By Michael J. Darnell and Christopher Lawless
From Beyond the Horizon Vol. 5 No. 2 (Spring 1997)
Arguably the least public major player in the history of synth-rock pioneers Tangerine Dream, Johannes Schmoelling remains to this day a mystery for many among his listening audience particularly those located in the US. With only one of his solo albums ever having been released here, and having received very limited coverage by the mainstream American press, Schmoelling's musical career has been followed by US fans largely through word of mouth. Still, despite the lack of media attention, he continues to enjoy a healthy following on this side of the globe, a convincing testament to his music's endurance. Just ask fans of the genre which rare album they're seeking the most, and Schmoelling's out-of-print 1988 release The Zoo of Tranquillity will no doubt be at the top of most lists.
Well before joining Tangerine Dream, Schmoelling had already established a love for both music and technical production. He began early in his childhood with the piano as his first instrument, and eventually chose to study the field of music technology in college. His first post-graduate job was as a sound technician for live theatrical performances, an environment in which he continues to work to this day.
It wasn't until his 1980 alliance with the already acclaimed Dream, though, that Schmoelling became known to the music-buying public. His influence on TD's direction marked a pivotal point in that band's evolution. One-third of the lineup which produced some of the most highly regarded and imitated works in electronic music history, Schmoelling brought a fresh angle to an institution already well rooted in musical innovation. In his five years with the group, classic albums such as Exit, Logos, and Hyperborea came into being, as well as a string of successful and quirky film soundtracks including Thief and Risky Business.
But along with success comes strain, and eventually tiring of the rigorous touring and recording schedule under which the band found itself, Schmoelling left TD in early 1986. He began a solo recording career that afforded him the time and seclusion to develop his own unique sound. Starting with Wuivend Riet in 1987, he released a string of albums featuring an esoteric mix of sampled and synthesized sounds arranged in very natural sonic environments. Each of these works revolves around such a strong thematic foundation that Schmoelling has developed somewhat of a reputation as guru of the concept album.
Now after a brief pause in his recorded output, Schmoelling is planning two releases in 1997. Along with a brand new studio album, we will soon see a revamped re-release of the long sought-after Zoo of Tranquillity, no doubt to the delight of his fans worldwide. Pausing to reflect on his current work, as well as some of his career history, Schmoelling recently sat down to impart a few words of wisdom during a brief chat with us.
Zoo of Tranquillity is finally being re-released. What made you decide to re-record and remix some of the music?
When I started working on the album again in August of last year, my first intention was to remix some tracks because of better mixing conditions in my new studio. But when I listened to the original multi-track tapes, I was surprised to find some old versions of some of the songs - such as "The Anteater" - which I liked more than the tracks which eventually made it on to the original album. That discovery led me to want to release a new edition of the album, The Zoo of Tranquillity 1997, almost ten years after the first release.
Do you see the alterations as an improvement over the originals, or are they simply alternate interpretations?
Actually, I see them as both. For example, the track "The Rise of Smooth Automation" is an alternate interpretation. But in my opinion, it's also a big improvement over the original track.
Why was the album unavailable for so long?
Well, Polygram Records allowed it to disappear from their catalog back in 1991. From that time on, I've received many letters about it, from people asking where they could buy a copy. So I decided that as soon as it was possible and legal, I would re-release the album.
After the re-release of Zoo, do you have any plans for a new studio album?
Yes, there are plans for a new album, but nothing specific at the moment. I remember my roots as a church organ player, back when I was fifteen years old. My favorite composer at that time was Johann Sebastian Bach, and now I'm thinking of doing a piano piece with an orchestra, composed in the style of Bach. It will be arranged with electronics, and I will play the solo piano part.
You've rarely performed live in your post-Tangerine Dream career. Is there any particular reason?
I find it very hard to perform my music live, because the way it's composed, performed, and produced is so oriented toward my studio. To perform live, I have to rearrange parts, and I also need help from other musicians. Besides that, live performances require support from a record company or something similar from a financial perspective.
