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On a rainy day in Cologne, I'm having tea and cake with Holger Czukay, and he's providing the entertainment as well. The occasion is the U.S. release of his CD Moving Pictures on Cleopatra Records, and his upcoming first-ever U.S. appearances, in which he'll be accompanied by Dr. Walker of Air Liquide and by his wife, artist/musician U-She.
Holger Czukay you may or may not have heard of, so let's call him the grandfather of modern German music, and the wielder of enormous influence through his work with his former band Can and a series of pivotal solo recordings, especially the classic Movies of 1979. The list of devotees is impressive: Brian Eno, David Byrne, Bill Laswell, Public Image Ltd., The Fall, Loop, Moonshake, Stereolab, etc., all owe a gigantic debt to the innovations of Czukay.
What innovations might those be? Well, he if anyone invented sampling, for one thing, and he's been incorporating it into his music since the '60s. A solo work, Canaxis 5, from 1969, features snippets of Vietnamese music interlaced with electronics, bass and other tape collages. Can sampled itself in the studio, which is among the ways it derived its unusual sound; the band would play spontaneously, and everything was recorded, with Holger, acting as both bassist and engineer, later editing it all down and shaping it into finished pieces. This collective composition -- the band differentiated it from improvisation in the jazz sense -- spawned a number of viscerally avant-garde albums, notably Monster Movie, with the American singer Malcolm Mooney, and Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, with the Japanese "stone age" vocalist Damo Suzuki.
Can was ahead of its time in a number of ways. Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt had studied with Stockhausen, and Schmidt had also performed and conducted works by Cage, Feldman and Gorecki. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit had a free-jazz background and had played with Chet Baker and Manfred Schoof, and guitarist Michael Karoli had studied Gypsy music and served time in dance bands. Their varied backgrounds, their dedication to experimentation and their mutual ignorance about rock music allowed them to develop a beautifully unclichéd sound, one that treated drums and bass with inordinate respect.
Claims about the patterns of musical influence are dodgy and pretty damn boring, usually ignoring Zeitgeist and creative confluence, but it's no big stretch to say that without Can -- and especially without Czukay as the band's chief architect -- jungle, trance, ambient, trip-hop and mother hip-hop itself would not exist as we know them. And the band's recurring "Ethnological Forgery Series" presaged the world-music craze now run rampant, rendering pieces so obviously fake that they birthed new genres, thus cleverly addressing and diffusing the specious issue of musical tourism. When Can fired Czukay in 1977 (his bandmates wanted a "better" bass player; he wanted to multimedia-ize the band by incorporating short-wave radio, tapes and his own handmade analog sampler constructed from a modified Dictaphone), he made his move into the world of "acoustical landscape painting."
On Movies, Czukay developed the process of painting with sound through editing, producing music with a highly visual quality. With the aid of Liebezeit's concise, tight drums, often subtly incorporating North African or Middle Eastern polyrhythms, he built pieces that included just about everything: sports announcers, mariachi horns, Korean orchestras, warbling sopranos and Hollywood leading men, plus his own relaxed but clipped bass and whispery, characterful voice, and a crystalline guitar sound obtained by recording at half-speed.
But let's cut to the present. Holger Czukay has never stopped making music. Each night he enters his home studio and works till dawn in partnership with his machines; usually, the ideas come with ease. He has a lot of music in the can, including a set of radically reharmonized cover versions done with U-She, a slamming live set with Dr. Walker and a 47-minute electronic tour de force called "La Luna" that ranks as his finest hour. "I am always looking for the development forward," he says. "I don't want to continue playing bass or guitar, as I have done that in the '60s. I really want to see where the music is going. The adventure is for me the most important thing."
We are talking about a psychological effect of his sound; I say that, when listening to it, it's often hard to tell if you're hearing something or imagining it. "This is something you can learn from the scores of Claude Debussy," he says. "Instruments are sometimes just good for a shadow. This is how to orchestrate, how you are painting with an orchestra, and not presenting solo instruments or something like that.
Who is putting pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?!" Czukay enacts from the life of one of his heroes, W.C. Fields. We list our favorite films: I like David Copperfield, he likes Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. "He could be sometimes so speedy and so incredibly out of tune, it was fantastic. Such a nonsense you can only dream of."
