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Totally Wired with Tangerine Dream

3/16/2006

This article originally appeared in April 1986 issue of Electronic Musician.

In 1985, a small milestone in electronic music occurred: Tangerine Dream became 15 years old. In that time, they've defined and expanded the parameters of electronic sound by traveling through psychedelia, space music, and the current New Age movement.

The recent explosion of synthesizer technology can be traced in large part to the personal, highly developed music of Tangerine Dream. Their first recording, Electronic Meditation, was a Stockhausen songbook played by acid heads. Electric guitars, organs, violins, metal, whips, and cellos were distorted to the limits by founder Edgar Froese and Conrad Schnitzler, and set against Klaus Shulze's free jazz drumming (still acoustic in those days). Schulze, now a highly regarded synthesist in his own right, recalls the radio stations' reactions. "While it was playing," he laughs, "they'd give us these strange looks like there was something wrong with the turntable."

Things got even more curious on their next three recordings, Alpha Centauri, Atem, and Zeit, with the gradual introduction of Mellotron and the VCS3 synthesizers. The personnel also stabilized around founder Edgar Froese, Christoph Franke, and Peter Baumann—probably the only element of stability in a floating world that made Pink Floyd sound like a rural blues band by comparison. Alpha Centauri bears a dedication to "all people who feel obliged to space." They experimented with subtler textures, and on the double record Zeit, used a string quartet in the manner of Ligeti.

Tangerine Dream had a curious breakthrough in 1973 with Phaedra, a recording that remains fresh and visionary. A Moog synthesizer was added along with sequencers, a development that, until recently, would be a trademark of their music. Phaedra topped the British pop charts with its liquid textures and insistent rhythms that sounded like giant cosmic rubber bands.

It was during this period that Tangerine Dream honed their reputation as a performing ensemble, playing odd venues like planetariums and darkened churches throughout Europe. Their concerts were almost entirely improvised, with only a few preprogrammed sequencer patterns. They were, and still remain, one of the only live performance electronic ensembles and one of the few who can pull it off with the quality and complexity of their studio recordings, as the live records Ricochet, Encore, Tangerine Dream, Logos, and Poland will attest.

They finally came to America in 1977, by which time they'd acquired a synthesist's candy store overflowing with state-of-the-art equipment. In 1977, that meant instruments like Oberheim polyphonic synths, ARP 2600s and string machines, PPG synthesizers, digital sequencers, and a host of custom-designed devices. The LP notes to Encore list 25 instruments.

Tangerine Dream had little impact in an apparently huge, popular sense, but they slowly insinuated themselves into the Hollywood film industry. When they scored William Friedkin's Sorcerer in 1977, it was a dynamic departure; aside from Wendy Carlos's Clockwork Orange, it may have been the first time that an all-electronic score was used for something besides eerie sound effects in science-fiction films. In fact, they have only one true science fiction film credit to date, the low-budget Wavelength.

The 1980s find Tangerine Dream firmly ensconced in films, with over a dozen credits from taut action thrillers like Thief (directed by Miami Vice's Michael Mann) to the teen hit, Risky Business. A partial listing of their other film credits include Firestarter, Flashpoint, Heartbreakers, Kamikaze 1989 (Froese only), The Park is Mine (HBO), Red Heat, Forbidden, the Streethawk TV series, and though you'd never know it from the soundtrack recording, Vision Quest. I talked with Tangerine Dream while they were in London doing final mixes on Le Parc for their new label Jive-Electro (Relativity in the U.S.). It's a recording of shorter, highly energized tone poems that still retain the Tangerine Dream trademarks of spectacular sounds and enveloping compositions. Their early reputation as a hippie space-music band is belied by their now tightly structured music and efficiency. Roddy MacKenna, from Jive-Electro, was shocked by how fast they mixed Le Parc. "I booked a couple of days of studio time," he exclaimed, "and they only took a few hours." An engineer added, "They knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it."

I spoke with two-thirds of Tangerine Dream. Edgar Froese is philosophically introspective when he discusses his art, while Chris Franke's humorously cynical air places Tangerine Dream in the context of the music world at large. The third member is Johannes Schmoelling, who replaced Baumann in 1980.

