An in depth interview with this amazing character who is now recognised as one of the world's most inventive and original electro-musicians.
Eccentric, exuberant, emotional, strong-willed and above all, inspiring are the words you could use to describe Holger Czukay. His music is a fascinating, and in many ways, unique exploration of the sound medium, embodying all the experience of his years. At a recent interview, Holger eagerly discussed the background to his latest album 'On the Way to the Peak of Normal'.
"I can say that I have been involved with music since I was a very small child, but my first real experiences with music were, let's say, right after the war, when the American soldiers occupied a town near Frankfurt. So I learnt very quickly how to sing chorales to them in return for a Coca-Cola which was something you could not obtain. I started to read music at school, but my interest at this age, around 10, was diverted towards 'electricity'. Later, I obtained a very old Third Reich radio and I enjoyed using this as it had a 'feedback' control that could let me crudely transmit to a girlfriend using morse code. At High School I still concentrated on learning about electricity although I did not understand a lot! Even then I thought that music and electricity were 'biting' each other and I had to decide whether I was to be a musician or an electricity engineer. This conflict about my future eventually made me turn to music, because I felt I wasn't good enough to be an engineer. So I went to the Conservatory in Duisburg, a heavy industrial town north of Düsseldorf, and said I wanted to be a composer. But the comment was "What, a composer who is eighteen years old has to be recognised as a wonder child! If not, it is too late for you". That shocked me and I saw the only chance to participate in music by playing jazz. I joined a Dixieland band then, participating in a Festival, and from there I got out of composition."
What did you play?
"Guitar, through a radio with a four watt amplifier. I still remember that concert because my amplifier crackled all the time and I kept trying to put it right — but everybody thought it a joke and just part of the act!"
Was jazz very popular in this part of Germany in the late fifties?
"Yes, yes. Modern jazz too, was there as well — Lee Cornitz impressed me a lot. I did mainly improvisation because I hated reading music. Of course, I knew more than just chords because I was studying harmony, theory and basic composition in order to improve my jazz playing. Although my main study instrument was the classical guitar I tried to learn as many instruments as I could."
So that's where you learnt to play the French horn used on the 'Peak of Normal' LP?
"Not at all. I just found the horn in a shop, and without learning to play it properly just started getting sounds out of it."
So pitching the notes of the horn was by experiment to you?
"I found out very quickly by trial and error and had little difficulty in blowing notes."
Were you influenced by jazz guitar players in these early days?
"I became a jazz fanatic and listened to many other guitarists, especially Les Paul. I realise now that the whole studio set-up I use today may be similar to what Les Paul has done."
Did you learn all the extended chord harmonies used so much in jazz e.g. Minor 9th, 11th, 13th etc?
"Yes — I tried to learn these things first, but quite soon I forgot about them. I was not so much interested in the vertical aspect — more the horizontal, the polyphonic aspect of music. Then you have to go to Bach and Baroque music — you can't avoid it because it's equally important and has become an essential element in its own right for my music — polyphony. I believe it's still completely underestimated today.
"It's a question of listening — people listen easily to 'background' music but find it very hard to listen to music in a concentrated way. That's something — maybe 20 years ago quality of listening was much higher. Furthermore, are we in danger of losing all our spiritual aspects of a human being? We seem to be reducing ourselves to a 60kg portion of meat! — without any spiritual things. I think it's something to do with my age — I found out that all this seems to be important to me now. When you are young you just try everything, but now I reconsider many areas of music.
"Moving back to my training, whilst I was studying music, I had a jazz group that played in public which didn't please my teachers. Consequently, I didn't pass my exams because of my music — it was my worst result since the teachers had completely underestimated me. Just three days later, I had my first performance on the radio (exactly 21 years ago)!
"Then in another festival not long after, the examiner told me 'I can't judge you at all so I'll withdraw your group from the competition and invite you to play on the radio station instead'. That was the beginning.