Your first three albums were released within a year of each other, but then there was a five-year gap before you released Songs No Words. What did you do during that time?
Songs No Words was actually almost completed by 1991. From that time I worked mostly on music for films or theaters. For example, in 1992 I started work on the music for a television series called Ein Starkes Team. It became quite successful in Germany. The story is about a police department in Berlin, which was founded in 1991, after the wall came down. The series will be continued for the forseeable future, and all episodes will have a soundtrack composed and produced by myself.
The other reason for the five years before Songs No Words appeared was that my publisher Peter Wirths died in April of 1994. It was a big loss for me. The empty space he left behind I had to learn to fill by myself, very slowly.
Each of your four solo albums seems to focus on a central theme. Do you prefer working on what might be termed as concept albums, or is that something of an after-the-fact aspect to your musical style?
Yes, I do prefer working on concept albums. I like the idea of discovering an empty space. Only a main title or an idea of a story gives me the direction to search for sound colors and musical themes. It's more or less like working on a film score. Pictures which I receive from a video creates sounds or similar noises in my brain. My job is to collect, arrange, and compose those sounds, and turn them into music.
Tell us a little about your musical background, how you came to be a career musician.
I started playing the piano at the age of eight. Later, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I changed the instrument from the piano to the church organ, because each Sunday I could listen to its sound at our church. It was a huge instrument, and I was fascinated by its richness and variety of sound colors, as well as the ambience and acoustic inside the huge cathedral.
When I was sixteen, I became a member of a rock band at school. We played the music of Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, the Nice, and other stuff of the late sixties. In 1972 I joined the University of Music and Technology in Berlin, where I graduated in 1977.
Many of your US fans aren't aware that you have also been heavily involved in theater production throughout your career. Tell us about some of the work you've done in that arena, and how your involvement in this area came about.
After I graduated from school, I went to work as a technician at Die Schaubühne, a famous theater in Berlin. I stayed in that job for two years, and during that time I learned how to produce sounds and ambiences for special theater productions, and how to amplify and transmit those sounds with specially-designed flats and sceneries.
Probably the most interesting production I worked on back in those days was called Death, Destruction and Detroit. It was directed by Robert Wilson, who had his first European experience in Berlin. The show became a very expensive one, mostly dominated by lights and sounds. It was a really huge challenge for us sound technicians and the sound designer.
Later on, after I joined Tangerine Dream, my work in theater production became more in the role of composer than as sound engineer. For example, in 1992 I worked on a production where I had to program a computer-based grand piano to play in front of the audience without any keyboard player sitting in front of it. The piano was a Yamaha Computer Grand with MIDI in and out, and it worked great! The audience was really shocked to see all the keys and pedals moving without any player in front.
Do you prefer one of these arenas theater work versus album recording over the other?
Well, not really - I enjoy both. Working in the studio on an album means that you're isolated from the outside world. I really like working in that kind of atmosphere, of exclusive concentration on a production. Doing theater work is exactly the opposite - people are running around all the time, shouting and making noise everywhere. Most of the time you have to work in teams. Lots of people are responsible for the end result of a show. I do enjoy this kind of hectic atmosphere as well, although in a very different way from being alone in my studio.
You're probably asked this question quite often, but let's talk about it anyway. How did you become involved with Tangerine Dream?
In the Summer of 1979, Edgar Froese invited me for an audition in his studio. Someone must have told him about my musical and technical background, and so he thought that I might become a good substitute for Peter Baumann. In the audition I played an improvised piece of music on his Steinway Grand for nearly twenty minutes. I think he was impressed with the way I played, and I was offered a part in the band.
TD developed quite a unique sound in the early eighties, which many fans attribute to your influence. Did you enter the band with a particular conscious direction that you and your band mates wanted to try, or did the music just happen on its own?
