HANS-JOACHIM ROEDELIUS is considered a pioneer of electronic music worldwide. While the band CLUSTER (with Conrad Schnitzler and Dieter Moebius) was still a typical product of the wild, uninhibited subculture of the sixties – the album “Cluster 71” is considered by many to be the founding manifesto of German Krautrock – Brian Eno called the first follow-up project HARMONIA (with Dieter Moebius and Michael Rother) “the most important rock group in the world”. DAVID BOWIE and groups like THE HUMAN LEAGUE also referred to HARMONIA and their sound between Krautrock, Ambient and Trance. Today ROEDELIUS prefers to deal with the sonic results “that arise as interferences when playing around on the piano between strings struck in a different way”, tries to live only by his inner rhythm and describes his music as “tone painting”. In an interview with Markus Deisenberger, the now almost 86-year-old talks about collecting wood with BRIAN ENO, about separating as much as possible semblance from truth by fumbling, and why it is so important for him to pull himself out of the game as a person to let the work speak for itself.
“What does the wind know where it’s blowing from”, you are writing in one of your texts (“Adam”). Your life story reads a bit like that: you were a child star in UFA films, a member of the Hitler Youth, or rather the so-called “Pimpfen”, and finally in the People’s Army of the GDR, and also served time as a dissident in GDR prisons. “My life has been some kind of escape until I was about 37 years old…”, another quote from your autobiography.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: The fact that I was lent by my parents as child actor to UFA film productions, and that I had to look after myself already as a four-year-old because they hardly ever showed up at home for more than a few hours a day, was the beginning of an extraordinarily eventful course of life that is continuing to the present.
Artistically, after tentative solo attempts as a hippie street musician, things really took off in 1968 at the Zodiac Artslab, a short-lived but nevertheless very successful project in West Berlin, which had a strong influence on the development of contemporary, experimental, and live music, especially in Berlin. What was the impetus for founding this club?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: It was not my initiative. I was friends with Conrad Schnitzler at the time and he gave me a kind of security within his family for a certain time. In order to make a living, we renovated apartments together and, alongside that, started making music together in his tiny studio. And then he had the idea: “Let’s create a platform for freelance artists of all stripes – also for theater, for dance and cabaret.” He then found a space in a building on Hallesches Ufer and signed a contract with the city of Berlin. He asked me if I wanted to join in together with members of the group Human Being, an association of like-minded people that was still in the process of being established at that time, the first and probably only music commune in Berlin at that time, besides the “Liebeskommune” of Uschi Obermayer and Rainer Langhans and the “Diskutier-Kommune” K1, a group of anarchists that included the later members of RAF, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. Schnitzler was someone who started projects and then rather quickly dropped out of them to start something else. He did the same with the Artslab. After a short time he left. We then continued the project without him, with a small catering business, where we made and served butter and lard sandwiches, cooked soups, served beer, and so on. The guests included everyone who had a name in Berlin at the time, as well as all the artists and groups we knew who were passing through.
What was that like? An autonomous zone not belonging to the system? A parallel universe?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: There was nothing, no venues for Berlin’s “underground culture” back then. Something had to happen. A new beginning on the part of freelance artists was urgently needed. But I wasn’t the one who initiated the project, that was Conrad Schnitzler. I took part and co-guaranteed a loan that allowed us to purchase a high-quality sound system for the time and thus made it possible for us to have a full house, always. I was happy to be able to be there and to help shape the project, because it gave me the opportunity to switch from healing to sound art or art in general. Before the Zodiac existed, I was also on the road as a street musician. I played drums and flute, walked around as a hippie, long haired and bearded and with little bells on my ankles.
There was also a long journey that Human Being wanted to undertake across Europe and then to Africa…
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: … which already came to an end in a parking lot in Casablanca.
You once said that at that time you didn’t want to make any big music at all, nothing visionary: “We just wanted to do what we thought we had to do.”
