Article from Sound On Sound, August 1987
The legendary German synthesist speaks out about technology and technique in this exclusive interview - his first in four years!
He's idolised in Europe, and has been a major influence on many of today's electronic musicians. In his first interview in several years, this synth pioneer shares his observations based on over two decades of experience.
"Computers are excellent and variable tools; a chip for me is not something sacred but a commodity. The fear of computers disappears if one works at it and works with affection."
KS: I always try to use the newest technology. This isn't always easy. I often had to explain to journalists why there was, and still is, a fear of computers and unknown instruments. One of my jobs during the '70s was to get rid of people's prejudice, especially when the majority of those people knew nothing about a synthesizer, sequencer, or computer... of course, my way of producing music changed with the technology, but not my musical ideas.
SOS: Your most recent album Dreams was a real departure from the two previous albums; you seem to be returning to a more classical feeling. How did you go about creating this album?
KS: I recorded the album with a complete set of new instruments. I used a lot of rack-mount synths - Roland MKS-80/MPG-80, Super Jupiter, Roland MKS-30, Planet S synthesizer, Korg DW8000, and Akai S612/MD280 sampler - going through a Korg DVP-1 digital voice processor and also Publison's Infernal Machine 90, and a Korg SQD-1 MIDI recorder. The only instruments on the album that I had used previously were the Fairlight and the Oberheim DMX drum machine. It was fun to try out something new. Hard core fans really want to hear the old instruments, but I enjoy each new instrument that I get.
SOS: How do you use the Fairlight and your MIDI set-up in performance?
KS: Using computers in live performance gives me a lot of freedom. I can programme the background material and blend it in with any one of the 32 channels on my mixing console, so I have a background that can change with every situation. During the performance it is not always possible to change tonalities on the computerised instruments. That is also why I still use analogue synths like the Minimoog on stage. Computers are excellent and variable tools; a chip for me is not something sacred but a commodity. The fear of computers disappears if one works at it and works with affection.
SOS: On Meditation and your new album Dreams, you combined traditional acoustic instruments with synths and computers. Will you be doing more with acoustic instruments?
KS: Actually, I have used acoustic instruments on earlier albums - saxophones, a voice, a cello, or a small orchestra. I do not compose the sections for these instruments; I use them on the recordings as long as they fit my music, according to my tastes.
SOS: How do you compose your songs? Tell us how you develop an idea.
KS: I do not write a composition. It's in my head and during work it all comes together. Sometimes it happens in a night, and other times it takes a few weeks, even months. In the early days I mostly improvised. Little by little I learned to form my music. I do not write on pieces of paper; I play it on tape, and play it in my head. Because I play music most of the time, I have many tapes full of musical ideas.
SOS: Did you compose the music for the film Angst in this way?
KS: Yes. The film people cut their film to the finished music. Normally, it's vice versa.
SOS: A lot of people consider your compositions to be 'classical'. You have even received an award in Paris for this. Do you consider yourself a classical composer?
KS: The Beatles are classical too. My part in the contemporary music scene is ambiguous. My records are sold on the pop market; they have to compete with Santana and The Scorpions on the record shelves. But if one listens to them, they are definitely not pop music. Neither are they classical music in the sense of a Mozart or Beethoven, or a Henze or Penderecki. Actually, this labelling is not my problem, but I have to deal with it. These days marketing people have found a new label for this type of music - 'New Age' music - but I haven't met any musician who is happy with that label.
SOS: Do you find that listeners are more sophisticated about electronic music today than they were ten years ago and, if so, what does that mean for you as a composer?
KS: Oh yes, certainly yes. But only those who always had an interest in this kind of music. Of course, musicians today know a lot more about electronic instruments than when I started. Today, it is very easy and affordable to go into a store and buy a synthesizer, some effects, and a cheap 4- or 8-track machine and make a good recording. For me, all this means that I have to be better, more sophisticated. Some people today can immediately recognise if I use an old instrument on a new album. Fans are strange sometimes. On the one hand they demand 'new music', and on the other they prefer the 'old Schulze'.
SOS: In the 18th and 19th centuries, composers spent a lot of their time working with notes, but today we have to create the sounds as well. How much time do you spend developing sounds as opposed to getting the notes down the way you want them?
KS: In the days when composers had no tape recorders or MIDI sequencers, the distribution of music was quite different. To get your music played you had to physically write down music and get it printed. Today, we put a sound on a tape or disk and there it is, ready for manufacture. I have been composing electronic music now for 17 years, I know exactly what sound fits here or there, and how to create it.
SOS: Are there any specific considerations when you are composing a part for a certain instrument?
KS: I generally do not compose a part for a specific instrument. I have a sound idea, or a theme or melody in my head, and I play it. I have my own style and this limits me a bit, if limit is the right word, because I'm happy with it. My fans would be disappointed if I suddenly would do, for example, a blues or a 'normal' piece of music with a song structure, a piece of pop music.
SOS: Did learning on modular synthesizers have a lasting impact on your work?
KS: Oh, sure. That is my greatest advantage. With modular instruments one had to learn the logic of a tone, of a sound, how it's built and what it means. It's a lot easier for a newcomer today, but how will that person know what goes into the sound the keyboard is making? These old modular analogue synths are very important.
SOS: When a new instrument comes out, how do you go about investigating it? What do you look for in deciding whether or not to use it?
KS: There are always people trying to convince me to try or buy a new instrument. Sometimes I try it, and sometimes I buy it. The main feature I look for is the ability to produce my own sounds. I have no interest in preset instruments.
SOS: What projects are you currently working on?
KS: Normally, I try not to plan things very far ahead. My next project is to do a 40-minute piece for an American ballet company from New York, the Elisa Monte Dance Company. They already use a piece from Audentity called 'Spielglocken', and they asked me to compose a special piece for them. I met them in Amsterdam and we liked each other. I did like and I still like to play alone, but I am free to work with others as I have done in the past, and will continue to do.
SOS: What about the future?
KS: In my career I've seen musical waves come and go. A musical fashion is short, and I'm lucky that I have never made fashionable music. I will just go on.
© 1987 Electronic Musician magazine (2608 Ninth Street, Berkeley, CA 95470) and used with the kind permission of the Publishers.
Interview by Ben Kettlewell
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