18 digressions about Hans-Joachim Roedelius

Hans-Joachim Roedeliu
Hans-Joachim Roedeliu (Courtesy/Alex Gonzales)

1. Diagonal composer Hans-Joachim Rodelius plays the Creative Alliance on Sunday night, part of a lineup that's a testament to the West German art rock subgenre "krautrock" and its influence on Baltimore. Also on the bill are drum-and-synth minimalists Wume (named after Wümme, the city where clamorous krautrock group Faust recorded) and Horse Lords, improv maximalists who offer a kind of musical act of diplomacy dealing in sprawl and intensity. Baltimore's experimental music scene has long refracted the overt and subtle influences of krautrock's dark psychedelia and the more nervous elements of its adjacent kosmische musik ("cosmic music").

2. Krautrock is understood as a baggy, loaded moment in rock n' roll crafted under curious limitations and context: rock by way of German folk (so it lacks a blues element, really); shroom-y instrumentals made under the long shadow of Karlheinz Stockhausen; the embattled howls and shrieks of free jazz; and, it would seem, a touch of dance music, the stomping soul of late '60s discotheques translated into an unrelenting and precise 4/4 beat (commonly described as "motorik" or "motor skill"). It is a distinctly distracted take on what was going on everywhere else across the world counterculture-wise.


3. "Why did the whole West German rock scene continue to make LPs of acid freakout music in wild op-art sleeves long into the '70s? And why was a standard album by any of the above far more extreme than even three Most extreme British and American equivalents, excluding only such legends as the Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray' (which some krautrock fans would consider tame in comparison with certain tracks that could be mentioned, e.g. Ash Ra Tempel/'Amboss.') This little history attempts to explain the reasons, but it can never truly explain the music of a whole Youth-nation working out their blues. There was a fire burning in the souls of post-war German youth that somehow needed to be, not fanned, not put out, nor added to with petrol—but rather that fire needed to be allowed to burn. And burn it did."-Julian Cope, "krautrock Sampler," 1995

4. There is plenty to learn from the Germans, especially right now because this country is staring down its own Germany in the '30s moment—and that is not exactly hyperbole, but more like a necessary exaggerated warning. Meanwhile, Germany is the main world power hold-out when it comes to flirting with fascism in 2017, as the United States, England, and France, formerly "the good guys," tease a new axis of evil. And there is plenty to learn from krautrock, which processed Germany's chilling, not-so-distant history during worldwide '60s unrest with a dark take on hippie-dom. Roedelius did this, too. He was a kid actor in movies by Nazi-supporting UFA, conscripted into the Hitler Youth at 11, and then into the '60s went full commune-dwelling art fuck back when that really meant something. And so, it's no surprise that his music is so subversively pleasant.

5. Formed in 1969, Cluster, the duo of Roedelius and Dieter Moebius (they were known as Kluster in an earlier, gnarlier incarnation), was a kind of bridge between cosmic music and music that maybe could've come from the cosmos. Imagine a group that only made the dripping parts of early Pink Floyd and you're close. 1976's "Sowiesoso,"* Cluster's fourth album (sixth if you count Kluster releases) is a favorite for its piano sound—somewhere between Vince Guaraldi and Vangelis—and the way it's all plated with emollient electronics. On 'Umleitung,' piano half-shuffles try and sneak past a whole bunch of chanting, yelling, and mumbling unnoticed. It is like a childhood piano lesson and an ayahuasca retreat are going on at the same damn time.

6. "Cluster was always one of the quirkiest and idiosyncratic of the German electronic bands. At once more avant-garde and more D.I.Y, they could be as charming as an electronic music box and as strident as a Stockhausen encomium."-from the website for John Diliberto's new age radio show "Echoes," 2008

7. "In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th-century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music—as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility."-Roedelius disciple and collaborator Brian Eno, in the liner notes for "Discreet Music," 1975

8. "For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gracefully, sleep well. I noticed the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings."-Joan Didion, 'In Bed' 1968

9. Walking around Baltimore last fall, I thought I heard a car up the street blasting 'Watussi,' the first track off the 1974 album "Musik Von Harmonia," by Harmonia, the trio of Roedelius, Moebius, and Michael Rother. It was through bass-squashing car speakers with the windows up, but 'Watussi's' decay and its little bit funky but rigid throb still felt familiar. As I got closer, I realized it was the equally hypnagogic opening of Rufus and Chaka Khan's 1983 song, 'Ain't Nobody'—the Linn LM-1 drum computer loop that opens the song not all that different from what Harmonia did, especially as heard through shit speakers 300 feet away.

