SEBASTIAN SELKE x DANIEL SELKE
“It’s an extraordinary piece of music. It’s the work of two brothers, Sebastian on cello and Daniel on piano, and together they play as C E E Y S. I saw them premiere tracks from their new album at a gig that I went to very recently in Berlin. This is a project which is written about the buildings that surrounded them in their childhood, growing up on the streets of East Berlin.“
– Mary Anne Hobbs BBC Radio 6
To Germany’s Selke brothers, crossing boundaries is nothing new: their experimental but accessible minimalism – located in a halcyon twilight zone between the avant-garde and pop – incorporates elements of jazz, ambient and classical chamber music, epitomised by, among other releases, their albums Concrete Fields (2017), Wænde (2018) and Hiddensee (2019). But for Sebastian and Daniel – who write, record and perform collectively under the name C E E Y S – the idea resonates in a particularly powerful fashion: they grew up in East Berlin during the final decade of the Communist-era German Democratic Republic, “in a state where the only freedom for us was to find our niche by being creative.”
It was an upbringing which, ever since, has helped shape the work of the two musicians – now based in nearby Potsdam – not least in their carefully curated signature sound. Sebastian’s principal instrument is a Klingenthal cello, built in Saxony’s famous ‘Musikwinkel (‘musical corner’) near the Czech border, and he also plays, among other things, two handmade analogue kick and bass synthesisers manufactured in Erlbach, a village in the same East German region. Daniel, meanwhile, plays his restored childhood upright piano as well as a heavily altered, organic drone synthesiser designed by a Ukrainian radio engineer and musician who later emigrated to Russia. The brothers also employ field recordings made on portable cassette recorders once used by their father for his journalistic work, while their studio setup features a fully analogue mixing console, originally built between the 1960s and 1970s for professional radio broadcasting, as well as iconic restored microphones, spring reverb systems, keyboard instruments, and rhythm boxes, many built between the 1950s and 1980s in East Germany or the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless – emphasising their determination not to indulge in ‘ostalgia’ – these relics are often combined with contemporary echoes, tremolos or filters, thereby uniting past and present, and C E E Y S have always been about far more than vintage technology. Their childhood environment has also been their frequent creative inspiration, an ambition reflected in their compositions, which seek to preserve youthful recollections while resolving the contradictions inherent in the era. Their debut album, CONCRETE FIELDS, always planned as part of a trilogy, was a meditation upon the dreary prefab estate in which they were raised – Europe’s largest, located in Berlin’s Marzahn-Hellersdorf district – and they followed it a year later with WÆNDE (Walls), gesturing both towards the approximately four-metre barrier between their home city’s two halves and the walls separating them as kids from their neighbours. “We could hear each other practise our instruments through the paper-thin walls,” they recall, “and the same was true for our neighbours. They kept on knocking in their very own rhythm, on radiators, apartment floors, or the ceiling.” Their latest album, meanwhile, is dedicated to their modest childhood Eldorado, HIDDENSEE, a small island in the Baltic Sea popular with East Germans during the GDR era, where they also holidayed with their parents, actress Gabriele Selke and radio presenter Harald Selke. Overlooked in the years following the Iron Curtain’s fall – when the newfound freedom to explore the world took them far beyond their homeland’s borders – the Selkes returned in recent years with both gratitude and nostalgia, again finding inspiration in their upbringing.
A product as much of the music with which the brothers grew up as of that which now surrounds them, C E E Y S’ compositions at times feel familiar, but remain refreshingly, invigoratingly unique, mirroring the myriad sounds to which they’ve been exposed throughout their lives. Early influences, including Bach, Beethoven and Debussy, can be heard alongside the almost-forgotten compositions of East German based acts like Toni Krahl (CITY – rock band with violin), Frank Fehse (KEY – synthesiser duo project) and Reinhard Lakomy (Traumzauberbaum – story songs for children), and there are reminders, too, of Arvo Pärt, Arthur Russell and Philip Glass, as well as contemporary acts such as Greg Haines, Hauschka, Nils Frahm, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld. It’s this aesthetic which has won them a myriad of admirers, indicated by, for example, their REWORKS of Peter Broderick, Ólafur Arnalds and Lambert, and by their collaborations with, among others, Masayoshi Fujita, Carlos Cipa, Viktor Orri Árnason, and Martyn Heyne, who mixed and mastered CONCRETE FIELDS, WÆNDE and 2019’s Q3A EP. The latter, it’s worth noting, represents their first solo work in typically idiosyncratic style: though their separate contributions are separated by the nature of 7” vinyl, a third track is revealed when both titles are played together.
As if this weren’t enough to keep them busy, 2017 saw the Selkes found Q3AMBIENTFEST, named after the so-called ‘Querwandbau’ – a.k.a. Q3A (or, in English, ‘cross-wall construction’) – which was a three- to five-storey prefabricated building constructed in the GDR during the 1950s and 1960s. This annual event has seen the brothers invite like-minded artists, renowned acts and friends to play, including Anne Müller, Andrea Belfi, Midori Hirano, Masayoshi Fujita, Martyn Heyne, Poppy Ackroyd and more, and it’s now a recognised component of Nils Frahm’s Piano Day. They’ve also launched FLIMMERKONZERTE, a series of film concerts at Potsdam’s Film Museum, and the co-curated KOSMOSKONZERTE, a succession of house concerts at Potsdam’s Rechenzentrum. Furthermore, the brothers are working on a photographic tour of their Klingenthal Studio, as well as an exhibition of photographs of East German architecture, many of which have accompanied their albums.
Encouraged to play from a preschool age by their parents, the Selke brothers studied music formally, with Sebastian graduating from ‘Hanns Eisler’ Berlin and Daniel from ‘Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’ Leipzig. These days, Sebastian plays as associate principal at the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg, while Daniel is a conductor and lecturer for piano and chamber music at Potsdam’s ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’ Music School. Equally at home performing in concert halls and at festivals – they have, for instance, played at both Fusion and Reeperbahn – they won the 2017 Rilke Special Award at the International Poetry Film Festival in Vienna, and their releases can be found on the acclaimed labels 1631 Recordings, Oscarson and Neue Meister.
‘The best of the recent batch.’
Richard Allen A Closer Listen
‘The best of the genre.’
Brian Housman Stationary Travels
Mischa Kreiskott NDR Kultur
Hans Ackermann RBB Kulturradio
‘Talk about setting a high standard….!’
Peter van Cooten Ambientblog
James Catchpole Fluid Radio
Jan Platek Pretty In Noise
‘Album der Woche!‘ ★★★★
Stefan Hochgesand Zitty Berlin
‘Un’intima solennità cameristica.‘
Raffaello Russo MWSY
‘Perfekte Balance von Emotion und Abstraktion!’
Special Award International Poetry Film Festival Vienna