Yello – Swiss art project receives the 2022 Swiss Grand Award for Music

2022. After forty years and 14 albums together, the duo consisting of sound tinkerer Boris Blank and frontman Dieter Meier, with his sonorous voice, has been radiating from Switzerland to the world.

 

Portrait Yello zVg. Yello ©Helen Sobiralski

 

Gabrielle Weber
The rhythmic-groovy sound and word creations like “Oh Yeah” or “Claro que si” have left their mark on a whole generation of people who grew up in the eighties. Forty years later, Yello’s rhythms, word and image creations still have an impact, even though they seem to have changed very little – but only in appearance.

1981 – in ‘The evening’s young’ video, dancing, colourful glow sticks form the word Yello. A close-up of a  young man’s face: Boris Blank – from the front, from the side, his whole body in shadow play, rapid cuts, different perspectives, strong colours, then Dieter Meier at the microphone, monochrome colours changing in the background. Everything is coloured over, flows away and starts again. Cross-fades, cuts, light and colour. The sound is rhythmically varied, accompanied by spoken word singing on one pitch. An audiovisual art product that exploits its possibilities musically and visually in an experimental way but without overdoing it: simple, playfully light, elegant, self-confident and self-ironic.

 


Yello: The young, Video 1981

 

This is how Yello presents itself through the years: Blank creates the soundscapes from samples and rhythmic patterns, while Meier provides visuals and voice. Meier likes to say of himself that he is an amateur, that he has never learned anything artistic and that everything happens by pure chance, Blank, on the other hand, describes himself as a sound painter and lovingly gives his samples individual names.

If the video for The Evenings Young can look homemade, ‘Bostich’ from 1984, the song that topped the worldwide charts as a “natural born hit” on vinyl Maxisingle, is more sophisticated: with Blank and Meier as main characters, this time accompanied by rhythmically dancing devices and machine parts. It comes across as very light, with an indie touch.

 


Yelllo: Bostich, Video 1984

 

The eighties also saw the birth of Music Television, MTV, in New York: with some 50 regional spin-offs, the new distribution channel consolidated numerous pop careers. Yello’s audiovisual orientation is naturally suited to this new medium and the duo exploits it not “only” for music videos, but also to spin humorous and subversive bizarre stories, such as in the performance Dr. Van Steiner from 1994, where Blank, as rainforest researcher interviewed by Meier, plays hidden sounds and mimics them.

 


Yello Video@MTV: Dr. Van Steiner, 1994

 

These videos are cult, all the more so because Yello – in contrast to many other bands – deliberately avoids live concerts: after a few early gigs in Zurich, still as a trio – with founding member Carlos Peron – and a first legendary gig in 1984 at the Roxy DJ club in New York, Yello made itself scarce until 2016: for the album toy, when major sold-out gigs started again at Berlin’s Kraftwerk with a wind ensemble.

The fact that Yello was labelled Swiss export pop band, also through this new medium, does the duo hardly any justice, as Yello is an art project that defies common classifications and Blank and Meier were part of the experimental scenes before that. Meier attracted attention with absurd actions in Zurich and New York in the 1970s or at the Documenta in Kassel in 1972 and even represented Switzerland at the Swiss Avantgarde show in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1971. His subversive side can be heard in some of Yello’s music. Blank is an electronics pioneer and sample virtuoso, who started out in Zurich’s and London’s experimental electro-underground scene, inspired by jazz and new music legends such as John Coltrane, Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti. He displays the spirit of innovation into Yello’s sound paintings, to which Meier adds his deep voice.

 

Prizes from different corners

The prizes the duo has been awarded with over the years have come from different corners: Art Prize of the City of Zurich in 1997, Swiss music award for the album touch yello in 2010, Echo Prize for 35 years of Yello in 2014, to name just a few. The thick anniversary volume “Oh Yeah!”, published in 2021 with a simple black-and-white cover, Yello artfully looks back on 40 years of joint history, both musically and visually.

In the music projects that Blank and Meier pursue alongside Yello, the two explore other sides and personalities. Meier uses his voice differently in his band Out of chaos, which he founded in 2012 and for which he also composes, while Blank integrates other voices into his own projects and digs into his rich sound library with a different focus. In 2014, for example, he worked closely with singer Malia for the album Convergence, or – in the same year – he recycled and digitised old analogue pieces from the pre-Yello era for a limited special edition in all formats – vinyl, DVD, CD, cassette, in combination with own videos for Electrified. With today’s digital tools, he likes to experiment both visually and acoustically.

Sophisticated, catchy rhythms and soundscapes, combined with crisp lyrics and colourful visuals that come across as unpretentious, mixed with subversive irony and light elegance. Yello maintained this tone and image throughout 14 albums and successively, the duo adopted new technical tools and played with digitalisation.

