Klaus Schulze on Composing
Rated as the world's top solo synth performer, Klaus explains how he composes on stage and in the studio
Tapes, digital memory and floppy disks are the manuscripts for this successful German performer.
"I have two studios - one is for my record company (IC Records) and is a normal recording studio, and my own studio is a purely electronic studio without mics and so on; it is digital and has all my instruments set up more or less as I play them on stage. By digital I mean I have the Sony 1600 PCM digital recorder for mastering. To start my composing, I just sit at the instruments and first play around them until I find some nice basic tracks to work on top of. Or I may have to get a specific piece for a sound track, or an idea I would like to express. Generally, I start improvising for several hours and tape it all. I then take out the best parts and put them into a composition that lasts about twenty minutes or so.
In fact, that's a very traditional way, but instead of writing down the music, I use the recorder to find the right ideas for the piece in mind.
It's interesting that you can write in this way, because your music always flows along.
But the thing is, when you're in a certain mood they will fit, somehow. If not, I'll build a bridge passage in between or add a suitable intro to a new sequence. That's what we do in performance too - we have certain blocks which we can call upon. Composing is very hard work in fact, because out of many hours may only come one minute of music. But this one minute is so inspiring that it may trigger another twenty minutes of music as I work with it.
I think it's always a reaction between the tape improvisations, what you did before, and what you think now. That creates the new idea which finally gets on tape and eventually makes the LP. It is also important to come back to the music because my opinion of an extract can be the complete opposite the next day. This distance between hearings is necessary.
Your structuring of a piece is almost classical in concept. Has your background brought this about?
You see, in Germany most people grow up with a background of classical music, including myself. I also experimented with composition quite early on and was influenced by a lot of classical music. I don't like short pieces because just when you are in to the music it stops. I like to be carried away by it instead of just jumping from one mood to another. American jazz rock is like that and can have new ideas from one bar to the next - but that's like American TV where they can't stand one minute of silence!
The subtlety of your music is that progressive development which you have to listen very carefully for, and each time you may hear a different process taking place.
Yes, your own mind situation may make you hear the music in a new way the next time you hear it. I also leave a lot of the music without a strong melody, so the listener subconsciously adds his own melodies — I think that is very important. So by listening, you are creatively using your own fantasies.
Your own lifestyle must affect the way you compose. Are you totally immersed in your music these days?
No, no - that's a difficulty really, for I also run the record company (but do delegate a lot of the work apart from the producing side). Still, for five or six hours a day I just play and experiment to find new things. Studying computer programming is something that I'll never stop having to do as well.
Your main concern here is presumably the Crumar General Development System (GDS) with VDU alphanumeric keyboard terminal, plus dual 8" floppy disk drives and special keyboard using 32 digital oscillators?
Yes, but I've had it modified by an American guy to have a straight 'musician-friendly' language. So if I want a flute I can just type it in from 'menus', very much like the Fairlight. I prefer it because it has less noise and, of course, it uses a 16-bit micro unlike the Fairlight's 8-bit systems. From a sound point of view, it's crystal clear, and I like it on stage because i just have the recording and voice files to refer to whilst still being able to change tempo, pitch, add new links and so on in real-time. I can, therefore, prepare and continually modify a full background for my performance so that I can really lay back on it and start to be, let's say, very emotional in front.
Actually, the GDS isn't the ideal system for stage use. If you want to change a voice, for example, the concert will probably be over by the time you've got it! The GDS was really made for studio work where there would be time for setting up.
Did you consider using the Synergy, which was an extension of the Crumar GDS?
I remember when I bought the GDS, they were saying about bringing out the Synergy. I thought they would have it disk-compatible which would be great because it would let me use sounds I'd created on the GDS with the more portable (and performance orientated) Synergy on stage. But it turned out to be cartridge-based and, although Crumar will take your disk voice files and put them on this, I was disappointed there was no direct link through disk storage.
So I now spend a lot of time programming the GDS as part of my composing work. Still, that's the basic thing for us now - you have to synthesise a piano before you can play it. People often think that computers replace the musician, but of course you still have to put the ideas into the computer before it can play - that's where the musician's skill lies. It's quite a chore at times too! A large part of my time is spent deciding which voice to use for a particular line - whether one from my GDS 'menu' or other synthesiser preset voices, or whether it should be something totally new for me. You know, it takes much longer to find the voice than the melody!
