The Berlin School
here are few routes through which a young person becomes interested in New Age music these days. But if you like Krautrock, you’re only two steps away. The influence of that early 70s movement, of course, is undisputed: electronic dance music couldn’t exist without Kraftwerk, and everyone from David Bowie onward owes a debt to Can. However, by the late 70s a curious off-shoot had begun to appear beneath the scene as the progressive Düsseldorf style lost its intrinsic jazziness and its purveyors gained more and more facility with newly-popularized sequencers and synthesizers. This movement, called the Berlin School of Electronic music, was part of a fluid scene that owed as much to shifting technology as it did to the progressive, freeform style that preceded it.
As the title implies, the earliest exponents of this new style came from Berlin. In the early-‘70s Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze and Ash Ra Tempel’s Manuel Göttsching began introducing increasingly elaborate sequencer work and soloing over it with improvised guitar and synth. This sound found its first airing in Dream’s 1974 release, Phaedra—a transitional work praised by fans of progressive, experimental, and rock music. And as musicians heard what the group was up to, the style began to find traction around Europe. The most commercially successful artists working within the Berlin School came from outside of Germany: France’s Jean Michel Jarre broke attendance records for his free shows and Vangelis eventually became the new face of electronic music.
The works in the Berlin School reflected a cautious optimism regarding the changing technological landscape. Sometimes employing beats but just as often eschewing them, these artists employed the analogue synthesizer in a warm and human way, helping it serve as a foil to the metronomic rhythms of Krautrock. Some artists exhibited a distinct minimalist influence (Michael Hoenig, Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co.), while others took an epic, multi-staged approach (Tangerine Dream, Jarre). But the defining characteristic of the Berlin School was in long-form pieces (sometimes the length of an entire side) that juxtaposed the warm, wonky synthesizer leads with the cold, motorik rhythms.
Electronic music, once a quasi-stylistic novelty, underwent a rapid adolescence during this time period. As synthesizer technology progressed, artists in the Berlin School would adopt shorter, more song-based approaches, sometimes even employing vocals. Eventually, artists abandoned the unique but limiting analogue synthesizers in favor of more complex and realistic MIDI technologies in the early 80s. However, the work done by Berlin School artists laid the groundwork for all subsequent ambient music, and its proponents would later play a role in popularizing New Age music.
Although their work pre-dated the Berlin School by a few years, Florian Fricke’s group Popol Vuh traded in many of the proto-ambient textures that would become the lingua franca for later ambient and electronic works. Popol soundtracked many of Werner Herzog’s films, and the angelic synth strains of this track accompanied the conquistadors of Aguirre as they navigated the harsh Amazon rainforests. Popol Vuh were known for contrasting their electronic or minimalist compositions with ethnic elements, juxtaposing the avant-garde with the traditional, the machine with the human, the unknown with the known. This contrast would guide Berlin School artists in their later work.
Cluster fully realized its potential on 1976’s Sowiesoso by developing the abrasive electronic textures from Zuckerzeit into languid, pastoral compositions. This title cut features a hypnotic monotone underlying an improvised, bluesy dual attack of guitars and high-register synthesizers. “Sowiesoso” is probably closer to Cluster’s Krautrock or Koschmische music roots, but the aforementioned elements are all classic Berlin School.
One year after their genre-defining effort Phaedra, Tangerine Dream released the epic and ambitious Rubycon, which combined some of their previous styles into two full sides worth of trippy goodness. “Part 2” is a slow-riser, evoking the “space music” of Zeit at the track’s beginning and end, while building a sinister sound-picture with washed-out, psychedelic sequencer lines throughout the meat of the piece. A taxing, but rewarding, listen.
The first track on the debut release of Ashra quickly and painlessly put Manuel Göttsching’s former drone-inflected prog incarnation (Ash Ra Tempel) away for good. A chugging bassline hides the muffled, syncopated synth melody, like a train passing at night through the bustling city streets. Then, as if in answer, Gottsching draws out a main theme evoking futurism, hope, and humanity. As the rhythm section fades out, the last bits of synthesizer sustain chase out into their own before dissipating in the warm air. New Age of Earth, indeed.
By the next Ashra release, 1977’s Blackouts, Göttsching had refined his sound to make room for his bluesy and pristine guitar playing. The epic “Lotus Pts I-IV” is a classic side-long Berlin School jam, but “Midnight on Mars” displays the same sentiment with a short, soaring guitar piece that sticks much better than his multi-part psych-out. Göttsching would later employ this same approach to his sixty-minute jam session E2-E4.
