Self-taught musician with a soft spot for poetry: Christoph Gallio

Saxophonist, composer and event organiser Christoph Gallio has been shaping the Swiss and international free jazz and new improvisation scene for almost 40 years. In this interview with Friederike Kenneweg, he reveals how he moved from improvisation to composition and what role poetry plays in the process.


Christoph Gallio spielt Saxophon vor einem Mikrofon. Foto von John Sharpe
The saxophonist Christoph Gallio. © John Sharpe


Friederike Kenneweg
Young Christoph Gallio (*1957) used his first self-earned money to buy a soprano saxophone and taught himself to play. Even though he later spent a year at the Basel conservatory and at some point even completed a degree, he has remained true to this attitude of self-taught musician who simply does it and finds out how best to do it – as an improvising musician in free jazz, among other things, as a composer, as an organiser and as the operator of the PERCASO label.

Looking for new impulses

In order to develop further on his unconventional path, Christoph Gallio has always looked for new stimuli on the outside.

“It’s the crux of the self-taught artist, at some point one has to do something new. I can’t always be alone with my idiosyncrasies. I always need new inputs.”

After his time as a saxophonist in the Swiss jazz scene and after musical encounters with greats such as Irène Schweitzer or Urs Voerkel, for example, a change was needed.


From improvisation to composition

“I always and only improvised freely, going into free jazz to some extent. But at some point that no longer satisfied me, as there was this danger to go round in circles, without getting any further and only ever come up with the same things.” In contrast to the many irretrievable moments of improvised music, Gallio wanted to create something that could be repeated – and began composing. At first, he mainly wrote for his own band projects, such as the trio Day&Taxi, which has been with him for 35 years. Over time, commissioned works for other artists were added.


Die Band Day&Taxi, Schwarz-Weiß-Foto in urbanem Setting, Foto von Jordan Hemingway
On average, ‘Day&Taxi’ has changed its line-up every seven years since it was founded in 1988. Silvan Jeger (bass), Gerry Hemingway (drums) and Christoph Gallio (saxophone) have been playing together since 2013. © Jordan Hemingway


On Day&Taxi‘s 2019 album Devotion, poems by Friederike Mayröcker served as a source of inspiration for Christoph Gallio, with bassist Silvan Jeger taking on the vocal part.


Merging miniatures into a whole

Christoph Gallio prefers to use texts as starting point for his music – especially poetry, for example by Robert Filliou or Gertrude Stein.

“If I have a text as a basis, it just works. Without a text, it’s much more difficult for me to compose.”

In the piece The Ocarina Chapter for string trio and voice, which the Mondrian Ensemble premiered with baritone Robin Adams in June 2022, one characteristic of Gallio’s music is particularly evident: his work with miniatures. These arise from his preference for short, lyrical, often humorous texts, which inspire his compositions.

“What I like about small pieces is the seemingly unimportant, the everyday. Why not do funny things too, why not bring humour into the music, why is most music so strict and serious, why do certain people who make music take themselves so seriously?”


In The Ocarina Chapter (2021), Christoph Gallio brings together poems by Annina Luzie Schmid (*1983), Markus Stegmann (*1962) and Peter Z Herzog (*1950).


Each miniature is a picture in its own right

In The Ocarina Chapter, thirty miniatures, some purely instrumental, others with words set to music, are put together in a sequence of almost forty minutes. The rapid changes this requires are a particular challenge for the performers.
“The musicians have to practise a lot with these miniatures. Each one being a picture in its own right. One has to be sung one way, the next differently, there has to be shouting, then whispering, without much transition time in between.”


Freedom for interpreters

Christoph Gallio finds the right sequence for the individual sections by putting the pre-sketched miniatures together differently on the computer until everything sounds right. The space between the individual parts is also important in order to create the desired effect. Particularly in those places, Gallio does not dictate everything to the performers of his pieces for the performance, but leaves the exact arrangement up to them.

At the premiere of The Ocarina Chapter, violinist Ivana Pristašová specified the length of the pause between the sections. “Ivana simply conducted it and made decisions about how long the ensemble should wait and when it should continue, showing the right instinct.”

The volume levels are not notated in the composition either; the ensemble had to make its own decisions about the piece’s dynamics.

“I want to give the musicians a lot of freedom in the hope that they will enjoy the piece. This works fully when they realise to have the freedom and the opportunity to work it out the way they please.”