"After this event, I quit with jazz and started to notate my own music. Although you could say the jazz influence is still there, somehow my fellow jazz musicians at the time seemed to be ignoring the great chance to explore other areas of music."
I have a word for musicians that make music with electronics — I call them electro musicians rather than electronic musicians, because there are no barriers to the music we play — it's not just electronic music — it uses Musique concrete and as many influences of Western, Folk and Modern as you may find.
"Yes, you are right. I wanted to learn, learn, learn... and this has not changed for me today. I take in every kind of music I have the opportunity to hear."
Tell me about your association with Karlheinz Stockhausen.
"First, I started studying in the Berlin University, but within two months my professors had dismissed me — I was a difficult person to get on with and was often rude and full of my own importance. The trouble was they insisted that I should learn the early methods of notation, and that made no sense to me: I wanted to be a practical musician. In fact, I felt that traditional notation needed to be improved for modern music.
"In 1963 I met Milton Babbitt, who was working in Illinois, USA with one of the first valve computers — but it was really able to function like a big synthesiser. He had brought tapes of his music to Darmstadt for a holiday course I attended.
"I was not over impressed by him at the time — other composers like Cage, did fascinate me. I was looking for the musician in a person. Now Stockhausen — he had it. He could take in his hand whatever he wanted. Somehow he could be intellectual, he could be explaining as much as he wanted. I always learnt about the music that came out of it — with other composers it was often just the ideas, and therefore I was fascinated by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
"I studied composition with him for three years and he would give us ideas for working out a piece. Of course, he was well established by this time (and regarded by many as the no. 1 composer worldwide). For me, he was the best teacher I can imagine. He could inspire people — I can't explain how.
"Somehow, I slowly 'finished' my studying with Stockhausen. He was such a strong personality — it reminds me when I first started with him when I was 17; one day he said to me 'Czukay, you are far too intellectual', but I felt that he was wrong and I said 'Oh, Mr. S., that doesn't count for your knowledge as a human being', and he said 'Don't get me wrong — I see how you put many questions on every note you write down'. He then referred to a fellow Belgian composer who put so many questions on each note that the result was he was unable to compose any music!"
But isn't that something that affects us more as we get older?
"Yes — and Stockhausen then told me: 'You are reaching the barrier where you don't know how to go on, and so many musicians never reach this barrier. At this point, you must leap over it or you won't be a composer. It depends on you how you solve this problem'. He said 'I am in the same situation too'! He didn't know how to go on as well and I felt that he was rolling off a big stone out of my heart and I was really sad about that.
"The music we composed with K.S. was in whatever form he wanted — I never showed him my music. Everybody else did, but I didn't have the courage. He did finally see my music and he said 'Yes, it was interesting'. After three years, I finally stopped attending and moved to Switzerland to take a teaching post.
"Incidentally, the first music I wrote was for a drum kit which I didn't even recognise when it was performed!"
Has Rock music become as viable for you as classical music?
"Yes — slowly. That happened really through my pupils. I was teaching music in a Swiss Public School — all the usual traditional music and the occasional concerts. The pupils encouraged me to listen to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. One of my pupils was Michael Karoli, later guitarist with Can. Together we experimented with a kind of swing music on our electric guitars.
"Shortly after, I attended a rock concert with Tony Eshen and we agreed (when he was rather drunk!) to start an experimental rock group together. I quit my teaching job and eventually joined with Can.
"My first album was Canaxis 5 (not available now, originally made on a private label: Music Factory). It sold very well and even then I took music from many parts of the world; Vietnam, Asia, Africa, Australia, using the radio to collect a lot of the extracts. I mixed the completed tape recordings with European music, e.g. choral music using tape loops.
"Recordings were monaural and were made in the West German radio station at night when nobody was there. Now, 20 years later, I can admit that I took the key without permission and went into Stockhausen's studio after he had left, to work through the night on my music. I really couldn't have done my composing any other way at the time. The basic equipment consisted of three tape recorders that were used to record sounds and tape loops from which two or three layers were built up."
