The Tangerine Dream sound of the early 80s

Johannes Schmoelling,
member of Tangerine Dream from 1980 until 1985,
has given an interview for Lambert Ringlage in connection with the release of his new 2CD/DVD
"zeit ∞ ?" (Schmoelling / Waters live in Oirschot, Niederlande 2018).

translation by Anne Gillard- Groddeck

1. During your time with Tangerine Dream you helped shape some of the high points of the band's career, albums like Tangram, Logos, film scores such as the soundtrack for the episode Das Mädchen auf der Treppe (The Girl on the Steps) of the Schimanski Tatort (Crime Scene) detective series etc.
Do you look back with pleasure on those days? Did you enjoy developing ideas with Tangerine Dream or were you under a lot of pressure to get the job done?

"No, I never felt any pressure back then. For me my cooperation with Edgar Froese and Christoph Franke was always constructive, inspiring and creative, right from the start. I could contribute as I wanted, without any concerns or inhibitions regarding a particular style or tradition associated with the name Tangerine Dream. We were always open and honest with each other as far as music is concerned. And if I ever overshot the mark with my ideas or my keyboard playing, then it was Edgar who set the framework and explained the reasons.

Yes, I look back on those days with a great deal of pleasure and the older I get, the more this is so. I miss talking to my colleagues. Edgar died in 2015 and Christoph is beyond my reach, somewhere in LA. It's a pity we can't share our memories after so many exciting and productive years, like other bands do when they meet up again after a couple of decades."

2. Did you have any impressive experiences during your time with Tangerine Dream that stick in your mind?

"Of course, there are lots of them, starting in November 1979 in Christoph's studio in Spandau in Berlin. All the instruments had been assembled for the first rehearsal. When I entered the studio I heard this sequence which was later to open our first album, Tangram. Christoph had programmed it. The sound came from his Prophet-5 and it ran as an endless loop. And then, when everyone had set up their place, I added a bass phrase to this sequence with my Minimoog to which Edgar then responded with a choral phrase. This is how the first bars of Tangram came into being, like a musical promise or a contract, without words and without writing.

Then things started happening fast. In January 1980 there was the concert at the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), then the first film score, Thief with Michael Mann, the first European tour, concerts in Rome, Budapest, Lisbon, Madrid, London, Athens - often in front of an audience of more than 10,000 people. Then there was our concert at the Kronebau (Circus Krone building) in Munich, with an orchestra conducted by Eberhard Schoener – Mojave Plan from the White Eagle album.

But I can also vividly recall the tours in the UK, as a sort of thank you for the band's discovery in the 70s. Then getting to know new continents: America, Australia and, most especially, Japan, which in those days opened up a new and previously unknown culture for me. Furthermore all the studio albums that we made up until 1985, the many film scores with the different genres. Und finally, regrettably, the last job with Edgar and Christoph working on the film score for Legend directed by Ridley Scott. After that came the separation, in around June 1985."

3. How did Tangerine Dream prepare their live concerts? Who decided which numbers to select?

"The decisions were always taken unanimously by all three of us. But we did have something like corner points in the structure of the concerts, at least in the early 80s, for example that the second set was always to end with a guitar solo by Edgar. Before that it was my turn with a piano solo on Christoph's Yamaha CP-70. I could do what I liked with this solo. The music within the two sets usually depended on what we had been working on until then in the studio, be it film scores or studio albums. So we could take programmings from the studio onto the stage."

4 a) Tangerine Dream still exists today, without the original line-up. What's your stance on this?

"They should let this name, that was once so great such a long, long time ago, rest in peace where it should rest for ever: in the annals on the history of world music."

4 b) In live concerts the current line-up of Tangerine Dream also play versions of tracks you composed in the 80s. Are you happy that your pieces are still being performed? Or what do you feel when you hear the new versions?

"No, I don't feel happy at all, on the contrary. I'd like to illustrate this on the basis of an event that happened in 2017. At the time, due to contentious copyright issues, I had to listen to a CD recording of a live concert given by the current line-up. It was the concert given in Szczecin (German: Stettin). When the band played White Eagle from the White Eagle album made in 1982, I couldn't believe my ears. There was a wrong chord there, a wrong harmony.

