Guitarist, Free Spirit, Storyteller.
What can music achieve? Is it only sounds? Is it a logical path from A to B, pursued according to harmonic, rhythmic and melodic aspects? For the Swiss guitarist Franz Hellmüller, music is much more than a structural and sensory component parallel to life. For more than ten years now, Hellmüller is active in the Swiss and European scenes. With projects such as the BHS Organ Trio, Hellmüller’s 4, H2S2, the adventurous standard-trio with bassist Luca Sisera and drummer Tony Renold, as well as his most recent, passionate sound spectacular with bassist Stefano Risso and drummer Marcel Papaux, he traverses many different territories. But he is always searching – and finding new answers that create an immediate relation between his music and real life.
Of course, Franz Hellmüller is first and foremost a guitarist who has mastered his instrument, and who knows how to extract sounds from it that one would not have expected emanating from an electric guitar. He is in constant dialogue with his instrument, which for him is much more than just a sound generator. This is how we perceive him. But he is also a storyteller with a large repertoire and has the capacity to mould plots and characters into his music. At the same time he is a painter who complements his figures and stories with an entire scenery and environment. His music creates images and situations with three-dimensional depth. His guitar is a tool, a medium, a dialogue partner and an alter ego all at once. “What interests me in music, and art in general, is storytelling. I see the guitar as a mouthpiece that lets me tell my stories. It is the instrument that I have mastered, but it is not important that it is a guitar. I love the guitar, but as a child I could have decided just as well to pick up the saxophone or the piano. To achieve depth on an instrument is only possible if one completely accepts it. On a guitar, you can play single notes as well as chords. But the interweaving of the two is a challenge, because unlike the piano you cannot play the chords with the left hand and the melody with the right hand. That is why music on the guitar is not so easily overwrought with material as it would be possible on the piano.”
This holistic approach to playing the guitar permits Hellmüller to let very different aspects of his personality converge in his music. He is never only outgoing or introvert, never only emotional or distant. His play is always holistic, and creates friction through the immediate confrontation of opposites, which sometimes even clash inside a motive or between single notes. In order to reach this point, Hellmüller has walked a long, meandering path. In his unique way to boil down complexity to a simple point, he says: “I just played.”
Of course it was more than that. In the beginning there was the flute, which the fledgling musician learned how to play in school. But soon, the constraints of this context became a burden, and he started to improvise. He sat next to the radio and simply quavered along. This already pointed to his aesthetic sensibility for the everyday soundscapes that surrounded him – something that still constitutes an important aspect of his art. When the flute could not satisfy him anymore, he switched to the guitar. Even before he had the know-how to write music, he already outlined his own compositions. He was always searching for outlets for his stories. And although obsessed with his own musical language, he never wanted to be one of those super-guitarists who plunge themselves into their own hermetic world and shut the rest out. Soon, he found himself playing in big bands, as well as in groups doing free improvisation, as well as in ensembles that strictly adhered to notes. Hellmüller is always looking for new challenges.
Franz Hellmüller may be a Jazz guitarist, but he has no regard for mainstream dogma and restrictive definitions about what Jazz should or should not be. “I equate Jazz with freedom. Jazz, in a larger sense, is music that allows one to improvise. But once this freedom is attained, there is no sense anymore in copying other musicians, no matter how much one admires them or how much one has internalized them.” Hellmüller knows that the personal voice does not only depend on musical reflection, but also on character, physical properties, body chemistry, and pitiless honesty towards oneself.
Franz Hellmüller is a musician who always stands at the beginning. Everything that has been achieved immediately becomes the starting point for new things still ahead. For the cosmopolitan Swiss, there is no difference between his practice as a musician and being human. It is easy to say that creativity is always born from a state of artistic dissatisfaction. Hellmüller opposes himself to this cliché by stating that he can find peace, happiness and calmness in his art. And this is true for the audience as well.