Frieder Butzmann

Frieder Butzmann interviewed by Rory MacLean

Rory MacLean with Frieder Butzmann  (right) in his Berlin studio.
Rory MacLean with Frieder Butzmann  (right) in his Berlin studio.
Frieder Butzmann (right)
with Rory MacLean
Icy air cut through the open window. Snow drifted across the neighbouring rooftops. Wearing only a thin sweatshirt, one of the fathers of German experimental music stood in front of the window, gulping the frozen air and laughing.

“The problem with being a musician in the Seventies was that we always rehearsed and sometimes even performed in cellars, which were dark and humid and made me very sad. Ever since then I’ve needed light. I don’t care about temperature. I never get cold. But I need light to work and to live.”

Winter has come to Berlin, skimming the pavements with ice and driving Berliners into anoraks and woolly hats. Last week on its first bitter day I stood in a light white recording studio, surrounded by computers, tape deck and patch cables, snow flakes settling on my shoes.

“I’m obsessed with the weather,” Frieder Butzmann told me, gazing up at the high blue sky. “It impresses me. If it’s dark when I wake it the morning, my spirits sink. But if it’s bright...” he thrilled, lifting his hands towards the sun, “...if it’s bright, my joy is high. Weather changes peoples’ minds, just like music. You can’t get away from them. Both depend on air pressure, on swift changes of air pressure,” he said as a gust of wind scattered the papers off his keyboard. “By the way, the nucleus of my work is that I don’t know what music is, or what people define as music.”

Born in 1954 in Konstanz am Bodensee, Butzmann started playing with sound at the age of five.

“My father, who was a blacksmith, enjoyed Karneval, a German television programme at the time. He bought a second-hand Grundig quarter inch tape recorder to record the songs. But he couldn’t work the machine so it became my toy. I started interviewing my brothers, making poetry loops and recording the piano, then reversing the tape, or cutting it, or switching off the motor and moving the tape by hand. I loved making and manipulating sound. It was the beginning of what I do today, making sound collages.”

Butzmann is ‘rund und gesund’ – round and healthy – with an impressive belly, a robust laugh and elfin-like ears. “You have to understand that I was a late arrival, an after-thought, born ten years after my brothers. My first brother almost died of starvation at the end of the war. So when I came along, my parents simply fed me. I ate and ate and the more I ate the happier they became. As well as food, my parents gave me freedom. They said, ‘Frieder knows what he’s doing. Let him be.’ So I kept on playing with the tape recorder. It was the first great luck in my life.”

I asked him about his second lucky break.

Telefunken Magnetophon 300 “In 1963 Telefunken introduced the Magnetophon 300, the first portable tape recorder. I really wanted one and I badgered my father to buy it. Of course it was very expensive, over 350 DM, but he got so fed up with my nagging that to shut me up he gave me a few coins to play the Lotto. I played and I won 200 DM. My father was so amazed that he made up the difference. Now with the two machines I could really make something. I loved creating new sounds.”

Butzmann moved to Berlin to study at the Technische Universität. He built instruments, played sax and keyboards, joined various bands but never at the expense of his independence.

“I’ve always felt sound with my own body. My whole big body vibrates and shakes when the sound is good. When I moved to Berlin electronic music had lost its body. It was ghostly, constructed and intellectual. The music didn’t seize me. It was the same with pop music, which I didn’t care for as much. But then Industrial music, that child of punk, reached us from England and it really impressed me. I felt this music. I liked how it incorporated ideas of doubt and uncertainty. I recognised the similarities to my own approach.”

Butzmann quickly established himself as one of the most influential figures of the Neue Deutsche Welle. He became the ‘berserk avatar’ of the New German wave, synth wizard, Industrial pioneer and spokesman of the Berlin underground. His innovation never stopped surprising audiences. One of his most recent works is Frieder’s Friedhof Chill-out Mix made for DeutschlandRadio from sounds collected in dozens of cemeteries around the world: hooting owls, cicadas and crows, weather and voices. The original recordings have been stretched, shortened, transposed and transformed to create an astonishing post-modern collage.

I asked him to define music ‘without body’.

“Take the example of a falling note,” he said, puffing out his cheeks, whistling into the cold air. “I can easily create it with electronics, using a plug-in called ‘Varispeed’, but it sounds weak, machine-made and powerless. Yet if I make it by manually slowing down the reel-to-reel tape, then it has body. There is so much information on a tape that cannot be digitalized.” He paused. “Computers and tape decks are just tools for me, like my father’s hammer and anvil. I’m simply using technology and technical know-how to communicate my ideas.”

One of the secrets of Butzmann’s enduring success is his versatility. He composes operas from found sounds, scores film music, lectures and writes books (his latest is Musik im Grossen und Ganzen: “If I wrote only radio plays, or just composed music for the stage, or performed in a single band, then I could not survive. I’ve managed to get by financially – with good months and bad months – by making different things.”

I asked him about the importance of his being German.

“On one side my nationality is irrelevant. But on the other side I am a product of my society and culture. Just last week I had a revelatory moment. I went to a performance of Beethoveen’s Ninth. The orchestra – and the music – were perfect, absolutely perfect. And I felt uneasy because that perfection made me think of the perfection in Auschwitz. I’m not a moralist but I always keep in mind that we have two faces: the part that is so creative is also so destructive.”

Frieder Butzmann stood in front of the open window, silhouetted against the winter light.

“If you are a musician, people tend to think that you must be special, a charmer or a womaniser. But I have a normal biography for a man born in 1954. I am a typical, lucky Wirtschaftwunder boy. The choice I made was not to fill my life with office work, sitting at a desk, but to play with sound... to make music.”

I reminded him that he doesn’t know what music is.

“That’s true. I don’t know. I may have come up with a thousand answers to this question, but I know I’ll die still not knowing what music is.” Butzmann laughed again, his belly shaking with good health and contentment. “One thing I do know is, if come back to earth, I want to be a meteorologist.”

Rory MacLean
December 2008
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