Klaus Schulze

Synth pioneer goes from analog to digital and back again.

by Marshall Bowden

Klaus Schulze’s death in April 2022 brought closure to a certain period of German popular music that ascended in the late sixties and into the seventies and beyond. This music took Europeanism as its guiding force, rejecting the blues jams and prog excesses of British and American rock, and it came to be shorthanded in the music press as krautrock.

The genre term ‘krautrock’ is wholly inadequate as a description of music that grew out of the intersection of late 1960s psychedelia and avant-garde electronic/minimalist experiments. Combining the ethos of rock music and the trappings of both the electronic music world and the established experimentalism of the serious avant-garde, German musicians explored sounds that were sometimes mechanistic and at others deeply rooted in nature, creating a snapshot of West German life in those years. It was music that was very progressive in nature, yet it was not some monolithic movement.

I admit to having only passing familiarity with the work of Klaus Schulze, but that is definitely going to change. I found myself listening to his first solo record, Irrlicht as a direct result of ongoing research into the music of Terry Riley, in particular his 1969 breakthrough recording A Rainbow in Curved Air, and it’s amazing in the sense that Irrlicht might have been recorded anytime in the last fifty years with its ambient/illbient vibe and the fact that it is created without the use of synthesizers or sequencers at all–in many ways it is a more groundbreaking recording than that which would soon follow from Schulze and which was already becoming the stock in trade of Tangerine Dream and several other bands that would eventually wear, on the basis of geography alone, the Krautrock mantle like an ill-fitting Visigoth helmet. 

You can hear some of the same style of material on Schulze’s 1974 release Black Dance, but there are also low-key introductions of sequenced percussion effects (after all, his short-lived role in Tangerine Dream was that of drummer). By 1984 Schulze had figured out that the sound of the rest of the century would be the representation of that delicate balance between what is timeless, and what is temporal. His work with percussionist Michael Shrieve on Transfer Station Blue shows that he understands that percussion bursts, whether sudden or creating a groove, will always rise and fall, as will melodic elements. What never changes is the drone, mantra, or pattern that is at the heart of modern harmonics, the harmonies of overtones. The existence of any note implies the existence of certain other notes that share harmonics, or coloration, with the base note. The human ear can ‘hear’ these implied notes which is how we agree on how we hear certain sounds and patterns as ‘music.’

Klaus Schulze’s recordings from the 1960s and 1970s offer an extremely diverse array of styles and sounds, and though his later periods, including his ‘sampling’ period and later digital works sounded different and are generally considered more accessible, he continued to experiment with both sound and form for his entire lifetime. His work is well documented on his La vie electronique series of releases, essentially constituting a collected works for anyone with the time and interest to devote to it.

It’s easy to link early German electronic performers to such current styles as ambient, and Schulze checks that box, but elements and periods of his work show clearly the DNA of future sounds and performers such as Geir Jenssen, Bill Laswell, and Pete Namlook. 

Schulze and Namlook recorded Dark Side of the Moog, an 11-album series of collaborations that riffed on Pink Floyd album and song titles, with each volume devoted to improvisations named after a Floyd track–“Wish You Were There,” “A Saucerful of Ambience,” “Three Pipers at the Gates of Dawn.” Namlook was highly influenced by Schulze and happy to have the chance to collaborate with the German electroprog great. Perhaps not surprisingly the two didn’t meet to work on the pieces all that often, choosing instead to collaborate via sketches and recordings sent by post and, of course, the internet. 

Klaus had this to say regarding their work together:  “The whole series was a very unpretentious project. Because I had always kept total control with my own albums, I let Pete take it off my hands and could make compromises. That was juicy for me, ‘cause I don’t work with other electronic musicians usually. Namlook is much more rational than me, that’s why I always kidded him with the nickname ‘the banker’ – but this oppositional aspect made it exciting for me. I need people who work contrari-wise.

Work on ‘Dark Side Of The Moog’ started without any solid intention and wasn’t planned as a series at all. There was only the aim that it didn’t sound like ‘Schulze’ only, so I decided that Namlook had to make the final mix.”

Planned or not, the series continued from 1994 until 2008, with a final, eleventh volume released after Namlook’s untimely death in 2012. Schulze: “I always had a problem with titles. So we had the idea, to take changed Pink Floyd titles. But it’s no homage to Pink Floyd and direct references don’t exist. And it wasn’t planned. The name of the project came to my mind, because the Moog synthesizer was the connecting instrument of our work. Robert Moog himself took the series as a great compliment. Namlook and I met him at the Frankfurt Music Fair, where the only existing photograph of us all together was made.”

Klaus Schulze returned to his beloved Moogs and other analog synthesizers after he started working with Namlook, but he continued to use digital as well, contending that the best results were a mixture of the two, each technique with its own strengths and weaknesses:

 “Now I use both analogue and digital. I have nothing against digital, because everything has its good features. I don’t agree with Jean-Michel Jarre‘s point of view where he wants everything to be analogue — that’s as limiting as doing everything digitally. If you want a nice lead sound, you can get it from a modelling synth or from a Minimoog, whereas if you want a sampled sound, then clearly a sampler is the right tool for the job. In the process of making music, you get inspiration from a particular machine because you turn a knob and discover something beautiful.” (https://www.soundonsound.com/people/klaus-schulze)

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