A spacemusic primer (plus bonus ambience)

by Dave Maier

PhaedraIn my previous posts on the subject, I have assumed, or anyway not worried about, a basic knowledge of what spacemusic is, and simply presented sets of classic or recent vintage. But that was negligent of me, as for most people this material remains an entirely closed book. Maybe they've seen a movie (Risky Business, or Sorcerer) with music by Tangerine Dream – which band does turn up in the Rolling Stone Record Guide (described there in a five-line review of two mid-70s LPs as “kings of the synthesizer, German-style”, with all that that implies to rock 'n' rollers) – but they'll draw a blank on “Berlin-school spacemusic” in general. Today we rectify that omission, so if you skipped the other installments you may want to check this one out. We begin at the beginning, long before our story actually begins….

From the perspective of the new millenium, the origins of electronic music are obscured by the mists of a bygone era. Indeed, the term seems no longer to refer to anything worth picking out as a distinct type of thing, as many rather different types of music-making nowadays are dependent in some sense on electricity. We still use the word, but usually to mark an emphasis on electronic means in some one music relative to another: we can refer to techno as “electronic” relative to other types of dance music, without denying the use of electricity in making, say, funk. If we want to make an absolute distinction, we often speak of “acoustic” music rather than its opposite (although here too a relative use is available).

Early electronic musiciansEven in the dawn of time, however (= the 1950s or so), there was an important disctinction to be made. “Electronic music” was made with electronically generated sound, e.g. with voltage-controlled oscillators and amplifiers. But another important use of electricity, one which had been around for many years without (significantly, in our context anyway) affecting musical composition or performance, was the electronic capturing of sound, or recording. This was the basis for the other main approach for making music electronically in the early days: rather than generating sounds electronically, musique concrète pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry composed by manipulating recordings of previously existing, often non-musical, sound.

However it was generated, each type of composer used electronic means to manipulate and transform sound, which made both types sound very different from normal music, and naturally both techniques usually resulted in recordings rather than live performances; but the different origin (generated or recorded) of the sounds used tended to reflect a very different compositional philosophy. Some composers, for example, regarded electronically generated sounds as the best way to render their written compositions, which were too difficult (hold this note for precisely 3.58 seconds, then pause for 1.21 seconds) for merely human performers to get right. If in realizing scores in this way, we lose the tonal richness of acoustic instruments, that's okay: that's not what the music was about anyway. In a sense, this attitude is a return to the time-honored conception of music as the movement of abstract tones in tonal space, and the sounds themselves as only the aural means by which we come to experience that movement, and thus of no particular interest in themselves. Indeed, the contempt of some of these composers – Milton Babbitt comes to mind immediately – for what they thought of as the “sonic ear candy” of more texturally oriented music, electronic or not, was explicit.

SchaefferThe objet sonore of musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer is the very opposite of that traditional conception of musical sound. Not so much “atonal” as non-tonal, composed sound so considered is “musical” only in its (presumably) artistic use of sonic material to evoke aesthetic experience (or whatever) in its audience. However, while clearly a distinct artform from music, “organized sound” can borrow from a great deal of traditionally musical activity, such as orchestration, “sound painting”, and extended performance techniques. Even at the compositional level, some found inspiration in the strong emphasis (even if formally subordinate to tonality) on sound and texture in modern composers such as Stravinsky, Debussy or Mahler.

Complicating the issue is that even in the realm of pure sound, composers sometimes reverted to applying traditional compositional strategies to the new medium; for example, where tonal composers could be taken to derive entire compositions from a “primeval motif”, or Ursatz, some tried to proceed in an analogous way beginning with an Urklang (“primeval sound”). In each case the listener is to attend to the way the composition unfolds naturally from the original material (not always easy since it might not occur at the beginning, or in its “primeval” form at all). Actually in neither case is it as reductionistic as I make it sound, but that's the general idea.

