After inspiring a generation of experimental musicians to explore synthetic soundscapes, Tangerine Dream found new relevance in 1990's ambient house movement. Simon Trask enters the Dream state.
Twenty years on, electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream are still making music - but have their ideas kept pace with the times?
TANGERINE DREAM'S MUSICAL IDENTITY in the first half of the '70s was forged out of the possibilities offered by early analogue synth and sequencer technology. Today they are still seen by many people as the archetypal electronic music group, though perhaps inevitably they are no longer the trailblazers they once were. However, neither are they a spent creative force existing merely to recycle their "greatest hits". Over the years they have often confounded their audience's expectations, with the inevitable result that they've lost some fans and stretched the loyalty of others. But equally they've gained new fans along the way - particularly in America, where they've succeeded in selling out three cross-country tours with very little radio airplay or mainstream media attention. Back in 1974, their first album for the then fledgling Virgin Records, Phaedra, entered the British Top 10 despite a similar lack of exposure. It seems the group have always been able to survive without the oxygen of publicity. In fact, during their lifetime they have earned themselves five gold records and sold close to seven million albums - not bad going for a group who have never courted mass appeal.
Tangerine Dream's recent UK tour provided an opportunity to talk with founder Edgar Froese (who today is the only link with the original group) and Paul Haslinger, the classically-trained Austrian keyboard player who had just joined when MT last interviewed the group, back in 1986. Keeping it in the family, the current incarnation of Tangerine Dream is completed by Froese's son Jerome (not present at the interview), who joined in 1990 in time to contribute to Melrose, the group's latest album and their third for former Dreamer Peter Baumann's New York-based Private Music label.
The music on the previous two Private Music albums, Optical Race and Lily on the Beach, represents a significant change in musical style for the group. The music has become more conventional, with accessible melodies and chord sequences supported by driving rock rhythms displaying an American influence. Which is not to say that Tangerine Dream are producing pop songs - for one thing, they remain a resolutely instrumental group - but they have been mining a populist rock/classical vein which has endeared them more to American than European audiences in recent years. The music on the new album, however, displays a lyrical, contemplative sensibility which is more European than American.
Perhaps this mixture of American and European influences shouldn't come as a surprise. Froese grew up in Berlin during the post-war years, at a time when there were many American soldiers in the city. Consequently he assimilated a lot of American influences, and when he started making music it was American rock that he wanted to emulate.
"I guess I have a huge American influence", Froese confirms when I raise the subject, "starting with early jazz, running through Gershwin, sometimes even light orchestral music, but also including people like John Cage and Steve Reich, Philip Glass's early stuff... Now it's everything from heavy metal to Top 40 radio play. If you're in a car, what else do you listen to? It's the whole environmental sound scenery in the States which gives you a view of what happens mentally in the country. We are there quite often, and we lived there for a while, so naturally we've picked up quite a few things and our music will reflect that.
"Music is always a reflection of what you are at a particular time. What we do today was not possible for us to do a year ago, and even that material which we produced a year ago was impossible to think of five years ago. So whatever went on is connected to the actual time period. We would never go back and produce a record like Rubycon. Sometimes we love to do it at a gig out of remembrance, but we would never compose a new piece in that way. Why should we do that? Personally I don't look back very much. I don't listen to the old music. A lot of people like to do that, and maybe it's part of the age they're in. People get older and they remember stories about their childhood, they like to go back and remember all the places they went to. I'm not interested. That's boring to me."
Tangerine Dream's approach to live performance in their early days - playing continuously for hours on end in almost total darkness without once acknowledging the audience - was as unconventional as their music. Seeing them play at the Hammersmith Odeon several days after the interview, it became apparent that some things haven't changed: they still perform without a break, letting the music - currently taken mainly from the Private Music albums - establish a rapport with the audience. Each track was smoothly segued into the next, creating a seamless flow of music - only nowadays lasting a more modest 90 minutes. And while the trio were joined by two saxophonists during the latter part of the set, and at one point Froese senior and junior both abandoned their keyboards in order to swap guitar licks, Tangerine Dream are still a technology-based group. The three musicians played live parts using a keyboard "front-line" which included Korg T1s and Wavestations, while each of them had an Atari ST running Cubase (Haslinger maintains that STs are more reliable on the road than Macintoshes) to provide the sequenced backing on their own rack of synth and sampler modules - or that's the way it was made to seem. I suspect that only Edgar Froese's computer setup was functional, the other two setups being there for show and to provide backup units should the main ones go down. One thing that's for sure is that technology is still an essential part of the group's visual appeal. Of course, nowadays the spectacle of what Froese refers to as "blinking lights and keyboards" is by no means unusual - but it wasn't always that way.
"When we performed in 74 the first time with a modular Moog system in Britain, most of the press ridiculed us", Froese recalls. "We said at the time that in about ten years everybody would be using synthesisers on stage, but they didn't believe us. Today everybody has a synthesiser in their bedroom. If you work with hardware and software, subsequently you will come to a decision about what has to come next, but if you get too early onto the streets, people don't understand."
The Hammersmith show was slick and tight, seemingly with little room for improvisation or spontaneity. In part, this can be put down to the influence which today's MIDI sequencers have had on music - in many ways so sophisticated, they don't allow the sort of live interaction which was possible with "primitive" analogue sequencers of the early 70s. However, according to Froese the change in emphasis has also resulted from a desire on the group's part to get away from improvisation - in the early days Tangerine Dream's hallmark.
"The miracle phrase in the old days was 'random control'", recalls Froese. "We worked with that approach for 15 or 16 years and that was fine, it was a great experience. Simply because we didn't know that much about technology back in the early 70s, whatever came about randomly was a big help. If it sounded good then it was like 'Great, where did that come from?'.
"Nowadays we've got the control, so we can aim at something in a way which we couldn't even have thought of in the early days. And simply because we improvised for almost 15 years, to us it's fascinating to become very disciplined and to know exactly what we want to do. So now we do the normal thing of composing a piece from scratch all the way through, but it's not normal for us, therefore it has an exotic aspect."
Froese reveals that finding the right sounds is an important part of the group's compositional approach.
"The sound is always the key point. In creating music we have what we call the sound creative section and then the creative section where we start composing. You can soon feel when you sit down at the keyboard that it's not your day for composition, and in those days we start working on sound research. Then the next day, when we become very creative in composing, we use what we've created in sound research. So it's a combination."
"But on some days you won't be able to compose or to create sounds", adds Haslinger. "Penderecki sat in a Parisian cafe composing his St Luke's Passion, so let's go to the coffee-house for inspiration!"
"When we performed in '74 with a modular Moog system, most of the press ridiculed us - we said that in about ten years everybody would be using synthesisers on stage."
"I've seen Paul in the coffee-house so many times!" Froese jokes.
"But about sounds, the problem is that first of all you have to feel well with the sound", continues Haslinger. "A pianist spends about ten years of his life feeling well with the piano sound, and at the end he knows the sound so well that he has every little detail under control. What we do with our sounds, we develop them for a day or so and then we play them. That's what everybody does and it's probably wrong. You have to live with a sound first, then after a certain amount of time and a certain amount of practice I think you start creating a relationship to that sound. Don't ask me how it happens. Every now and then when we're at a dead end, we'll call up a sound that we have a relationship with and we'll start having musical ideas because of the power of this sound. So sound design may seem easy, but I think probably it's one of the most difficult things in the world."
In the past few years, sequenced drum parts have become more prominent in the group's music - particularly on the more up-tempo tracks. However, Froese contends that rhythm was always an essential part of Tangerine Dream's music.
"People quite often say that within the past couple of years we've become very rhythmical", he comments, "and they ask us if that's because we want to be popular or commercial. No, the rhythm was always there from the first record, it just became a different part of what we wanted to say. We always saw our music as being on two levels. The ground level was a train type of thing, something that people could relate to immediately because it was rhythm, heartbeat, and all people around the world are familiar with that. Everything they are not familiar with we put on the track: a little house here, a big skyscraper there... That gave us the chance to explain a bit about what we wanted to say while people were in rhythm."
Nowhere is rhythm more evident nowadays than in electronic dance music. But while the advent of ambient house music has fuelled demand for Tangerine Dream's back catalogue, the group themselves haven't gone as far as to use dance rhythms.
"We are quite familiar with house music", Froese reveals, "and if there is a need for it - which obviously there is, otherwise it wouldn't be so successful - it's OK. We believe that things cannot exist unless there is a certain demand. And the desire is there for people to move their bodies, to dance. You could say they're just enjoying themselves, and of course they are, but there is a certain force within them to do it. I mean, dance is just a synonym, a symbolic thing for something else. In this period of time, people want to stand up and do something, they're becoming more active than ever, and that kind of willingness to do something must have its counterpart, which is dance music. It's kind of a tool for human beings to get into an active movement. Therefore everything - rap, reggae, house, funk, rock - whatever makes people dance, it's a necessity, it's not something which is there accidentally. It's nothing to criticise."
However, it seems that the dance remixers won't be getting their hands on any Tangerine Dream music if the group have anything to do with it.
"We got asked a couple of times if we would allow remixes", says Froese. "We would not, simply because the way we understand our music means that the music is bonded to a certain atmosphere, to a certain recording process and to a certain composing process. Unfortunately we cannot allow somebody else to take over the music and do something else with it, no way."
WHILE MANY '70S GROUPS TOOK TO using synthesisers, far fewer embraced sequencing with anything like Tangerine Dream's enthusiasm. Today sequencing is a commonplace part of music-making, no longer confined to "electronic music". The current incarnation of Tangerine Dream uses the sequencing technology of its day, just as the original group did.
"In the studio we use sequencer software for all three popular computer formats: IBM, Apple and Atari", reveals Haslinger. "We have Cubase and Performer on the Macintosh, and on the IBM we use Cakewalk and Sequencer Plus. Because we've worked with Steinberg and contributed to the development of Cubase, it's our main sequencing software. In fact, we use Cubase on both the Macintosh and the Atari. You can now use the Macintosh version with Mark of the Unicorn's MIDI Timepiece, and extend that so that if you have four MIDI Timepieces hooked up you can have a 32 x 32 MIDI matrix. If you connect your SMP24 or Midex on the Atari to the Macintosh matrix you can control Cubase on the Atari from the Macintosh DA."
In an attempt to please all of the people all of the time, programs like Cubase and Notator provide musicians with a bewildering variety of ways to record and edit their music. The temptation is there to utilise all these methods, but Froese feels that it's important to be selective.
"We know people, including ourselves, who rarely use the drum page on Cubase", he says by way of example. "The way we work with drum patterns is completely different, we have our own little philosophy. Maybe other musicians never move into grid edit."
"Because we improvised for almost 15 years, to us it's fascinating to become disciplined - now we do the normal thing of composing a piece from scratch."
Haslinger acknowledges that the tremendous sophistication of today's sequencing software can pose its own problems.
"The better the system is, the bigger the limitation grows. All these complex possibilities that you have now at the push of a button are, at the same time, limiting you in the sense that they make it much more difficult to be original. It's always the two sides of the coin. But the only sentence you can put over all that is that at all times, with whatever equipment or tools that are available, original music has been made and unoriginal music has been made. The unoriginal stuff has always been 95%, there has always only been 5% interesting stuff. It's very normal and natural that there's a lot of boring stuff around, and you have to look in the little niches to find the original stuff. That's just the way it is. Sequencers don't really change that."
"Everything goes in the right direction as long as you don't forget that you're a human being and become part of the machine", Froese advises.
Haslinger sees computer-based sequencing packages offering even more possibilities to musicians in the years to come.
"Cubase, Notator and many other sequencing packages are going to be expanded to be control systems of time events", he contends. "We hope to be able to control light events and even more complex forms of sound from the sequencer in the future, using something like the MIDI Manager page on Cubase together with new types of controller data."
Froese offers another reason why computers will become increasingly important to musicians:
"Maybe in a year to 18 months we won't be talking about modules in a classical way any more. A sound module will be an integrated part of the computer, and we'll all be talking about sound chips, not sound modules."
Warming to the subject of future technology, he has some further predictions to make:
"The recording system in about ten years' time won't be any bigger than a Walkman. That will be the whole recording unit. Also, the monitor screen will be replaced by glasses that you put on, and you'll have a monitor within the glasses."
Froese also sees music keyboards giving way to other types of controller in the years to come.
"The Theremin kind of approach will be the way forward", he maintains. "Touch sensitivity won't involve touching keys any more. And then the next step, in about 2025, will be to use brainwaves."
If Tangerine Dream are still around then, no doubt they'll be first in line to try out the technology.
"Recording systems in ten years' time won't be any bigger than a Walkman; monitors will be replaced by glasses that you put on - you'll have a monitor within the glasses."
