Joachim Kühn began his musical life as a classical concert pianist, but the pull of jazz was too strong. This spring, Kühn, who at seventy-three has been making music for over fifty years (and appears on nearly fifty albums), was present at an opening of his paintings — all of which feature musical notation — at Hamburg’s Fabrik der Künste.
Kühn came to painting via jazz drummer Daniel Humair, who, in the mid–Eighties, took the pianist to museums and galleries in Paris, exposing him to varied artistic trends and tendencies. Having been open to new ideas and influences all of his artistic life, Kühn also brought to his canvases the bright, dancing light of Ibiza, where he lives in a house on the beach.
At the gallery opening of his mostly large-format bright acrylic-on-canvas works, Kühn played a brief recital that finished off with a long improvisation, dissolving into “Body and Soul,” the latter being “performed” by the Steinway & Sons Spirio, a high resolution player piano, which can also be played like any other Steinway. Kühn removed his hands dramatically from the keys and chuckled as his captured performance on Spirio took over and finished off the set. I spoke to Kühn earlier that day at his hotel in Hamburg.
You have traveled to so many different places, musically speaking. Is there an idiom or style that feels most comfortable for you?
I think there’s only one style. There may be different music, different combinations of musicians. I’ve been playing for more than fifty years now; I’ve tried many different things. But I think you can always recognize me, whatever I do. Of course, too, whatever my style is at the present moment is the one I feel most comfortable with — otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Over the years, you get ideas: ‘I want to play with African musicians, I want to play with American musicians, European, Asian musicians.’ I like that. This gives you experience, and when I go out of this world maybe I will have found the essence of the whole thing. That’s what I’m working on: to play better music until I drop.
Paintings by Steinway Artist Joachim Kühn on display at the Fabrik der Künste in Hamburg
It sounds like you haven’t had any musical experience that hasn’t helped you in this journey. All of it goes into the mixing bowl.
All of it. And it starts with the classics. I was fortunate to play with Ornette Coleman for six years — on his own compositions.
What did you learn from Coleman?
He was one of my heroes from early on, but to play with him… I was very impressed. He made an effort, for each concert, to write ten new compositions. He flew me in from Ibiza to New York for one week to play in his beautiful studio, to play these ten new compositions, twelve hours a day, for one week. He would say ‘Make the cards! Make the cards!’ I thought: ‘What does he mean?’ His son said, ‘He means the chords.’
Ornette was really dedicated. He would rent a Steinway every time I came and the tapes were running as soon as I walked in the studio. I have five hundred hours alone with Ornette. After five, six days, with ten new tunes you really knew them and you could really burn. Then you would rehearse one more day for the concert. So this is what I learned from him: I started to make programs of my compositions, taking ten tunes, and putting them together in a program. I’ve done thirty-nine now, almost four hundred compositions, since 1999.
What I’ve learned from Ornette, I could go on for another hour. But the main thing was that I now have my own harmonic system, which I call the ‘Diminished Augmented System.’
You made an album with that title.
I did! During rehearsal I would say to Ornette, ‘Which chord do you like better: this one or this one? I’m not happy with either of them, maybe I should try it with diminished augmented.’ And he’d say ‘Try it!’ Suddenly, it sounded right and suddenly came the idea of this whole system — you can improvise on, you can compose on, and it’s not intellectual: every good musician can do it immediately. I’ve been working on it since ’99.
Can you briefly explain the theory behind the Diminished Augmented System?
It’s a harmonic system that is more limited. With an augmented sound — I don’t even say chord — you are limited to four of them; with the diminished, only three. So you have only seven sounds you work with. Now you can add to this the seventh and the ninth. So these are the basics. You can improvise on it, and, so to speak, harmonize against your own improvisations on the spot! Or you put it on paper. Augmented, for me, is more major than major, and diminished more minor than minor: there are two major intervals in the augmented and two minor intervals in the diminished. For me, it’s a logical thing.
Who are your other musical heroes?
The big one, the foundation, is Bach.
A-ha. I’ve heard your Chaconne [on the album Allegro Vivace (ACT)].
My confirmation was in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.
Of course you’re not alone as a musician for whom it all goes back to Bach. Why does Bach remain the bedrock for so many people in classical and jazz?
Because he was the real genius, maybe the only one when you use this high word ‘genius.’ There’s not one day that passes where Bach isn’t being played somewhere in the world.