1979’s Correlations is more rockish and straight-forward than previous efforts (mostly due to the addition of luminaries Lutz Ulbrich and Harald Grosskopf to the band), but Göttsching still works hard to keep his Ashra intact: “Morgana da Capo” features Göttsching wailing on guitar over a disco-flavored beat. It might be due to Ulbrich and Grosskopf that “Morgana” has a stronger “live” feel, with flanged noise sounding like a cheering crowd and Göttsching’s guitar doing sonic battle with the multilayered synths. It took three monster albums, but Ashra finally turned into a real band.
At more than twenty-six minutes, the side-long first piece to Schulze’s magnum opus is prototypical Berlin School. “Floating” unfolds patiently, eventually building into a smooth electronic oddity, like a dry riverbed trickling back into circulation. Featuring inspired drumming and a galloping pace, “Floating” and its impenetrable synth sound asserts so much that its twenty-six minutes seem barely adequate.
Beginning with a dizzyingly epic arpeggio, “Spiral” brims with nervous energy over the course of its seven minutes. As Vangelis develops the chords into an underlying rhythm, he brings in a number of stentorian synthesized brass lines to herald the almost primal themes of the piece. The cover to Spiral depicts a stereo plug emerging from the clouds, seemingly a challenge to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells to face the shifting realities of technology, and “Spiral” sets that aggressive and uncomfortable mood perfectly. Vangelis would later abandon his confrontational and percussive Spiral synthesizers in favor of a more melodic, less edgy approach, one that would gain him fame with the scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner.
After Oxygene, Jarre’s wildly successful 1977 effort, he could ill afford to do anything other than produce an Oxygene II, and that’s exactly what Jarre didn’t do. Retaining a stately air, yet still coming off as playful, “Part 4” of 1978’s Equinoxe sounds fuller and more fully realized than its predecessor. Although Jarre may have taken some bits from the last album’s “Part 2” for the track’s theme, the presentation is totally different and retains an unsettling, industrial character that makes sense given Equinoxe’s creepy, Orwellian album cover.
Jarre’s 1981 Les Chants Magnetiques (phonetic French for Magnetic Fields, in case you’re wondering) is viewed by some as a masterpiece of the Berlin School. It wasn’t his most well-received, nor his best-selling, nor even his best (Oxygene fits all of those categories quite nicely). But by then, Jarre had warmed to the technology to the point where he was able to start having fun with his compositions, evoking entire little worlds behind the deceptively simple musical themes. This multi-part eighteen-minute beast showcased that depth with swirling highs, strung-out lows, and a sudden dance frenzy at 11:39 that fills the remaining six minutes. The middle section also features heavy sampling, which derived from Jarre’s musique concrete roots but was then a groundbreaking technique in electronic music.
Dieter Moebius (Harmonia) receives the dubious distinction of recording the only Berlin School track on this list with real vocals—and, yes, the lyrics here are a little hammy. (There is talk of dragons, mountain kings, and some sort of mirror of infinity all over this proggy wonder.) Whatever. “Mirror of Infinity” is otherwise classic Berlin School—driving beats and pretty synthesizer tones—but it’s placed in a pop context. It’s a perfect foreshadowing of what would soon become of the Berlin School, as the movement’s artists began to move away from its progressive roots.
One of the tracks on this list that bears some similarity to minimalism, “Departure from the Northern Wasteland” begins with a desolate soundscape. High-pitched synthesizers slowly move in to establish the theme, soon followed by a rhythmic progression. Hoenig creates a sort of winter rite-of-passage story, with each character getting their own synthesized instrumental leitmotif. Hoenig had previously worked with progressive groups like Agitation Free, Tangerine Dream, and Ashra; “Departure from the Northern Wasteland” brought a strong narrative sense to the sound fostered by those groups.
“Ceres Motion” predated the Berlin School, but it effectively illustrates the similarities between minimalism and the new style. Throughout the track’s fifteen minutes, the changes in mood are subtle and difficult to follow. Mother Mallard does draw a clear distinction between the mechanical rhythm part, and the “human” tonal lead. This cut, like others on this list, is more bluesy than its experimental inspirations, and grounds the experimentation in contemporary melodies.
More prog-jazz than anything else, “Cosmic Messenger” still takes advantage of circa-1978 technologies in its extended soloing. Ponty shakes up the instrumentation by using his unique electrified violin in what has primarily been a guitar/synth/drums setup.
Harald Grosskopf’s cut exemplifies the Berlin School’s move into rock. Grosskopf was a prolific session musician in the era, having worked with Ashra and Klaus Schulze, and on “So Weit So Gut” he refined the Berlin School aesthetics into a mid-tempo affair with live drums. He parlays a classic phased-out Berlin School synth lead into a psychedelic, but not overwrought, five-minute piece. Grosskopf’s later works like this set the stage for progressive Ambient and New Age artists, some of whom made millions packaging elements of the Berlin School as contemplative or meditative works.
Thanks to Michael F. Gill for his suggestions in the construction of this list.