In Conversation: Ludwig Wicki

Libby O’Loghlin talks to a man who gets to wear a Star Trek uniform to work

April, 2013

Ludwig Wicki portrait by Libby O'Loghlin

Ludwig Wicki. Image courtesy: Libby O’Loghlin

Ludiwig Wicki grew up on a farm in Kanton Luzern, where he began his musical life playing the trumpet and trombone.

Wicki travels widely as Founder and Conductor of the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra, a 150-piece orchestra and choir, acclaimed for their ‘Live to Projection’ performances with movies such as Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Star Trek.

Tell us a little bit about what being a conductor involves.

As conductor, I lead a big group of strong individuals and very good musicians through a musical score. That means I show them the way. They have the music, and they need someone who can give them the tempo and coordinate things. I’m a coordinator and a creator, and I can shape the music. When I conduct very flat and boring, and then the concert will be boring. When I give passion and tension, or go forward and backward to make it lively, then the orchestra go with me and the audience experience that.

It’s also the job of the conductor to prepare the music properly, to hear what’s wrong, to find problems, solve them, to keep the musicians working, practising properly. Sometimes you have to be a bit direct, to give them deadlines. That’s the game.

What attracted you to film projects in the beginning?

The film music! I love it. Often the music is for me more impressive than the film. If you come from that direction, you can see that our first dream (as the 21st Century Orchestra) was to perform film music live, as music.

In fact, that was the idea at the beginning. Then we [with Pirmin Zängerle, business partner] discovered Lord of the Rings and through that we came to the idea of screening complete films with live soundtracks. That’s special. There are the two mediums and also the challenge to bring so many things together: the score, choir, orchestra, and the film … all this, it’s a very special moment.

People often think film music is not as good as concert music but that’s not true. When you take the film out, a lot of pieces work on their own, and are very good compositions.

I attended the first performance of Star Trek in Luzern in April this year and was blown away by the power of the choir and orchestra’s performance. To what do you attribute the power of live performance with film? Is it any different than, say, downloading a film from iTunes?

picture of Star Trek Live to Projection ticketsYes, yes! It’s much different. That’s the luck we have with this kind of project. First of all, you hear the music much more in front of the movie; in the movie itself, the director and mixer often take down the music because they love special effects and dialogue. But we care about the music, and that means that often the music is extremely powerful, and
when you bring it to the front, the movie becomes more powerful.

The other thing is, when you see the orchestra and chorus positioned in front of the film, you’re seeing 3D in an opposite way. It’s not in the film it’s 3D in front of the film. And that’s special for the audience to look down and see 150 people working like crazy and singing: it’s such a lively thing going on, this energy. And our orchestra are special; they spend energy, they don’t lay back, they are fully into it. And this energy—this force—fills the room. In cinema, you don’t have that. It’s flat. You have only speakers: membranes. And that’s not half. They can bring energy through loudness, but loudness hurts the ear. The other energy comes from the body. I think that’s what touches people so strongly.

Movie composers are fantastic. Especially the orchestrators. They are much better than classic composers.

When you entered the Konzerthalle in Luzern wearing the famous mustard Star Trek uniform, the audience was thrilled. Many people took photos, some of which made their way to Instagram, Twitter or Facebook streams. How do you view this degree of connectivity, especially as it pertains to live performance?

For me, I don’t care about that. It’s open, and it’s great when these things go around the world. People in Singapore, in Los Angeles, they all know about the 21st Century Orchestra. Without that, we would be only in Switzerland. And that’s a gift.

On the production side, we sometimes have discussions with musicians about copyright, about the rights to film, and sometimes the musicians say, ‘tell them they shouldn’t do it’, but I know we can’t control that. It’s a passion. They make a film, they put it on Facebook … They’re fans.

Some years ago I was afraid after every concert, to see 10 films on Facebook and YouTube especially (when you type in 21st Century Orchestra there are hundreds of films!), but now I think it’s positive for us. As long as we play well!

