Spontaneity can be an alchemical force. Impulse can transform the most characterless moments of your life into boisterous, 24-carat experience that then enrich the rest of your entire existence.
Manuel Göttsching, the German guitarist of Ash Ra Tempel, is a man that knows this more than most. Here is a Berlin composer who converted a quiet and remarkable afternoon into the future of electronic music thanks to a nonchalant 60 minute jam he called ‘E2-E4’. It was an afternoon that lay like a sleeper cell of potential. He needed to make some music for his Walkman for an upcoming weekend away. No pressure. No big plan.
So on this empty Saturday afternoon on December 12th 1981 he popped into his studio to find his banks of polyphonic synths and sequencers quietly pulsating, always turned on and ready for his fingers. He experimented on a minimal arrangement for one hour that delicately overlaid then persistently reconfigured percussion, synth and guitar. And thankfully he remembered to press record. “It really flowed the day I recorded ‘E2-E4’. I was surprised; I think it was just a lucky day.’ explains the 62-year-old, with his signature humility. “Everything worked, there was no technical problems, no crackles, no noises. I just played it for myself. Then I just listened to it again and again. It was never planned as my new album or new release. It had something that was very fluent and a structure that was very emotional.”
It was a moment that musicians and performers consistently call “the zone” and this is a perfect example of creative flow: “I could feel exactly every note I was playing, you could follow each step I take as I move around my equipment and switch a little here and there. I just moved around and played all these instruments like one instrument. The fact that it is always changing a little bit makes a special type of minimalism.”
The results have reverberated ever since. Göttsching is preparing to play his masterpiece live on July 30th at the Dekmantel Festival in Holland for only the ninth time in 30 years. It is at this juncture that Clash wants to delve deeper into the voodoo of improvisation and also push him for his advice to younger producers on the lost art of minimalism.
But first Göttsching outlines the nature of his near-accidental classic. This is a song that is named after a famous chess move as well as containing a neat pun after he tuned his guitar from an E2 to an E4 for the piece: “The basic theme is about two chords’ he explains ‘And these chords are always shifting in dynamics and in the intonation of the chords I always play with them, and then I play with the various percussion. Everything is always slightly changing over a long period.”
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I could feel exactly every note I was playing...
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To say that ‘E2-E4’ was a revolution would be false. In fact on release no one really took any notice. Its influence has been more akin to a gentle but relentless wind that cultivated a trade route of techno and house that was felt as far away as Detroit, Chicago, London and New York. In fact Göttsching returned from the weekend trip that catalyzed its creation and slipped the tape into a drawer and didn’t even release it until three years later in 1984.
“At the time of recording there was nothing like ‘E2-E4’”, continues the musician “At the end of 1980 / 81 synthesizer music was very popular with pop music like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark or The Human League, Heaven 17. What I did was completely different and in the beginning no one was interested in that. The CD wasn't popular yet and to do a minimalist piece on two sides of vinyl using only two chords? Everyone thought I was crazy!”
One of the first commercial appraisals however did go well. Since Manuel had a contract with Virgin Records he initially took the recording of ‘E2-E4’ and visited Richard Branson on his English house-boat. Branson answered the door holding his screaming baby before they sat down to listen to recording. After a short while the baby stopped to cry, calmed and quickly fell asleep. At this point Branson turned to Manuel and said: “You will make a fortune out of this music.”
On release it had similar effects of seduction on veteran clubbers, albeit in fragmented pockets of fanatics that were blessed with the time, space and interest to undertake vast journeys into music and esoteric detail. Most famously DJ Larry Levan would play the whole hour at the Paradise Garage in New York to hypnotic effect. Regular ‘garage heads’ remember that this was often late in the early morning just before David Mancuso took the helm to gift them their second wind, and all reflect on it as a religious moment of musicality.
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For years, though, Göttsching could not perform ‘E2-E4’ live as the analogue set up was simply too cumbersome for public outings. His Dekmantel performance will be his ninth public foray with the piece and whilst Göttsching claims his rendition is faithful to the original structure he suggests that every performance has felt very distinct from one another.
“I don’t perform it very often; only on rare occasions. I played an important concert at the Lincoln center in New York at a festival dedicated to 800 years of minimalism, a music genre that is considered to be the invention of French composer Perotin who lived in the 11th century.”
In Japan he headlined an outdoor festival to 30,000 attentively static fans. Beijing, he played almost blind as his monitors failed him, whilst in America his greatest compliment turned out to be via the weather: “New York it was fantastic because the concert was outside and it started to rain … but everyone stayed listening underneath umbrellas and no one left! There is always a different atmosphere.”
The influence of ‘E2-E4’ has often been outlined. Such techno luminaires as Basic Channel to Carl Craig have remixed it. Sueno Latino sampled it and perhaps popularized it the most with their eponymous version that has bathed Ibiza in blissful guitar hooks every summer since its release. The 62-year-old also has seen it’s quiet persistence grow: “It has indeed influenced so many people. People started to improvise on it, started to write upon it, younger people started to remix it. So it must have given new ideas to young people to develop their own music. That makes me very happy.”
Yet DJ Jeff Mills, one of Detroit’s originators of minimal techno, who shares similar status on Dekmantel’s line-up famously refused to remix it - he said it was perfect. This conversational thread continues until I ask Göttsching what advice he’d deliver to the younger generation of electronic musicians when producing minimal works. This question triggers an impassioned narrative about the nature and interpretation of minimalism.
“I think there is a misunderstanding around this word.’ he states sharply. “In the original sense ‘minimalism’ is a very strict music, it is a very strict composition, it is only allowed a few things and to concentrate on a few things: three notes, or maybe three instruments. You have a very limited amount of instruments, chords, tones or notes and they try to make the most out of it. That is the basic idea.”
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Just live in a moment, and just feel...
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Manuel Göttsching was inspired to make ‘E2-E4’ through the reductive aesthetics of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. These men dedicated themselves to the lost art of limitations, a stance at odds with the younger generation, as Manuel swiftly points out: “A lot of young people think minimalism means that ‘something doesn't happen very much. The modern day hears a lot of things being mixed together: THIS together, THAT together and then here's another thing! There has been an inflation of technical items. So many sounds, millions of new sounds and millions of new possibilities so you just mix them altogether and the more you mix them up then there is a sense that it must just be better! But this isn’t music and it doesn’t make any sense.”
The guitarist squarely blames technology. Two track recorders mutated into four-track recorders, then 16, to 24 and onto 32 track recorders. Bands suddenly spent a year in a studio instead of 12 days and to his ears the results were worse. Deploying his considerable knowledge as a composer Manuel brings our dialogue to a close with an insightful lesson to all modern producers chasing the calm voodoo of that afternoon of genesis back in 1981.
“Maybe have one keyboard, one drum machine and that's enough. Then start with your imagination. Stay with your music, accept it as it is, don't worry about the mistakes or go back and try and rerecord it as all the magic and mystery will be gone and you'll never get it back. The old records by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra there were always mistakes. You find many things that they could've thought: ‘Ah! I'll go back and do it again maybe’ then you have the second version than the fifth version than the 20th version, the 30th version but it wont get better. Just leave it as it is and try to focus on a reduced amount of technical possibilities. Just live in a moment, and just feel. Touch an emotion and let it go... but don’t forget to push the record button.”
Words: Matthew Bennett
Photo Credit: Tanja Katharina Lindner
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Manuel Göttsching plays 'E2-E4' at Dekmantel Festival on July 30th alongside Autechre at Amsterdam venue Muziekgebouw Aan 'T Ij.