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The sound worlds of multi-percussionist Leonie Klein

Leonie Klein playing snare drums

The percussionist Leonie Klein has dedicated herself to contemporary music and is active both as a soloist and in the ensemble. With her interpretations, she creates completely new worlds of sound. We talked to Leonie Klein about her musical world.

Born in 1993, the percussionist Leonie Klein was a preschooler at the University of Music Karlsruhe, where she completed a master’s degree in percussion under Isao Nakamura as well as a master’s degree in music journalism. She also completed the companion course of study in Applied Cultural Studies at the Centre for Cultural and General Studies (ZAK) Karlsruhe. Currently she is doing her doctorate in the field of contemporary music for percussion solo. Her musical development was significantly influenced by her collaboration with Helmut Lachenmann, Vinko Globokar, Nicolaus A. Huber, Dieter Schnebel and Péter Eötvös. In 2018, her debut CD “Gathering Thunders” was released. Leonie Klein was a scholarship holder of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes and was awarded the Dwight and Ursula Mamlok Prize for Contemporary Music Performers in 2020. 2022 she was admitted to the Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg as a scholarship holder. Leonie Klein is a Yamaha Artist. In addition to her concert activities, she works as a music journalist for SWR2 and Deutschlandfunk Kultur, among others.


The interview with Leonie Klein

You received your first drum lessons when you were only six years old. What do you particularly like about drums?

When I started playing the drums at the age of six, it wasn’t a conscious decision for the drums, but rather a coincidence. Playing another instrument never occurred to me as a child, and so I stuck with the drums. Today I know that it was a great stroke of luck, because what instrument has such an incredible variety of sounds and noises to offer? When I drive to a concert with a van full of instruments and, after hours of setting up, the previously empty stage is full of instruments from which unusual sounds have to be elicited, it's a great feeling.

Who has inspired you in your musical development?

First and foremost, I would like to mention my two drum teachers, who have had a great influence on me: Dietmar Heidweiler, my first drum teacher at the music school, and Isao Nakamura, with whom I studied and who is now my duo partner in the ISANIE Percussion Duo. And then I was always lucky enough to work with composers like Peter Eötvös, Helmut Lachenmann, Vinko Globokar, Nicolaus A. Huber or Dieter Schnebel, whose meticulous rehearsal work inspired me a lot as a musician.

In general, I have always admired musicians who go on stage and "just make music", and with whom there is always a sense of lightness, even if the pieces are difficult to play. During my studies I had the opportunity to work with Helmut Lachenmann on his drum solo "Intérieur I". He told me, "You know, you can spell the piece, or you can make music out of it, and that's the difference." After we had worked very meticulously on the piece for an afternoon, he then said, "Forget everything again, otherwise you’ll go crazy, you just have to play it." And that’s how I work to this day: in the rehearsal room I practice every single sound, every single movement down to the last detail, I leave nothing to chance. I often work on a piece for months before I go on stage with it. During this time, I live with this piece. This goes on until I have the feeling that I have internalized every single sound in such a way that it is no longer just the notes on paper that I am playing, but that it becomes music.

As a professional percussionist, do you have a favorite instrument within your instrumentarium?

I am always very happy when metal instruments are used that have an interesting resonance. These can be tam-tams or various cymbals, for example. The sound is often produced by just a single blow, and then it's a matter of noticing how the resonance of the instrument in question changes without my actively influencing it as a performer. In works for setup, in which long decaying metal instruments are combined with various other percussion instruments, it often happens that I determine the time to proceed by the resonance of a metal instrument, and in doing so my sound ideas for the new sound emerge from the perception of the decaying metal sound.

When buying an instrument, you prefer to go to the DIY store. Can you explain that?

A special feature of percussion is that not only conventional instruments are used, which are manufactured by instrument makers in a perfected manner, but objects from the scrap yard or even from the hardware store are also converted into instruments. These can be pipes, metal sheets, watering cans or metal buckets – in short: anything that makes an interesting sound.


Leonie Klein Percussion

Leonie Klein and Isao Nakamura (photo: Andreas Orban)


WERGO has just released your second CD with solos and duets. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

I was at the SWR studio in Kaiserslautern for a week, recording my second CD. The CD features works for solo percussion as well as works for percussion duo, which I recorded together with Isao Nakamura, my former professor at the Karlsruhe Musikhochschule.

Most of the works on the CD are commissioned works for me and the ISANIE Percussion Duo. The pieces were written in close collaboration with the composers in the case of "Latitudes #2" by Sara Glojnarić for drumset and tape, the solo version of Peter Eötvös's percussion concerto "Speaking Drums" and "Chattering Birds" by Dai Fujikura. A solo version of the piece "Variations and Interludes" by Ursula Mamlok, originally composed for percussion quartet, I arranged myself. Then there is "Dialogue on Earth" by Vinko Globokar. A piece from the 1990s, which I worked out together with the composer. And not to forget the two duo pieces "Windscapes" by Toshio Hosokawa and "Ritem kože – The Rhythm of Skin" by Uroš Rojko. The composers sent us the sheet music of these two pieces with the request to perform them, and the latter, like "Chattering Birds" by Dai Fujikura, is dedicated to the ISANIE Percussion Duo.

