Hans Joachim Roedelius
Seminal German avant garde composer Hans-Joachim Roedelius was in London recently to promote a new solo album, 'Gift of the Moment'. Dan Goldstein was granted a brief audience.
Through his work both as a solo artist and as part of German avant garde duo Cluster, Hans-Joachim Roedelius has profoundly influenced the development of contemporary European art music over the last decade or more, yet his background and his attitudes to music-making remain something of an enigma. Dan Goldstein attempted to solve the mystery when Roedelius visited Britain recently to promote his latest vinyl offering, Gift of the Moment.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius - known to his friends as 'Achim' - is a man who likes to take things slowly. His favourite phrase seems to be 'step-by-step' and it's a term that could just as easily be applied to his musical career, a long intertwining story that's seen him release no fewer than ten albums under his own name, and countless others in collaboration with artists such as Brian Eno, Holger Czukay, Michael Rother, Conrad Schnitzler and most notably Moebius, his collaborator in well-known avant garde unit Cluster.
He started out in life without the slightest inclination or aspiration to be a musician, though his grandparents on his mother's side had been a church organist and a choir leader respectively, so there was some precedent for his eventual conversion to the world of music composition and performance in the mid- to late-sixties.
'I was living in Berlin and doing odd jobs just to make a living. It was when I was working as a physiotherapist and masseur that I began meeting artists who gradually introduced me to the in general and music in particular. I became involved in an arts action centre - Zodiac - around 1968, and joined various different bands playing improvised music: in those days my main instruments were flute, violin, and cello, but we were already picking up acoustic instruments with microphones and treating them electronically.'
During his time at Zodiac, Roedelius met up with two musicians in particular - Moebius and Conrad Schnitzler - with whom he felt he had a lot in common, and under Schnitzler's guidance, they formed Kluster (as it was then spelt) and left Berlin to go on tour through West Germany.
'Our music at that time was very harsh and improvised,' Achim recalls. 'For a lot of performances we simply got up on stage and played the first thing that came into our heads.
'Our first record came out in 1970. We were working in Köln (Cologne) and we met Conny Plank, who was working as an engineer in a small recording studio. He introduced us to Oscar Gottlieb, a composer and arranger of church music, who asked us if we'd like to make a record.
'We agreed, of course, and played in the studio for about an hour and a half: again, the music was largely improvised. Gottlieb assumed the role of producer and selected his favourite bits of music from what we'd recorded and then released it as an album on his own label. It came out under the name Klopfzeichen ('Knocking Signs'). It was re-released recently with a new cover: the old sleeve design was very beautiful but I think it was rather too expensive to make!
The music is very rough, very chaotic, and it was played using only very basic instruments. Moebius and I had an electric organ - a Gem, I think - and he also had a self-made Heathkit drum kit that we miked up and treated with tape echo machines. We also played some other percussion - bells, bits of scrap iron, anything that would make a noise.
'Later on Gottlieb released a second record - Kluster Zweiosterei - which was just more extracts from what we'd recorded in that first session.'
After the release of the second Kluster album, Conrad Schnitzler left the group, and Moebius and Roedelius changed the spelling to Cluster. They continued touring Germany, playing where they could and making the odd recording for their own consumption.
'After Conrad Schnitzler left, we became conscious - gradually - that our music wasn't very listenable, and we began making it more structured and melodic, though we never actually sat down and wrote music with that idea in mind.'
Despite a transition towards a more accessible sound, Cluster's music remained highly individual, consisting largely of ambient, repeated passages using an assortment of instrumentation. A major reason behind that individuality - at least in Roedelius' case - seems to have been a relative isolation from other forms of music.
'Right from the time I first became interested in music, I always wanted to do my own thing, and I didn't really listen very carefully to any other people's music. When I left Berlin to go on tour with Cluster, I lived with Moebius and he played me a lot of tapes of pop and rock music, things like Family, Third Ear Band, Jimi Hendrix, and I found I liked it a lot. I suppose it must have influenced me, but not by a very large amount, I don't think.
'I never had any traditional music education, so I never learned how to write or compose music the way a lot of serious musicians do. But I love classical music, and again it must have influenced me a little, I suppose.'
It was in 1973 that Moebius and Roedelius settled down in Northern Germany and attracted the attentions of Sky Records, a Hamburg-based independent label specialising in avant garde or 'off-the-wall' music. The label's proprietor was immediately impressed by Cluster's approach to music-making, and a ten-year relationship started between the two parties, with Sky releasing almost anything the band - or either of the members individually - came up with.
'I've always enjoyed making records very much, and I suppose I've been very lucky to have so much of my music released by people.
'I've released ten solo albums and a lot of other records in collaboration with other people, and most of them have been on Sky. It's difficult for me to say whether or not I prefer working on my own or with other people - it depends on the sort of mood I'm in.
