This article originally appeared in the August 1987 issue of Electronic Musician.
Klaus Schulze is legendary among electronic musicians around the world. Although Klaus has recorded 27 albums over the past 15 years, and sells out huge arenas and concert halls across Europe, he remains little-known in the US. This is changing, though, because American label Gramavision recently released seven of his albums herein the States on LP and CD. His 1975 album Timewind won the prestigious French Grand Prix Du Disque award as a classical recording. Schulze has been a major influence on many recording artists for close to two decades; if you listen to the music of Kitaro, Jean Michel Jarre: and many others you will find much of the ideas and techniques of Klaus Schulze incorporated into their music. His trademark hypnotic drones and complex sequencer lines have become an institution, a compositional format used by hundreds of synthesists who have jumped on the new age bandwagon over the last ten to 12 years.
However, Schulze's musical career actually began back in the mid-'60s. The psychedelic era opened up a whole new world of experimentation for Klaus. Groups like Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane laid the groundwork for the first wave of German musicians who combined a classical tradition with rock and electronic influences. A number of groups that began back then are still going strong today, including Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Popul Vuh, and Ash Ra Temple. In 1968 Schulze formed an acid-rock trio called Psi Free, an experimental group inspired by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. One night during a Psi Free performance, Edgar Froese, the founder of Tangerine Dream, saw Schulze playing drums and was impressed enough to sign him up with the newly formed Tangerine Dream. In 1970 they recorded their first album, Electronic Meditation, which consisted of Froese playing guitar through myriad effects, Conrad Schnitzler on organ, and Klaus on drums. The album sounded like a cross between the avant-garde works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the cosmic sounds of Pink Floyd.
Electronic Meditations was followed by a couple of quickly produced albums from the "Berlin school." These consisted of recordings of jam sessions/parties recorded under the name Cosmic Couriers. Klaus looks back at these albums, Galactic Supermarket and The Cosmic Jokers as an embarrassment, but part of the growing process. In 1970, Schulze began a transition from drums to keyboards and formed the group Ash Ra Temple with Manuel Gottsching. It was during this period that Klaus's work started becoming more introspective.
A year later he released his first solo album Irrlicht, on the Brain label. This album and its successor, the 1973 release Cyborg, were simple but out of these a sense of identity was formed. On later recordings like Picture Music and Timewind, he became more involved with tonalities and textures. His compositions became long pieces which slowly evolved from simple drones to dramatic classical tapestries with a dramatic ambience.
Unlike many of Schulze's electronic colleagues, Klaus has always been a advocate of live performance, and has toured throughout Europe frequently during the past 15 years. He performed solo until 1981 when he started touring with Rainer Bloss. Occasionally his performances include other artists such as drummers, guitarists, and cellists. In 1976 he collaborated with percussionist Stomu Yamashta on a grand scale performance piece called Go. The ensemble included Steve Winwood, guitarist extraordinaire Al Di Meola, and former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, The group embodied all the elements which became known as jazz-fusion and produced three albums, Go, Go Too, and Go Live. While working in this group, Klaus started playing synth tapestries that created a strong rapport between himself and the soloist.
In 1979, Klaus created the Innovative Communications (IC) record company. The label was first picked up and distributed by Warner Bros. in Europe, and by 1982 became independent. After some financial difficulties and artistic differences with the staff at IC, the company was sold to Mark Sakautzky, who is still operating IC today. Recently IC was licensed in the U.S. and Canada, and also in much of Europe. This will make Klaus and other artists on IC much more accessible to the public. After Klaus sold Innovative Communications, he and composer/synthesist Rainer Bloss established Inteam early in 1984. Inteam is now distributed by Brain Records which is, in turn, distributed by Metronome, a company that produced and distributed many of his earlier albums.
Klaus Schulze has been pretty mysterious with the press for the past four years, especially in the States. However, thanks to the diligence of our interviewer, Klaus was willing to respond to specific questions in writing. Therefore, EM is pleased and proud to present this candid discourse with a space age musical pioneer, still one of the more innovative electronic composers in the field today.
Klaus, what kind of musical background do you have?
My family actually hated the idea of me becoming a musician. I did get some help and encouragement from my brother; he played drums a little bit, mostly as a hobby. Actually, I started as a guitarist in 1953 and studied classical music from the age of seven till I was 15. This kind of education didn't allow me to play rock music, which is what I really wanted to do. So, I switched to drums and played drums for about ten years, although after I worked with Michael Shrieve I would never say that I really played drums! What I got from drumming that really helped me when I started using synths and sequencers was the rhythmic feel. I think every musician should play drums for a couple of years to get a true sense of rhythm.
What made you switch from drums to synthesizers?
I wanted to create a new music, so I chose an instrument that I had never played before. My first contact with a synthesizer, an EMS Synthi A, was in a studio in Strassburg; I still have the EMS here in my studio. The EMS was the first synth manufactured in Europe. With the synthesizer you could change the scales of a keyboard so you wouldn't be locked into the half steps of a standard keyboard. And, you could create sounds from scratch.
Electronic instruments have changed a lot since you first started using them. As a composer, do you think that the advent of digital synthesis and computer music instruments have affected your musical ideas?