Klaus SchulzeOkay, enough ancient history. Fast-forward to the early 1970s (still pretty ancient actually). You are a German teenager, bored with the domestic postwar scene. You have a background in European classical music, including its contemporary experimental wing; you may even have trained with the latter's dynamic icon Karlheinz Stockhausen. However, you are fascinated by Anglophone culture, and musically you are steeped in blues and jazz and (maybe especially) Hendrix and Pink Floyd, not to mention American minimalist composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

Moog-modular-synthesizerPerhaps more to the point, musical technology of all kinds has progressed significantly since 1950, and equipment which was then to be found only in academic studios in Darmstadt and New York City is now available (thank you, Robert Moog) to the general, if affuent, consumer. So instead of dropping acid and tripping out to spacy British rock music, you drop acid and make spacy music of your own. Naturally this results mostly in long and/or pointless jams (which unfortunately does not stop you from releasing them commercially). Even when your synthesizer does not appear to you to be melting, you still have to deal with the dilemma faced by all electronic composers then or since: if you are simply making ordinary tonal music, then what's the point of using electronic instruments? But if you really take advantage of their revolutionary sonic potential, then what makes those sounds a composition rather than a set of random, if interesting, sounds?

At first the answer seemed to lie in harmonically static drones, ornamented with meandering melodies and unpitched sound effects. (Klaus Schulze's Cyborg, his second release, features a reportedly bewildered symphony orchestra providing the raw material for Klaus's electronic treatments, a fact sometimes lost on reviewers who have only the sounds to go by.) In 1973, however, a new element enters the picture: the analog sequencer, which was to provide the backbone for the classic Berlin sound (not, mind you, that the best of the earlier drony stuff, like Cyborg and Tangerine Dream's Zeit, isn't great too).

SequencerTechnologically speaking there is nothing new in the idea: a sequencer (that triple row of knobs at the top) is simply a modulator of a certain type. As you may know from Modular Synthesis for Dummies, if I modulate the frequency of an oscillator with another oscillator, I can make various sorts of siren sounds, depending on the type of wave I use to modulate it – American sirens (“weeoooeeeooo”) with a sine or triangle wave, or European sirens (“weee-oooo-weeee-oooo”) with a square or pulse wave. If I modulate that oscillator with an envelope generator, I can put a Doppler effect on the siren to indicate movement (I won't write it out – you know what I mean). Instead of using a second oscillator to modulate the first, however, I may use a sequencer to specify (a sequence of) particular pitches (frequencies) for the oscillator to play in order, and use another oscillator to indicate the speed at which the first oscillator cycles through the sequence. I spell this out to emphasize that while today we take this sort of thing for granted, with MIDI and whatnot, in the early days they had to figure all this out from scratch, with the equivalent of stone knives and bearskins.

So how did this affect the music? Here is where the American minimalists come in. To harmonically static drones and sonic wizardry the sequencer now allows us to add the repeating melodic figures of Riley and Glass and the rhythmic cycles of Reich (especially in Schulze, who began his musical career as a percussionist). The result, in the most successful cases, is a compelling and hypnotic sonic tapestry drawing equally on the formal resources of both tonal music and electronic soundscape design.

But enough talk. Here for your listening pleasure (http://www.mixcloud.com/duckrabbit/berlin-school-space-music-primer-plus-other-germans/) is a set of classic Berlin spacemusic, rounded out by some equally spacy Krautrock from other locales.

0:00 Cluster – georgel
5:07 Kraftwerk – Megaherz

Our first tracks are not Berlin-school, but are typical of early German electronic music of the post-rock line. Cluster (Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius) are, or were at the time anyway, best known to Americans from their collaborations with Brian Eno, but they have quite a few records out under their own name, as well as a whole bunch of solo releases, many on the Sky and Brain labels. “georgel” is a mix of the German name Georg and the word for “organ”, and features a wonderfully drony use of that instrument. Kraftwerk is of course better known than Cluster, but this track, from their pre-Autobahn period, is equally abstract.

9:49 Michael Hoenig – Departure From the Northern Wasteland

Tangerine dreamMichael Hoenig is best known for being a member of Tangerine Dream very briefly (in around 1975), and is pictured here on the left, with Edgar Froese (top) and Christoph Franke. Hoenig also had his own band (Agitation Free), and put out this very fine solo album in 1979, which for some reason was widely released in the U.S. (I got mine in the cutout bin around that time). This is the title track, which shows him to have more specifically musical talent than most other space musicians (which can often actually be a problem for making space music, but not here). Note the wailing electric guitar leads, provided by Agitation Free colleague Lutz Ulbrich.