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Exactly. We wanted to experience life and react to what was happening when we tried out in public what we enjoyed, what we carried around as an idea. Everything was undergoing a change. There was a cultural hole after the Nazi insanity, and we tried to fill it as a group by the significant name of “Human Being” with the most diverse activities. We were pioneers for many others who were inspired by us through the Zodiac to start their own creative activities. Edgar Froese for example with his Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze’s Ashra Temple with Manuel Göttsching and so on. There were many activists in Berlin who started to do highly interesting new stuff.
After an odyssey of about three years as a performance artist through European museums, art halls and galleries, you settled down in 1972 with Dieter Moebius in a commune of artists in the old Weserhof in Forst. You have always described this as an “arrival”.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Yes, but we didn’t found another commune. There were two of us there, Moebius and me, with our companions, each in our own living situation. A friend had taken over the farm on a 99-year lease and invited us to live with him at the farm. When we moved there, we did not know that nuclear radiation was leaking from a dilapidated nuclear power plant upstream. Therefore, we had to move away from there again with our first child. Many people, especially children, fell ill with leukemia all over the place, without the contamination ever being publicized in the media at that time. We lived in a sort-of idyll until we finally realized the danger we were in. A lot came into being during that time, the band Harmonia, for example, and I began work on my self-portraits in search of my own tonal language, but under what circumstances? Yet it was a kind of “good time” for us and our development. Our first child, Rosa Amanda, was born at home in front of a burning fire in the fireplace. But we were lucky to leave that place in time, because ultimately three adult roommates and one child developed cancer, and two adults and the child died.
Are you in need of a retreat to make things happening, artistically?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: It was very helpful for me at the time and basically still is, yes. I need a retreat to reflect, to rethink, to sort out what is just unnecessary ballast. Being able to climb into the ivory tower occasionally was then and still is for me a constant and necessary act of self-reflection and self-determination. Everything that has happened to me along the way has contributed to my ability to engage with composition/art from my own unique perspective. The many people I touched as a physical therapist, whom I massaged, who made me become their confessor; their stories. Since then, what I am delivering of myself artistically, whether through music, texts, poetry or projects, happens, so to speak, as an “echo” of what I experienced during those encounters, what was told to me, how people turned to me and presented themselves. So, in the end, artistic work, music, poetry and projects, all are based on the conditio humana.
That is, the move from massage therapist to musician was not a break, but a continuance of the same activity, only with different means?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Yes, and I am very grateful for that.
What was it like working in Forst?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: We used a small makeshift studio. We spent a lot of time collecting scrap wood in the forest for the cold season, bringing it to the yard, chopping it up and stacking it in round piles, since we had to heat the huge rooms of this old building with stoves and fireplaces. We played music during the breaks, when there was nothing more urgent to do. We baked our own bread and ground the flour for it by hand; we made jams from the fruit of trees and bushes from the surroundings of the Weserhof. We did everything ourselves from scratch, first of all making the house habitable, because it had been uninhabited for a long time, laying water and sewage pipes, mainly teaching ourselves how to make ends meet with little money. We had nothing. What we earned with Cluster was ridiculous, yet the royalties from a single track with Brian Eno kept us alive for years, so to speak.
“By This River.” Eno, who was working with David Bowie on the albums “Low” and “Heroes” at the time, has said that he suddenly felt “like being in a bubble” in Forst.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: He said that yes. But so did we. That’s how we all felt. But for him it seemed to be somehow very important to be invited by us to participate for a certain time in the life of our community. When he came to spend a total of eleven days with us (in transit to Switzerland for final work with David Bowie on “Low” and “Heroes”), he seemed to be at a crossroads between becoming the producer he became or remaining a songwriter. Whether that was decided during that stay with us, I don’t know. In any case, he enjoyed being with us. And: He took a lot of pressure off me and my wife, for example by carrying Rosa, our first child, who had trouble falling asleep, around the room in his arms for nights on end until she fell asleep and could be put to bed.
