European Son | Klaus Schulze
Always a hero to fans of European instrumental synth music, Klaus Schulze has of late found favour with more mainstream popular critics. As he releases his last albums for a rock label prior to returning to his classical roots, Mark J. Prendergast looks back over Schulze's career, and talks to Schulze himself about his past, present, and future.
Times change. Back in 1980 the NME published a survey of electronic music. Eno and Kraftwerk were in but Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream were out. Their very words were "no-one need own more than one Tangerine Dream album, no-one need own any Klaus Schulze album!" Over a decade later Vox magazine, from the same stable as NME, places Klaus Schulze in the top ten of ambient house's greatest seminal influences, alongside Tangerine Dream, Manuel Goettsching, and Kraftwerk. Intastella, The Orb and The Grid are among some of the more recent bands to consider Schulze's wafting keyboard and synthesizer drones over ultra-precise sequencer rhythms as pivotal to their careers.
The beautiful arctic vibing Mirage (1977) was the album that made the recent Vox poll. Its track titles, like 'Destinationvoid', trigger an instant identification with the current techno-fixated generation. The title refers to a sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, whose Dune provided the title of another Schulze album. Schulze's interest in Frank Herbert, William Gibson and other sci-fi writers is evident in his ever-evolving electronic music, a music which has refused to remain stuck in a time capsule but rather has changed with technology.
Even major rave writer Lucy O'Brien contends that Schulze's "spacey, sharp atmospheres and clean Germanic edge has been echoed in generations of electronic musicians." Her recent major article in City Limits magazine placed Schulze's Timewind up there with Eno and Terry Riley albums in the Top Consumer Ten of ambient must-buys. Just praise for a career that has spanned four decades, over 60 albums (including collaborations), over 40 film and TV soundtracks.
It was his early association with guitarist Manuel Goettsching and Ash Ra Tempel that led to his producing and releasing the 1984 Goettsching classic E2-E4, the house generation's most sampled, danced to, and raved over German electronic album. Pick up any raw ambient house sampler and you'll get a dose of the liquid cymbals and splashy sequences that the duo cooked up in the studio. It's no secret that this and Schulze's own albums have been sample staples for the last two years. But the difference is that now established figures like The Orb are acknowledging their sources, and they usually include Eno, Pink Floyd, and Schulze.
The release of the pioneering discs Royal Festival Hall 1 & 2 and the forthcoming third part of the trilogy The Dome Event, where studio work is brought to the live arena and later reconstructed in the studio, shows a musician still exploring uncharted terrain.
Klaus Schulze was born in Berlin 45 years ago. Taking up the guitar when he was 5, by 15 he had given it up, fed up with playing Bach for stony-faced teachers, and tried his hand at percussion and drums. Inspired by the psychedelic rock of Jimi Hendrix and The Soft Machine, Klaus formed Psy Free in 1967. Impressed by his drumming, Edgar Froese invited him to join a new group called Tangerine Dream.
A German tour with Froese and third Dreamer Conrad Schnitzler, though successful, brought out a certain amount of friction between Schulze and Froese, and the former left the group before the 1970 release of Electronic Meditation, which today he describes as "the primary electronic album".
"We were doing a lot of random stuff from self-made equipment, bits of glass and metal being stirred by a mic and fed through an echo machine as I played metal objects and drums. The percussive style in my keyboard playing now comes directly from my early experience with drums, especially in Tangerine Dream."
Though he recorded only one album with Tangerine Dream, and in 1973 replaced Peter Baumann for a French tour, most people still associate him with what became Berlin's most successful electronic group.
The early 1970s was a hothouse of activity in Berlin among the musical avant-garde. Schulze began working with the aforementioned Manual Goettsching in Ash Ra Tempel — he loved playing in groups, and formed, again with Goettsching, The Cosmic Jokers, a loose outfit in which he indulged his growing fascination with electronics.
"After experimenting with all these dance bands and rock bands I felt that there must be something more. I felt I could do it so much better. I saw the keyboard as a way out." Inspired by such recordings as Pink Floyd's Saucerful Of Secrets, Schulze pursued his solo keyboard experiments. "I then heard LaMonte Young, Wendy Carlos, Terry Riley's 'In C', Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, and I felt I wasn't on my own as I recorded solo."
Using a cheap Teisco organ, guitars, tapes with Dynacord echo, a 4-track Telefunken recorder alongside a cheap Telefunken 3-channel Echomixer, Schulze crafted the strange Irrlicht (literally: eerie light) in 1972. Cool and strangely ahead of Brian Eno's similar Discreet Music of three years later, this was quiet music of the minimalist droning variety.
