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Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, February 2024
Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 1
Ralph Zurmühle has been one of my favorite pianist/composers since I started reviewing his music back in 2008. Born in Switzerland, Ralph has lived in Spain for much of the past twenty-five years. We did our last interview in 2008, and there is much more about Ralph's early life in that one. He very recently released Reverence, a stunningly beautiful solo piano album, and I had a lot of questions about that music as well as how Ralph goes about composing his music. I've really enjoyed getting updated with Ralph and think you will, too!

KP: Hello from "across the pond," Ralph! How are things in Spain?

RZ: Greetings from “Old Europe”, Kathy! Pretty good, I have no complaints. The cuisine is great, as it always has been. The sun is shining most of the time. However, there’s been no rain here in Catalonia in a long time, which is a problem and might lead to restrictions in water consumption this summer. My wife and I live with our two “wild tiger” cats in the countryside close to the mountain of Montserrat. It’s a very relaxing and inspiring place.

KP: Sounds great! Maybe I can send some of our abundant Oregon rain over to you!

Congratulations on the release of your wonderful new album, Reverence (released February 19, 2024)! Let's talk about the album a bit. Quoting you from my review, "The twelve tracks on the album are 'dedicated to different aspects of life that inspire awe and raise our souls above these turbulent times.'" How did you choose those aspects of life?

RZ: Pretty randomly. The way that the album came together as a whole was, as always, a kind of unconscious process. Every album is different, but this time I noticed certain new and subtle changes in my compositions. For example, there are more compositions in major keys than on my earlier albums, more solemn short pieces, etc. While thinking about appropriate titles for the compositions, I realized that the essence of most of them contain a kind of energy that raises you up and encourages you to be thankful for everything and everyone that enriches your life.
Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 2
Click on album cover to
go to Kathy's review.

KP: The liner notes for the album include a quote by Native American, Black Elk, that speak to your intentions with this music: "Peace will come to the hearts of men when they realize their oneness with the universe. It is everywhere." I hadn't seen that quote before, but it is so true. Where did it come from?

RZ: Actually, my wife Pamela found it on the internet. It seems the most accurate quote to express in one sentence what my intention for this album is. Also, it complements the first track, “Earth From A Distance,” the visual footage from NASA and the “Earthrise” photo taken from the Apollo 8 mission.

KP: That track has a really interesting story and a great video that goes with it. Tell us a bit about it.

RZ: Thank you, Kathy. Yes, first there was this minimalistic piano piece of only 2-3 minutes and I was searching for a good title. The music felt like “home” to me. Then, I thought what is home? I realized, it could be Earth. In my mind I saw the image of the earth from a distance and I thought to myself: "That’s it!" Later on, I found the iconic “Earthrise” photo from the Apollo 8 mission. I watched any footage, videos about the Apollo 8 mission and any interviews with the astronauts I could get a hold of. The comments of these three men (Lovell, Borman, Anders) who had traveled around the dark side of the moon on the 24th of December 1968 and suddenly witnessed the earth rising in the distance, touched me deeply. After their mission they stated something like: “We went on this mission to discover the Moon, but what we discovered was Earth.” They further commented, “Why do we have war on this planet? Why do we not treat our planet and each other better? Just look at this little 'thumbnail' floating in the distance in this dark universe. We are all in the same boat.”

Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 19
Ralph and Pamela
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Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 15
KP: What an inspiration! That piece is so soothing and expresses so much, yet it's so spare and open. Were you thinking about anything specific as you composed the music?

RZ: Not really. I never think while in the process of discovering something new as I play. I let my hands do the job, not my mind. In this case, it happened very fast, within minutes. There are some compositions that I refine over years. This one stuck from the beginning after playing it for the very first time. Getting the right sound effect for this piece actually took me more time than composing it.

KP: That's really interesting! "Opening In the Sky" is one of my favorites on the album. It goes through so many changes, from very quiet and reflective to more powerful and dramatic with seamless transitions from one mood to the next. What inspired the piece?

RZ: I can’t tell you, Kathy. It just happened, since every composition of mine starts with an improvisation. However, I can tell you that this piece has a different story than “Earth From A Distance.” As you mention, it is much more complex. I had the concept rather quickly, but then I was never 100% happy with how I played certain parts. This piece sat there for about two years. I always came back to it and played it again, changed it a bit here and there until bringing it to its final version. A lot of refinement was done to make it a mature, solid composition with all these changes involving modulation, tempo, sudden dynamic changes, crossovers, 4 against 3 polyrhythmic patterns, etc. It was the last piece I recorded for the album and it’s one of my favorites as well, especially from my point of view as a composer of classical music.