We have a very good concert standard, so I’m not afraid of that. We have improved a lot in the last few years.

In the beginning we played one concert a year. Then three. … Now we play 40 a year. It’s crazy. We are together every second week, and so we get better when we work hard. And we have a very good standard.

And you can easily find enough performers who are passionate about film music?

If somebody is not into it, they’re not on our list. It’s very easy. We created here a possibility for a musician to make a part of their living from the orchestra. For them it’s a real thing to do now. More musicians stay in this area to be freelancers. But now we created a lot of jobs through 21st Century Orchestra, and we give young musicians a chance to learn how to play in a big orchestra.

Movie music is for each instrument a challenge to play. Often more difficult than classic musicians think it is.


Years ago, the classic people thought movie music was easy. But that’s not true. Most of the orchestrators who work in movies are the best composers and orchestrators. And they discovered that there they really can make money, and they will be played and performed. They write for that.

There are still two communities. The one side is classic composers who would never write film music, and on the other side there are film composers … which the classic composers think are cheap. But that’s wrong. There are fantastic composers who realise that life is more than only writing concert pieces for one performance. They write for business. Movie composers are fantastic. Especially the orchestrators. They are much better than classic composers. Fantastic. High-level.

In the beginning, I was much more a slave to technology but I’ve learned to use technology so that it doesn’t influence me.

When you’re ‘on the job’ for Live to Projection projects, you work with the music score, the screen and dialogue, and the pre-ordained timing of the computer software, in order to keep the orchestra and choir in sync with the big screen. What is the most challenging aspect of this?

The dialogue is a part, but I can influence that. That comes through my monitor and speaker. I can hear it, it’s important for me to hear it. I go with the dialogue, but there are speeches that are whispered, and I have to take down the music to match the whispering. I have to keep an eye on that.

The challenge is to keep the 150 people together, and have them always at the right place. I know on the monitor where I should be conducting-wise, and I have to bring them to that point and make music. Especially in Gladiator, it is more difficult. Gladiator is a very romantic, passionate score and you have to play that with very strong expressivus, and to create that—this intensity for death and dying—to punch in time to a computer that says 1, 2, 3 … that’s very difficult. To ignore that a little bit but to stay on the right place, and to create music like Mahler scores, that’s the biggest challenge.

How much has technology changed the way you work—and indeed perform as a musician—over the years?

Not so much. In the beginning, I was much more a slave to technology but I’ve learned to use technology so that it doesn’t influence me. At the beginning I was more in the mode to stick within the rules … now I learned to handle it, I know that I am correct, and I can fly over it, and I can think in musical phrases.

There was a technical glitch during the Star Trek screening and you walked offstage to reboot the system. What was going through your mind? Is that a conductor’s worst nightmare, or do you think audiences are used to technology’s foibles?

It has happened only twice in my life so far. Once in Pirates of the Caribbean I had monitor problems, and then with Star Trek it fell out completely. I had problems in the second movement; I went on, I conducted ‘free’, and in the end I was in the right place. But when the screen went grey, I thought, “Oh, come back,” but then I realised, “I should be playing by now, I should go in”, but I also realised it was going to be risky, so I left the stage and talked to the people backstage, and we worked out how to solve it.

As conductor, you never worry what the audience are thinking, I’m always thinking about the next step. That’s very important when you’re leading projects.

The Alphorn is from the soul, for the soul.

You started life on a farm in Kanton Luzern, where you learned the trombone. Tell us about your exposure to music as a younger person.

My life is not a normal classical route. There were many points of luck.

When I grew up I was really a mountain farmer boy. I milked cows and worked very hard. I played trumpet first, then trombone, and I was good in that, and I practised, so I had success. But before that I had nothing to do with the academic world, I was really a farmer. And in my heart I am still a farmer.

It was luck that I won a big competition, then the teacher from the conservatory saw me and invited me to have lessons. And through that I came to the conservatory and through him I came to the orchestra very early on. From when I was 19, I was making my living as a musician with an orchestra.