Cyborg in 1973 and Blackdance saw his sound develop further as his arsenal of technology grew, his Berlin studio becoming home to EMS and ARP synths, Farfisa organs and much more. It was Timewind (1974), however, that was a real landmark. Commercial success apart, it won the French Grand Prix du Disque for the year's best 'classical' recording, and Schulze stood next to the king of French avant-garde music, Pierre Boulez, as he received his commendation in the Congress Centre Paris. The Klaus Schulze sound had arrived.
"Only four times was this award granted to non-classical musicians by the academy for, as they described it, 'musique tendence actualite'. Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, myself, and Patti Smith. Timewind was so surprising because for me it was such simple stuff. It was a real live recording, with no overdubs, on the 2-track. The sequencers were pretty self-built, and it was too expensive at this stage to get a big Moog from America. All the same I still love Timewind, particularly 'Wahnfried', which is real floating music."
Released in April 1977, the Island album Mirage finally broke Schulze in the UK. This was, and still is, an astonishing album. The aural sci-fi landscape of wintry forbidding lands, titles like 'Lucidinterspace' and 'Destinationvoid' were obvious Frank Herbert references, and the sleeve essay also seemed to echo the nihilistic feelings of contemporary US sci-fi. Whatever the sentiment, it was certainly a powerful and unique statement, a tapestry of electronic hues, painted on to the imagination of the listener by a true genius of the medium.
A massive European tour — a regular feature of Schulze's work throughout the '70s and early '80s — saw Schulze take to the road with a vast battery of keyboards and custom PA. Surrounded by all this gear, dressed in mystical white with long flowing blond hair, Schulze became the European synth star of the times — and both Kraftwerk and David Bowie were mirroring his cool rhythmic creativity with similar creations of their own.
For X (1978), his tenth solo album, Schulze planned an elaborate symphonic testament, consisting of six musical biographies — subjects included Nietszche, Austrian poet Georg Traki, and of course Frank Herbert. A drummer, a cellist, violinist and a small orchestra were featured against Schulze's own electronic tapestries to create his most serious music to date. Many, including American new music expert John Schaefer, consider it the finest album of electronic music ever made.
After more touring came Schulze's 1979 dedication to Frank Herbert, Dune, around which time Schulze began a major move towards digital technology.
"The analogue equipment was always breaking down, always had to be fixed. All the changes to sounds were being done by hand — the big Moog on stage, with all its attacks, delays and envelope changes. I was tired of spending so long building up sounds; I wanted to go faster, so I switched to digital." In came a big GDS computer synth, to be used alongside his upgraded PPG synths and sequencer, a new 36-channel AMEK 3000 console, and Sony PCM1610 2-track digital mastering. The album Dig It, released near the end of 1980 celebrated this change.
1981's Trancefer, the result of more time spent experimenting with the re-vamped studio, was an excellent blueprint for the future, though further technical improvements — the acquisition of a Fairlight CMI, for example — did nothing to help Audentity, a lacklustre double affair released at the start of '83.
In 1986 Schulze installed fully digital 24-track recording recording equipment, and by this time was getting heavily into MIDI and sampling. Rack mounted synths from Korg were added, plus Akai samplers. A Korg DVP-1 digital voice processor, and a Publison Infernal Machine 90 (a powerful sampler/digital effects system). This all featured, along with the Fairlight, on Dreams, its hi-tech sound and contrasting moods blueprinting the current Schulze sound.
Schulze rounded off the '80s with the electronic tour de force of EN=TRANCE (1988), a definitive return to form, and Miditerranean Pads (1989), whose premier cut 'Decent Changes' combined hypnotic repeating rhythms with extravagant sampled sounds. Schulze was rapidly developing a very sophisticated way of integrating sampled sounds with sequences and live playing.
Though the marathon tours were by now a thing of the past, Schulze's live work was developing in a new direction. The open air 'Dresden Performance' in August 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was released at the end of 1990 as a double 'Studiolive' set, including three new studio tracks. 'Studiolive' was Schulze's term for his technique of augmenting the live recording, excluding audience noise by recording direct to digital via the desk, with studio material.
Schulze's interest in the 1990s was recording. Except for the odd special performance in a cathedral or concert hall Schulze spent most of his time experimenting in his incredible home studio. He spent six months working on Beyond Recall, his first studio album for Virgin's Venture label, and a showcase for the Akai S1000, the keyboard version of which is now Schulze's main tool. "Two people specifically provide sampled sounds. One does all the editing for the Roland stuff and sampling for the Casio stuff [Schulze has several of Hohner's Casio sampler clones]. The other, who owns the Uberschall sampling company, is the main guy who does all the samples for the S1000s. He's very interested in strange flute, violin and chorus sounds, natural sounds of water and thunder, and just about anything strange."
Augmented by what appears to be the entire Roland, Korg and Yamaha range of keyboards, plus old favourites such as the Publison, AKG and EMT reverbs, it was a formidable state-of-the-art achievement. Listening to the impressive guitar on 'Gringo Nero', few would guess it's a mix of a Korg preset and live playing on the S1000KB based on a sample of Schulze playing a Martin 12-string.
