Holger Czukay was another musician who was fascinated with the sounds of shortwave listening. He brought his love of radio and communications technology on board with him when he helped to found the influential krautrock band Can in 1968. Shortwave listening continued to inform Czukay’s musical practice in his solo and other collaborative works later in his career. It all got started when he worked at a radio shop as a teenager.
Holger had been born in the Free City of Danzig in 1938, the year before the outbreak of World War II. In the aftermath of the war his family was expelled from the city when the Allies dissolved its status as free city-state and made it become a part of Poland. Growing up in those bleak times his formal primary education was limited, but he made up for it when he found work at a radio repair shop. He had already developed an interest in music and one his ideas was to become a conductor, but fate had other plans for him. Working with the radios day in and day out he developed a fondness for broadcast radio. In particular he found unique aural qualities in the static and grainy washes of the radio waves coming in across the shortwave bands. At the shop he also became familiar with basic electrical repair work and rudimentary engineering. All of this would serve him well when building the studio for Can. In his work with the band he not only played bass and other instruments but acted as the chief audio engineer.
He spoke about this time, and his fascination with the mystery of electricity, in an interview. “When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I didn't know if I wanted to become a technician or a musician. And when you are so young you think the one has to exclude the other. So in the very beginning I thought I am sort of a musical wonder-child, and want to become a conductor and that was very very serious, but there was no chance to get educated as I was a refugee after the war. And then, suddenly, electricity. Electricity was such a fascinating thing - it was something. And then I became the boy in a shop who carries the radios to repair them and carries them back again. That was so-called three-dimensional radio, before stereo. There was one front speaker in the radio and at the side, there were two treble speakers which gave an image of spatial depth. I must say these radios sounded fantastic.”
In 1963 at the age of twenty-five he Czukay decided to pursue the musical side of his vocation and begin studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Cologne Courses for New Music. This is where he met up with Irmin Schmidt, another founding member of Can, who was also a student of Stockhausen’s. As much as Can itself was one of the guiding forces of Krautrock, or Kosmiche music as it was also called, a broad style of experimental rock music developed in Germany in the late 60s. Krautrock was for the most part divorced from the traditional blues and rock and roll influences of British and American rock music scenes of the time. Krautrock featured more electronic elements and contributed to the further development electronic music and ambient music as well as the birth of post-punk, alternative rock and New Age music. Stockhausen himself could be thought of as one of its chief instigators, a kind of Godfather of the genre. This was due not only to his influence as a teacher of German musicians, but because of his pioneering work with the raw elements of electronic music itself at the WDR studios.
Eccentric British rock musician and author Julian Cope discusses the importance of Stockhausen’s composition Hymnen in his book Krautrock Sampler. He considered that piece in particular pivotal to the whole Krautrock movement. It’s release had “repercussions all over W. Germany, and not least in the heads of young artists. It was a huge 113 minute piece, subtitled ‘anthems for electronic and concrete sounds’. Hymnen was divided up into four LP sides, titled Region I, Region II, Region III and Region IV.” In a previous column I had discussed this piece of music as an early attempt at creating ‘world music’. With its sounds of shortwave receivers and electronics it plays anthems from various countries in an attempt to unify them. What he did with the German anthem, ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles’ had a liberating effect on young Germany, who had grown up under the shadow of the worst kind of nationalism. Cope writes of the German publics reaction, “The left-wing didn’t see the funny side at all and accused him of appealing to the basest German feelings, whilst the right-wing hated him for vilifying their pride and joy, and letting the Europeans laugh at them. Stockhausen had just returned from six months at the University of California, where he had lectured on experimental music. Among those at his seminar’s were the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and many other psychedelic musicians. Far from snubbing the new music Stockhausen was seen at a Jefferson Airplane show at the Filmore West and was quoted as saying that the music ‘…really blows my mind.’ So whilst the young German artists loved Stockhausen for embracing their own rock’n’roll culture, they doubly loved him for what they recognized as the beginning of a freeing of all German symbols. By reducing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles’ to its minimum possible length he had codified it…Stockhausen had unconsciously diffused a symbol of oppression, and so enabled the people to have it back.”