KP: "Ode To the Sun" begins very peacefully and gradually builds in intensity. Tell us about that one.

RZ: Well, I started playing the first part and then came to a stop. Here, I was indeed thinking: Now what, Ralph? Then, I got the idea of the rhythmic change, but starting from nothing, point zero so to speak, very softly, but with intensity created by the choice of full chords and widespread tones. The rest was just a logical consequence. This piece is, as you mentioned, intense, powerful and very energizing, but also uplifting. When it was completed it made me think of the powerful presence of our sun that gives life to everything.

KP: "Those Moments" feels very reflective and introspective as well as melancholy. What is its story?

RZ: It reminds me of taking a walk. In the end, it occurred to me that it is a walk into the past, to relive moments, beautiful moments that one remembers. It is one of my latest compositions and perhaps reflects some of J.S. Bach’s influence on me.

KP: "At Sea" is my favorite track on the album. At almost nine minutes, it tells quite a story. What inspired it?

RZ: As always, there is no thought at the beginning; just hands moving in one direction or the other. However, I remember that after a while I started playing around with all these modulations. I think this piece runs through 7 different keys forward and sometimes back. I recall B minor, A minor E minor, E phrygian, D minor, G minor, C minor. The overall feeling was for me, that of a person moving without a clear direction. Words like "confusion" or "uncertainty" came into my mind. This feeling is intensified at the end by adding more altered notes to the main theme. All this led me to the title "At Sea." This term has a double meaning; actually being at sea and/or being lost or confused.

Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 17
Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 20
Royal Artistic Circle 2016, Barcelona
KP: I wondered about that! I really like the dark intensity of the second movement with the rolling broken chords and crossovers into the deep bass of the piano. It could be a big storm at sea, maybe at night. And then it goes back to the opening theme to the end. Am I at all close with that interpretation?

RZ: Yes, absolutely. I had the same feeling. Suddenly there is this stop; silence. Then, the middle part begins, something menacing, a kind of storm builds up in an ostinato pattern of sorts with a tempo and time change that at one point leads back to the journey of “uncertainty.”

KP: I thought it was really interesting that such a dark piece would be followed by the light-hearted and playful "Children's Song." Was that sudden change in mood intended? It's very effective!

RZ: Well, yes, I guess. I can’t recall the whole process of selecting the order of the 12 tracks in detail, but selecting a piece with a completely different energy, a short, lighthearted and funny piece, after a long dark piece was probably intentional. “Children’s Song” itself is unique in the sense that it reflects a part of me that rarely finds its way into the final recording of an album. It’s that funny and goofy side of me when sometimes playing the piano.

KP: It's a very fun surprise! What inspired "Hymn For the Ancestors"?

RZ: As I mentioned before, the first steps when I play some new idea are a very unconscious, spontaneous act. This piece has a similar story as “Earth From A Distance.” It was composed in a very short time and I loved it for its simplicity and grace. The title came later. There is a sense of gratitude in this piece and I decided to direct this gratitude to my ancestors.

KP: I love your arrangement of "Scarborough Fair"! What made you decide to include that ancient piece? (It goes back to medieval times!)

RZ: Haha, I asked myself the same question. It was the last piece added to the album. At first, I was not sure. I like traditionals and I have always been toying around with "Scarborough Fair." The first time I actually played it in a concert was with David Nevue and Kathleen Ryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the encore and all the artists performed their rendition of it. So, I thought after having it with me for over 13 years, I should release some version of my own. And of course, the final recording on the album turned out different than all the other versions before it.

KP: The closings of concerts with David Nevue and some of the Whisperings Artists are always an adventure! I've seen some pretty amazing ones, myself!

This past December, you also released a recording on vinyl from a live session. Tell us about that.

RZ: That’s right. I participated in a Jazz and Classic Live Studio Festival in the Little Big Beat Studios in Liechtenstein. The producers liked my piano session so much that they released a vinyl of it, which of course makes me very happy. I cannot stress enough how great the quality of this vinyl is.

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Click on two lower covers to go
to Kathy's reviews.
KP: I'll have to check it out! In addition to your recordings, you have done a lot of music for films, television, theater and multimedia projects. Tell us about some of them.

