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Zen Sounds 045: Jonathan Bockelmann
The German classical guitarist evokes a sense of awe and wonder on his debut album »Childish Mind«
The week has been slow and calm. The mornings haven’t been as brutally cold anymore. Birds were chattering outside my window.
I read Jenny Offill’s »Dept. of Speculation«, a semi-autobiographical recount of a marriage moving from infatuation phase to the edge of breaking apart within a few years. Stylistically, it’s super reduced. The narration is fragmental, and it’s moving quickly, but in the end it all makes sense. I immediately requested her other books from the library. What a writer!
Musically, I’ve been looking forward to present today’s album to you for a while. Let me preface this by saying the concept of a solo acoustic guitar record usually doesn’t provoke excitement in me. But I’ve followed Munich-based quasi-jazz label Squama closely over the years, and much of their stuff has been right up my alley, so when they announced »Childish Mind« with the first single »Lihan«, I definitely wanted to give it a shot.
Lo and behold, by the first few chords, Jonathan had already won me over. And I’ve been in love with this record ever since.
Since I moved to the countryside late last year, »Childish Mind« has provided the soundtrack to many a tranquil winter morning in my tiny village. It doesn’t surprise me that nature has been one of Jonathan’s biggest inspirations for writing this album.
Even though the Munich-born artist has been studying classical guitar for 20 years, he never wrote any guitar music until he started transcribing some Ryuichi Sakamoto tunes. Up to this point, he had produced electronic music together with his brother Ferdi under the collective name of Glaskin. They released two EPs and an album full of tunes between techno, jungle and ambient; we might have called it IDM back in the days. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to the music on »Childish Mind«.
Aside from Sakomoto, Jonathan’s apparently inspired by Bach (okay, like – who isn’t?) and Cuban guitarist Leo Brouwer, »whose work finds a balance between virtuosic techniques and lovely melodies«, according to the press biography by Vanessa Ague. That’s actually an apt description of what Jonathan accomplished on »Childish Mind« as well.
To someone who never listened to much classical guitar, these songs often sound like something the late Japanese hip-hop producer Nujabes would have sampled for one of his impressionistic, melancholic beats. If I was a beatmaker, I’d loop a segment from »Fuji At Night« immediately.
The music certainly has an airy quality to it, and that is enhanced by the recording and the mixing. The plucked guitar strings sound almost painfully crisp and clear, but you can hear a hint of the room as well. Jonathan’s technique is strong, I dare say, judging from a few years of my own guitar practice. He moves effortlessly from complex picking to strumming to percussive tricks and back again. He’s a great player, but much more importantly, an interesting one – one that uses his broad technical vocabulary not for show-off, but for emotional expression.
What I love most about »Childish Mind« though, is how Jonathan contrasts the most heartbreaking melodies with unexpected turns in the compositions, and then, after consciously wandering off and exploring for a while, letting another sweet melody line appear seemingly out of the blue, only to be repeated a few times and then vanish, like a vague reminder of the fleetingness of every beautiful moment in life.
In Zen Buddhist teachings, a sense of child-like wonder and curiosity is often referred to as a desirable state of mind. »Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind« is the title of a famous book of teachings by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. That »Beginner’s Mind« translates to a focus of our full awareness on the present moment, always exploring our actual experience, not assuming to know anything. »Childish Mind« exemplifies that way of moving through the world in a default mode of wonder and awe.
When I asked Martin Brugger, one of the two label co-founders, what he’s generally looking for when scouting releases for Squama, he answered:
»There’s no checklist. A record released on Squama should usually not be something that could have been released elsewhere. It should be special, regarding format, sound or personnel. And I think you can say that in regards to all records we released so far.«
Well, at least in my music library, you won’t find a record even slightly similar to »Childish Mind«.
File under: »Ambient is not a genre, but a way of listening.« (David Toop)
One more thing
Thanks to fellow Substack writer Tarotplane of Zik Zak, I stumbled across a heavenly tune from 1980. »Bright Waves« was first released on tape under the artist name Claire Thomas & Susan Vezey and then included in the Cherry Red compilation »Perspectives And Distortion« in 1981. It was later revealed that experimental filmmaker Philip Sanderson produced it, while the ethereal voice apparently belongs to a woman named Nancy Slessenger.
Sanderson had produced industrial music with his group Storm Bugs in the late 1970’s and switched to synthesizer and tape experiments in the early 1980’s. Canadian ambient label Séance Centre re-released some of his works from that era on a compilation in 2019, including »Bright Waves«. It sounds like an analog tape of Julianna Barwick jamming with William Basinski.
Full disclosure: I’m working with Squama as a freelance writer and translator, and one of the label’s co-founders is currently working on a visual rebranding of Zen Sounds. Notwithstanding, I do genuinely love Jonathan Bockelmann’s album but I also understand that a certain bias might apply here.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze