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Raphael Sommer: Evolution and Revolution

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not man the less, but Nature more”

Lord Byron

Look around you. Stop looking at your phone. Immerse yourself in the Nature. Appreciate the trilling song of winged birds, the seething voice of a crystalline creek, the soft and tender touch of emerald and racy grass, the soothing blowing of the gentle wind, the warm sunwaves and the sparkling life which unfold beyond your cold icy eyes. This is the purest form of beauty. This is Nature.

A Mother and a Generatrix to us all, from the smallest western pygmy blue butterfly to the biggest Blue Whale, from the crawling snakes to the flying birds. We're all part of a big organism, part of a marvellous and rare show which has been crafted by the universe, with stardust and fire.

A Muse which inspired poets, writers, composers and artists like Chopin, Beethoven, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Virgil, Van Gogh and Gaugin. They wrote about its pureness and incorruptibility, about her raging power and soft lulling. The Arts never stopped celebrating it and it still inspires them. Artists from all over the world, now more than ever, want us to remember and protect her from our selfish nature and destructive tendency.

One of them is Raphael Sommer, a young Swiss composer from Basel. He chose an unconventional direction at an early age. After school he trained as a film editor and actor. But it soon became clear that his world was music. He taught himself to play the piano and became self-employed at the age of 19.

"Originally, I wanted to be a film director. I started making my own films and art projects when I was 12. At the age of 14 I could attend evening classes at art school and at 15 I did an internship as a film editor. I had a lot of pressure from my teachers to get an education. Before the internship was over, I met an acting teacher and was lucky enough to be accepted into the theater school. There was a piano in every room and I fell in love with this instrument. I used every moment to teach myself improvisation. Before that I had already done the music and sound design for my own film projects. I've always had the gift of hearing music in my head and imagining it. For example, when I see a movie without music, I immediately hear the music in my head and I can start composing. The ideas jump out at me, so to speak. I then started making music more and more intensively from the age of 17-18 and founded Sommer Filmmusik when I was 19"

Since then, he has been composing soundtracks for feature films, documentaries, advertising, and short films, including the successful Swiss cinema documentary Schweizer Geist (2013) by Severin Frei and Camino de Santiago by Jonas Frei, which ran in Switzerland, Germany and Austria in 2015.

In 2017 Raphael went on a Swiss tour with his Requiem, a series of concerts praised by the press which called the work a door opener for sacred music. Over a thousand people attended the concerts.

He has an interesting bond with music, a different point of view which helps him differ from other artists:

"I didn't grow up in a musical family or have any music lessons. I sometimes don't feel like a typical musician or composer. When I meet friends who have studied film music composition and an instrument, they have a completely different energy and know-how than I do. I used to be afraid that I would never make it as a composer because everyone is so well educated. For me, music is another tool to express myself. I design a lot, I used to produce short films, now I'm currently making Glass World, I studied theater and I also like to work with my voice or body. I like to try everything as an artist and try to free myself from my fears and try everything. Composition is of course my main work. I see my studio like a workshop and have all the tools at my disposal to create a work of art. With music it's a bit of magic. I have no basis on how to create something for an orchestra or soundtrack. I can sit down, get into my inner world, listen to music and see it visually in me how I have to create the music. Today I have above all experience how I can efficiently implement something with my given time and today I know what works and what does not. But with my ability to transform an emotion inside into music, it allows me to work in many styles and genres. And in the future, as a composer, I would like to try out many genres and reinvent myself each time. I may never be a technically good composer, but I can understand and grasp a meta-level very well. What attracts me to music as an artist is that it is very intangible. Photo and videos are tangible and visual. In music, emotions and mathematics come together. On the notes, the tones are written in a certain grid or rhythm. Very mathematical. It is always astonishing that such an emotion can arise from it"

An aspect which influenced the kind of music and artists which sways him:

"Many Hollywood composers must impress. From Hans Zimmer, Brian Tyler, Howard Shore, Tim Burton etc. I think at the beginning of an artistic career you try to be like your idols or try to make similar tracks. But a few years ago I suddenly realized that this has no appeal at all. I want to discover myself and have my own style in music. And for me, that's only possible if I can focus on my own emotions. Of course I listen to soundtracks almost every day and try to study all the elements and mixes"

And let him found his inspirations:

"I've been lucky enough in my life to spend a few weeks with my favorite artist. Unfortunately, he completely destroyed himself with drugs and it was not easy for me. I had been working towards working with him for so many years. But I learned a lot from it. Today I don't look for far away or abroad as an artist. Today I am so happy when my friends inspire me, bring ideas and participate. I think many artists define themselves very much once they have proven it to themselves in public or abroad. But you have everything in yourself and in your environment. I think you look for the distance when you are far away from yourself. Of course, when I receive orders abroad, I am happy about it. Today I search much more in myself than in the outside"

All of it has been relevant to build his creative process, which let him have a strong connection with music and sounds:

"As mentioned earlier, I can see something and hear music. Therefore, as a self-taught musician, it was possible for me to compose music relatively quickly. There are different ways I start a soundtrack. Mostly I watch the film several times and try to empathize with the audience, which is what the film needs. Even though I usually already have an idea when I first see a rough cut, I take another few days and watch the film over and over until I decide on a possible path. Basically, if possible, I try to start the film as positively as possible so that I can increase the drama in the course of the film until the twist. Often I try to divide the film into 2 parts. The first half, in which the viewer does not yet know what the film will end and the second half, from this moment, where the viewer learns what will happen. From this point I change the soundtrack in the basic mood and instrumentation, so that the viewer knows, now something happens. And of course at the twist and the end comes the big finale. Today I try to be more careful to work more with quiet parts, so that I can still create enough tension at the end. It's often a shame if you push the film too much at the beginning, because then the film runs out of energy. Of course, the methodology differs from film genre to film genre - but my basic approach remains the same"

In 2021, Raphael produced his first collaboration with actress and co-producer Olivia Lina Gasche, an experimental documentary combined with an audio book, meditation, and remix. Its is name is Glass World.

