Conrad Schnitzler (born 27 January 1940) and Hans-Joachim Roedelius (born 26 October 1934) first met in Berlin in 1967. They initially worked together in the Stockhausen-influenced avant-garde groups Plus/Minus and Noises, being among the first in Germany to use echo machine, noise, feedback and prepared tape loops. They also went on a journey to Corsica in 1968 where they established a nudist camp up in the mountains and played music in the evenings. Roedelius claimed he discovered real spiritual music during a full moon night, drumming and hammering on an old oil barrel out in the beautiful Corsican terrain until dawn.
Back in Berlin, Conrad Schnitzler formed the Zodiak Free Arts Lab while Roedelius went to live in Paris for some months between 1968 and 1969. Here he worked part-time as a masseur and also discovered the music of Pierre Henry. In Berlin he became involved in Human Being, a group of eight people from different nations who had their home at the Zodiac independent arts lab. One of the frequent visitors to the club was the Swiss student (at the Berlin Graphic Academy) Dieter Moebius (born 16 January 1944). Schnitzler encouraged him to be a musician and composer and wanted Moebius and Roedelius to join his most recent musical concept, which was called Kluster.
One fateful day in mid-1969 (no one recalls the exact date) the trio recorded for the first time in Rhenus Studio, Godorf (near Cologne), with the legendary engineer Conny Plank. He understood very well the concept of Kluster (to make spontaneous, improvised music, mixing the attitudes of free-jazz and avant-garde classical music, using electronic devices to severely alternate the sound of the conventional instruments used: piano, electric guitar, cello, percussion and organ). In fact, Plank was a collaborator full of new ideas and very experienced (he started as Marlene Dietrich’s soundman and at that time was the house engineer at the Rhenus and Cornet studios) in how to use a studio creatively. The relationship with Plank would quickly grow into a strong personal and creative bond that would last until his death in December 1987. After the tape had been made, Schnitzler joined Tangerine Dream and played gigs in Berlin clubs and galleries, and also in Frankfurt and at the legendary Essen Pop & Blues Festival on 11 October 1969.
Schnitzler discovered an advertisement in a newspaper from an church organist who was interested in new music. This happened to be Oskar Gottlieb Blarr, a man Schnitzler already knew from when he lived in Düsseldorf. Kluster came over to him and played the tape they had made. Blarr liked the crackling sounds and feedback and offered to make a record financed by the church. The only condition was that some religious texts had to be added on one side. The result was Klopfzeichen, released in late 1970 and one of the most unlikely releases on Schwann, whose motto was “the workshop of new church music”. The liner notes read: “The Ensemble Kluster is a progressive pop-group. They are a manifestation of the perhaps most radical German undergroup music. Their share their playing technique with Stockhausen and Nuova Consonanza.” The two pieces, (24:00) and (21:51), were untitled and the first of them had texts read by Christa Runge (in a strong Rheinisch accent). The music had no rhythms and was a floating continium of creepy, unearthly and atonal sounds. This attitude, virtually using the studio as an instrument and the instruments merely as sound generators, was pivotal in the future development of Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Faust and countless other German experimental groups of the early seventies (some people use the meaningless and disparaging term “krautrock” about their music, of course).
