“Mistakes are allies, not adversaries”
A wrong chord or amplifier distortion – musicians Charlotte Greve and Markus Mehr chat with music journalist Andi Hörmann about mistakes in music and why imperfections often make the music more exciting. Our chat debate deals with innocent blunders and unforgivable faux pas in various areas of society.
Andi Hörmann (15:00):
Well then! I’m Andi Hörmann, a music journalist. Hello Charlotte, hello Markus. Would you care to briefly introduce yourselves?
Hi, my name is Markus Mehr. I live in Augsburg and make experimental music.
Charlotte Greve (15:02):
Sure. I’m Charlotte Greve, a saxophonist and composer. I’m originally from near Hamburg, I lived in Berlin for six years, and I've been based in New York for eight years now. I mainly play jazz and jazz-related music.
Andi Hörmann (15:03):
Today we’re talking about “mistakes in music.” But is there such a thing as “mistakes” (note the scare quotes) in your music?
There are definitely lots of mistakes – mainly the ones in scare quotes. I’ve experienced the kind of mistakes that actually improved the end results many a time, both live on stage and in composing.
Markus Mehr (15:04):
A whole bunch! In my music, mistakes are like a plug-in that I factor in from the outset, like a software program that I can’t do without. I don’t work with instruments anymore, but by and large with field recordings, so the “error chain” starts with the sourcing and production of the sound.
Andi Hörmann (15:07):
“Mistake” sounds a priori negative. That’s a problem. Charlotte, I quite agree with you: looking into the topic, I keep coming across “mistakes” as something positive. Acoustic accidents that draw out something better, different, new?
Absolutely! I often compose on the computer, typing in a pre-composed draft, and errors accidentally occur in the process – errors, which often introduce a decisive variant into the composition that was actually missing in the “original.” It’s usually just a single note that’s off – but that may be enough to give rise to something completely new.
Maybe we should distinguish between “live” and “in the studio.” In composing, a mistake can be erased or used as inspiration. But what’s it like when playing live jazz, Charlotte?
Andi Hörmann (15:12):
Your music, Markus, seems to me to be all about mistakes: soundscapes. And maybe “misusing” instruments. It’d be inconceivable without the acoustic fuzz, wouldn’t it?
I often feel that composing, whether using instruments or field recordings, is like holding a net up in the air and checking after a while to see if a pretty butterfly has flown in. I haven’t developed any real skills in planning it out yet. Defects, imperfections, or – as you put it – fuzz: that’s what makes music interesting in the first place. After all, perfect is boring.
Andi Hörmann (15:14):
You’ve actually anticipated the answer to my question. Thanks. That’s exactly what I’ve heard from musicians in interviews: there’s a boring “right way” to play so much music that listeners can’t help yearning for a “mistake” to occur.
Exactly. There’s no real opposite to the word Fehler (“mistake”) in German. Maybe richtig or korrekt – but aesthetically speaking, who wants to make “right,” let alone “correct,” works of art?
Charlotte Greve (15:15):
I agree and can actually confirm that mistakes have often become integral parts of a composition and, again, usually improved it. Live mistakes, for instance, often end up revealing what the composition actually seeks to be or can be. What we didn’t know yet when composing can be brought out by these sometimes “collective mistakes” in the band.
Andi Hörmann (15:16):
So the potential for mistakes is a kind of cement that binds musicians together in a live performance. Interesting… The musician, author, and journalist Thomas Meinecke once made this beautiful, almost philosophical, remark in an interview: “Music is always right, only I can fail.” Would you agree?
That’s a great line and it envokes the universal “power” of music. I often think to myself that we musicians may execute, but the music that results is something greater, more powerful – particularly in the process of playing with others.
Markus Mehr (15:19):
Hmm… But failure has negative connotations... It’s not something desirable on stage, in front of an audience that may even have paid admission. Then again, in my opinion, failure doesn’t exist in the actual creation of music. Detours and dead ends, yes – but failure?
Charlotte Greve (15:25):
In any case, failure is a big word and, one way or another, a matter of opinion. It often works like this: a concert at which I have the feeling – to put it somewhat dramatically – that I’ve failed the music actually goes down extremely well with the audience – and sometimes it’s the other way around. There’s a great art to letting mistakes occur and, most importantly, “thinking ahead” the moment they do.
Andi Hörmann (15:32):
Both of you began learning an instrument at some point, right? Now you’ve “made it” with your music, but what do we say to people starting out on an instrument at an early age? Practice makes perfect! Teachers shake their heads when they hear a mistake. I remember my music lessons quite well. I had a hard time dealing with that authoritarian intolerance for mistakes.
I know what you mean.
Charlotte Greve (15:33):
I think when it comes to beginners, we’re talking about a different kind of mistake: the kind that can get in your way later on, and as a teacher, you obviously don't want them to become ingrained. I mainly mean mistakes in the sense of bad habits...
Markus Mehr (15:35):
On the one hand, it can be very helpful to master and understand an instrument and even music theory up to a certain level, depending on what area you’re working in. None of it’s necessary, though. Just think of hip-hop. But theory doesn’t play any part in my approach to composition today either. I tend to follow my intuition.
