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Music shall be no more than itself

An interview with Asmus Tietchens

Asmus Tietchens is one of the most well-known German musicians creating atmospheric, abstract, instrumental music. For a long time I only recognised his name out of a long list of others who I associated with the likes of Klaus Schulze, Edgar Froese, Moebius and Roedelius, and others made familiar thanks to an interest in the German "cosmic" music of the seventies. For a long time Asmus Tietchens remained nothing more than a name on a list. Gradually, however, a picture began to fall into place. There were four albums on Sky Records, starting with 1981's Biotop, light rhythmic and melodic synthesiser music. But also, there were a growing number of less accessible releases, like Formen Letzer Hausmusik on United Dairies, or Notturno on Discos Esplendor Geometrico, more abstract and more sombre instrumental pieces. Initially, these seemed to be evidence of a desire for experimentation following the earlier releases, but as time has gone on it has become increasingly clear that it was those first recordings that represented the aberration.

Tietchens' work draws on various musical genres. Classical music, electronic music (both high and low-brow), minimalism, process music and others all inform his sensibility. On Zwingburgen des Hedonismus, piano combines with choral and orchestral motifs courtesy of a sampling keyboard to create a classical-sounding music which has as its primary interest tonal colour. On his collaborative album with Terry Burrows from 1986, Watching the Burning Bride, the tracks are more rhythm-oriented, including some very mechanical, almost industrial pieces, sounding like machines churning endlessly. Others are more ambient and abstract, but just as apparently inhuman and threatening. His side of Face to Face Volume 1, a record shared with Die Form, mixes subdued rhythms with long drones, and dangerous clouds of ambience in a slowly developing, minimal way. Although in some releases acoustic and synthetic instruments are readily identifiable, in most of his more recent pieces this is not the case, with most of the original sound material being sufficiently processed and treated to render it unrecognisable. For the last few years he has moved away from the use of synthesisers, favouring instead an approach more reminiscent of musique concrète.

His most recent release, and his first on CD, was Sinkende Schwimmer on Dutch label Barooni (BAR 004). This fills 41 minutes with 13 tracks, and includes some very strange material. The most obvious point of reference is academic musique concrète, with no structural development, minimal rhythm, no melody, and little in the way of conventional harmony. Instead, irregular and disassociated noises are suspended in a grey sound void to create strange and cold sound textures, some atonal, some tonal. It's an austere, unwelcoming music, full of grey tones and little else. Metal, plastic and glass are the materials that seem to resonate most strongly. For example, Neue Menschen, which opens proceedings, consists of subdued bouncing squalks combined with only the quietest of atmospheric effects. Kein Schöner Traum appears to consist of billowing glass-like and bell-like tones, perhaps underwater, while Arnheimer Recycla borrows sound material from Thomas Köner (another Barooni artist) to produce a roaring, bass-filled windy field of sound. The music generally combines loud and sometimes abrasive swathes of noise with low, sonorous murmurings. It's a mature and highly accomplished work, but for most it won't be easy listening, and it's a far cry from Tietchens' more accessible releases.

Forthcoming projects include collaborative releases with PBK and De Waard / Wollscheid / Toniutti, as well as those mentioned below. His second CD release, Seuchengebiete 2, on Italian label Musica Maxima Magnetica, should also be out by the time you read this. The following interview was conducted between Asmus Tietchens and Brian Duguid by post in May and June 1991.

Could you tell me something about your early musical history?

My musical history started at the time when my friends of the same age desperately tried to copy Beatles songs with their groups. It was the year 1965. I liked the Beatles, too, and - by the way - still like the old pieces. But the Beatles made perfect music. And why should I copy perfect music? I surely couldn't do it better. So I began experimenting with atonal sounds, not aiming to create psychedelic music. My first equipment in 1965 was a Revox A77, an old cheap electric guitar and a tiny Philips reverb device. Two pieces of that early times you can find on my UD album Formen Letzer Hausmusik (Hitch and Studie für Glasspiel). In 1972 I got a Mini Moog and continued making atonal music, but in a more advanced way due to the electronic medium. At that time (the whole 70s) I collaborated with Okko Bekker who always was (and is) friendly enough to let me record in his studio. 1978 Peter Baumann got a tape with my music by chance and co-produced my first album which was released in 1980 (Nachtstücke). 15 years after my musical start, my first release. Seriously spoken: That was when I felt for the first time that my music was developed enough to be released. It took 13 years before I was able to take my own music seriously.