Czukay's music comes about in various ways, but his most important tool is time. "I have nothing organized, I'm as empty as possible. I get the vision by playing . . . It is wonderful to make music in the darkness, and suddenly you see a light, and then you go towards that light, the end of the tunnel, in the process. It's wonderful to start in the darkness, because otherwise you are connected to songs which are under the pressure to be successful. Most of the time it is playing something without ambition."
While his pieces frequently contain vast quantities of sonic information, Czukay doesn't multitrack in the conventional sense, and he believes that good editing tools are more important than all MIDI, synths and other modern studio apparatus put together. Anyway, he was forced to adapt to the digital realm, because he edits so much that no magnetic tape could withstand such manipulation without a buildup of hiss and degradation. In the '60s, he says, "the engineers had to be able to make the final decisions right during the recording, and this is something which I like. With this recorder here, this Akai digital recorder, he's only performing four tracks -- two stereo tracks, two events at the same time, nothing more. That means you have to mix it from the very beginning, and that means you have to leap back into the '60s somehow. With a modern technique you get back 30 years into the past."
Czukay builds his pieces like a puzzle. "Everything is divided into sort of molecules," and the mixes are often done fast and rough. He mixes each composition as many as 20 ways, then samples phrases from each mix and edits them back together. "This is the way of an artificially put-together piece," he says. "Artificially in the sense of better than the original, or different and possibly better than the original."
Czukay has successfully applied this backward-thinking to his own handmade music videos, too (Ennio Morricone is a fan, though he initially thought Czukay was out of his mind), and he's been approached by big-studio types to score their movies. However, "to make film music is absolutely uninteresting," he says. "The ordinary way of making film music is the interpretation of pictures, and this is always weak. You must create a world which is somehow different from the world of the picture . . . this is the reason why you should not read the script.
This approach paid off when Czukay taped a video at a fashion show in Cologne, with all the catwalk action choreographed to the music; he acted in it as well. "Yeah, I became a top model, you can say . . . 'All Night Long' [from Moving Pictures] was specially presented in fashion shows, and all the models said that this was the most efficient music they had, that they could move perfectly. The idea was that the models were completely nuts, freaked out somehow, catching for flies, shaking their hands and something like this, and it was excellent, actually. Someone at the end gets murdered. It was wonderful."
We're listening to some of Czukay's latest works; he has seemingly plunged even further down inside the tones -- we're soaking in a bath of warm frequencies, getting a massage with one of those rubber-tipped thingies. I wonder aloud how he could possibly calculate these effects. "I was never good at school with mathematics," he says. "No, this is only a question of taste. When it comes to the comparison between vinyl and CD quality, usually the freaks or the DJs go for vinyl. But when you work for a CD, you have precisely to work for this medium. And that means to optimize everything for the digital world, so that on the CD it sounds as it would never sound anywhere else as good. You feel it immediately from the sound what sort of frequencies you try to avoid . . .
"All the analog purists, they argue with the fact that the overtones frequency range is far beyond 30 and 40 khz, and you are getting affected by that. And the body feels it, this sort of richness and warmness. The digitalization somehow misses, cannot reproduce these frequencies, of course. But these purists forget one thing: when you work for the digital media, you have to work with instruments which fit perfectly into that. For example, if you work with a synthesizer or with artificial instruments, they are reduced in their spectrum very much, and fit perfectly into the digital world. And that is the point: you don't need always to have the full range of the frequency spectrum. Why? Leave out most, and it's becoming more interesting."
Other secrets of Holger's sound shall remain secrets, but he will say that for certain effects he works with the oldest techniques possible, with microphones from the '50s, and tube amplifiers. At this stage it is an analog world, yet it cedes to the digital. "For example, I have a great, huge gong, and such a rich sound which comes from that huge gong. Usually you tape with very expensive microphones, but I instead tape Jaki with a $10 cassette recorder and a microphone for $1.95. I take that into my digital device and it's better than all the rest. That means, the poorer the sound, the better the quality."
John Payne | L.A. Weekly | 1/97