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German Workmanship: Electronic Music in Germany Today

Mark Jenkins

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Catching up with classic and new releases from some of Germany’s finest electronic musicians.

Since the earliest availability of electronic instruments, musicians in Germany have always used them in imaginative and innovative ways. The Berlin School of Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Michael Hoenig, and others favored long and slowly developing contemplative pieces. The “krautrock” school of Kraftwerk, Can, Amon Düül, and others integrated rock music in more conventional band lineups.

These German artists and others remained at the forefront of high-technology music for over 40 years. That’s long enough for a second and third generation of high-tech musicians to spring up and in some cases join their predecessors’ musical lineups.

Kurt Ader

Kurt Ader is a good example. He trained classically on organ and piano from the age of 14. Most recently has been working with S-A-W, the lineup of Johannes Schmoelling (ex-Tangerine Dream), himself, and busy producer and remixer Robert Waters. The band is essentially a sequel to Loom, which included Jerome Froese, son of Tangerine Dream’s founder Edgar Froese.

“I first became interested in electronic music in 1977,” Kurt explains. “I was at a Yes concert and saw Rick Wakeman playing his Minimoog and Mellotron. That fascinated me so much that I bought my first synthesizer, a Minimoog. But now I don’t care what kind of synthesis, like FM, additive, or sample-based, a synthesizer has. For me the sound is the most important thing. I like all those types of synthesis and above all, the mixture of them all.”

Kurt got into professional sound design early on. “At the age of 17 I played in a rock band. Sound design has always fascinated me, so I became a sound designer at the age of 20. My first industrial job was for Roland at that time. I created factory sounds for my first polyphonic synth, the Roland Jupiter 8—a European sound set.”

“In 2015 I met Johannes Schmoelling at the Synthfest in Nantes [France]. Johannes had heard a demonstration of my KApro libraries for the Korg Kronos and was very impressed. We understood each other very well and have a very similar ‘sound perception.’ After that, everything developed very quickly. I played my demos to Johannes, including, of course, a cover of Tangerine Dream [“White Eagle”]. Johannes liked my version so much that he suggested releasing my solo album on his Viktoriapark label.”

Indeed, the German scene may appear to be a small world. “Johannes and I became very good friends, and he introduced me to Robert Waters, with whom he had previously played in Loom, and we formed S-A-W in 2019. We are really a dream team, and it’s a lot of fun to make music together.”

S-A-W

The S-A-W album Iconic features a huge range of sounds and textures. They range from Schmoelling’s melodic and slightly jazzy sequences to complex, dense, and ambient soundscapes with complex sound design. Working in sound design has always helped support Kurt’s other musical endeavors. “My main job as KApro—Kurt Ader Productions—is in sound design. I have already created sounds for many companies such as Korg, Yamaha, Moog, Waldorf, Schmidt, Roli. I also create special sounds for artists—for example, Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Tuomas Holopainen (Nightwish), Jim Gilmour (Saga), Francis Rimbert (Jean-Michel Jarre), and more.”

Kurt continues his sound design work and most recently has also contributed a track to a UK-released various-artists album, Isolation. It’s aimed at bringing together musicians from different countries and contributing to COVID-related charities. “That piece is created on my absolute favorite synthesizer, the Korg Kronos, with which I can create almost everything I could wish for. That’s why I have a close connection to my friends from Korg.”

Live appearances for the S-A-W trio lineup are also possible. “Unfortunately we can’t plan anything at the moment because the Corona crisis has put a damper on that. Of course we want to go on stage and present our album Iconic to the people, as a trio. But what is definitely coming is a Blu-ray release around the end of 2020.”

The S-A-W album Iconic, featuring a frightening array of keyboards and modules, is available from mail-order companies. You can also order it direct from the Viktoriapark label, which features a great choice of albums by Johannes Schmoelling and related artists.

Harald Grosskopf 

Another busy label for electronic and avant-garde music is Bureau B, foundedin 2005 by Gunther Buskies. The label has issued many original albums—including recently the acclaimed Machines of Desire by now U.S.-based ex-Tangerine Dream member Peter Baumann. There’s also a campaign of finding “lost” music (for instance, by echo guitar expert Gunther Schickert) and reissuing some classics such as the 1980 album Synthesist, by Harald Grosskopf.

Grosskopf is an interesting musician, having played drums in parallel with Ash Ra Tempel and Wallenstein in the 1970s, later drumming on Klaus Schulze albums once Schulze had moved over entirely to keyboards, and then launching his own series of instrumental albums. “Klaus Schulze showed me his Moog modular system; he switched it on and started the sequencer,” Harald explains. “In a second I was thrilled by the groove this machine produced. No band lineup I played in before was able to produce such a fascinating groove.”

“But playing synthesizers myself was not at all in my mind, I felt like being a drummer, mainly there as a supporting instrumentalist. What I liked and still do is minimalist music like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. But around 1979 I had a call from Udo Hanten, who was a big fan of electronic music, and he offered to let me use his keyboards in exchange for use of my 8-track tape machine. So I went to Krefeld and spent six weeks recording the basic tracks for what became the album Synthesist. I can’t believe we’re now seeing the 40th anniversary reissue of that album.”

Synthesist

Synthesist fuses the extended swirling sequences of the Berlin school with shorter, more melodic pieces. The reissue has allowed Grosskopf to involve other musicians he’s worked with over the years as re-mixers for a second bonus album.

“It’s now a double-vinyl release and identical double CD, with a collection of brilliant remixes by friends and colleagues including Steve Baltes (from the later, techno-oriented lineup of Ash Ra Tempel), Thorsten Quaeschning (Tangerine Dream), Paul Frick (Brandt Brauer Frick), Camera (the Berlin-based motorik beat group), and more. A bunch of great musicians!” The label also features new and archive albums from Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Jimi Tenor, French jazz/synthesizer fusion band Heldon, and many others.

Neuland

In parallel with these new and classic releases, two German musicians who moved to the USA—Peter Baumann and Paul Haslinger, both ex-Tangerine Dream—have now teamed up in the duo Neuland. The 83-minute self-titled album is available now from all digital sources and as a CD, vinyl album, and Blu-ray disc.

While Baumann had taken a long break from music, Haslinger had been very involved in Hollywood soundtrack work, including on some major features such as the Underworld series. Interviewed last year for my book Analog Synthesizers – 2nd Edition (Routledge), he said, “When I arrived in Hollywood in the ’90s, ‘electronic music’ in film was used as a derogatory term. You better not put it on your resume! A couple of decades later, Stranger Things happens and John Carpenter goes on tour. And people all of a sudden remember that there was some good electronic music. It’s the process of history, I guess.”

As well as using software instruments, Haslinger has retained many of his analog favorites. These include a Memorymoog and ARP Omni, alongside the modern Oberheim TVS-Pro and ARP re-issues from Korg. The Neuland album offers great washes of analog and digital sound and much dark ambient music. But it also some up-tempo, rhythmic sequencer passages of the kind Peter Baumann created with Tangerine Dream on their classic 1970s albums such as Rubycon and Stratosfear.

Passing the Torch

The last month sadly saw the passing of Florian Schneider, a founding member of Kraftwerk. Tangerine Dream’s founder Edgar Froese passed away in 2015. But many artists from the early years of electronic music, such as Harald Grosskopf, Peter Baumann, and Johannes Schmoelling, are still busily creative. Newer artists such as Paul Haslinger and Kurt Ader are joining them either in spirit or actively within their newly launched band lineups. And so, the love affair between Germany and electronic music goes on.

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