Czukay’s time studying with Stockhausen was as important to the development of Krautrock as was Hymnen itself. In fact while Stockhausen was working on Hymnen at the WDR studio during the day, Holger Czukay and the other members of a pre-Can group, the Technical Space Composers Crew, would go in and use the equipment at night to record their own album Canaxis. In the piece ‘Boat Woman’s Song’ some of Czukay’s early pioneering use of sampling can be heard. The proto-ambient pieces of music on this record were painstakingly assembled from tape loops and segments of a traditional Vietnamese folk song. In an interview Czukay spoke of the experience. “When Stockhausen left for home, we had a second key and went in and switched everything on. We went in and Canaxis was produced in one night. In one night the main song ‘Boat Woman Song’ was done. I prepared myself at night at home, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so in four hours the whole thing was done.” David Johnson helped Czukay and Rolf Dammers engineer the album. “He knew the studio a bit better than me. He was engineering a bit, switching on stuff, copying from one machine to another…and that was okay. In four hours the job was done.” The music on Canaxis is eerie and beautiful and haunting. It is both a part of this world, but also not of it. It seems as if it has come to us from beyond, and some fifty years later it still sounds fresh, as all timeless music does.
Stockhausen influenced Czukay in other ways. It hadn’t originally been Czukay’s intention to become a rock musician. He was more interested in classical music, which he thought was the best, with a definite leaning towards it’s avant-garde. “Therefore I went to Stockhausen as he was the most interesting person. Very radical in his thoughts. With the invention of electronic music he could replace all other musicians suddenly: that was not only an experiment; that was a revolution! I thought that is the right man, yeah? So I studied with him for about three years. Until I finally said, if a bird is ready to fly, he leaves his nest and that is what I have done.”
After leaving the nest Holger became a music teacher in his own right as a way to make a living. Later he was able to work full time as a musician, because as he often joked, he was married to a rich woman. Teachers always learn from their students though and his were teaching him about the rock and pop music of the time, playing him records of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd's stood out to him, as did the song I am the Walrus by the Beatles. Czukay fell in love with that masterpiece of psychedelic pop. In particular he loved the way bursts of AM static and the sound of tuning between stations had been used for a musical effect at the end of the cut.
All of these influences and elements would fused together in his work with Can, a project begun while he was still a teacher. Irmin Schmidt’s mark on the band was equally massive, and he was just steeped, if not more, in the 20th century avant-garde, but exploring his contribution is not in the scope of this article. For most of his time in the band, Czukay played bass, but toward the end he gave up that instrument altogether in favor of a shortwave radio. He speaks about Stockhausen’s influence in making this switch.
“A shortwave radio is just basically an unpredictable synthesizer. You don’t know what it’s going to bring from one moment to the next. It surprises you all the time and you have to react spontaneously. The idea came from Stockhausen again. He made a piece called ‘Short Wave’ [‘Kurzwellen’]. And I could hear that the musicians were searching for music, for stations or whatever, and he was sitting in the middle of it all and the sounds came into his hands and he made music out of it. He was mixing it live – and composing it live. He had a kind of plan, but didn’t know what the plan would bring him. With Can, I would mix stuff in with what the rest of the band were playing. Also, we were searching for a singer and we didn’t find one – we tested many, but couldn’t find anyone – so I thought: ‘why not look to the radio for someone instead? The man inside the radio does not hear us, but we hear him.’” This he used without additional effects. “The radio has a VFO – an oscillator – where you can receive single side-bands, which means just half of the waves and you can decode it – it’s like a ring modulator. And that’s more than enough. The other members of Can were very open to these unpredictable uses of instruments, especially in the early days.”
His work with radios in a musical setting was a way for him to bring in energies from outside the band into their work. In his own words, “I looked for the devices to bring a different world into the group again and they had to react on that. That was the idea, working with a radio or working with tapes or working with a telephone. I even had this idea that with a transmitter, we could transmit and receive things back again. Or to call up people like today's radio shows where people call up or you call people. This sort of interaction I wanted to establish. But the group was not interested in this. So I finished with Can and went my own way. And here, I really followed this. I was working on that for a few years (with Can) but then I found it that it wasn't fun anymore. I continued alone then worked with other people.”
Can had a great run as a band from 1968 to 1979. Afterwards Czukay continued to flourish with his solo recordings, including albums like Radio Wave Surfer. The methods he developed for using radio as an instrument he termed radio painting. He continued to make solo albums and collaborate with other musicians on various project throughout the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s. He died of unknown causes on September 5, 2017.
All of this tells you the who, what, where, when and why. But to get the full experience I invite you to blow your mind by listening to Stockhausen, Can, Holger Czukay, and other crispy Krautrock bands! There is no better place to start than with Hymnen, the Can discography.
Krautrock Sampler: one head’s guide to great Kosmische muisk 1968-onwards by Julian Cope, Head Heritage, 1996.