Are you working from a structured composition or just experimenting when you collect your taped sounds?
"The planning beforehand is not so important for me. I feel more like a dog who follows his nose — you think about it very strongly and then you make your decision. There's a logic in the music whatever you do and one step requires another one. If you have these thousands of steps you have to balance them with each other, and this balancing comes from the decision you make.
"Whenever you are doing this editing, you obviously come nearer to the end of the piece, but you can change one step and a whole series of steps then will need restructuring. That's how my music is produced and that's perhaps why other people call it 'magic'."
We discussed the excitement of this album through its polyphony of sounds (melodic, noise orientated electronic and natural) that Holger wanted to use. In many ways he was referring back to this early style of composition.
[Polyphony — layers of sound that weave their individual, distinctive melodies and are perceived horizontally rather than as vertical lines of chord harmony. Analysis of polyphonic music also shows that the vertical chord structures are still present within the flow of the melodies. Originally applied to 16th century vocal music, it later was applied to instrumental music such as J. S. Bach, Fugues, and in modern classical music an example is the final part of Benjamin Britten's 'Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra'. No doubt the term will be used increasingly in electro-music as the microcomputer becomes part of the New Music.]
"There is a common relationship between all music wherever it comes from — that includes even the most primitive music from Africa, Thailand, in the jungle, in the rice fields, where I heard a blind man playing his own handmade primitive instruments and participated with him in his music. The media makes it possible to bring them together. You feel the excitement yourself when you find out how they work together, and that is the first experience you have.
"The 'Movies' Album has been successful for me — not taking over like a hit, it's a long term thing. I don't want things to grow too quickly. The money helped to balance everything out to have a modest bachelor life — I'm happy with that, I don't want more."
Do you have a special reason for the title of your new album 'On the way to the Peak of Normal'?
"You see, I was considered to be a 'flipped-out' man, making this kind of extravagant music, and I thought, OK, if people think that it is all flipped-out then make this flipped-out thing so normal that everybody thinks that it is just ordinary! It's like a medicine that tastes good and then after a while begins to have an effect on you. Incidentally, I believe music has become more and more of a therapy today."
Although you like to use recording tape as the medium for your music, do you perform it live?
"I wouldn't like to reproduce something that you listen to on record — that is somehow unfair. When I first completed this latest record, EMI were very slow to accept it."
"I am working in three studios at the same time. Everything starts in my own studio — it's a simple 2-track studio with very old machines. I've been using the Telefunken M10 which I consider to be one of the best machines ever constructed! It's a Rolls Royce recorder, with just two speeds, but it weighs a ton. I have also been fascinated by the old valve radios and tape recorders that are almost impossible to obtain these days and found the source of supply in the basement of a local undertakers shop!"
How did you make movies?
"Just with an old Studer B62 tape recorder and plenty of tape editing. I think the quality was still really good — it was actually worked out on a 16-track, but the first steps were done on the Studer.
"The first thing is that you have to somehow compose a piece. So I'll take my guitar and play something — nothing in particular, and then you get on with it and by editing just this guitar music-picking out a rhythm or riff — that's how I often begin. 'Ode to Perfume' started this way.
"It takes me two months to play a guitar which doesn't do anything, yet has everything in it. It is a real cooled down atomic power station which is completely quiet in itself. Every note gives me information about the overall sound. That is the reason why these first guitar recordings take such time and concentration."
Can you now manage on your income from your records to work as a professional musician?
"Oh yes, that exactly — nothing else. I've had to have a low standard of living — but I'm a man with a strong will to succeed!
"So my studio now has just one Revox tape recorder, and I don't even use my little mixer any more. You must avoid everything that might impose on the signal — that is the first step. Whatever you do — don't mix sounds at this stage — just put one thing on tape at a time. I then put these separate tape extracts on the 16-track at the Can Inner Space studio and start picking them out alone. When it's all recorded and erased: that's the biggest problem — how to erase something! In all the tracks are 'holes', all the time.