Needless to say, Christoph Gallio takes the same kind of freedom for himself again and again on his journey.
Friederike Kenneweg

Robin Adams, DAY&TAXI, Silvan Jeger, Gerry Hemingway, PERCASO, Ivana Pristašová, Irène Schweitzer, Urs Voerkel, Annina Luzie Schmid, Markus Stegmann, Friederike Mayröcker

Christoph Gallio, Petra Ackermann, Karolina Öhman, Mondrian Ensemble

Music and life as one

Roland Dahinden wears many hats: composer, trombonist, sound artist, improviser, conductor… During this year’s Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, he will present works by the US composer Anthony Braxton, with whom he has a long-standing collaboration.


Roland Dahinden mit zum Dirigieren erhobenen Hand vor schwarzem Hintergrund
Roland Dahinden. Foto: Marek Bouda


Friederike Kenneweg
Filled with music in different ways from morning to night – that’s how one can imagine Roland Dahinden’s everyday life. Two hours are always reserved for his trombone etudes, to which he has devoted himself daily for 40 years now. A time of full concentration on his instrument, in which nothing else has room. “It’s something I look forward to every day,” says Dahinden. “And after that, I look forward just as much to opening the score I’m currently composing, rehearsing, or whatever else is on the schedule. So everything has its place.”


Roland Dahinden and Hildegard Kleeb, photograph: Gary Soskin
Roland Dahinden and Hildegard Kleeb. Foto: Gary Soskin


Dahinden/Kleeb a long-time duo

When at home, there is also usually piano to be heard, as his wife, pianist Hildegard Kleeb, is practising for the next performances. The two have been playing together as a duo since 1987, but also in various trio constellations, for example with percussionist Alexandre Babel or electronic musician Cameron Harris. Both pursue their respective solo careers in different ways, but also play together in completely different projects or constellations.

“We talk about music when we get up in the morning and often still are when going to bed at night,” says Roland Dahinden. “That’s very precious, to share this enthusiasm with someone for so long and live it together.”


Panorama for trombone and piano by Alvin Lucier – 1993 – played by the duo Dahinden/Kleeb


Encounters with Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier, John Cage

Kleeb and Dahinden experienced a very formative time together in the USA during the 1990s. From 1992 to 1995, Roland was able to work as an assistant to Alvin Lucier and Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University and get to know their special approach to sound, improvisation and jazz. The fact that this stay was possible at all was thanks to the intercession of none other than John Cage, who composed the piece Two5 for the duo Dahinden/ Kleeb in 1991.


Anthony Braxton and Roland Dahinden, photograph: Marek Bouda
Anthony Braxton and Roland Dahinden. Foto: Marek Bouda


Conducting in Prague

His relationship with Anthony Braxton and the precise knowledge of his work, moving between set music and improvisation, led Roland Dahinden to rehearse some of Braxton’s pieces from the Language Type Music series with the Prague Music Performance Orchestra in 2021. The ensemble, which moves between composed contemporary music, improvisation and jazz, was so satisfied with the collaboration that they asked him to be their permanent conductor. The 55 musicians in the ensemble all have their own musical projects and bring their own approaches to the table. Bringing them together to create an overall sound is always a challenge, says Dahinden – but one that he is only too happy to tackle.



Anthony Braxton in Darmstadt

This year, the PMP Orchestra, conducted by Roland Dahinden, is focusing on the world premiere of a monumental work by Anthony Braxton: the opera Trillium X. The four-and-a-half-hour multimedia opera, which Braxton worked on for over five years, consists of four acts and deals with the effects of turbo-capitalism – with global catastrophes, nuclear threats and the coexistence of humans and robots. After the premiere to be held on August 1st in Prague, the ensemble will travel to the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music to record this great work. At the pre-opening concert in Darmstadt, the Orchestra, conducted by Dahinden, will perform a version of Braxton’s Language Music and Roland Dahinden will also perform as a trombonist in Thundermusic a new piece by Anthony Braxton, premiered by an ensemble put together especially for the occasion.

After this eventful summer, Roland Dahinden will continue to work on his own compositions. One thing is certain: everyday life in the Dahinden/Kleeb household will continue to be filled with music, however it sounds. And the next exciting challenge is just around the corner.
Friederike Kenneweg


Roland Dahinden Hildegard Kleeb PMP Orchestra Wesleyan University Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt


5. August 2023: Language Music with Anthony Braxton and the PMP Orchestra. Conductor: Roland Dahinden

7. August 2023: First night of Thunder Music by Anthony Braxton, with Roland Dahinden playing the trombone

Neo Profile:
Roland Dahinden Hildegard Kleeb Alexandre Babel

The alchemy between analog, digital and the body

Charlotte Hug talks about four new CD releases.

Charlotte Hug: Portrait ©Alberto Venzago

Gabrielle Weber
Charlotte Hug, composer-performer, viola player, voice- and media artist, navigates between composition and improvisation, intertwining music and visual art. Four new CDs reflect her diversified artistic personality. In this interview, she describes them as “harvest” of the recent years.

Charlotte, in your performances you push the boundaries of your instruments – viola and voice – to their limit, adding a strong combination with visual aspects. Can you tell us more about the connection between these three elements?
Solo work is an important starting point for me, but I am always in a state of dialogue. The voice and the viola communicate with each other. They often disagree. To me, music is about being in communication with people.

“The viola and I are looking for new dialogues day by day.”

The connection to the visual aspect is something I achieve through the so-called “Son-Icons”, a combination between music and image (or Sounds and Icons). I capture the music I perceive  – whether heard or imagined – as well as random ambient sounds with my hands, like several pens dancing with each other on semitransparent paper. The results can be small picture boards, meter-long paper sheets, room installations, animated video scores. With Son-Icons I created a composing procedure.

“Eye and ear often decide in different directions.”

The Son icons are stimuli and inspiration for music and make the energy of its origination visible.

Portrait Charlotte Hug, Son-Icons ©Art-TV 2016, Michelle Ettlin 

Improvisation is an important foundation of your work. What does improvisation mean to you?
Improvisation is an artistic elixir of life, especially the magic of musical encounters with other artists such as Lucas Niggli (CD Fulguratio). Improvisation means creating in the moment. When I play with the London Stellari String Quartet, which I founded in 2000 (CD Vulcan), every performance leads to new creations. The London improvisation scene has influenced me heavily for almost twenty years. First as permanent member, now as guest and guest conductor, I regularly played with the London Improvisers Orchestra (CD 20th anniversary).

On the basis of this interaction-notation you developed, you elaborate intermedial compositions for orchestra and choir. How do these collaborations concretely look like?
I draw an individual Son-Icon for each musician. It can be turned and reversed, mirrored, read as “Krebs” or “Umkehrung”, on the same principles as J. S. Bach’s or the Second Viennese School’s compositions. I then hold individual coaching sessions and every musician develops his or her own musical material based on the Son-Icon.

“Interaction-Notation enables musical encounters at eye level, the use of various artistic resources, precise interplay without cultural barriers.”

The Interaction-Notation is a structuring method. An interface combines conventional western notation, Son-Icons, graphic notations, movement symbols, or plays live recordings. This creates the framework condition for musicians with different cultural or interdisciplinary backgrounds to interact with each other.

Charlotte Hug, Son-Icon ©Alberto Venzago

How do you work as a conductor in intermedial settings with larger ensembles?
I see myself as a giant ear. I create an ambiance and a state of trust and acceptance, so that courageous things can happen. If routine creeps in, I stimulate awareness through the unexpected.

The new Son-Icons CD features intermedial compositions. How can this connection between visuals and sound translate to a “sound-only” medium like the CD?
An intermedial performance on stage is a celebration, an immersive sensual experience one can dive into, a state of aggregation. But Son-Icons do also work in exhibitions as “visual music” without sound. They awaken inner music.

Charlotte Hug, Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, Lucas Niggli ©MAMM 2018 

On the other hand, as recordings don’t carry any visual impulses, the music awakens the listener’s inner images. The advantage of a CD is that you can take it with you, listen to it on your own, play it again, immerse into it more than just once.

“Music and Son-Icons are self-sufficient – they act as different states of aggregation.”

Tell us about your upcoming projects, do you have a dream project?
In my solo work I am mainly researching with live electronics, particularly focusing on the alchemy and connections between analog, digital and the body.

On the other hand, there is this coming together of Son-Icons with scenic-intermedial elements as well as dynamic musical dramaturgy   have in mind – perhaps some kind of “commedia dell’ascolto intermediale interculturale”…Interview Gabrielle Weber

Fulguratio Duo Niggli-Hug, Label: Sluchaj
Son-Icon Musik von Hug für Chor und Orchester (Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra, via nova Chor München), Label: Sluchaj
-CD Vulcan, Stellari String Quartet, Wachsmann, Hug, Mattos, Edwards Label: Emanem
-Doppel-CD Twenty years on London Improvisers Orchestra 

London Improvisers Orchestra, Via Nova Chor München

Broadcasts SRF:
Swisscorner, Musikmagazin, Annelis Berger zu CD Fulguratio, 27.4.19
Die grosse Nachtmusik, Passage, 9.12.11 

neo-profilesCharlotte Hug, Lucas Niggli, Lucerne Festival Academy, Lucerne Festival