INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Artforum DECEMBER 28, 2015 - by Rob Young
DIETER MOEBIUS (1944-2015)
The German Swiss musician Dieter Moebius, who died from cancer in the summer of 2015, rarely allowed himself to be interviewed over his seventy-one-year life. He preferred, it seems, to articulate his thoughts via an effortless facility with the tools and praxis of electronic sound. This he effected as one of the kernels of a tortuously branching root system of German musicians, groups, and side projects, principal among them Cluster and Harmonia, two of the finest exponents of German electronic music since the early 1970s.
While they may not have been household names internationally, Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, his musical partner in those groups, exerted their influence on international pop. David Bowie and David Byrne were significantly influenced by Cluster's gently motorik rhythms and simmering textural sheen, but the common denominator and lightning rod conveying their music to the wider world was the British musician, producer, and all-round curve-shaper Brian Eno, who visited the duo in Hamburg, Germany, in 1974 and found himself hypnotised and charmed by what they were doing, ending up as a willing collaborator. "I think he was really searching for something," Moebius once said. "He found some stuff with us."
Moebius's German family had moved to a small town in Switzerland during World War II; unlike many fellow countrymen of his generation, he grew up in relatively peaceful surroundings. In the early '60s, he studied art at academies in Brussels and West Berlin, took part in various antiauthoritarian street protests in the immediate wake of the Paris student riots in 1968, and, as a keen music fan, found himself repeatedly drawn to the latter city's underground mecca, the Zodiak Free Arts Lab. After befriending the club's founders, Conrad Schnitzler and Roedelius, he was persuaded to join them in the formation of a new experimental music group, Kluster. The two albums they recorded between 1969 and 1971 are barely-shaped chaos: thunderclouds of sound improvised from organs, cellos, guitars, percussion, and piles of precariously wired sound processors and effects.
When Schnitzler left the group in mid-'71, Moebius and Roedelius decided to continue under the anglicised name Cluster. Just over a year later, they also made a break with the city: At that time, West Berlin was still an island afloat behind the Iron Curtain. They decamped to a tumbledown farmhouse in Forst, Lower Saxony, where they discovered a tranquility and isolation that steered their music in an entirely different direction. Again they utilised an assemblage of electronic and acoustic instruments, prototype sequencers, drum machines, and self-devised recording methods. Part of Moebius's enduring appeal is the fact that it's almost impossible to pinpoint his precise contributions to much of the music he was involved with. Instead, he hovers over it and drifts among it like some amorphous urge.
In 1973, the duo was joined by another renegade from the city, Michael Rother, the guitarist from German group Neu! and a member of the original incarnation of Kraftwerk. Like Cluster, he had dropped out of urban life (in Düsseldorf) and was looking for new inspiration in retreat. Together the trio wrote and recorded as Harmonia, a name that suggested the very mythical spirit of music itself. At the end of that year, they recorded Muzik Von Harmonia, a series of sonic vignettes in which the anarchic impulses of Kluster/Cluster were refined and channelled into controlled, Apollonian mechanics and repetitive electronic melodies with soft, synthetic textures. Moebius exercised his visual-art skills, too, designing and painting the fantastic Pop art-style cover image that resembled an advertisement for cleaning fluid. It's one of the great krautrock LP sleeves, and the implication of a clean slate for German pop was hard to resist.
Harmonia quietly played live dates in 1974 and released a follow-up, Deluxe (1975). In their wonderfully productive pastoral haven, Harmonia and Cluster pumped out music like a small organic processing plant, without much commercial impact. But people out there were listening, among them Brian Eno, who had just left Roxy Music and was in search of a new direction. He visited the group in the forest, sharing in their back-to-nature lifestyle and embarking on a series of collaborations, including Cluster & Eno (1977) and After The Heat (1978). Eno immediately applied what he had learned to his collaborations with Bowie on the so-called Berlin albums, Low, "Heroes", and Lodger (1977-79), and to his own Before And After Science (1977).
Cluster temporarily faded out in the early '80s, just as Moebius began the long line of co-productions and collective unions in which he specialised for the remainder of his life. There was something pointedly democratic and ego-shedding about his casual radicalism, the way he acted as a catalyst within so many projects. There were the duo albums with famed producer Conny Plank, Rastakraut Pasta (1980) and Material (1981). That pair also carried out intriguing collaborations such as the dynamic Zero Set (1983) with drummer Mani Neumeier of Guru Guru, and Ludwig's Law (recorded 1983, released 1998) with US musician and artist Mayo Thompson of Red Krayola. Cluster found their way back to each other, on and off, for the remaining three decades, culminating in live shows and the excellent album Qua (2009). In the meantime, Moebius kept his torch glimmering, his synths humming, this time in unison with thousands of other young digital musicians worldwide whose passages have been eased by the early efforts of Cluster and their ilk. He was active right up to the end, spending half his time in Andalusia, Spain, touring a live soundtrack of Fritz Lang's early sci-fi silent Metropolis (1927) and releasing a final solo album, Nidemonex, in 2014.
In all that time, the name Moebius appended to an album or concert billing imparted sophistication, refined sound artistry, and decades of experience. And there was the distant flavour of the European exotic: the musician as scientist, ungraspable as the infinite, dimension-defying strip with which he shared a name. Above all, this revolutionary futurist quietly helped to disperse lingering memories of the harsh, steel rhetoric of midcentury German power.