Fantasy and Discipline
Re-discovering the Music of Holger Czukay
I’ve been (re)discovering the music of Holger Czukay ever since reading Winter Ghosts, David Sylvian’s wonderful essay on their collaboration.
I say re-discovering since I vaguely remember some tracks (The Photo Song?) from a cassette that someone gave me during my high-school years. It’s only now though that I’m coming to a deeper appreciation of Czukay’s music, perhaps something to do with having reached another stage in (creative) life. At the time (the high-school years) it was more his work with David Sylvian that I connected with, particularly the tracks on second side of the Brilliant Trees album – Backwaters with Czukay’s spoken dictaphone snippets, for example: “There are always other possibilities”, or the collages on Weathered Wall and the closing part of Brilliant Trees.
On the Way to the Peak of Normal was the first Czukay album I started listening to this past summer since it was easily accessible via a Grönland Records re-release also available on Apple Music. (Movie! a version of Czukay’s breakthrough 1979 solo album Movies can be found there too.) I somehow came across a series of digital versions of vinyl releases by the Claremont 56 label available on Bandcamp, and realised that some of the versions there (Ode to Perfume, for example) helped the music bloom more fully – they simply sounded better than the Grönland re-release, and that got me started down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia, Discogs, and AllMusic investigations, as well as some peeks at Czukay’s own site.
There were other tracks that too came to life in a different way – My Persian Love, a new version of Persian Love from the the Movies album quickly became another favourite. There is also the charm of Music is a Miracle with Czukay’s commentary on and over the tracks from On the Way to the Peak of Normal. Amongst those voice-overs there’s an interesting clue on the life-long inspiration Czukay found in the early recordings of Les Paul and Mary Ford (“the way Les Paul worked…, how he played the instruments, how he prepared his studio”) – another rabbit hole to disappear into. (How electronic some of those early Les Paul tracks sounded!)
Piecing together bits of information from various sources it appears that Czukay started planning a series of remastered re-releases, but that this process somehow got stuck and he ended up creating the new vinyl release versions with Claremont instead – giving up re-creating/re-mastering the entire back catalogue. It’s fascinating to trace the process via the news posts on Czukay’s own site: 166 entries in all ranging from 1997 to 2012. They’re a little difficult to navigate directly on the site but, due to the robustness of HTML, it’s possible to bring up the entries by simply changing the number at the end of the URL: czukay.de/legacy/news/166/, czukay.de/legacy/news/148/, czukay.de/legacy/news/123/ etc.
In the mean time, since his death just over a year ago, a box set of many of the old albums has been released, and a re-master of Movies is apparently on the way. John Payne has a fine review of the collection in The Quietus, also covering the techniques of re-splicing multiple mix-downs, techniques that have become a standard part of the present day use of digital technology.
Besides the combination of (serious) playfulness and (adventurous) exploration, listening to these albums has gotten me thinking more deeply about the art of making recordings – something that’s been transformed with the endless possibilities and extreme detail of our digital age. Since it’s so easy to get lost in the infinite canvas that todays DAWs offer, there’s been a move (return?) towards ‘pure’ documentation, whether it’s Aphex Twin simply recording his Cirklon sequences to a Sound Devices recorder or Walker Farrell documenting his improvisations without further manipulation – there is a focus on performance, on being present and in the moment. Czukay is regarded as one of the pioneers of sampling, but for all his innovations in that field there is still, in contrast to the performance oriented sample improvisations of someone like Daedelus, the notion of a (finite) canvas on which the sounds are assembled, and the possibility of drawing attention (through occasional obvious splices for example) to that canvas, to the surface of the music – to the fact that it is a collage. I’m wondering how this sense of recording might be taken up again.
Perhaps even more important than the technical aspects though, is the attitude that informed Czukay’s relation to the wide palette of music and sounds that he brought together in his music. As recounted by John Payne in the above-mentioned review, Czukay explained that:
These things are not the type of ‘masterpieces’ that come by thinking and torturing your brain. That has nothing to do with creativity. These things are in the air, and you just grab at the right time. This idea is based on an ancient way of producing. Very effective, actually – there is a chance to be surprised by something, and accept something that was not to be foreseen.
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