"It is not only the tapes that are available for me to use, for they are not so important, actually. What is important is the balance between me playing as a musician, using the studio as a whole 'instrument', and not as something that I use. The mixer is also the same; every screw in it for me is a living being and that's how I treat it. I've built it up myself and therefore I want to be completely into it and this 'balance' between me as a musician and something that I don't know. This 'something' is the radio, some 20 metres in the background of the studio. I would sit there for a complete hour in complete quiet, having the 16-track tape recorder and mixer in front of me, and, of course, all the parts of the music in my mind. Suddenly, something comes over the radio and I run on the tape recorder and begin to synchronise something, using varispeed if necessary. That means if you listen later to the direct recording off the radio and, let's say, 'Persian Love' you just wouldn't recognise it at all."
Do you fill your track with long sections of music that can be faded in or out in the final mix?
"No — you see, the musical decisions have to be made right away, that's the thing. In the second you make the music spontaneously — that's where you must make the decision and not just fill up the tracks and say 'let's see what comes out later'.
"By the way, this is a criticism of the later Can albums that I made. At the beginning we simply recorded on stereo machines and this forced the group to make something right away. But when we got the 16-track everybody said let's play and make the decisions later. That was the end of the Group!"
So you come into the Can studio with a tape and nothing else?
"Just one tape — this is the piece actually, not the worked out piece, but the horizontal 'layers' lasting about 18 minutes, where the composition is completely compressed into the melodies and harmonies played on the guitar only.
"So the whole instrumentation of the piece comes from the extraordinary facilities at the Can Studio: the radio, instruments, synths, and so on. The guitar music I produced was sufficient for me to know that I had a piece ready to work on."
"The first track title 'Ode to Perfume' came from an evening spent with a rather strongly perfumed girl! My flat is right in the centre of Cologne, a very noisy area. What is quite rare is that I am living here like an ordinary person with a lot of contacts who may meet me in public — at the cafes etc., but talking to every musician I can, and then going back to my flat and switching off the telephone, doorbell and cutting myself right off from anyone.
"I have been using drum machines in the past, but they are in fact being replaced more and more by acoustic instruments. 'On the Way...' has a drum machine rhythm (from an old Crumar organ) that was treated in different ways, such as through a Leslie Cabinet.
"The way I record is important. It's a kind of 'classical' stereo recording (so called middle-side stereo MS stereophony). There are three different types of stereo: AB, XY, and MS. In the Can Studio are two fixed microphones that remain in place during the months spent recording. These mics are switched via a 'sum and difference' transformer creating A+B and A-B signals.
"All my recordings are made in stereo and therefore I have only 8 layers to mix down finally on the 16-track mixer. I make great use of the instrument positions in the studio and this means that all the sounds have the same ambience — that is very important. I found that if you mixed different room ambiences on mixdown, a detrimental effect often occurred, with a peculiar final background. All tapes are also played through this system — even the opening guitar is re-recorded, actually on 4 channels.
"I have been thinking a lot about phase correlation of mics and the way sound waves disperse from a source in a concentric fashion — I measure my distances carefully and that is why I don't need to use much treatment from 'artificial stereo polishers' — digital echo units and soon. My procedure is to strictly calibrate the positioning of the units — it's an old method that's very typical of Germany. Our radio broadcasts of orchestras tend to use a centralised minimum stereo mic arrangement, whereas in America individual mics are used and mixed down later. I believe it is better to make use of the sound and acoustics present at the time of recording.
"Coming back to drums, Jaki Liebezeit is able to complement rhythmically my musical ideas and that's really why I've moved away from machines. On 'Persian Love' (Movies LP), Jaki worked for three days until he was feeling the music. We then slowed down the music tapes to half speed for the whole of this track while we added other lines, including drums. I often use this method for parts of my pieces.