Your music changed after you left Sky Records, becoming harsher and more abstract. What caused this change?

The four Sky albums were a brief period, a short trip into the fields of electronic pseudo-pop. I never did such things before. After two years this kind of music didn't satisfy me any longer and I returned (stylistically) to the kinds of music I played since 1965.

How is your music changing at the moment?

For about the last three years my music has become more and more a certain kind of musique concrète, because the basic sound sources are strictly found or self produced noises. Since about four years ago I haven't used any synth. I used a sample keyboard only twice (Zwingburgen des Hedonismus and Marches Funebres) and then mothballed it, too. Keyboards of any kind can't help me make the music I imagine. The same goes for MIDI, computers and a lot of other devices which would paralyse me if I should use them seriously.

Do you wish you could release music with better packaging, on better formats, or to a wider audience?

Of course the CD is the more efficient medium compared with vinyl. But I'm not a CD fetishist. If a label can't pay for a CD production I let them of course release my stuff on vinyl, hoping that the cut and pressing will be okay.

Would you release more commercial music in order to become better known?

Wider audience? Commercial music? Better known? No. No. No. If I were to aim at one of these targets I would have to change my music radically. In no case am I willing to do that. Am I a prostitute?

Is it all an uphill struggle financially, and if so, what keeps you going?

Of course it's a financial struggle to make this music. To survive I must do jobs of nearly all kinds which have nothing to do with music. But to explore the white dots on the landscape of sounds and structures is a permanent adventure and this keeps me going that way.

What sort of music has inspired you in the past and present? How did you get into this sort of music?

I listened to so called serious Electronic Music for the first time when I was 7 years old (1954). At that time German broadcasting stations played a lot of stuff produced at the Studio für Elektronische Musik in Cologne. It was very fashionable in the mid 50s. And it fascinated but did not inspire me, because it was perfect music. It is always the same: I deeply enjoy listening to good music by other composers but never let it inspire me, because to me it doesn't make sense to follow in someone's footsteps.

And then came the late 60s, groups like Cluster, Kraftwerk, Faust etc. I do not mean the shit music of the Cosmic Couriers like Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Temple or Silly Kids who play Cosmic Music. Cluster and the others fascinated me again, and again I didn't try to copy these great and innovative groups, but always tried hard to develop my own kind of music.

Do you feel your music is only suitable for a specialist audience, or do you feel anyone could like it if given the chance to hear it?

Yes, my music is only suitable for a special audience. This has nothing to do with arrogance. I can describe my audience very precisely: people who insist on more than easy listening.

What sort of moods are you trying to create in your music?

I don't try to create moods with my music, and I don't try to tell stories, and my music doesn't carry any message except an aesthetic one (now and then). Mostly my pieces are formalistic exercises, or better, the results of formalistic exercises. Music shall be no more than itself. Absolute Music.

Who have you collaborated with in the past? How do you feel about collaboration?

I've collaborated with Terry Burrows (Watching The Burning Bride) and with Okko Bekker (E). Collaboration can be very fertile if people with similar intentions meet. Working with the two above mentioned people was a fantastic mutual fructification. It really worked. Two other collaborative results are to be released in this or the next year: with Arcane Device, with Merzbow/PGR. Another collaboration was released in May: Monoposto by Tietchens and Liquidsky. I mostly like exchanging material by mail. Recycling.

You have released a huge number of records. How much of this do you feel is lasting work? Is it possible to release too much?

If the audience is still ready to purchase my albums there is no reason to reduce the quantities. Obviously there is a slowly increasing demand for my music (thank you, listeners!) and luckily I am able to satisfy this demand. Lasting works? I don't care about this question. I do not make my music for the eternity.

Have you performed live?

My music is not suitable for live performance. No - it is impossible to perform live. I would never appear in public with backing tapes or sample programs. So I confine myself to sporadic tape concerts. That means: I play tapes with completed pieces - and nothing else, no visuals (videos/films), no action, no special light effects, nothing but the pure music. That is the good tradition of the 50s when Electronic Music tapes have been played in light, brightly illuminated rooms to a very attentive audience.

What else do you do apart from making music?

A lot of things. But I think they should not interest the public.

Any other comments?

The most dangerous movement since Hitler and Stalin is the New Age Movement. To the hell with it.

Contact address: Asmus Tietchens, Eppendorfer Landstr. 6a, 2000 Hamburg 20, Germany.

Copyright Brian Duguid (c) 1995