Before that, I only knew Ländermusik—folk music—and marching band music.

Do you play the alphorn?

Yes! That’s the only instrument I still play. I don’t practise seriously, but I love it. I grew up with it, and also with yodelling.

The Alphorn is from the soul, for the soul. It is also a connection to my father. He died last year, and I have his Alphorn now.

Life as a classical musician seems far away from the practicalities of life ‘on the land’ and much more (at least in the first instance) in the world of art and ideas. Is this true?

My roots are very good for my job. I can get up early and work the whole day, and I’m ready for work. It doesn’t hurt me. The normal classical way is more academic. Most of the conductors, they do what they do. They study, their parents give them power and strength that they practise and have the best opportunities to study with this teacher and that teacher, and they never have to work for the money before. Most are trained like that, otherwise they’d never get to that point. But the way I did it is a bit rare. I don’t have academic parents.

I still love folk music. I know sometime when I get older, sometime when I stop doing all these crazy things, then I’ll play folk music. Only for my heart, not for money. Not for money.

One could say folk musicians and choirs are first and foremost storytellers. What are your favourite examples of a piece of music without words that tells a good story?

There are many. Especially from Ravel and Debussy. Wonderful music, wonderful melodies tell stories. Impressionism: they tell stories, they give impressions. In La Mer, from Debussy, you see the sea—the sea speaks.

You have a broad range of experience with musical ‘genres’, from Gregorian through to Renaissance, Baroque, Viennese, to name a few. Does any one particular genre resonate more for you than another?

I love too many things. In all kinds. From food to hobbies … I could go crazy with the possibilities. I’m like a child who can’t say no! For example, at 5pm last night I came back from conducting Lord of the Rings in Calgary, Canada, and had a 7pm rehearsal with Venetian Renaissance music from the 1600s. This morning I had to prepare music for three different concerts. Tonight I have a Gregorian chant rehearsal at 7pm, and then a Haydn mass rehearsal at 8pm, and tomorrow I meet with Pegasus, the pop band, because I am helping them orchestrate a concert in the Fall.

I do love Gregorian chants. I am Kappelmeister at the Hofkirche St. Leodegar in Luzern. I conduct the choirs there. I often do Gregorian chants on Sunday mornings. And I still love folk music. I know sometime when I get older, sometime when I stop doing all these crazy things, then I’ll play folk music. Only for my heart, not for money. Not for money.

A Gregorian understanding of humankind’s place in the universe would have been quite different than that of, for example, J.S. Bach. How important is it to have an understanding of historical context about a piece (or genre) that you are performing and conducting? Or do you think the music should be able to stand alone?

Bach is very special. He was a genius. His music can stand alone. You can play with a rock band … still genius. Or you can play in an historical, authentic way, and it’s also good.

But I’m an early musician, and I think early music gets more power and energy when it’s played in an authentic way. I played the trombone and sackbut (Renaissance instruments) and this music has more power and energy when you play it in an authentic way. For that reason it’s good to understand the time. I study books and I speak often with professionals when I perform early music. Early music that goes from Mozart, Beethoven and back.

It’s good to understand authentic playing, and I do that in the Hofkirche Luzern, I study authentic ways to play, and historic aspects.

Giovanni Gabrieli—1600s—is for me a dream time. I love this period. And when they performed it, back then, they had space, they had time. They didn’t have a watch, they went there, they’d eat, and make music. They didn’t think, ‘Oh, I have to do this, and that, and pay taxes’. Nothing! They were part of the church, and they could write music, see how it sounded, perform it … so different than what we have to do these days. And when I do Renaissance music, I feel that spirit, always. Gabrieli is the sound and the space, and you have to give this music that freedom and then it sounds good.

You can experience the unfettered energies of Ludwig Wicki and the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra several times this year, including upcoming performances of The Two Towers, Epic Battles, and Harry Potter.

 Check their website for upcoming events.

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, nutrition and narrative coach. Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich. Nature is my jam.

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