Klaus Schulze

The 20th century was a time when music was repeatedly and radically changed by technological advancements, large and small. The development of sensitive microphones allowed singers like Bing Crosby to stop bellowing and start crooning. The invention of the electric guitar: well, the reverberations of the first power chord are still being felt. The arrival of synthesizers and electronic keyboards in the late Sixties and early Seventies was just as important as either of those, and the musicians who fully embraced the possibilities of those instruments changed everything.

Klaus Schulze, who played guitar and drums in bands as a teenager, found his creative voice through keyboards and synths. Beginning in 1972, he made over 60 albums under his own name or one of a few pseudonyms, in the process pioneering the style known as “kosmische” (cosmic) music and inspiring generations of ambient and New Age composers. His work was used in films like Michael Mann’s Manhunter and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and he scored the horror/exploitation films Angst and Barracuda, but his best-known work was a string of solo albums made in the Seventies.

Schulze got his start as the drummer in Tangerine Dream; he can be heard on that group’s debut album, 1969’s Electronic Meditation, but the collision of two creative forces as strong as he and TD founder Edgar Froese forced a quick split. Schulze then became the drummer in Ash Ra Tempel, a trio with guitarist Manuel Göttsching and bassist Hartmut Enke. He played on their self-titled debut and 1973’s Join Inn, helping to pioneer the hard-driving yet ultra-disciplined grooves that would come to be known as “krautrock” before opting to focus on his solo work.

From the early ’70s on, Schulze commonly put out one or two albums a year, while touring extensively in Europe and Asia (he never visited, and never had more than a cult audience in, the US). His recordings tended to feature side-long tracks, which often consisted of elaborate melodic journeys laid over pulsing sequencer lines. Occasionally there would be a beat (either from him or Harald Grosskopf), and other instruments — cello, guitar — popped up here and there, but the synthesizers were always the focus.

Though he didn’t adapt to pop music trends, he did embrace new technologies, shifting from modular synths to smaller keyboards and later embracing sampling technology, drum machines, and whatever else came along. He also collaborated with a range of vocalists from Arthur Brown (of The Crazy World Of…) to Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. In the mid ’90s, he joined forces with ambient composer Pete Namlook and bassist/producer/sound designer Bill Laswell for a series of eleven albums, The Dark Side Of The Moog, that were somewhat more beat-driven than his usual work. But his particular musical ideas — the lush melodies, the endless drifting backdrops, the sense that one was gazing through a portal at an infinite vista of stars — remained constant throughout his career. 

Echoes of Schulze’s work can be heard in the music of those who came after him, like Steve Roach, and in the entirety of electronic subgenres like trance music and certain varieties of German techno. From behind his banks of keyboards, he changed the world. Miles Davis once said that all jazz musicians should get down on one knee on a particular day and thank Duke Ellington. Whether they know it or not, electronic musicians owe a similarly massive debt to Klaus Schulze.

Mirage cover

Mirage, Schulze’s eighth solo album, seems to hew to formula, containing two side-long pieces (“Velvet Voyage” and “Crystal Lake”), but as always there are subtle differences that set it apart from his previous work. “Velvet Voyage” features heavy use of dense sonic clusters that overwhelm the listener, particularly at high volume, and taped (this was pre-sampling) voices and simulated synth choirs. “Crystal Lake” is much more minimal, built around repetitive, pulsing melodies that conjure an ominous mood similar to John Carpenter’s soundtrack for Halloween, which wouldn’t be released until the following year. (And what about the fact that Friday the 13th, which wouldn’t come out until 1980, is set at…Camp Crystal Lake?)

Blackdance cover

Schulze’s third album features a few surprising elements: in addition to the shimmering, endless waves of cosmic synth radiation, he plays 12-string acoustic guitar and lays down speedy and complex bongo rhythms, and that’s all just on the first track, the 17-minute “Ways of Changes.” The short “Some Velvet Phasing” features what sound like Mellotron drones mimicking strings, and on the side-long “Voices of Syn,” he’s joined by operatic baritone Ernst Walter Siemon, whose dramatically intoned lyrics give the piece a dark atmosphere that the warped acoustic piano in its latter half only bolsters.

Picture Music cover

Schulze’s fourth album was actually recorded before its predecessor, 1974’s Blackdance, but held back. It consists of two side-long tracks, with a 33-minute bonus track added to CD reissues. The first, “Totem,” is a Tangerine Dream-esque journey through deep space, with some electronic pulses to create rhythm but an overall feeling of timelessness and floating. The second, “Mental Door,” is much more active and even hard-charging; some of Schulze’s playing verges on rock organ à la Jon Lord of Deep Purple, and he also sits down behind the drums (his original instrument), slamming out a mechanistic beat that boosts the energy level even higher.

