What the press writes about Uwe Kropinski:
“To all acoustic guitarists!
Who of you already thought to know everything to be possible on your 6-string “toy” should be warned: You do not know it. The Berliner Uwe Kropinski creates the greatest possible spectrum of colours on his guitars. Moving from introvert simplicity up to the outer edge of the Universe of tonal and technical possibilities. Everything sounds in such a way as it must sound because of the inner necessity and not because one wanted to construct something special.
The listeners are amazed by the wonderful sounds of a man with a calling. He however could not do else then just simply follow the call of the guitar. What drives him to have build a custom guitar with 39 frets and to play the instrument as if he wants to bridge the missing distance to the stars? He can fly and that is what he does. Borders do not hold back Uwe Kropinski. Neither musically nor in the heart. Congratulation to Berlin!”
"Guitar" - unplugged
Just to remind us that everything hasn't been done yet on the acoustic guitar and that it's possible to go still further on a limb there's a German guitarist Uwe Kropinski. A complete unknown in the UK, he's already stunned the Americans, including Pat Metheny, who said after seeing Kropinski live: "He knocked me out. I don't think I've ever been so impressed with a solo guitar performance." A US guitar mag thought him well on his way to become "the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar"(!), deeply impressed by his wide array of virtuoso techniques, which include soaring flamenco-inspired "rasguados", bends behind the saddle, and percussive effects next to which Hedges pales. Sometimes the German sounds like a complete Latin percussion group all on his own. Most stunning however are his super fast runs. If Kottke's speed caused his hand to develop tendonitis, Kropinski's hands are in danger of simply dropping off!
Kropinski plays unusual guitars made by Dutch guitar builder Theo Scharpach, one steel strung, one nylon strung, both with 39-fret boards (!).
"guitar guitar" CD review
from "Acoustic guitar magazine",
Kropinski's "Guitar guitar" is, hands down, one of the most original acoustic guitar recordings ever made. Were he not so consistently musical, he might be accused of gimmikry. For instance, he uses a plastic bag for a jazzy drum brusch effect on the lyrical "Adams Lullaby" and turns his guitar into a one-man rhythm section in "Acoustic guitar goes disco". His stylistic range is equally wide. "Blues again" shows the rhythmic sensibillities of a blues artist, and "Take seven" reveals a player who has paid a lot of classical dues.
KROPINSKI Interview JUST JAZZ GUITAR August 2014
by Alexander Schmitz
(Just Jazz Guitar August 2014 Page 107)
Not only because of the exceptional guitars built for him by the Dutch luthier Theo Scharpach does the German Uwe Kropinski, 62, occupy the top rung of the most creative jazz guitar eccentrics. The reason is simple: There are not many cranks of his caliber around here. The few who are belong to a generation which had launched their careers predominantly before the German Reunification, in the Eastern part of the divided country and since the early Nineties represent a fascinating mix of excellent education, a distinctive non-academic, down-to-earth approach, a stylistically wide horizon, striking individuality, and impressive intensity - all of this a good deal off the
trodden paths of mainstream jazz guitar. There is no pigeonhole for what Uwe Kropinski composes and plays as an absorbing instrumentalist and, yes, a unique guitar percussionist either as a soloist or, since recently, as part of his new trio with Susanne Paul on cello and saxman Vladimir Karparov live or on their debut CD “Elf Elfen Blues”. Having reviewed his recordings through the last ten or more years I went to Uwe’s home in Berlin to talk with him about the early years of his career, his explorations into the innermost of music, his guitars, and much more.
AS: First off the usual question, how you actually got in touch with music. Was there a musical background
in your family?
UK: No, nothing like a typical musical background, and if there was any at all, it was actually on an amateurish
level. My father knew two grips on the guitar, and one day he showed me how he played them.
AS: Was that what started you off for the guitar?
UK: No, not really. I had always wanted to play some instrument; that’s what my parents told me, when I was about 12-13, in 1964, I think, when the Beatles became popular. In fact it was they who triggered me into wanting
to make music like so many other youngsters who probably hadn’t listened to much music before the Beatles. And all of a sudden there were all these young guys who with minimal effort… - what I mean is that
we really heard the music, we really listened. And I thought, wow, that’s the thing I would want to do, somehow.
