Mention Austria and music in the same phrase and some people will think Haydn and Beethoven. Others will think of The Sound of Music, with its singing Von Trapp family. In recent years, another musician has been added to this list: Wolfgang Muthspiel, one of the most respected jazz guitarists playing today.
Muthspiel says it's reasonable for him to be listed alongside the Von Trapps. "I come from a family that would probably seem like a cliché of an Austrian family in the sense that we sang together a lot — and we did climb mountains, and sometimes we did both at the same time," he says.
Muthspiel's father was a choirmaster, and three of his siblings played instruments. He was on his way to becoming a classical violinist, but then he turned to guitar. "I think it was basically an act of rebellion against my parents," he says.
He didn't pick up an electric and start rocking out, though. Instead, he chose the classical guitar. He studied with a famous teacher and author, Karl Scheidt, and he won competitions and played recitals.
But Muthspiel says he was always interested in improvisation. "Pretty much after I could play anything on any instrument, I tried to, you know, make little pieces," he says. He jammed with his brother Christian, a trombonist and pianist, and they became interested in jazz.
Muthspiel decided to apply to the New England Conservatory because it offered programs in both classical and jazz guitar. He sent tapes to each program and was accepted to both. But once he got to Boston and began his studies there, he felt he had to make a choice — and though he says it was hard to leave the classical world, he ended up going for jazz. "Jazz offered me more freedom and more ways to define my own music," he says.
Redefinition has been a recurring theme throughout Muthspiel's career — after all, he began as a violinist who picked up guitar. His long-time collaborator, bassist Larry Grenadier, thinks Muthspiel's transition from classical to jazz has worked to the guitarist's advantage.
"Somebody who's come from classical music typically has put in a lot of hours practicing and really come to terms with being able to take control of their instrument and make it do what they'd like it to do," Grenadier says. "Once you have that stuff together, then you can make the music happen. And I think Wolfgang's a beautiful example of that."
Muthspiel is also a European tackling an American-born art form. "I really wanted to go to America to see how the music sounds in the place where it comes from," he says. "And when I came to the States, I was met with so much openness and encouragement."
One of Muthspiel's supporters and collaborators is fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, who has also dabbled in different genres and performance styles. Towner went from playing jazz piano to studying classical guitar in Vienna with the same man who taught Muthspiel, and he went on to play with the jazz and world music group Oregon and as a solo artist.
Towner says Muthspiel has managed to carve out a place of his own in the music world. "He's gotten to a place where he sounds like Wolfgang," Towner says. "My favorite players actually sound like they're speaking — [their playing is] more speech-like."
Muthspiel spent 15 years living and working in the United States. He returned to his native Austria after — but not solely because of — the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Muthspiel says he still feels connected to the jazz world. Jazz has become a global music, and technology easily connects Muthspiel with international colleagues. His bandmates on his latest album live all over, and he sent them the scores for his compositions over email before they convened to rehearse in France.
Muthspiel says there can be a certain advantage to outsider status. "It's better to be an outsider, because it challenges the expectation of how things are supposed to be," he says. "If you know too well how the music is supposed to be, then I don't think it's gonna be very good."
He's also happy he chose jazz. "Jazz stands for listening, and jazz stands for including — over any kind of borders or countries or considerations of your background," he says. "Jazz is sort of a symbol for working together, for being interested in each other's story. So in that way, I think it couldn't be of more importance now."