Ruth Bieri and her path to film music
Technology, self-realisation and networking
Ruth Bieri, how did your musical career begin?
Career isn’t the right word for it. I grew up with folk music in a village. I was interested in technical things, and this led me to attend a high school specialising in math and the natural sciences. I was part of the “drop-out” generation. Our aim was self-realisation, not getting a career. In the alternative scene, “commercial” was a dirty word. People believed that if you had to market your own works, then you couldn’t be any good.
My professional self-image only began to coalesce during my piano training at the Zurich Conservatory. That was a place where they still held up the conservative ideal of the “great artist”. You weren’t allowed to write any major or minor triads in your compositions, and Phil Glass’s minimal music was not even regarded as art. I wasn’t able to share those values, so after completing my studies I got involved with rock music, went to the jazz school and learned the saxophone, on which I practised improvising.
So was the saxophone a means of liberating yourself from the piano?
Yes, you can say that. Of course it wasn’t just the instrument, because it was an act of liberation from what was “classical”. I didn’t feel any kind of stress, like I endured with the piano. I had time; I could “make” tones myself, so to speak – such as playing a crescendo on a note. You can shape your sound far more directly than you can on the piano, because the saxophone gets you “closer” to the actual tones. And the intonation difficulties on the saxophone forced me to listen more carefully. The piano is to me more introverted than the saxophone, so these two instruments allowed me to express different aspects of my personality. Improvising on the saxophone also led me to improvise on the piano.
But then came electronics …
I’m good with machines, and I have a good feeling for practical, technological things. So I found it easy to engage with electronic music. Electronics are a realm of their own where you can realise yourself. They let you enter into a world where it seems you can do everything. I attended courses in computer music given by Bruno Spoerri, and I worked on music recordings where you did everything yourself.
My path to film music was bound up with this fascination of mine. For experimental films I could mix and produce everything myself. It was still pretty time-consuming to coordinate the music with the images. There were “conversion tables” for it that required a great deal of abstract thought.
Our image of the musician in the world of film and electronics is often bound up with the cliché of the asocial tinkerer in a garage…
No, that’s not my motivation, even if the do-it-yourself aspect does play a role for me. I find it ideal to be able to switch between working alone and exchanging ideas with others. And an understanding of technology can lead to a satisfying collaboration – such as when a singer says to me: “at 900 hertz, I need a bit more”. If I had any asocial tendencies, I wouldn’t have come to my film projects, for which women’s networks were important.
So how did you come to film music?
The early 1980s were the great era of alternative theatre, and it was through this that I came to unite music, words and images. I was doing the music for a scenic poem about a song by the Doors that was being performed in the Rote Fabrik in Zurich [an alternative music and theatre venue]. I liked doing that, and this led me to write more music for the theatre. But it needed a chance occurrence to get me into film music. I was in a pop duo with Juliana Müller, and through this I got the opportunity to write the music for a TV documentary by Barbara Bosshard (Wenn Sonntag Werktag ist, If Sunday is a working day, 1987). New contacts and new projects then came about via acquaintances of mine, and I embarked on a broad spectrum of film scores, from commissions to experimental films to documentaries and even the feature film Propellerblume (Propellor flower, Gitta Gsell 1997), for which I did the music together with Juliana Müller.
The computerisation of music in the 1990s also fascinated me. I loved combining older and newer production techniques, and mixing them myself. My last film music to date was for the documentary on women’s football Hopp Schweizerin (2011) by Helen Hürlimann. But legal problems have meant that the film is shown only rarely.
You also accompany silent films on the piano, like you did, for example, at the Women’s Film Festival “Remake” in Frankfurt in November 2018. How is this different from recording film music in advance?
Accompanying silent films means improvising according to a concept; utilising extant own compositions of mine is also part and parcel of it. Music for a film can also often originate in an improvisation, but you then have to concentrate it, reduce it to its essence, then develop it and vary it. The result is a written-out score, and I’m fine with doing that. I’m no fundamentalist in any of this. The computer offers you different visualisations of music that have their own meanings, but this can also link up with your own musical origins. The guitar, for example, creates different structures of musical perception from the piano or a melody instrument. Here, you tend to perceive the actual sound, rather than a structure of individual voices or chords.
(Interviewer: Mathias Spohr. Translation: Chris Walton. First published as part of the joint swissmusic.ch project of FONDATION SUISA and Pro Helvetia in 2020, editor: Céline Gex.)