Deep down, pianist Clemens Christian Poetzsch has always known what he wanted from music – freedom. Freedom to improvise, to create new musical worlds, and to follow his instincts wherever they take him. And while his collaborative releases and acclaimed solo piano debut – 2016’s People & Places – marked him out as a special talent, new album Remember Tomorrow sees him embrace the role of modern composer, letting the full range of his musical abilities run free to stunning effect.
As a child in Dresden, Germany, Poetzsch received his first piano lessons from his opera singer grandfather, and was soon immersed in the world of Bach, Schubert, and Clementi. But aged ten, a birthday gift from his brother – a sheet music book of Frank Sinatra standards – opened his ears to wider musical possibilities, and he was soon playing in the bar next door to his house, improvising and messing around with the structure of songs.
Such formative experiences stayed with Poetzsch through his classical training at the Conservatory of Music in Dresden. While studying piano and composition, his spare time was spent playing in jazz and free improvisation bands with friends and colleagues – he gigged, toured, discovered electronic music, and soaked up as much knowledge as he could. “I love to play Bach and all the greats,” he says, “but from very early on, I really liked to write my own music, my own little songs, and I was never really interested in playing in orchestras or big bands.”
And so what started out as mere fun and a desire to seek out “environments where I could surprise myself” started to inform his music more and more. “There was never really a special plan,” he explains, “but I found that when I stepped away from all the sheet music and tried to find something for myself, it became my little language, and my voice and composition style really developed out of all of that.” Sketches grew into more rounded ideas, and even while putting together his debut – a beautiful, elegant collection of delicate piano songs – he was hatching a plan to expand his sonic palette and free himself from the limitations of his chosen instrument.
The result is Remember Tomorrow, an expansive collection of thirteen songs that stand as self-contained worlds; “a house with thirteen rooms, and every composition is a little room,” says Poetzsch. Conceived as an album about musical flashbacks, and the déjà vu of familiar people and places, his aim was to deconstruct “those little moments when you’re in situations where you remember instantly. They happen to you at some point and they’ll always be in your life, so they have a certain effect on your future and how you behave, how you talk to people, or how you see things.”
That sense of the history repeating is strong with Poetzsch; visits to an old, local supermarket bring back certain smells and feelings, and he’s often felt that “walking into a room or talking to someone I think: ‘Oh, there’s something familiar about this.’” Music stirs up memories and fragments of remembrance too, and Remember Tomorrow is an attempt at making sense of it all, of bridging that gap between the past and the present. To do so, he stepped out of his comfort zone, adding new elements and instruments to his compositional mix, and simply let his ideas bloom.
“I ended my last album with a very pure piano track, but in this new world, with audio processing and electronic work, I wanted to make it as colourful as possible,” says Poetzsch. His writing process has always centered around improvisations, of building from little fragments of melodies or a certain vibe, but with Remember Tomorrow he went one step further, sometimes starting with an electronic element or a sample, and inviting others in to bounce ideas off.
“Some things were written out of improvisation, and some were not – there was never a plan,” says Poetzsch. He also took inspiration from his collaborators, picking their brains and using them as a source of ideas or moods. Double bass appears frequently throughout Remember Tomorrow, and the two musicians he played with – one from the contemporary classical side, and one from a more free jazz, improvisational side – were encouraged to help shape the mood and contribute ideas.
“Let’s just try” became something of a studio mantra, with sections repeated at different speeds, or in a different key, just to see the effect. Neil Young’s score for Dean Man, Jim Jarmusch’s black and white psychedelic western, was a big influence, with Poetzsch keen to replicate its sense of dark foreboding through drones and simple riffs. “Try not to sound like a double bass,” was his instruction for the two-note pattern of ‘Rufe’, the unsettling blasts sounding more like a distressed fog horn crying out across the depths.
A more peaceful sense of melancholy flows through ‘Zur Nacht’, where plaintive viola and simple, sombre piano notes conjures images of dusk, and ‘Schimmer’, a piano-only improvisation that evokes a sense of calm. Most striking of all is ‘Zwei Stimmen’, a taut, angst-ridden ride that’s the most experimental track of Poetzsch’s career to date. Buzzsaw violas float in and out of cold, glitchy electronics, alternating between cacophonies of terror and periods of near silence. It’s a bold statement, far removed from his usual work – and most of Remember Tomorrow – yet stands as a stark monument to the power modern composition can have.
Elsewhere, glimmers of light – and hope – shine through. The futuristic neon sheen of Tokyo as imagined from Poetzsch’s childhood memories serves as the inspiration behind the gentle ebb and flow of ‘Tokio Nights’, a wash of white noise reflecting the unnerving nature of a giant, urban metropolis. Such themes are reversed in ‘Neon Leipzig’, a rumination on the beauty of old neon lettering and pictures that recall the city’s bygone era. Ghostly echoes reverberate throughout the track, shadows of past lives flitting between sprightly piano lines.
Such a departure from People & Places didn’t come easy for Poetzsch, but he sees it as a natural evolution. A challenge too, something he considers crucial to artistic development. “Writing for an instrument that I’ve never written music for really inspires me, and it’s very interesting because I always learn,” he explains. “My comfort zone is on the piano because I’m very familiar with it, and it’s not so difficult. But with double bass for example, I have to learn the roots again; what notes are on this instrument, what can I do to make it sound like this, and how can I write it down? That’s good for me, and gives me a lot of inspiration to then come back to piano and write something new.”
His approach to experimentation, as with collaboration, is simply to dive in and see what works, to discover through trial and error. Ditto with electronics and his use of samples; despite admitting that he’s no expert, the austere, monochromatic moods he captures are far more important than any technical proficiency or purity. It comes back to freedom – to create without limits, and to dissolve preconceived notions around genres and instruments.
“Music is an art form that has no limits,” explains Poetzsch, “but in Germany, music is like the current political situation – people only think of genres, of boxes, and in black and white. I want to mix things up and I like the philosophy of letting elements collide with good intentions and seeing what happens.”
And so Remember Tomorrow is his first step away from the staid world of concert halls and a classically harmonic language towards something more contemporary, more individual. “My goal was just to take the next step as a composer, and to form a language out of electronics and piano. That’s the best language I can speak.” He’s taken everything he knows – from those Sinatra standards through Bach and more contemporary influences such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Aphex Twin, and Winged Victory For The Sullen – and distilled it all into a very special record that’s testament to ignoring conventions and letting your intuition guide you to the correct path.
by Derek Robertson