D>Elektro MAY 1996 - by Russ Curry


I clearly remember hearing Cluster's Sowiesoso album for the first time. It sounded like some heavenly music except that the primary instrument appeared to be a coffee percolator. It was electronic music that, amidst the squeaks and whistles of the machinery, conveyed a human warmth and humor. Folk music for the future: bizarre, yet friendly.

It has been over twenty-five years and a whopping eighty albums since Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius first joined forces to create some of the most compelling and strikingly original work in electronic music. Due in part to the challenging and almost unclassifiable nature of its music, Cluster has been little recognised when compared with some of their contemporaries such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Can. Nevertheless, the duo has influenced a generation of contemporary musicians.

The origin of the group can be traced back to the activities of Conrad Schnitzler, one of the first students of German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Fine Arts Academy. Schnitzler, affectionately known as the Madman of Berlin, was a key figure in the Berlin underground art scene of the late '60s.

In 1968, Schnitzler formed the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in Berlin with, among others, Roedelius, who had previously worked with Schnitzler in the avant-garde groups Plus/Minus and Noises. The Lab was known for its emphasis on experimentation and blending of different disciplines to create new forms of artistic expression. While the Lab quickly became a focal point for the Berlin underground, it was only one of many related activities.

In 1969, Schnitzler happened upon Moebius, a student of Akademie Grafik in Berlin, who was cooking in a restaurant. Upon this unlikely first meeting, Schnitzler immediately enlisted Moebius to join him and Roedelius as the third member of Ensemble Kluster.

Kluster's approach to music owed much to the Zodiak's free-wheeling attitude. Such "instruments" as alarm clocks and kitchen utensils were used in lengthy improvisational performances. The trio performed widely throughout Germany.

The group's first two albums, Klopfzeichen and Zwei-Osterie, came about when Schnitzler noticed a newspaper item about a church organist interested in new music. The recording sessions were sponsored and arranged by agreement with the church.

This agreement was reflected in the religious content of the text on the first track of each album. Recorded in late 1970, these releases capture Kluster in its loosest, darkest and most improvisational mood and are regarded today as important early works of industrial music.

During the recording of these albums, Kluster met producer/engineer Conny Plank, who had begun his career as a soundman for Marlene Dietrich. The relationship with Plank would quickly grow into a strong personal and creative bond that would last until his death in December 1987.

After a third similarly dark album, Kluster Und Eruption (1971), Schnitzler, described by one associate as "born to go solo," left to pursue a solo career. Moebius and Roedelius continued, with a slight name modification, as Cluster.

Their first two releases as a duo, Cluster 71 (1971) and Cluster II (1972), continued the commitment to improvisation but developed a focus on sound structure as introduced by Plank, who produced and composed the tracks with Cluster. Cluster also continued to tour extensively throughout Europe and North Africa. One memorable performance included non-stop overnight festival set "opening" for Jimi Hendrix.

In 1973, the pair left the industrial environs of Berlin and Hamburg to live in the rural German village of Forst and establish a private studio. They were joined by guitarist Michael Rother of the German avant-pop group Neu!. Cluster's next release, Zuckerzeit (1974), (recorded with instruments "borrowed" from Rother while he was away) clearly reflected the change of locale.

The short, tuneful tracks are outright toe-tappers in comparison to the foreboding sounds of their previous albums. With persistent rhythm-machine grooves at the front of the mix on almost every track, Zuckerzeit reflected and perhaps anticipated the electronic pop sound that would soon be popularised by Kraftwerk on their album Autobahn. Moebius and Roedelius also collaborated with Rother as Harmonia on two albums, Muzik Von Harmonia (1974) and Harmonia de luxe (1975) blending Cluster's avant-garde tendencies with NEU!'s pop sound. Both Zuckerzeit and especially Muzik Von Harmonia, made a great impression on recent Roxy Music departee Brian Eno who contacted the group and played a live date with them at the legendary Fabrik in Hamburg.