I didn’t know yet how, but I wanted it. And here in [East-] Berlin we used to go swimming in the Müggelsee in summer, and there we met with other classmates. I lived in Karlshorst then, and they were from Köpenick. Yes, I was about 13, 14 back then. I’ve always wanted to have a guitar, but my parents told me that I’ve always wanted to have an accordion. My father’s brother, had also played the accordion, well, at home. But accordion wouldn’t work anyway, and would be far too expensive. And my cousin over in West-Berlin played the guitar, and then I wanted one, too. And finally my parents bought me such a simple travel guitar [the German “Wandergitarre”], for forty
Ostmark [the East German currency], made of ply wood , one of these with palm trees painted on the top,
something like that. Mine had only a single palm tree, but I hid it under a Beatles picture. That’s how things started. And during one of these summers we decided to form a band and arrange for the role allocation. And there were two brothers, one of whom had a drum set, and the other said: I’ll play the bass. I have no bass guitar, but we can loosen the strings just a bit, and a while later he did get a real bass guitar.
AS: I’d much like to know more about this hardly documented time, because what has first fascinated me
most was that your playing has this strong non-cere- bral, vital, authentic, and highly original grounding,
which seems to me to be a trait characteristic most notably for a number of ex-GDR-guitarists. What I
mean is an almost innocent, totally unbiased approach quite different from that of a majority of internationally
renowned contemporary jazz players with their typical academic background [N.B. in German the two
types of musicians would best be characterized by “Musiker” vs. “Musikant,” where implies a more
“naïve” or “belly-controlled” approach to his craft while the first means the perfectly educated and intellectually
controlled composer and player].
UK: That has certainly to do with the fact that I have started to make music all on my own and without teachers.
We were just glued to a tape recorder listening to the songs, and then we noodled around as long
as it took us to play them… But - you couldn’t buy anything. So it was just our ears which made us learn and
play those songs. And, well, born out of necessity, they were essential for the development of our ability to
really listen - although at first this ability is no guarantee for particular gifts or talents or skills, because
you’re still in the imitating phase.
AS: I’m interested in your history up to the point of doing away with imitating.
UK: Well, by now I seem to having reached an age when you start thinking about how all of this has really been and where all that comes from. I still don’t know… Instead I keep believing that the root is in the fact that I’ve always been interested in music from all directions… First there were the Beatles and somewhere along the way I started realizing that this couldn’t have been all and started to listen to other kinds of music. And when I’m listening to music and there is this certain “something” to it – which I have learned to discover, if it’s there – it gets me goose bumps and makes me think: There it is again! And you can find such fulfilling listening experiences definitely everywhere.
AS: Am I right in supposing that in all of your music there is always a light touch of provocation or challenge,
or a little ironic twist?
UK: Well, what I’m least of all interested in is musical form – which is what many people are interested in in the first place, as it makes music more palpable or tangible, more “concrete,” so to say. You take a song and you practice it, and then you play it. And if you have played it well you have a hundred percent on the scale, and everybody is happy. Something like that has never appealed to me. Nor have I ever tried to copy things perfectly. Instead I’ve always thought: Oh no, there must be something more, something else… The rock period came to an end and you could dare a little improvising here and there. And the other guys in the band used to say: Stop playing so many wrong notes! You simply have tried out something else, and as one had never done that before one had to approve these other notes eventually, in order to make a choice. But that’s exactly how something new is created. And then
you say: No, with you guys I won’t go on. I rather get out of here looking for something else.
AS: And when did your formal education start?
UK: I’ve never wanted to take lessons! My parents used to say: Some day you will have to make a decision,
and I kept saying: No, I won’t. But back in the GDR [German Democratic Republic] you needed a license for playing music professionally, the so called Spielerlaubnis [playing permission]. There either was the Amateurspielerlaubnis [amateur performing permit] or the Berufsausweis [professional card], but without the pro card you were in fact forced to look for another job. Unlike today you had to work.
AS: What did that mean?
