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Ulrich Drechsler: Liminal Zone, Sound and The Self

October 09, 2020 by Elena Atkinson-Sporle

In his latest project, Liminal Zone, Ulrich Drechsler is forging new ways of making and enjoying music. In an interview in Vienna’s charming Supersense, Drechsler opens up about his latest projects, his compositional process and how the Corona crisis could change the way we consume music.

Liminal Zone: music projects, a record label, a concert series...

Over the last 20 years, Drechsler has composed and performed a plethora of music. Perhaps most known for his band Café Drechsler, Ulrich has played in many jazz idioms; written film music, electronic music, classical, neo-classical music – the list goes on. But every project had the same trajectory, a cyclical affair that Drechsler eventually found tiring.

“I’d create the music, [establish] the ensemble, record an album, go on tour and after 1/2 years everything would go down again. Then, I’d start again with the next project. The older I get, the more exhausted I got. Four years ago, I asked myself “what would it [take] to find myself a kind of platform where I can define all my music projects and also have a pool of artists around so that I don’t have to find a new band with each project. This was the birth of Liminal Zone.”

“I needed to do something bigger and more holistic, work in a more conceptual way, and mix music with more genres and [disciplines]. It took me twenty/twenty-five years to realise these ideas of mine. [B]efore it was all about “how can I be the best player in the world?”. “How can I play faster, louder, higher on my clarinet?”. I should feel comfortable in what I’m creating and listen to my internal discussions – not focus so much on external pressures.”

“This is my musical playground.”

In the beginning, Liminal Zone was just a musical project, consisting of three bands: 

  • Caramel
    • Caramel is a mixture of jazz, world influence and film music influences – a multicultural project. The band features slam-poetess Yazmo and coloratura soprano, Özlem Bulut.
  • Azure
    • Azure is an electronic project inspired by British trip-hop (Archive, Lamp, Massive Attack), Scandinavian ambient, and neo-classical.
  • Chrome
    • Chrome is a classical string ensemble featuring live electronics and clarinet.

“I realised I have these three wonderful bands, a network of musicians, photographers, visual artists, a branding agency, management – it’s a network of 20-25 people. [I asked myself] why don’t I go for creating my own infrastructure?”

When the Corona crisis sent us into the first lockdown, banning concerts for an indefinite time period, Drechsler became more active and decided to extend the project beyond his own musical playground. “I started to form the Liminal Zone record label. We have a webshop and production platform with several engineers and several studios [on tap] for producing music and videos.”

In addition, Drechsler founded Liminal Zone Analog – an intimate concert series in Supersense. “It’s like a small version of MTV unplugged. A completely analogue set-up, space for 60 people, and the opportunity to record the session and cut vinyl with the Phonocut.”

In spring 2021, Drechsler plans to introduce listening sessions to the Liminal Zone Project. To re-embrace a nostalgic, more focused form of listening, Liminal Zone will invite artists, journalists, record labels and more to listen to the artists’ favourite or latest work. The audience will listen to this music together and discuss it afterwards. 

“The music business is getting faster and faster. Nowadays, everyone has a flat-rate on streaming platforms. We consume art so quickly that an awareness is getting lost – an awareness that art is not only something important, but something which is necessary for all aspects of human living, being, and thinking.”

“When I was young, 30/35 years ago, you’d go to the record store, get the latest Duran Duran or Depeche Mode album, listen to it again and again and discuss it. These devices, sources are great, but for most of us, it’s much too much. We lose the idea of what is really important to us. We should ask ourselves, “What do I really need in my personal life?”.”

Caramel performs at the MuTh, Vienna. Photo: Elena Atkinson-Sporle

The Compositional Process

Musicians often claim they get into music to make others happy. I’m generally sceptical. However, when Drechsler – being such a genuine character – makes this claim, I wholly believe that his greatest takeaway is seeing the audience smile.

I ask him how he can trust that what he composes will make an audience happy. I’m told that it’s an idiom of our times: “everything has to be perfect.”

"The fantastic thing about being an artist is every day you try to do your best, but every day you fail." 

So how does Ulrich compose? “It’s about routine. In my case, I have an idea or a theme, and then I walk around with this idea in my mind, listen to music, think about what kind of people I want to reach with this music – do I want to make a record, how many musicians will I need? This process takes years sometimes.”

“Once I figure all of this out, I can sit down and write everything. This process is usually quite fast – only a couple of weeks or months. I can only try to do my best from this point: finding the right musicians, writing the right music. You learn a lot about yourself through this process.”

Sound Itself as Music

Inspired by many so-called ‘minimalist’ composers, the Liminal Zone music (Caramel + Azure, at least) is beautifully spacious, giving room for textures and timbres to pop out.

“The sound of every note already contains all the components of music. My biggest dream is to play a concert where I only have to play one note to communicate all of my intended emotions.”

“I listen a lot to composers like Arvo Pärt, Sufi music, Scandinavian ambient music and Max Richter. Years ago, Richter composed a piece entitled “Sleep”. It’s eight hours long and reflects the human sleeping process. With very few notes, he goes so deep.”

Caramel performs at the MuTh, Vienna. Photo: Elena Atkinson-Sporle

Corona: re-imagining our relationship with music

Corona is a challenge for the whole of society, especially regarding the arts. Nobody knows what the future will bring exactly. 

“We’re living in the first world – our life takes place in the outside. [We want things] higher, faster louder. “

Ulrich suggests this pattern and over-consumption may change as we spend more time with ourselves.

“[Now] people are forced to focus on their mental and spiritual being – many feel very uncomfortable with this. It’s not only about fear: they’re now in a situation where they have to deal with something they’ve never had to deal with before.”

“It’s not only about fear - [people] are now in a situation where they have to deal with something [completely new].”

Ulrich likens this disruption of the self to a mid-life crisis. He tells me that mid-life crises are often triggered by the realisation that you already have everything you need to survive. For the first time, you ask yourself, “What is it I really want from life?”. Society seems to be going through its own “mid-life crisis.”

Perhaps we’re on the edge of becoming more attentive and present as individuals, more aware of the arts we’re consuming. Liminal Zone, at least, fosters this impetus and supports this mode of listening.

“This is the greatest challenge and possibly the best opportunity for the future.”

My Liminal Zone Listening Experiences

Ulrich’s philosophy locks itself deeply within every timbral choice, every pitch, every melody, every crescendo and diminuendo in his music. 

The freshly-released Azure Prologue EP presents a new sound experience, encapsulating the drama of film music and the intimacy of minimalism, all while being incredibly catchy. The soundscape shifts, but its identity remains the same throughout, with a plethora of rich sounds.

In early October, I had the pleasure of watching Caramel perform in the MuTh. I was immersed in a visual/sonic environment, my emotions, my expectations in the hands, feet and vocal folds of every musician on stage. I had resigned my attention – my being – to this musical moment. Liminal Zone is something special: the music, the philosophy, and how it symbolises the potential for a positive change in the music scene.

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Ellie Atkinson-Sporle
Content Creation, Storytelling

Ellie is a storyteller for littlebig.art. Originally from the UK, she earned her BA Music degree from Falmouth University in 2018. Ellie fell in love with Vienna while travelling and has been performing, writing and exploring here ever since. Storytelling and initiating discussions are two of her greatest passions.