Your output is not half bad. It would take hours just to list the number of collaborations. Not just collaborations, lots of solo works, projects, commissions.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Everything that had to do with music/art, that finally could be published as a product, “came to me“, so to speak, and that’s how it has remained so far. Whenever there was time, whenever I had a spare moment, whenever something came into my mind, I sat down at the piano or the electrical equipment, wrote down the results electrically for further use and continued to work on them and on new ideas and commissions, as well as dealing with the collaborations that arose “as if by chance” again and again over the course of time.
Let’s go to the many collaborations. Was there a recipe for approaching each one of them?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: No. I met people/colleagues, became friends with them in the best case, in order to do with them what presented itself and could be done, and with some of them, the collaboration continues to this day, because the chemistry is just right and the results were and are convincing.
In your autobiography, you are writing that composition and improvisation make no difference?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: I am a sound painter. I have to let come what wants to come. I’m not making up anything. If something arises, it arises out of a favorable moment. The great value attributed to my music is certainly that it comes from the heart and from the guts. There are no intentions and refinements in/behind its creation process, except that I must always be and remain open. As I said, I must be able to let come what wants to come “by itself”.
Has that changed over time?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: For studio work, to some extent, yes: Brian taught us not to clutter up all the tracks of the multitrack machines we used with just any tones and sounds. In any case, he taught me/us, the respective participants, to pare down such work to the essentials, but he also helped me a lot for my entire artistic activity by contributing, at my request, preambles, comments on certain projects and productions, and statements about me in my autobiography.
What did Eno learn from you?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: I don’t know exactly. He later said that he felt like being in a bubble with us, that he was amazed by what we were doing and how we were doing it. I still remember that in the forest – because I had bought him an axe and a saw so that he could help fetch wood – he sat around at first rather perplexed. He finally got out his notebook and calculated how much money I would have to earn in order to stop having to collect the wood myself in the forest and carry it home. “If you were more industrious, you could afford someone to bring the wood to your house,” he said. “Don’t spend the day in the forest, spend it in the studio.” But I really wanted to go to the woods. I loved picking mushrooms and berries, picking up the scrap wood lying around, bringing it to the yard, chopping it up there and stacking it up in piles, that was part of my/our life. I wanted to be active following my inner rhythm only according to the resulting necessities of our rural way of life. First the necessary survival work, then music respectively art.
Was is that what attracted one to the other?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Eno liked my early solo works, which later came out as “Self-Portraits”. When he was working with Daniel Lanois and U2 in Canada on “Joshua Tree,” he wrote me a postcard noting that he, his girlfriend at the time, and Daniel would enjoy my music every morning because it was so “unintentionally simple.” That, of course, was very edifying. Brian once said, in the context of my dislike, or rather innate resistance, to interference by others in my compositional work: “Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to be produced. You go your way in your own way.” That has given me tremendous encouragement to do what I think I need to do and, more importantly, how I need to do it.
And the collaboration? How did that go?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: He worked with us on various productions. We recorded one of them with him in Forst when he visited us there, but it was poor in terms of technical quality, in terms of sound. Later, when new technology (Sonic Solution) made it possible, we dealt first with this material, and the result was the album called “Harmonia tracks & traces”, the content of which, as he himself says, he found “magical”. Four musicians, one track each on the four-track recording machine we used. No overdubs, wonderfully balanced music, created on the spur of the moment, entirely in the spirit of Cluster’s way of working. We had a similar kind of motivation when working in Conny Plank‘s studio on “Cluster & Eno” and “After The Heat”, whereby the former production was still created entirely in the Cluster style, but the latter clearly bears Brian’s signature, and Konrad Plank’s collaboration as a super sound engineer and co-player finds its concrete audible expression in the resulting music as well.
