Duologue: A conversation with Brueder Selke

photo by Kristina Tschesch

Currently based in Potsdam, Germany, Sebastian and Daniel Selke began releasing music together under the moniker of CEEYS, a portmanteau that references their primary instruments (Sebastian on cello and Daniel on keyboards). Born in East Berlin before the wall fell dividing it from the West, much of the music these two very talented brothers created has been connected to their experience and memories of growing up in the communist era while living in what was the GDR. While this is still an important central theme of their work and is reflected even in some of the vintage gear they use in recording, their latest release entitled Marienborn (Oscarson, 2022) is also very much rooted in the present and as part of that shift, it is the first album they have released as Brueder Selke.

In this duologue edition, Seb and Daniel take time to talk to us about their journey, the new record, Seb’s work on Ólafur Arnalds‘ Spitfire Audio project, and the latest edition of Q3AMbientfest which will enter its seventh year in 2023. So, grab a pair of headphones, get comfortable, and sit back and enjoy their insights, humor, and music!

“Marienborn” is your first full length album as Brueder Selke (Selke Brothers) rather than CEEYS. Can you explain what is behind the name change, and has there been any accompanying change in how you approach the music?

Yes, we’re a little overwhelmed ourselves, and first off, we want to thank Matthias from Oscarson! Especially for his deep trust and that, in these difficult times, it all worked out, even on vinyl and with his really, really extraordinary artwork. We haven’t spoken publicly for a long time – so finally here’s a more in-depth Q&A – a big thank you in advance for this kind opportunity, Brian!

Of course, the last two years weren’t exactly easy for us either. Though looking back as a duo – and this is a slight exaggeration – we do find it somewhat “amusing” that this uncertainty looped round and round for TWO years, and of course we’re not fully through it yet, for there are always all sorts of obstacles popping up, but at least things are starting to happen again.

Initially in 2019, and as usual for us, there were still lots of ideas for albums and concert formats, but due to the often-last-minute rule changes we had to rethink a lot, so we started thinking how we could, similar to our music compositions, further simplify the process to be able to get even closer to the actual essence of our work. Encounter and exchange with friends and like-minded colleagues always was and remains our most important anchor, and the result was the CEEYS rework-album “Musikhaus”.

While working on the album, our colleagues liked calling us the “Selke Bros.” It felt familiar, friendly, and completely natural. And it was this natural familiarity that had been an impulse in our search for inspiration from and during our creative beginnings. So basically, we “travelled back” once again, as we did with the themes of our first four CEEYS releases. Time travelling back into our own past is clearly a recurring theme for us, and more than that, it feels like our very life cycle.

Additionally, this individual mobility is at the same time a search for a more open and more personal perspective for us as musicians in our communication with our fellow human beings. CEEYS will continue to exist despite all these fresh ideas and will certainly allow us now and then to return to our original alias and “hidden work”.

The final impetus for Brueder Selke came from the very worthwhile and entertaining documentary about the jazz icons and brothers Rolf & Joachim Kühn, a fascinating and inseparable duo, that we watched enthusiastically. Sadly, Rolf passed away a few months ago… We were very touched by that. But their life’s work survives, and so we discovered, with wonder and joy, many, many parallels in our making music together and in our daily lives.

Your work has remained intently focused on themes revolving around your experiences of growing up in the GDR and the transitions you have gone through in life. Why do you feel it is important to explore these ideas so intently?

For us, working with these themes is in no way about romanticizing or, worse, glorifying them. Aside from the many precious and very personal experiences, we know all the things that did not go well in those years long past. We are simply interested in how people dealt with the everyday scarcity of almost everything, some of it completely banal things. Critics have asked us whether the GDR topic hasn’t already been dealt with long since, whereby just the asking of the question is simply ahistorical if one just imagines the countless, as yet undiscovered personal stories. And besides, it’s clear to us looking at today’s ever accelerating world with all of its crises and even open warfare that at least some things seem to be repeating themselves on another level.

It’s no longer about whether “everything was better, or worse, before”. In our experience, the trouble always begins with superficial comparisons – that is not what we’re trying to do. Instead, looking into the past definitely helps us to better understand the present in order to be able to more consciously shape the future. And it is to this that we invite our listeners and the people who join our events, again and again.

photo by Kristina Tschesch

It’s no longer about whether everything was better, or worse, before. In our experience, the trouble always begins with superficial comparisons – that is not what we’re trying to do. Instead, looking into the past definitely helps us to better understand the present in order to be able to more consciously shape the future. And it is to this that we invite our listeners and the people who join our events, again and again.