Near the end of 1991, Schulze performed two ebulliently received concerts at Cologne cathedral and London's Royal Festival Hall. Both were later treated to radical studio mixing and editing, with additional tracks added for three special Virgin Studiolive CDs. Royal Festival Hall 1 and 2 are out now, and The Dome Event is due for February '93 release. They are Schulze's final albums for a rock music label: in a major career move, Schulze has already embarked on symphonic and operatic works, returning to the classical training of his youth.
(Quotes from a conversation with the author after the RFH concert on 10th September 1991.)
About 30km from Hanover is a remote village called Oldau. There Klaus Schulze lives with his family and dogs in a large house situated in a forest by a river. His glass walled Moldau studio (cleverly punned to simultaneously celebrate both Smetana and the Bohemian river of the same name) is 200 metres square. From there on a direct line to London, the ever optimistic Schulze settles down one Saturday afternoon for a good humoured and enlightening question and answer session.
Q: Were you influenced by Stockhausen?
"Yes, of course. His theories were and are brilliant, but I must confess the music itself is beyond me."
Q: Tell us about the new CDs and their recording.
"The main recordings came directly from my desk on to DATs, with no audience noise. I edited these live pieces into two 45 minute sections. 'Silence & Sequence' and 'Variation on BF' were new studio recordings. My main instruments are six Akai S1000s — two keyboards, four rackmounted with 32MB storage each. I've ordered the new Tascam DA88 8-track digital recorder to replace the DAT system I use.
"Recently in Spain I recorded a concert with one DAT straight from the desk and another one using ambient mics. The latter was full of digital distortion, and moreover when I tried to mix them later they were out of phase. The Tascam would eliminate this, since I could use two tracks for a desk recording, two tracks for ambient sounds, and two further tracks with a mix of both. Later I could decide in the studio which sounded the best. I'm really looking forward to it."
Q: Why are you quitting a prolific electronic recording career for the classical music scene?
"You are the first person in the world to really know why. I hate what's going on in electronic music here. Everybody here is bringing out home recorded albums of two chords, and it's just killing the imagination of the electronic album. It's got nothing to do with house, but it's a separate movement which imitates the early records of Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra and myself. Electronic music for me is creating your own sounds and not relying on presets and cheap samplers to imitate others. Recently Edgar Froese changed Tangerine Dream's music to a guitar-based sound to create something fresh. The critics were very harsh on him, but I told him it was good to move forward rather than stick to a formula sound."
Q: You criticised a certain strand of current electronic music, but what's your opinion of house?
"What I'm talking about is electronic music in general. House started with very rough stuff like we did in the early 70s. Now they've gone to the point of sophistication with samplers, like The Orb, where music is stretched and reversed and stuff. I know they use my music, but they are tied to limited forms, and hence it's not real electronic music. It's the generational thing. We used pulse waves, they use records. I switch on a synth and play music, they switch on a sampler and use my music to create more music."
Q: How is your new classical music going to sound?
"Well, first the pieces are commissions. The opera is about George Traki, a famous Austrian poet who I've read for 20 years. The music is finished and awaits the singing. It's for the 1994 Salzburg Festspiele, a real classical festival made famous by Von Karajan. The symphony I'm writing at this very moment. I'm still using electronics. My old modular analogue systems have been MIDI'd, which means I can play them via computer. So in a way I'm still using old synthesis."
Q: Why go back to the old stuff when there's so much new gear around?
"Originally I created every sound from scratch. All the sine waves and paths on the MiniMoog or ARP Odyssey were set up by hand. Nowadays it's all frozen waveforms given by the factory. Maybe you can overlay three sounds into one sound or whatever, but the basic waveforms are inflexible. The SY77 is the same. Even the JD800 is limited considering that it has analogue filter, envelope and resonance controls that you can change. We have to get away from all this. From my point of view it's getting to the level of saying no digital, no MIDI, just let's get back to real analogue."
Q: What equipment is at the heart of your studio?
"The desk is a Soundcraft 92-channel, with two power supplies because of its size. I use Arsonic Sigma noise reduction and gain control to avoid digital distortion, very important. EMT reverbs. Effects are varied: Dynacord DRP20, a very cheap but good Boss analogue delay, an Eventide Harmonizer, BGW amplification with RTV correlation and peak limiter. I record on a Tascam DAT at home and in concert. There's no analogue recording. I use an Atari Mega ST4, upgraded to 26MB of RAM, with a 105MB hard disk. I need that for my 60 minute pieces. Now the opera is about 104 minutes, and I need a lot of working capacity because I cannot break off at a point to access the hard disk. Everything has to be immediately accessible."
Q: Tell us more about your use of computers.
