by Wolfgang Seidel
– the first record Conrad Schnitzler released was pitch black. No name. No track listing or song titles. No photograph. This was a statement of difference from the popular music of the time that came in bright hippie colours and the flower ornaments of Art Déco, an aesthetic that made the suggested progressiveness hard to believe. Schnitzler’s black was of a different kind. Perhaps the White Album of the Beatles is something comparable, done by Richard Hamilton, who had been one of the first pop artists – when pop meant art and not pop(ular) music. And Hamilton was an artist, who used the iconography of advertising and not an advertiser who declared his ads for soap and music as art. For Schnitzler the reduction to just one colour was more than something you try as a fancy. It was a statement that he continued with releases in red, blue, green and yellow. The music was accordingly made from basic forms that were put together, constructed to form a working machine. Schnitzler is a trained mechanic and in the early sixties, trying to get out of the suffocating atmosphere of post-war Germany, sailed the seas in the engine compartment of a cargo ship.
This puts Schnitzler more in the tradition of the Bauhaus while the average hippie beliefs were much closer to the anti-modern ideologies of the “arts and craft” movement or the German counterpart Wandervogel. The Bauhaus is well known for its progressive design and architecture, their dream of a better life for the masses with the help of modern technology. But the people at the Bauhaus also thought about the congruous music for their dream. Lázló Moholy Nagy was one of the Bauhaus professors that had been interested in the new media – and a new music. He had planned a machine that should enable the composer to engrave music directly into a disc, creating sounds without the need of instruments and their limitations in sound. And without musicians and the limitations their education had forced upon them, always trying to play as they’ve been taught to.
Conrad Schnitzler had to deal with the same question. You have a music, a machine constructed from organized sounds, in your vison, but you’ll find it difficult to get it from the drawing board into real life. First there are the practical limitations of technology and economy. Schnitzler lived far away from the centre of the pop universe in West Germany’s dirty backyard, the Western half of Berlin. He’d came there when everybody tried to leave the city that was surrounded by a wall and cut off by at least three hundred kilometres of East German territory. Those who stayed were the poor or the less adventurous. And those who came to fill the empty quarters of the city, were those, who fled the conformity of the West German society and found a cheap place to live as they pleased in West Berlin. Nobody had much money. If you had new sounds in your mind, you had to make them from scrap. Scrap because there were no approved rules you could rely on. And the instruments were made from scrap, too. In the beginning the equipment was assembled from old violins that had been found at the flea market. When the first drums joined what no one would call a “band”, you could not hear the violins anymore. The next thing was buying cheap microphone capsules that normally were used in telephones. With some soldering efforts you could equip everything that makes some kind of sound with these microphones. The first wave of beat and rock music had brought some amplifiers and with reverb, tape echo and fuzz boxes the first gadgets to manipulate sound.
In the late sixties Conrad Schnitzler met Klaus Freudigmann who was a professional sound engineer working for record companies but getting more and more disenchanted with music ruled only by sales figures and opportunism. Their combined mechanic and electronic skills was the basis of the sound of the recordings of a number of “groups” that sprang up from the scene surrounding the two. Most are forgotten like Geräusche, Human Being and Plus Minus. Others are still remembered (or still working) like Tangerine Dream or Cluster. The first place where all the people that a some point in their lives had been involved in this creational process was to be the “Zodiak – Freeartslab”. Schnitzler had brought the idea of a free arts laboratory back to Berlin from is visits in England. He convinced the owners of a theatre to let him the ground floor underneath the stage, painted the rooms one white one black, installed a dozen tv sets and pinball machines. In there gathered everybody who was in some ways a freak, in opposition to the mainstream society either politically, artistically, sexually or pharmaceutically. The music was provided by some of those, who became household names of what was later to be called Krautrock, a lot of free jazz – or pure noise where non-musicians created their on-music. An impression of that non-music is caught in Dietmar Buchmann’s 1969 Zodiak film.
Non-musicians. This is the other point, where Schnitzler’s and Moholy Nagy’s ideas met. If you depend on trained musicians you are always limited to what they have been taught. Only a few can make themselves free from this scheme Perhaps you need a deep feeling of not belonging to the whole set of traditions and culture you are forced to live in - like Karl Heinz Stockhausen. His mother had been killed during the Third Reich as part of the Nazi’s dream of a higher race that led to the extermination of everyone that doesn’t fit into that ill vision. Sun Ra is another example of feeling yourself as an alien. Conrad Schnitzler made himself an alien when painted his head and face in contrasting black and white or walked the streets in a white leather suit with batteries, cassette decks and mixer attached and a helmet with a speaker on top, performing his music to completely stunned passer bys as “lebende Klangwolke” (living cloud of sound). If you combine a mind that is free from old schemes with new tools of making sound, instruments for which the rules aren’t already written, you’ll find something new. It is no coincidence that the new music was more inspired by visual artists (Schnitzler had studied painting and sculpturing with Joseph Beuys) then by academic music. Old schemes – this does not apply only to classical trained musicians. A three-chord-rock-guitar-hero might have seen himself as avant garde, when rock music was new. But they were stuck in the same traditional patterns of music – and of small enterprise. That’s what most rock groups become from the moment, when money is involved. The lack of any commercial interest was, what made the scene swirling around the Zodiak possible. The next place was an abandoned ballroom, again painted black. Because no money was involved, everybody was free to play and experiment with everybody without thinking of contracts or copyrights.
The pinnacle was an event named “Eruption” that Conrad Schnitzler staged over the Christmas season 1971. At that time every pub or cinema was closed over Christmas so Conrad Schnitzler could convince the owner of an old run down cinema to open the place for a three days session where everybody could perform in one lasting jam session. Else there was little opportunity to play this sort of music in public. One of the few exceptions had been the teach-ins at Berlin’s Technische Universität where radical politics met with radical music as appropriate soundtrack for a revolution that didn’t happen. Was it in vain? No, at least some of the fascist ghosts had been driven out by the joint efforts of those who made themselves to be heard with demonstrations or strikes and those who made noise with their instruments. Which was more important? The first one – but the music is, what can be easily recycled, sold and consumed without much thinking of the ideas that led to that music.
The next stop after the closure of the Zodiak was the ground floor of a factory bulding at Stepanstrasse. The Kommune 1 with members Dieter Kunzelmann, Fritz Teufel, Rainer Langhans and Uschi Obermaier, who had been on the conservatives “most hated” list for their role in the students movement, had rented the building and had plans to make the ground floor a club or discotheque. Conrad Schnitzler performed with his painter K. H. Hödicke and Kalle Hausmann who used the room for rehearsing with Agitation Free, another group formed from the pool of the Zodiak visitors. After the media echo Rainer Langhans had gotten from his role in the Kommune 1 somewhere between political demonstrations and happening, he had started dreaming of building a media company and therefore tried to attract all sorts of creative people, painters, musicians, filmmakers or light show. But it all turned out to be just another pipe dream.
Amongst the non-musicians Conrad Schnitzler gathered in his circle was a young man who still went to school when he entered the Zodiak, who later became short time drummer of Ton Steine Scherben, known for their radical anarchistic musical pamphlets and their support for the squatter movement. Another one of the younger visitors fascinated by the new world of sound was Burghard Seiler who a dozen years later opened a record shop where he sold free jazz alongside punk and the noise Einstürzende Neubauten. Seidel became a musician by mere accident. He came from a working class background and had no instrument of his own when he stumbled across an abandoned drumkit that belonged to a theatre group of young apprentices and workers who were looking for musical accompaniment for their plays that had been a mix from traditions of the 1920ties socialist movement and US street theatre like the “Bread and Puppet” group. Being fresh to the music (except for a few songs he’d played with a beat band at school) was a big advantage for what Conrad Schnitzler had in mind. The former owner of that drum-kit had switched to guitar. And as long as he was new to the instrument, he joined in the sessions relying more on the tape echo he’d bought than on fast fingers – and on a drummer’s ability to organize sounds into patterns. Together they formed Ton Steine Scherben with Rio Reiser who later became a influential singer/songwriter. To him as a trained musician who came from a Schlager background (the German brand of mostly soft mainstream songs) this sort of music was unbearable. In his autobiography he wrote later “you never knew when Wolfgang was playing, when he will be back to earth”. No wonder that this combination could not last. The “Scherben” (as they were called) developed more and more into an average rock group and are today remembered not for their musical achievements but being one of the first who combined the idiom of rock and roll with German lyrics.
One of those, who belonged to the small circle that scratched violins or lay steel blocks on the keys of an electric organ to make a cluster of notes sound infinitely, had been Klaus Freudigmann. When he moved from the ballroom that was impossible to heat in the long Berlin winter into an old factory building, Conrad Schnitzler followed him. New to the group that did not have a constant line up and not even a constant name was Ringo In the changing currents the 70ties, when it became clear that you won’t change the world only with throwing flowers and smoking pot, they turned away from music and took politics seriously - Klaus living in a squatted house and working in a factory, organizing the workers. Ringo went to Nicaragua and built a print shop for the Sandinist movement. The rumble of printing machines was our steady accompaniment in the factory at Admiralstrasse. On the lower floor was the print shop that produced a large part of Berlin’s left winged newspapers, flyers and posters. Others left for non-political reasons.
