Recently in this magazine, Holger Czukay recalled attending the first performance, in Bremen in 1968, of Kurzwellen (“short waves”), Karlheinz Stockhausen’s work for piano, electronium (an early monophonic synthesiser), tam-tam gong, viola and four short-wave radio receivers.
He remembered how, as the musicians used the radios as instruments, Stockhausen sat centre-stage, “mixing the audio like a DJ”.
This appearance at Short Circuit, a four-day “festival of electronica”, was trailed as a homage/tribute to the memory of Stockhausen (Czukay attended his seminar at the conservatory in Cologne in the mid-1960s) and extended to Czukay’s changing CDs and shifting faders on a mixing desk, as much the curator of his own sound as performer.
Though Stockhausen, you suspect, didn’t banter avuncularly with his audience or totter around the stage in plus-fours like a proud grandfather at a provincial wedding party.
After showing a series of videos, including promos for his 1980s solo singles “Cool in the Pool” and “The Photo Song”, Czukay, one-time bass player with the groundbreaking German rock band Can, showed a clip to accompany their song “Mushroom” that he and the guitarist Michael Karoli assembled from footage plundered from a Soviet-era Russian film.
Then he announced the first piece of music, created, he said, in honour of Stockhausen and committed to tape just four days before the composer died in 2007.
A combination of ethereal found voices and swarming electronic buzz evoked the soundscapes of Stockhausen’s work from the mid-1960s – Telemusik, for instance, which combines electronics with recordings of ancient Japanese temple bells. The homage was not wholly reverent, however, and Czukay insinuated squelches of synth and an intermittent hi-hat beat into the oceanic washes of near-white noise.
Stockhausen, he acknowledged once the piece had finished, “never liked remixes”.
Czukay learned two things from his mentor: the use of found aural “insertions” (an early form of sampling) and an openness to “music from other worlds”. In one of several gently professorial homilies (with the audience sitting at tables, the Roundhouse at times felt more like a lecture theatre than a concert hall), he spoke of trying to make that music fit into the “European harmonic system”.
One of the most intriguing and straightforwardly beautiful examples of this attempt was the album Canaxis. Recorded by Czukay with Rolf Dammers at Can’s Inner Space studio in 1968, it was a decisive influence on Brian Eno and David Byrne’s much better-known 1981 essay in sampled sound-montage, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
The second piece that Czukay “performed” was a live remix of “Boat-Woman-Song”, from Canaxis, which entwines a looped fragment from a song by the medieval French composer Adam de la Halle around electronic drones and a haunting recording of female Vietnamese singers.
The remix preserved the miraculous, suspended delicacy of the original, and Czukay, headphones clamped on head, frequently looked up from the mixer at the audience, in transports of surprised pleasure at the sounds he was coaxing from it.
He then strapped on a guitar and dripped discordant stabs and riffs over a pulsing, serpentine groove that sounded as if it had been taken from the sessions for Can’s 1969 debut album, Monster Movie.
Czukay offered reminders, too, of his abortive early career as a jazz musician in some creamy minor chords and an improbably delicate solo or two, jammed up against the crashing keyboards, sirens and Vocoder-ed vocals of Der Osten ist Rot, his collaboration with the producer Conny Plank.
There were a few longueurs, however, and a number of pieces in which abstract splashes of sound were underpinned by four-square bass-drum patterns seemed more evocative of Ibiza than of Cologne. Czukay’s desultory parping on a French horn did not redeem a rather gauche, Balearic beat-style remix of “Mirage”, from the 1999 album Good Morning Story.
But, for the most part, this combination of DJ set, musicological seminar and recital was a magisterial summary of a remarkable career.
That Czukay’s musical curiosity and imagination remain largely undimmed was confirmed in a stunning final assemblage that spliced together the theme from the second movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet with the electronic gurgles, burps and hisses of Stockhausen’s soundworld.
Holger Czukay performed at Roundhouse, London NW1