AFFORDABLE COMPUTERS PRESENTS
THE ELECTRONIC MUSICIAN
TWO SIDES OF TANGERINE DREAM
By Tom Lanham
Ex-Dreamer Peter Baumann's Private Music
Peter Baumann doesn't think of himself as the next Yves Saint Laurent or Giorgio Armani. But the former Tangerine Dreamer is responsible for what should be an interesting addition at the counters of some top-name boutiques this fall - an ultra-hip designer line of albums and cassettes.
The Berlin-bred musician recently unveiled a classy series of keyboard-heavy recordings on his Private Music label in several posh New York retail outlets. Rather young (32) to be tasting the red and the black of big business life, Baumann is relying on oblique strategies to find his audience - not the cut-and-dried success formulas routinely used by the synthesizerist's older, more experienced competitors.
Baumann's trendsetting approach to merchandising, which calls for such unique points of distribution as avant-garde bookstores, hi-tech nightclubs and the chic-est clothiers from coast to coast, could conceivably set the play-it-safe music industry on its faded ear. Even though he and Private Music's whopping staff of five also plan on stocking the shelves of larger record store chains like Tower Records with their four initial packages, he feels that most of his support will spring from the select camp.
Baumann's young company has been carefully constructed by the artist, who developed a kaleidoscopic taste for sounds while fronting Germany's all-synthesizer rock group, Tangerine Dream, for five years. Now a polished aesthete, the keyboard whiz kid who left his former outfit in '77 to explore America's rock culture has finally found his niche. Private Music is perhaps the ultimate expression of everything Baumann was taught at the hands of the non-vocal European masters of improvisation, Tangerine Dream, and he is justifiably proud of his baby.
"I want people to understand that Private Music will not be aggressive or outgoing, because I feel music blossoms best in private situations," says a jubilant Baumann. His impressive roster of artists (who are all skilled musical craftsmen with their respective tools), substantiates this claim. Famed instrumentalists like Eddie Jobson and Ryuichi Sakamoto stand alongside newer entries such as Missing Person alumnus Patrick O'Hearn and Lucia Hwong, whose forte is obscure Chinese folk music. Other featured musical styles run the gamut from the sparse minimalism of acoustic piano improvisation (Piatut Orre) to full-tilt synthesized orchestration (O'Hearn's Ancient Dreams and Jerry Goodman's On The Future Of Aviation). And these atypical recordings, Baumann feels, will probably not appeal to your average disco listener.
"I know the whole industry will be surprised at how many people are out there who enjoy instrumental music like this," Baumann reasons, citing recent million-selling artists like Andreas Vollenweider and Vangelis as examples. "It's not something totally esoteric, which is how anything that's not Top 40 is usually perceived."
Baumann is understandably enthused about his project. He's got a great deal of his own Tangerine Dream royalty money riding on it. But with a sporadic release schedule of ten or so records a year he can afford to pay attention to the finer details his competitors might miss. All Private Music tapes are high-quality chrome, as well as being mastered through the expensive digital process.
In fact, Baumann's modus operandi reminds one of nothing so much as Will Ackerman's meticulous Windham Hill Records, another small label willing to do battle with the big-timers for the sake of art. "I think our companies complement each other," he agrees. "But we're definitely going into a more complex style of music, even though we're both instrumental-based.
"But instrumental music creates a different intimacy than vocal music does. It doesn't confine you to certain imagery, it doesn't tell you that it's dark outside with a thin ray of moonlight - it leaves it open to interpretation. "
Baumann adds that David Geffen has signed yet another proven prototype, Kitaro, as the major outfits begin wising up to the fact that non-vocal albums can be more than just movie soundtracks. But he quickly adds that Private Music artists will not be tied to strictly one medium, such as synthesizers.
"I want my artists to really do what they want to do," says the keyboardist who expects to record his own Private Music album soon. "l don't want to have any competition between them, either. I want original talent."
The budding businessman also hints that, "several top-name pop artists are very interested in the label. Obviously, those guys are always pressed to come up with another hit single, and all the good experimental stuff they leave at home."
It's a given that Peter Baumann will be able to easily discern the wheat from the chaff when it comes to experimental music. Tangerine Dream was his school, which he entered at the tender age of 18. "When we started out, we were so innocent," he wistfully recalls. "There was no point of reference for what we were doing - we totally improvised everything. And the sound was good. Today, with a couple years of experience, I know the palette I'm working with, I know the colors and the textures of sound. "
After Baumann's T.D. days ended abruptly in '76 with his secession from the group, he continued pursuing his interest in the electronics field. And he's glad he did. "Now," he sighs in amazement, "the technology for electronic instruments has become so sophisticated that you don't necessarily hear that they're electronic anymore. I've got an instrument that I use that was custom-built in Germany, and it can do just about anything. It's a computer-controlled analog digital device, and it lets me change sounds with fast access."