In your book, you mention Lincoln and Snowden in the same breath. There are many who may not be able to understand that.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Abraham Lincoln said after the National Banking Act of 1863 was passed: “The money power preys upon the nation in times of peace and conspires against it in times of adversity. I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its REIGN by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” If this statement does not get under your skin, you are blind and deaf, or do not understand reality and are therefore unable to influence it in any way to change people’s lives at least a little bit for the better. Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning are great role models for me.
Their music was used in “War Machine,” an anti-war satire directed by David Michod and produced by Brad Pitt.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Nick Cave was commissioned to produce respectively compile the entire soundtrack for this film, incorporating those parts of my music that David Michod, as director, had already precisely positioned for certain passages of the film beforehand, into the chronology of the entire sound event.
The film unmasks American foreign policy in a very compelling way. I initially disagreed with my music being used, but then let myself be convinced by the images and especially by the content of the dialogues. This opus magnum of Brad Pitt, who paid out of his own pocket $ 60 million for the production, would actually have deserved an “Academy Award”.
You are curating and organizing the music festival More Ohr Less, which took place for many years in Lunz, a small town in Lower Austria. Why Lunz? Somehow this idyllic place at the foot of the Ötscher with its mountain lake seems to have fallen out of time. When one gets there, it feels like being in the 1950s.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: The idea was to premiere the album “Lunz” composed by Tim Story and me, which we had produced in memory of a joint hike from the lower to the upper Lunz Lake, in the village of Lunz on the stage of the lake theater designed by the Lunz artist Hans Kupelwieser. We – my wife and I – created the festival there, since it had not been possible to celebrate the birth of this work properly in the framework of another festival taking place there. The Lunz lake stage in the middle of an intact nature is on its own a feast for the eyes. I have always been fascinated by nature. Even as a child I felt more at home there than in urban surroundings. I even carried our children behind me at night in a bicycle trailer over the surrounding fields of our home town Blumau, for them to see the stars, to hear the sounds of the night.
And they didn’t scream?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: No. I know it did them a lot of good and they are still dreaming about it today.
Why did you quit Lunz?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: After the mayor, who helped bring the festival into being, retired early, the backing was no longer there like it once had been. We always had to deal with bad weather, but during the last edition, it was really borderline. We were only able to play the stage for one day/evening, the rest of the program had to take place in a gym. Vikingur Olafsson was forced to cope with the poor acoustics of this hall, and this youngest grandmaster of sensitive piano playing did not deserve that. In general, the odds were not good. The first night I fell, injured two vertebrae and now, after a year, I still can’t move in a normal way.
With your autobiography, you want to get to the bottom of your own life. Is it at all possible to reach the bottom of such a many-faceted life?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: The impetus for writing the bio came from a friend who thought I should write down my memories of the individual productions that I have worked on throughout my life, summarize the thoughts on them and publish them, and thoroughly examine semblance and truth of what I have done. That’s how it started, and finally it took more than two years to finish the book, which is now finally available in an English version.
Semblance and truth are good keywords. One gets numerous attributions over the course of one’s career, “Godfather of Krautrock,” for example, although your music has only little to do with rock. How do you deal with that? Are there also attributions that you like?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: (laughs) Sure. Someone recently wrote about my work: “The voice that changed the world.” The only intention behind my artistic work, as I mentioned before, is the readiness to let come out what wants to express itself “by itself,” so to speak. If that is perceived as a “voice” that changed the world, well, so be it, right?
I was also impressed by what you are saying in your book about the future of music. Today, one very often hears that everything has already been said in music, that it’s hardly possible to create without any repetition. You, on the other hand, are saying: “We can all still hope for great surprises.” That sounds incredibly hopeful. Why are you so certain?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: There are, after all, other personalities in the current music scene besides me and my urge to explore, who, like me, are concerned with hitherto unexplored areas in the field of sound art, and in doing so are moving things forward in the direction of new sonic territory, and are thus at the service of the constant development of sound art and its miscellaneous possibilities of impact.
You’re turning 86, but your drive seems unbroken. What are your musical plans?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: I’m constantly trying to do what I can as a tone painter. At the moment, I prefer to work with the sound of strings. When a string is struck and vibrates, it releases a sound world that sounds different each time, depending on the pressure with which it is struck. If you then strike a second string, an unbelievably complex, fascinating universe of sounds is created between the fading and the rising tones. I am on the trail of the adventurous possibilities in auditory/aural realms that carry a lasting psycho-acoustic added value not only for me, the adventurer because sound is sacred to me.
Do you mean that in religious or transcendental terms?
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: What’s the difference?
Motörhead mastermind Lemmy Killmister once described it beautifully: A journalist said in an interview at the time that Johann Sebastian Bach would be unimaginable without the church. “Absolute nonsense,” Lemmy countered. “Bach would be unimaginable without transcendence. The church used him. And he allowed himself to be used. That’s the way the times were. People had to make a living, after all.”
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Lemmy Killmister said that? Great. (laughs) Okay, then I’ll take transcendence. It’s a very melodious word.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius was born on October 26, 1934 in Berlin-Steglitz. He is one of the main proponents of the electronic avant-garde of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the course of his life he has had countless occupations – child star, construction and mining worker, physiotherapist, death attendant and private masseur in Berlin and Paris, entertainer, tour guide, mountain guide in the Corsican Alps, and participated in the construction of one of the most beautiful naturism camps on the western coast of Corsica, etc. He is a self-taught composer and musician, having learned his craft in the practical usage of any sound material.
About 200 sound carriers bear his name. In addition to his band and solo works, they include collaborations with Lloyd Cole, Brian Eno, Michael Rother, Conrad Schnitzler, Dieter Moebius, Arnold Kasar, Christopher James Chaplin, Christoph H. Mueller (Gotan project), Tim Story and many others.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius was heavily promoted by his friend Herbert Grönemeyer through his label Groenland-Records, on which large parts of Roedelius’ work are released or reissued. With the Symposion/Music Festival More Ohr Less, founded by him and his wife Christine Martha, he has also repeatedly acted as promoter of the young Austrian music scene. Today he lives in the tranquil spa town of Baden near Vienna.
What the press says:
„one of the best kept secrets of 20th Century music“
ORF / Kultur
„Music for Body & Soul“
… „the distrust of pomposity and grandeur that seems to have characterized the new German scene is particularly strong in his work…“…„discreet almost to the point of self-effacing introspective almost to the point of hermeticism, Roedelius music nonetheless has a quiet intensity and conviction that burns stronger on repeated listenings. More than anything else, you have the sense of someone completely alive in the present; alive to nuance, alive enough to stay balanced…
… „An inspiration to artists as diverse as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Brian Eno and Julian Cope, Roedelius has pursued his unique and extraordinarily beautiful vision for half a century. He has also lived a life that screams out to be told in a movie, but this will do nicely for starters…“
Los Angeles Times
… “the performance was a religious experience for many of those in attendance…”
… “Roedelius has always let his music emerge from the moment; cool calculation was never his thing. As a result, his pieces have retained something playfully curious and unpredictable to this day. He has never allowed himself to become a machine operator, but has always remained a minstrel…”
Noel Akchote, Skug Magazine
… “This is about world music in the sense that it reflects a vision. It’s about a view, or a place, that is beyond its performers. Sanctuary is perhaps the right word. One only has few productions that one is coming back to because they contain something that can’t be said in any other way. Something that can only be said in that way, a music that is everything, or almost everything: piano, moments at the cello. This sequence of variations has something of the sublime, of light, of air, as well as of earth, or water. Natural music…”
… “(listening to) this music, unlike so-called contemporary electronics, one can have associative feelings, as it is no mathematically strict onomatopoeia, but physical music.”
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld