The pianist Martin Kohlstedt is artist and entrepreneur, musician, and at the same time boss of his own record label employing more than ten people. This was not anticipated, because he only started playing the piano at the age of twelve, however, the native Thuringian has published three solo albums and performs at international festivals. In our conversation, he tells us how he balances the contradictory purposes of artistic freedom, musical-industrial necessity, and business administration concerns into a harmonious overall context.
On stage Martin Kohlstedt experiments and lets his pieces react with one another. He dissolves them and creates something new every time. “My music is based on a very intuitive approach. In the beginning, it is more or less a game of boredom until it becomes a piece that flows on its own”. Hearing this statement, it is not difficult to imagine the twelve-year-old Martin playing for the first time on a detuned piano in his parents’ living room. Today, for Martin Kohlstedt, the concert and the discourse with the audience is the catalyst for creating something new. “I cannot sit down at home and pretend to do something new and make something out of it. Instead, I take it into the context of the audience in which this energy is also noticeable. There I can find a counterpart and resonance body. At home, doubt is too strong. The audience gives you a very high security. I also notice if a piece is working or not. The concert is the main essence of my work. Live I rather discuss the music. The moment an audience is there, I look at my own pieces from above and feed them electronically, making them bigger, smaller, break them, maybe I just reinforce them. It’s a completely different perspective. My live concert is a long way from the album. And so, I constantly develop my music on stage and keep it under negotiation, until I work out new things again which I then record on an album. The process takes place in reverse. That’s what sets me apart from many other artists. It’s not like I’m making an album, go on tour with this album, and then make new sketches for a year. What I do live is the actual process. The discourse is there, chaos is there.” For Martin Kohlstedt, this chaos is always a search for the creative potential of his own subconscious. “The subconscious has the potential to create a vocabulary,” he says. “It feels like a higher authority than your own human decision-making ability, to squeeze things into formats, lengths, or sets. One begins to adapt the music for the format. It’s also a creative process, of course, but the real artistic thing is this drilling and translating the deepest fears. Therein I see the greatest artistic potential. You become energetic, your hands get sweaty and you have the feeling that you should not continue. You are with yourself in a world that sometimes is not soothing. “And yet the artist sees no other way for himself. “The most authentic moment is the most public and I believe that I am the most myself in those 90 minutes. What I do at home – calculating and constructing – is always wrong. “
After the tour, the pianist becomes the producer. A selection process begins and what he calls “conscious creative work”, in contrast to his stage experiences. “This is a long time of consideration and choice. I have this huge bank of live recordings from half a year on tour. Then I start to listen to all these ideas, collect them and put them in order, put them on shelves. I wonder what the essence of what I tried to improvise on stage is. If I like something, I go to the piano and trace it back to its origin, and at that moment it is also mostly the newly-conceived work which then gets the permission of my head to grow now. Then I start recording, and that’s also the beginning of a certain label thinking. I notice how I change. Based on the live sound, the final statement or other factors, I judge if a piece makes it to the album. These pieces will then be further developed. You have to decide what length is the right one for the album, how many pieces should be on the album when the statement is made. The creative process moves to the background because it’s about making choices for a product.” A product which, and this circumstance doesn’t make his job any easier, is he himself.
As free as Martin Kohlstedt acts on stage, as straightforward and stringent he is when it comes to leading his company, “because surprise could take away my freedom, at least from an organizational point of view. I like being reliably prepared to the point that I can be free. It is also very difficult for me to delegate tasks. Certain things I keep very close to me. In administration, I am almost obsessed with control and in the arts, I let go. There is a strong ambivalence between the improvisation in the performance itself and the organization of the surroundings.” Entrepreneurship, for Martin Kohlstedt, means creating a stable foundation on which artistic freedom can unfold. “Freedom is a central concept for me. After all, that is one of the reasons why you start your own business. All this is still a niche, but it has to be, so it can continue to be free. I could have gone to a big label two years ago and my attitude would have developed accordingly. But this freedom is what I permanently strive for. At the same time, however, one is subject to certain structures in the prison of the music business. But the idea of freedom triggers everything, all of the energy springs from it.” It is very helpful to Kohlstedt the entrepreneur that 13 very close, trusted people, and friends ‘on eye level’ belong to his label.
“I want to continue to work that way. And because it’s so complex to communicate, I cannot hire anyone for it. This means that I need a team that has known me for a long time, with whom I grew up, a family, … “. The 13 people are the team, are the company”. When a release comes, these people really care about the album as a product. All of a sudden there is a different headline, and PR agencies need just that. I’m just the guy at the piano and the team makes sure that the album sells and that I get performances. […] Because the emotional attachment is higher than the economic one, it causes me to mediate between these 13 people. My job is mainly to communicate permanently. I have to hold the team. “
Forming a team, leading a company, recognizing the conditions of the market and representing them in one’s actions, artistically developing self-esteem and self-confidence, developing creative potential, making decisions and overcoming fears – there is a whole lot that we encounter in conversation with Martin Kohlstedt. It’s good to know that his life is not a straight line. “On the one hand I want to allow myself to keep things simple but then notice how the left half of the brain turns on and still wants to gain control. This dispute between right and left brain is my source of energy. That’s why the contradiction is likely to be a big incentive as well as the doubt. “Balancing opposites, meandering between the poles to get a little closer to his ultimately unattainable ideal of freedom.” The pursuit of freedom is always there, but in the end, all of these other conditions are contradictory. The goal is unattainable.” To strive for perfection with all available means. Even though one’s own experience teaches that by nature this is not possible at all? Perhaps this is also one of the central insights that make a concert by Martin Kohlstedt a very personal experience and a communal ceremony for the audience.