'When I'm working in collaboration with someone - with Moebius, for example - we normally record at a big recording studio such as Conny Plank's studio in Köln, which is a very nice place to work. But if I'm doing a record on my own, I usually do most of the recording at home. Whenever the mood takes me, I sit at my piano - a lovely old Bosendorfer grand, over 100 years old - and play, and I put everything I play on tape. Then I play back that tape and select the best parts from it, and work on them until I'm happy with the way they sound.'
So what sort of set-up does he have at home?
'Oh, a very simple one. I mainly use an old Revox A77, a low-speed model that hasn't been serviced in the ten years I've had it! Over the years, my approach to recording has become simpler. A few years ago when I was doing a lot of work with synthesisers, I had my own multitrack recorder and mixing desk, but now I think I'd be very happy with just a four-track recorder and something like dbx noise reduction, which I like because I overdub so many times I run into a lot of hiss problems.'
One of Roedelius' best-known collaborators is Brian Eno, who met up with Cluster in 1974 at a gig in Hamburg. Significantly, Eno was sufficiently impressed to join Moebius and Roedelius on stage during the concert, and afterwards, Cluster invited him to their home studio, where they recorded for about a week.
'It was very, very easy. We got on with Brian instantly, and we agreed on so much. Unfortunately, I think the music from that first session is lost. Brian took the tapes away with him but I don't know what he did with them. It's a shame because some of the music we made together was very beautiful.'
Some while after that first session, Eno invited Cluster to help him record one song - 'By This River' - on his Before and After Science album...
'The album was recorded at Conny's studio. I think Brian was inspired by the scenery and atmosphere of Northern Germany to write 'By This River', and certainly it's a very beautiful song.
'Later on, we recorded After the Heat with him, again in Köln with Conny. We enjoyed playing together, but I remember being very much in awe of Brian's abilities. He knows so much about recording techniques and music in general, and sometimes I found he was racing ahead of me. There were a couple of pieces on that album that lost me completely, and I had nothing to do with them, but when it came to putting the writing credits on the record sleeve, Brian insisted that my name be included on those songs, because he said my presence in the studio had influenced the way the music had been recorded. I don't think that was really right, but it was very nice of him!'
Roedelius' willingness to incorporate virtually any form of instrument into his music eventually turned him in the direction of the synthesiser, though only one of his albums, Open Doors, contains music that is recorded entirely on synth, in this case a Korg MS20.
'It's a marvellous instrument with a big range of sounds, some of which are very beautiful. I can't understand people who look at it and say that it isn't complicated enough, because the field over which it can operate is enormous: I certainly had a lot of fun with mine.
'Recently I've drifted a little away from synthesisers and gone back to recording a lot of my music on piano. My latest record is mainly piano-based, but it does have some synthesiser on it, a Korg Poly 61, which I think is like an MS20 only polyphonic.'
That new album, Geschenk des Augenblicks ('Gift of the Moment') was recorded at Roedelius' home in rural Austria and at a recording studio in Rotterdam, where Achim teamed up with cellist Arjen Uittenbogaard and violinist Tjitse Letterie, whose instrumental textures add an unexpected new flavour to what is otherwise mainly a keyboard album. However, as Roedelius relates, the album very nearly didn't appear at all...
'I sent the tapes to Sky as usual, but for some reason the label's Director didn't like it (to be honest I don't think he knows very much about music - he's really just a businessman), so I went looking for a deal with a lot of other record companies in Germany, but still without success. Finally I sent a tape to EG Records here in London, and they offered me a good contract, the only provision of which is that I play concerts if they want me to.'
Would that pose a problem, necessarily?
'No, not in itself. But I'd have to make sure I was familiar with the acoustics of the concert venue, and I'd rather play in places like art galleries and small venues rather than large concert halls, again because the acoustics can be very disorientating.
'Also, the audience would have to expect music that was mainly improvised, because I'd rather play that way than just perform what I've already recorded on my albums.'
If he does play live in this country, Roedelius is assured a warm and healthy welcome from a large number of devoted Cluster fans, while any further record released (either in a solo capacity or with other musicians) will doubtless meet with a similarly warm reception.
'For the last four or five years I've been working mainly on my own, but at the moment I'm recording with a solo saxophonist and I've also been commissioned to write some music for a modern dance company in Venice, which should be interesting.
The other thing I'd like to do - assuming I get the chance - is to write some film music. The thing I dislike about so many films is that the music is an afterthought: it would be nice if someone were to make a film based on the music, rather than the other way around...'
And with that, Hans-Joachim Roedelius rose from his seat and prepared to leave for Austria. His manner is much like his music - quiet, unassuming, fascinating - and whatever he does in the future, he will always be remembered as a innovator and composer of great standing, even though he himself rejects such titles.
'No. I don't see myself as a composer in the strict sense of the term. I never really plan what I'm doing, and I make my music more by chance than conception. I can never just sit down and write, just like that. I leave that to the serious composers!'
'Gift of the Moment' is released this month by Editions EG, (Contact Details).
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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