Dreams of Synthetic Tangerines?
by Manfred Gillig
To make a long story short: I am still drunk when I get in the airplane at Basel. And I still have a hang over when I sit in the Royal Albert Hall to listen to Tangerine Dream's first concert in this huge hall.
On stage is a mountain of amplifiers, speakers, synthesizers and organs, in between a few coniferous trees - all covered in blue misty light. I am still tired. I am thinking that this won't go well.
But then the three from Berlin are already sitting at their switchboards. And ethereal sounds wave through the Royal Albert Hall. Quadrophonic wave turf coming from the left, the right, then from the back, from above, from the front - I am relaxing. Sounds not from this earth, a choir of hundred voices swirls around me, inside this venerable house. The well known monolith of 2001 is floating somewhere. Sounds of drums are coming from all over, circle the hall, and finally assemble in the front. And a procession of complex rhythms is moving towards the centre of the earth. The drum sounds echoing at the wall of the huge hall, and a helicopter is circling above all with clapping rotors. - Then the sounds of a Mediterranean night: Crickets and cicadas fill the Royal Albert Hall with their singing. At the surf of the beach, waves crashes at pebbles on the shore. Is this the ocean or the shore of the Rubycon?
Did I sleep or not? "Dream Tangerine Dream" is written on the concert poster. And for the very first time the music of this group reached my deeper level more then the one of the "intellectual" listener. And this concludes to the fundamental question when talking about such genre of music. Are the sounds really cold and without a soul because they are created by machines; is the function of the musician really only to operate knobs and switches like it is said so often?
Before we answer these deep questions, we should do a little trip into the history. In the years 1967-69 when the "Litfass" in Berlin was still a pub where then a young and promising scene met, having Lambrusco and Greek cuisine, silent movies and cartoons and music. You could consider them being progressive with out conscience. This was the time of the water guns, the attack that hit Rudi Dutschke [student leader], the death of Benno Ohnesorg [protest walker killed by a police officer during a protest], the time of the protests in front of the America building and on the Ku-Damm [big shopping street in West Berlin]. The time of the young and promising APO [a non political opposition] - and it was the time, then the political left pubs and new German groups grew from the ground.
One of these groups were Tangerine Dream. And Tangerine Dream played at the "Litfass". And it was then a different kind of music than they do now. But there in the progression of the TD music there is no sudden change; what is heard now, for example heard in the Royal Albert Hall, is a logic advancement of the older beginning.
Spontaneity and Control
Before the time of Tangerine Dream, the founder Edgar Froese toured three years through the German country till 1967. And they played, as everybody did, what the English and American friends learned them to play. In the founding time of Tangerine Dream, the big leap came from copying tracks by others to the decision to stop playing composed songs. To play only body-referred, strong improvisations. This was for Edgar a "drastic experience [of] spontaneity out of the moment; to construct something, without bridges and barriers. We said, let's go on stage an play like we are! We were fed up with copying, but we did not take the middle course, saying, we write our own things now, but we just gone to the other extreme. We said, we don't do a thing anymore, nothing will be agreed upon, composed, but we play our selves. We tried to get our personality transformed as straight as possible into the sound. This was the whole idea." And this spontaneity of the moment is still today a main part of TD music.
The group used conventional instruments in the old "founding time": bass, guitar, drums and violin. The music was very straight forward, very free and very loud, very typical Litfass music. One started to experiment with new sounds, first touches with unknown sound-stories, by electrically amplifying the violin and working with feedbacks.
But Tangerine Dream were not stuck in their concept of free improvisation. The separation from defined compositions was followed by another logical step, the separation from old traditional instruments and the usage of known playing forms and techniques. The usage of new "instruments" had to result in a kind and way how the music was made. The conventional productions mechanisms would be followed by new ones. Edgar Froese tries to tell me the difference:
"You have to control the things more now, compared to when they were intuitive in our hands. You knew how to handle them. And you could totally concentrate on the emotions, the expression. Today you have to watch out more. This process of concentration is reducing the amount of spontaneity, because you have to prepare the things you would like to change and modulate in the creating process before you touch the synthi. And this is a very different thing than shouldering a guitar and playing it. Many things are more detailed and fragile today. This has of cause its good sides, because you have more possibilities, more parameters to, for example, changing the timbre of a sound." And Michael Hoenig, the newest and now already ex-group member adds: "Spontaneity is pushed to the background to emphasise precision."