Kluster’s next work Kluster Zwei: Osterei was recorded the same day as its predecessor, although the recitation (by Manfred Paethe) was added at an even later date, and released in Spring 1971. Both albums have a remarkable technical quality (considering their age) and have a central place in underground industrial music mythology. Schnitzler performed live with Tangerine Dream until September 1970, when he was re-united with Roedelius & Moebius for Kluster’s first live appearance at a pop festival in Fehmarn, warming up for Jimi Hendrix, who died only days later. Schnitzler then continued with the Kluster & Eruption project. This involved many other reknowned Berlin musicians (Michael Günther, Lutz Ulbrich, Manuel Göttsching, Klaus Freudigmann, Klaus Schulze and Hartmut Enke) in live appearances at Prisma and Quartier Latin in November and December 1970. However, the Kluster trio played one final concert at the University of Göttingen in May 1971, which was recorded by Klaus Freudigmann. He had previously recorded Tangerine Dream’s “Electronic Meditation” as well as the legendary first LP and single of the political rock band Ton Steine Scherben. 57 minutes (similar in style to the previous Kluster albums) were used for a private release of 100 copies in hand-made black covers with nothing but a white ink stamp mark “Moebius-Roedelius-Schnitzler + Freudigmann - Kluster - Eruption” on the front and another blue ink stamp mark on the blank white surface of the label on side A (31:04) of the LP and nothing on side B (25:30). Moebius and Roedelius never liked the title “Eruption” which they always found ridiculous. Schnitzler’s intent was to show, using this title, that the group had arrived at a point where they had to split and follow their own way. Schnitzler still performed as Kluster for a while. With new band members Lutz Ulbrich (guitar), Christa Runge (drums, she’d been the speaker on Klopfzeichen, of course!) and Klaus Freudigmann (electronics), he performed a gig at the National Gallery, Berlin in 1971 as a part of “Klang-Szene 2”, organized by composer Friedhelm Döhl and sculptor Günther Uecker. In 1974, Berlin gallery owner René Block made 100 box sets credited to Conrad Schnitzler, Works in Progress, including Kluster & Eruption wrongly titled Schwarz, as well as Schnitzler’s first solo projects Rot and Blau and a cassette unique to each separate box. The 1997 CD release credited the album to Kluster & Eruption as intended. Moebius and Roedelius continued as a duo, but changed the letter “K” to “C” to mark Schnitzler’s departure. Their next work was already recorded in Hamburg during January 1971, crediting Conny Plank as co-composer of the three yet unnamed tracks. Philips was interested in new music (and Plank worked for the label and had good connections!) and signed Cluster as well as Kraftwerk at the time. Cluster was released in Autumn 1971 and their abstract and expressive atonal music (quite similar to Kraftwerk’s “Stratovarius” and “Vom Himmel Hoch” from their first album, also engineered by Plank) received favourable reviews in the (remarkably open-minded!) German music press and was voted the tenth best album of 1971 in the magazine “Sounds”. Cluster 2 was recorded exactly a year later in the Star Studio in Hamburg. For the first time, their music had some tonal hallmarks, partly recognisable instruments and the six pieces even had titles. It’s interesting to compare this work with what Tangerine Dream would do the following year on Atem. Cluster now utilised electric guitars playing repeated patterns over helicopter-like sound effects. This worked particularly well on “Im Süden” (12:50). Cluster then moved to the cosy little country village Forst (in Niedersächsen) and set up a primitive home studio surrounded by nature. From now on their music was recorded at home and later remixed at Conny’s studio. Occasionally they performed live at art galleries and museums. At Easter 1973, they were visited by renowned, Hamburg-born guitar player Michael Rother, who came to discuss the possibility of Cluster and Neu! performing live as one act. They improvised together and found a common musical understanding. Consequently, Michael Rother also moved to Forst in June 1973 and their new collaboration soon became known as Harmonia, reflecting their desire to make more harmonic avant-garde music. From June to November 1973 their marvellous Musik von Harmonia was recorded in Forst. Rother brought with him the monotonous rhythms archetypical of Neu!. “Watussi” (5:55) and “Sonnenschein” (3:50) shared these characteristics, but also had thick layers of repetitive keyboards. “Dino”(3:30) and “Veterano” (3:55) were more up-beat examples of electronic “kling-klang music”, where Rother also played guitar. The ethereal “Sehr Kosmisch” (10:50) displayed their most meditative moment, “Ohrwurm” (5:05) was the only track resembling the last Cluster album, while “Ahoi!” (5:00) and “Hausmusik” (4:30) previewed the sonic paintings of their rural surroundings. This versatile album is a classic within its field.