"I use the Korg Vocoder in 'Ode to Perfume' to use my voice as a sort of vocal interpretation of the almost infinite variations of perfumes. The voice has to be used in such a delicate way, and the whole sound system right to the monitor systems plays its role. I also use the Leslie to rotate the voice sounds. There is only one layer of the Vocoder at any time.
"The mixing is done extremely carefully by making strict decisions at the very moments you work with the music and completely erasing specific parts in a way that makes no turning back!"
I found 'Peak of Normal' to be an interesting example of the vocoder's use. There is also the jazz influence, with offbeat rhythms and riffs.
"That's so simple you know, played many many times, the impact is the wave or vibration that shows the kind of person you are. I use the Fender Jazz Bass and Fender Stratocaster for bass and main guitar parts. The bass line holds the music together and is done mostly without a plectrum, although there are some occasions where I use it with damped strings for special percussive effects. It is a very old-fashioned bass line, just summing up the harmony of the whole music, that's all."
Referring to the Harmony, I hear root notes with chords that climb up to the climaxes...
"But most of the time, the harmony is the result of the polyphonic music. In terms of sound layers, the bass is one of the last things I put on.
"In 'Ode to Perfume', the drums were only used when Jaki heard the vibrating guitar, because I wanted him to feel it, so it was a test for him. He thought the result was very bad but when I tried it again he could not do it the same, and of course, I had recorded his first attempt without him knowing — that's why the drums fit the music perfectly. There's the special quality of the moment.
"I do all the vocals myself and the French horn is done by experimenting just once, so the recording is done very quickly. I also use a Lotus flute (a short tube with a recorder mouthpiece and a moving base to change pitch) and the mouth organ. Jaki also has a large collection of instruments, not only percussion, from all over the world, many of which he brings to the studios for us both to use.
"As for structuring the pieces, the guitar imposes the climaxes so much that you have to follow them through in the music. I have no real restriction on studio time at the Can Studio, and so I keep on until I have got what I want — it would be impossible to do this kind of music any other way.
"Music is an experience of time. I mean, the time flows in a condensed way. You are, I think not a good musician if you don't know how to feel responsible for every micro-second of the music. That means that you have the 'balance' feeling for minute no. 5 until minute so and so, and this must all be 'in harmony'. Of necessity, I too always have to come back to traditional music for much of my composing techniques.
"Nevertheless, there is another side. For example, the group Public Image, which I consider very highly, have not studied music as far as I know and have showed me that I still have to take their music very seriously. You can feel that these people have made very strict decisions and reduced their music to the minimum, removing all that is unnecessary. They are different to the freaks who put all the gimmicks in and say 'how good I am' and who will be forgotten tomorrow as a result. You don't need to have studied classical music, but somehow you have to get that traditional appreciation and awareness of what to do with your music. It all depends how strict you are in your decisions.
"On the first piece 'Ode to Perfume' too, I sometimes use tape reversal, i.e. recording the usual way and then playing it back by turning the tape in the other direction — it may only be a centimetre long!
"There are thousands of edits in my albums — I did 'Movies' with a minimum of 50,000 edits! — all cut on the splice block. Now you know why it takes two years constantly working.
"The positions of the tape joins are very important — you have to find the 'magic' points. I use mostly 30° splices and that's the point — where do you put your cut in? Usually editing is done by saying this part's not good, so we'll take it out etc., but that is a very primitive way of editing. No, what I'm looking for are the 'magic' points: 'Where can I put the scissors on, in both parts, and join them together so that they fit musically together. 'Hiss'N'Listen' uses 8 mixers into 1 and I edited the tapes in a way that seems to me musically logical.
"Listen, for example, to the drums in every piece of mine — they are never constant: they are forward, tape reversed, with sudden crescendos and diminuendos, disappearing suddenly — every instrument is changing all the time and the only constant aspect is the room."