I feel so committed to this piece of all pieces that I cannot spare the reader a brief discourse on harmony. White Eagle consists of a simple sequence of four chords, sometimes major and sometimes minor. These are tied in a loop that is continually repeated.
However, the third chord in this loop has no gender. That means that it's neither a minor nor a major chord. The reason for this is that it's supposed to function as a kind of fermata, that is to say a rest or a caesura, so that the tension then builds up again with the fourth chord until the loop is complete. But instead of this, the colleagues played a major chord, which really shocked me as nothing could be more wrong than that. When I confronted them at the next opportunity, the answer I got was that they were playing a cover version and perhaps I didn't know what a cover version was? But I know very well what that is. I immediately think of With a Little Help from My Friends from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. Joe Cocker, with his inimitable voice, transformed this song into a genuine rock hymn at the time. So it was a very successful cover version. However, I'm not aware of the musicians having replaced major chords by minor chords or using harmonies different from those that the Beatles played. So there's another request that I'd like to make to my colleagues. Play your own stuff. Leave the relics from my time, 1980-1985, rest in peace where they should rest for ever: in the vault marked "Made for Eternity"."

4 c) The current Tangerine Dream line-up also likes to improvise across monotone sequences. Do you like this way of making music?

"I was about 13 years old when I first heard the word improvisation, spoken by my organ teacher. He wanted to prepare me for my first stint as an organist playing for the Catholic liturgy. For this it is absolutely essential for the organist to be trained in choral accompaniment for the congregation and also in choral preludes and postludes, which are usually improvised. And equally important is this: if a liturgical celebration lasts longer than planned, this period of time has to be supported by background music or filled in through improvisation. Improvising on the organ is a real challenge and requires extensive training, knowledge of harmony and musical form and years of instruction in the realisation of four-voice figured basses.
Some 16 years later the word improvisation gained new meaning for me. It was Edgar Froese who came into the studio in Spandau in January 1980 and told us that we had to play two concerts at Palace of the Republic at the end of January. When I replied that we couldn't do it because we didn't have enough music to fill 90 minutes of concert (we'd only been playing together for two months), he replied: "Then we'll just have to improvise." So we agreed on keys for which each of us would have to improvise as well as he could. This enabled us to fill in the time, but some of the results were rather dodgy. Improvising in front of an audience is a fine art.
In jazz improvisation is practically the business card of every instrumentalist and ultimately determines their career and success. Whether the present line-up of Tangerine Dream has gone back to improvisation in order to present their musical qualities to an audience or whether they're just bridging or filling in time gaps I couldn't say. When all is said and done audiences vote with their feet. If the hall is still full, well, they must have liked it."

5. You can also look back on a long solo career. Was the break with Tangerine Dream difficult for you and was the start of your solo career how you had imagined it? Which has been your most successful or favourite solo number so far?

"I didn't leave the band in the summer of 1985 because I was bored and unable to contribute enough. On the contrary, after the film score for Ridley Scott's Legend the three of us were exhausted, so that we agreed to take a break. At least that's what was said.
Then when Edgar came along a few weeks later with more new plans for a tour, I realised that if we continued at that pace we'd end up in an ocean of aimlessness sooner or later and that this great name, "Tangerine Dream", would no longer aspire to be an innovative and modern electronic rock band. When I voiced my reservations to Edgar, but he just didn't want to know, I left. Then Christoph left two years after me.

Now I knew that that was the end of this band. If Edgar had been wise enough, he would have closed this "Project Tangerine Dream" chapter. For in assuming that Tangerine Dream is a project and so its members were simply replaceable, in assuming this he was hugely mistaken. What followed then is something for others to judge.

After my departure there opened up a new chapter in my life. And I had the freedom to do what I liked with my time, releasing new energies and ideas. For a year I buried myself away in my studio.
Success or failure, acclaim and recognition from the outside world, none of that counted, none of that mattered to me at all. I was my sole critic and then, when my album Wuivend Riet was finished, I resurfaced and presented it.

For me success is not a category that can be measured in terms of numbers. I've never been interested in sales figures. What pleases me and makes me feel a little proud is when those who listen to my music consider it or individual pieces to be timeless, compositions for eternity. That's what counts. "

6. Your new double CD/DVD is a live album. How did you come to make it and what does it contain?

"Ever since I released my first solo album, Wuivend Riet, in 1986 I kept getting more and more enquiries about a live performance. In those days I considered my music to be unplayable on the stage. How was I supposed to put this work onto the stage, composed and played over a year from 24 or even more tracks on a tape machine?

It was only in 2010 when we formed Loom (Jerome Froese, Robert Waters and myself) that I was able to face this question about a live performance. However, the condition I put before my colleagues was that we wouldn't deliver a playback show, but that what we can play live on the stage should be rehearsed long enough until it all comes effortlessly. Everything else could be left up to the computer.