"Well, I'd love to go over to PCs, where I'd be working with a 50MHz or 60MHz clocks, much faster than my Atari, but the problem is that my music software won't run on the PC. I use C-Lab Notator on the ST and Steinberg Cubase [a Windows version has just been released — see review in this issue] on the Mac. These are slow, but because I'm very familiar with them I'd have to start all over again to learn the new Logic [Mac-based successor to Notator] and Windows equivalents, which are faster. For me the computer is a big tape machine. I can notate 92 tracks, which is three digital recorders' worth."
Q: You talked before about optical disk recording...?
"I use the Akai DD1000. For optical disk recording it's the best, unless you want to go for the Waveframe. The problem with it is when you finish a piece you have to erase it to start again, so you have to keep proper backup on DAT. What I do, you see, is to put my samples on the optical disk, and transfer them digitally into the S1000. Then I play them like a keyboard and go straight to DAT when I master. The problem comes from the DD1000 only able to hold 28 minutes of stuff, which is much too short for me. This new Tascam 8-track can hold 100 minutes of stuff, and that's great for my music. That's why I'm so keen on it."
Q: Why have you MIDI'd some of your old analogue stuff?
"Well first for synchronisation. All the old Moog stuff needs it. The old Oberheim and Casio stuff required new sounds. I love re-inventing sounds. For live work, MIDI'ing the old analogue instruments allows for any fluctuations or detunings to be incorporated via MIDI straight to the overall composition. It just allows me to mix old sounds with new."
Q: Why are you so keen on the S1000?
"Well, it's the best for sampling and live. And of course, don't forget the MiniMoog. The S1000 has got very long samples, but it has got limitations. I mean it's only got 16 voices — I put a lot of my samples through Roland's Sound Space system which gives them a 'sensaround' effect live. This means that they are in stereo, which cuts your voices on the Akai to eight. Play a long Russian chorus for two bars, and you're left with only four voices. Play a few more things and you are out of voices — you get digital crackings, the machine stealing from itself and so forth. Its capacity is limited. At London and Cologne I made up for it by using a minimum of stereo samples, instead putting mono string and flute samples through automatic panning effects. Another thing — if there was a machine failure it would take seven minutes to re-load the Akai from DAT-ROM. That's why I have the Prophet 2000 as a backup, so if it happened I can make bridging sequences. Just press one key. In future I'd like to use two S1000s on stage, plus of course the MiniMoog."
Q: What is your usual composing method?
"Create a click track on the computer, take it away and record a groove on a sequencer. That goes for ballads or uptempo tracks. Then I start on the Moog and create a floating sequence just for feel. Then I add string washes, some pizzicato and more and more things. When everything is more or less in the computer I start to go through it — for example I usually cut the Moog sequence. It's add and subtract all the time. Dvorak used to do this when he was orchestrating a piece. Similarly I look at my pieces like building a symphony. It's changing all the time, even after 20 tracks or more. It's permanently work in progress. With soundtrack work I'm more fixed by the images.
"If the idea I wanted in the first place is not what I hear in the end I throw everything away and start from scratch. I can get something in one night or be re-arranging it for weeks and end up with nothing. My view is that there's never anything wrong with the equipment. Too many people blame computers and things when it's the ideas that are not working."
Q: Out of your massive 27 album solo catalogue what are your favourites?
"Mirage, Dig It, Miditerranean Pads, parts of Dresden, Beyond Recall, the new stuff. I consider Body Love 1 & 2, Timewind and Moondawn to be of their time, but technology has overtaken them. X is my most varied recording with a mixture of real orchestra and PolyMoog playing. My scores for that were obviously influenced by Stockhausen and Dvorak. I actually wrote the scores after I composed the music, by hand of course."
Q: One could say that your music has always been classical. How will the new symphony and opera change things?
"I'll still be using sampling and electronics, but the pieces will not be concentrating on sound. The emphasis will be on overall melodic structure. It's difficult to talk about this as you're doing it, but five years ago I got lost in beautiful sounds. Now I'm turning back to my classical guitar studies with Bach, and thinking more of structure. For myself I want to go back to old-fashioned melody with new technology. It's a personal question for me. My music will sound very different and will probably be released in the future on Deutsche Grammaphon."
Q: What musicians do you rate at the moment?
"At present I'm working with a lot of classical musicians, cellists, violinists, tenors. Outside them I really love Nigel Kennedy. Pop & rock is pretty humdrum except The Orb, who have very interesting ideas. I was really looking forward to Peter Gabriel's album, but was very depressed when I heard it. After So and Passion it didn't sound like a change. He's such a great musician, but Us seemed overworked and very much in the image of So. Now against all the critics, I'm one of the few who likes Tubular Bells 2. All those ethno voices and that lush Trevor Horn production made a great sound. It's the texture and sampled sound that really work for me."
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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