The band's unique sound during that time was the result of many things. Edgar and Christoph (Franke) were very familiar with creating synthesized sounds, and how to produce them with their instruments. TD had its own style of electronic music back in those days - infinite loops, and long ongoing sequences and patterns. For my part, I was rather experienced in how to write and play good piano and keyboard arrangements. So the combination of both these areas was one reason for the particular sound we developed.
Another factor in that whole process was simply the way the instruments of the time sounded - we used lots of Oberheims, Arps, Prophets, Moogs, Rolands, and PPG Waves, which was a unique range of mostly analog synthesizers with a few digital ones sprinkled in for good measure. Nowadays all of our old fashioned instruments are becoming more and more popular all over again.
Your solo albums were clearly a departure from the sound and style of TD during your tenure with the band. What was the inspiration to go in the musical direction that you did?
There was no specific inspiration for my own musical direction. It's a continuing string, the sum of all my musical experiences and my musical education. Tangerine Dream was a chapter along that string, and a very good one. The band has had a big influence on my musical career and beyond, on my personality and my self-consciousness.
Do you ever see yourself working in a group situation again, or do you prefer to work solo?
I prefer working alone most of the time, although occasionally I do like collaborating with others. For instance, last summer I was part of a band with nearly ten musicians. We had to play a concert for a big festival in the northern part of Germany. We performed Ravel's Bolero, and my part was to handle all the electronic music material and a lot of sampled industrial sounds. It was great to perform live on stage, and to be a part of a big group, but only for a short period. After it was done, I was glad to be back alone in my studio, concentrating on my own work.
Your solo albums have a very natural, almost acoustic feel to them despite your heavy use of electronics. What is your philosophy on using electronics and synthesizers as opposed to using acoustic instruments?
As I mentioned earlier, I started my musical education on the piano and later on a church organ. During my days in college, I also learned to play the French horn, so I am rather familiar with acoustic instruments. When I sit down at my grand piano and hit a key, I can listen to a hundred years of history of that instrument. The sound is unique and totally individual - it can't be reproduced by electronics. So, I will always try to play an acoustic instrument rather than an electronic substitute, if it's at all possible within the production circumstances of a given project.
On the other hand, electronically-generated sounds are unique in the way that they can hit unknown and strange spaces, atmospheres, and emotions. You are able to create sounds which no one has ever listened to before. That's why I sometimes use sampled sounds and pitch them way up or down, so they get a completely new time structure of their transients. Each synthesized sound has to tell its own little story, otherwise I won't use it.
Describe how the compositional process will typically progress during one of your album projects. For instance, does it begin with sound development, out of which compositions start to take shape? Or do you typically start with specific musical notes in your head which are searching for just the right sound?
In general, there are no specific rules how I compose my solo projects. Sometimes I come up with an idea for a concept, and then I start to look for sounds which are well-suited to the project. Out of that sound design work, the compositions start to form and mold how the project will progress. But sometimes I start with an improvisation on my piano. I'll play for hours and hours, and record the session. Afterwards I begin to work on those parts which I find interesting, and I start to arrange them with electronic instruments.
Do you work with sound designers, or are all of the sounds on your albums created by yourself?
No, I create all the sounds myself. I started very early on to record and collect my own sound library. When I do work for radio plays or theater projects, I need to have a lot of sounds at my disposal, sometimes natural sounds. So I just prefer to record and design the sounds by myself. During my days with Tangerine Dream I learned how to create synthesized sounds and how to design them.
Which is your favorite musical instrument - electronic or otherwise - and why?
My favorite acoustic instrument is the piano. It has such a wide range of sound colors and dynamics. And every time I play, it shows me just how limited my piano-playing is!
As far as electronic instruments are concerned, my favorite is the Jupiter 8. It's mostly analog, and each function has its own fader controller to shape the sound. So just about every time I sit down and use the instrument, I'm satisfied with the result.
Which of your solo albums is your favorite?
Well, actually there are two. The first is Wuivend Riet, probably because it was my first solo project after I split with Tangerine Dream. Glenn Gould, the famous Canadian pianist, once said that in each composer's career his first composition is the best. That sounds funny, but there is a little truth in it.