Timewind cover

Klaus Schulze was a big fan of composer Richard Wagner, and the two side-long tracks on this 1975 LP are both named in tribute to him. “Bayreuth Return” is a reference to the town which stages an annual festival of Wagner’s music, while “Wahnfried 1883” is named after his house there, and the year in which he was buried. “Bayreuth Return” is a long, live-in-the-studio jam recorded to two-track and features a simple, pulsing sequencer pattern, melodic extrapolations, and sound effects, all of which bring to mind Pink Floyd circa Wish You Were Here. “Wahnfried 1883” is one of Schulze’s more timeless, staring-out-at-an-endless-field-of-stars pieces, big chords replacing one another at a seemingly glacial pace.

Ash Ra Tempel cover

Before he was a synth wizard, Klaus Schulze was a drummer, one who along with Neu!’s Klaus Dinger and Can’s Jaki Liebezeit laid the rhythmic foundation for the entire Krautrock movement. Ash Ra Tempel was a power trio featuring guitarist Manuel Göttsching and bassist Hartmut Enke. This self-titled debut consists of two side-long jams. “Amboss,” which Earthless fans will find easy to love, is driven by a rigorous but recognizably human beat; Schulze busts out rapid-fire fills that ratchet the energy level up nicely as Göttsching heads for the stratosphere. “Traummaschine” is slower and much trippier, an audible influence on acts ranging from SubArachnoid Space to Fushitsusha.

Dune cover

The title track from Dune is harsh and avant-garde; the endlessly drifting cosmic rays of previous Schulze albums are absent, replaced by theremin-like croons, sounds like massive glass bowls being rubbed by giant wet fingers, and cello (played by Wolfgang Tiepold). Although it has nothing to do with Frank Herbert’s novel, the side-long piece could serve as a fairly terrifying movie score. The album’s second side, “Shadows Of Ignorance,” is a pulsing, almost danceable track on which Arthur Brown (of The Crazy World Of…) recites a long poem written — in English — by Schulze and Tiepold offers staccato bowed accents.

La Vie Electronique, Vol. 4 cover

In addition to his albums, Schulze released several large, limited-edition boxes of studio outtakes and live recordings; one such 50CD monstrosity, The Ultimate Edition, was broken up into the La Vie Électronique series, which ran to 15 3CD sets and a 5CD concluding volume. For the most part, the series was chronological, and LVE 4 consists of solo concert recordings from 1975 and 1976. The first disc, “Just an Old-Fashioned Schulze Track,” is a nine-part, 74-minute suite, while the second and third discs include a few short(ish) pieces bracketing live epics named for science fiction works: “I Sing the Body Electric,” “The Andromeda Strain,” and “Make Room, Make Room!” (the novel that was adapted into the movie Soylent Green). This is peak cosmic synth music, perfect for lying back on the couch and just drifting away for an hour or so.

Moondawn cover

Moondawn, from 1976, is often cited as the first Klaus Schulze album to fully embrace the so-called “Berlin School” style of cosmic synth music, but it’s not a radical departure from his previous work. The sequencer pulses and gently shimmering melodies are there; the two side-long tracks (“Floating” and “Mindphaser”) evolve as patiently as ever… In fact, though, Moondawn has a lot more rhythmic drive and rock energy than some other Schulze records, thanks to the return of live drums, played here by Harald Grosskopf rather than Schulze himself. In the final third of “Mindphaser,” Grosskopf gets shockingly close to playing a drum solo(!) as Schulze lays down wave after wave of synth energy.

Audentity cover

A double LP of highly experimental character, Schulze’s 1983 album Audentity was radically resequenced when it was reissued on CD; several short tracks from the first disc were moved to the second, in order to present three long suites, one after another. Audentity has several guests, including cellist Wolfgang Tiepold, percussionist Michael Shrieve (on Simmons electronic pads), and Rainer Bloss on glockenspiel and “sounds.” The music features a lot of sequenced rhythm patterns and pulsing synth voices, but the upper-register cello soars like a violin, creating lyrical, romantic melodies and the bass drum thumps shockingly hard for music of this vintage. It’s easier to draw a line from this to the dub techno of Basic Channel than to Schulze’s 1970s work.

Cyborg cover

Schulze’s first album of synthesizer music (1972’s Irrlicht featured organ and manipulated tapes of an orchestra), Cyborg is a double LP containing four 25-minute tracks. (The two-CD reissue adds a nearly hour-long bonus track.) There’s a powerful pulse running through “Conphära,” and the eerie hums and sudden stabs of “Synphära,” “Chromengel” and “Neuronengesang” take the music far beyond the ambient realms of Tangerine Dream, into powerful and often unsettling areas. Listen in the dark and you may find yourself looking nervously over your shoulder.