Long, long ago, long before the days of blaring techno and warehouse raves, electronic music got its start not in dance clubs, but in radio studios and laboratories near Cologne. As far back as 1950, there were Germans splicing tapes, turning dials and making loads of bizarre noises in the studios of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk and Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk radio networks.
Now, in the late 1940s, some Frenchmen, namely Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, began experimenting with musique concrète, making compositions with tape recordings as the principal instrument. In 1949, Werner Meyer-Eppler published Elektronische Klangerzeugung: Elektronische Musik und Synthetische Sprache, a thesis encouraging the production of purely synthetic music. Meyer-Eppler’s text presented a new German form of music, consciously different from French musique concrète in that where the French worked with recordings of acoustic music, the Germans would use only purely synthesized electronic sounds.
The WDR studio in Cologne became the nexus of this new so-called ‘elektronische musik’, with Karlheinz Stockhausen as its most charismatic representative. Stockhausen’s studio produced not only music, but also a following of students who would take their studies in electronic music, combine that knowledge with rock music a la The Velvet Underground and created the progressive rock music dubbed “Krautrock” by British press. Among Stockhausen’s students was Holger Czukay, who along with Irmin Shmidt, another of Stockhausen’s students, formed the musical group that would later become Can, probably the most well-recognized group of the Krautrock era.
Stockhausen’s music is alienating at first- completely absent of melody and harmony and entirely unpredictable. Analog synthesizers, as well as various filters, potentiometers and shortwave radios were manipulated to produce entirely new sounds, in entirely new musical forms. Pieces could be brief or extraordinarily lengthy– the idea was that this would be entirely new music, so no traditional musical conventions can really be expected to apply.
This profound newness in art developed contemporaneously with the student movements of the 1960s which demanded newness in politics and education, and the German Krautrock bands such as Neu!, Can and Faust combined these two influences to create the first progressive rock music, eventually leading to the creation of ambient music years before Brian Eno ever touched a synthesizer. I’ll be tracing the further development of Germany’s electronic music history in following posts, so be sure to check back every week or so to catch up on the news.