Decisions are coming out of my belly. My head needs to chase.
A rehearsal stage in the Karoviertel neighbourhood. Wooden floors, curtained windows and a piano by the wall. Heinrich Horwitz is discussing the scene with Carola. As the piano music begins to play, bodies, knotted together, start to move around the room. The scene might seem strange if not grotesque at first, but an energy can be immediately sensed. It seems to fill the room with every rolling, knotted movement of the bodies.
This energy also emanates from Carola. With self-confidence, cheekiness and good humour she explains to us what is being rehearsed. She notices our slight consternation, but quite likes it too. This is also a reaction, after all. Something that performative art can and may trigger.
hvv switch: How would you describe yourself?
Carola: I’m an extremely intuitive person. I always make decisions based on my gut feeling and then my head has to follow from there. My head never makes the first move. I’ve never let myself be pressed into forms or conventions. Not even as a child. But I have consistently followed through with my decisions. For example, I would never let anyone ban me from smoking, even though this really is highly unusual for a clarinet player and occasional singer.
hvv switch: You grew up near Tübingen on the edge of a small village. What was that like?
Carola: I come from a family of craftsmen rather than academics. We lived a simple life. I always used to ask lots of questions, but they not always got answered. Alongside sports and exercise, my head also wanted to be fed. I didn’t really fit in there at all. I didn’t conform to the conventions of a small village. And this involved some suffering as a result, but still I did my own thing as a kid.
It was strange to my parents that I wanted to attend the local grammar school and even had a recommendation for it. They always said: “Realschule” – the comprehensive school – is great. After that you can move schools. And I said no, I want to go to the grammar school! I refused food and drink until they let me. I loved going to school. These 45-minute packages of free knowledge gave me great satisfaction. I wasn’t a nerd but I was extremely interested.
Having gone through all of this with me, they let me when I said I wanted to study music, the clarinet, and said: OK, just do it. I think that was the coolest reaction. Although they not always understand why and what I do exactly.
If daddy is still in overalls, that’s the way it is and I look forward to introducing him to the director afterwards. Having him there in overalls, and saying: “That’s my dad”.
These days they are interested. They come and watch concerts and performances, and they dare to ask questions too. I’ve managed to get them to not worry about all the etiquette associated with a concert hall. And they’ve lost their shyness and learned for themselves that professors, doctors, etc. are just people too in the end who you can talk to completely normally.
hvv switch: What made you decide to learn the clarinet?
Carola: Music classes were offered free of charge in primary school. My mother asked me if I wanted to learn the recorder and I said yes. I always just couldn’t wait to get there, and I enjoyed practicing.There was a music club in our village and one day I happened to hear the clarinet. From that day on I was hooked and wanted to learn. My dad recently told me that when I was a little kid he asked me if I was really sure I wanted to learn the clarinet and that my response was: I’m damn sure! Nobody could have guessed at that point that this would turn into my calling in life. He recently admitted that they used to get annoyed because I practiced so much.
All things considered, I have to say it’s lucky that I’ve ended up in my profession, even though it was extremely tough at times in the past, not fitting in with the usual conventions in our village.
hvv switch: You used music to imitate the various sounds of the surrounding forest?
Carola: Yes, and that’s still the case to this day. Even as a child I experimented a lot, for example. I imitated different birds using just the mouthpiece. Or air sounds.
hvv switch: You can’t hear your Swabian accent anymore. Did you lose it in Hamburg?
Carola: No, I refused to speak in that dialect as a child too. My parents talk with a strong regional accent, but my sister and I speak standard German. That was and still is a source of irritation for my parents. But my daddy really can’t imagine that there are people who don't understand him. Most of the people in my ensemble don’t understand what he’s saying, but it’s hilarious. Watching the communication between our drummer, an American, and my daddy is particularly funny. They laugh their heads off together, even though they don’t understand what the other one is saying.
hvv switch: What does freedom mean to you?
Carola: Freedom to me is about being able to make my own decisions. That’s the greatest freedom there is. An incredible privilege. And that’s where humility and gratitude go hand in hand. I’ve always tried to make sure I have that. It makes sense that I am where I am professionally. I think I’d encounter great problems if I was doing any other job. Me in an office job would be a disaster. I think I’d also find it difficult being in institutions like the main music conservatory here in Hamburg. I have to be able to work freely to grow as a person. I don’t want to be constrained by rules.
hvv switch: What were your biggest setbacks?
Carola: Studying music is always associated with suffering. I have suffered a lot. A great, great deal! You have to imagine that you’re constantly confronted with yourself. You’re alone in the room with a music stand, your sheet music and your instrument. It’s a non-verbal moment with the instrument, and the music and the instrument are just a total reflection of you. If you’re not at peace with yourself, you’re going to suffer badly. If there’s something wrong, the instrument works against you, which is really bad. It’s really hard to put up with yourself in a society that revolves around fun, where you’re only supposed to distract people and distract yourself all the time. It’s tough! I cried a lot. There’s a reason why so many musicians drink or take drugs. Many fail because they can’t bear to be with themselves. Or they’re such geniuses that they perform at their best despite alcohol and drugs. Or you find a way to get along with yourself. For me, pressure from outside has never been the decisive factor when it comes to setbacks. I put myself under pressure, I’m extremely strict with myself. I’m a perfectionist in my work.
hvv switch: Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?
Carola: It would never have occurred to me to put my clarinet to one side and stop playing. It was my anchor. Music has always been and still is my whole world. Although it was in fact the access to the new music. I always felt comfortable there. Maybe I would have stopped with all the classical music at some point.
hvv switch: Do you have a motto?