Our first concert took place in Oirschot in 2011, in a theatre near Eindhoven in Holland. I felt at ease there from the very first moment. Besides all the stage equipment there was also a Yamaha grand that was pleasant to play. In addition, we were given professional support by the promotor, Ron Boots. When Ron then enquired about a solo concert in the spring of 2018 the matter was clear for me: yes, I'd be pleased to perform.

The preparations started in April 2018. First of all came the question of what numbers to select. On a recommendation I was helped by taking a look at YouTube on the internet. I'd had no idea that my music was being used as a soundtrack for various video clips and now and then I was positively surprised by how many video artists had transposed my musical intentions in their images without ever having exchanged a word with me.

That is how I gradually approached the question of what numbers to select. Naturally there was also scored music like my Matjora Is Still Alive from Wuivend Riet or my Bach interpretation, The Electrified J.S. from Recycle or Die.

As I didn't want to play the concert on my own, I asked Robert Waters and he accepted straight away. Together with him I then developed a bracket or a motto that could encapsulate this diverse music spanning more than 40 years. Zeit ∞? was to be the name. You see, Zeit was my first composition after I left Tangerine Dream in 1985. And 'Zeit ∞' is also the name of a radio feature that I produced in 2004 with my friend Hubertus von Puttkamer. Hubertus had thought very intensively about the concept of time in a philosophical context and written about it. We then incorporated some quotations from his work into the concert."

7. How did it feel to revive old compositions like Tangram?

"When the voices telling me that I had to play Tangram at this concert grew louder I refused. First of all out of respect for Christoph and Edgar. On no account did I want to mistreat our first work for the stage through a performance of inferior quality or even a pure playback show. And, as I remembered it, this work also seemed too complex to be performed live.
But there were more and more voices asking who, if not I, was entitled to play Tangram? So then I started listening to Tangram. The first few bars already took me back to 1979. After I had listened to the number several times it became clear that about the first third of it could be adapted for the stage. Robert and could play certain parts live. The rest would have to come from the computer. So I got down to work, sticking very close to the original at first, but then becoming somewhat freer in the arrangement and always keeping in mind what my colleagues of those days would say about it.

The more progress I made, the more pleasure and fun I got from the work. And when I'd finished the first third I had the idea, why not go further and add the piano theme from the Palace concert, which, after all, was composed in the spirit of Tangram?

Robert and I then needed a number of rehearsals until we were certain that, yes, we could do it, this is how we could present Tangram in Oirschot. For us and also for the audience, it was a great joy to listen to Tangram as an excerpt after so many decades, in a new guise on the stage. I was equally pleased by the voices saying how timeless Tangram was."

8. Which Tangerine Dream tracks are your personal favourites and which of your solo records do you personally associate the most with?

"I never could or never wanted to answer these questions because if I were to highlight this or that piece I would do an injustice to all the others. For they are all of equal value. They are all a mirror-image of myself.

All these works were created by reflecting on the relationship between myself and the world around me. Many things have gone into these works: feelings, encounters with other people, music that has inspired me, books, films, technical developments that have opened up new worlds of sound for me and much, much more.

These compositions are my memoires or my biography plotted in sound."

9. 'Spheric music', a label that is not unknown in the electronic scene, has already contacted you about a CD release. Wouldn't it be tempting for you to work with a well networked electronic label?

"I launched my own label, 'Viktoriapark Records', in 2000 wishing to find a platform to make myself independent of external labels and publishers. We are now entering the twentieth year since its launch and I have a certain sense of finality, at least as far as my solo work is concerned. My last album made in 2017, Diary of a Common Thread, marks an endpoint for me in its self-containedness, especially as, thanks to sounds from a sampled church organ, I come full circle, back to my early days as an organist.

That doesn't mean to say that there are to be no further activities. So various constellations or forms of cooperation are conceivable, also as regards cooperation with the 'Spheric Music' label. Many things are conceivable."

10. Are any further concerts being planned and do you have any other plans?

"The preparations and follow-up work for this production Zeit ∞? have now taken me a whole year. And Robert and I naturally want to reap the benefit from so much work and effort and put this work on the stage from time to time. We'll have to wait and see what the future brings. But other constellations are also possible. We may well give further concerts with Loom, for instance, that is Jerome Froese, Robert and myself. We can draw on resources from five or six years of cooperation that we would certainly like to exploit if circumstances permit.

Much is conceivable and we'll have to see what the future brings. That's why I'll be cautious with my predictions. In 2006 or 2007 I was of the firm opinion that my musical career was coming to an end due to exhaustion and lack of ideas. Everything had been said; everything had been done. What more was there to expect? Now in the last few years I've worked more than I ever could have imagined then."