Conrad Schnitzler, German pioneer of "cold, hard, electronic sound", has refused to stay dormant in the 35 years since his collaborations with Tangerine Dream and Kluster, as well as his own legendary group, Eruption. He has spewed forth a phenomenal amount of sound and noise in every format, from player piano rolls to MP3s. By David Keenan. This article originally appeared in The Wire 267 (May 2006).
“Boof! Doomph!” Conrad Schnitzler takes a seat in the control pod of his basement studio and starts punching buttons. “Listen to this,” he beams, wrestling a series of fat atonal bloops from a touch-sensitive strip of light fastened to the front of his computer. “I already made my own special sounds for the Moog. And what about this?” He ducks us into a tunnel of phased feedback before dropping to a single, time-devouring drone. “Ja! I’m always trying to make sounds that aren’t normal. To avoid sounds that you can make real music with.” He spins around in his chair and slides a random fader, cutting the drone with a series of comparatively sugar-plum arpeggios. “Bah. That’s common sound,” he winces. “Not that I have any idea, mind you. I just turn buttons. I just come from the future! Justjustjustjustjustjust,” he mock echoes, “Futurefuturefuturefuturefuture…”
There’s still something of the man who fell to Earth about Schnitzler. Thanks to his early experiments in “cold, hard, electronic sound” as a member of Eruption, Kluster and Tangerine Dream, and across a still prolific – if fairly covert – solo career, he is widely credited as the godfather of European Industrial music. He is now bunkered in the sleepy village of Dallgow, in what used to be the communist state of East Germany, where he walks his dogs in black fatigues in between all day studio sessions and occasional visits from his wife Gil, who works in Berlin and spends much of her time living alone in the couple’s flat in the city. His sole interface with the outside world remains his music, the bulk of which is based around massive slabs of alienated electronic noise, as documented in a solo discography spread across an ever-growing series of self-released CD-Rs that currently runs into the hundreds. “Oh he’s a hermit all right,” Gil agrees. “The original man in black. Out there he plays the role of the nice neighbour, everybody small talks with him and he talks about the garden and the dogs and problems with the house, but this is not his realm at all. But it’s impossible to have him in the city where other people are, so I found this house here, near to Berlin, where he can be alone and work as loud and as long as he likes.” “You see, no one really knows me,” Schnitzler adds. “They all think I’m a normal guy. You might not believe it, because I’m laughing away here and we’re having fun, but I hate people. Seriously. I’m not a flower power guy. I’m not soft eyes. I’m eyes with bananas in. I have Xs in my eyes.”
Schnitzler’s recent profile has been given considerable heft by the Italian label Qbico’s ongoing programme of deluxe archival releases of his early 70s material. Their latest is Zug, a reissue of the limited edition Red Cassette from 1974 as a picture disc LP featuring Schnitzler in full Kiss-style berserker face paint. In its prescient combination of coded ring-modulation and cold metronomic steel, it looks forward to the death disco of Throbbing Gristle as well as the allusive logic of Spiral Insana-era Nurse With Wound, both of whom have cited Schnitzler as an influence. It also works as a propulsive shot in the arm for the nightmare electricity of his first full solo albums, Rot and Blau, released in 1972 and reissued this month by the Japanese underground label Captain Trip. But it’s his 1972 solo recordings on the Synthi A, a revolutionary ‘suitcase’ synth launched by EMS in 1971, that function as the fulcrum of his entire back catalogue. Released by Qbico as Con 72 Parts One & Two, Schnitzler talks of the set as if it were a stereo demonstration record, an aleatoric dialling through of the instrument’s most basic – and resolutely non-musical – properties. But in its absolute refusal of anything approaching common musical tongue, in its insistence on foregrounding the more electronic, as opposed to the traditionally mimetic, aspects of the instrument, it stands as one of the most defiantly personal statements to come out of the German experimental rock scene of the early 70s.
“When I got the Synthi A in 1972, everything changed for me,” Schnitzler confirms. “I saw very fast that this was the voice I had been looking for. With the Synthi A piece on the Qbico records there is no pulse, it’s just turning the buttons, and I didn’t know him very well at the time and so he does all sorts of things that you wouldn’t expect, like when you turn one button and it all stops but you don’t know why. Later I would combine the Synthi A with lots of other sounds, banks of tapes, radios, organs. I would stand on the organ and I had a phaser and I would run the organ into the Synthi A and trigger these endless sounds using ring modulators.”
