Hans Joachim Roedelius
One of the pioneers of the German electronic music scene, Hans Joachim Roedelius's use of electronic keyboards to treat sound, create atmospheres, and provide sonic backdrops has evolved through collaborations with the likes of Conny Plank, Peter Baumann and Brian Eno. Mark J. Prendergast discovers more about the man and his music.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius counts as one of the few pioneering German electronic musicians not to have blanded out in recent times. Unlike Tangerine Dream, for instance, Roedelius utilises digital and synthesizer equipment to enhance his electro-acoustic compositions. His work is instrumental, based on ornate repetitive keyboard motifs couched in rich frameworks of strings, guitars, and horns. Occasionally such things as sitar and accordion are added for decoration but the main thrust of his vision is a never-ending fascination with keyboard music. His acoustic piano style displays strong elements of the German cabaret music of the Thirties but is chiefly influenced by Debussy and Satie. His use of electronic keyboards to treat sound, create atmospheres, and provide sonic backdrops has evolved through collaborations with Conny Plank, Michael Rother, Peter Baumann and, of course, Brian Eno. It was Eno's involvement in Roedelius's group Cluster which resulted in the LPs Cluster & Eno (Sky 1977) and After The Heat (Sky 1979) - two works which firmly established Roedelius in the UK.
With almost 35 album releases to his credit, both solo and with Cluster, Roedelius has recently signed to the Virgin Venture label. This arrangement has led to the recordings Momenti Felici, a sublime collection of tranquil dance pieces, in 1987, and Fortress Of Love, a texturally varied masterpiece of instrumental colouring, in 1989. So let's start at the beginning...
Hans-Joachim Roedelius was born in Berlin in 1934. His father was a dentist and his mother had a background in teaching and church singing. After the chaos caused by the second World War, Roedelius found himself in Soviet East Germany and a conscript in the Eastern army.
"I didn't like it one bit and ran away. I was then arrested and imprisoned. When I got out I had to study physiotherapy and do exams. Because of threats to my family I had to remain in the East until 1961, and then I crossed to West Berlin before they sealed it off. I had no musical education and became a masseur to support myself. I met a girl through this who introduced me to various artists. I was involved in jazz groups, mixed-media things, theatrical and student groups. Then in 1968 I founded the Zodiak Free Arts Lab."
The Zodiak Free Arts Lab has passed into legend as a watershed in German electronic music. For the first time in West Berlin, there was a focus for experimental musicians, and the likes of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Ashra Temple all owe their beginnings to the radical happenings that occurred there from 1968 until its closure in May 1969.
"I had no grounding in Stockhausen or music notation but I was willing to experiment and was very enthusiastic. At the Zodiak my first musical instruments were handmade flutes, alarm clock and voice, used in conjunction with amplification and tape delays. Before that I was very influenced by The Living Theatre group and travelled with them to gain experience. Eight people founded the Zodiak, including myself and Conrad Schnitzler. Then later Klaus Schulze, Michael Hoenig, and the groups Ashra and Tangerine Dream evolved.
"At first we just used amplified voices and flutes with guitars and cellos. Then slowly we introduced electronics, voltage things, and organ manipulation. But the thing ended quickly and the eight Zodiak founder members went off to Africa. We all split up, and at the end of 1969 I founded Kluster with Conrad Schnitzler in Berlin. We played long pieces of music with no lights, effects or vocals. Just keyboards, musical cycles, tone generators, voltage things used in conjunction with funny noise sources like crockery pots, bits of wood, and metal plates linked to contact mics."
The original Kluster made three LPs between 1969 and 1971 that are now collectors' items. They peaked during a period of intensely creative music-making, as Roedelius recalls.
"Myself, Schnitzler and Moebius went on tour for two years. We just lived in a car and went from museum to museum, to art fairs and open-air concerts. We performed at one of Germany's very first open-air festivals, where Jimi Hendrix was the main attraction. I liked him a lot, he was a great musician. Because Moebius was interested in Hendrix, Family, The Third Ear Band and the like, our direction in music was far more experimental and away from The Beatles/Rolling Stones area."
"I met Edgar Froese recently at his studio in Vienna and I felt his new music was too cold, without life, without craft. Music should always live and be loved for itself, not for just the machines or the money that can be earned from it."
Having travelled up and down Germany and as far as Norway with an avant-garde music that mixed, among other things, Christian nature poetry with the sound of an amplified battery, Kluster then evolved into the duo Cluster with both Roedelius and Moebius handling keyboards. The emphasis was on texture, and their first recordings in 1971 and 1972 emphasised repetition.
After an uncertain period, where they tried to meld lyrics and music, Cluster hit the jackpot when they recorded Cluster & Eno with Conny Plank in 1977. Its beautiful glassy sound and advanced use of synthesizers and electronic rhythm had quite an impact outside of Germany.
"It was a very impressive meeting with Eno, because he brought a lot of organisation to our music. I am still very chaotic and could never be as organised as he is. When he was in the studio with us, he worked 24 hours a day - always working, always thinking and doing, organising and structuring. Always in the middle of the matter. That was astonishing to me, because I like to live and go out and walk, and smoke and drink a bit while I'm working - things Eno never did at the time. He worked and worked hard. I absorbed a bit of that discipline, because it's necessary if one is to stay in focus."
Though Cluster continued for another three albums, Roedelius embarked on a solo career in 1978 with Through The Desert (Sky). Two years in the making, with Conny Plank at the controls, this album introduced the serene keyboard/piano sound now associated with Roedelius. He worked with Peter Baumann for Jardin Au Feu (Egg 1979) and produced three Self Portrait LPs for Sky between then and 1980, from a home studio based in a forest in Hameln. These resembled in some way the strong electronic music of the same Eno period. A move to Austria then produced a brace of recordings undertaken in Vienna, including a Roedelius favourite, Open Doors (Sky 1981), which fully explored synthetic sound.