Brueder Selke

It is clear the two of you have developed your own distinct musical language for telling these stories. When did you first know that you wanted to make music together in this way, and how would you say it has changed over time?

The signature of our music is deliberately not constructed in advance, but is nevertheless based on a classical education, above all based on countless acoustic cello–piano performances starting when we were children. Unfortunately, it rarely felt ideal because at competitions the younger Daniel on the piano always had to take on the far more difficult répétiteur parts while the cellist, if not exactly underchallenged, at least – Sebastian, being the cellist, of course says “seemingly” – had it easier [smirk]. At least this was quantitatively taken into account when awarding the points in favor of the piano part, and with great approval.

One thing was for us undeniable: a classical education is good and important, and we would also encourage Alma Lucia (Sebastian’s 3-year-old daughter & Daniel’s niece) to follow a similar path. We even believe that it was through these “golden bonds”, these professional skills, i.e., the craft, that we first learnt to think outside the musical box. Back in our childhood and also later, the world of electronic sounds was mostly a rhythmically based music that had become omnipresent through the techno movement. But even before that, we had found more than just classical music in our parent’s record cabinet. The East German group City with Georgi Gogow on the violin, Frank Fehse’s synthesiser duo Key, Reinhard Lakomy’s visionary story-songs for children, Frank Bretschneider’s AG Geige, and later also Carsten Nicolai as Alva Noto all opened up new perspectives for us from an early age.

At some point the technology for string instruments was also ready for experiments with effects. From classical music we’ve retained till now the awareness that with all ‘artificial helpers’ every module must really be respected and understood as an instrument in its possibilities and limitations, and above all be playable. That’s why we built a setup that is able to react spontaneously and flexibly to just about every musical impulse and emotion. Even the sequences of the automatable devices never come from the computer.

It might sound strange initially but our most ambitious and challenging project in recent times was our album “Hausmusik” with its exclusively acoustic pieces. And this was connected to the idea of breaking down the composition so much that they can essentially be performed by every other chamber music constellation in their own individual way. That’s how we got the idea to bring out as an aid the soon to be published music book based on the album. Even before the music book, it was the rework-album that picked up this idea of communal music-making and turned the intimate “Hausmusik” into a “Musikhaus”. With the album-duology we finally felt for the first time like we had consciously arrived in the present and were looking for our own answer to the crisis and the isolation often associated with it.

Can you tell us about the instruments you used to create the album? I understand some of them are very personal for you.

Both upright pianos are from our childhood and have been in our hands for over 20 years. These we first meticulously sampled and as Brueder Selke offered as a sample pack to the Canadian content provider LandR. Interestingly, their company name stands for “Left and Right”, the stereo channels, and that fit really well our first steps under our new signum. So, we started playing with the tool on the computer too and then the idea came to us to build an album from these atmospheric snippets.

Finally, we remembered the virtual string quartet from Óli Arnalds for which Sebastian played the cello part alongside Viktor Orri Arnason and played around with a few textures from the Spitfire plugin until the album all of a sudden was finished. The production process – namely, composing everything on the computer with inspirational sounds – was a very important one for us since we usually try to record everything live and without too many edits. This time was clearly different but still a good experience. The samples were originally recorded in the BPMs that one knows form electronic music – 124, 128, 140 – and they contained on top of that one-shots from our specially prepared pianos.

Some colleagues have already told us that they’ve used these sounds in their productions many times. So, it becomes an interplay: the product similarly follows the collective idea, and the album in turn gives inspiration through its use of the sample pack.

You also incorporate vintage gear from eastern Europe and the Soviet era. What do you find interesting about this, and are those items hard to find in good working order?

“Go East II – Pianos” – that’s what we unofficially call the second sample pack for LandR that we used. Interestingly enough, the first was called “Soviet Era Synths” and actually does contain rare treasures from the 50s and 60s. Our albums would normally include these fragments but this time the two GDR pianos were already so inspirational that apart from the string quartet there just wasn’t any room left. Our collection of historical synthesizers continues to steadily grow and when the time comes there’s bound to be a stand-alone release.

You have been curating Q3Ambientfest for the past six years. What motivated you to start that, and what can you tell us about the next edition?

A lot of our colleagues and friends we only know digitally over the internet. In 2016, another year of big changes for us, when we moved from East-Berlin to Potsdam, we were already thinking about how something like this could be realised. After motivating encounters and inspirational exchanges with artists like Midori Hirano, Nils Frahm, Óli Arnalds, Anne Müller, and Masayoshi Fujita we summoned up the courage and got the first edition on its feet in 2017, coincidentally and of all years on the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution… Impressed and enduringly inspired by our first tours and visits of the world-famous Filmstadt Potsdam (film city Potsdam), we wanted to create an atmospheric happening for non-academic, contemporary music with classically associated instruments between avant garde and pop.