In 1976 Eno and Harmonia recorded a studio album [Harmonia '76] that clearly presages such future releases as Eno's Another Green World and Cluster's 1976 album, Sowiesoso.

Sowiesoso marked the beginning of a nearly exclusive relationship with Hamburg's Sky Records that would last eight years. Though it was recorded in just two days, the album introduced a fully realised marriage of electronic sounds with a pastoral warmth.

It was during this period that Roedelius began to record solo material. Though the first solo album to be released was 1978's Durch Die Wüste, he actually began experimenting with solo material in 1973. Segments of these early works spanning 1973-78 were eventually released beginning in 1980 with his Selbstportrait series, of which six installments have been issued to date.

He also released the subdued Lustwandel recorded with former Tangerine Dream member (and future Private Music founder) Peter Baumann.

As a duo, Cluster reunited with Eno for two albums, Cluster & Eno (1977) and After The Heat (1979) that briefly brought them international attention. Eno apparently enjoyed the sessions so much that he lost track of time as he had to be summoned from Forst by David Bowie to begin work on the Low sessions.

Cluster also worked with Baumann on their austere 1979 album Grosses Wasser. The truly curious Curiosum (1981) marked the beginning of a nine-year hiatus in their partnership.

In 1990 Cluster surprised everyone (including themselves) by reuniting for the appropriately titled Apropos Cluster. This work documented not so much a "comeback" as a continuation of their musical dialogue. Curiously enough, this release was their first to be issued in the States.

Moebius continued a string of truly brilliant collaborations during the 1980s most notably with Conny Plank. He experimented with aggressive proto-techno electronics on hist first solo album, Tonspuren (1983), and raw electro-noise on two albums with Gerd Beerbohm, Strange Music (1982) and Double Cut (1983).

In collaboration with Plank, Moebius' harsher tendencies were whittled, twisted and mutated into sheer strangeness producing three truly odd masterpieces of sound experimentation, Rastakraut Pasta (1979), Material (1981), and Zero Set (1984).

Their last work before Plank's death was En Route (1986) which anticipated the techno/ambient movement by almost a full decade. Moebius briefly paired up with Karl Renzeihausen for two early '90s albums as Ersatz.

Moebius, who has also worked in German television, has recently begun work on his first solo album in twelve years.

Roedelius, the more prolific of the two, has released numerous solo albums and works in a variety of collaborative formats, most recently as a member of the group Aquarello. Has has also composed extensively for theater and dance. Notable among his recent solo albums are Theaterworks (1994), Sinfonia Contempora No.1 (1995) and Selbstportrait VI (1995).

The current wave of interest focusing on electronic music along with Cluster's reinvigorated output sees 1996 as perhaps the duo's highest profile period a full twenty-seven years after Schnitzler first saw Moebius baking a Strudel.

This year an ambitious reissue campaign by Gyroscope brings thirteen releases from the group's "golden years" on Sky Records to a North American audience for the first time ever. Cleopatra records recently issued the first two Kluster albums (with bonus tracks) marking not only their first U.S. releases but the first-ever CD release for these stunning twenty-five-year-old recordings. The most recent edition of Cluster music has been the epic One Hour (1995).

And finally, the Erste Begegnung [First Encounter] Tour brings Moebius and Roedelius to the U.S. for the first time ever despite having been a touring entity for over a quarter of a century. In addition to the tour, 1996/97 will see the continued release of new and old, live and studio work (including some surprises) related to Cluster and a continued higher profile.

At a time when many of their peers have either left the music business or are producing pale imitations of their previous work, Cluster's music remains as odd and as interesting, as bizarre and as friendly as ever.

Roedelius recently described their continued ability to produce interesting work, "we are like two old chaps who communicate better through sounds than words. We did what we did and we do what we do. It was never a problem for us because the name, the category, didn't interest us."