Moebius and Roedelius recorded Cluster’s third album Zuckerzeit in Autumn 1974 with Rother co-producing. It was another milestone in the development of electronic music. The ten charming ditties had wit and irony, contrasting with the more serious works of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Their music was more easy-going and rhythmic. Some melodies (occasionally using pentatonic scales, as in Chinese folk music) had an almost child-like naivety. It was also the first album to display their individual qualities: Moebius’ passion for quirky sounds and unusual rhythm patterns (later explored to full effect on his solo albums and collaborations with Plank!) and Roedelius’ more romantic, warm melodies. Yes, these were indeed exciting times! Rother meanwhile made the final Neu! album with Klaus Dinger. The following year, in the Summer of 1975, Harmonia made their second and more conventional album De Luxe (using rock rhythms and wistful melodies). The five pieces were easily accessible (radiating a kind of holiday atmosphere) and explored directions Kraftwerk arguably hinted at on Ralf & Florian, but never fully developed. However, Michael Rother chose to follow this path on his first solo album Flammende Herzen which eventually topped the German LP charts in 1976. Cluster opted to explore a different direction and their collaboration with Rother now ended.
1976 was also the year Brian Eno came to visit Harmonia in Forst. This talented Englishman had always admired their music very much, and he met them for the first time backstage in Hamburg in 1974. Their first work together wasn’t released until 1997 on the very relaxing CD Tracks and Traces. One reason why it wasn’t released at the time might have been the decision to terminate Harmonia. Cluster recorded their fourth album Sowiesoso, developing the more pastoral styles presented on certain parts of Zuckerzeit: The result was a more polished and less sketchy album with a good level of refinement and ambience. They now mainly used piano and synthesizers. “Sowiesoso” (8:10) was a piece of melodic electronica which is still refreshing to hear. “Halwa” (2:45) and “Es War Einmal” (5:25) were starting points for the style Asmus Tietchens would develop on his first albums.
Cluster & Eno (1977) was not the major innovative work one would imagine but a warm and comfortable album based much on melodic piano themes. “One” (6:00) was the most explorative track with Okko Bekker and Asmus Tietchens guesting on sitar and synthesizer respectively. The album was recorded at Conny’s studio in Neunkirchen. From 1978 and onwards, Moebius and Roedelius gradually became more occupied by their separate solo projects and family lives. Roedelius moved to Austria and started a prolific solo career (he had already recorded his first album Durch Die Wüste in May 1976, which Sky finally released in 1978). Moebius worked with his friends Conrad Plank, Okko Bekker, Asmus Tiechens, Helmut Hattler and Alto Pappert under the moniker Lilienthal and released an album on Brain. He also made albums with Conny Plank and Gerd Beebohm. In 1978 another album was made with Brian Eno, this time credited to Eno, Moebius & Roedelius, perhaps to convey it was mainly an Eno album. After The Heat was another collection of soft tunes, some with lyrics and vocals by Eno.
Grosses Wasser (1979) marked a change of producer and studio location, being produced by Peter Baumann (ex-Tangerine Dream) in his new Paragon Studio in Berlin. The sound was crisper and clearer than the Forst recordings, partly due to the eminent engineering of Will Roper. Cluster used Peter Baumann’s equipment in the studio, a fact that might explain why some parts sound close to Baumann’s second solo album! The use of more percussion was notable on certain tracks on side one, which displayed the most melodic material Cluster have ever released. In contrast, the title track (18:38) was a spookier piece of experimental sound-sculpture.
The final Cluster album for a decade, Curiosum (1981), was recorded in Hamet Hof near Wien and contained strangely low-key and subdued music. One of the highlights was the requiem-like, distant “Ufer”, another the more tuneful “Helle Melange”. The music on this album would have suited experimental theatre plays.
At the end of the eighties, the pair once again worked together in Blumau, Austria. The result was the innovative album Apropos Cluster, which developed the melodic versus avant-garde style of Grosses Wasser. Their next work (now credited to Cluster) was the epic One Hour (1995) containing one track edited together from four hours of improvisations. Following renewed interest in German experimental music in the nineties, the American label Gyroscope put out 13 Cluster-related releases on CD in 1996. Another American label, Cleopatra, was the first to make the first two Kluster albums available on CD. This label also released First Encounter Tour, which contained live recordings from their first US tour, more than 20 years after their last concert together. They also toured Japan and Captain Trip released a Japanese-only live album.
Cluster are among the most influential German groups ever, pioneering both industral and ambient music. Their works are admired by The Orb, David Bowie and countless others.