RZ: I enjoy very much working with visual artists. For example, I loved working with Catalan sculptor Manuel Solà. We’ve had two multimedia projects together that include a sculpture, poetry, images and music. The first installation gave birth to my composition “Horizon”, a meditative piece over 20 minutes long. Eight years later this piece was selected by Momix, an American dance/illusionist company, for their show “Alchemy,” which was performed worldwide. It was exciting to see the same piece in a different artistic environment. I had the opportunity to see the show in Madrid. The choreography was amazing and I truly enjoyed watching the dancers performing to my music. Another memorable event was the experience of creating my own compositions to accompany the avant-garde films of Buñuel, Dali, Duchamps, Man Ray, René Clair, etc. I performed them live in front of a big screen at the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno. Then, over the years there were also many different projects where I’ve licensed my music or composed original scores, several of them with filmmaker and friend Arno Oehri. Our collaboration goes back 40 years.

KP: When we did our interview back in 2008, you were getting ready to relocate. Is that when you moved to Arizona?

RZ: Yes, we lived in Tucson from 2009 – 2011.

KP: How did that go?

RZ: It was a very special time for me living in the USA during those years. My wife and I both love the Sonoran Desert. We lived in the outskirts of Tucson. What a wonderful and magical place. At times it felt as if we were living inside of a National Geographic magazine. The album eQuinox was composed and released there. The last composition is called “Sonora In My Heart” and it expresses my feelings towards this beautiful desert better than any words ever could.

KP: And now you are back in Barcelona, Spain?

RZ: Yes, after a detour to Cádiz, so to speak, where we first returned to Spain from Tucson. We rented a house in the countryside near some good friends for 5 years. Andalusia is just beautiful!

KP: Have you been able to resume live performances in Spain and/or other parts of Europe?

RZ: I’ve had some concerts, but not too many. Most of these were for social causes, for example to raise funds for refugees.

Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 10
Click on cover to go
to Kathy's review.
Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 11
Review coming soon!

KP: Do you have sheet music available for any of your music?

RZ: Yes, sheet music and songbooks can be ordered at my website. I also offer some of it free of charge.

KP: I really enjoyed reviewing the songbook for Reverence and will review the Studio Live sheet music very soon. What's up next for you?

RZ: Next week there will be a presentation of the album in Barcelona, during which I will perform some of the pieces. Then, of course, continued promotion of the album. I am very much looking forward to getting back to the instrument to focus on playing, discovering and composing music.

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment so far?

RZ: That’s a great question. It might sound a bit strange, but it probably was my very first experience on the piano, when I learned how to play the “Flea Waltz.” I was 5 years old. My mother told me in the morning that if I was able to play the whole thing (3 parts) by the evening, she would give me 2 Swiss Francs for my piggy bank. Well, I did it, got the money and this was the start of my career…LOL. Another meaningful moment was the International Festival of Piano in Aranda de Duero in Burgos (Spain) with Peter Kater, Chad Lawson, Rocky Fretz and Dorantes. Apart from the great concerts, I really enjoyed spending a few days with these fellow pianists, going on some sight-seeing tours and getting to know each other. Alejandro Clavijo, founder of Reviews New Age, made all of this possible. I’m very grateful to him.

KP: What an amazing group of artists! Wish I could have been there!

Do you have any favorite composers and/or performers?

RZ: There are so many. Definitely, Keith Jarrett, J.S. Bach, Arvo Pärt at the top of a long list that doesn’t include just jazz and classical music, but also rock/pop groups like King Crimson, and the good old Beatles. Then, there is great folk music from all over the world, and also more “spiritual” music like Gurdjieff / De Hartmann that has left its influence on me.

KP: What do you like to do in your free time?

RZ: Walks in nature and flight simulation. I like to cook as well.

Interview with Ralph Zurmühle, image 16
The International Festival of Piano in Aranda de Duero in Burgos (Spain). From the left: Alejandro Clavijo, Mario Lopez Santos, Ralph, Peter Kater, Chad Lawson, and Rocky Fretz.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

RZ: Well, my main wish would be: Peace on Earth. I really can’t wrap my head around the fact that in 2024 we still behave as we did hundreds of years ago. Still flexing muscles and fighting each other. This has to stop. Soon. We are better than that. On a more personal level, maybe that some of my music will endure the test of time. And with one wish still left, well, that my wife, the love of my life, and I will stay healthy and continue to enjoy our journey together.

KP: Beautifully stated! Is there anything else you'd like to "talk" about?

RZ: No, I think that’s it. Thank you very much, Kathy, for giving me the opportunity to talk about my music (and a bit more).
Many thanks to Ralph Zurmühle for taking the time to do this interview! For more information about Ralph and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
February 2024