Originally a cellist, albeit a self-taught one, Schnitzler’s acquisition of the Synthi A first focused his attention on the possibilities of electronic instruments and sparked a love affair that lasts to this day. The basement of his house is piled to the ceiling with old computers, mixing desks, FX racks, patch cords and keyboards, and the bulk of his music is still sourced from obsessively carved voltage. Flicking through a box of colourfully packaged CD-Rs, all of which are only available direct from him, he selects a random fistful of releases. They’re all coded with certain phrases, the individual vibration exactingly categorised. He slips the first one on, Solo Basso, a single note drone with a tactile, cylindrical bottom end. “Look, I have four CD players here,” he explains. “So we pull four different CD-Rs, we just start some and see where we go. We move from the first sound, a heavy drone, to bringing in the next, a kind of pulse, this one doesn’t change much. Later on I may bring in something like rhythm. But this is how I work. I create single, detailed sound sources and then mix them, combine them. Actually, I don’t really mix them much, I just turn them all up. But every day I’m working on something and most of these things end up on these CD-Rs only available from me.
“I’m not interested in being on some record label somewhere that brings out my material,” he continues. “If someone is interested enough to want to release my stuff – like Qbico, for example – then OK, I send them the material. But with a big company, they want me to be fake, going smiling, doing happy interviews, all this stuff that an artist has to do who wants to sell his art and be famous. I’m not interested. And besides, with the internet and CD-Rs, there is a revolution in music culture. I was always interested in cassette culture and private press releases, and early on I released a lot of my stuff that way, but it was never the best format. But CD-Rs sound as good as any CD. And releasing them myself, well, it becomes something like a small game. I send the discs away and I get emails from people, reviews, telling me what they liked about it. That’s enough for me. In the beginning I had my own webpage with lots of details and facts on it, but then I said ‘Please stop this’. I just want a page that says my name and my email address and no more. No more information. There is just so much out there. All these homepages have so much on them. What you really have to say doesn’t come across. So I don’t play that particular game any more.” Indeed, Schnitzler’s current website consists of just three lines, beamed from several years back: “Conrad Schnitzler says hello. Happy 2000 from Con’s Ivory Tower. Send email.”
By far the profoundest consequence of Schnitzler’s adoption of the Synthi A was that it finally liberated him from having to rely on other people, whether bandmates or random audience members, to help him realise his vision. Right from the start, he was the worst of team players. “I left every band I was in,” he laughs. “With Kluster and Tangerine Dream, it was just the situation, no big trouble or anything. Perhaps they didn’t want to work with me either, because I’m a really harsh guy, you know? But I found out that you can’t push people around and tell them what to do and whatever. That’s not good. So I quickly realised that I had to be alone. I am a solitary artist and I really feel this in my heart. In the beginning we were all making music, making sounds, without thinking about making money. But soon we started to realise that it was actually possible to make money with this stuff. But that meant doing something for the public, which meant pop music, like what happened to Cluster. And that’s not my thing.” Schnitzler’s involvement with both Kluster (the hard K giving way to a softer C with his departure) and Tangerine Dream came about through his membership of the early improvising group Geräusche, which translates as Noises, alongside Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Boris Schaak, and his stewardship of one of the key Krautrock think tanks, Berlin’s Zodiak Free Arts Lab.
“We started the Zodiak when we got a connection to a theatre restaurant owner who said we could take over a back room if we were able to bring in enough people to make money at the bar,” Schnitzler recalls. “It was a great opportunity, but it was basically a hippy hangout and I didn’t want that. I wanted it cool, like black and white and nothing. So we put in lots of pinball machines – that’s normal – but also lots of music boxes, five or six, and a bunch of radios. What does this mean? It’s clear, no? Boop boop! So the audience could play!” He slams his fist against the table in triumph. “So we would turn all the radios on and the pinball machines would be going and the noticeboard had all these messages on them like, ‘I’m looking for a girl’ or ‘I’m following Mao’, whatever, it was amazing. The concert space itself was absolutely black and there were these square neon lights in the ceiling and I just painted over them with black paint using my roller. It was a fantastic space and we played there for a year or so and everyone did shows there, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze. It was then that we started Eruption, the whole concept of which was based around the idea of always breaking out, breaking out from everything, erupting!”