Conrad Schnitzler was at the same time at the centre of Berlin’s evolving music scene and keeping his distance. One reason might be that he was ten years older than most of the people in that scene, born before the war, had the experience of wartime and the years after. He had family and he also worked hard to support it. Musically his starting point was the avant-garde that was brought by radio – the music of Stockhausen and Varese. Through his time with Beuys he came to know the musical concepts of people like John Cage. With this background the rock music of that time did not sound as revolutionary to Schnitzler’s ear as these people thought they were. First of all he heard a 4/4 beat and well known harmonic progressions. And when people were locked for hours in playing one simple riff on one chord it wasn’t a deliberate break of these rules, only a simplification. Schnitzler saw it as near namedropping, when it became fashionable amongst German musicians to mention Karl Heinz Stockhausen. Visually Schnitzler kept this distance, too. While all others dressed in colourful batik shirts and afghan coats, growing their hair long, Conrad dressed in black and shaved his head.
Klaus Schulze who played drums in the Tangerine Dream line up together with Conrad Schnitzler later remembers:“Schnitzler was a real madman. He wanted to destroy everything”. What to him was destruction meant something else to Conrad Schnitzler. He just wasn’t the type of person that was satisfied with what he had achieved. Instead of marketing something that somehow had proven to have some kind of success, he moved on, following his vision of a totally new music. Others just picked the pieces of ideas they found useful and went on selling them as long as possible. This is one of the reasons for the confusion with the names Kluster or Eruption. Schnitzler never saw a group as a kind of business entity or enterprise. He made is music with whoever was around, had time and interested in what Schnitzler was after. Time and money had been always a problem. Klaus Freudigmann left. Ringo left. Seidel made a living on the skills he had acquired printing underground newspapers by taking a job in a print shop. Conrad Schnitzler was most of the time left alone. Going on tour was something that did not pay off for more than one person. Schnitzler had found a niche in the art galleries and museums. A normal pop audience looking for entertainment was hostile to his music. Consequently an art gallery released his first records. Rene Block’s gallery had been involved with the Fluxus movement and the list of artists he’d shown reads like a who is who of young German painters of the sixties and seventies. Music and performance always played a great role in Fluxus or the happenings of Joseph Beuys so producing records was the logical step. Block did it with the release of Schnitzler’s “Colour Series”.
One of the few collaborations that lasted over the years was that with Wolfgang Seidel. When Schnitzler bought his first synthesizer, it opened a new door of sonic possibilities. A few years later the first sequencer was added and while his experience as a drummer proved to be a good training to play in time with the machines, it brought Seidel the nickname “Sequenza”. On the boxes of the tapes they wrote KW and a number. The two letter stand for Konrad and Wolfgang. Schnitzler still was Konrad with a “K” – like Kluster. Achim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius continued as duo under the name Cluster. They had dropped the K for the international market and for marking the departure from Conrad Schnitzler and his original Kluster concept. At some time Schnitzler changed his first name to Conrad because he loved to play with the first syllable “Con” which opened the way to numerous combinations for naming his records from CONtact to CONstruction. One day someone translated the label KW as the shortcut for kilowatt – the measuring unit for the power of an engine. And because the tapes ran approximately one hour the term “another kWh / kilowatt-hour” became the running joke.
Few of the recordings the two made ever surfaced. They were done without any purpose for the fun and the curiosity of the musicians. The only time the duo did something on demand of a record company was the EP “Auf dem Schwarzen Kanal” and the following LP “Con 3”. It was a complete misunderstanding from the side of the company. They looked for something to profit from the success of the synthie pop from bands like Kraftwerk or the Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft. What the record company made believe that Schnitzler and Seidel are the right address for their plans is their secret. Perhaps because the two had released a private pressing under the name “Consequenz” – what was their ironic comment of the new electronic dance music. Schnitzler and Seidel had a lot of fun working for the first time in a professional recording studio. And because they thought: pop music means songs, Schnitzler took the part of the singer, telling stories from his day as sailor on the seven seas. Afterwards they returned to their free bubbling sounds.
Then came 1989 and the end of the Eastern Deutsche Demokratische Republik - and with it the end of West-Berlin as the island in the Red Sea. West-Berlin lost its biggest tourist attraction and its status as a place where you could lead a cheap (but poor) live as far away from the mainstream. Conrad Schnitzler packed his things and went to some remote place in Lower Saxony until the storm was over. After a few years, the calm country life starts to get boring. Today he lives in a small house on the outskirts of Berlin. The tiny cellar is converted into a small studio where Schnitzlers has all his instruments at arm’s length. There he produces a steady flow of music for his world wide community of fans who order their recording directly. And once in a while a label is audacious enough to take the risk of releasing some of Schnitzler’s music. Performing in public is delegated to conductors who present his music as “Cassette Concerts”. This was a project Schnitzler had started in the 1970ties to overcome the limitations of performing complex electronic music live. He transferred the building blocks of the music on tapes and build two suitcases, each of them housing nine cassette decks, making it possible to create new music from his “tool box” by selecting and mixing the tapes. The method turned out to be so effective, that the project is still going on. The only change is that the tapes have been replaced by CDRs. The Cassette Concerts make it possible for Conrad Schnitzler for having his music performed in different places without the need of a personal appearance. Wolfgang Seidel is one of the appointed directors of the Cassette Concerts.
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