10. Endlessly riffing four-piece Horse Lords wow many with their chops, tight spirals of guitar and roving compositional style ("This is like jazz but, like, not gay," someone at one of their shows once quipped to someone else nearby, an unfunny awful "joke" but better glib music criticism than most tbh). Pay attention to that wow factor, get lost in it, but also take note of Horse Lords' masterful, musical miscegenation matching Afro-beat's marathoning with krautrock's dead-eyed refusal to stop or give in and instead just rumble along. Their songs are the sort that wants to see what they can get away with, always.

11. Wume, the duo of April Camlin and Albert Schatz, weaves synth dribbles with mechanic motorik drumming, distilling krautrock styles. My favorite Wume song is 'We Go Further,' off 2015's "Maintain." I said the following about it when it popped up on Bandcamp: "A Germanic space-jazz sing-along wrapped with an absurdist conceit (it's a song about how the song needs some proper lyrics) with drums that sound like they're in the middle of one of those Fugazi jazzy-wazzy, prog-punk breakdowns and synths that are pure uncut John Carpenter soundtrack."

12. There are many things that sound like Roedelius' work, but three that stick out as being particularly Roedelius-ian: 'Menard's Duty,' by Fabio Frizzi from the score to "Zombi 2," a world-weary synth-smear without drums that lasts just a minute and a half but contains so much dread; Tonto's Expanding Head Band's 'Cybernaut,' a moody moog track that invokes being both under water and in outer space; and lastly, the 'Update' music from "Unsolved Mysteries"—an unexpected piece of proto glo-fi that hinges on a moment where a bleary kick drum trips over itself.

13. No time for nostalgia, even when I wax pseudo-poetic about 45-year-old obscure musi—but oh man, San Francisco's Aquarius Records, which closed last year and reopened as Stranded, is foundational in terms of re-proliferating krautrock. Aquarius offered rarities, and was on the look out for every kind of old thing reissued or rediscovered; and better yet, it reviewed the stuff it ordered via a biweekly zine-like newsletter full of effusive, stoned genius praise. I just went to Aquarius' site to pull up some of the bubbling poetry and alas, the site and all of those reviews are gone. But via a ProgArchives message board I found a review where they called Roedelius "the 'romantic' half of krautrock legends Cluster," and well, there you go. There is something romantic about his work, in the capital R sense even—a longing, located in say, 'In Liebe dein,' which begins 1980's "Selbsportrait I" in dreamy reverie.


14. "Feelings are very important to me."-Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Christian Braad Thomsen in 'Five Interviews With Fassbinder'


15. You totally know what you're getting with Roedelius' "Plays Piano (Live in London 1985)" and where it's going but that's OK. The fun, its charm, lies in the little changes, when his hand hits the grand piano's keys too hard, or when he seems to get caught in a brain fart of a loop, flicking a few fingers on the same keys the same way. Roedelius' sense of melody made Cluster's narcotic synth dirges feel in-the-pocket and eerily catchy and that's on display here, especially on 'Pt. 5.' "Plays Piano (Live in London 1985)" is cut into 21 parts and you could look at it as 21 different songs, but that's kind of like slicing a Piet Mondrian painting into a dozen or so little panels of color, you know?

16. "It had become so quiet earlier that no noises could distract him now; and because it had grown, on the one hand, so light that he could see the things all around him and, on the other hand, so quiet that no sound could distract him from them, he had seen the things as though they were, at the same time, advertisements for themselves. In fact, his nausea was the same kind of nausea that had sometimes been brought on by certain jungles, pop songs, or national anthems that he felt compelled to repeat word for word or hum to himself until he fell asleep."-Peter Handke, "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick," 1970

17. Silver Qluster, the duo of Roedelius and Simeon of the Silver Apples, was a highlight at 2011's All Tomorrow's Parties at Asbury Park. Roedelius in all black and Simeon in a tasteful turtleneck and a cowboy hat with a turkey feather provided two different portraits of professorial avant-garde while the lithe evil new age of Roedelius and Simeon's perilous primitive chug commingled. The music the two made up was like the Windows 95 start-up jingle—composed by Brian Eno by the way—chopped-and-screwed while a pair of combat boots rolled, tumbled, and clanged in a dryer.

18. 2015's "Ubi Bene," from Roedelius and Leon Muraglia, is like many Roedelius collaborations, as if two records are going at once. Here, it's something loosely propulsive and IDM-ish, with synths that invoke wires snapping and circuits frying and then behind it, a bed of moans and bubbles. One song on "Ubi Bene" is titled 'There Is A Huge Duck Standing Right Behind You/ The Haunted Space,' and the first part of the title describes the feeling of Roedelius' work better than any adjective-stacking critic could—his work sounds as if there is a huge duck right behind you. Cool menace and soft, ridiculous grandeur all at once.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius plays Creative Alliance on March 12 with Horse Lords and Wume.

*Correction: Entry #5 got the year and title wrong for Cluster's fourth album. The title is "Sowiesoso" and it was released in 1976. City Paper regrets the errors.