When we spoke in 1982, shortly after The Soldier was released, you said you were going to stop doing soundtracks for a while and you stopped for about a year. But since then you've done quite a few.
Edgar Froese: We had some problems with our record company; in a commercial market you sometimes have to do what you get asked to do. Also, the worldwide recession in record sales affected us. So after a year, we stepped into movie making again so that we could be independent and do what we wanted. It wouldn't work if we tried to live from just record sales and also want to buy expensive equipment.

Chris Franke: Soundtracks are always a learning process because you get forced to design music that you wouldn't have done by yourself for a record or concert. In the end it gives you more material and routine knowledge of the instruments, which is valuable. So movie making isn't just making money or films that we like: it's a process.

Weren't some of the things in The Keep used in your Poland live record?
Franke: Ideas of it, right. We would never go so much into classic music or meditative music like we did on Risky Business. Film music is a playground for us where we can play a style that we like but doesn't fit into Tangerine Dream.

That's interesting because on The Keep, Thief, and Risky Business there is music that I recognized from Tangerine Dream LPs. Did you re-record it for the film?
Franke: Actually, we recorded all original music for Risky Business, but the director had used tracks from our other records and he wanted that music. So, they were variations of existing titles.

Froese: That was the director's idea; we wouldn't have done it otherwise. We don't like to repeat things we've done.

How do you select the films you do?
Froese: It's not always the story or the way the film is done, but little points that determine whether we do it or not. For instance, two films, a Conan one and a Charles Bronson film, were offering us a lot of money but we decided not to do it. I'm not saying that they're bad films. It's nothing about the films.

Franke: Directors must realize that we've been a performing group for many years and we have a following of people who buy our albums and they think that we have ideas about a film or identify with a story. They don't understand if we do a totally violent film or a really cheap sex film. We would lose our followers and image very soon if we did every film.

There are not many films that we really like to do from out real heart. We always thought that 2010 would be the right kind of film for us. We could have done good things without using the usual orchestra. If the film Dune had been a great film, which it unfortunately was not, that would have been the right material. Films like Missing are more the style that we're looking for.

On The Sorcerer, you composed one long score based on the script and then William Friedkin chopped it into the movie. Now that's not the way you usually work.
Franke: Each film is different. Some give us all the freedom we want. Some work with us, they play instruments and we work out tunes together. (Michael Mann plays guitar on Thief.)

Sometimes to be different we create more work than is necessary. We want to be different, break certain routines and cliches of film music that are worn out. We try to create counterpoints, do the opposite of what the film is doing or else sometimes you don't even hear the music.

In The Keep there was a scene with a very sad feel but we did cool music to it. Or there was very fast action and we did slow motion music, In Risky Business, during a love scene, instead of doing strings we did a minimal rocky pedal music that still worked, although nobody expected it.

Froese: By working with electronics we can be much faster than a person who works with a normal score and orchestra. Even so, the work we do in two or three weeks is hard. We're completely exhausted afterwards. We have to concentrate on four or five different levels as composers, arrangers, players, and technicians all in one. That's good, though, because we can control all the parameters. Nothing has left our studio without being exactly like we want it.

When I hear the film music, I think it's different from Tangerine Dream music. First of all, there's less of it: there are things left out.
Frank: We don't have the structural development like in Tangerine Dream. In films you cannot develop—the dialog disturbs it. Still, we try to keep our signature even though we must relate to the film. Also, there's less of a spectrum because of sound effects and other things so you have to express the full musical score in fewer lines. That's why it's different from the music we'd do ourselves.

Froese: You can use one cello, and in the length of three minutes create something incredible and strong.

Franke: That's the art, I think: to create pauses with simple acoustic events for what's required in the film. That's why directors hire us. Most are looking for the worn out big orchestra sound. I don't like to listen to classical music anymore because it's all in film scores. Many modem music styles are used for horror films and space films.

What about working with sound effects? You don't generate them, do you?
Froese: In Thief, when they break into the roof to get into the bank, that sound filled the whole frequency range. We measured it and worked in the same frequency range for the music and it became a marriage between effects and music.

Franke: We don't do sound effects, but we care about them and we always ask for as many sound effects on the tape as possible. With electronics, it's easy to adjust our music to sound effects: We can record an effect from the tape and play a melody with it. In some films, we store a particular sound in the computer, modify it, and what comes out is used in the film instead of the original sound effect. We don't necessarily like to do sound effects—we want to be musicians. But if you get asked to do that and it helps the film, you do it.

In 1982, you weren't doing much sampling. I think you had just gotten the Emulator and you had the PPG which didn't have sampling then.
Froese: The situation has totally changed. We have the PPG 2.3 and Synclavier—very expensive units, by the way.

How have they changed your music?
Franke: They've made it a lot easier. We can come up with creative ideas quicker and there's a whole new dimension of electronics and acoustics which before were hard to combine. Electronic instruments were missing the subtlety of acoustic instruments. It brings not only speed but imagination. Now you can make things that you just dreamed of before. For instance, we take one second of tape with ten instruments playing a ridiculous sound which will be completely different in a different octave and length. You can make transitions where one instrument fades into another sound. Sound color is even more important than before.

The drums have really changed too. With the Emulator II, there are many split points and you can put one event on each key. We hook up a mallet controller to it so we can play the E-II on the keys or with the mallets.

That's one thing that's really changed in your music. The mid-period records—Phaedra, Rubycon, and Ricochet—defined sequencer rhythms for electronic music and defined drum machine rhythms. Now you don't use those sounds much at all. The music has gotten much more percussive and complex.
Franke: We don't exchange, we add. We're still using those sounds, but we're also expanding our orchestra.

But despite all of the records there are with Linn Drums and Fairlight sampling, when I go back to Phaedra or Rubycon, they sound fresh again.
Froese: That's true. It's hard for us to say that but when we go back to the good old days it's still quite fresh for us. One has to be honest. Yet, one should use what's available. People who associate us with electronic music have possibly forgotten that the hardware was just a bridge to reach our musical goals. I still think that even without all that stuff, we are still able to use our imagination and follow our fantasies; if you lose your imagination, then you cannot create anything—even if you've got the most expensive computer in the world.

Franke: Electronics were just one possible way to go. If some genius created a better Mellotron, maybe we'd just use acoustic bits and pieces. We didn't have to have the electronic synthesizer to create that style; the idea was there and then we looked for the instruments. Today kids get an instrument and see what they can do with it. Then they look around and start to copy, which is okay to start. We were in the position that we didn't have anyone to copy. We started from scratch.

Are you aware that you've influenced a whole generation of musicians who have never played an acoustic instrument?
Franke: I think it's even more important today that parallel to learning electronic instruments, one should play a percussive instrument and voice to get a feel for music composition and production. Playing only keyboards can be a trap because they are just triggering devices.

Froese: I would also recommend that they learn a very conventional stupid piano and a very conventional stupid drum kit and control his voice. I don't mean learning how to sing but to understand what the vibration of the body means and that the body is an instrument itself. You can run and scream just to experience what you are in a physical sense. I would not recommend that someone take all the money they can and buy the newest equipment and wait for success—it's stupid. You have to understand what it means to create a tone.

How has MIDI changed your live performance?
Froese: It has made things faster. You can combine sounds that before were very complicated to construct. On the other hand, a few things didn't work the way we thought. Analog and FM synthesis don't always fit together. There are a lot of flaws in the system but its a good starting point.

Franke: A complaint about the cheap digital synthesizers is that changing the sound requires quite a bit of time and concentration, so we use the presets during a performance. However, we also still use the old analog synthesizers where you have easier, real-time access to changing parameters.

The industry got rid of all the knobs to make it cheap. Playing the presets is very boring, even if you have hundreds of programs. Wendy Carlos would stop the machine every second bar and change parameters, and that made the music lively. Otherwise it's just one big synthesizer with one sound and character.

