By Amanda Nordqvist
A perfect match in many ways, composer Garreth Broke from Bristol, UK, and artist Anna Salzmann from Frankfurt, Germany, managed to find each other in the most unexpected manner possible – an instant connection in a Berlin-based gay club led Garreth to quit his job in England and move to Germany. They found inspiration in each other and went on to create phenomenal collaborations together, currently working on their project called December – a brief, sombre reflection on winter.
Could you guys tell me about your introductions to your respective art form, and when you started creating your own?
Anna: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or painting.
Garreth: I’m kind of the same. My Mum used to play the piano, and I had lessons from about the age of 5 or 6. Mum got me a great teacher who was an amateur composer, and he taught me how to improvise. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head: I had always enjoyed the piano but never really loved it, but once I started improvising I could play for hours on end. But neither of us started sharing our work publicly until we met each other. I always felt like my music wasn’t good enough to be shared. I studied music at a very traditional university where we really focused on the “greats”, the western canon, Bach, Beethoven, that kind of thing. I found it really difficult to find a place for my music at university because, well, how do you compete with Bach? You can’t!
A: I felt like I was always looking for something but I could never quite put my finger on it, and I felt like until I found out what that was, I would never be able to share it.
How do you inspire each other? Could you both describe your creating processes for me?
G: When I moved to Germany I was unemployed, didn’t speak German and had no friends and hardly any money, but Anna bought me a piano. I spent my days looking for work and studying German and playing the piano. I found that Anna kept getting really excited about the stuff I was composing, and it was the first time I can remember when someone other than my parents would really listen to what I was playing and tell me how beautiful they found it. It gave me a confidence in my music that I had never found before: I realised I didn’t have to try to compete with Bach or Beethoven, I just had to explore what I was interested in.
A: And it inspired me for my own work. I started creating pieces to the music. Before I met Garreth I used to dance, and so music and movement - and creating with both - is something that I like to do. I often work in ink and watercolours, and I sometimes think that working with these two media is a bit like dancing, especially in combination with Garreth’s music. It is a very physical experience. They are so fluid; they have a movement of their own. It is like dancing. When you dance you make a movement with your body but that movement goes further than your body - it influences your surroundings - and that’s how it feels with ink and watercolour, these very watery media. They have a flow. I think that ink and watercolour transport my energy onto the paper or the canvas better than any other medium, and the energy is then influenced by the music, and that makes painting - at least the way I do it - so much like dance.
G: We have this fairly small apartment in Frankfurt (it’s so expensive here!) so we don’t have much space and that means we both work in the same room. I’ve got a corner with my piano and my computer, and Anna has her corner with her work desk and easel, so we can work on our own thing but we’re never completely unaware of what the other one is doing. I’ll focus on the piano for a while and then I’ll turn around and Anna will have done something which I think is totally awesome, and I’ll look at it for a bit and we’ll chat about what we’re doing and then I’ll turn back to the piano and my composition will grow and Anna will keep working and then we’ll turn back to each other again. And in that way our stuff grows together and alongside each other. They sort of intertwine. It’s honestly the best feeling. It’s such a good feeling that I think there’s a danger we could become a pair of hermits, like “yeah, I guess we better go to that party, but wouldn’t it be nice just to stay in and make something!”
How did you get the idea for December? What can you tell me about the process of creating it?
G: I need to explain a bit of context for it to really make sense. Earlier this year I released my first album, Coping Mechanism, which was a response to my mum’s death to suicide. Anna had been encouraging me for a long time to release an album. She’d promised to do the artwork and just generally kept on encouraging me. I worked on the music for about 12 months and in June ‘15 we ran a successful crowdfunding campaign and then literally just after the crowdfunding campaign finished my mum took her life. She had suffered with depression for about half my life; she had been so positive at times, and then at times so desolate, so low. It was always this thing hanging over me, the fear that she would die.
And then she did. And you’ve got to remember that she was the one who had first encouraged me to make music, who had sorted out the piano lessons, and who kept telling me that I needed to record it. So to lose her like that when I was finally acting on her advice was pretty brutal. By that time I had got enough confidence to realise that I just had to be myself, not to try to pastiche something else. So I just poured all that emotion into the album, all the grief and all the happy memories, everything. After I finished it I was totally drained. Emotionally spent. There’s one track in particular, “Mum”, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, but I can barely play anymore. I played it in a few concerts this year and I’ve decided that I need to give it a rest for a while because it just hurts. It just breaks me.
So I needed something different to work on, something less immediately emotional. Anna’s painting professor had recommended a graphic novel / art book called The River by Alessandro Sanna and I bought it for her birthday last year. It’s an amazing book. It’s just a series of watercolours, hardly any text, and it depicts the landscape of the river Po during each of the four seasons, beginning with autumn and ending with summer. The paintings are incredible - they’re so rich, so alive. I was never really interested in art until I met Anna and I think this book was another one of those “lightbulb” moments, when I just thought WOW.
The idea of writing something for each of the seasons just made sense to me. I grew up on a dairy farm in West Wales and I’ve spent a lot of time with my parents and my siblings walking through the landscape, whatever the weather. When you’re a farmer you just have to get out in the weather and get on with it, no matter how cold or wet it is. So I feel kind of connected to the landscape, wherever I am. And the landscape changes so much, it’s fascinating, and we have a tendency to ignore it. The idea of releasing a series of pieces that somehow recreate that experience of being in a landscape during the changing seasons really appealed to me. So I improvised a load of autumnal pieces and sent a demo to my favourite record label, 1631 Recordings, and they released it!
