Cologne and Düsseldorf are hives of musical activity. A loose community of musicians, label owners, club runners and sonic theorists is building on the legacies of Can, Kraftwerk and DAF, creating the electronic soundtrack for a united Europe. Rob Young meets the stars of selten gehörte Musik: Mouse On Mars, Mike Ink, Dr Walker, A-Musik, Pluramon and more. This article originally appeared in The Wire 159 (May 1997).
'Selten gehörte Musik'. It means 'seldom heard music', and it defines the music policy at Liquid Sky Cologne, a former Persian disco in the centre of this lively city close to the French border. Since opening in August 1996, this long, thin bar and its listening room, complete with graffitoed blue walls, has become a nexus for an extraordinary synergy of musical activities which have been bubbling away in Cologne for some years now, and which are finally surfacing via a number of mainly underground, self-financing record labels, record shops, collaborative networks, gigs, and ambitious festivals planned for the rest of this year.
To penetrate this scene, there's no better place to start than Liquid Sky, which rolls out every night. On the decks tonight is Georg Odijk, the unassuming manager of A-Musik, which is both label and a tiny shop in the heart of Cologne's Belgian Quarter. Earlier in the evening, as Georg realised he was late for the DJ date, I watched as he plucked records almost at random from his stock; nevertheless, he weaves them into an incredibly-paced arrhythmical set that glides from Webern string quartet serialism to electroacoustic drones, ultra-woozy dubs from Lee Perry (Black Ark period) and Scientist, deep pulsing Teutonica from Germany and Austrial, Ennio Morricone, Godflesh, Jim O'Rourke/Derek Bailey-style acoustic plucking. What's more, I don't seeany disapproving glances from the assembled club goers; no one asks him to play something they can dance to or attempts to pull the plug. The only criticism, he tells me the following day, came from the management. "They siad it was not curious enough. they told me, 'Your job is to make it more strange!'"
Maybe this isn't so surprising: the manager, after all, happens
to be Ingmar Koch, aka Dr Walker, one half of German Techno outfit
Air Liquide and participator in any number of rolling Electronica
projects involving such Transatlantic co-conspirators as Jammin'
Unit, Khan, Frenk Heiss and even Holger Czukay. Even among his
closest collaborators, Walker has a reputation as something of a
loose cannon. "The whole thing here with Liquid Sky is about
communication," he tells me. "It's not about being alone, if you
come in the club here and sit on your own for four hourse, you're,
like, master of disaster." The music that gets aired here is loose,
improvised, exploratory, distorted, 'fucked up'; the lounge
atmosphere promotes interaction, co-minglingnetworking, all
reflected in the Friday night live improvised collaborations, like
the marathon featuring Walker, Holger Czukay, The Bionaut (aka Jorg
Burger) and Frank Heiss that happened the previous week. "I want
psychedelic trip parties," says Walker. "The good thing is that the
people from Cologne, they are party people, they want to go out,
they want to drink Kölsch [the locally-brewed beer], they want to
get fucked up, they want to kiss each other. It's insane, but it's
In this most recent century of Cologne's 2000 year history, musical innovation is nothing new. One of the first electronic music studios, WDR, was inaugurated here in the early 1950s by Stockhausen's circle. Can's Innder Space Studio lies half an hour outside the city, and Spex, Germany's bigget alternative music and culture magazine is sited just around the corner from A-Musik. the journal's longest serving freelancer, Joachim Ody, remembers hearing the world premiere of Stockhausen's epic Hymnen at WDR on the day he moved to the city. Half an hour in a different direction, in neighbouring Düsseldorf, DAF left their mark on 80s Electronica - and of course there's Kraftwerk's mysterious Kling Klang studio. Now, with electronic music firmly in the mainstream, Germany united, and Europe on the brink of full-scale union, it's easier than ever for undergrounds to become overgrounds in the blink of an eye. Cologne's is set to be next.