Charlotte Greve (15:35):
Markus Mehr (15:35):
By the way, from the very start, I didn’t practice enough on the guitar. I still regret that sometimes to this day.
Andi Hörmann (15:35):
Or how about early Tocotronic: all that guitar thrashing! Delightful, though. The band didn’t actually learn to play their instruments till they began achieving more and more success.
That’s true, a marvellous “inability”... But that didn’t matter, the band had other qualities and priorities. Getting back to mistakes: if every mistake is accepted, it becomes random – anyone can do that. Perhaps I’d call it “curating mistakes.”
Charlotte Greve (15:36):
I was often taught to learn rules, though with a parallel message: to throw the rules overboard as soon as you take the stage. An approach that definitely makes sense in jazz and improvised music. Yes, curating mistakes makes sense! Until you’ve got something to go by, you don’t know what is and isn’t a mistake.
Markus Mehr (15:37):
Yes, or think of bootlegs, those lousy cassette recordings in which you could hardly make out a thing. But you could hear the emotional impact, the power, and dynamism, the soul...
Andi Hörmann (15:38):
Perhaps the beauty of mistakes lies in the fact that they have – and should have – their raison d’être in music as acoustic accents. I think it’s partly owing to our high-tech age that we’ve learned to appreciate acoustic imperfections again. And that we have only a limited interest in hearing digitally smoothed-out music.
I agree with both of you. I’m thinking of free jazz, too. To many ears, it sounds like total chaos, a sea of clangers and slipups. But under the surface of what may sound like mistakes lies solid training on instruments, in technique and other things. Which gives it all direction, clarity, and beauty.
Markus Mehr (15:39):
Chaos, another very good word!
Andi Hörmann (15:40):
Yes, Charlotte, now that you mention free jazz, isn’t it a popular misconception about jazz you can just play away and it’ll turn into jazz in the end? These musicians have got to be incredibly alert and well trained – in resolving mistakes, too.
Definitely! When you listen to musicians who’ve grappled with free improvisation, the difference is readily apparent between that and a muddle of totally aleatory sounds. Nothing is random in their music. Most of it involves listening extremely closely and filling in whatever the music needs at any given moment – whether it be silence or massive sound. This process is highly complex, and that’s what’s beautiful and exciting about it.
Markus Mehr (15:41):
Auto-tune – popularly known as “the Cher effect” – has been around for over twenty years now. A tool to straighten out crooked pitches in vocal performance. Used for its intended purpose, it’s totally boring, it drains the music of all emotion. But used to an exaggerated effect as in Cher’s song “Believe,” it has given rise to a whole new sound aesthetic: Madonna, Kanye West, Daft Punk’s “One More Time”... Overdoing or “misusing” something “perfect” is liable to yield something creative.
Andi Hörmann (15:42):
Yes, Markus, that’s how I see it too. Just like “misusing” instruments: wasn’t guitar distortion discovered by simply turning the amps up all the way?
That’s right, if you overdo certain effects that are supposed to yield perfect results, you can create something completely new that represents a clear-cut stylistic choice.
Andi Hörmann (15:48):
We look for mistakes only in classical music – and in vain, at least on recordings.
Yes... But some composers were actually looking for mistakes: I’m thinking of Arnold Schönberg and Stockhausen.
Charlotte Greve (15:50):
Editing and re-editing recordings. Though I must admit, I quite understand the desire for supposed perfection in a through-composed piece of music. The faults may then lie hidden on another level – in the composition itself, for example.
Markus Mehr (15:52):
A full-sized classical orchestra is a marvellous thing. Naturally, there’s a place for that sort of thing, too. But I have the impression that studying classical music involves a lot of drilling to attain perfection.
Charlotte Greve (15:54):
I actually wanted to be a classical flautist, but I felt straightjacketed on stage by the perfectionism, all the do’s and don’ts of how the pieces should be played and sound. Jazz didn’t have that effect on me.
Markus Mehr (15:55):
Then you made the right choice!
Charlotte Greve (15:56):
Ha ha! A recital at music school with ten parents in the audience made me more nervous than playing songs and improvising with a band to a full house. But I do think it’s extremely admirable and fascinating to find the same freedom in classical music.
Andi Hörmann (15:58):
Our topic is inexhaustible… This might be a nice closing thought: better flawed than flawless, progress through error. Or how would you sum it up?
New approaches, new ideas through mistakes. Mistakes provide completely new inspiration, like a gift.
Markus Mehr (16:00):
Exactly. Mistakes are allies, not adversaries. Nothing’s more refreshing and inspiring than a great mistake in the right place.
Andi Hörmann (16:00):
Letting the subconscious surface as you play? Bear in mind: it probably takes a lot of courage to make a mistake in music.
It certainly takes an open mind and flexibility to accept mistakes. Which wouldn’t be a bad mantra for life in general...
Markus Mehr (16:03):
What have we really got to lose...
Andi Hörmann (16:04):
Thanks a lot! I’ve really enjoyed sussing out musical mistakes with the two of you.