Somnambule - Writing About Music

Painting With Sound, The Life and Music of Hans-Joachim Roedelius by Stephen Iliffe

If you’re a fan of contemporary electronica, but Roedelius is an unfamiliar name to you, then you’re missing out on one of that genre’s most important wellsprings. Picture the glimmerlight from a star called Cluster (Roedelius’s group with partner Moebius) travelling down the years: it falls upon Kraftwerk, on the electropop of the 80s, on house, techno and the abstractions of electronica, ambient, etc. Roedelius’s influence is certainly recognised by a select coterie of musicians (his mid ‘70s album SelbstPortrait I and II cd was cited by Autechre as a desert island disk and Julian Cope wrote enthusiastically about Roedelius’s oeuvre in his well-regarded study, KrautrockSampler). Wider public fame has, however, eluded the man.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius: the name sounds rather grand, perhaps even a little forbidding. Listening to Rodelius’s music, however, reveals a near constant quality that could be described as humanist warmth. In fact, because his music is generally so accessible there’s often a danger of overlooking its significance. Since the formation of Kluster in 1969 and over the course of more than 60 albums, Roedelius has made music that has ranged from mellifluously melodic electronica to reflective acoustic piano compositions and from becalmed ambient atmospheres to longform collages.

Roedelius’s early life saw periods as a child filmstar, forced membership of the Hitler Youth, desertion, escape from East Germany, destitution and imprisonment by the Stasi – all before his musical career began in Kluster with Moebius and Conrad Schnitzler, the latter a radical student of Joseph Beuys. On Schnitzler’s departure the remaining duo renamed themselves Cluster and replaced their lengthy, noisy improvisations with short, melodic pieces on classic albums such as Zuckerzeit and Sowieso. These long predated the electropop of the early 1980s and the tidal wave of electronica beginning at the end of that decade. They also attracted the attention of Brian Eno who visited and recorded with them at their retreat in rural Germany.

At the end of the 1970s Roedelius moved with his family to another part of the country and began a prolific solo recording career which has seen numerous subsequent releases. Arguably Roedelius’s music is not concerned with sound or rhythm per se. Listeners may best be advised to ignore the preset sounds and attend to the structures, resonances and melodies or perhaps the conjuction of all the aforementioned elements in order to appreciate the achievements of this composer.

Stephen Iliffe’s ‘Painting With Sound – The Life and Music of Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ acts as an invaluable guidebook to the man’s life and music. It’s attractively designed with a wealth of photographs, a short introduction by Brian Eno and a brief review and rating of every Roedelius album recorded. Iliffe happily pulls no punches when pointing out work which he considers substandard. The book does have some idiosyncrasies though. For example, the text is interspersed with admiring quotes by a number of none too famous people, and the author condemns the ease with which mp3s can be downloaded while dismissing the opportunities to increase awareness of his subject’s work which these present. There’s also too little information about Roedelius’s collaborators, in particular Dieter Moebius, and an index would have been useful. However these are minor quibbles because this biography presents a very welcome and, without doubt, long overdue introduction to an undersung hero of contemporary music.

The two cd compilation ‘Roedelius 1970-2000’ issued by Austrian label Plag Dich Nicht contains 31 tracks which span Roedelius’s career. The tracks are arranged chronologically and act as an excellent accompaniment to Iliffe’s book by providing an invaluable overview of Roedelius’s oeuvre. It’s an unfortunate fact that much of Roedelius’s work is long out of print and difficult to get hold of which makes this anthology all the more attractive.
Colin Buttimer
June 2004
Published by the BBC