Big Mistake: A conversation with Manuel Göttsching
In the past, the expression ‘to be in the moment’ has been recycled to romanticise a composer’s inability to separate the ideas in their head from the instrument in their hands.
But in its most primitive form, music improvisation means to embrace the threat of failure or inaccuracy. And when utilised properly, improvisation can lead to moments of genuine accidental rapture. From the mathematical rampancy of Sun Ra’s Arkestra to the progressive eclecticism of Captain Beefheart, playing upon impulse has inspired an infinite swathe of contemporary art. This freedom to make mistakes, as Manuel Göttsching explains over a coarse telephone connection, is what defines his approach to live performance.
As a founder of the progressive krautrock experimentalist group Ash Ra Tempel and later Ashra in the early 70s, Göttsching became enamoured by the stylistic ambiguity of minimalism championed by the likes of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. His solo works, such as Inventions for Electric Guitar and New Age of Earth paved the groundworks for future students of the Berlin school of electronic music. Yet it wasn’t until 1981 during a impromptu recording session at his home studio that the artist forged his most lauded solo work to date, E2-E4. An hour in length, the piece was recorded in one take without a single interruption or interval. And while its original release has been described as modest, E2-E4 is frequently placed high on industry ‘best of…’ lists as one of the most influential recordings of the 20th century. With a rare performance of the piece in its entirety alongside Ariel Pink and the Ash Ra Tempel Experience at the Barbican as part of Convergence Festival later this month, Göttsching takes a moment to reflect on E2-E4‘s burgeoning appeal, the emotive nature of improvisation and how his work accidentally became the precursor to what would eventually mutate into house and techno.
Your peers have made the analogy that the entirety of E2-E4 is like an extensive DJ set, equipped with dynamics and transitional peaks. Considering its humble beginnings, does the manifestation of the piece in the spectrum of house and techno surprise you at all?
I think any composer would find it an honour for their piece of music to survive and continue for eternity. But E2-E4 has had a very slow development. In the beginning, it was a very small success. It took years and years before it was acknowledged. It was only in the middle of the 80s that I found out it was being played by Larry Levan in New York’s Paradise Garage. I couldn’t believe it because it isn’t composed or produced as any kind of dance piece. If you listen to it, there’s not a strong drum sequence or bassline. It’s a very rhythmic piece, that’s right, but I was surprised that it was played and such a huge success in that setting. I later discovered that it became a huge success in Europe’s dance charts after being sampled by Sueno Latino in the late 80s.
And having been sampled to such an excessive degree, has the composition ever veered too far away from its original audial intentions?
There is no singular intention for E2-E4. It was recorded in the early evening. I didn’t chance anything in my home studio set up. No overdubs. It wasn’t even considered as an addition to my new album, which I was working on at the time. Its only purpose was to be a document of a live performance. Me in my studio. That sounds very easy but in fact it has been a long development. I started building my own home studio many years ago during the recording of my first solo album, Inventions For Electric Guitars, which came out in 1975. At that time the idea of a home studio was still unusual. Equipment was still quite expensive; the tape recorders, mixing desks, etc. I spent years constructing my studio. Step by step. And around two years later I recorded the second album, Blackouts, which was predominantly made up from improvisation coupled with moments that were very strictly composed.
The studio enabled you to have greater autonomy over your art?
Well, it was during this time in my studio that I could write, I could play, I could compose and experiment freely. I have hundreds of recordings of pieces played over the years. My equipment grew. My stock of synthesisers and sequencers and drum machines increased. Throughout this time, I was experimenting with solo performances in collaboration with Claudia Skoda, a fashion designer from Berlin. She was very interested in making a fashion event that incorporated music with performance. This is where I started to play with synthesisers and drum machines in a live setting with each performance being about fifteen minutes in length. Finally, during one of these studio sessions in 1981, which really was just one recording of many other studio sessions recorded, something really special happened.
It’s widely regarded as a ‘perfect take’. Doesn’t that make it arduous to replicate in a live setting?
There were no technical mistakes, no crackling, no breaks. It was all very fluent. There was a basic idea, which was just taking two singular chords and building around those limitations. All of the rest is totally improvised. So maybe this is why it’s continuing to evolve today. It’s always changing. If you don’t listen to it very carefully, you’d think it was always the same. But its formation is ongoing. And in a live setting, the structure remains familiar but every performance is intrinsically different.
But technically speaking, how do you arrange something that is almost entirely improvised?
For many years I thought I would never be capable of doing so due to practicality. I just thought it would be that unique recording that I couldn’t replicate elsewhere. I had to use my entire studio so building and rebuilding my equipment for a live performance wasn’t possible. I’d be building it for days. So I never thought about it. It was only at the beginning of the 2000s what with the development and functionality of modern technologies and music production. Previously, I found synth software to be very inflexible; nothing really attracted me to use it as an instrument. It was only at the turn of the 21st century that technology such as Ableton became stable and reliable in a live setting. I tried to work out a version that was simple enough to transpose to Ableton. I built it up again from scratch with modern instrumentation for the voices, bass, chorus, drums and the solo. I then broke the original recording in to pieces and combined the two sounds together. The modern mixed with the old.
So no single performance of E2-E4 is ever the same?
I’ve only performed this piece live a handful of times. One, of course being at Berghain, which was actually one of the first live performances the club agreed to host. And every venue it’s played in greatly affects E2-E4’s character. Once I played it in the pouring rain in New York at the Lincoln Centre. Somehow the rain made the experience very special.
There’s certainly a sort of emotive docility to E2-E4 that makes it malleable to any given environment
I have a big fan in Japan. He told me every time he goes to the dentist he asks them to play E2-E4 to ease his anxiety. Chinese history indicates that it’s quite common for people to incorporate musical notes as a form of healing or therapy. But it’s interesting you say malleable. I’d say that this piece in particular is so versatile for the requirements of others. Some can dance, some can sleep. I don’t know. I once was asked ten questions about what type of music I would listen to in a certain situation and every response was E2-E4.
Do you require a certain setting or mood in order to compose your music? Have you ever composed with the sole purpose to represent a mood?
Mood is imperative. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what mood you’re trying to convey. Sometimes you may realise ‘Oh, it’s not the day today, so let’s try again tomorrow’. It’s important to embrace this process. Yes, you maybe have a basic idea of structure – chords, notes, intention, rhythm, tempo, limitations – but the actual performance is where you allocate mood. That is one of the reasons why started working with my own equipment because I wanted to be independent from large-scale studio production. The first Ash Ra Temple record we produced involved three different studios. My preferred approach is more or less as live as humanly possible. Record what you are used to playing. Will anything be better if you record it again and again and again? No.
So you embrace spontaneity as it reflects the reality of time?
Correct. But you must prepare. You can train your own spontaneity. You can train improvisation. One example of this is instead of talking to each other, perform alongside each other. The music and the notes become a language.
Has the impulsive nature of E2-E4 altered your approach to your compositional style?
E2-E4 was a mistake. I nearly stopped the recording. The original programming was not how I expected. But I paused and just allowed myself to continue. I said ‘why not? Let’s try.’ In this way, I consider myself to be more of an explorer. I want to test and try new things in composition. I don’t like repetition. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I want to focus on new directions.
Manuel Göttsching performs E2-E4 + The Ash Ra Tempel Experience on 22nd March at the Barbican in London as part of Convergence Festival. The show has now sold out, find out more about other Convergence events here.