Rory MacLean meets Manuel Göttsching
Göttsching's independence – along with his creative gifts and a joy in spontaneity – made him Germany's most legendary 'Kosmische' guitarist, as well as one of its most influential modern composers and the 'godfather of Techno'.
In West Berlin Göttsching grew up surrounded by the sound of opera and classical music: his mother sang Schumann and Schubert, he was trained in the classical guitar. But as a young man in the early 1960s his head was turned by pop music.
'I heard the Temptations, the Four Tops, blues and soul on AFN and BFBS, the American and British radio stations,' he told me when we met at Berlin's Café Einstein. 'In Germany the war had destroyed not only houses and people but culture too. The melody and sound of this new music so touched me that I knew I had to form a band.'
At the tender age of 14 Göttsching and his best friend Hartmut Enke founded The Bomb Proofs, playing Rolling Stones and Small Faces cover songs at parties and dances. 'I sang Get Off of My Cloud and Gloria in English, a language which I then couldn't speak,' he said with a laugh, pushing back his long grey hair. 'Our biggest problem was finding a drummer. In those days few school kids had enough money to be able to afford a drum kit.'
But rather than doggedly follow mainstream Anglo-American pop, Göttsching soon wanted to create something new, inspired now by the music of John Mayall, Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Step by step the music became more and more innovative. Improvisation first came to him while singing Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, when he broke away from the carefully memorised lyrics to create something of his own. From that point on 'we began to make very strange, very experimental music,' recalled Göttsching. 'One of our concerts – with my second band called Bad Joe - was played with no key, just noise. It only lasted ten minutes.'
It was a process of learning, especially at the avant-garde Swiss composer Thomas Kessler's Pfalzburger Straße 'Beatstudio'. Here Göttsching and Enke – then only 17 years old - met ex-Tangerine Dream drummer Klaus Schulze. Enke had just returned from London with four huge Pink Floyd amplifiers and speakers, bought with all his and Göttsching's savings and lugged across Europe by train and taxi. Schulze saw the equipment – which was by far the best (and loudest) in West Berlin – and said, 'We should make music together.' On the spot Göttsching, Enke and Schulze formed Ash Ra Tempel, their line-up lasting for one fruitful year. Together with Enke, Göttsching recorded three further Ash Ra Tempel albums - while still at school.
Blues and improvisation lay at the heart of Göttsching's early work with the band, making music that evolved with its own logic, hallucinatory and irresistible through the use of repetition, sequencing and – later – loops and electronic instruments. He was fascinated by minimalist Terry Riley's hour-long piano sequences. He found Stockhausen and Ligeti too cerebral, celebrating instead Steve Reich and Philip Glass's blending of intellect and emotion, trying to incorporate the same aesthetic into his own work.
From Ash Ra Tempel to Ashra and his solo work – most tellingly in his 1974 album Inventions for Electric Guitar – Göttsching moved toward the electronic music that would dominate his work. Most famously on a December evening in 1981 he strolled into his Berlin studio, booted up his synthesizer, sequencers and drum machines. He set the patches, plugged in his guitar and chose two chords. Then he started to play and - spontaneously - recorded the electro-minimalist Meisterwerk E2-E4.
'There are some good moments in life when you produce something and you don't notice it at the time,' Göttsching recently told Keith Moliné in The Wire. 'That comes later. Maybe years later.'
Thirty-three years later E2-E4 remains 'one of the most revolutionary and important albums ever made,' according to Moliné. 'It swings between those two beautifully suspended chords for its entire duration…it forces you to engage with it on its own terms…it is warm, approachable and often startlingly melodic…perhaps most importantly of all in terms of understanding why its influence has proved so enduring, you can dance to it.'
Göttsching's E2-E4 played a fundamental role in the development of House and Techno music, its influences still echoing through the city's clubs today, and beyond them into the Detroit, Chicago and Balearic sound.
Over the years, Göttsching has surrounded himself with innovative and creative individuals from musicians to painters and filmmakers, from Timothy Leary to fashion designers like Wolfgang JOOP! He has composed and performed live music for fashion shows by JOOP! and Claudia Skoda. The late singer-songwriter Nico, formerly of The Velvet Underground and among Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, is said to have only enjoyed performing in Berlin when Göttsching was in the audience. Göttsching has reworked and rereleased his early material under his own label MG.ART. He has written film scores and produced films, played at Berlin's Berghain and at the Akademie der Künste as well as Lincoln Center in New York, the Royal Festival Hall in London and in France, Poland, Spain, China, Korea, Japan and many other countries. He – or at least his pulsating, concrete-shaking, high-volume performance – is said to have contributed to bringing down the roof of Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt – literally. Soon after his concert there the building had to be closed for six years of repairs.
Among his many current projects are plans for an E2-E4 dance show with choreographer and ballet dancer Gregor Seyffert and for a 'spontaneous studio concert' that will unite three generations of Berlin guitarists: Einstürzende Neubauten's Jochen Arbeit, former Hip Young Things and Locust Fudge lead Schneider TM, and Göttsching himself.
A further project is a performance of the film score for Le Berceau de Cristal, composed in 1975 for the eponymous film by Philippe Garrel, starring Nico, Anita Pallenberg and Dominique Sanda.
'I always want to find something new, something interesting and innovative, whether with guitar, keyboard or computers. On top of that my ambition is to contribute to the elevation of the electric guitar to the level of the classical instrument,' he told me, coming full circle, back to his beginnings at home in Berlin. 'I want it to be respected as a classical instrument.'