How Germany’s Synth-Electronic music has taken centre stage in the new music of today: Neil March

In a post-modernist [as opposed to postmodern] era where the progressive forces in contemporary art [or classical] music are fragmented and evolving in multiple directions, no single school of thought can credibly claim to represent the right way forward. In the last four decades of the twentieth century, academics were split broadly into two camps; one with its roots in Integral Serialism and subsequent developments from that tradition, the other emanating from American Minimalism and the rejection of atonal (or 12 Tone) music. A generation later, those rivalries themselves look and sound dated and unable to respond to the needs of younger creative artists.

The most significant of those changes has been the rapid development of technology and the ensuing emergence of easily accessible, highly efficient software for recording, manipulating and enhancing sound. Computer-based compositional practice has transformed the way we conduct almost every stage of construction – notation, sound assignment, score preparation etc.

Many composers, myself among them, primarily use software programmes to make the act of composing and constructing new works easier and quicker through being able to notate music on screen instead of spending untold hours preparing hand-written scores and also being able to print parts either as hard copies or PDF files. When I compose conventionally notated music on Sibelius, I generally do not listen to it back until I have reached a point at which it may be useful and interesting to ensure the notes themselves sound as I intended them to. Even then, one must listen with the clear understanding that the sounds offered by programmes like Sibelius will not come close to the sounds of the actual instruments in the score.

Yet, for many composers and sound artists, such an approach is in itself no longer important. Why? Because, unlike the Modernist schools of thought, these composers are not interested in devising complex systems of pitch organisation or principles of harmonic language upon which to base their works. The primary focus of their work is sound. As such, the skills musicians have spent hundreds of years holding up as most important to have mastery of in order to be able to successfully compose at a professional level – notation, melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, texture – are themselves being called into question.

I was recently involved in a discussion thread on a social media site in which a group of academics were defending the prevailing preference for the post-serial tradition in higher education on the basis that a highly trained and skilled classical musician capable of understanding complex contemporary music would find it easy to master popular or electronic music whereas one who had only ever studied in one or both of these latter areas was not equipped to master contemporary art music. I believed they were wrong for two very specific reasons. The first, and the most commonly misconceived, as I have seen for myself, is the extraordinary number of highly skilled classical musicians who cannot seem to grasp the basic tenets of popular music nor develop the instincts required to understand the grooves, beats and nuances that make it work at the highest level. The other is that, for composers whose principal concern is with capturing, altering and creating works from sound, being able to master the use of appropriate computer programmes and, if appropriate, produce some form of score that others are able to follow and understand are actually of far greater importance than learning standard musical notation based on a system that was invented in a pre-computerized age and designed to reflect the needs of entirely acoustic instrumentation.

I understand this because, like many contemporary composers, I have feet in both camps (i.e. those for whom standard notation and mastery of harmony etc. is still key to being a proficient composer and those for whom it is all about mastery of software programmes and controlling sound).

It goes further than just the differing priorities of the [Western] traditional music scholar and the modern IT-literate programmer. We have been raised with the notion that the instruments of the classical orchestra and their close cousins represent the highest and most authentic vehicles for performing great music. There is, even after more than half a century of their existence in our lives, a deep suspicion of synthesizers and electronic instruments. It is as if the very fact that, for example, most electronic keyboards do not sound like traditional keyboard instruments (other than when using preset samples to imitate with varying degrees of accuracy) makes them something less valid, an aural failure. So, despite the progressive rhetoric that generally accompanies contemporary art music, there is an odd and contradictory conservatism towards instruments offering newer, more unconventional sounds and a clinging to the idea of authenticity, itself a reactionary notion.

The great pioneering Jazz composer and artist Josef Zawinul found himself facing a similarly misguided conservatism in opposition to his extensive use of new electronic instrumentation. In an interview with the Canadian Public Service broadcast station CBC in 1997, Zawinul explained: ‘An instrument is not important. It is the way one plays that is important. Instruments don’t play by themselves. A piano is certainly not a better instrument than a synthesizer but, if a synthesizer is played like a piano, it becomes a very bad instrument.’ Zawinul was dismissive of the campaign by Wynton Marsalis and others to take Jazz back to its acoustic traditions; hardly surprising given the leading role he played in the ground-breaking experimentalism of Miles Davis and his own Weather Report. Another staple of contemporary Jazz which, thanks to the integration of Jazz into other genres in the latter half of the twentieth century, has also found its way into Rock, Urban and Art music is the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano with its unique ethereal timbres and harmonic overtones. It is an instrument I have used in numerous chamber works.