UK: You had to go to a music school. And there were two rules to get this pro card, either you go for academic
studies, in my case the Musikschule Friedrichshain [in East Berlin], or you decide for the so called Studio
für Unterhaltungskunst [Studio for the Entertaining Arts]. Both were institutions comparable to the rank of a university of applied sciences. The Studio attracted all the rockers and other people not playing classical
music, because the music schools hadn’t yet the so called Dance and Light Music Departments, which would be introduced by the end of the Sixties, with the department in Dresden as the first followed by the Berliners… So you had to enter and finish an educational training and learn somehow to deal with that. And I quite simply went straight to the conservatory and said: I want the entrance examination for the Dance and Light Music Department – without a single lesson under my belt. And went down like a lead balloon… I was 20 then and finally took guitar lessons
from Fritz Puppel of “City”, the [rock-]band that still exists. At that time Fritz taught at the Musikschule Friedrichshain. He then trimmed me really well, and a year later I passed the qualifying exams for the Hanns
Eisler Conservatory, where I spent the next four years with Konzertgitarre [classical guitar] as minor subject
and majoring in “Plektrumgitarre” – a strange term for us [Plektrum, Plectron = pick], as we were used to call
the picks “Blättchen” [leaflets], although we couldn’t either imagine ourselves playing a “leaflet guitar.” The
term “Jazzgitarre” was banned, and this department was no real jazz department either. So then I quit rock I think on New Year’s Eve of 1975. Shortly before Conny Bauer, the trombone player, was ringing the bell at our front-door and asked me if I could imagine myself playing jazz, improvised music. So he became the one who started my career in jazz. But the funniest thing wa: I was about to quit rock and had in no time slid right into free jazz without ever having played anything in jazz. And that again was downright nonsense: I can’t free myself from something I
have never known! But I did! So I was pushed from one pot into another and again had to find ways to
come to terms with it. And I said to myself: So what?! That’s something everybody can play anyway. And we just started playing, and this approach was again a very important one for me, as there was absolutely no school teaching something like that. Meanwhile there are occasional endeavors to take this topic up again, but without the slightest chance, simply because there are almost no opportunities for performing and playing concerts. It’s not even tangible any more. There is no material available, because there is nothing you can fix; so there is not even a minimal chance for orientation. Later there only was FMP, the Free Music Production label that gave the free jazzer the common roof they had so badly wished for.
AS: For sure that’s really problematic, take alone the total abandonment of form.
UK: In fact I do not see it this way, because this very freedom also allows for amazing things to being created,
if only the right people get together. The classical people and all the others have always associated free
jazz playing with incapacity, which in fact can be plain wrong. There are quite a number of free playing musicians
who are very well educated and experts in music, who simply do not want to repeat familiar forms over and over again.
AS: One of the most brilliantly shining examples is Scott Fields in Cologne. Most of his music is so beautiful…
UK: And one of the great misunderstandings about free music is that it is absolutely not searching for a form
that is really coherent, but that they deal with music in a totally different way from what one is used to. And
what’s quite important, too: You start playing all the time staying where you are, contributing nothing but a
present-tense-reaction to any tonal process. You learn to always stay where you are, because everything having
happened before has lost its relevance, and everything that comes after has no meaning either. So what
you learn is to remain within the moment… Your position as a player never changes, and it cannot change,
because what was before doesn’t matter anymore and what comes later is unknown. When I have a song I
usually know which chord will come eventually and how I will react to it. I can be sure that he will be there at a certain point. And I play accordingly. Some players solve the problem in that they do not play at all for a while, because the changes are clear anyway, so that the listeners can add associatively what’s “missing”. And the soloist is happy that he at last gets the chance to not play [sings a complete doodle-dee-doodle-dee
sequence], but [imitates a heavily broken sequence], and suddenly the song is new again, and it’s fresh and
new, because he played less and not more. So, always when the anticipated becomes more I can start to leave
things out. The pot is full by a certain time… Well, these are the more philosophical components which I
often think about nowadays - I just want to know how everything coheres.
AS: If we assume that there is any coherence left at all…
UK: Oh, yes, they are there. And you can handle them. That is what’s so crazy with this music, which in fact is
not at all detached from life. All I know about life goes into this music and is reflected somewhere in this
AS: You are talking about a rather, well, ambitious kind of freedom. But when I listen to your new “Elf
Elfen Blues” I understand that you also can’t avoid compromises.