So, is the music colder and less emotional, or more intellectually driven? For sure not! Edgar is protesting against this:
"The prejudice of being elitist, intellectual, being hard to understand and nebulous, is said often, because the average music listener or musician does not know what is going on, on stage, What instruments these are and so on. This is very stupid, because these are things we worked on. Things we master very good in some aspects, while others need to be trained more. This is the very same learning process for a piano player. He has to work on his instrument like we do with the electronics. But this is not so common and well known". And we are now progressed closer towards the answer of the previously asked questions about the emotional depth of this music and the functions of the musicians in Tangerine Dream.
The thing about the absence of tradition
And so the image I had of Tangerine Dream is cleansed from my wrong estimates, during the long talk with Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Michael Hoenig in London. These folks are neither cosmic couriers, nor stupid synthesizer freaks. They've been working for years to release their musical imagines to the outside, in order to transform them into audible sounds.
Of course, the question of the creative process is only one aspect. It is at least so important, if not more important, how the music is received by the consumer, the listener. What the listener is getting from it. And again there is a contradiction of reaction to Tangerine Dream's music. The reactions depend on the present status of the consumer. And they range from total refusal, due to the distrust of the synthesizers, to enthusiastic agreement.
"We don't have an audience of minorities in England, but a wide spread from the Liverpool apprentice to the London housewife", states Edgar and is referring to the reactions of radio listeners after the broadcast of TD music. "I think, that what we do is a kind of music, which is easy to have association with. It is attacking below certain categories. And we don't do programmed music, but we play out of our intuition. We do have more possibilities and freedom, because we are not limited to a small range of timbres. The audience is maybe getting the same kind of intuitive reactions. Every sound is free of value and leaves a certain space to fall into.
The thing with the freedom of value is a naturally a double-edged sword. This explains why the TD sounds rush past our ears, because they don't have a face for comparing or disagreement (I felt so for example with their latest LPs of the group PHAEDRA and RUBYCON). On the other hand there is a danger, that the individual listener is interpreting the sounds in his way. And so the music is stamped in an unintended way. Tangerine Dream is aware of this danger. And they know "to be very careful". Nevertheless, they've received offers for laying consumer orientated music under advertising spots
"Dream Tangerine Dream" is also a nice request, as long as you remember your dreams. The thing with the freedom of value get dangerous, if it is only reaching the unconscious state of mind. And this is what a French college is pointing out in his article about RUBYCON. He is afraid, that Tangerine Dream's music is becoming the "elevator music of the 80ies". To become the consumer- optimized shopping mall music. This is not the group's intention at all. And Edgar says: "This won't happen! Before we go into the retort, we pull the emergency break!"
But we are not there yet. And so there is enough time for several new projects of the group. They do the first big USA tour at the moment. After which, they will stay there to do the music for the upcoming new Friedkin movie. (Friedkin is the monster who did the crime, we know as "The Exorcist.")
Nostalgia at the cold buffet
There was a cold buffet with a bowl of strawberry punch at Virgin after the concert. Michael Hoenig, who was also in charge for Peter Baumann during the Australian tour, is enjoying the evening.
Question to Edgar: "Why did Baumann leave?"
Answer: "He is not gone and he didn't have to go. We noticed after 3 1/2 years, that we only reproduced ourselves. Everyone knew the other so well, that he knew, how the other would react. We cut the connection to enable new possibilities for the music." Michael Hoenig, the new one, is an old member of the Berlin group Agitation Free, and is recognised in a certain way in this concert. The music was, for example, more rhythmic, more tense and less lethargic. Less freedom of value.
I intended to close this story with an optimistic look into the future. Something like "we have to wait and see in which direction Tangerine Dream is evolving with Michael Hoenig." But I did my calculation without Tangerine Dream, because Michael left the group and Peter Baumann is back again. Question to Edgar: "Why this?" - Answer: "To get the same group feeling and cooperation with Michael, like we had before, would have taken us at a minimum of 1 1/2 years. This is why we agreed to stay together in the old line-up."
So everything stays like it was before? One might think about a stagnation of the group's evolution. When asked about the Liftfass period during the Virgin party, Edgar said: "There are moments when I say to myself, without getting sentimental, wow, one day of the old times, when we played for 50 DM an evening! Because it was full of tension, and the spontaneity was all new." But maybe we should not focus so much on this, because we were all drunk then, and very tired. *
SOUNDS, JULI 7/75, pages 36, 37, 38
PS. Don't forget TD plays at the Royal Albert Hall on the 1st of April next year!