I always try to use the newest technology. This isn't always easy. I often had to explain to journalists why there was, and still is, a fear of computers and unknown instruments. One of my jobs during the '70s was to get rid of people's prejudice, especially when the majority of those people knew nothing about a synthesizer, sequencer, or computer . . . of course, my way of producing music changed with the technology, but not my musical ideas.
Your most recent album Dreams was a real departure from the two previous albums; you seem to he going back to a more classical feeling. How did you go about creating this album?
I recorded the album with a complete set of new instruments. I used a lot of rack-mount synths — Roland MKS-80/MPG-80, SuperJupiter, Roland MKS-30, Planet S synthesizer, Korg DW-8000, and Akai 5612/MD280 sampler — going through a Korg DVP-I digital voice processor and also Publison's Infernal Machine 90, and a Korg SQD-1 MIDI recorder. The only instruments on the album that I had used previously were the Fairlight and the Oberheim DM. It was fun to try out something new. Hardcore fans really want to hear the old instruments, but I enjoy each new instrument that I get.
How do you use the Fairlight and your MID! setup in performance?
Using computers in live performance gives me a lot of freedom. I can program the background material and blend it in with any one of the 32 channels on my mixing console, so I have a background that can change with every situation. During performance, it is not always possible to change tonalities on the computerized instruments. That is also why I still use analog synths like the Minimoog on stage. Computers are excellent and variable tools; a chip for me is not something sacred, but a commodity. The fear of computers disappears if one works at it and works with affection.
On Miditation and your new album Dreams, you combined traditional acoustic instruments with synths and computers. Will you be doing more with acoustic instruments?
Actually I have used acoustic instruments on earlier albums — saxophones, a voice, a cello, or a small orchestra. I do not compose the sections for these instruments; I use them on the recordings as long as they fit my music, according to my tastes.
How do you compose your songs? Tell us how you develop an idea.
I do not write a composition. It's in my head and during work it all comes together. Sometimes it happens in a night, and other times it takes a few weeks, even months. In the early days I mostly improvised. Little by little I learned to form my music. I do not write on pieces of paper; I play it on tape, and play it in my head. Because I play music most of the time, I have many tapes full of musical ideas.
Did you compose the music for the film Angst in this way?
Yes. The film people cut their film to the finished music. Normally, it's vice versa.
A lot of people consider your compositions as classical. You have even received an award in Paris for this. Do you consider yourself a classical composer?
The Beatles are classical too. My part in the contemporary music scene is ambiguous. My records are sold on the pop market; they have to compete with Santana and the Scorpions on the record shelves. But if one listens to them, they are definitely not pop music. Neither are they classical music in the sense of a Mozart or Beethoven, or a Henze or Penderecki. Actually this labeling is not my problem, but I have to deal with it. These days, marketing people have found a new label for this type of music, "new age" music, but I haven't met any musician who is happy with this label.
Do you find that listeners are more sophisticated about electronic music today than they were ten years ago, and if so, what does that mean for you as a composer?
Oh yes, certainly yes. But only those who always had an interest in this kind of music, and of course, musicians today know a lot more about electronic instruments than when I started. Today it is very easy and affordable to go into a store and buy a synthesizer, effects, and a cheap 4- or 8-track and make a good recording. For me all this means that I have to be better, more sophisticated. Some people today immediately hear if I use an old instrument on a new album. Fans are strange sometimes. On one hand they demand "new music," and on the other they prefer the "old Schulze."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, composers spent a lot of their time working with notes, but today we have to create the sounds as well. How much time do you spend developing sounds as opposed to getting the notes down the way you want them?
In the days when composers had no tape recorders or MIDI sequencers, the distribution of music was quite different. To get your music played, you had to physically write down music and get it printed. Today we put a sound on a tape or disk and there it is, ready for manufacture. I have been composing electronic music now for 17 years, I know exactly what sound fits here or there, and how to create it.
Are there any specific considerations when you are composing a part for a certain instrument?
I generally do not compose a part for a specific instrument. I have a sound idea, or a theme or melody in my head, and I play it. I have my own style and this limits me a bit, if limit is the right word, because I'm happy with it. My fans would be disappointed if I suddenly would do, for example, a blues or a "normal" piece of music with a song structure, a piece of pop music.
Did learning on modular instruments have a lasting impact on your work?
Oh, sure. That is my greatest advantage. With modular instruments one had to learn the logic of a tone, of a sound, how it's built, and what it means. It's a lot easier for a newcomer today, but how will that person know what goes into the sound the keyboard is making? These old modular analog synths are very important. Handwork!
When a new instrument comes out, how do you go about investigating it? What do you look for in deciding whether or not to use it?
There are always people trying to convince me to try or buy a new instrument. Sometimes I try it, and sometimes I buy it. The main feature I look for is the ability to produce my own sounds. I have no interest in preset instruments.
What projects are you currently working on?
Normally, I try not to plan things very far ahead. My next project is to do a 40-minute piece for an American ballet company from New York, the Elisa Monte Dance Company. They already use a piece from Audentity called "Spielglocken," and they asked me to do a special piece for them. I met them in Amsterdam and we liked each other. I did like, and I still like to play alone, but I am free to work with others as I have done in the past, and will continue to do.
What about the future?
In my career I've seen musical waves come and go. A musical fashion is short, and I'm lucky that I have never made fashionable music. I will go on.
(Thanks to Klaus D. Mueller for his help in making this interview possible.)