An improvised, one-track album that foresaw the coming of minimal techno as early as 1981
“I have a lot of tapes from these times,” says Manuel Göttsching on the other side of a crackly telephone line from Berlin. “A lot of tapes from the second half of the 1970s. I once released a series of CDs called The Private Tapes from a lot of the sessions I made around those years. But yes, something about how I recorded and produced E2-E4 in a way felt special.”
For many a proto-techno masterpiece, E2-E4’s release in 1984 felt like a left-turn even for one of Berlin’s most experimental musicians. “The newspapers said I have not understood anything in the modern developments of electronic music,” Göttsching says of the initial reactions from Germany. “They said I should better listen to Depeche Mode.” The Berlin Magazine apologised to Göttsching a decade later, saying they probably made a big mistake.
The piece itself (a single, continual track, 58:40 long) was recorded almost three years before its release at the end of a long tour, in one hour-long sitting with three humble intentions, none of them related to releasing music: practice, placating the post-tour comedown of no longer performing every night, and to give Göttsching something to listen to on an upcoming trip. As he says, he’d do this a lot, but this time was different.
The story goes that, having played a solo concert for only himself, completely on the fly, on listening back, Göttsching discovered that he had accidentally made the perfect record. The music flowed in total balance and even once he had played it over and over he couldn’t pick out any errors – even the levels were all they should be without his trying. “I listened back right after recording, and I listened to it quite often,” he says. “This was the end of 1981 when I was already working on a new solo album. This was not what I had in mind, but it was strange as there weren’t even any of the usual technical glitches such as distortions and level changes. I wanted to compose something more orchestral in this direction; this was just a session I’d recorded. I listened back and I just thought, ‘oh, not so bad.’ But that was more or less it… And then I played it to my friends who said, ‘wow this is great’.”
Inventions for electric guitar
Berlin in 1981 felt like the height of a cultural renaissance, where experimentalism in music was the new currency, and to hell with structure. Some people were writing twenty-minute compositions about knitting machines and typewriters, while others played Beethoven symphonies at various different rpms, all at the same time.
From Göttsching’s work as one of the founding members of pioneering space rock band Ash Ra Tempel in 1970, to the Rolling Stones covers band he played in at school, to his minimalist classical electronic album Inventions for Electric Guitar in 1975, to the now cult techno masterpiece E2-E4, the one constant value in his work has always been the freedom to invent. Ash Ra Tempel had been called the James Brown band on acid, flowing locks of hair obscuring expressions. They could play for hours without having written a note, and without needing to so much as look at one another. There was even a collaboration with the counter-culture LSD academic and psychologist Timothy Leary in 1972.
Göttsching speaks fondly of the sanctuaries others have found in his early compositions that have since led to many a krautrock and psychedelic exploration. Once he was part of the loudest band in Berlin – literally shaking the building of his first record label in a studio with no fades and an overly complacent engineer – but at its heart it was just the same principle as free jazz.
“I was trained in improvisation,” he says. “I started playing improvised music at the end of the 1960s with the first blues band – Steeple Chase Blues Band – later it was Ash Ra Tempel. The first Ash Ra Tempel album is completely improvised. I did a lot of mixing – sometimes improvisation and sometimes composition, but I like both elements. For E2-E4, I just took the instruments and prepared these two chords and some basic bassline, and then I started playing with it, improvising with the chords and the sequencers and the loudness of the chords so it makes a shifting event. I just played it.”