Revisiting the Music of the Pioneering German Composer Klaus Schulze (RIP), the “Godfather of Techno,” Ambient, German Experimental Psych Rock & More

This past Tues­day, April 26, exper­i­men­tal Ger­man elec­tron­ic com­pos­er and musi­cian Klaus Schulze died, leav­ing a musi­cal lega­cy as sig­nif­i­cant as they come in the past half-cen­tu­ry or so. Crowned the “god­fa­ther of tech­no,” Pitch­fork writes, he was inte­gral to both Krautrock (as 1970s Ger­man pro­gres­sive rock was unflat­ter­ing­ly called) and the “Berlin School” of tech­no, and he “laid the ground­work for ambi­ent, IDM, and many oth­er sub-gen­res of con­tem­po­rary elec­tron­ic music. His rel­e­vance nev­er waned.” Although a leg­end among those in the know, Schulze isn’t known in broad­er pop­u­lar cul­ture.

He should be, and will be, says Oscar-win­ning Dune com­pos­er Hans Zim­mer, who worked parts of Schulze’s 1978 com­po­si­tion “Frank Her­bert” (below) into the 2021 film’s score. “Klaus Schulze’s music has nev­er been as rel­e­vant as it is now,” said Zim­mer.

Soon after­ward, Schulz record­ed a new album, Deus Arrakis, sched­uled for release on June 10. “I need­ed more of that spice,” the 74-year-old com­pos­er said. (See him above, sit­ting cross-legged, with blonde Prince Valiant ‘do, per­form­ing “For Bar­ry Graves” live in Köln in 1977.) “From there I felt com­plete­ly unleashed and just played and played…”

Giv­en Schulze’s stay­ing pow­er and influ­ence, it may be puz­zling that he isn’t men­tioned with house­hold names like Bri­an Eno and Kraftwerk, or even hip­per names to drop like Karl­heinz Stock­hausen or Jean-Michel Jarre. This is in part because he rarely stuck with one sound long enough for praise and could­n’t have cared less whether any­one knew who he was. Though an ear­ly mem­ber, as a per­cus­sion­ist, of Tan­ger­ine Dream, Schulze left after their 1970 debut, Elec­tron­ic Med­i­ta­tion to form the band Ash Ra Tem­pel, which he also left after their stel­lar self-titled debut, a psy­che­del­ic clas­sic (though he’d return occa­sion­al­ly over the decades) to form and dis­solve project after project, while also con­sis­tent­ly releas­ing albums under his own name.

Mov­ing from band to band was hard­ly unusu­al in the 1970s Ger­man music scene. Two of Kraftwerk’s found­ing mem­bers split off to form major post-punk influ­ence NEU! (then fur­ther split for oth­er projects); the list of cur­rent and for­mer Tan­ger­ine Dream mem­bers runs over two score entries. Schulze’s “almost aller­gic response to the past,” Pitch­fork writes, set him apart. “The com­pos­er refused to release reworks of his cat­a­log, instead pre­fer­ring to push for­ward and dis­cov­er new sounds.” His exper­i­men­ta­tion start­ed as a drum­mer in the 1960s for Berlin bands, when he began “plac­ing his gui­tar on the ground and play­ing it with unlike­ly objects such as met­al tubes and cop­per plates.”

“His first solo release was Irrlicht in 1972,” The Guardian notes, “a com­po­si­tion in four parts that involved Schulze manip­u­lat­ing a bro­ken organ, record­ings of an orches­tra and an ampli­fi­er to cre­ate a tow­er­ing wall of sound.” His next album, 1973’s Cyborg, began his use of syn­the­siz­ers, which con­tin­ued through­out his 50-album run (includ­ing live albums and sound­tracks) but nev­er type­cast him. After CyborgRolling Stone writes:

Schulze and his label­mates formed the Krautrock super­group Cos­mic Jok­ers and their epony­mous debut album. That col­lab­o­ra­tion segued into the most vital peri­od of Schulze’s solo career, as the mid-to-late Sev­en­ties saw the release of elec­tron­ic music clas­sics like 1975’s Timewind, 1976’s Moon­dawn and 1978’s “X.”

The list of solo albums and col­lab­o­ra­tions con­tin­ues (includ­ing an all-Moog inter­pre­ta­tion of Pink Floyd titled Dark Side of the Moog), stack­ing up into a must-hear list of titles for those unfa­mil­iar with Schulze’s work. “I hope nev­er to get bor­ing,” he said in 1997, and he meant it. “If an artist can­not amaze peo­ple any­more, that’s the end.”

Reach­ing the end of his own life, after a long ill­ness, Schulze did deign to revis­it a moment from his past. It pro­pelled him for­ward into his final work. “At the end of that sec­ond pri­vate Dune jour­ney,” he said, “I real­ized: Deus Arrakis became anoth­er salute to Frank Her­bert and to that great gift of life in gen­er­al.”

Schulze lived and still lives in the music he inspired, per­formed, and record­ed. “There was still so much to write about him as a human and artist,” con­cludes a state­ment from his fam­i­ly, “but he prob­a­bly would have said by now: nuff said!… You know what he was like: his music mat­ters, not his per­son.” Or maybe it was that the two were insep­a­ra­ble. Hear music from his upcom­ing and final album, Deus Arrakis, just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Com­pos­er Karl­heinz Stock­hausen Presents “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” & Oth­er Lec­tures in Eng­lish (1972)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music, 1800–2015: Free Web Project Cat­a­logues the Theremin, Fairlight & Oth­er Instru­ments That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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