The advent both of instruments offering new and distinct sounds and of the use of electronic and digital accessories in relation to traditional instruments has opened up vast new possibilities for composers and performers and it is absurd to present these instruments and the devices that can alter their sound as belonging to a lesser tradition than that of conventional winds, strings and percussion.

It is also absurd to uphold the idea that, for music to be of higher value, it must be composed to be performed by others and represented in a readable form that enables others to perform it. Again it is a notion that belongs to an era in which the only way music could be heard was for it to be played by performing musicians. But it ceased to be a necessity many years past. In any case, the idea that music’s validity can be judged by whether it can be replicated in a live arena is itself unnecessarily restrictive and outmoded, making a mockery of the UK’s Musicians’ Union (of whom I am a member) adhering to the slogan ‘Keep Music Live’ which is anything but an inclusive message. The slogan should probably be ‘Keep Music free to be expressed in whatever form the composer or artist wishes’!

One group of musicians for whom the embracing of electronic and digital sound creation has never been a problem is the German bands and communes that sprung up in the late nineteen sixties and the subsequent lineage that has emerged in the years since. Academics often decry the disproportionate influence of Anglo-American Capitalist Culture on the popular music of the modern epoch. Yet they remain suspicious of a German-led tradition which, to a large extent, set out to reject and offer a relevant alternative to that overbearing culture.

The history of that movement is fascinating, steeped in the necessary rejection of a painful and, at the time, very recent past and the need for a cultural clean slate that had no roots in the dark days of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. As West Germany transformed itself through the extensive modernisation of its infrastructure and industries, so the music of electronic music groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream and the so-called Krautrock bands (i.e. Can, Faust, Amon Duul II, Neu! etc.) resonated with this new neatly organised industrial landscape; and also, crucially, with its soundscape although it was the electronic acts whose sound world most clearly captured the essence of sparse, spaced out organised industrial centres and clean fast-moving modes of transport.

It is a resonance I can easily recognize, having grown up in a post-war New Town in an estate adjacent to the town’s large industrial estate which, in the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, was a noisy environment. Often my housing estate would vibrate to the monotonous and mechanical sounds of electric drills, saws and hammers. Sometimes these sounds would be eerie and unsettling. But mostly they just became elements of a familiar soundscape. Artists involved in the vibrant Industrial Music scene in Sheffield in the nineteen eighties told of similar experiences though theirs were more intense than mine and continued deep into the night. In the documentary film The Beat is the Law (2010), primarily the product of Sheffield Indie band Pulp, in which the city’s musical culture is set against the socio-political and historic backdrop of Thatcherism, the decline of the Steel Industry and the Miners’ Strike, legendary drummer Dee Boyle (formerly of Cabaret Voltaire, Chakk & Hula) talked about falling asleep every night to the sound of the forge hammer in the nearby Steel Mill and the night air being filled with the sounds of the factories.

I imagine it was a similar case in the newly modernised industrial cities of West Germany in the sixties, providing a strong, repetitive soundtrack from which this new musical tradition emerged. Edgar Froese, founder member of Tangerine Dream, was profoundly influenced by the potential to utilize new sounds based on technology. This led him to build his own custom-made instruments and use tape loops to build repetitive layers of sound. His innovations are credited with influencing the invention of the sequencer which rose to prominence in the popular music of the nineteen eighties. Although Tangerine Dream would come to be characterised by their use of synthesizers, their 1970 debut album Electronic Meditation was based on a tape-collage and custom sounds.

In his book Future Days: Krautrock and the building of Modern Germany, journalist and author David Stubbs suggests that the German Electronic Music and ‘Krautrock’ artists were influenced both by the post-serial music of Karl-Heinz Stöckhausen and by the American Minimalists. Certainly there is an undeniable similarity between the repetitive, gradually evolving layers of sound in the electronic and synthesizer music, itself a precursor for so many of the genres we have subsequently come to associate with the clubs scene, and the repeating, gradually changing patterns in Minimalist composition.