The three main triangulation points for mapping the lie of the city's musical land are all independent record shops. A-Musik is no bigger than an average bathroom, but if you want anything by Xenaikis, or CDs of computer music, Ninja tune 12"s, drum'n'bass imports, US post-rock, this is the place to visit. The shop adjoins Odijk's flat, which he happens to share with Jan St Werner of Mouse On Mars and Microstoria, and Markus Schmickler, a composition student who, as Pluramon, released the excellent Pick Up Canyon CD on Mille Plateaux last year. A few streets away, Delerium sells specialist Techno, House and Electronica; the apartment and studio upstairs are inhabited by Mike Ink, whose profile as a major German Techno force is rapidly rising. and further away in the twin-spired shadow of the gargantuan Gothic Dom cathedral lies Normal, a rock/indie collector's paradise run by Thomas Stege, owner of the Finlayson Tonträger label. Home to a large variety of curious, leftfield indie/post-punk acts over the last seven or eight years, the label is most notable for issuing rock/motorik/sampling groups like Genf and Workshop - both of whom record in the Can Studio - as well as Düsseldorf's Kreidler.
Backstage at A-Musik, I'm talking to Jo, a fish-loving, wiry figure in his early thirties whose recordings for A-Musik rejoice under the name Schlammpeitziger. His Freundlichbarracudamelodieliedgut LP unconsciously tunes into the recurring vibrations left by early German synth groups like Cluster, Harmonia and Ash Ra Tempel, though Jo claims never to have heard of them until 1993. With him is bespectacled Felix, aka FX Randomiz, a comically self-deprecating synth boffin whose 1992 duo album with Jan Werner, Slow, released on Werner's tiny Gefriem label, is an unsung electronic masterpiece, an outstanding pre-Oval example of capsized sampling virtuosity. Together, Jo and Felix work as Holosud, using a formidable collection of old and new keyboards, drum machines, cheap samplers and home-built instruments including the U-glitsch, a fretless 'guitar' played with the aid of Q-tips.
"I come from the early 80s," says Jo, "early electronics, Chris And Cosey. Then there was a big break, there was nothing. I made my music. Then came these boom-boom-boom Techno parties. IU come from funky and Electro parties. Then they changed - Techno becomes strong, the beats go down, not always boom-boom, and now the situation is really good. Yesterday I DJed at Liquid Sky. I played 80s Electro, new electronic music, and gave the people a chance to open their ears. This is the time; now I can get in again, so I have my party time a second time. I like it a lot,"
Holosud's forthcoming EP on A-Musik capsizes the distinctions
between hi- and lo-fi: Jo's bargain-basement synths meet Felix's
intricate sampling techniques head-on. There is already a strain of
DIY, guttersnipe aesthetics alive in the city, exemplified by local
folk hero Harald 'Sack' Zieglier, a musician with a place in the
affections of everyone we meet, and who has released a vast number
of small-run recordings of wheezing, Ivor Cutler-esque instrumental
whimsy. The Holosud record was recorded quickly and cheaply, with a
virtue made of digital 'mistakes' and distortions. Felix eplains
the aesthetics at play: "For me it's not so much using trash tools,
but I try to get trash out of the equipment I have. One example:
when we made the Slow record, I had this Roland sampler
where you can scratch through the sample to find the point where
you can cut it. We took this, and Jan sampled it with his sampler,
and we made something of it. Things like that, using tools in a
different way, searching for the bugs and using the bugs. I like
distortions. I like sounds that really kill your speakers. That's
my understanding of trash.
Jo met Georg Odijk while the latter was playing in Kontakta, an improvising/instrument-building performance group that used turntables and wave generators alongside bowed metal plates and found objects. The group's single recorded legacy - a CD on the French label Odd Size - reveals an amazing longform process music like a dubwise Morphogenesis. Odijk, whom Jo describes, bizarrely, as "the big mother of this scene, with breast enough to feed all of us", resists the notion that his contribution to the Cologne scene is significant, but there's no doubt that it's having an impact. Locals like Walker, Drome's Bernd Friedmann and even Holger Czukay all name the A-Musik label as one of their favourites. Yet Georg's label philosophy has more in common with, say, the early days of ESP-Disk with its 'artists-in-control' rubric. "I see myself as a catalyst," he says. "I just bring it out - artists have to decide how their cover will be, even if I don't like it. Until now I never had a problem." Kontakta's line-up also included schoolfriends Markus Schmickler, Carsten (C)-Schulz and Frank Dommert, whose Entenpfuhl label peddles a variety of intriguing electroacoustic and Improv projects.