However, the album which I think reflects my inner musical voice the best is White Out. That album was the culmination of my musical and technical career since leaving TD. It's a mixture of several different production styles - a radio play because of the many noises and natural sounds, a theater performance because of its dimensional virtual space, and a concept album, arranged with acoustic and electronic instruments. For myself, White Out is more than just music. The album is my attempt to define my point of view on this planet - being a musician and artist on one hand, but also a member of a global society of human beings on the other. What I mean is, each of us is responsible to a global community, and not only to himself. The more human beings exploit the natural resources from our planet˙such as by damaging the environment in Antarctica - the more mankind will destroy itself. During my studies for White Out, I learned that Antarctica is not the totally untouched endless white desert most people think it is. In fact, it's just the opposite. All major countries have marked their claims, and it's only a question of time before the exploitation will begin very heavily. Maybe our childrens' children will survive as computerized robots, with a totally new design for their bodies and organs.
How about your releases with Tangerine Dream - is there one you're most fond of?
My favorite album with TD is Logos Live. It was our first live album together. Back then, the band's concept for live appearances was to perform mainly improvised music - long ongoing sequences, mostly new and unknown material for the audience, and no single tracks from the records we had done to that point. So I was always afraid that our live performances could become boring and exhausting. But on Logos we combined a fine mixture of improvised parts and structured music with nice tunes, chords, and rhythm parts. And we combined those parts quite musically with slow transitions or sometimes hard cuts. Another reason it's my favorite is because on Logos we performed for the first time with sampling technology like the Emulator, so our sound on stage could expand and become bigger than in the old days of analog synthesizers.
Aside from your first album's brief appearance on the now-defunct Lifestyle label, your solo works have not been released domestically here in the US. Is there any particular reason, and is there anything in the works to get them released over here?
This is a difficult question for me to answer. You should probably ask my publisher, or the folks at Polydor in Hamburg. My job is to produce my music as good as I can make it - I've never really been satisfied about how it's been published or distributed. But you have to be realistic about it - it's a sort of music which is not popular, not for a big audience. Therefore, my influence how to distribute and sell my records is a really small one inside the whole business.
What type of music do you listen to in your spare time? Who is your favorite artist?
I listen to various types of pop and classical music. It really depends on the project I'm working on at the time, or what kind of mood I'm in. At the moment my favorite composer is once again Bach. I played a lot of Bach's fugues and preludes on the organ in my younger days, and now I've discovered his music composed for piano or cembalo.
And there is one artist who plays these compositions as no one else I have ever heard - Glenn Gould. He is, or I should say, he was, a genius. He played Bach the way no one else could, and at the same time he was also very interested in studio works. Because of his open mind concerning technical questions, how to record music or to produce it in a recording studio, he was far beyond the way other pianists recorded or performed. He was twenty years ahead of his time.
What are your plans for the future?
There are no definite plans - my plan is not to have any plans! Seriously though, in May I'll start working on the music for another episode of Ein Starkes Team, and two more episodes will follow later this year. I also intend to release a new studio album besides The Zoo of Tranquillity before the year is out. I guess my overall plan is simply this: to make and produce music which I am satisfied with, and which the audience can listen to in twenty years and still find interesting and exciting.
Is there any one thing that continues to inspire you musically?
I'm not really sure, but quite often I think about silence actually. Silence means the absence of any noise - what does it sound like, and where can I find it? How should music sound, when it has a feeling of total quietness and calmness? Perhaps these thoughts inspire me musically, and are one of the reasons I carry on with my music.
Lastly, are there any closing thoughts you'd like to convey to your listening audience?
Nothing really specific, but for those who have been waiting for The Zoo of Tranquillity, I can promise that the music is already finalized. I hope it will be released in the next few months. I've been working on it very heavily, but aside from my own work on the recordings themselves, there are many other people involved in releasing them on record, and the appropriate consideration must be given.
Finally, I'd like to simply wish the readers of Beyond the Horizon magazine all the best.