Carola: In the last year of my studies I decided not to sign a fixed contract for three years and to go freelance instead. I did that, despite being offered a good job as a teacher at a music school. My motto is “Either everything or nothing!”
I always go after what I want, without any fear of change. I never leave the back door open just in case.
hvv switch: What brought you to Hamburg?
Carola: I came here because my teacher was here. I also completed my Master’s degree with this same professor. It really is true that music students often relocate to where the professor is they want to study under. If they’re accepted and get a place.
hvv switch: How do you feel about Hamburg compared to where you’re originally from?
Carola: I wanted to get out of my village and get out of Tübingen as quickly as possible. It was all far too small for me. I had to leave very quickly. First to Darmstadt, then Düsseldorf and then Hamburg.
hvv switch: How do you feel about the sounds of the big city of Hamburg, compared to your home village? Is it like music or more like noise to you?
Carola: I can already abstract that. Taking soundscapes apart excites me. When lots of different sounds overlap and a “noise sound” is created I just love it. Lots of composers also work on this basis. For a long time I lived in a first-floor apartment on Max-Brauer-Allee, but that became too much for me at some point. Then I moved all the way out to the edge of the forest in Bergedorf, next to a cemetery, which was too weird. The best thing is a mix of both.
hvv switch: For a while you lived in Hamburg as a subtenant in the home of a rich patron of the arts and his wife?
Carola: This couple is Hamburg for me. Hamburgers in their hearts. I got to know them many years ago. The Pastor of the Michel said at that time to me “Ms. Schaal, observing you right now, and without really knowing you, you have to call someone I know. Tell him ‘Mr. Hart says you have to go for a coffee together.’” That’s what we did and he just organised his first concert and then invited me to play there.
Our relationship has become very close. These are important people for me in Hamburg, and I often ask them for advice. He is a kind of mentor for me. With people like that, you really have a cliché stood there right in front of you: old Hamburg money. But then they both manage to break the cliché again straight away. They’re so open to everything. I’ve lived with both of them over several different periods in the apartment next door. I’ve practiced there for many hours. Warming up the body and fingers, along with warming up the voice. Unfortunately, there is never an end to practicing scales and fluency.
hvv switch: What’s the Decoder Ensemble and what does it mean to you?
Carola: The ensemble has a definite band-like character. Vocals are involved and we play with amplification. An electronic tremor forms the basis for our music. There’s a sound designer, all electronic devices are amplified, and we do soundchecks before the performances. We work primarily with the really young generation of composers who are active in the multimedia field. And we’ve established a characteristic sound now. Decoder is recognizable.
We also work a lot with projections. For example, I will wear a white overall and only hold the clarinet in my hand. Then I play the clarinet and project it onto myself. It’s important to me that all six of us bear the same responsibility for the creative content. In other words, we have equal rights. We decide together on the program we choose, and which composers or guest artists we want to work together with. We very rarely argue about content. We almost always agree on what has to happen on stage, on what simply has to be put out there to the audience. Sometimes I use my voice as well as my clarinet, but not in the classical way.
I see myself as a ‘growling princess’. Which, of course, isn’t to say that I’m a diva. Being a diva has no point to it.
hvv switch: Does it take a lot of effort to stage a performative concert?
Carola: It involves an unbelievably big effort. It’s important that there’s a theme running through a production, that a theme is conveyed to the audience that picks them up, as it were, and takes them off somewhere else or disturbs them. We had a concert in Hamburg’s Elphi concert hall, for instance, where we also used the foyer, the corridor and the elevator. Here the audience arrives to enter the building and when the doors open I’m lying on my back in the elevator lined with black carpet playing the clarinet. That goes on for the first half an hour until everyone is there, then I switch to another place. In between, a big firework display goes off on the other side of the River Elbe, which is transmitted into the Kaispeicher building, and so on. A fixed, musical component of the evening is “the art of the fugue”.
hvv switch: What exactly does performative art mean, compared to a classical approach?
Carola: In a classical concert, the parts of each respective instrument are already written down precisely. If possible, you shouldn’t bring yourself into it too much, let alone improvise. But I didn’t just want to reproduce music. I wanted to participate creatively myself as well. Improvisation is an important part of performative art. Every performance here is different. Another point is that there’s no equality in classical concerts. Most of the time one musician leads.
I don’t like repetition.
hvv switch: You tour around the world with the Decoder Ensemble. What role does Hamburg play when you’re on the road?
Carola: Hamburg is the breeding ground for new projects: Everything we go on tour with comes to life here.
hvv switch: Do you have a favourite place in Hamburg?
Carola: The Boberg Dunes, that’s somewhere I like to escape to. I often go out there, even in winter. They’re magical in every season. With all these fireworks going off in my head, I need this silence and solitude. That just being alone with myself. Many people can’t be alone with themselves, but I’m extremely good at it. I am full of contrasts: I’m on the move a lot but I also need these moments of rest. There are times when you feel like a hamster stuck in a wheel. Someone has to remind me, but I definitely need these resting phases. Long periods of resting. Boredom – “Langeweile” in German – is the greatest thing in the world! I try to create these times for myself. This is in fact our most valuable source.
I cut things out of my schedule and cancel things because I want to enjoy this long period of rest. A full schedule is extremely limiting. And creativity doesn’t come from just being on the road. I deliberately cancel performances where I know I would be repeating existing pieces. I’m only interested in my own things and new things.