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Remembering musical astronaut Manuel Göttsching

Manuel Göttsching, an influential German musician best known for his work on modular synths, died Dec. 4.
Ullstein Bild
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Manuel Göttsching, an influential German musician best known for his work on modular synths, died Dec. 4.

Manuel Göttsching was always trying to do something new: explore new contexts, understand new technologies, find new avenues for expression. The German musician and composer, whose death on Dec. 4 was confirmed by his website, was born in West Berlin in 1952 into a post-war environment he once described as a vacuum: "The culture was ruined," he said. "It had to be built again."

Göttsching studied classical guitar as a child, but found himself hungry for something different. That combination of curiosity and discipline — classical training involves practicing études, musical compositions that instill technique through repetition — allowed him to grow into a deep listener able to absorb lessons from all around him.

The radio was his first teacher. In the late '50s and early '60s, when Germany was awash in Schlager music, a homegrown form of sentimental pop balladry, Göttsching was drawn to the rhythm and intensity of the blues and rock records that played on the American and British military radio stations that still broadcast in West Berlin. Under their influence, he made the switch to electric guitar. Like many young musicians at the time, Göttsching became enamored with the concept of free jazz. The idea that you could pick up an instrument and just play, without adhering to any rules or structure, was thrilling to him. Improvisation became his North Star.

At 17, Göttsching founded Ash Ra Tempel, an experimental group that used synthesizers, drew on psychedelic rock principles and took a freeform approach to playing. They became internationally known as one of the pioneering krautrock bands, along with acts like Can and Tangerine Dream. An Ash Ra Tempel show could last several hours, during which Göttsching and his bandmates would be so focused on playing that they wouldn't look at each other or communicate except through the music.

In the early '70s, Göttsching became interested in minimalism after seeing American composer Terry Riley play at a festival in Berlin. "He was very fluent," he recalled in a 2018 lecture. "[A] very great keyboard player. And just with a simple tape delay, he made incredible sounds. And so I thought, why not? I should try it with a guitar." His home studio experiments led to the recording of his first solo album in 1975, Inventions for Electric Guitar. Made using a multitrack tape recorder and comprised wholly of sounds made with his electric guitar and tape delay effects, the densely rhythmic result rolls and flows like a river toward the sea.

Throughout the late '70s, Göttsching dived deeper into his electronic experiments, building up his studio with synthesizers and sequencers. At a fashion show by his friend Claudia Skoda, he spellbound the crowd by starting his live score with a heartbeat, pounding out over the sound system. All of this sonic adventuring laid the groundwork for Göttsching's most famous work, E2-E4, a magical hourlong expedition into the forest of his mind. Recorded in one take in 1981, E2-E4 is the culmination of all his musical lessons: the power of repetition, the innovative potential of improvisation and the freedom that comes with working with limitations.

At the time, however, Göttsching wasn't convinced there was an audience for it: "Two chords for one hour, for vinyl, what to do with it?" It wasn't until 1984, when his old bandmate Klaus Schulze asked to release it on his own small label, that E2-E4 saw the light of day. The initial reception was, in the tradition of many groundbreaking pieces of art, lukewarm. Electronic music had moved on, to new wave and synth-pop, and E2-E4 didn't fit in. Eventually the vinyl made its way to New York, where it was rebirthed on the dance floor thanks to the daring ear of legendary Paradise Garage resident DJ Larry Levan, who played the record regularly and helped break it through his influential house music circles.

While Göttsching never imagined that people would dance to E2-E4, the immersive track's gradual melodic transitions held appeal for a new generation of music producers, from techno artists in Detroit to acid house acts in the U.K. It has been continuously remixed and sampled ever since.

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Ruth Saxelby