Equally there is a correlation between the meticulous pre-compositional planning, neat rows of notes and fascination with the manipulation of electronic and computerized sounds in the sonic mini-symphonies of Tangerine Dream and the complex experimental projects undertaken by Stöckhausen (albeit that the latter’s music is markedly more complex and aurally challenging). One should also point to the influence of ground-breaking works by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, whose Atmospheres offered a mind-bending radicalisation of conventional string timbres, later chosen by the film director Stanley Kubric to appear in the soundtrack of his 2001 Space Odyssey (1971) and Greek composer Iannis Xenakis whose Stochastic music used complex mathematical formulae mixed with striking textures to produce a thrilling otherworldly music. So in fact the pioneering figures in the new West German music were looking to more than one contemporary music school for inspiration. Moreover they were looking to contemporary art or classical music rather than to the Blues-Rock inspired hybrids of Rock and Roll.

In fact, where the new German music did cross over with the emerging stages of Anglo-American popular music was not so much with the Rock music of the time but with the Urban music associated with the black ghettos of New York and other cities. The emphasis on beats and repetitive rhythmic sequences held similarities with the dance music of Motown and Philadelphia, a correlation that was strengthened by the advent of Disco music. Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk commented, in a 1991 BBC Radio documentary about the band, on the pleasant surprise the band members experienced when they walked on stage at the outset of their first US tour and saw hundreds of black fans in the audience. The young black Americans had connected with the mechanical beats and sparse synthesizer-dominated soundscapes in their music and black American radio stations had picked this up and given Kraftwerk a voice.

This would be underlined in the following decade when Hip Hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Mantronix fertilised the rap spin-off known as Electro in which Kraftwerk, in particular, were hailed as a key influence and sampled on tracks such as Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock (1982). Bambaataa (a.k.a Kevin Donovan) also championed the experimental Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra whose glittering electro-pop had captured the attention of new music fans at the beginning of that decade. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s rap classic The Message famously flowed along on the back of a repetitive synth riff with its roots in electronic music.

British and American music critics reacted in a variety of ways to this new non-Rock, non-guitar driven music. At one extreme, there was outright animosity and the portrayal of Germans with synthesizers and electronics as a terrible emotionally void anathema to be shunned at all costs. Others treated it as a novelty, a quirky fad that would pass in time. Few embraced it although there were exceptions like the legendary American journalist Lester Bangs who would similarly be among the first of his generation to embrace British Punk.

For a short period in the late nineteen seventies, it might have seemed as if the impetus behind German electronic music was dropping away, at least in the sense of being a force for change outside Central and Northern Europe. But that would alter dramatically in the final year of the decade as artists like Gary Numan (Tubeway Army), John Foxx (Ultravox) and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) announced themselves to the world and the influence of Synthesizer Electronic music was in the ascendancy. Numan and Foxx both shed their bands to pursue solo careers (though, under the leadership of former Slikk and Rich Kids frontman Midge Ure, Ultravox would return with a vengeance the following year), Numan in particular setting the early running as Synth Pop or Futurism became subsumed into the wider New Romanticism associated with Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. David Bowie, always an artist at the forefront of change in the seventies and one who had periodically worked with electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, embraced this development quite explicitly on his 1979 set The Lodger.

In truth, the ensuing developments, fuelled both by the sudden availability of highly affordable and easy-to-play synthesizers and by the immediate post-Thatcher¹ reaction to the harder-edged rebellion of Punk and 2-Tone, took the synth-dominated bands in a much more commercially-driven and less interesting direction. But the German electronic music tradition also had an unquantifiable influence on a more progressive and sonically ambitious group of bands and artists both in the UK (Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo, Throbbing Gristle etc.) and in Germany itself (Einstürzende Neubaten, Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft etc.). In Britain, the music was frequently described as Industrial, a reference to the tendency towards incorporation of found sounds (particularly the use of industrial equipment and tools) into the music and the tendency for it to closely resonate with the sounds of industrial urban towns and cities.