I grew up in this choir that Bach founded, the Thomanerchor. I was working with the sixteenth cantor after Bach, Christoph Biller[, who served as Thomaskantor from 1992–2015]. We had a concert, and I worked on Bach motets in advance for maybe six months to really analyze the basso. You can improvise freely. Sometimes Bach changed ‘the cards’; the ‘ace-note’ is really complex, and if you play something wrong, everyone can hear it. Whereas, in free jazz, if you play a wrong note [laughs], it’s not such a big deal. So you really have to work at Bach. And after this concert with Thomanerchor, I said to Biller ‘I hope Bach is not turning over in his grave.’ He said ‘No, no — he would improvise like you do.’ [Laughs.] We did a fifteen-concert tour together and released a record [Bach Now (Universal)]. The strategy was to play exactly what Bach wrote with improvised cadenzas. So yeah, Bach, John Coltrane and Miles Davis are the people I’m still learning from.
I like to improvise life, piano, and painting. Really improvise — not knowing what you’re going to do. Do it by doing.
When you’re playing music and when you’re painting, what’s the same and what’s different?
The only thing they have in common is that they are both improvised. When I start a painting, I don’t know what I want to do. When I go to the piano, it is only with the goal of playing something I’ve never played before. I’ll try to improvise something new, try different techniques, go out of the way to find new sounds. This is the basic idea of my life. I like to improvise life, piano and painting. Really improvise — not knowing what you’re going to do. Do it by doing. Then, in the end, you find the result.
Now, after a few years of experimenting, I had the idea to paint notes, musical notes in an abstract way. I think that’s my thing for my life. I could read notes when I was five — before I could read words. My first concert was at six. I love to write notes in reality, by hand; I like the feeling. Everything happens in the head. When I learned piano, my teacher taught me composition and music history concurrently. So I learned from the beginning to compose without instrument. That’s important: I can write where I want, immediately.
So you never write at the piano?
I try not to, but it can happen. I don’t want to limit anything.
Sometimes, if we write at the piano, the hands can fall into familiar shapes.
That’s it. And if I want some focused writing, it could be at the beach.
Schweizer Noten 1 [detail], Joachim Kühn
Der Musikbaum [detail], Joachim Kühn
Liebeslied 1 [detail], Joachim Kühn
Do you listen to music when you paint?
No. Not because I can’t focus, but because if I’m listening to music I want to really listen. I don’t need the background music.
Did you enjoy your experience with the Steinway & Sons Spirio?
Yeah! This was something new, and I’m always open to something new. There are many possibilities. Of course there’s nothing to be afraid of with this technology, but my one fear would be that with the ability to cut one note out of a chord, change a note, et cetera, that you could drift toward perfectionism. I’m not a perfectionist; I don’t want to be a perfectionist. These little mistakes, it adds for me — I like that.
And ‘these little mistakes’ are what make music sound live.
Yeah, it’s more human!
But you like the Spirio result as a ghost of you?
Well, I like the idea that if you can buy this instrument you get a nice library, played directly by the Steinway. Take an older couple, sitting at home, who can no longer go to concerts. You buy this piano and he says to his wife: ‘You want to listen to Lang Lang tonight?’ There he is! Right in the room! This is fantastic; it’s something new. And the sound coming out of the piano is not sound filtered through a loudspeaker.
Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you still want to do
Well, I’m sure there are some musicians left I would still like to play with. But first, I just want to work every day to play better music. I really like African music. I’m working soon with an African musician from Mali, Bassekou Kouyaté. He is an incredible musician who plays the Ngoni, a Malian instrument. I’ve wanted to play with him ever since I heard his records eight years ago.
What attracts you to African music?
The rhythm. Rhythm comes from Africa. That’s basic. To figure out African music as a European is extremely difficult. Sometimes I can’t even figure it out and have to ask my Moroccan friend for help. It’s another world. There’s a lot to learn about, rhythmically. Once you’re in, in the trance, you can really get out of yourself; you can be sure the African musicians, they won’t let the rhythm drop [Laughs]. So let them handle that and go crazy on top of it.
I love your album with Rabih Abou-Khalil, Journey to the Centre of An Egg. Did you use the same strategy there — let him hold it down and go crazy on top?
The recording was the first time we ever played together. We hadn’t planned on doing a record; we were just in the studio, without tunes. Afterward, we played live. Man, after the record we were burning. The record itself was kind of quiet. I love Rabih.
Me, too. His album Blue Camel [Edition MAWi/Enja Records] is a masterpiece.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.