UK: No, I don’t talk against compromises; I simply want to know how everything works. To practice that
kind of music or not, that’s my own decision. All I’m saying is that music is a self-service store; you can take
from it what you want
AS: So your idea of jazz could be compared to certain Just Jazz Guitar poets or composers or players of New Music who write or play themselves closer and closer to the edge of silence. This ultimately can only result
in silence itself.
UK: Exactly. And eventually I’ve observed that my playing changed considerably. For many years I have played masses of notes and the fasted stuff and all, but then I simply couldn’t do that anymore. The drive had gone. And I
had to find some antipole and found out that there are breaks between the notes which enable me to play at
all, to put it in a nutshell. And if each note is virtually born out of silence it must have a meaning. And the silence is in fact a kind of space in which you can accumulate your energies, which you release in a particular moment. But if you do not accumulate anything – what’s left there for you to be released? So the conclusion can only be: You can accumulate only by doing nothing. That sounds absurd, but it isn’t. The source, the root is always the silence. And I have heard this confirmed from many other musicians, too, and interestingly all of them were musicians who have always fascinated me most. The answer to my question “What do you think is most important in music” was always
the same: “Actually that’s the silence” -
AS: - the place for tension between the notes -
UK: - because otherwise we couldn’t make any music. That seems to be humbug, esoteric brainwash, but it isn’t. I remember the situation which made me highly aware of this. I had bought a drum set, such a small
electronic one, for practicing at home. And I played and played and was all the time thinking: Man, you don’t do much, do you, here a bing! on the cymbal, and then for a while nothing. Ding.. ding, and between the two dings there was really much more than what could actually be heard. I thought, wow, ding… ding - that takes its time, really, and then I had it: Of course – the rhythm is nothing but limitations within time, so we limit infinity with markers, and we simply decide about how long these phases of stillness, of nothingness really, should be. And that’s where the key is: Without this silence we couldn’t think rhythm. And all of a sudden I started to concentrate on the spaces between. So, if you stop experiencing the rhythm through those markings and start to concentrate not on the beats but on the silence in between, then you understand: What happens in music, is right there! Sure, that is a conclusion you can only reach all by yourself, because both is true. But if you concentrate on the beats too much and not on the spaces between you deal just with the beats and forget about the rest. And what happens? You get faster, ‘cause you can’t wait…
AS: And which real consequences for your music and your writing did that mean? Basically it’s predominantly
about reduction to the essentials. One only needs to find out, what they are.
UK: It is that, but not exclusively. It has still another effect, namely that one can retain these spaces with very fast tone sequences. A Glenn Gould could handle that, but many others can’t. When they try it sounds like… like a roulade, like rolled out, no single notes anymore, while in Glenn Gould you hear each single note, and that’s because there still is always something left in between, which makes each one distinguishable…
AS: When actually have you released your very first own record?
UK: That was in ‘85, still in the GDR, on the Amiga label. Its name was simply “Solo”.
AS: So that makes two solo albums all in all?
UK: No, no. There are more. One of them was “Faces”, about 1995.
AS: Ah, yes, the one with this famous series of photos showing you in various disguises which seemed to confirm
my impression that you must be a highly creative and playful person - and someone who likes to give his
listeners some little mystery to unravel…
UK: Well… My idea is pretty simple: If everything is clear and you know anyway what is to be expected in
the music, then you always have the choice to do it this way or not. But that alone doesn’t change anything.
Because if I expect something, it is already there. And when I really play it that way it is just a reduplication.
But fortunately I do have the chance to change things. And that’s what I do a lot. Change.
AS: So this going for disguises might also be part of your music…
UK:Well, it’s also kind of fun to literally “play” or sort of “audition” through this kind of music. To play means to have alternatives. If you have none you don’t “play” anymore. Then there’s not much else left than just doing your bit.
AS: What we were talking about was a kind of plea against stereotyped thinking. Yet I would still see you
within the large family of jazz guitarists.
UK: I’m not against such classifications, but I’m not a friend of them either..
AS: Among your many recordings – have you ever released something that does not contain at least a bit
UK: No… It’s all with improvisation. There never was anything fixed from A to Z. I don’t like to play fixed stuff.