"There's one thing here. Of course, English is not my mother tongue. Now you can imagine it's easy for me to use words that I select by listening to in a musical way — not because of their literary meaning. And that's the way I choose my pictorial titles. "Out of the Fog Bank' originally had a section with vocoder and guitar melody and when I removed part of this, it really seemed to me just like a thick fog.
"'Welcome to the Chorale of the Majestic' is for me so German and hymn-like, (we love to crash in walls by creating sounds — I hope I have enough humour to take it this way but I'm really very serious about it).
"'The Ballad' is the more gentle part. Then 'The Males are Marching in' — is there any significance there? It is just the way I feel when I'm dancing to it. I'm always marching when I listen to 'Ode to Perfume'! The final Chorale is somehow different from the beginning and there's nothing schematic about it, because of the extremely harmonic vocoder sound that dominates it.
"As for my LP cover comments 'Recommended Listening whilst Roller Skating', I'd bought a Sony Walkman and listened to 'Ode to Perfume' at night, and you know, Stockhausen once said, 'You should listen, Concentrate to music'. I think this is a fantastic invention to do so without having to sit in a concert hall where you can be influenced by the responses of other listeners. I take it into the local forest and the town too, with the heavy traffic of Cologne all round, whilst I'm listening to say African 'water' music, it helps me take in so much more music in a concentrated way.
"The group S.Y.P.H. worked with me on the 'Peak of Normal' tracks. The presence of the radio in the studios made them play quietly and this 'magic' atmosphere interested me very much.
"Later on in the album, the Eventide Clockworks Harmoniser was used more and more. This is for me a new musical instrument — not just an effect — with the glitches actually being used to advantage. I use very little echo and then only carefully. I say 'no effects, please' — if you just use echo because it sounds better, then you can forget it! Of course, I use reverberation, but so controlled and in such harmony with the whole music. The Cemetry Synth Violin came about because Conny Plank said 'This is the melody of 'Les Vampyrettes' from the Pierre Lachesse Cemetry in Paris'."
You have so much at your fingertips, other musicians might only use their instruments — but your music seems to draw sounds from wherever you choose.
"And this is only possible when you work completely alone and have every step under your own control. This gives you this feeling of balance.
"In 'Multiplication Table', Jaki had decided the cross rhythms would be as simple as possible, so you can hear the drums in 2, bass and guitar in 3, then the flute in 3 with the voice added on top. By the way, the rhythm comes from low pass filtered drum machine and then panned, plus real maracas on top.
'The Two Bass Shuffle' was a very spontaneous thing done at home. I just put it on a cassette recorder and then transferred it to 7½ inch tape, adding a double bass with it. Once again the music is conceived thinking horizontally, never as vertical chords.
"The Hiss'N'Listen' has reminiscences of my youth — then I felt I would live in a place like I have today, but with one difference — I thought I would be married, having children, everything perfect (and Holger is now turning the knobs and making music over radar). That's somehow how I had my idea, but I really couldn't stand being married!
"The radio in 'Hiss'N'Listen' is most important in the piece even though it came later in the composing of the music. There's a point where I felt the radio should be there — it's like having a special kind of nose — it's the radar principle of switching in a micro-second from transmitter to receiver. As the musician you are a radar station — you have to listen and you have to give something. Somehow both don't go together in a perfect way easily, you have to learn it.
"That is the only professional aspect that I say is important being a musician — you must be able to listen to something and then reduce your playing so that your listening is not getting disturbed. I know how difficult that is and that is why I say I will train until I die."
Do you want a studio with all the effects and computer control?
"Nothing — I want to carry on as simply as I can because the technical development is very fascinating, but somehow so far people are forced only to use it and not celebrate it. They do not have an inner relationship with the whole thing and I say, let's learn from the under-developed countries, as we call them so easily. Learn how these people manage with the lowest technology you can imagine — and the fascinating way they do it. One example is Lee Perry, a Jamaican hero of mine, who shows that if you've got the 'magic' in your music, because you are this kind of musician, you'll make it even with a stone!
Interview by Mike Beecher
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