Besides being the title of the third and final Kluster album cut by the trio of Schnitzler, Roedelius and Dieter Moebius in 1971, Eruption was also the name given to the impromptu improvising ensemble led by Schnitzler that featured a revolving membership drawn from the ranks of contemporary groups like Embryo, Amon Düül and Agitation Free. Although they never released anything in their own lifetime, Qbico’s recent uncovering of a live set from 1970 serves to further emphasise just how out of sync Schnitzler’s thinking was, compared to the then prevalent ‘Kosmiche’ stylings of most of his collaborators. Indeed, the combination of violin abstractions, free-associative vocals and blunt analogue crunch aligns him more with contemporary punk primitives like Dylan Nyoukis’s Blood Stereo and Decaer Pinga than any of the more space-surfing Krautrock. “By the way, I would take members of the public too,” Schnitzler adds. “I always had these weird sticks strung with guitar strings and amplified, and I would give them out and say, ‘Just do something!’ It was impossible to play this thing with anything approaching conventional technique, which was important, because you would always end up getting someone on stage who would have to announce that he could play. So I made these things so that no one could resort to playing. At the start of the performances I would often ask if there were any musicians in the room, and if so, could they could put their hands up? ‘Sorry,’ I would say, ‘I cannot work with you. You are not a musician? That’s good, come on.’”
Schnitzler traces the roots of this kind of democratic art impulse to his early involvement with Joseph Beuys – with whom he studied when Beuys was professor of monumental sculpture at Düsseldorf Staatliche Kunstakademie in 1961 – as well as the influence of John Cage and Jimi Hendrix. “Beuys was very important to me,” he relates. “I was a student of his and he made me rethink every idea I ever had. He would turn everything on its head and he was the first to have the idea that everyone was an artist. Although, I have to say, his ideas didn’t impact on the way I made music at all. I already knew we had to be free, and of course I saw Hendrix and that had the same effect on me, something like breaking out from everything. When I started making sounds with Geräusche, the other two members had nothing to do with art at all. The whole thing was about starting with noise from anything, from a pot or a spoon, you name it. We worked with whatever was at hand. We just put a contact mic on it. Then we started to play with instruments, cello, viola and drums, but I still wanted it to sound industrial, so we put microphones inside the drums, starting putting the viola through an amplifier, the idea was that I wanted to make something like industrial noise, but industrial noise made by humans. [Tangerine Dream’s] Edgar Froese liked that idea. He liked me and he thought I was crazy, so he said to me, ‘You’re crazy enough to play with Tangerine Dream.’ By this point he was also working with electricity so it worked out fine. I said, ‘You know I cannot play?’ He said, ‘That’s good.’ This was when Froese and Klaus Schulze were playing together. They played rock music and I was there to break the rock music, to make it kaput. I did everything against it, putting as much noise in as possible and Schulze was always a bit upset, like, ‘What’s this guy doing?’ But Edgar always liked it.”
Schnitzler only appeared on one Tangerine Dream album: their 1970 debut Electronic Meditation. It’s the most rock-informed side of their career, with Schnitzler’s cello cutting ribbons of diamond-black tone right through the heart of Froese and Schulze’s monolithic guitar and drums interplay in a way that directly parallels John Cale’s usurping drone work on the first Velvet Underground album. “Froese had a Marshall amp and he’d be tearing feedback from it and Schulze was just really hammering, like a machine. He didn’t stop,” Schnitzler laughs. “It was like fire. It was cool.” But Schnitzler’s grounding in modern art has had more of an effect on the way he makes music than he might be willing to admit. Notoriously publicity shy, it has been several decades since he last performed in public, preferring to delegate the duties to two appointed ‘conductors’, one based in New York and one in Berlin, who are given a set of prerecorded CD-Rs and the leeway to realise whatever mix of the four they feel like on the night. Indeed, high concept art actions have always been Schnitzler’s preferred way of presenting his music. He has performed while daubed, Otto Muehl-style, in body paint, and elsewhere participated in street actions involving a specially constructed motorcycle helmet with built-in loudspeaker, the highlights of which were included on CONvideo70s, briefly available from Qbico and now out of print.
“Oh, that was a nice story,” Schnitzler beams. “This was around the time that I was fed up trying to keep it together to feed myself and was trying to work out how to make my art but still get enough money to eat. I had a transport bicycle with an amp attached to it and a tape recorder, and then my white leather gear and my helmet with a loudspeaker horn built in. If I played my music on the street, the police would always come along and tell me to move, so this way I could just walk on but keep playing the music out of the helmet. People would say, ‘What’s this? Crazy music? Can I buy it?’ I just reached around into my knapsack where I had a bunch of handmade cassettes. I would make about 100-120 marks just by walking around and I was getting money every day. It was amazing. Sometimes my friends would recognise me and come up to me, say, ‘Hey, Con, what are you doing?’ I would just speak to them in a robot voice through the loudspeaker. ‘I do not understand. I am not Con. Would you like to buy a cassette?’”