AS: How do you compose? I’m almost sure that you are a naturally intuitive and unconceptual writer.
UK: Actually there is not just one concept but a number of approaches. For some pieces I’ve sat down,
played a bit and have finished if I liked it within ten minutes for the 16 bars. But when you stick right in the middle of a process you usually are not really aware of what you are doing there. You just get attracted or fascinated
AS: And that is what’s called intuition.
UK: Right, and then you wish: Write another song like the one of the other day. Of course that won’t work, but
you always have the chance to get to another concept on roundabout routes. But there are pieces I’ve written
quite differently, for example a whole bunch of twelvetone-rows which I have built by shuffling cards, which
I have laid out on the table and made a song out of those twelve notes. I’ve done that more than just once,
but that’s something you cannot do with intuition. And there are really great pieces among them, at least for
my taste, never popular pieces or “hits”, of course. For me personally they belong to the things I like most.
Take this for example [plays a piece with bass and treble voice]… The bass line is the base, the twelve-tonerow,
and on top comes the diatonic melody, which somehow sounds quite melodic and harmonic. And doesn’t even sound atonal or way out or something.
AS: Not at all. Incredible. It’s a bit like “Giant Steps”. Really fascinating. Have you recorded that?
UK: Yes, more than once. It’s also on “Guitar Guitar” , duetting with myself.
AS: And what’s the name of that?
UK: “With a Little Help from My Girlfriend”. I’ve chosen this title, because Dore-Lies had shuffled the cards. I said: “Come here to me, I need a muse right now!” And she has shuffled this twelve-tone-row. That’s a real crazy sequence you would never come up with yourself. And then you start working with it, and you find out: That’s great! And then it starts with a b and ends with a c, and I thought, well, okay, c is the dominant for f, and if the row starts with a b and ends with a c and I go for f instead, then the row would end with a f#, and f# is the dominant for b. So what I get is a melody in two different keys. And that works only with this and no other row. But intuition or inspiration would never have helped to invent something like this, never.
AS: Since when have you played custom made guitars? Who has built them, who builds such unique guitars,
and why this luthier and no other one?
UK: In 1982 I had a first steelstring guitar custom made for me by Armin Weller in Markneukirchen, the luthierie center of the GDR. In 1983 I got a nylonstring guitar by Frank-Peter Dietrich. Both instruments had 24 frets plus six small wooden pieces glued onto the tops for the b- and e’-strings with frets for g, a, b, d, e and g on the e’-string. Then, in 1989, Theo Scharpach built a steelstring with a chromatic 39-frets-fretboard and in 1990 the same model as a nylonstring version and a second nylonstring-version in 2002 with a completely different interior construction. Due to an accident in 2010 its whole top had to be replaced and was completely reworked by Theo. In 1988 I had visited many luthiers, but I found Theo Scharpach’s guitars to be the best for what I wanted. He is a true innovator in guitar building and is permanently searching for new possibilities to improve the sound of the guitar.
AS: And of course we should briefly talk about your new trio
UK: Well, this trio came about because there was a concert planned for my 60th birthday in the Kulturbrauerei [in Berlin]. The date was fixed, and I thought, okay, but with whom should I play? There are all these friends and colleagues, and I wanted them all to be a part of the event. But not one had time for that date! Well, postponing was no issue, so what else was left than to look for others to play with me. And then, on detours, I happened to run into the cellist. Years before that, someone had recommended her to me: If you once need a cello - Susanne Paul is first choice. So one day she came here to my flat, and we played, and after three minutes I felt like we had played together all our lives.
AS: And there is Vladimir Karparov on sax, whom I have known for quite a while as the reeds man for [guitarist]
Andreas Brunn… And then came the CD. That must have been a pretty quick decision.
UK:A very quick decision. In October 2012 we played two concerts, the first in Altenburg, which we took as
the final rehearsal for Berlin. And that was a pretty risky thing, with two new people on board and virtually
off the cuff for the birthday concert and then the Kulturbrauerei, such a big place. But then 200 people
came, and the concert was terrific, and then I said: Let’s make a record as quickly as possible. In January
we met once for rehearsing and once again in March, and in May the CD was ready for release.