Do you relate more to orchestral instruments or not?
Sometimes, it depends on the background, which might be strings and soon. I'm going more and more to things that sound a bit like an orchestra without ever actually becoming traditional sounds - if you want those, then why bother with a synthesiser? I think synthesisers are not made to copy existing instruments. What makes computers so interesting for me is that it can take you beyond your own thinking - it can generate music that you would not even conceive in your fantasies! You have to be careful that it does not get too far away from your original ideas too, but on the whole it can make your music much more alive by making changes in performance from one bar to the next - unlike the early electronic music using sequencers that repeated the same 8-note phrase over and over.
Do you go out and listen to other people's music, say, to jazz?
No, I don't particularly like jazz. Anyway, I live in the countryside and would have to drive 150 kilometres to the nearest venue. So I don't normally listen to others playing live. To be true, I'm not really interested - if I want to hear something, I'll get a record instead. But occasionally, I'll pick up on a sound that interests me and the only way will be to go and hear the performance.
There is also the danger that if you've been making music for a long time, you'll keep coming back to the same chords, the same progressions and wonder whether you need a new source of inspiration.
Yes, but I think that I definitely don't get it from other people - the inspiration has to come somewhere from myself, in my own situation. If I try and adapt someone else's ideas it nearly always sounds unlike my own music in the end. My music also needs a lot of sensitivity and I'm simply too proud to take my ideas from somebody else!
I notice that for your performance you have a music chart that consists of numbers and various instructions.
With two people - that's myself and Rainer Bloss - you have to have something to keep track of the changes in harmony and so on.
Let's go back to the point where you have sounds on tape, you're in your environment and you're now beginning to relate specific sounds to passages. Do you turn to your newest instruments or find older ones still play their part?
I still like the EMS Synthi - it was my first synthesiser and gives me some special sounds, although I would never use it for harmonic scales but for bridges. I know it so well that I find I can get a lot from it.
Do you regard some as solo and some as harmony instruments?
Exactly. I have the ARP Odyssey for very 'fragile' sounds. I have pedals to control modulation - I manipulate two of these with my knees as I sit cross-legged on stage. My instruments are all on a raised platform so that I sit on this level with them. My movements as I play are part of my controlling the pedals and they do give me filter modulation whilst having both hands free to play. The pedals I use are normal ones, except that my engineer has fixed car tyre rubber strips on to them so that they always return to the off position. One pedal is for the ARP to control filter and pulse width modulation, and the other is controlling the Moog filter.
Underneath these instruments I have an Eventide Harmonizer (to improve strings, etc.) and below this the Publison Harmoniser. I use the Publison on stage for delay mainly, and for occasional up and down harmonies or backward sounds. I use one of the two Minimoogs for bass lines, and the other for solo melodies (with oscillators tuned in parallel fifths). Underneath these is the PPG Wave 2 computer synth.
I really like the Wave because it's very flexible with its partial waves - you can do so many changes. Its sound is very characteristic and you'd never get, say, the sound of a Yamaha CS80 with it. The CS80 is another amazing instrument I use because it can be equally good for solos or harmonies - it must be one of the greatest stage instruments and I can't understand why they ever stopped building it.
Above the CS80 is the GDS keyboard linked to its VDU terminal, and behind me I have a Yamaha 32-channel mixer. Most of the channels are used because things like the Simmons drums controlled by the computer need six tracks, the Moog needs four and Rainer uses a lot for his Yamaha electric grand, Emulator, Jupiter 4, Minimoog and Korg Vocoder.
The instrument racks behind me start with one complete rack on the left for the drum computer. At the top I have indicator lights for the programs, in 8 rows to show each drum line. This is very useful as it always shows me a particular drum sequence I have done - I can see that I've put bass drum on beats 1 and 4 and so on.