Now the industry better understands the relationship between the human being and the machine and is building programmers to speed up the process. The interaction must be there all the time. The readouts are better now and you have the old knobs back again.

On "No Man's Land" from Hyperborea, you created a lot of acoustic, ethnic sounds.
Froese: That was a sequencer with the PPG. It had a sitar sound in it and oriental things.

Franke: I think we'd just come back from Japan, hadn't we?

Froese: Yeah! What we do on tour is the concerts, but then we try and get as much inspiration as possible. Especially Asia, where so many things happen.

Franke: What I liked about this piece was that it was played completely on digital instruments but it didn't sound electronic at all. It sounded very acoustic.

The music is getting very acoustic sounding: it has come full circle. How much do you improvise on stage?
Franke: It's getting less and less, but we keep our sections where we have certain techniques of rhythms and harmonies where it's easy, or at least possible, to improvise. Then we have pieces that are completely arranged and pre-programmed.

We play more different styles now, which is good. In the early days, we'd play one piece for a whole evening that was just sound-color music, which is easily performed like a harmonic piece. We had special audiences, like playing two hours of sound-color music in a planetarium—people loved it.

But now we sell some records and we're playing in sports halls with 6,000—7,000 people and you can't just play this kind of music that only 500 or 700 people understand or like. So you do a variety. You go through some improvised parts, then song structures where only the solos are improvised.

Froese: The kids today, who are 12 years old, have a higher output of interest than we had when we were 25. They are more open and pickup more things than when I was that age.

Franke: They eat faster, they dress faster, they learn faster, and they're concerned with a lot of music. A few years ago, one bought a record and listened to it for two weeks. Now they digest it faster and every week they're looking for new thrills.

Do you feel you have to give them that thrill?
Franke: Well, we don't necessarily have to produce more or louder music, but our music has to be more dense and have more surprises and events. It's like a story or a film. We can't play out one idea for 20 minutes.

I don't see Tangerine Dream as a pop music phenomenon. How do you see yourselves?
Franke: We are popular in certain areas but we don't try to do conventional and commercial music, although we do have a certain commercial value. There's a type of person who doesn't want to listen to pop music: they're looking for a new experience and music that goes more into the mind than into the body for a good mood or just dancing-music that triggers ideas and impressions even after the music is over.

What's your current equipment setup?
Froese: I think we've got everything that's available on the market! Remember, we started doing this 15 years ago.

Franke: That is a bit broad, isn't it? We are selective.

You have all the high-end stuff.
Franke: No, not really. We don't have a Fairlight. We have Emulators, PPG, and Synclavier for sampling and digital producing. We have all the high-end analog synthesizers like the Prophet-5, Oberheim, Jupiters, Memory Moogs, and Oberheim Xpander.

Polysynths have gone into the age of being polytimbral and multi-color. That's a big step forward. I even buy some toys because they are better than their reputation, like Casios, and the little Japanese companies doing stunning things.

Do you still have the GDS (General Development System synthesizer)?
Franke: Yes, it is now MIDled and part of the orchestra. This is the one that is similar to the DX7, but since the DX7 is easier to program, as is the Synclavier, we just use the GDS library now.

What drum machines and rhythm units are you using?
Frank: We use the Emulator II as a drum machine. But I found a way also to use the (Sequential Circuits) Drum Traks hooked up to floppy disks to change the sound easily. We use Oberheim cards and something from Roland, all synched together and we have some custom devices as well.

Do you compose with computer terminals?
Froese: Yes, we do. Sometimes it's faster to play in real time, but if you want to do something that's more complex or of a certain length, especially for film music, computers are easier. If you're sitting in a studio with the director beside you and you have to make a change, it's easier to do it in real time rather than sitting in front of a terminal.

Franke: And the programs always like to crash anyway.

You seem to have all of the equipment that you need. Is there anything you would like to see invented to remove any remaining limits. Or where do you feel the limits exist?
Franke: Ideas!

Froese: It's so simple. You have to develop yourself first. Then you look for the hardware that will help you create what you've developed inside yourself.

So what ideas do you have for which the hardware does not yet exist to realize those ideas?
Franke: Everything can be done.

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