INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The New Yorker JANUARY 20, 2016 - by Alex Abramovich
THE INVENTION OF AMBIENT MUSIC
On YouTube, there is a clip of David Bowie submitting to an interview on German television, apparently in 1997. The sound quality's a bit sketchy. Bowie has a translator, speaking to him through an earpiece. I do not, and can't quite tell you what's going on. But two minutes in, a few familiar names break through the static: "Bands like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Harmonia," Bowie says. "Does anyone remember Harmonia?"
The woman sitting next to Bowie stares blankly. The show's host turns to his audience and says, "Kraftwerk fans?"
"No, not them," Bowie says. "Harmonia?"
No one there knows what he's talking about.
In the '60s, pop music in West Germany was in a peculiar state. Popular singers still sang "Schlager music" - pointedly apolitical schmaltz, of the sort that had once been championed by Joseph Goebbels - while Germany's rock musicians covered English bands, playing, essentially, American music at an extra remove. But, as with the New German Cinema that emerged in that decade, new German sounds had begun to take shape. British journalists called the music Krautrock, an unfortunate term, despised by German musicians themselves, which has stuck, nonetheless. The German press (and, for the most part, German audiences) ignored the Krautrock bands entirely. But in advertisements and airports, on film soundtracks, and in concert halls, high and low, the music is still in the air, all around us.
Take Can, which formed in Cologne, in 1968. (Fast-forward to the two-minute mark of Don't Turn the Light On, Leave Me Alone to hear a jam that sounds remarkably like latter-day Radiohead.) Or Kraftwerk, which formed in Düsseldorf, in 1970, and scratched out the templates for disco, New Wave, techno, and any number of micro-genres beloved by readers of Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan. (Compare Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express with Afrika Bambaataa's hip-hop touchstone Planet Rock.) The Germans invented electronic dance music, just as surely as German engineers, working between the wars, had invented magnetic tape. And, at the same time, groups like Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Cluster, and Neu! were playing songs that seeped much more softly into the atmosphere. It took Brian Eno to coin the phrase "ambient music," but it's worth remembering that he did so after playing with German musicians, and after producing Low - an album (the first in David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy) that might be heard as an homage to Krautrock and, at its worst, becomes Krautrock pastiche.
A few months ago, the Berlin label Grönland Records released Complete Works, which collects the recordings of a group Eno adored and, eventually, worked with. Compared with its sound, which is crystalline, the group's history seems convoluted, but in the briefest of outlines: Harmonia was a sort of supergroup, composed of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Dieter Moebius, and Michael Rother, a guitarist who had played in Neu! and an early incarnation of Kraftwerk. Roedelius, the group's oldest member, had been a child star in Nazi propaganda films, a conscript in the Pimpfe (the Cub Scouts of the Hitler Youth), and, in the late 1960s, a founder of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, in Berlin. Moebius, who died last year, had studied with Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf. Moebius had had a bit of musical training. Roedelius had had no training at all (though he did have a gift for melody). But together with Conrad Schnitzler, Roedelius and Moebius had formed Kluster, at the Zodiak, in 1969, changing the spelling to "Cluster," after Schnitzler's departure, in 1971. That year, Moebius and Roedelius moved to a large, ruined farmhouse in Forst, in Lower Saxony. And, in 1973, Rother took a hiatus from Neu! and joined them.
The trio made two albums: Muzik Von Harmonia, in 1974, and Deluxe, in 1975. They played to audiences that were indifferent or hostile. "Harmonia was completely ignored or hated," Rother told me, over Skype, recently. "Ignored would have been the better thing. People did not understand it, did not want our music." The group broke up in the summer of 1976, only to reform later that year, when Eno spent a little over a week recording with it in Forst. But Eno took the tapes with him; aside from Bowie's Low, which is shot through with the group's influence, nothing came of the recordings for decades. In the interim, Harmonia remained unknown and unheralded. Still, Eno wasn't kidding when he called it the "greatest rock band in the world." Listen to the recordings today and you'll hear music that could have been made this morning in Vienna, or Williamsburg.
There's a reason the music has aged so well. In Germany in the late '60s and '70s, forward-looking musicians were working with sequencers, analog synthesizers, drum machines, tape loops, and exotic instruments. The idea, Rother told me, was to scrape clean the musical palate. "By that time," he said, in lightly accented English, "I had left behind the idea of being a guitar hero, of trying to impress people by playing fast melodies. I'd erased all that from my repertoire. I kept my respect for The Beatles, for Jimi Hendrix, and the blues. I loved that culture. But I knew that it was not my music, not my culture. I had to leave it behind. In Germany, Anglo-American music was everywhere. Then we had Schlager. Then we had nothing. So I went back to one note. One guitar string. It was quite a primitive music, really."
What this meant, in practice, is that Rother - who'd grown up covering Cream, The Stones, and The Beatles - had subtracted the blues (if not the funk) from his playing. Eventually, he'd simplified chord progressions, or removed them entirely, playing single-note runs against a tight matrix set up by his partner in Neu! and Kraftwerk, the drummer Klaus Dinger. The resulting songs, most of them instrumental, could sound like a stream or a flood; either way, the effect was one of constant, cleansing forward motion. And with Harmonia, most of the drumming and singing disappeared as well. Filtered through Eno and Eno's work as a producer, the results helped to lay the foundation not only for ambient music but for a few generations of blues-less rock bands, from Wire and New Order to My Bloody Valentine, and all the way up to LCD Soundsystem.
"I started as a copycat," Rother told me. "Trying to imitate my heroes. After a few years, I noticed that this was not enough to express my personality. Now I wonder why this does not happen more often. I mean, I'm glad when young musicians say, 'We are your fans, we love your music, and we try to sound like you.' In a way, this is flattering. But sometimes I think it would be better, and they would understand me better, if they understood that what they liked about this music has to do with finding your own song. Your own identity. With trying to move forward. To move on."