A: You love those guys.
G: I really do. They’re so cool, like… the artists on their list are incredible. They really are doing so much exciting, fascinating stuff. It’s kind of surreal because when I was first getting into this I thought to myself “I really want to be on 1631 Recordings, but I’m not good enough, maybe that’s something I can work towards”, and then I just felt brave one day, took a risk, sent them an email and they took me! You can buy the September EP from them now, and they’ll be putting out the December EP on 1st December. Naturally, Anna did some artwork for the September EP and she’s done loads more for December.
A: It’s just so nice to work together that it felt natural that I should make some art for whatever Garreth composed next.
G: The video comes from working with Anna and noticing something which I’d never really paid attention to before, which is that when you get close up to art, when you look at it repeatedly over a long period of time, you notice all this detail that you had missed the first time. I wanted to find a way to recreate that experience. I started experimenting with making music videos that focused on the little details that I liked, and I just found myself really enjoying the process. It brings the music and the art together, tries to give the viewer/listener something more of the experience we had when creating it.
A: We wanted to make the artwork last throughout the course of the music. Not to be just one single shot, but to offer different perspectives and experiences of the art. I think with the details, the close-ups, you find different aspects of the art. Like with your music.
G: Yeah, like the more you listen to an album, or play through a piano sonata, the more you notice the details, the little things. I recently bought Bon Iver’s 22 A Million, I’ve listened to it so many times, and I keep spotting new things. There’s so much detail there. It appeals to me on a surface level, because it’s just really beautiful, but then the more you get to know it, the more you love it. And making a video of the December EP did two things: it would help people to enjoy Anna’s art in the same way that I enjoy it - close up and personal – and it’s a way for us to continue to work together.
A: And, actually, it’s a way for us to kind of perform together. It’s a way of showing our work on almost equal terms. My art is movement when it’s being painted, but then after you’ve finished painting, it stays static.
G: And the experience of looking at art in a gallery is something that can be quite static, which I never found that interesting.
A: The observer moves from one piece to the next...
G: ... but the art is fixed. And my music isn’t fixed. I love improvising so much that I rarely stick to the same notes every time because I find it boring. I think, why do I have to make a definite version?
A: I think that’s why I love accidents in my art, because they make it less boring, less predictable. Like when I’m using a slightly old nib on my ink pen and it drips on the paper, and then I have to deal with that because I can’t erase it. And actually I don’t want to erase it, because it’s good!
G: I’m the same with the music: I record everything I improvise and when I listen back to it, I realise that I’ve accidentally done something that I really like. Life is full of stuff that you can’t plan. And it’s a question of how you deal with it. Do you try to carry on regardless? No. You can’t. So you have to be flexible. I had no plan to move to Germany before I met Anna. Literally no plan. The whole thing happened by accident! We just randomly met.
A: But it was a good accident.
G: Yeah. It’s serendipity. If you approach life’s randomness with a positive attitude then good things happen. But if you approach life with a negative attitude then life will drag you down. Think positive and good stuff happens. It’s really as simple as that. Improvisation on the piano is like that: you have to know the basic rules, scales, chords, harmony etc, and then you just have to let it happen. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t improvise, but it really is like you only have a certain amount of control over it.
The video for December will only be up for a couple of days. What motivated that decision?
G: As I was composing the music for December, I was thinking about all the different ways the landscape changes during the winter, and reflecting on the landscape of my childhood in West Wales. We don’t get much snow there, and when we do it rarely lasts more than a few days. In the winter we usually get frost, but it is usually gone almost as soon as the sun hits it, so if you want to look at it you have to make sure you’re out at the right time or it’s gone. So I was thinking about how temporary all these changes are, and also reflecting on how winter is the time of year when most plants appear to be dead, which led me to think about how ephemeral everything is.
At the same time, it’s become a real commonplace to warn children about what they put on the internet, because what’s on the internet “lasts forever”; what they put up as a teenager might be read by a prospective employer in twenty years time. That seems to be the dominant narrative about the internet: be careful about what you put on there, because it’s like carving something in stone. That’s a radical oversimplification of how the internet actually works and will likely evolve, but that’s the way I’ve been taught to think about it. So I wanted to do something deliberately non-permanent: the video is here for a bit, and then it’s gone, like the winter weather, like life. You guys can choose to look at the video if you want to, or you can choose not to. It really makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. But one thing you can be reasonably sure of is that if you don’t look now, you won’t be able to later. Same with the frost. Same with life.
Do you have any coming projects you’d like to tell me about?
G: There are lots of projects brewing in my head but the only definite plans I have is that there’ll definitely be two more EPs in this project, a March EP and a June EP, coming in March and June of 2017.
A: I’ve been commissioned by the University of Birmingham law department to work on a project with some of their undergraduates. It’s a really interesting, complex project. In a nutshell the students pick a case that they have studied that they wanted to explore in more detail, and they are invited to give their personal responses: how does it make them feel, what does it say about the legal system and society etc. Then they send me their thoughts and I interpret those thoughts and add my own and turn them into art.
Aside from that, I’m working on several different series of artworks at the moment, and probably the best way to find out more is to interact with me on Instagram. Most excitingly in December I’m going to put up for sale one work of art a day, and all the proceeds I’m going to give to charity. It’ll be like a cross between an advent calendar and an art auction, and the artwork of the day will go to the person who gives the most money and all of the proceeds will go to my chosen charity, WESER5 Diakoniezentrum, a Frankfurt based charity which works to improve the lives of homeless people.