This music, in turn, should itself work and be understood as a musical scoring of the architecture of the historically multi-facetted city, as a symbiosis between the palaces of Frederick the Great, the ambiance of self-assured, middle-class villas, and the “brutalist Plattenbau” (prefabricated concrete constructions).

Essentially, the formula or impetus for the happenings can already be found in the name: “Q3Ambientfest”. Admittedly, it is somewhat unusual at first glance, but as East Germans we’re still not particularly gifted at attractively promoting our high-quality products (laughs). But indeed, the experience has taught us that this is exactly how we can at least start conversations with interested guests. Q3A stands for a type of apartment building in the brutalist Plattenbau style that was very common in GDR times, and in which the Selke brothers had their first shared musical encounters.

The next edition is planned for 2023. It will present virtual and analogue performances from established and emerging artists. This time, too, the focus will not just be on headliners but on a communal, open-hearted encounter and the exchange with like-minded people. The current stand is that for the first time it will not take place in “fabrik” but will instead consist of a completely self-sustaining team with sound & light, artwork & documentary.

Question for Sebastian: how did you get involved in working with Ólafur Arnalds on his Spitfire Audio project, and what is it like hearing other composers creating music with the parts that you recorded?

Already inspired by Nils Frahm’s first piano recordings and his album “7 Fingers” with Anne Müller with whom I once sat at the same stand in the school orchestra, we sent a rework to what was then Durton Studio. Sometime later Óli was looking for a replacement player for his virtual string quartet, the first production for Spitfire Audio, and Nils recommended me after we had talked and exchanged ideas at the award ceremony for his Deutscher Filmpreis (German Film Award)-winning score for “Victoria”. To this day I think back on that conversation with gratitude and respect, full of motivation and inspiration.

After the production, I was relieved that my skills from my work as acting principal cellist at the Filmorchester Babelsberg (Film Orchestra Babelsberg) was able to meet the high standards of the eminent sampling craft as well as Óli’s und Viktor’s productivity: the whole cello part was recorded in four hours.

What I like about the plugin is the technological possibility of being able to work with colleagues, at least virtually. Sure we like to remember old stories and wise anecdotes from times past, but in no way are we pessimists when it comes to technology. Our aforementioned work with LandR is clear proof of this, and it brings a smile to our faces every time when a beautiful, familiar ponticello from the successful tool from Spitfire suddenly creeps over the speakers as part of some film score.

By the way, that was recorded from my very special Klingenthal “Frankenstein” cello.

Photo by Mizuki Kin Tachibana

Finally, any other new projects or plans you want to tell us about? Or maybe you will be ready for a little rest soon!

“Restroom”? Oh, sorry, our English is really still not the best [grin]. But seriously, our rest periods have become really rare again. The two years felt like borrowed time, and everything is now moving even faster than before. We therefore consider it fundamental not to lose sight of the important things in life. Encounter and exchange are not empty words to us, rather an ideal that we strive for beyond fame and glory, money and goods, a dualism that we want to preserve for our whole life.

The wonderful collaboration with our two unique friends Jakob (Lindhagen) & Sofia (Nystrand) on Jakob’s album “Memory Sketches” (Piano and Coffee Records, 2022) has just been released. We now have a really productive and genuine collaboration with these lovely people, one that can only be found in long-term collaborations. On top of that, we are also working on another collaboration with one of our favorite artists, Midori Hirano, as well as another very special release, namely, on One Instrument, the brilliant label project from Aimée Portioli who we’ve already had the pleasure of welcoming several times to Q3Ambientfest.

We are looking forward to next year, and also wish all of our friends a successful and peaceful end of the year as well as a relaxed start to 2023. Visit us any time on our website, also to exchange ideas or booking recommendations, or sign up to stay in touch. We are all ears 😊

Thank you, Brian, from the bottom of our hearts for this little Q&A and with it the opportunity after so long to have a talk on his always interesting blog.

Marienborn was released by the Oscarson label on November 11, 2022, in three physical LP editions in addition to digital download & streaming – standard black and a pair of very limited handmade deluxe book editions tied to the album’s color themes, one in blue hot foiled in silver and the other in silver hot foiled in blue.

Links: Bandcamp (LP/digital) | Brueder Selke | Oscarson

photo by Roman Koblov