"Our Glass World film and soundtrack is somewhat experimental. For years I have once again created something completely my own. With Glass World, the music drove the script and the film. In a way, I reversed the process. Basically, when we as composers get a film rough cut we give a lot of thought to the mood and musical breaks. The film is created during the pauses and spaces we give it so the viewer can think about the story. But since the rough cut already sets the tempo and story, we don't always have ideal conditions to create these spaces. That's why it's so important in film that the film editor works closely with the composer. Of course, the more professional the Productions become, the better space and importance is given to the composer. In Glass World, I reversed the principle. The music is a single space, separate from the story or documentary content. The musical parts are underlaid with short poetic texts written by Lajescha Dubler. She received a draft from me with various ideas and wrote a script from it. I wanted to achieve that the viewer can reflect himself only with poetry, music and images. The spectator is left to his own devices during this time, which is what we want to express with it. In the documentary parts, the music is greatly reduced and thus gives space to the scientific inputs"

A project which involved a different approach:

"I first musically captured the pandemic. Then a script was built on these tracks. Lajescha Dubler wrote a poetic script based on my ideas. On this script againrum we have supplemented the topics with scientific impressions of Dr. Mark Benecke. So we took care of the emotion first and then added the content in the right places. But I need a lot of extra help. The co-producer and actress Olivia Lina Gasche has worked with me again and again on the script so that we find the right noaces. Wally Larsen (also a composer from America) put a lot of effort into translating the moods in the film correctly into English. The result was a very inspiring work"

And a lot of musicians have been vital for its realization:

"I think the musicians also play a big role in the soundtrack.Glass World would never have become Glass World without violinist Malwina Sosnowski. She can make the violin sing and has enhanced the soundtrack tremendously. Jonas Gross (pan flute), Paddy Blätsch (trumpet and trombone) and Karel de Matteis (guitar) also did a amazing job"

Part 1 starts with a few words Listen to the Wind. And the blowing wind is in the background. Afterwards the soundtrack kick in. It isn't invasive but it synchs perfectly with the shots in display. Water and Ice are shown in marvellous, beautiful shots. The majestic soundtrack enhance the sensation sired by the landscapes. It's a relaxing piece and a good way to start this experience. It all seems so carefully crafted, to create the perfect mix of images and music. I'm impressed.

"The film should start positively and show the beauty and wonder of nature"

Part 2 continues with the icy landscapes of Part 1 but gradually transition to views of rocky mountains, volcanic slopes and the sea. Water is always present, as waterfalls or, in the first act, as snow. I like the ideas of Dr. Benecke who hopes that us, as human beings, will get rid of our bad habits in order to avoid our extinction, which would be the sixth big one on our planet. The music stands in the background, as an accompaniment and it works well.

The following is Part 3 where there's a shift in terms of colours and scenery. We slowly move to more green and lifeful places, like woods. There're incredible shots of roots and vegetation. More animals are showed here, while they live their quiet life in their natural habitats. Sea and cliffs are the most recurrent things (in fact it's the first shot of this part). The sun starts to be seen. We get glimpses of it, rising behind the soaring mountains. The music has a faster pace but it doesn't change its tone and it still is peaceful and relaxing.

"The tracks were created during the pandemic and tried to capture the different moods. Since I knew from the beginning that the pandemic is a climate and nature problem, I tried to write the moods not isolated to the pandemic but to capture the mood in general, how we currently deal with nature. On the one hand, the miracle of nature, the man what he has achieved everything but also the destruction that goes along with it"

Part 4 starts with a road, the symbol of human civilization, and then wonders through cities, workplants, landmines and everything which concern our species. Mark Beneke thoughts are about the fact that climate change has made empires and societies fall and rise. I like the idea that a simple blizzard can cripple an entire nation because, as he says, we can't do anything to change it. The music here is slightly different than the previous piece, because it's more simple and it's used only to keep our focus on the sceneries displayed in the film.

Part 5 has one of the best soundtracks so far. I like how the pan-flute has been used and the gentle use of the piano. This part focuses on an abandoned building which is being reclaimed by nature. We're shown human relics of a previous life, left there to become part of mother Earth again. It's a striking contrast the one which is shown here and it's a good continuation to the previous chapter. In a way it mirrors Part 3, which is more hopeful.

"Since the film is about nature, climate, humans, death and life we dedicated a chapter to death and life. Also here I combined two opposite feelings in the musical part. In the Passion, images of abandoned factories are shown but poetically deals with death and beauty of life. We see abandoned factories, but we also see nature reclaiming the factories - reflecting the cycle of life. There is also a certain beauty in that. In the documentary part, death is explained from the biologist's point of view. A biologist sees life in death. We wanted to evoke unconscious feelings and everyone should be allowed to watch the film for free. Everyone should think for themselves after the film what they want to do with this information. We wanted to create an inspiring film as apolitically as possible"

Part 6 is the bleakest one. It starts with the Christian Cross, which is usually attributed to he concept of death, and then it delves into the decaying reality we're crafting ourselves. Trash all over the place. In the sea, on the beach, on trees branches. This is hard to watch and the music sets the mood perfectly. The narrator, anyway, gives us a glimpse of hope while underlining