The A-Musik shop, which began as a small mail order business to put obscrue records back in circulation, has been open for two years, but Odijk won't even advertise the fact with a sign on the door: "That's OK for me, it keeps away people who ask me for Kylie Minogue," he says. A-Musik's current releases include a Schlammpeitziger remix 10" featuring Mouse On Mars, C-Schulz, FX Randomiz and Sweet Reinhard, the Holosud EP; an FX Randomiz EP; and a CD by keyboard group L@n. But the next full-length CD, Markus Schmicler's Wabi Sabi, is set to extend the range of the label catalogue into the realm of hard-bitten digital composition. "It's different from the others, to show that it's not just a lo-fi electronic label", Georg says.
So, To Schmickler's Kaspar-Hauser Studio to investigate. Schmickler is one of the most guarded interviewees I've encountered, and cuts a fairly solitary figure - he spends much of his working day cloistered away in a huge, disused warehouse on the east side of the Rhine, surrounded by piles of industrial debris, giant coils of wire and mountains of forklift pallets. The two large rooms that comprise his workspace are the only spaces occupied in the building.
The enigma of Kaspar Hauser, celebrated in film by Werner Herzog, now appears as a guiding mythos for today's German Electronica, with its story of the child who appears out of nowhere, origin unknown, having to define his place in an unfamiliar and hostile world. Force Inc/Mille Plateaux label boss Achim Szepanski has discussed electronic culture in terms of schizophrenia: "Since the 50s, in musique concrète, later in rock, in the Industrial music up to Techno, one heard diverse noises, screaming, chirping, creaking, hissing: actually all noises that one related more to madness. With the mechanical production of these noises it became clear that madness itself is a metaphor for these techniques... Techno is also schizo music in the sense that it deconstructs certain rules and forms that pop music imposed on the sounds; on the other hand it has to invent rules itself."
Markus Schmickler's sleeve notes to Wabi Sabi reference Japanese philosophy, placing the music and musician as a small part in a cultural macrocosm: "Sabi - to be lonely quiet, abandoned; to surrender, to decay, to age and accumulate experiences and insights; to be antique and beautiful. To get rusty and show patina. What one calls wabi is imperfect, lacks autonomy and the desire to its completion."
The auteur behind Wabi Sabi and Pluramon also operates
as something of an isolationist. "The name of my studio is very
old," says Schmickler. "Ti was from the image of a closed room, and
developing something which in the first place happens in these four
walls. And working there day and night, not recognising if it's day
or night outside." A student in composition at a local academy, he
also finds himself isolated in the grey space between a 'New Music'
culture which considers 1920s serialism the peak of 20th century
musical achievement, and the present generation for whom 'DJ
culture' and phonography run in the blood. "A teacher of mine says,
I don't care if a CD is good medium to send the music around the
world and show it to other people; he says the score is also a
possibility to do that. But there are so many scores, and there's
not really a forum for them."
To get to grips with much of what's going on in German Electronica, it's important to understand the (meta)physical concept of Rauschen. "One is permanently surrounded by the Rauschen of the world and its objects," wrote Gilles Deleuze in an essay called This Evening, A Concert Will Take Place. "With more sensitive ears one would sink in a sea of Rauschen." Referring to the inaudible chaos of molecular collisions in the physical world, Deleuze implies that all sound-based art inevitably encodes traces of this ongoing subatomic violence. It's a notion that provides a rubber grip on the notched and burred musics of Microstoria, Mouse On Mars and Schmickler himself. PIck UP Canyon was a fascinating exercise in recombining the sounds of traditionally 'rock' instruments, with Schmickler playing guitar and drums in his studio and then morphing them into a series of tone-paintings daubed in metallic and gunmetal hues; while Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit makes an all-too-brief appearance on the shortest track, "Peak".