The other reason for having this kind of display is that during my performance I use a small remote control keypad for entering new sequences. I have this with me where I am sitting and it lets me enter, for example, 'Program 1' and shows data address, length and program number. I can then enter 5 times sequence 4 followed by 3 times sequence 2, then back to sequence 4 20 times and stop. You don't even have to watch when they change because it all follows automatically on the first beat of the bar. So I can enter new data when I want and it will always play after the last entered data. If I press the 'C' key on the pad, I get a visual readout of the countdown to a sequence change. That helps me lead up to the change nicely.
By the way, this stuff is all custom made - the people who built it say they won't do it again because it's all analogue control using digital memory. So a lot of conversion with DACs and ADCs was needed. (DAC = Digital to Analogue converter. ADC = Analogue to Digital converter). The system was built by the same guys who did a rhythm machine for Tangerine Dream.
What is interesting is that people I spoke to at your U.K. performance last year actually thought that you were hardly playing and were using the computer to play complete sections of the music.
(Laughs) Then I'd need to fill the hall with memory chips!
Coming back to the visual control system on the rack, this does not just control the Simmons drums but also can be used for the melodic lines. Another twelve rows give voltage control of oscillators or whatever I want and these can also be changed in realtime. The keypad also allows me to override a current program and then 'extra-ride' it to another memory location for future use. This is how I hold sequence routines for complete pieces.
So the GDS VDU display does not change during the performance?
That's right, it just indicates the current menu for voices and sequences etc. I also remove the floppy disks once I've booted the information in case a mains transient or some other power disturbance destroys its data.
The centre rack section houses Moog modules, but I've inserted PPG filters inside. It's also got two sequencers, 3 oscillators, random generator, noise generator, and envelopes. I use one sequencer to sequence others which only need be short as the controlling sequencers can make the necessary harmonic changes.
That's the reason I have my sheet with numbers on, so that on bar 950 the harmony goes to Eb or whatever. It just makes our performance so much more individual and we have to be aware of everything that is happening to make our playing fit the changes musically. It would be very bad to have to do the same concert many times with exactly the same programmes each time - I can always edit bars as we play to create the excitement, the emotion in the music as if it were completely played live.
I always perform in stereo and I don't like to play at high volume levels. The whole quality of good filters is destroyed by distorting the system or the ears. The peaks have to be there of course because there's no white without black. So I like to have dynamic changes as long as they are not too abrupt. I must admit I love using the CS80 pressure sensitivity for letting myself go on stage!
Can you tell me about your involvement with other musicians in your concerts?
The very first time I used another musician was with Arthur Brown for vocals and then I had Manuel in the old days from Ashra Tempel on guitar. But somehow the guitar was too limiting for me. And the development of pieces is much quicker for me now. I met Rainer by chance and we found that our ideas about music were similar. He's classically trained and takes to synthesisers as if they were just pianos. When he's playing it gives me the opportunity to program something on the Wave or CS80, and the freedom to lean back a bit and start again at the right point. We agree on a basic plan for each piece, but if one of Rainer's solos were going well, I would never interfere with it but let him extend it as he wanted. When I'm doing a solo, it gives Rainer time to reload the Emulator from disk.
Rainer's Jupiter 4 arpeggios and Minimoog triggered bass are controlled from a Boss Dr Rhythm that's sync'ed to my main system to keep all the pulses in time. Of course, it's important not to overdo these things, and the Korg Vocoder was only used for a few special effects too.
We use the Emulator to give a 'closing door' between changing harmonies. There's 'breaking glass' for the end of a piece, and other sound effects like car driving, whistling people, hand-clapping, fire-crackers exploding. They actually fit into the composition as if they are part of the sound orchestra from the conductor. The only musical sample was a flute.
Does Rainer prepare basic pieces with you?
No, I do this on my own and then bring in Rainer to contribute further ideas.
To start the music I use my remote control box. All the sequences I am to use have been prepared at home in the studio. These are held on floppy disk or in the memory banks of the various equipment. (They've got battery back-up). Things can go wrong and sometimes I've found that a sequence will just stop for no apparent reason.
Having programmed a piece ready to start, I will often first play alone on the instruments until I reach a point to start the sequences and drums. Another method I use is to start everything running and fade them in gently after I've played something (keeping an eye on the number of bars that are passing so I know the harmonies and rhythms I'll get). Since parts are on different channels of the mixer, I can fade drums and melodic lines individually — this is interesting when, for example, I don't bring in the bass drum until last, to hold back the feeling of the main beat.
By using the remote control I can locate a channel and start it in the next bar, and this saves me moving around unnecessarily.
Do you play several instruments at once?
Yes, although it's more likely that I'll be using both hands to play one instrument's keyboard and performance controls.
As your performance continues, I hear you playing short melodic ideas, ones that don't really develop in the true classical sense.
Yes, but I like to give just a rough idea and then leave it. We both have to concentrate hard on the harmonies generated by the sequences in the computer. It's harder for Rainer at the moment and I'm having a large display built so he can see the countdown of the sequence changes. That's much easier than counting bars all the time because a quick glance tells you there's so many bars to go. The U.K. concert we did was the first time we've played together and I think we shall be doing a lot more now.
Do you play complete pieces without using sequencers?
Yes I do. I have a piece based on the classical 'Moldau' work we sometimes play as an encore.
I like whatever piece I am doing to have its highlights and I like the bass to be felt as well as heard. The music builds up slowly so you can have a chance to hear what is taking place - otherwise it's not a Klaus Schulze concert, it's a concert on the run!
The other point about using the computers is that although the sequences are always ready to be called up, there's always this element of 'back-and-forward' manipulation to make the piece right. And many people don't really listen - they haven't been taught the process of listening. This was a problem with students who attended my synthesiser school I used to do. Still, I am probably demanding a high sustained level of listening from my audiences, who are used to much shorter 'chorus & verse' numbers.
We also take a lot of trouble to improve sounds - for example, the strings. This came from the Jupiter 4 treated by two Harmonizers. These detune the pitch and add delays to thicken the sound - just like adding more string players to an ensemble.
Do pieces have a set length?
It depends. We sometimes say a piece should last 20 minutes. Then we'll use a bridge to go straight into another piece. A bridge can turn out so interesting that we'll develop that without going further. I am not too concerned about making a virtuoso performance myself as my technique would not allow that - it's about 40% as good as Rainer's! Nevertheless, my technique is improving with the demand of my musical ideas. I don't play piano at all, having always stayed with organ and synthesiser which never require as much physical control in the fingers.
In some ways I regard the musical partnership of Rainer and myself like a marriage. It's not like a band, because we have to complement each other. I've also stopped playing to huge audiences as I used to do on the continent because the tapes of them afterwards always seem to lose the atmosphere of the music as I wanted it to be. I enjoyed The Venue in London as it was totally informal with people seated right up to front of the stage.
People sometimes think that I don't bother about the audience because a lot of the time I have my eyes shut! But I always know how they are reacting.
Looking ahead, I want to continue performing. The record side never offers me the same thing and I never play what I do on record on stage. I could never play 'Mirage' in front of an audience. There is a thrill about playing live - somehow it's like the way sexual attraction works, with you never knowing what will happen, how the audience will react and so on. From my point of view, the audience applause is like a petrol station filling me up until the next concert!
One thing I always now do is to store a back-up copy of my floppy disks in the bank, since I lost some important ones recently. It is very difficult for me to get software disks from Crumar if something gets damaged and I would advise any musician using micros to keep back-up copies.
My family are not musical - my mother was a ballet dancer and my father was a writer and I took on the music against the will of my parents. But the struggle to succeed is always necessary for a musician - if things go easily you'll never have that dedication of a true musician. At the start, I had a small van and did everything on my own - you have to go through that - it's part of the musician's education. We do have tremendous opportunities now to make music - if Bach was here, I'm sure he would freak out with sequencers and be one of the new electromusicians! There again, I'm sure he would never try to make out of a violin a guitar sound - that is not the way to use a synthesiser creatively.
The last ten years have been important to me and people are now acknowledging my music. I've done a computer album for IBM just to show that the computer is not 'bad' - a lot of people are still afraid of them, you know. Your kind of magazine should be in every school - in Germany it's already started with synthesisers in the music room. I think we are standing in front of a really musical universe now on a scale we've never had before and the new techniques available offer musicians a power to control a complete symphony with two hands."
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