Es War Einmal – Once Upon a Time

We often go through life on unseen trajectories that begin with early life choices and end in happy, unexpected meetings in unexpected places much further down the road. Case in point: Hans-Joachim Roedelius (of Cluster, Harmonia fame) landed in the middle of Galiano Island in September of 2017 to perform an intimate house concert as part of his first visit to Vancouver during a rare North American tour. And everything about it was perfect, as though predestined by some cosmic guidebook. In the end it made perfect sense.

In the early 1980s I hosted a radio show that, along with CO-OP Radio’s Alien Soundtracks, was one of the few places on the west coast you could hear the music of German electronic music pioneers like Cluster, Harmonia, Michael Rother, Neu et al. These are some of the core groups that ended up influencing Brian Eno and David Bowie during his “Berlin Period” from ’77 to ’79. For example, Bowie’s Low would not be Low and Lodger would not be Lodger without the influence of Cluster, Harmonia and Neu via Eno’s production touch and general enthusing about their music. For most people, that is the most common entry point to Roedelius’ music. He even appears on Eno’s Before and After Science (the track By this River a clear reference to his time staying with Roedelius in Forst) and was clearly an influence on Music for Airports and Music for Films.

His most enduring collaboration was with the late Dieter Moebius with whom he formed Cluster at the turn of the 70s. Their music was a curious melding of contrasting and complimentary impulses that led to a string of recordings throughout the 70s where romantic, melodic keyboard melodies happily collided with low tech, rhythmic pulses and noise bursts. And in the late 70s Cluster recorded two transcendent albums with Eno: Cluster and Eno (1977) and After the Heat (1978). On the first LP, and with Can’s Holger Czukay on bass, they recorded Ho Renomo, one of the most perfect and entrancing slices of pastoral electronica you’re likely to hear.

In recent years, the revival and “cool status” elevation of so-called “Krautrock” (Ugh. Only the British would come up with that!) has resulted in a slew of media tributes to Roedelius because he’s the one man who remains carrying the flame for the kind of “music of life” philosophy that drove the scene from the outset. In other words, Roedelius has remained true to a creative, restless drive that has resulted in an incredibly large output of music both as a solo artist and generous collaborator and the press is finally giving him his due. This piece in The Guardian will give you the broad strokes:

If there’s a place you’d like to start, I’d recommend his latest collaboration with Arnold Kaspar called Einfluss which is typical of his gentle, pulsing piano playing lightly dusted with subtle electronic treatments. Ironically, it’s released on the ultimate classical music label Deutsche Grammophon. But also seek out his work with Tim Story. Inlandish, Lazy Arc or Lunz are all gorgeous.

Really, there is a ton of “Roedeliusmusik” to listen to and it’s well worth seeking out. In recent years he even revived a variation of Cluster with Onnen Bock and Armin Metz releasing 5 CDs as Qluster. And in any event, the German label Bureau B has virtually all of his output available in superbly remastered and repackaged CD form.

But back to Galiano Island. One of my favourite Cluster recordings remains Sowiesoso (1976) and it has been soundtracking my visits to the island for over a quarter century. It is quintessential Cluster: a scuffed, romantic, pulsing piece of music with much eccentric detail baked in. It is like the sound of trees breaking the early morning sunlight as they rush past your peripheral vision while driving down a country road. And that’s it! If Kraftwerk’s Autobahn served as the ultimate soundtrack for European highway driving, Sowiesoso could be said to do the same for those who choose prettier, more obscure, rural routes. Less predictable, slightly more grit, but no less entrancing.

Sowiesoso was recorded in a large, rambling, slightly decrepit historic house by the banks of the river Weser near Forst in rural Germany. It was where they lived, played and recorded…and had visitors such as Eno, who learned that making music was as much about gathering wood for the evening as it was about manipulating tape and mixing sounds. On my first trip to Germany as a child, and about the time Cluster released Zuckerzeit in 1974, I was on a summer boat ride down that very river. The cover image for the album was taken at the river’s edge by Martha Roedelius whom remains a clear and guiding presence on the current tour.

In September, 2017, Roedelius announced a date in Vancouver as part of the New Forms Festival. But on his Facebook page there was something else; a house concert on Galiano Island! That seemed scarcely believable. We’d been in touch about licensing music for a short doc on Vancouver artist Val Nelson but now we’d get to meet in person. I proposed poster designs for the concerts and made arrangements to assist tour manager Chandra Shukla with the Galiano show. Hosts Wolfgang Matthes and Nan Vernon were very generous to host this at their home and it was a joy to sit around chatting over meals and see the local community come out in full support, with many never having heard of Roedelius prior. Pure magic! In the end it proved to be the most memorable date of the tour. And it all seemed like an inevitable happy denouement to a long and curious journey. Roedelius commented that Galiano reminded him of Forst and I only wished there was more time for him to spend there, to relax, to live and maybe to find new collaborators.

For the Galiano concert poster I used an image I’d taken at Montague Harbour in the mid 1990s. It seemed fitting and as I see it next to the images above the threads are clear. The palette, mood and leafless branches. It’s reaching back through time. It may even have been taken after driving to the location while listening to Cluster. Es war einmal. And now, forward again…


About markmushet

I take photographs, make videos, produce podcasts, do some design and generally provide a variety of media services to educational, cultural and corporate clients.
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