The works on the CD all have a very individual sonic and compositional profile, and their combination reflects many different facets of new music for percussion. This makes a studio production with this program interesting, but at the same time challenging: from percussive sounds in combination with spoken language to the typical sound of a drum set to underwater sounds of an aquarium filled with 80 liters of water, everything is included. Even the janitor of the SWR, who liked to drop by the studio during the breaks between the different sets, got curious.


Leonie Klein - Chattering Birds

Chattering Birds

ISANIE Percussion Duo (Leonie Klein | Isao Nakamura)

Undisputedly brilliant in jazz and rock at all times, the percussion in all its diversity is proving more and more predestined for new music.

Leonie Klein, a stirring artist in this field, offers here, partly in duo with Isao Nakamura, a compact, carefully compiled selection of today's music for percussion instruments.

A solo version of Peter Eötvös's percussion concerto "Speaking Drums" is performed in true virtuoso style by the interpreter, with the voice of the percussionist joining the sounds of the drums. Vinko Globokar's "Dialog über Erde" experimentally exposes instruments to water, even in a small aquarium - a subtly elemental event. In Sara Glojnarić’s "Latitudes #2", the soloist on the drum set then enters into a breathtakingly virtuoso duel with artificial rhythm impulses from the tape. In Dai Fujikura's "Chattering Birds", the duo gives an astonishing demonstration of how much music is possible while radically reduced to finger cymbals. In Ursula Mamlok's "Variations and Interludes", again arranged for solo by Leonie Klein, the form emerges between the groups of instruments, and Hosokawa's "Windscapes" explores the contrast between vertical accent beats and horizontal sweeping and scratching sounds. And finally, Uroš Rojko's "Ritem kože", after many changes of perspective, constitutes the aesthetically homogeneous virtuoso conclusion to this album.



What does an aquarium filled with water have to do with percussion?

In "Dialogue on Earth" by Vinko Globokar, an aquarium filled with 80 liters of water is used, into which small instruments are repeatedly immersed while playing during the piece. A special underwater microphone makes the underwater sounds audible – sounds that we normally can't hear at all. I find the change in sound particularly fascinating when an instrument is first played in the air, then gradually immersed in the water, and finally completely submerged in it.

How did you come to stop playing "normal" drums and start inventing sounds?

One of my first pieces that involved inventing sounds myself was "One4" by John Cage. In this piece, the instruments are only roughly described. It's up to the performer to decide which specific instruments to choose and which sounds to create on them. In "One4," for example, I let little toy cars drive over the head of a bass drum, wrote on a bongo skin, and rolled marbles over a cymbal. Back then, I searched for interesting sounds for weeks before the first performance – and haven't stopped since.

Why do you think percussion is predestined for New Music?

The percussion instrument only became established as a solo instrument in the 1950s. Therefore, the possibilities of this instrument and its tonal variety are far from exhausted and give composers and performers a lot of leeway to deal with it. The unusual thing about percussion is also that, when a composer decides to compose a piece for percussion, it is not at all clear in advance which instrument will be used – that is always a surprise.

Percussion instruments challenge the player with his entire body in order to produce the most diverse nuances of sound possible. How do you cultivate this body awareness?

For me, I always have a sound idea in my head, which I then transfer into a movement to produce the sound. I often practice the pieces without instruments, like a choreography, so that my body internalizes the movements. Ultimately, the movement towards the instrument already forms the actual attack and thus the sound.

You have been awarded the prestigious Mamlok Prize for interpreters of contemporary music. What does the prize mean to you as a percussionist?

Through the prize I became aware of Ursula Mamlok’s percussion music, which I had not known before. When I heard her percussion quartet "Variations and Interludes" for the first time, I really wanted to perform this piece. Then I looked at the score and realized that performing the original version entailed an enormous logistical effort for a relatively short playing time. It quickly became clear to me why the piece was not to be found in any concert program. I wanted to change that and arranged a solo version of "Variations and Interludes". The piece has since arrived in the concert hall and can also be heard on my new CD

Do you already have ideas for a new project?

At the moment, I’m having a lot of fun developing new concert formats. At the Mozart Festival in Würzburg this year, I’ll be creating an interactive radio play concert: the “MozartExotikum”, a combination of radio play and live concert. The content is all about the drums in Mozart’s music and in the music of today. I could well imagine devoting myself more intensively to the development of new concert formats in the future.