"My first synthesizer was bought in 1979, it was a Korg M20, but I quickly tired of it because in order to generate nice sounds I had to go through lots of bad ones. Fortunately, I gained support from the Alban Berg Endowment Fund in 1980 and was then able to buy a real instrument - a grand piano. Synthesizers are hardly used in my music. Sometimes, on the older recordings, the odd sound was added to create texture or a mood, with Conny Plank, who did the programming."
Having worked with Conny Plank in Cologne, and sometimes Holger Czukay, it didn't take Roedelius too long to find someone in Austria that he could relate to on a production/engineering basis.
"The first time I went to Austria I worked with a man named Eric Spitzer, a very well known recording engineer in Vienna who works at the Hit Box Studio. Another favourite studio of mine was, and is, Studio Spinnerai, whose house engineer, Mick Tappeser, is also an avant-garde musician. It is quite near to my home in Blumau, so I still go there to do some things."
"I'm an emotional and instinctive musician. I don't require a lot of equipment because I've got no fascination with technique."
Having built a home studio in this tiny village, thirty kilometres from Vienna, Roedelius spent the years from 1983 to the present day happily weaving delicate tunes around acoustic instruments, occasionally spiced by electronic sounds. On his Editions EG LP Gift Of The Moment (1984), the music swayed from pastoral bliss to blithe, tinkly piano; sonorous strings to subtle acoustic guitar and Korg Poly 61 keyboard ambiences. Like The Whispering Of The Wind (Cicada 1986) went back to simple minimalist keyboard sketches, similar to those of Harold Budd but informed by the French Impressionist spirit. His first Virgin Venture releases, Momenti Felici (1987), mixed dancing repetitive keyboard patterns with the sweet saxophone sound of Alex Czjzek, a noted Austrian player. With the firm support of the Alban Berg Endowment organisation, Roedelius was able to compose to his heart's content a music that was beautifully uncommercial, singular and timeless.
"I have an 8-track Fostex recorder, some treating machines, and a DAT recorder to master on. I mostly use digital delay and reverberation. As well as the grand piano, I own a Kurzweil K1000 sampling keyboard. I like this a lot because I don't have to programme the sounds myself - I just push buttons, which is what I've always done with synthesizers and things. It takes too much time for me to learn about sound assembly on synthesizers and complex electronic paths to artificial sounds. I just use things that are simple, and bring in other musicians to add parts. Because there's plenty of room at the studio, musicians can stay and get really involved in a recording if they like."
Does he have any interest in computer music - like that of Hubert Bognermayer, the Austrian musician who founded the computer/acoustic label Erdenklang some years back?
"I'm staying away from that for several reasons. I wouldn't have time to get into the language, it's much too complicated. I don't want to waste time dabbling with computers when I can be quite happy playing the piano. Also, when I'm giving concerts, it's much simpler for me to use the piano. I really don't like Bognermayer's music, even though it's a nice idea and heavily influenced by the composer Bruckner."
Have you reached the stage where you can score your music on paper as you compose?
"My music is very keyboard orientated. I just put it down on tape as the ideas come to me. Then I look for a way to arrange it and also to adapt it for guitars and saxophones. I do quite a lot of mixing on the desk before I feel it's anywhere near composed. That's how I do it. So the answer is no, I don't write it down on paper."
While the 'B' side of Momenti Felici showed Roedelius at a melancholic peak of frosty composition (somewhat akin to the Nordic jazz of Jan Garbarek), his most recent recording Fortress Of Love (Venture 1989) was rock 'n' roll by comparison. Featuring nine other musicians, electric guitars, electric basses, horns and loud synthesizers, the album was a breakthrough in that Roedelius began to use his voice on three tracks. Yet the latter was more of an experiment in recitation, and the LP's strongest aspects were robust ambient tracks that spread over the soundfield like morning mist. Among such jaunty numbers as Happy Birthday, Ciao Maurice, and Lokomotion were beautiful constructions like An Finer Quelle (a sort of homage to the work of fellow German Florian Fricke and his group Popol Vuh) and Harmonia. In fact the latter two tracks, plus Happy Birthday, were recorded during 1985 in London for inclusion on an Eno-organised LP that never happened. Roedelius explains this change of mood.
"I felt like a change, you know. The writing of words has been developing like poetry or recitation to music, since now I'm a bit tired of just instrumental music. I met Edgar Froese [of Tangerine Dream] recently at his studio in Vienna and I felt his new music was too cold, without life, without craft. Music should always live and be loved for itself, not for just the machines or the money that can be earned from it."
Roedelius's music has always had a 'classical' flavour. Does he see himself moving more in that direction, even getting involved in orchestral music?
"We all depend so much on that period of music, because what was expressed was in many ways so wonderful. Sometimes I think Brian Eno is always thinking and talking about music and therefore losing a bit of its reality. Maybe I'm misunderstanding him, because for me the approach of music from the intellect is not enough. I'm an emotional and instinctive musician. I don't require a lot of equipment because I've got no fascination with technique. I wait for the right time to create, which is usually at night, and set to work on the Bosendorfer or the Kurzweil; later, when I've got something going, I add little parts with an acoustic guitar or a zither. Simplicity is the key for me. I've got a work exposition in Vienna coming up and for that I'll perform, with the help of other musicians, excerpts from my records on just acoustic instruments. That seems the best approach to me, now."
Interview by Mark Prendergast
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: