Sounds from a room

German saxophonist Tobias Rüger and Israeli pianist Ronen Shapira have teamed up for both an album and a concert.

Tobias Rüger (left) and Ronen Shapira (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tobias Rüger (left) and Ronen Shapira
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tobias Rüger has traveled a long road to get to where he is today, some distance outside his natural musical confines. The German-born saxophonist will team up with Israeli pianist Ronen Shapira at a concert that will take place at Confederation House on September 29 (9:30 p.m.).
Now a resident of Frankfurt, Rüger was born in Berlin in 1965, and from a very early age tended towards the more unfettered side of the craft. He began studying with Alfred Harth, a multidisciplinary artist and one of the leaders of the German avant-garde scene, at the age of only 14. After four years, the youngster decided on a highly unexpected genre transition.
“Being with Alfred was a great experience, but I decided I should study in a conservatory to study classical saxophone,” says Rüger. “That was a bit weird because, in classical music, of course saxophone does not play a big role. It is very different, but I just felt I could learn a lot from entering a new music world.”
There was also a discipline benefit to be had from adopting a more structured approach. “A lot of the sounds that are used in free jazz are achieved by coincidence, which is fine,” continues the German.
“But in classical music it is all controlled, and they give you the tools to achieve whatever is required by the composition.”
This will not be Rüger’s first working visit to Israel and, on one of his previous forays here, a mutual friend brought him and Shapira together. “We were introduced by a singer called Yahli Toren, who knew us both. That was about six or seven years ago.”
The Rüger-Shapira confluence appeared to be a natural fit, and led to other things. “It started with a session at Yahli’s house, and we began playing spontaneously. We did a sort of rehearsal and some test recordings, and we decided that Ronen would come to Frankfurt for a week or so, and then we recorded this album, which we called Radical Salon Music.”
The CD will form the basis for next week’s Jerusalem date. “It will be a sort of album release event,” says Rüger. “It will be great to play the music live.”
If the CD is anything to go by, the show will be quite an eclectic affair. Seemingly myriad textures and colors run through the dozen tracks, ranging from organized compositions to more ethereal sketches and even free improvisational turns. The intention, from the outset, was clearly to bend and meld the sounds the instruments produce in “normal” circumstances.
As Rüger puts it in the liner notes: “Day by day Ronen went further, preparing my grand piano… so that at times I found myself engaging with a sitar, a santour, a drum set or [a traditional Indonesian] gamelan orchestra rather than with the instrument of Liszt, Chopin or Rachmaninoff.”
Mind you, having spent some time together feeding off each other’s ideas, Rüger must have known he was in for a few surprises. “Ronen is also an improviser,” notes the reedman. “He does not necessarily stick to what is written.”
It was that breadth of vision that drew the German to Shapira. “He is, in my eyes, a true Israeli artist in that his work is inspired both by Middle Eastern influences and also by Western influences. Most Israeli composers are much more into Western music – people like Gil Shohat. This is something I like very much about Ronen. By doing this, by combining influences from the Orient as well as from Western cultures, this of course requires certain skills. If you play the piano, you have to deal with a well-tempered instrument.
You press a key and a certain note from a Western scale comes out.”
But that is not necessarily a given. Judging by some of the “off-key” sounds that Shapira produces on the CD, he did more than a little tinkering with the tuning. Some of that was to induce a wide palette of colors and textures, while part was designed to achieve sonic nuances peculiar to Arabic music. “Some pieces were recorded right after the piano was tuned, but then Ronen retuned the piano, not necessarily [to achieve] original Oriental modes,” explains Rüger.
“He was just picking up ideas and dealing with the flavors, so to say. He also used mallets and tapping with his fingers [on the piano strings] and creating harp-like sounds.”
Rüger also had to produce some customized sounds from his own instrument. “I played quarter tones [which are a central element of Arabic music], if it fit in, and I also played a lot of multiphonics [a technique which produces several notes simultaneously on a monophonic instrument]. Somehow I feel we created our own sound world by using these tools.”
All that may sound like a lot of work, but Rüger believes it was an organic process whereby the two musicians simply found the right chemistry and brought their box of tricks and experience to the joint fray. “It’s like in life,” observes the saxophonist, “if you meet the right person it helps you to grow and develop yourself.”
Rüger and Shapira did their best to create the best possible condition for creating something new. The groundwork for the album, and the actual recording, took place at Rüger’s spacious downtown Frankfurt apartment. That, recounts the saxophonist, was a boon. “You know, time is very important. If you have a studio session, you know, time is running. You have to pay every hour. But, in my house, we had a sort of salon setting. People came and went, and sometimes it was just Ronen and me playing.”
The go-with-the-flow setting also led to some unplanned sounds finding their way into the finished item. “On one piece you can hear one of my children screaming in the background,” says Rüger with a chuckle. “I say to Ronen that it was a shame we couldn’t use such a nice recording, because you could hear my son in the background. But Ronen said we should definitely use it, and that I should even talk to the sound engineer to make sure the sound of my son was kept in.
“For me, that also says a lot about the type of person Ronen is.”
Tobias Rüger and Ronen Shapira will perform at Confederation House on September 29 at 9:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: (02) 624-5206 and