¹In this context the term post-Thatcher refers to the period immediately following her election in 1979 and not the period following her resignation in 1990

What few predicted at that time was that the influence of this German Synth-Electronic tradition would continue to provide new impetus for developments both in popular and art music throughout the ensuing years. In the late nineteen-eighties, the advent of Acid House paved the way for a host of new genres united by their direct relationship to the transformation of the night clubs scene from homes of Dance-based commercial ‘Pop Charts’ music played by in-house DJs into venues for outsourced themed genre-based nights, usually held weekly or fortnightly, in which the DJ was the new star and every successful night had its own recognizable bent. As the club scene blossomed in the nineties, so the music diversified giving rise to multiple genres and sub-genres – Progressive House, Deep House, Banging House, Soulful House, Hard House, Techno, Trance, Gabba, Hip Hop, Breakbeat, US Garage, UK Garage,Electronica etc. Another unifying factor infusing all these styles was the clearly audible influence of the German Electronic and British Industrial acts.

While the clubs may have pulsated to the sound of music with its ancestry in the post-war German musical culture, the art music world also began to look to the same tradition (as well as that of Japanese artists) as the instrumental, recording and mastering technology moved on apace.

Although the concept of Sound Art owed an indisputable debt of gratitude to the pioneering Italian composer and inventor Luigi Russolo whose 1913 manifesto L’Arte dei Rumori (translated as The Art of Noise) had introduced the notion of noise-generation and sound replacing conventional melody and harmony, by the eighties the burgeoning Sound Art scene included composers such as the Americans Nicolas Collins and Max Neuhaus who moved to Europe to be at the heart of a scene acknowledging its German and European roots..

The twenty-first century has seen the importance of computer-based recording, sound manipulation and filtering software, digital recorders, mastering programmes etc. grow and grow while keyboard, sequencing and sampling equipment have also continued to evolve. It has also contributed to a blurring of the old borders between art and pop music with labels like Warp Records, another product of the Sheffield music scene and one which emerged from the ashes of the legendary FON (which stood for Fuck off Nazis!), releasing works by artists as diverse as Brian Eno, the Aphex Twin, LFO, Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) and Plaid.

British composers such as Thomas Ades and Judith Weir have utilised another feature of the German acts which is the combining of the aural and the visual with video clips, TV footage and general multi-media concepts incorporated into performances.

Among the current crop of emerging composers are a great many whose work clearly demonstrates the influence of the electronic music culture such as Mason Bates who blends the orchestral with the electronic and Anna Meredith who mixes electronic and acoustic music. Meredith, whose music has recently been played on the likes of Mary Anne Hobbs’s weekend show on BBC Radio 6 Music, is a leading exponent of music that fuses elements from the pop and art music worlds making it impossible to exclude it from either

On my own Demerara Records label, music steeped in the same German electronic and wider Euro-American-Asian scenes and sub-scenes has been the dominant presence including albums by Guy Avern, Fivrel (a.k.a Jostein Avdem Fretland) and soon Nicolas Horvath as well as an EP by my own side project Dreamscape City Sinfonia, not to mention my own work which extensively utilises sound manipulation techniques. Our critically acclaimed new music compilation This is Tomorrow Calling (2015), though thoroughly eclectic by definition, nevertheless included a significant number of recordings by artists influenced by different elements of the electronic and synth music traditions provided by an international cast of composers.

As this century unfolds, characterised by post-globalisation Capitalist culture, a world depending at almost every level upon computers and digital technology and a fast-moving fluid and impatient day-to-day ethos that is almost impossible to escape from, it makes sense that the new music reflects this environment whilst utilising its creations in creatively imaginative ways. That is precisely where the impetus for bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream came from, albeit when the world was less IT-driven and internationally uniform than it is now. The internet and social media also make the world a smaller place and add to the sense that the soundbite is today’s communication norm and detail is a luxury we cannot always afford to indulge as we try to tear ourselves way from our tablets and mobile phones.

Of course, there is not going to be a sudden return to an age where the dominant music in Western Society belongs to a single generic artistic epoch and evolves at a uniform rate as was, in essence, true of classical music for three hundred years leading up to the turn of the twentieth century. Nor would I postulate such a state as something desirable in an age where ‘serious’ music is no longer the property of an elite and we have become open to influences from across the globe and the ability to receive music in a multitude of forms.

What I do predict is that composers and artists searching for new means of expression and sound organisation will continue to draw on the influence of what has proved to be a musical tradition with far greater longevity than many could have envisaged when they were listening to Autobahn and Phaedra some forty plus years ago. And that, I dare to proffer, is a good thing.