Friday, 13 March 2015

Insights from The German Music Progressives

I spent last night watching various documentaries on You Tube about the progressive German music of the early 1970s. This was the music detrimentally referred to as "Krautrock" by the British music press but also known as progressive, "space rock" or, my preferred term, Kosmische Musik. It encompasses bands such as Tangerine Dream, Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster, Neu!, Faust and Amon Düül II (plus many others).

A number of things struck me watching these documentaries and I thought I would write a few words about this.

The first was that the music, as a movement (and it wasn't a movement, its a purely heuristic move to put these and other bands under a label), comes in a historical context. All these bands were formed by people living after the Second World War in a defeated country that had been occupied by other forces. The capital city itself, Berlin, was partitioned. The music of this time in Germany was conservative and non-threatening (known, in German, as Schlager, a form of music once championed by Goebbels). It was also the time, in the late 60s, of student uprisings, not just in Germany but across the world. The time was ripe for striking out in a new way and differentiating yourself from the world of the past.

It had never occurred to me before that just in the act of making music you are actually being very political. In one of the films I watched, Dieter Moebius, one half of Cluster as well as a member of Harmonia and part of a double act on some work with legendary German producer, Conny Plank, stated that Schlager was not at all political - which made it political. In other places the music came from politics, such as the Munich commune which gave birth to both Amon Düül and Amon Düül II. Even Edgar Froese, who sadly died recently, can be seen in a documentary about the birth of this music saying that progressive German acts of the time didn't want to sound like American or British music. In places like the pioneering Zodiac Free Arts Lab in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin (a place I'm thrilled to have lived very near to in the recent past although the club is long since gone) like-minded people could get together and just jam and forge a new path.

So the question is, if you don't want to sound like the dominant musical tropes of your time (clearly a political move) then what do you do? Edgar Froese's reply was: be abstract. For many of the others it was: use synthesizers or electronics, new instruments just being born at that time. For some the guitars so reminiscent of American blues or British beat music just had to be ditched. This interests me greatly. I wonder how many people even set out with the idea to sound a certain way or give thought to the consequences of how they sound. I also wonder how many realise that "how they sound" could be being judged in this way. For myself, I've always wanted to sound like me and I've always been against purposely setting out to sound like someone else. For me, the worst thing I can find is that musicians or groups advertise themselves as sounding like someone else. Documentaries like the ones I watched last night reinforce this view in me and even extend it. To set out to fit into a trend or be like the mainstream is a deeply conservative act. I don't want to be conservative. And neither did they. So, a follow up question becomes "What does the music you make say about you?"

Many of the acts associated with Kosmische Musik were experimental. Often they were also electronic and abstract, although not always so. If we try and find links between them we see this wanting to forge a new path, to not be linked to the past but to chart a course for a different future, as something that binds them together. It is not the music of mass culture and indeed, in the early 70s, many of these bands were largely unknown in their own country and sometimes not even known to each other. People did later try to mass market some of the bands that came from this era but few were very successful. It also struck me how much so many of the people involved were deep thinkers and this thinking led on voyages of discovery. This could be the esoteric rambling of Can over a funky backbeat supplied by legendary drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, or the experiments in electronic abstraction of Cluster, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. Many of these acts were about messing around which electronic equipment of various kinds (as had been done by John Cage, Pierre Schaefer and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, amongst others, in the 50s and 60s) and using sounds made from every day items. One film I watched had two members of Faust making a song by hitting and recording various parts of a cement mixer, for example, as well as playing it rhythmically as a rudimentary drum. To me, this unites a desire to be different with an "art of the possible" mentality.

Perhaps the two most widely known bands from this era now are Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. They are both, in their way, examples of something that Faust member, Jean-Hervé Péron, said in one of the films I watched: "Art is living. Living is art. Life is art." Tangerine Dream's output was massive with over 100 albums to their name in a career lasting around 45 years. Kraftwerk have been much less prolific but their music, as with so many of the other German progressives, is very much an expression of their beliefs and mentality. "There is no separation between humans and technology, for us they belong together", says Ralf Hütter, one of Kraftwerk's founders and the only surviving founder member of the band. So when they say "We are the robots" they actually mean it. Their music is a physical expression, an embodiment, of their actual beliefs. And if you go through the bands who were "kosmische" you find this repeated again and again. The music is an embodiment of the people making it. It turns thought into its physical expression putting flesh on the bones of who they are. It is, in a way, musical autobiography.

So why does this interest me? Because I have found myself in exactly the same place. For me, music is a deeply intellectual and philosophical enterprise. Its not merely having fun (though, of course, it always should be about fun). The music I make is deeply and unalterably about identity and it seems that for the German progressives of the early 70s it was too. Like them, I don't want to sound like anyone else either. Like them, I have thought about what I sound like from the outside looking in. Like them, I have tried to not do what is expected of me. Like them, for me these are important considerations. Music is not just some product you try to produce for money. You are not trying to find a place in the music supermarket for your particular brand of baked beans. Music is art. Life is art. Art is life. I may be 45 years too late (in truth, kosmische was being born about exactly at the same time as I physically was) but I do feel that in kosmische I have found a musical place I can call home.


Here are 3 kosmische albums I've been playing non-stop for the last 4 or 5 months

1. Yeti by Amon Düül II
2. Zuckerzeit by Cluster
3. Affenstunde by Popol Vuh

I also made my own attempt at Kosmische Musik (actually its more "music influenced by listening to Kosmische Musik") with the help of two friends, Luke Clarke and Valerie Polichar. "Shikantaza" can be heard here---> SHIKANTAZA

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