Since the late 1990s, Schnitzler has had a parallel career as a composer for player piano, using chance principles extrapolated from the practice of John Cage and realised via random notation compiled across a series of sequencers. The results are striking, a modernist polyglot that sounds like a cross between the improbably physical power-clusters of Cecil Taylor and the hyperkinetic cartoon music of Carl Stalling. We wander upstairs to Schnitzler’s living room, more properly his listening room, where he runs me through a selection of recent player piano compositions, laughing maniacally the whole way. “There was always a piano sound on my synths,” he recalls. “Normally I would use it by killing the piano sound and turning it into something else, but at some point I got this sequencer with notation and I started sequencing things using normal notes, even though I didn’t know anything about music. I started putting notes on the lines, I learned about quarter notes, started triggering the eight-track recorder by using signals. I had no idea what the notes would sound like, I just wrote them by chance, to see what they would come out like, because it was interesting me. This was the beginning of triggering real notes to a synthesizer, and time and time again I was separating the piano and the electronics, because I wanted to have a piano that sounded like a piano.
“There’s C by the way,” he announces, giving the keyboard a proud bang. “Then I bought myself a real player piano. It was really expensive but I was so horny to have it. I made a lot of compositions for piano without any idea of how to actually play it and I know Glenn Gould would be crying if he could hear me. He was upset because whatever he tried to compose he always got lost in his own head. He was paralysed by technique. Not me! I thought to myself, ‘You shit, here you are composing for the piano, you should print this music out, and maybe someone could play your compositions.’ But I soon realised that it was impossible for one person to play them, just in terms of the speed and reach required. So two years ago I had a gallery present three weeks of my piano music, with a player piano running all day. The guy phoned me up and asked me to please come, the press were there and everything. I said I wouldn’t, but I did actually turn up at the gallery without telling anyone, so no one knew who I was. The gallery was a huge empty space with large glass windows, so I stood outside and listened through the glass and it sounded really good. Of course in my wildest dreams I win the lottery and I rent the concert hall with the biggest grand player piano – a white one unfortunately, I don’t like that – and we have lots of advertising, very strong, and lots of people come and for 12 hours a day my music is played. I have already written enough material for three to four days. I was working so hard and so strong on it for so long. And then I could sit in the audience and watch my music play itself.”
It’s a recurring theme throughout Schnitzler’s career, this constant absence at the centre of the music, the gradual diminishing of his own role in favour of what he describes as “pure, hard, cold” electronic sound, almost the same words that Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound used to describe what he loved about the likes of Kluster (The Wire 160). Indeed, the parallels with Stapleton are striking, with both musicians slowly retreating into a form of self-imposed exile and both developing various ‘automating’ techniques in order to more fully erase any remnants of personality that might otherwise contaminate their music. “I’ve never heard of Nurse With Wound,” Schnitzler shrugs. “But someone did once play me Throbbing Gristle. That was OK. But the people I liked best were Hawkwind. They had a Synthi A in the frontline! That could have been me! This was my part! I never found that part though. Nobody has ever approached me since and asked me to join a group with them. No one has asked me to sing with them either, because I can do that too."
“But what separates me most from other musicians and players is I am slightly older than them and my influences come from different places,” he explains. “The beginning of everything for me was the noisy, incredible space of my childhood. The first real noise that impressed me was bombing, the bombing of the cities. I was born in 1937 and that means I was two at the start of the war. My father worked in Essen so it was a harsh time with lots of bombing. Sometimes we went out after a bombing and the noise was incredible.” He throws both hands straight into the air. “You hear people crying and screaming and all this, and we went out from our basement there and the whole street was in flames. Then you could see straight through these windows. There was light behind them. This is the impression that sticks with me most from my younger years, to see all these high windows with nothing behind them. Especially the sight of the window frames, with all the lights and all the noise behind them. Later, when I was 15 years old, I worked in a textile factory servicing the machines and, once again, there were all these great, inhuman noises, these huge rooms with cranes running along them, moving all this metal stuff from one corner to the other one. There were many different spaces and many ways of listening to the sounds. There were areas where all the sounds crossed over each other and this was what struck me the most, to hear all these sounds together. It was like you were under the influence of a drug, you worked there and it was like being in a trance, you were so inside your work, so inside the sounds, somewhere else completely.”
But for all of the endless analytic opportunities afforded by the combination of his obsession with Industrial noise and the traumatic events of his early childhood, Schnitzler is quick to turn on any suggestion that his music might reflect on anything resembling autobiography. “It is pure sound that I make,” he counters. “And I’m not expressing myself in any way when I’m making it. If anything, I express myself more when I listen back to it, when I go upstairs and listen to it and have one hour of joy. But I have to tell you I am not making sounds for pictures, not even pictures in your brain, not even for memories.”
Schnitzler in costume on the streets of Linz, Austria, 1979.
Photo courtesy Qbico.