Although the first synthesizer was invented in 1876, it wasn't until the 1950s that they began to be developed in earnest, scientists and composers working with the large, unwieldy things in labs. With the advent of consumer-grade miniature synths in the 1960s and '70s, though, more and more musicians began experimenting with electronic sounds. Interest in synthesizers took a particularly strong hold in Germany, where at the Electronic Music School Karlheinz Stockhausen had been creating an entirely new kind of music, and from Berlin to Cologne to Dusseldorf younger musicians began fashioning "kosmische" ("cosmic") music, a synth-dominated offshoot of the so-called krautrock scene. Acts like Popul Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, and Klaus Schultze made seminal recordings with the machines, but aside from quasi-pop stars Kraftwerk, no artist seems to have been as influential on future generations as Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius and their groups Cluster and Harmonia.
"I'm not sure whether or not it was because many of us were nonmusicians when we started to work at the field of arts/music in the late '60s," Roedelius writes in an e-mail from Austria, attempting to explain the electronic music boom in Germany. "It was a challenge to get into it, but it was also a must for everybody who wanted to do relevant new art. There was a Stockhausen influence, of course, but not in Cluster and especially not for me as soloist."
In fact, some of Roedelius' influences aren't immediately apparent when listening to his music, and though he never considered himself belonging to either the pop or academic worlds, he drew freely from both.
"I was influenced at the time by Yannis Xenakis and Pierre Henry, the Third Ear Band, later Hendrix, Dylan, Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Captain Beefheart, and such," he says. "I'm glad to belong to the nonacademic part of music tradition, happy still being a maverick and a nonconformist."
Roedelius co-founded the Berlin experimental music venue Zodiak Free Arts Lab with Conrad Schnitzler in 1968, teaming with Schnitzler and Moebius to form Kluster in 1970. Schnitzler (who died in August) left the group the following year, and the duo changed their name to Cluster. They began winnowing down their previous side-long freeform explorations into tracks of shorter duration, adding melodic qualities and steady rhythms, and would come to resemble something almost like a rock band when teamed with Neu! guitarist Michael Rother in Harmonia. They expanded their audience even further after recording a pair of ambient-leaning albums with Brian Eno in 1977 and 1978. This body of work would be highly influential on electronic music in the coming decades, particularly in the development of synth pop, techno, and IDM, as well as treacly New Age imitators who didn't quite get it.
Roedelius will likely always be best known for his '70s work with Cluster, Harmonia, and Eno, which is fair enough, considering the diversity and quality of those albums. It seems unfair, though, when you look at his discography and consider he's recorded over 80 albums since that decade, including 41 solo works. Such prolific output will result in varying quality, but when he claims he didn't really find his own musical language until 1994, a deeper exploration into that vast catalog from the casual fan is warranted. Perhaps more remarkable, Roedelius' process has changed little over the years—usually improvising, whenever possible on analog equipment.
This preference for analog sound has resulted in a surprisingly similar sound for a body of work that stretches across five decades. Cluster's 2009 album Qua features pieces that might be mistaken for outtakes from their classic '70s albums, but also include a number of tracks demonstrating an appreciation for the contemporary electronic music they influenced. It turned out to be the duo's final album, as Moebius left the group the next year.
When asked if he'd ever record with Moebius again, Roedelius replies, "Why should I? Cluster worked for almost 40 years, it was a very good idea to finish it with Qua because this is a record that will still be listenable in the next and further future and people will keep us positively in mind."
Still, he wasted no time in forming Qluster with Onnen Bock, releasing a trio of albums in 2011 that pick up right were Cluster left off.
Roedelius' current North American tour seems especially timely, as so many pop and avant-garde musicians have lately been enthralled with analog synthesizers or digital equipment that replicates their sound. The 76-year-old Roedelius couldn't be more pleased with the resurgence.
"I'm happy about the fact that the youngsters, but even elder colleagues or such of my age, nowadays use analog tones and sounds and create new music with it," he says. "I just had a chat with [French electronic composer] Jean Michel Jarre in Paris, who is also using a lot of analog instruments in his live shows now, because he's bored by digitally designed music material. It's more or less the lack of warmth in sound that people don't like. Of course, there's beautiful music also that's digitally designed, but the difference in sound quality is unmistakable."