Returning to present technology, Froese reveals that the group are investigating the possibilities offered by MIDI data networking using fibre-optic cabling, as pioneered by the Lone Wolf MIDItap system. Clearly Tangerine Dream are still embracing the latest electronic technology - but this doesn't mean rejecting acoustic technology.
"Believe it or not, both of us are the happiest persons if you give us a Steinway grand or an acoustic guitar", says Froese. "A lot of people may think we'd rather have fiddly little computers and stuff. OK, we have that for the job that we're doing, but on the other hand that has nothing to do with music itself."
Tangerine Dream have traditionally had a policy of investing a significant proportion of their profits back into buying new equipment, a policy which has allowed them to keep up with the latest technological developments. However, if Froese's experience over the years of working with technology has taught him anything, it's that ultimately what matters isn't so much what's in the technology as what's in the person who's using the technology' - plus the determination to bring it out.
"If you've only got £150 in your pocket you can buy yourself a cheap little Casio keyboard. It's a chance to make music, it's a good chance for the kids. One shouldn't blame anybody for starting out in a poor way, because it can turn out to be big. It depends on the person, on their creativity and craftsmanship. A lot of people overlook the aspect that you've got to be a worker. You won't get anywhere as long as you don't help yourself. You've got to be very hard on yourself, and you have to practice eight, ten, 12 hours a day. If you work that hard then there's no question that you will make it one day, but if you sit around and say 'I could become a superstar, what book do I have to read?', that's stupid. Then you'd better go out there and become part of the 90% of people who don't know' any better."
SINCE THE LATE 70S, TANGERINE DREAM have had a profitable "second career" as film music composers, beginning with William Friedkin's The Sorcerer and continuing through the '80s with such films as Violent Streets, Risky Business, Firestarter and Legend. For British audiences the latest example of the group's film music comes with the film Miracle Mile, which was released in America back in 1988 but is only now about to see UK release. It's a frantic, compelling and ultimately bleak film which tells what happens when news of an impending nuclear strike on Los Angeles leaks out via a misdirected phone call. The music provided by Froese and Haslinger is a model of how to write for film, helping to create the overall mood of the film and to underscore the emotions and tensions of particular scenes without ever becoming intrusive.
Froese makes it clear that composing film music is not an occupation for anyone who likes to retain complete control over their music.
"First of all, you have to collaborate with somebody else: the producer, the director. And last but not least there's the film itself. Very often you feel a lot of sympathy with the pictures. You try to do your best, then all of a sudden the producer walks in and has nothing but a little smile for what it's taken you weeks to do. Or sometimes you know exactly the way the music has to be but nobody else believes you, so you find yourself having to turn it upside down and record it again, and that's not fun. But these things happen, so what are you going to do, get screwed up, get angry, or just calm yourself down and accept it? The responsibility for what you're doing is not just in your hands. That makes composing for film on the one hand very interesting, but on the other hand very annoying sometimes. But film music has to support a picture, so if you want to do solo work or band work then that's a different story."
A different story it may be, but perhaps some of the disciplines of composing for film have rubbed off on the group's music. Surely it can be no coincidence that Tangerine Dream's music has become both more concise and more obviously structured during the past decade.
"The good thing about composing scores for film is that you have to learn to explain yourself in a short composition", replies Froese, "and it's much more difficult to do that. If you've just got three or four or five or six minutes to explain whatever you want to explain, it's not that easy, especially with instrumental music. It's a challenge. We used to be into really long pieces of music where for five or six minutes there would be such little climax. Now we have to have something after a couple of seconds which makes it clear where we want to go."
Perhaps it is Tangerine Dream's ability to change with the times yet retain their own musical identity and integrity which has seen them survive into the '90s. How many - if any - of today's electronic music groups will still be around 20 years from now? Only time will tell, but Froese is clear about what it takes to survive - and reveals that Tangerine Dream aren't about to hang up their MIDI leads just yet.
"As soon as we stop changing things, whether drastically or slowly, we'll have reached a dead end. It doesn't matter whether we sell a million records or 100,000. You've got to improve yourself all the time, you've got to take that challenge. We're already planning for next September or October, and at the moment we're working on a couple of things which will be maybe one of the biggest changes we've ever made in our approach to music, to sounds and to presentation. And that's fun."
It's clear that Tangerine Dream intend to remain at the forefront of technology. Perhaps they will yet reassert themselves at the forefront of electronic music, too.