The German techno-toy might be the only remnant of Berlin left in Peter Baumann's life. His once-thick accent is almost gone, his current attitude is fairly capitalistic and his office windows, he proudly states, give him a fine view of New York City.
"When I left Tangerine Dream," he concludes, "I was ready to do something else. I had a lot of energy, and I just couldn't stay in Germany anymore. So where else better to go than America? I wasn't known here, it was neutral ground, so I could try and experiment with some other things. And I think Private Music is an experiment that will really work."
Edgar Froese On Machines And Movies
"People were screaming and throwing tomatoes at us - it was absolutely the worst!" moans Edgar Froese, reflecting on a particularly hostile reception that his band, Tangerine Dream, received one long-ago night in Europe. Forced to flee the stage in terror after their first ten minutes of all-synthesizer music, the German trio was surprised at first. But later, Froese admits, the band realized it stood a slim chance of propagating its peculiar breed of textured noise, especially in front of crowds that were accustomed to three-minute pop songs.
"Our shows started with a long, long bass note that went on for six or seven minutes," laughs the keyboardist, knowing full well that Tangerine Dream has usually sailed right over its listeners heads, "just to keep the sound surrounding the hall for atmosphere, you know?
"But people weren't ready for that. They weren't even ready for any sort of electronic sounds and tones, so we had a lot of problems back then."
"Back then" for Tangerine Dream was the five-year period (give or take a month or two) that directly followed the group's forming in 1968. And if attempting to move rock fans with non-vocal walls of sound wasn't enough of a herculean task, Froese and friends (Chris Franke and Peter Baumann) began just as psychedelic excess was leading into the grating crunch of vocal-strewn heavy metal music. Few bands have survived such an anonymous fate as Tangerine Dream, who are still slugging away at the same motifs in the eighties. But, then again, few bands were motivated to pursue music by so lofty an influence as Salvador Dali.
Introduced to the Spanish surrealist master painter via a friend in '66, a young Edgar Froese, eager to expand his own sculpting and painting horizons, soon found himself to be a rather unique asset to Dali. Travelling from his home in Berlin to Spain on weekends and holidays, Froese began adding larger and larger musical embellishments to the art exhibitions his mentor would periodically sponsor. And that's when the radical idea for Tangerine Dream, an outfit steeped in Dali-esque aural surrealism, was born.
"His incredible way of thinking and whole surrealistic philosophy were such strong parts of our influence," says Froese of his brushstroke confederate. "He helped us realize that, while we all were studying art, we just couldn't express ourselves in that medium anymore."
So, with nothing but a few piano lessons to guide him, Froese began tinkering with rudimentary electronic keyboards that would one day broaden the strict confines of music. And, in the beginning, he knew that what he was doing would be both misunderstood and groundbreaking. "Conventional music was very limited." He sighs, referring to the frequency range of normal instrumental sounds. "If you're thinking about a violin or piano, with them you can only do so much. But if you want to express yourself in a truly individual way, as we did, synthesizers and other devices can give you a lot of experimental ranges you ordinarily don't have.
"Back in the late '60s, early'70s," he laments, "you could not talk about electronic instruments to hardly anyone. They were extremely crude and simple, and the sound was quite new. So we had to build our own equipment because there was nothing around and everything was monophonic. We started working with all these toys, and by the time we got tired of working with one, other bands were just getting excited about it."
Tangerine Dream has been consistently ahead of its time, and not only in the audience appreciation department. Saddled with a vision the band could not shake, Froese's nouveau noodlers took their nascent juggernaut on the road. But Europeans and Americans alike found half-hour visionary synthesizer vignettes somewhat difficult to swallow, and Tangerine Dream quite often saw their concerts turn abrubtly into vegetable-throwing fiascos. Still, Froese was determined to prove that songs didn't have to possess lyrics and a distinct hook-oriented melody line to be attractive.
"Because we weren't commercial," Froese mourns, "we appeared to be against everything." Tangerine Dream nevertheless landed a record contract early on and continued to release their decidedly esoteric albums. Slowly but surely, the group built a surprisingly strong cult following, and by the time the mid-'70s rolled around, the underdog band was selling out acoustically-perfect cathedrals, as well as ordinary rock venues.
Unfortunately, the group ended up being much more popular with Europeans than Americans. Finally offered the chance to get a full taste of T.D.'s heady brew with their first domestically-released LP, Stratosfear, bubblegum-hungry Yanks ignored the record. As brilliantly conceived and played as the album was, it still could not reach the airwaves, and with no hit singles, how many copies of a record find their way into homes? "Few," is Edgar Froese's unequivocal answer.
The failure of Stratosfear, their eighth album, did hit Tangerine Dream fairly hard. But, through serendipity, the iconoclastic Germans stumbled upon their niche.
One of the few purchasers of Stratosfear was film director William Friedkin, fresh from The Exorcist and scouting for musicians who could enhance his celluloid approach. The layered ambience of Tangerine Dream impressed the Hollywood mogul, and he contacted Froese in 1976 with an offer that was indeed amazing.
Friedkin was beginning work on a new film called The Sorcerer, and he did the unheard-of thing of commissioning the group to record the movie's entire soundtrack - all before a single frame had been shot. The intrepid director then stalked about on location with a tape deck and headphones strapped on, calling each scene's shots while listening to Tangerine Dream.
"He wanted to have something he could associate his film with, rather than the other way around," says Froese of the Sorcerer soundtrack, the first of over 35 films the group has scored. "If you get into our music, you can easily visualize sounds. Even if you don't want to make a film, you just sit down in front of your stereo and you're making one anyway."
Hollywood began beckoning on a regular basis. Cinematographer upon cinematographer thought Tangerine Dream music the perfect complement to their elaborate art after seeing The Sorcerer. Suddenly, Froese recalls, his group (which had lost Peter Baumann and gained one Johannes Schmoelling) was in demand, yet still without any hit singles to speak of. "The turning point," he adds, "was the whole field of film composition. We learned a lot from that, but, most importantly, we learned how to express ourselves in a short period of time, like three or four minutes. We had to do that at first simply because we were hired to do it."
But now, Froese points out, Tangerine Dream is penning three or four-minute ditties because they enjoy it. Their latest album, Le Parc, is full of the same ponderous aural landscapes that permeated previous releases, but the songs are succinct, to-the-point and even danceable. An artistic compromise? Well, yes and no...
"Years ago we thought that there could be a change in consciousness just by presenting a certain type of music to people," Froese almost reluctantly admits, "but today I know that it would be wrong to try and force people to think in any specific direction. Music has to be quite mutual.
"We thought 'What shall we do? Shall we sit in a dome and wait for the end of the world?' Instead of just getting wisdom and grey hairs, we decided to alter our approach without losing our identity. I believe we can be commercial and still have a tremendous impact."
Doing his best to dispel any rumors of creative surrender, Froese also hinted that there might be another reason for Tangerine Dream's surprising acceptance of modern mentalities. The musician, now in his early forties, has a 15-year-old son who is also a diehard rock and roll fan, and Froese says he's beginning to like some of the records his kid drags home. "Can I tell you this?" he confides. "My son absolutely loves heavy metal and Phil Collins. Phil Collins is his biggest superstar, and now when I think of popular music, he is the best one that I can think of."
Froese's son is even prouder of his father, though, as are most of the leading electronic instrument manufacturers worldwide. Since the early '70s, corporations like Oberheim, Fairlight and Synclavier have entrusted their most advanced equipment to the T.D. mad scientists just to see what they could make the cold, lifeless machines pump out. Such gifts have enabled Froese and crew to successfully stay one jump ahead of other synthesizer-dominated groups as they clipped through such hi-tech fads as sound-wave generators, analog technology, the digital field, memory-bank computers and sampling units.
"Most artists, in my opinion, don't use synthes2ers the way they should or could be used," Froese offers. Despite the fact that Tangerine Dream's three studios look like hopelessly cluttered Star Trek sets, he insists that complex instruments demand complex training. This brings up the question of whether or not machine sometimes wins its battle with Teutonic man, despite his perseverance. Aren't there days when a roomful of bleeping and blipping mechanical tools make a musician feel just like Sisyphus?
"To be honest, that's always been a real big problem," says Froese, adding that it sometimes takes weeks "just to put two simple little sounds together.
"I myself am not a technician, and I'm not so heavily into mathematics. But, if you feel you can express yourself much better if you start reading thick instruction manuals and learning things, then you're like a little kid learning a new language. That gives you the power to do things you never thought of. But we do not love the technical side of our music, because that stands between you and getting your idea on tape. Sometimes all this machinery drives you so crazy, you just want to get up and run away."
In his heart, though, Froese knows that neither he nor his two bandmates could really run very far; the beckoning metallic voice of modern music would surely lure them back to experience the shock of the new again. And Froese, who works on his projects with an almost masochistic zeal, concurs that there is no other way for Tangerine Dream to operate.
"It's not our aim to see our faces on the covers of pop magazines around the world," the keyboardist claims after over 17 years of sacrifice (and a few spent dodging flying tomatoes) "All we want to do is continue to play our music. There are no ego trips in Tangerine Dream, just three people who are still human beings. And, believe me, remaining a human being in this industry is the hardest thing in the world."
BAM/OCTOBER 4, 1985, Pages 28, 30.