 


Yello, Wabaduba, point, Video 2020

 

Yello, Wabaduba, point

2020: On Wabaduba their latest release and 14th album, Meier and Blank dance in sync: both around seventy years old, in a simple computer-animated, black-and-white sci-fi big-city backdrop, Meier in a suit and Blank in James Bond look, black turtleneck sweater and sunglasses. The world passes by – Meier and Blank stay – and surprise us again and again.

Regarding Yellofire, an app with which anyone can generate Yello-like sounds, developed by Blank and launched only a few years ago, Dieter Meier says: “Maybe there will be live performances with it – we still have some 30 years ahead of us.”

The two gentlemen are cool and remain true to themselves. A brand that changes gently with the times, skilfully exploits each and every new media development and yet always remains unmistakable: that’s what makes Yello trendsetters and a comprehensive art project to this day.
Gabrielle Weber

 

Portrait Yello zVg. Yello ©Helen Sobiralski

 

Yello’s and Boris Blank’s neo-profiles contain previously unreleased videos, including for example ‘The pick up’, where Boris Blank blends autobiographical material with sound and image experiments to form a personal narrative.

40Jahre Yello – Oh Yeah!: Ed. Patrick Frey; Boris Blank: Electrified 2014; Boris Blank&Malia: Convergence 2014; Malia; Dieter Meier: Out of chaos; Label Suisse, Carlos Perón

Grand Prix Musik: Yello
Other Swiss Musikprices:
L’Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp
Fritz Hauser; Arthur Hnatek; Simone Keller; Daniel Ott; Ripperton; Marina Viotti
Spezialpreise Musik:
AMR Genève; Daniel “Duex” Fontana; Volksmusiksammlung Hanny Christen

The price celebration will take place on September 16th September in Lausanne during Festival Label Suisse.

broadcasts SRF 2 Kultur:
Musik unserer Zeit, 27.7.22.: Yello – Gesamt-Kunstprojekt erhält Grand Prix Musik 2022, Redaktion Gabrielle Weber
MusikMagazin, 14./15.5.22: Yello – Das Schweizer Elektropop-Duo bekommt den Grand Prix Musik, Redaktion Annelis Berger

neo-profiles:

Yello, Boris Blank, Swiss Music Prize

“the biggest Beethoven fan ever.”

Interview with Michael Wertmüller by Gabrielle Weber: The 10th Symphony @ Cologne & Pandemic Premiere @ Donaueschingen

Michael Wertmüller continues composing Beethoven’s fragment of the 10th symphony and the result can be heard in the Kölner Philharmonie on October 14. Immediately afterwards, a new work will be premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage*: a true tour de force for the SWR Symphony Orchestra, having to face the increased hygiene requirements in a reduced size.

The Berlin-based musician masterfully mixes musical styles, genres, formats and formations. He travels internationally both as jazz drummer and composer and his pieces are always shrill, fast and highly complex. Thus he constantly shakes up new music clichés and cannot be allocated to any fix place.

Wertmüller and Beethoven or Wertmüller and the pandemic conditions: is that possible?

It certainly is, reveals Wertmüller in an interview via zoom from Frankfurt, where he was discussing an upcoming music theatre production.

Full blast, Peter Broetzmann sax, cl Marino Pliakas e-b Michael Wertmueller dr

Gabrielle Weber
You are currently in Frankfurt, working live with people again, travelling. Has your work changed since the pandemic?  More online, less travelling?

My work as a composer hasn’t changed at all – even before Corona I was alone at home for weeks and saw no one. At the moment there are fewer meetings, of course and I work more via zoom – like everyone else I suppose. Apart from the fact that live performances are on hold, little has changed.

Have you lost many live concerts?

In the last fifteen years I have experienced kind of a cross-fade: proportion and ratio have shifted from many tours and occasional composing to the opposite. That’s why it wasn’t so drastic for me: only one big USA tour with my trio was cancelled.

Your trio: Full Blast?

Yes, exactly, my jazz trio with Peter Brötzmann and Marino Pliakas. A big USA tour was planned, across the country from east to west. This cancellation hurts of course, especially since we had some successful tours in the States in the past. We had been invited to various festivals and were often on tour without state support, almost self-sufficient.


Michael Wertmüller, Full blast, Suzy, 2008

You are in the middle of the preparations for your 10th symphony in Cologne and the piece is part of a trilogy**. Part one had to be postponed due to the pandemic, part two was conceived differently: were there moments of uncertainty regarding the project?

Not really interestingly, as it takes place in the Philharmonie, which is huge, with its over 2100 seats and the project was always conceived for a chamber music setup. I don’t know if anything else is coming… but only 200 people are admitted.

Still three weeks to go… what does your project look like?

My piece, the 10th symphony, will take place in the great hall. It’s in the form of a music theatre. I wrote music to individual sections of a text by Gesine Danckwart, a younger Berlin author. Three singers, two string quartets and two ensembles will be interpreting it, for a total of some 25 musicians altogether.

There is also another, separate project, a sound installation distributed throughout the building, whichs can be experienced over four days.

You continued Beethoven’s 10th?

That was more of a working title, as there are only very small fragments, no more than four-five-bar sketches. I only used a tiny theme. In this project, Beethoven is relatively irrelevant to the tones themselves. Novoflot, the opera company who’s responsible for the project, asked itself and me the (big) question: what would Beethoven sound like today?

What matters most to me is that I was actually asked to do some Beethoven related work in the first place, as I would almost have been offended if I hadn’t been able to do anything about the great Beethoven anniversary. I am the biggest Beethoven fan ever.

“I am the biggest Beethoven fan ever.”

How did this fascination come about?

I was already a fan of his music as a child. As well as of Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s. I am actually a simple, rather romantic type of guy who easily gets enthusiastic.

Portrait Michael Wertmüller

Can this enthusiasm be heard in your composition?

Beethoven is constantly present in the back of my head. The music I love accompanies me always and everywhere, even in everyday life. Like Coltrane, Miles, or Bruckner and Shostakovich. This automatically flows into my music, whether I play or compose.

Will it become more tangible in Cologne or will it remain subconscious?

It’ll remain subconscious. The question of how Beethoven would compose today is answered by our line-up: Johnny La Marama, a hip Berlin jazz band, the “Ensemble of Nomades”, which brings in New Music, and three singers with a classical-romantic background. These are the three worlds that are valid for me today and combining them could certainly be something that Beethoven might have wanted to do in the present days.

Word’s out that musicians are completely overwhelmed when they have to interpret your pieces, as well as the audience… will that be the case this time?

The music will be relatively digestible, even pleasing. Very harmonious and also danceable. The only thing that could hurt is its intensity. But I have made the experience that I can trust the audience a lot – I don’t underestimate it.


Michael Wertmüller: Musikfabrik Köln, Antagonisme contrôlé, 2014

In Donaueschingen a new piece of yous will be presented in the Baarsporthalle immediately afterwards…

Donaueschingen is always a big challenge with its whole ongoing tradition. Even though I have been invited several times, I always think of something special for it.

..a ” grandiose piece…”

The piece had to meet the new increased hygiene requirements… a chamber music miniature…

It is absolutely not a miniature. On the contrary: it has on purpose become “grandiose”, megalomaniac, because of this corona affliction. It is everywhere and I have it too.

“Megalomaniac”? So in your case, the new guidelines resulting from the pandemic were inspiring, not annoying?

The instrumentation has been reduced and the normal symphony orchestra practically cut in half. I had no problems with that. I chose a soloist approach for the piece and wrote extreme virtuosity into it, which made it haunting, pathetic, shrill and very virtuosic. I have no trouble anticipating. As musicians, as artists, we must be able to anticipate, otherwise we are lost.

…anticipate…?

I take the situation seriously and have full confidence in the government, in the experts. But now it is important to carry on and to be consistent.

Every little thing I am allowed to do right now – and at the moment we can be thankful, if culture even takes place at all – I want to do right: full on. I want to cry out now, really loud and really furious – that’s what I do with my work. It will be a scream, an outcry.
Interview: Gabrielle Weber


Michael Wertmüller, Zeitschrei for Piano, Bass, Percussion, Steamboat Switzerland, 2015

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**as part of the “Labor Beethoven 2020” project – Contemporary music festival for Beethoven’s anniversary, in cooperation with the Akademie der Künste Berlin


#3 The 10th Symphony, 14.10.2020, 20h: Philharmonie Cologne: Novoflot Opernkompanie, Ludwig van Beethoven, Michael Wertmüller.
Further performances are planned for December in Berlin (dates & locations tbc)

Neues Werk Donaueschinger Musiktage, 16.10.2020, 18h / 21h*:
SWR Symphonieorchester, opening concert, Dirigent Titus Engel: Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik Nr.1 (1922), Michael Wertmüller, Neues Werk / UA; Oliver Schneller, The New City / UA, Lula Romero, displaced / UA, Klaus Lang, Neues Werk / UA, Cathy Milliken, Neues Werk / UA

*DONAUESCHINGER MUSIKTAGE canceled at short notice (12.10.20):
On Friday, October 16 at 8 pm, 
SWR2 will broadcast a rehearsal recording of the opening concert.

Michael Wertmüller, SWR Symphonieorchester, Titus Engel,  Novoflot Opernkompanie Berlin, Steamboat SwitzerlandPeter BrötzmannDonaueschinger Musiktage, Kölner Philharmonie, Gesine Danckwart, Johnny La Marama, Ensemble of Nomades

Neo-Profiles: Michael Wertmüller, Steamboat Switzerland, Donaueschinger Musiktage