Free Art

In Berlin one can hear piano works of Krautrock and free rock legend Conrad Schnitzler

Original German text by Wolfgang Seidel
Translated into English by Franco Toma

Original publication: Jungle World #21 ­ May 12, 2004

One story Conrad Schnitzler enjoys telling is the one about Glenn Gould. The celebrated piano virtuoso was said to be disappointed by his own compositional attempts, at which he always caught himself slipping into the patterns of practiced phrases of the great masters. A problem that Schnitzler, who has no musical education, never had. His discovery of the piano started a long exploration through the world of sounds, on which he drew up his own maps and developed his own compass. This odyssey began in the early 1950s with an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer. The polyrhythmic grating, screeching and hammering at the workshop initially sparked his own occupation with music. Nevertheless, the most beautiful moment of the day was the slow fading away of these sounds at closing time, when the machines were turned off one after the other ­ as if a re-mixer had virtuosically punched the mute buttons on his mixing desk.

Schnitzler's second formative listening experience was due to the few then existing radio programs playing jazz and avant-garde. Mostly broadcasting late at night to avoid scaring off the average citizen, they forbade the existence of another world out there, differing from the gray everyday life of postwar Germany. From which to escape after the apprenticeship Conrad Schnitzler even signed onto one of the notorious "coffin ships", tuckering all around the coast of Africa. Besides joining the Foreign Legion, Christian seafaring was one of the few ways in the 1950s to leave the German postwar tristesse behind.

Schnitzler's first official encounter with the piano was at a happening organized by his teacher Joseph Beuys at the Academy of Arts. It ended with the exhibition of the instrument's leftovers at the gallery Block. Schnitzler had started to study with Beuys when he had opened his classes for everyone, without demanding the usual qualifications and tests from the students, which famously led to his prompt suspension from the Academy for a violation of academic rules.

But every esoteric pretension and the wanna-be shamanism of Beuys remained completely alien for Schnitzler, who had experienced the world as a sailor and worker.  »I am a craftsman. There's nothing sacred about a horizontal drill. It's all about: What can it do, how does it function?« With this attitude he also approached his own art. The »Art has to serve the working class«-rhetoric of the left student  was alien for him as well. Yet his art served one representative of this class in need of liberation ­ himself.

At the beginning of the 1960s Conrad Schnitzler had drifted to Berlin, the meeting place for everyone being at odds with Germany's "work, work, built a home"-mentality and attracted by the exemption of military service and ghost economy of West Berlin, alimented by the republic since the erection of the wall. Schnitzler switched from fine arts to music. His first group was programmatically called Geräusche. Geräusche ­ it didn't say more on the flyers ­ except the time and location of the performance. Schnitzler's further stations were Tangerine Dream, Kluster (later Cluster) and Eruption, until he withdrew himself and pursued a long solo career, removed from all forms of commercial exploitation, enabling him to become one of the most prolific artists on the electronic scene.

In 1969, Conrad Schnitzler, along with a few friends, founded the Zodiak, a club with the subtitle »Free Arts Lab«. This was the place where free jazz, blues and electronic met. The house band and successor of Geräusche was Human Being, joint in the meantime by, amongst others, Boris Schaak, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius (both later Cluster). Diedrich Diederichsen writes in the liner notes of the CD »M.N.D. ­ Westberliner Stadtmusik 1969«: »The band at that time ­ Norbert Eisbrenner, Werner Goetz and Sven Ake Johansson ­ was part of the scene surrounding the Zodiak, a place that had the same meaning for Berlin and the upcoming German electronic avant-garde  ­ especially Cluster, Tangerine Dream and the tireless Conrad Schnitzler ­ as the Ufo had for the world of the early Pink Floyd and Soft Machine.« Holger Meins, Bommi Baumann, Karl Pawla, whose claim to fame was taking a shit in front of the judge's bench, and the Wandering Hash Rebels also ranked among the guests of the Zodiak, this outlandish place underneath the rooms of the Schaubühne (Playhouse), and created an unity of art and politics which probably has not been achieved ever since.

When Diederichsen describes New York's Jazz Composers' Orchestra of the same era, with Cecil Taylor amongst others, as a place, »where for short revolutionary moments the Left, Afrocentrics and free jazz hipsters flocked together«, it applies for the scene around the Zodiak as well. But they modeled themselves less on free jazz than much more on the music of groups like the British AMM or Nuova Consonanza from Italy. What Schnitzler and his band produced at the Zodiak was »Music of the Unauthorized.« The least of them knew how to play an instrument. They weren't musicians, but artists. Many of the performers had a background in fine arts. Schnitzler himself, but also Markus Lüppertz, K.H. Hödicke and Bernd Zimmer.

They met for rehearsals at the ground floor of Stephanstraße in Berlin-Moabit. Kommune 1 lived right above, and whoever opened the door to peak in, no matter if they could play an instrument or not, joined in ­ it was too much, even for the free jazzers. It was also too close to the bone for the hippie-bongo- fraction that jammed with the band at the smoke-in at the zoo and which Schnitzler had always hated anyway. And while most electronic musicians moved on to spherical harmonies, temporarily marketed as music of the »Cosmic Couriers«, Schnitzler's music has the kind of quality that puts New Age fans at risk of a heart attack.
At the same time it is also far removed from what is usually filed under Noise. For that it contains too much structure.

Conrad Schnitzler is an inter-media artist, who transfers experiences and methods of operation from one medium to the other. But he draws a distinction between inter-media and mixed media. He strictly separates the media and doesn't try to facilitate the appreciation of his music with optical effects. He even omits titles for his music to give the listener no indication of what he should associate with the music. He's supposed to listen and decide for himself ­ hence one of Schnitzler's favorite projects is called »music in the dark«. Lights out ­ only listening remains.

But what draws someone like Schnitzler to the piano? After the endless sound possibilities of electronics and the liberation from the twelve tones of the octave, the piano seems to be a limitation at first. But the challenge was to transfer the principles of order, found after years of working with electronic sounds that are tonally completely unbound, to an instrument which, as opposed to the saxophone, for example, with its possibilities of articulation, has a defined sound and only offers the relation of tones to each other as its singular means of expression. The tool of the trade for this research project is a piano with keys moved by computer controlled electro magnets. This feature allows the composer to disregard the limitations of physical reach integral to a piano player of flesh and blood
and frees him from the rehearsed drill of work movements.

From May 14-21 the Gallerie Zero in Berlin presents the piano works of Conrad Schnitzler.


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