Neither Krautrock nor cosmic
Harmonia is deemed one of the most important groups making electronic music since the 70s. Founded in 1973 by the Duo Cluster Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius and joined by the guitarist Michael Rother, the group has since been one of the foremost in the experimental German rock-scene. Their concerts and their two albums ‘Musik von Harmonia’ and ‘Harmonia Deluxe’ marked a new development of a music which aspired to be neither Krautrock nor ´Kosmisch´. Out of everyday sounds, raw experiments and sound-waves they created an increasingly structured music all the way to pop songs, while at the same time creating in joint sessions with Brian Eno a comprehensive early version of ambient music. After 1976 the three of them parted but came together again in 2007. They have influenced generations of bands all over the world.
They were pioneers of the second phase. The members of Harmonia came together during the great breakthrough of the German electronic music scene as a stylistic experiment. The trio was less concerned with embarking for shores unknown than with bringing together two styles already developed. Hans-Joachim Roedelius (*1934, Berlin) and Dieter Moebius (*1944, Schweiz) had marked out their musical territory since 1969, at first with Conrad Schnitzler as Kluster and then, from 1971, as Cluster just the two of them. In fact new sounds between electronic avant-garde music, free improvisation and the youngest achievements of experimental rock marked their long, conceptually strict and inquisitively daring works till, from 1972 on, the duo now named Cluster worked more with the composed form.
When they met Michael Rother (*1950, Hamburg) in 1973 to work together, he was the one who was deemed the ordering component in the sound of Harmonia. Rother had played the guitar with Kraftwerk in 1971 for awhile and in this role had got to know Cluster while appearing in the ´Beat Club´. But his next step forward was Neu! The duo worked together with the percussionist Klaus Dinger, who had likewise left Kraftwerk. He knew how to create a rhythm which in the best early 70s style could be called ragged. At the same time he went on with the repetitive game which Bo Diddley’s drummer had thought out. Under Maureen Tucker’s hands in Velvet Underground it had acquired a uniquely artificial quality. Dinger let this groove thunder out mechanically and played (overdubbing himself), together with Rother, thin distorting guitar-jams or loops at the same time.
Though Rother remained with Neu! until 1975, he soon looked for new pastures and recalled his meeting with Cluster. He visited the duo on their ‘Old Weser Yard’ in Forst, a place as lovely as it was decrepit, thanks to which the rent was low. Soon they moved in together with girlfriends, converted an old barn to a recording studio and got cracking. In 1974 there appeared ‘Musik von Harmonia’ on the legendary Brain label. With a simple title and praised on the cover like a household product, it was deliberately unlike the aesthetic of ‘kosmische’ German electronics, which by then had grown into a style in its own right. ‘Sehr kosmisch’ (Very cosmic) was the laconic title of the second recording, playing on the common expression ‘Sehr komisch!’ (Very comic). In fact it was this work in particular which developed a differentiated nigh sober intensity. Threatening passages recalling industrial music of the late 70s were always offset by sounds friendly and transparent. Neither of these moods has much in common with the Berlin electro-pomp of Tangerine Dream and cohorts. But Harmonia was also marked by elements unknown to Berliners: Fluxus art and Velvet Underground’s New York vision of a thin-skinned but cuttingly sharp pop music. The fact that Roxy Music then turned its attention to the Germans was only logical. Even Moebius´ dandyish style of clothing may have appealed to the British, though the latter thought less in terms of Fluxus than of pop-art, so were much more given to showing off than were the West German tinkers in sound.
With the international public in mind ‘Musik von Harmonia’ was the first complete work based on the impressive research done by Kraftwerk, Neu! and K/Cluster. Moebius and Roedelius thereby moved apart a little, acquired more contour as separate musicians and formed with Rother a firm basis as a trio. It is strange that only a single work followed. The time seemed not to be ripe for developing their electronic music into an electronic classicism. ‘Harmonia deluxe’, which appeared the next year, 1975, likewise under the label Brain, even added a human percussionist to the characteristic beats from Cluster’s old rhythm-box. Mani Neumeier from Guru Guru accompanied the music on its way to becoming more tuneful and even songlike. Very contoured and now with songs inlaid, the music in the title work overtook Kraftwerk’s stylistic evolution and is a good two years ahead of the Düsseldorf band.
Since the album of the BBC Radio Workshop’s pioneer White Noise, there had been no further moves towards making purely electronic pop-music. Harmonia took the next step, and Brian Eno followed the group on his solo discs. The band now had a big sunshade, lit by coloured bulbs, in its baggage and offered a laid-back electronic music, as homemade as it was forward-looking, as a completed experiment. This music was neither tame nor foreseeable. It had just taken over the format of pop-songs by means of its own sounds. From then on, electronic bands came again and again to this point: Suicide with its second album, Human League with ‘Dare’, Throbbing Gristle with ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’ or Der Plan with ‘Golden Cheapos’. These groups ´fed on´ Harmonia’s albums. Thus with only two albums Harmonia had gone the whole way from aimlessly proliferating pop-electronics to opening more possibilities than any other electronic band till 1975.
In 1976 there followed (finally) the joint work with Eno, who for eleven days augmented Harmonia for several sessions. The drawback was that Harmonia’s musicians thereby tended to give up their sharp contours for the sake of an expansive ambient, which was continued in the studio works ‘Cluster & Eno’. Not till 1997 were some of the recordings published under the title ‘Tracks & Traces.’ Harmonia’s sound when Eno got to know the group in a concert in Hamburg can be judged by the recently released ‘Harmonia Live 1974’ album. Here the sound improvisations still run in long loops round the monotonous beat from the beat box, whose indifference anchors the sounds and places them stylistically in the rock idiom. Hence Eno’s comment at the time - ‘the most important rock music being made today’ – is all the more amazing in view of the concept’s current burden of clichés.
If the trio now come together for a reunion, their music, which has since been taken up by several generations of musicians, relies in the tepid days of 2007 on a return to a basic principle. On following a scene marked by Kraftwerk, Kluster and Neu! Harmonia managed to make a style of its own from the sounds already available. Nearly everything following can be referred back to these bands’ creations, and the frequency with which these bands are named by other musicians as points of reference underlines the basic quality of their work. Today Harmonia can find more scope again, one bridging the thick layers of established styles and sounds and generating a new experiment: What means are to be chosen? Where will the journey lead - to reconstruction or to new shores? With these questions in mind, one can only look forward with excitement to Harmonia’s reunion-concert.
Harmonia Live 1974
Production / Performance,
Grönland (Cargo Records)
Harmonia ´76 - Tracks & Traces
Musik von Harmonia
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Festival of Electronic Music
(27 November 07 - 01 December 07)