Rory MacLean meets Michael Schiefel
‘I always loved singing along with records,’ Schiefel told me at a Goltzstrasse café in leafy Berlin-Schöneberg. ‘At the earliest age I was obsessed with record players. Aged three I made one out of building blocks. Aged four my parents indulged my passion, and bought me a real one. I played on it anything I could lay my hands on: Glenn Miller, Mozart, Fifties and Sixties hits borrowed from the upstairs neighbours. I developed a most eclectic taste.’
Schiefel grew up in a musical family in Münster. His mother was a pianist who specialised in tutoring children. While he was still a toddler, she taught him to read music by colouring in the notes: C was violet, G was green. He loved music, and practiced the piano every day, but the instrument itself never excited him.
‘Then when I was ten years old my parents rented a holiday villa in Italy. In the house was a huge collection of jazz 78s. I loved them,’ Schiefel enthused, glowing with health and boyish good looks. ‘I recorded them all on a cassette player and played them over and over, singing along all the time.’ He shook his head at the wonder of the memory. ‘But I never once realised that my voice could be my instrument, that I could train it. I was simply having fun.’
Two events set Schiefel on the course to becoming a vocal artist. First, he formed a school band and, second, his piano teacher left Münster.
‘I’d had years of lessons but I had to find a new teacher. So I played a wild exhibition piece and the new woman wailed, “Your finger technique is horrible. We’ll have to start again from scratch.” I realised then that I had to stop the lessons, and told her so. She replied, “Then why don’t you go to the jazz department and take lessons on the jazz piano?” To this day I don’t know if she was mocking me or being serious, but it was the best advice.’
The piano is the best instrument on which to learn how music works. Through years of practice Schiefel had come to understand its organised structure as well as chords and chord progression and now, on taking up jazz piano, he learnt basic voicing.
‘I realised that my motivation was to improvise not on the piano but with my voice.’
In his first jazz band Art Starts, Schiefel sang along with the saxophone as if he were the trumpet, or the trumpet player, trying not so much to be the instrument but to convey its attitude and spirit. He made his voice into his instrument.
‘I loved the freedom of jazz; you could be yourself, you could improvise, you can see where it goes.’
Schiefel’s love of freedom brought him to Berlin’s University of the Arts and David Friedman, the renowned vibraphonist, marimbist, composer and jazz educator. At UdK, Friedman introduced him to a remarkable array of musicians, and the ‘Loop Delay’ prototype.
‘David bought the machine in Switzerland without knowing what to do with it. When I first saw it, I knew it was made for me.’
The ‘Loop Delay’ recorded digital tracks which could then be ‘looped’, or repeated over and over, enabling Schiefel to build up a sound collage. Using voice alone, he could lay down a drum loop, then a bass track, adding melody and even lyrics. He experimented with guitar octavers, to drop his voice an octave lower, as well as other audio effects. As both skill and technology advanced, he worked with Ljubo Majstorovic - a friend of the ‘Loop Delay’s’ Swiss inventor - to develop a full-software version, the ‘Micha-Loop’.
With the ‘Micha-Loop’ – and before it the ‘Loop Delay’ and the ‘Echoplex Digital Pro’ – Schiefel now creates bold and rich compositions, often filled with wit and humour, and always - unbelievably - the product of a single voice.
‘I can’t really explain how I imagine music,’ he told me. ‘I simply sit in front of the machine and start singing a bass line, or a melody, or a chord progression. It’s like stepping into an acoustic holodeck, you know the Star Trek simulated reality facility?’
In his shows across Europe, in the Americas, Africa and Asia, Schiefel combines prepared pieces with free improvisation.
In addition to his solo performances, he collaborates with many other musicians and in many genres: funk and pop with JazzIndeed, classical-inspired big band with Thärichen’s Tentett, modern jazz with his former tutor Friedman, or Balkan beats with the German-Bulgarian quintet Batoru. Also Schiefel is a Professor of Vocal Jazz at the Franz Liszt Conservatory in Weimar; at the time of his appointment the youngest music professor in Germany.
‘Today I’m at a crucial point with my work,’ Schiefel told me. ‘Over the last twenty years I’ve covered a lot of strange new ground. So is my voice an instrument or not? Does the ‘Micha-Loop’ accompany the voice, or is it a voice? I want now to shape my work into an understandable form, to formalise it in some way.’ He shook his head, his mouth breaking into a smile. ‘It’s an exciting, weird process.’