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New York Times SEPTEMBER 8, 2017 - by Giovanni Russonello
HOLGER CZUKAY, SEVENTY-NINE, INFLUENTIAL ROCK EXPERIMENTER, IS DEAD
Holger Czukay, a guiding force in the German experimental rock group Can, one of the most influential bands of the 1970s, died on Tuesday at his home studio in Weilerswist, Germany. He was seventy-nine.
Irmin Schmidt, a fellow member of Can, confirmed the death. He did not give a cause.
As Can's bassist, Mr. Czukay (pronounced CHOO-kai) was austere: His lines often consisted of just one or two notes, locked into a merciless drone with the drummer Jaki Liebezeit. But Mr. Czukay was also the group's major sound architect, responsible for engineering and producing its recordings and thickening them with innovative electronics.
He used everything from shortwave radios and tapes to early drum machines in service of a sound that was raw, recombinant and woozy, even as Mr. Liebezeit pounded out a metronomic pulse.
Can tended to begin recordings with a clean slate, improvising on tape for hours and building what Mr. Liebezeit - who died in January - called "a geometry of people." Mr. Czukay, who doubled on bass and live electronics, would then splice together the most potent parts of the recordings.
"Films are made like that: You shoot the scenes, and shoot it several times, and later you put it together by these different takes," Mr. Czukay told EST magazine in 1994. "This is the way I make my music. And suddenly, I found out as well that the music creates a certain sort of vision; it has a visual character."
On albums like Monster Movie (1969), Tago Mago (1971) and Ege Bamyasi (1972), the result was an electrified postmodern squall that cast a distant line to avant-garde jazz, West African drumming and contemporary German classical music.
A leading ensemble in Germany's Krautrock movement, Can also drew upon the cyclical sounds of American minimalism but had no time for its meditative ambitions. And though rampant with provocation, Can lacked the self-conscious guile of much Western experimentalism. Its gestures had follow-through and blind abandon, laying groundwork for such gritty, confrontational bands as Einstürzende Neubauten and Public Image Ltd, and the bristling post-punk of Talking Heads and Sonic Youth.
Can began as a partnership between Mr. Czukay and Mr. Schmidt, a keyboardist, both of whom had studied with the avant-garde German composer and electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen. They soon joined up with Mr. Liebezeit, the guitarist Michael Karoli, the vocalist Malcolm Mooney and, briefly, the flutist David C. Johnson. Mr. Liebezeit said the band's name stood for "communism, anarchism and nihilism."
Can was one of the first bands to oversee all aspects of its own recording process, a practice guided by Mr. Czukay. Its first studio and rehearsal space was in a castle outside Cologne, but in 1971 the group relocated to the nearby village of Weilerswist, where they converted an abandoned movie house into a sonic lab. They called the studio Inner Space.
"We didn't build up a control room, so that the studio was more of a temple, like a church," Mr. Czukay said in the EST interview. "Everything that happened there was recorded straight, and edited later. It was the beginning of sampling, you can say."
One of the first things Can recorded at Inner Space was Spoon, a television theme song that reached Number 1 in Germany. On that recording Mr. Czukay used a Farfisa rhythm machine, which provided stock drumbeats usually meant to accompany bar pianists, in teasing partnership with Mr. Liebezeit's live drumming.
"Holger was able to create in the most improvisational way, to edit forms which didn't exist before," Mr. Schmidt said.
After a string of artistic triumphs, Can signed in 1975 with the British label Virgin Records, which gave them bigger budgets and access to a broader audience. It began using multitrack mixers - a move that Mr. Czukay would call "the beginning of the end," because it led the band away from its signature open-ended improvisations. Can scored another hit with I Want More, from the album Flow Motion but Mr. Czukay, frustrated with the group's changing identity, left in 1976.
He resumed a solo career that had begun quietly in 1969 with Canaxis, an album of tape loops that presaged the ambient work of artists like Brian Eno. His next solo album, Movies, came out in 1980; across more than a dozen later albums, he incorporated elements like found sounds, half-spoken vocals and sundry percussion. Rome Remains Rome (1987) was a highlight.
Mr. Czukay continued working in the Inner Space building after leaving Can, recording various projects there. He worked often with the bassist Jah Wobble, of Public Image Ltd, and Mr. Eno, on whose albums he sometimes played bass.
Information on Mr. Czukay's survivors was not available. His wife, Ursula Kloss, an artist known as U-She, died in July.
Mr. Czukay was born Holger Schüring on March 24, 1938, to German parents living in the Free City of Danzig, which would later become part of Poland and is now known as Gdansk. He changed his name to Czukay, an approximation of the Polish word for "search," because Stockhausen had often called him a searcher. In 1945, as World War II drew to a close, his family fled to Berlin.
As a teenager he worked at a radio repair shop, dissecting small stereos and developing an affinity for the sonic qualities of broadcasts. He briefly played bass in jazz bands, then spent three years studying with Stockhausen.
In 1968 he began teaching at a high school in Switzerland, where students introduced him to music by The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix; he struck up a close connection with one student, Mr. Karoli, who became a charter member of Can.
A few months later, Can recorded its debut album, Monster Movie, whose clanging churn betrayed the influence of John Cale of The Velvet Underground. But the group had its own distinctive traits. The album begins with a chirruping synthesizer from Mr. Czukay; on the final track, You Doo Right, the group maunders through a twenty-minute jam.
Mr. Mooney left the band soon after the album was recorded and was replaced by Damo Suzuki, a Japanese vocalist whom Mr. Czukay discovered busking on the street in Munich. When Mr. Suzuki departed in 1973, the group kept on course without a lead vocalist and quickly released another strong album, Soon Over Babaluma, It was a testament to the band's improvisational ethic - and Mr. Czukay's guiding influence - that no singer ever commandeered its identity, or came to be seen as its frontman.
Mr. Czukay told EST in 1994 that the returns from his records allowed him to live comfortably. Creating music that was ahead of its time, he said, had given him a kind of speculative financial security.
"I don't need expensive insurances," he said. "If I make a good album and the people understand it more in ten years or twenty years than now, this is my life insurance."