29:37 Tangerine Dream – Movements of a Visionary

Phaedra was a breakthrough for Tangerine Dream in two ways: it was released (in 1974) on a fairly large British label (Virgin Records, who had had a smash hit the year before with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells), and as discussed above, was the first of their records to feature more melodic and rhythmic passages, as made possible by the analog sequencer. Nice spacy sounds too, of course, and we hear all of these on this relatively short composition, credited to Christoph Franke.

37:10 Popol Vuh – Aguirre

AguirreGermanPosterThis is a track made up of the few snippets of music used by Werner Herzog for his 1972 film Aguirre: The Wrath of God. We hear this music most memorably at the end of the film and at the beginning, where we see the conquistadores descending into the foggy valley toward what we already feel to be a likely disaster. In addition to using a Mellotron-like (i.e. tape-based) instrument called a “choir organ”, as he does here, lead member Florian Fricke got some amazing sounds out of his modular Moog in their early recordings, but later on he sold it to Klaus Schulze, and most of their later recordings are largely acoustic – without, surprisingly, losing much if any of their spaciness.

43:15 Klaus Schulze – P:T:O

Body loveBy 1976 sequencers were relatively common in electronic music, and here Klaus uses his to give this track a propulsive rhythm, helped along by some (non-electronic) drumming by his former bandmate in Ash Ra Tempel, Harald Grosskopf. Along with that band and T.D., Klaus is the biggest name in German space music. This track is typically lengthy, and was used for a film called Body Love, which is often referred to as a porn movie, but may simply (I haven't seen it myself, and there is no imdb entry) be a sort of German hippie free love/orgy thing. Sounds ghastly in any case, but this record is classic Klaus.

1:10:08 Ashra – Deep Distance

From that same year comes this record (New Age of Earth) from guitarist and synthesist Manuel Göttsching, the sole remaining member of the band (a.k.a. Ash Ra Tempel). This wonderfully bouncy and melodic track is achingly beautiful, and those who say that electronic music is soulless and machine-like – which people do say, even now – may contract the cold robbies and waste slowly away as far as I am concerned.

1:15:46 Neu! – Leb' wohl

Like Cluster and Kraftwerk, Neu! are not known for their space music, but this quiet farewell (“leb' wohl”) provides a lovely ending to our journey. (Also, Mixcloud demands that sets have at least eight tracks.)

And now, the promised bonus! We must put off for another day the part of our story which leads from the progressive spacemusic of the 70s to the ambient music of today (and of course ambient music itself dates from that time as well); but that doesn't mean we can't listen to some. This set, aired recently on Star's End [starsend.org], is composed entirely of tracks from one of the premiere sources of contemporary ambient music, the Infraction label. Check out their site, as they provide not only their own releases but a select few from other labels, often very hard to obtain otherwise. Tell Jason I sent you, and he will, um, not give you a discount, because prices there are already quite reasonable, and you will want to support these fine artists anyway. I don't have much to say about these individual artists, except to point out that two of these releases are reissues from a (somewhat) earlier time, and that that Celer (pr. “sealer”) track is absolutely the dreamiest pool of sound you will ever hear.

Here's the link to the Mixcloud page (http://www.mixcloud.com/duckrabbit/stars-end-annex-special-edition-infraction-records/)

0:00 Eluder – The Path Presents Itself The Most Beautiful Blue [INFX 033]
4:00 Kiln – Pureloveplate Thermals [INFX 017]
6:30 Andrew Liles – No Ending – No Beginning An Un World [INFX 004]
8:35 Celer – In a Pulse The Everything and the Nothing [INFX 036]
16:30 Sleepy Town Manufacture & Unit 21 – solitude No Traces [INFX 027]
23:00 Parks – light on mountain [hidden] [INFX 048]
31:20 Alio Die & Aglaia – Radiatus Private History of the Clouds [INFX 037]
38:45 Tetsu Inoue – health loop World Receiver reissue [INFX 015]
46:10 Milieu – Pollen Cabin Poetry A Warm Wooden Hollow [INFX 029]
51:10 Adam Pacione – sava from stills to motion [INFX 023]
54:40 Aloof Proof – The Last Leaf Piano Text reissue [INFX 030]

That's all for today – happy listening!