Keeping The Dream Alive
Tangerine Dream have been at the forefront of electronic music long enough to be regarded as an institution. Mark J. Prendergast talks to Paul Haslinger about the TD experience.
If you ask a dozen people about Tangerine Dream you'll get a dozen different answers. Experimenters with a political axe to grind during the 60s, progressive rockers during the 70s, state-of-the-art synthesists during the 80s and now pushing the quality of computer generated music into the 90s, they are a hard act to follow. Many associate them with their lengthy ambient works of the mid-70s, which earned them a reputation as the German Pink Floyd. Others see them as a giant stadium electronic circus, lost in an array of high-tech gear, dry ice and fancy lights.
But there is another Tangerine Dream, one which has found a willing audience with House musicians like the KLF, who hold such hypnotic classics as 'Phaedra' and 'Stratosphear' in such high esteem that they copy them.
Since their formation in Berlin in 1969, the Dream have seen some of Germany's best known electronic musicians pass through their ranks. Klaus Schulze, Konrad Schnitzler, Peter Baumann and Johannes Schmoelling have all been members at one time or another. Baumann left in 1977 to pursue other projects, eventually setting up the New Age-ish Private Music label in America, to which in a simple twist of fate TD themselves are now signed. The band's current line-up is leader Edgar Froese, Paul Haslinger, and Jerome Froese — Edgar's son. There can't be many bands who've lasted long enough to see the children of their original members grow up and join in. Their 43rd album, Melrose, pushes the group back toward the rock arena after years of soundtracks and fairly commercial instrumental music.
Paul Haslinger, a 23 year old classically trained musician, joined the TD ranks in 1986, and many say that his contribution to that year's Underwater Sunlight rejuvenated an outfit fast sinking under the weight of endless touring and excessive recording commitments. A technological whizz-kid, Haslinger immediately committed Froese to the research and development of computer software to enhance the TD sound. On the phone from Vienna, Haslinger spoke about what has been a fascinating four years.
What was it like when you joined?
"I came to Berlin, to the studio of Christoph Franke and there were all the musical instruments that I'd ever dreamed of. You didn't see me for a year because I was always buried behind them, working out things. My speciality was computer software development — collaborating with Steinberg on the Pro 24 sequencer software. This is the most rewarding technical thing for me, in that it can change tempo to suit any key change. It follows the music you're playing perfectly. Like a good drummer it keeps perfect time."
What are your specialist instruments?
"I'm a pianist, a keyboard player fascinated by electronics. I am and have always been interested in anything to do with making music. With Tangerine Dream there was a chance to work in a kind of relationship that makes it possible to do many things which with other groups would be impossible. There were fewer restrictions. Tangerine Dream wasn't just a band playing music, but part of a philosophy where you could change style and structure and go anywhere you wanted to go within the music. What happens in Tangerine Dream is a result of what three people feel — it is a concentrated agreement, a multiplicity which comes to making an album."
Could you talk a little about other electronic instruments and procedures?
"Well I do a lot of sampling but because we've divulged a lot of our technical procedures in the past and had them copied, we've decided not to talk about our sampling tricks. I can talk about my preferences though. I have a good relationship with the Korg Wavestation which was developed by Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits. As a tone generator it's a very good concept which makes it possible to create sound as a part of the composition. It uses wave sequencing where the rhythm is controlled by a MIDI click tempo. I also like the Akai S1000 series — extensive, complex and reliable electronic devices which are very important at this stage for us. In fact all my experiences with Akai equipment have been good."
Since the Dream are oft criticised for their hardware fixation, particularly in the use of banks of keyboards, I play devil's advocate and invoke Eno's maxim that more is not necessarily better, and is often worse.
"I'm familiar with the argument. I've got my main keyboards, and on stage I need more for sound generation, but our music is not just geared to keyboards. It can be better to be able to play very good piano and restrict oneself to five essential notes, but Eno can't play the other 500 and that's why he says those things. I agree we shouldn't be slaves to technology but nothing's wrong with checking out your options."
What are your favourite keyboards?
"The Roland A50 and A80. And I've started to like the Korg T1. They are all as good or as bad as you want to make them. One of the main problems I have is with the concept of pianists trying to play master keyboards which simulate a wooden piano. Keyboards have nothing to do with pianos! What's interesting now is how the body design of keyboards is changing. The contours of the [human] body will be better catered for and studies in posture relating to typewriting will be applied. All of this will affect the whole music industry. You will see unusual controllers, not just flat or two dimensional things, coming on to the market.
"You see I spend a lot of time in the United States where they are developing these things. People like Ron Buchla who has developed the Thunder Instrument Controller, and Jimmy Hotz who is responsible for the Atari Translator are working in that field. These are very good ideas but because of time I'm not really looking for new things to learn. My interest now is in playing techniques, actually applying what I've learnt."
If you want to really hear how good Haslinger is, listen to the 1988 album Optical Race, a brilliant fusion of ethnic samples, techno rhythms and gorgeous atmospheres. All ten tracks were produced by Paul and Edgar on the Atari ST, using Steinberg software. Such tracks as 'Mothers Of Rain' and 'Cat Scan' truly stand out from most other electronic music for their finesse and imaginative use of computer generated sounds. To the neophyte, it's electronic music of the highest calibre, without resort to cliche — and it's poppy, drivable and dancey.
"I like using computers to create atmosphere. There are two ways of utilising computers to make music. One position is that we have to construct it. Using the Aphex Feel Factory one can make certain feels and grooves, so that when you want a certain feel you can just recreate it. The other position is to say we have to make use of the situation and shape the sound until it is good. We set up DA/sequencers at different timings. Then we make composites, sort of balancing musical events, and we stop and make a snapshot. Then we continue and make another. Now between these two extreme points in computer generation, normal work takes place. As in anything some days are good, some days are bad.
"I must say it's not completely possible to construct a good feel with a computer. There has to be some musical event taking place that you are not in total control of. With computers it is always the software that counts. We use three basic computers — the Macintosh, the Atari and the IBM. The software I use is the following — Steinberg Cubase for the Mac and Atari, Performer also for the Mac, and Sequencer Plus for the IBM. These are the main packages."
How much to you think TD has been changed by you coming to the ranks?
"I don't think TD was changed by me. The mastermind and leader has always been Edgar. Our relationship in the studio is that we all turn up with an idea, and everybody contributes. Myself, Edgar and now Jerome his son is Tangerine Dream. It's now three people again, and he [Edgar] does the guitar solos and helps with the compositions. I play rhythm guitars and stick drums on top of the keyboard and computer stuff, but also do a lot of arranging, especially on the new Melrose LP."
What's the biggest difference for you between live and studio work?
"Well, live is very different. In the studio you can play it again if something goes wrong. On stage you only have one chance. But the live confrontation with the audience is always something inspiring. It's the place to get new ideas — because as you're playing you get pushed from one place to another and I can really feel ourselves communicating through the music. Also, live the usual thing is always a band with a singer, but with us there's no singer, so people are drawn away from the stereotypicality of the rock show. With Tangerine Dream, the lights and music are the show. The results are either harmonic or non-harmonic. There is a feedback between lights and sound which is very interesting and powerful."
Could you talk a little about the new LP?
"It's called Melrose and is our third album for Private Music. It's a continuation of Optical Race and Lily On The Beach but with the new musical power of Jerome it has lots of new ideas. On the technological side, the developments with my American friends have led to some startling sonic results. From the recording technique point of view we used our usual 24-track studios in Berlin and Vienna, plus of course Edgar's one in his house in Austria."
Since 1974 Tangerine Dream have, like Pink Floyd, been in demand for soundtracks. Whether it be for European television or American films, the Dream have put as much energy into soundtracks as they do into conventional albums. At least 13 albums of film music have been released, six of these since Paul joined the group.
"Film music is interesting because we use different formats. With soundtrack records we take the view that one should do the work twice. Once for the film and again in fuller form for the public. Three O'clock High from 1987 was the only one that was done once. We always have a big struggle with the production company about this but it is our choice. With a film all you have is a musical structure which is made up of two or three minute segments which have to constantly change for filmic reasons. For us this is not enough, we have to take it and make new music out of it."
What of acoustic sounds. There are a lot of flute, whistling, horn and ethnic sounds on Optical Race and Melrose.
"I'd love to do more of this. On the last two LPs I did a lot of cymbal and guitar stuff. I love mixing purely digital and natural sounds — they make fascinating combinations. It's not really possible yet to compose digital sounds that have the same timbral quality as acoustic ones. The ways of changing filtered or sampled sounds still have to develop to a satisfactory conclusion. At the moment there's a lot of discussion and nobody has any real idea of how things will go."
Do you use things like Mitsubishi mixing consoles to ensure the best sound?
"Well, I don't use that. In the studios we use old Soundcraft bodies with a MIDI interface to mix the keyboards. We use SSL or Neve for the final mixes. In our music there's not a lot to do at the mixing stage because sequential mixing has already been done on the sequencer. With reference to other digital things like DAT, I use a Casio DA2 and the new Aiwa with digital output and input. In the studio we use the larger Fostex D20 DAT because you can put timecode on that. We actually deliver our film music via the Fostex."
Would you say you're now specialists in the film music field?
"Well we are not the only specialists in film music. Making it is a problem because creating music for an image takes much longer than creating the image itself. It utilises a lot of both mental and technical energy. But we have found a way of making it, and people like what we do so we get good offers. On the other hand, film music enables us to do Tangerine Dream financially and in a way we are working all the time for our economic and artistic freedom."
You must spend a lot of money on equipment.
"Well in its own right the technology is not very expensive, but when you think of how it changes in value, it is quite an initial outlay. Something that's maybe worth $5000 this year is only worth half that the next. Our stuff comes from all over the world, but I particularly like Steinway PSI hardware. You see, with our equipment purchases we make agreements with the manufacturers so that we can have input on the product itself on the design side. The best example is on Cubase software, where we gave creative suggestions on the fundamental and basic procedures. Also on previous Steinberg packages."
What of the argument that computers lead to sterile music, devoid of passion. Tangerine Dream have taken a lot of flak of this nature in the past.
"I'm getting tired of hearing this argument. Mike Oldfield says this as well. Computers are very different tools to use, and like anything need time and patience. Communication is the most important thing, and primary communication in a musical sense is our interest. Classical training leads to a certain knowledge, as does training on an Atari computer. But even though it changes the way you think about music it's of little importance if you can't be original. If you haven't got the training you have to invent new ways of doing things. With the training you are left with structures in the mind which get preset. Without it you have to invent your own vocabulary, new musical words."
What does the future hold for Tangerine Dream?
"We don't have a clear picture but we always have ideas. The present line-up works very well. The harmonic variability is at its highest. We're going to have a bit of fun. There's a US tour coming up next year, and we'll attempt something radically different — maybe something with theatre, ballet and opera."
Last question, who are your favourite musicians?
"If I mention any electronic musicians, the ones I leave out will be annoyed. Outside those I like Peter Gabriel, Rupert Hine, John Zorn, Elliott Sharp and the keyboardist Wayne Horvitz. That'll do for now."
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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