Storytelling through Music
For him a composition and the story behind it are inextricably linked with each other. Guitarist Kurt Hummel is a late starter – all the more he has to tell. He is a composer and guitarist who wants to move us with his songs and carry us off to other places.
Rep.: There hasn’t been much talk about you in the guitar scene until now but you have recently released several guitar pieces. Tell me a little bit about your personal background and musical development.
KH: Just like many young people at the time I started playing in a student band but back then I played the drums. This became my source of income during my studies and we played covers mainly in American military clubs. Later on we switched to only playing our own songs with English lyrics which had the effect that we only got to play very few gigs with this program. While I was still playing with the band I also started learning to play the guitar. At first I played a 12-string guitar, mainly strumming chords. Inspired by the emerging folk movement with artists like Werner Lämmerhirt I took up to fingerstyle playing. But at the time I chose to play a classical guitar which was easier for me to play because of the nylon strings. When I finished studying I quit playing with the band but kept on playing guitar – not overly enthusiastic but regularly. I went on like this for about four years while working as an engineer (I had studied communications engineering). Then I had the feeling that there wasn’t much more to come/my life was stagnating if I wasn’t going to change something. So I quit my job, took all my savings and together with a friend who also played the guitar by the way we drove to Greece in a VW bus. My friend returned to Germany after six months but I stayed in Greece for about three years. During my time there I dedicated myself more intensively to playing the guitar. At first I played classics like for example Angie, Classical Gas or the entertainer rag but soon I started writing my own songs.
Rep.: Did you take guitar or music classes to be able to write down your compositions?
KH: No, by writing songs I didn’t mean that I actually wrote them down but that I composed them myself. I’ve always been an autodidact, sometimes with the help of books, notes or tabs although I never was and still am not able to play at sight.
Rep.: Did you play together with other musicians during your time in Greece?
KH: Rarely, I always kind of did my own thing and I detested jam sessions based for example on a blues cadence.
Rep.: What was next for you in terms of your musical development after your time in Greece?
KH: Through connections from my time with the band I heard that friends had opened up a recording studio in Wiesbaden and were looking for staff. As I didn’t want to go back to working as an engineer I took the opportunity and started working there. It was a small studio and we recorded everything from classical music, rock and music for advertising to radio plays and children’s radio plays. During this time I was also able to release my first compositions, mainly as theme and background music of children’s audio plays. After a few years of working in the studio I decided to jump on the minicomputer bandwagon and to start writing computer software. By the time I had a son and two daughters followed later on. I moved to the countryside and earned money writing software. But I kept on playing the guitar regularly and also wrote songs. During a visit to the island of La Gomera, a friend encouraged me to record solo pieces on the guitar. For him my songs were linked to travels and landscapes. So I recorded several demo tapes and sent them to a company that markets music for movie and video soundtracks. They liked it and funded the production of a CD and added the songs to their assortment.
Rep.: I know that you have also written and recorded music that had nothing to do with the guitar.
KH: Yes, that’s true. Through my work with computers I realized early on the many possibilities offered by digital recordings, samples, and editing and spent a few years producing music with the computer. I produced many different styles of music but always with drums, bass, wind instruments, electric guitar, etc. I also managed to release many of those pieces in the film music sector.
Rep.: Did you continue to play the guitar during that time?
KH: That was the point; I didn’t and I got the feeling that I invested more energy in dealing with the quirks of technology like new hardware, sound cards, HW drivers, and samples than in actually making music. I also missed playing an instrument and so one day I decided to stop producing music with the computer. Today I only use it to cut tracks or to make CDs. I don’t even use a computer when I record my guitar pieces.
Rep.: How do you record your songs?
KH: I used to have a DAT recorder but now I use a recorder with CF cards and capacitor microphones. I also have a 16-track hard disk recorder in case more than two tracks are necessary.
Rep.: You said earlier that you chose to play a classical guitar but one of your more recent CDs is called “World of Steel String Guitar”.
KH: About eight years ago I discovered that the sound of steel string guitars fits most of my songs better and at the moment I mostly play the steel string guitar.
Rep.: What guitar do you play?
KH: I have a preference for Japanese guitars from the 60s and 70s. I play a Hopf ‘Woodstock’ guitar since 2012. It is a steel string guitar which Hopf has given to me for a performance on the acoustic stage at the music fair in Frankfurt and which I play almost exclusively at the moment. Another favorite guitar of mine is a Kasuga from the 70s, a replica of a Martin guitar. I’ve also had guitars by Lakewood and Maton but it didn’t really click.
Rep.: I saw that you glued an additional piece of foam rubber on top of your pickguard. What for?
KH: I mainly use my thumb and two fingers for playing. I rarely use the other two fingers which I rest on the rubber. It supports them and prevents my fingernails from rattling on the surface.
Rep.: We’ve talked a lot about your background and technical aspects but let’s get down to what’s really important: your music. Whenever I read something about you there is always mention of travelling, landscapes and atmosphere. What’s that all about?
KH: Most of my songs are associated with certain places, events and feelings or moods and during concerts I always say a few words about the song. I don’t sing but I still want to make sure the audience understands what I am trying to describe with a certain song therefore a composition and the story behind it go hand in hand. This way the audience visualizes the scenery while listening to the song. When giving a concert I even describe the particular musical themes of some songs and play a little part of them and explain which part of the story they represent. I write most of my songs while travelling as a result the stories behind them include the places I’ve travelled to maybe that’s why people associate my music with travels and landscapes. When I am in the process of writing a song which isn’t connected to a story or feeling yet I grow more and more restless the closer I come to completing the song. Once it is finished on the musical level it is still not ready to be performed until I haven’t found a title and thus a story for the song. Some of my songs have disappeared because of this without anyone having ever listened to them – except maybe for my family who witnessed the creation process.
Rep.: You said that you don’t notate your compositions but how do you remember them?
KH: That really was a problem. I did record the songs but when I hadn’t played them for a while I would have had to reconstruct them from the recordings. But I didn’t make the effort and therefore can’t play many of them anymore. Now I videotape my songs which allows me to reconstruct most songs even after some time. Lately I have begun to notate some songs using notes and tabs but it is very time-consuming as I have little experience in this area. If I then show the notes to someone who is experienced in the field I often get comments like “you wouldn’t write it like this” or “that’s not very readable” which is not very motivating.
Rep.: Do you often use alternate tunings?
KH: No, most of my songs are written for a standard tuning, some for a drop D tuning. With every other tuning I feel like I don’t know my way around the guitar anymore so I don’t use them. However I am working on a few songs at the moment for which I use different types of partial capos shortening only some strings in various positions. As a result the open strings are tuned in alternate tuning while the pushed down strings keep their note value. I find this manageable and it still offers new possibilities and voicings.