Wabi Sabi is composed mainly with synthesizers, found radio sound and computer manipulations. Beginning with a high-frequency passage worthy of Ryoji Ikeda, the music accumulates in a crescendo of sonic afflatus, dying down impreceptibly into nothing. "For me, at least, form is one of the most interesting areas in thinking about music," says Schmickler, "because computer technology gives you new possibilities to think about form: to stretch and compress time, for example - these are options which you don't have when you just compose for instruments."
Fired by the writings of Dutch philosopher Wille Flusser, Schmickler's grand design is to explore whether "you can explain things only with sound", and like almost everyone we met in Cologne, he eagerly awaits the fusion of Europe's nation states. "I'm not really sure what definitely will change at this point, but I'm really excited about it. I think in the area of music, or films, or design or whatever, the borders don't exist anyway. But I'm really for the exchange, and the openness. I'm not the guy who wants to keep specific, local characteristics."
Walk a few streets away from the A-Musik HQ to Delerium Records,
and you'll hear a different opinion. From offices and a studio flat
occupying the two floors above the shop, the master of minimal
Techno Mike Ink runs his labels Profan and Studio 1, and records
the music he puts out as Love Inc (a huge hit album in Germany last
year on Force In), Gas (on Mille Plateaux), and Polka Trax (on
Warp) plus collaborations with his friend Jorg Burger (their
Las Vegas LP is on Harvest/EMI Germany), and his brother
(Sweet) Reinhard. Mike Ink's music is, as he puts it, "combining
the steady bass drum with my personal idea of German soul Techno".
His particular trick is to take the downward weight out of the
repetitive 4/4 drum pattern of trance, and make it skim like a
stone on water. the best examples of this technique can be found on
the Studio 1 compilation and his solo Gas project (pronounced with
the German long 'A'), where the beats are ppopped out regular as a
tennis machine under grainy synth drones over 15 minute durations.
His Love Inc album, meanwhile, is a light-hearted homage to his
musical loves, conspicuously sampling Miles Davis, Scritti Politti,
Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Marc Bolan.
Ink runs his labels with the micro-adjustments necessary in the Techno market. Studio 1, he explains, is for buyers who want to rely on having a steady Mike Ink bass drum - a trademark he repeatedly describes, with a pumping forearm movement, as "boofta-boofta-boofta". Profan Records is more subject to Ink's whims: "I wanted to have a platform for more weird experimental things, strange things, with includences tht are normally forbidden in Techno, like harmonies, beats which are too slow, or bass drums which are not loud enough. The DJ, he wants the same record every month, and the journalist wants something different every month. I live somewhere in between."
Ink believes the process of cultural appropriation via sampling is already "too accelerated" for copyright laws to matter, but he's keeping his distance from the more general homogenization of musical styles inherent in the Techno scene. "For me it doesn't make sense to listen to drum 'n' bass now - it's absolutely not my music. I think it's a typically British thing... I think it doesn't make sense: I don't think somebody in London will take a drum 'n' bass artist in Cologne very seriously. The Techno I try and represent is more of a German thing, very deep, like Wagner or Nietzsche..." But it's not a Nationalismus trip."Boofta-boofta-booftaØ this is German. Since we have computer revolution, boofta-boofta-boofta is veryt close to Phuture "The Creator", that is definitely black music. Two mouse clicks away, the groove on the computer changes into something which is laid back, or something which is upfront. This is not political any more, this is just a question of structures."
To Düsseldorf, a short hop north on the train, to visit the drop-dead gorgeous Academy of St Martin in the Streets - the Mouse On Mars studio. Next door to a gigantic, high-ceilinged artist's loft, Jan St Werner and Andi Toma have their musical bolt-hole. It's stacked - Natürlich - with a mouth-watering array of old and new gear which they use to assemble the pliable, moulded plastic surfaces of their music, which at best is articulated like some new 'intelligent' polymer.
Werner and Toma - or 'Jandi', as they sign themselves - have refined a sophisticated conception of socio-artistic organisation, where music and the act of creation resonates at every level, from the surface texture to its distribution in the public domain. "We build social units of sound," says Jan, "Families, societies, structures, architectures." Where does the family planning come into the process? "First it's about fucking, and then it's about realising we have to find space in the kindergarten, and get clothes for them, and then OK, maybe you find somebody who gives you financial aid... First it's really like making a mess. When you do it, so many things happen, and you're just a part of it."
I tell them how rare it is to find musicians working in the areas of Techno and Electronica who are willing to offer their music as a social model. "In the end, you are responsible," Andi insists. "After a certain point you have to start to control - not too much control, but to think about what you're doing."
"It's not like an overall global view or concept or something," says Jan. "I think the problems we work out in the music are problems we could transfer to normal life. "What happens if something happens differently? How can you make your life interesting? What can you do to combine the routine that has to be there, with some adventures?"
"And it's good to invite people into your surroundings," adds Andi, "To give them the chance to be part of it and discover their own stuff, because a lot of times people discover parts in our music we didn't realise. That means we still don't know totally what's going on."
Their hospitality is the main reason why there was precious
little Mouse On Mars product available last year. First, they got
involved in a disastrous film soundtrack which was shelves for
being, well, too Mouse On Mars for Hollywood. Then they somehow
found themselves recording an album wiht Kraftwerk's Wolfang Flür.
They still appear shellshocked after that one. "He brought us to
collapse," says Jan, wincing at the memory. "I think we all met at
a level of what we call Schlager [crass pop hits] in Germany. Not
even Easy Listening, more like Easy Thinking."
They needn't be so quick to disown the project, which has been released in Germany on the Harvest label as Time Flies by Yamo - the slower tracks contain some genuinely ravishing Techno-pop moments. But I can understand their dissatisfaction with Flür's lyrics. As if to wipe out the experience, they've just had Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier in the studio to record the Cache Coeur Naif EP for early summer release. The four tracks show a blazing return to form, with Sadier's sherbet harmonies almost upstaged by the notched, puntured, chinked digital surfaces of the backing tracks. They talk about their creative use of MIDI overflow, deliberately pushing too much data through their channels, forcing their machines to improvise in order to cope. "It's when you have too much information running through your interfaces," explains Jan. "It's not exactly synchronised any more. This is rhythm - it's always beside the exact point, a bit behind it or a bit before it that makes a groove. Funk..."
"...is a kind of data overflow," Andi finishes. "And we like that," Jan goes on, "it happens in the smallest event: how you cut a sample, how you play the drums, how you play a guitar, how you use an effect. It's in the smallest dose of something."
Jan's lively rants could fill an entire magazine, but the conversation eventually turns towards the consequences of media's evolutionary leap to digitization. "Where's the beginning of these questions?" he asks. "Did mankind invent digital technology because they are in a way ready for it? Even if not everyone can cope with it, maybe it was time to go further and start to develop this information into 44,0000 events per second. Or maybe you should say, OK< this is the point where you should start, and you might get a headache, but this is the task you have to deal with. This is about the challenge. It gets very abstract, but the whole evolution is not about relaxing." Evolution, it becomes increasingly clear, preys on catastrophe. "And the closer to the catastrophe you are, the more creative you become, and the more active. I think digital technology is still for a lot of people a strange thing, and it is very good to think about the problems it brings. But as well, when the train was invented, peoople thought that if you go faster than 30 miles an hour, you die. But you would die anyway, so..."
