s a way of living: to trust your feelings, and not overthink everything. If this works within music, then I’m happy [laughs].

Puntin: Yea, if we want to turn it into philosophy, it gets complicated by words. Because it’s always an on-and-off with thinking and living, which absolutely need each other. But then we’re entering another field.

Ricardo Villalobos joins Ambiq.
Ricardo Villalobos joins AMBIQ.

How about something outside of music that is a huge source of inspiration for all of you? Like a tradition, or culture?
Puntin: We are all alpines! We are all from the mountains. It’s true. I think Max said once during rehearsal that this is why it works so well, because we are all from there.

Loderbauer: Sometimes we use alpine harmonics. After some weird harmonics and quarter-tone stuff. We enjoy falling into pure harmony with major chords and 1-4-5 harmonies.

Puntin: For ten minutes, yoga meditation on a major chord. Wonderful! [laughs]

Moving into the future, are there new boundaries you want to push for AMBIQ? Maybe go back to the alpines to work on stuff together?
Puntin: We should!

Loderbauer: Yea, go for a week to a villa at Lago Maggiore and do some work [laughs].

Rohrer: Yea, let’s go record a new album! But also playing a lot. We never really played a lot so far, so that’s something we need to do.

Loderbauer: Playing a lot means we develop somewhere and at some point we just record a new album.

Theoretically you could go in the studio and record it in two days. But do you have to wait to spot something in the maturity of the sounds to be able to document it in an album?
Loderbauer: No, we are not really waiting for anything. But as we play, we develop. And then we just have to decide when is the point we could record something.

Rohrer: It’s a strategical question. Does it make sense to record today and bring it out tomorrow? Or should we wait a little bit and let the music develop itself a little more? Is it really necessary that we record now? We could record an album everyday. Sure, let’s do it. But who wants to listen to all that?

Puntin: We could do 365 albums!

All photos: Nico Stinghe [www.anothersidewalk.tv]


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