My yellow notebook #4 – Autobahn and the repetition of sound sequences (autobiography 1975–1980)

“Autobahn” was a fundamental experience for me and opened up a new dimension in my world. Until then the music surrounding me had been elevated stylistically, both compositionally and in terms of its motives and was rooted in the past. But, this music hit me as being firmly rooted in the PRESENT in every respect: as present as the cars on the road, “Starship Enterprise” on TV, or the different worlds of East Germany and West Germany.

It was about what was happening around me, here and now, and it sounded crazily like that world could sound, but in my head would never have sounded like that. Despite its radical newness, it still felt very familiar: I heard it as a natural continuation of the classical music I loved so much. Bach – Mozart – Beethoven – Schubert – Schumann – Debussy – Kraftwerk. Yeah, sure! “Autobahn” was definitely much closer to my tastes than the rock, pop or jazz that you could hear everywhere.

The best thing about this new music was: I heard musical figures that continuously repeated themselves in the piece. This was exactly what had delighted me the most about making music ever since I had discovered the piano, that a motive is repeated, again and again, like a word which sounds so good, you say it again and again, or when you stand fascinated in front of a model train running in circles for hours and hours. This was exactly it, this repetition of a theme, that I found wanting in the official music I had encountered so far. So I sat down and did it myself!

The first loop I played was taken from the first bar of Prelude No. 2 in C minor from J.S. Bach, “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Part 1”.

I wanted to know what it was, “Autobahn”… I saw the cover in a record shop. A painted motorway with a black Mercedes, a white Volkswagen Beetle, green hills, yellow rays of the sun, blue sky… like a modern picture book! My parents gave me the record and I listened to it constantly. And so began a phase in which I no longer played music, just listened to it. I lapped it up and wanted more and more of it. I searched for radio programs that played similar music. I got my first cassette recorder with which I could record any pieces that I particularly liked. The spectrum of music that fascinated me expanded steadily: Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and most of all, something German: Roedelius, Möbius, Rother and Can.

Four albums came out in 1977 that are now classics and represent milestones in electronic music, but also immediately became permanent icons for my own musical DNA:

  • Kraftwerk: “Trans Europa Express”
    • Jean-Michel Jarre: “Oxygène”
    • Tangerine Dream: “Encore” (Live)
    • Donna Summer & Giorgio Moroder: “I Feel Love”

Then followed punk, which, musically, did not interest me very much, but the attitude behind it did: “Anybody can make the music he wants to. You don’t even need to know how to play properly. You can use whatever kind of equipment you want. Fuck the equipment that the big-name bands have.”

Shortly beforehand, I had started making my own music again. Slowly the stranglehold of the conservatory’s forced expectations relaxed its stranglehold on me. From the radio I got direct inspiration once again from modern classical music: John Cage talked about new compositional techniques (“Feel free!”), about new tones and overcoming the dichotomy of music/noise. Steve Reich and Philip Glass were making minimal music with natural instruments that I could play on the piano. My problem was that I wanted to make this kind of repetitive pattern music with an electronic sound. Unfortunately, as I had since found out, this meant I needed to acquire an entire arsenal of crazily expensive synthesizers, rhythm machines, sequencers and studio equipment. But, as punk had taught me: “all you need is the will, not the equipment. You can do it with anything. Forget perfectionism! Just do it. Improvise, experiment – do it with what you have!”

I was in the 11th grade of high school. Very political. I organized sit-ins. Wore “Atomic power? No, thanks!” badges. Had my hair cut. Listened to Human League, Tuxedomoon, The Residents, Die tödliche Doris, Der Plan and Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft. It was time to take off musically… I wanted to be part of this amazing cosmos.