Cologne was badly bombed during this century's second great
catastrophe, and even now the city is undergoing immense
reconstruction. Silverized penthouses sit on top of 19th centurey
townhouses like dental caps; the ghost of a VW logo, torn off a
commercial building, still haunts its brickwork; the east bank of
the Rhine glitters with luxury hotels and corporate headquarters.
it's no wonder that such a fervent and unquestioned
remixing/recombinant culture is rooted here. The third Microstoria
LP, Reprovisers, features Cologners C-Schulz & Hajsch
and FX Randomiz as well as Christophe Charles, Nicolas Collins, Ui,
Jim O'Rourke and Violent Onsen Geisha. And there are two big
festivals scheduled to happen this year that deploy forces more
crreatively than the tentfuls of DJS on rotation at commercial
outdoor raves. Electrik Trick, in May, is organised by electronic
improvisor Frank Schulte, whose Switchbox group unites disparate
free jazz/Improv characters such as Anna Homler, David Moss, David
Shea, Otomo Yoshihide, Jon Rose and Christian Marclay. He's been
responsible for the musical annexation of numerous forgotten sound
spaces in the city, from the superbly 70s laminated walls of Cafe
Hallmenckenreuther to abandoned churches. Electrik Trick connects a
wide variety of approaches, with performances by David Toop, David
Moss, Scanner, Bernd Friedmann, Jaki Liebezeit's Club Off Chaos,
Miasma & Gudrun Gut, Ryoji Ikeda, Markus Schmickler, and a
whole day of drum 'n' bass. Meanwhile, in September, Dr Walker is
organising a vast week-long festival called Battery Park, whose
stellar line-up includes most of the Cologne crop, plus Klaus
Schulze, Neu!'s Michael Rother, Fetisch Park, Patrick Pulsinger,
Mego Records, Khan, JOe Zawinul, Jammin' Unit, Atom Heart and about
Underground music in Cologne, as in the rest of Germany, is booming. As another distinguished resident, Bernd Friemann (aka Nonplace Urban Field/Drome), tells me, "Maybe the city's tradition in experimental music, Electronica and jazz still functions as a magnet for those who prefer living in a creative community. It's not the music itself being the same subject, it is one's attitude, character and psychology shaping the creative process... Hopefully, what remains is not the name of the city that they have in common, but their subjectivity."
It's probably this deeper understanding of the social forces governing the musical process that give rise to the scene's rude health: it doesn't have to be validated or defined by the UK or US markets any more. Can's Holger Czukay, Liquid Sky's oldest attendee, is thrilled with the recent turn of events. "It's just like CAn in the beginning like 69!"he says. "I didn't dare to dream it would be possible again. These guys are so easy. You can be as weird as possible, and you are still not weird enough for them." And the key to Cologne's peculiar fertility? "The combinations," replies Holger. "This is probably the magic word in the future. We have made a lot of combinations these days, but still not enough. We are still just at the beginning." We are at the beginning, but there is movement. This evening, at Liquid Sky, a concert will take place...
Burger/Ink - Las Vegas (Harcest/EMI Electrola)
Gas - Gas (Mille Plateaux)
Genf - Import/Export (Compost); Roh (Finlayson Tonträger)
Holosud - Ketsmarkock EP (A-Musik)
Kontakta - Kontakta (Odd Size)
L@n - L@n (A-Musik)
Lithops (Jan Werner) - Wackler/Kahn 12" (Eat Raw)
Love Inc - Life's A Gas (Force Inc)
Microstoria - Reprovisers (Mille Plateaux)
Mouse On Mars - Cache Coeur Naif EP (Too Pure)
Pluramon - Pick Up Canyon (Mille Plateaux)
Schlammpeitziger - Freundlichbarracudamelodieliedgut; Freundlichbarracudaremix 10" (both A-Musik)
Frank Schulte - Switchbox (Moers Music)
Various - Liquid Sky Adventure Series 1 & 2 (Electro Bunker Cologne)
Various - Studio 1 (Studio 1)
Various - Profan (Profan)
Wabi Sabi - Wabi Sabi (A-Musik)
Workshop - Meiguiweisheng Xiang (Ladomat 2000)
Yamo - Time Pie (EMI Electrola)