The first time I heard Hans-Joachim Roedelius was on the track “By This River” on Brian Eno’s Before and After Science. I didn’t know who Roedelius was, but I knew I loved that gently lilting, mournful song. Nearly forty years later, it still moves me the same way it did the first time I heard it. There are few musicians whose work I can honestly say this about.
To my thinking, there’s a pretty clear divide running through Roedelius’ prodigious fifty-plus-year output. There’s the music from the kosmische/krautrock era that he made primarily with fellow musician Dieter Moebius while playing in the groups Kluster, Cluster, and Harmonia. While I appreciate the value of this music on a socio-historical level, too much of it feels thin and whimsical when it isn’t fumbling toward a kind of abstracted, prog-esque sound (though if you’re curious to investigate, Musik von Harmonia is propulsively forward-thinking and fizzing with ideas and inspiration). The music is both a definitive product of its time, and a fossil from it.
With the temporary suspension of those groups came the start of Roedelius’ solo era. His first efforts, Durch die Wüste, from 1978, and Jardin au fou, from 1979 are jarring, uneven works that find him shuttling between introspective tuneful pieces that contain the seeds of his eventual florescence, and quirky, cartoonish tracks that come across as perversely disruptive, even silly. His next album, Selbstportrait, was the breakthrough and revelation. It’s a confident collection of intimate, revealing tracks that offset candid emotion with brittle, tenuous-sounding electronics – an unlikely fusion that, surprisingly, works. By embracing fragility and risk, and jettisoning the outlandish and carnivalesque, Roedelius created a new kind of warmth for synthesized sound. The results are rich with mystery, melancholy, and the excitement of stepping into new terrain.
Selbstportrait II from 1980 is a clear continuation of the work started in Selbstportrait. While there’s a more lighthearted, sunnier aspect to some of the music on Selbstportrait II, the album is no less exploratory or emotive for it. Nonethless, to my mind, Roedelius wouldn’t hit his stride again until Wenn der Südwind weht. On this album, his fifth solo, he comes up with a playful variety of styles buttressed by an underlying sense of gravitas and a commanding uniformity of voice, exemplified in both the tender, minute-long “Goldregen” and the ominous, pulsing epic of “Saumpfad.” The following year, Roedelius released Flieg Vogel Fliege, another gem of mellifluous, cascading sketches, jaunty bursts, and gently brooding melodies. The final track, “Wanderung” is a glowing orb of sound and a fitting end to the hike the title refers to.
I should mention here that establishing any sort of order to Roedelius’ catalog is not my goal. He’s been involved with more than 160 recordings so far, and I’m neither a completist nor an archivist. Added to that, there are inconsistencies to the numbering of records, as well as subjective categorizations. For example, there are solo albums that are considered by Roedelius to fall within the Selbstportrait series that aren’t designated as such, at least by name, Flieg Vogel fliege, being one. Then there are possible oversights, such as two different, wholly separate and unique albums called Selbstportrait Volume VIII – one is subtitled Introspection, the other is Wahre Liebe. All I’m hoping to do is celebrate a musician whose work has moved me and shaped my tastes while providing me with hours of genuine pleasure, inspiration, and solace.
After Flieg Vogel Fliege, Roedelius began working again with other musicians. Since I’m focusing on the solo work, let me say that much of the material from these collaborations doesn’t exactly interest me. There are two solo albums, however, that he recorded in the midst of these collaborations that need mentioning. The first, Wie das Wispern des Windes, from 1986, features Roedelius on solo grand piano. He’s at his most Harold Budd-like on a number of these tracks, and if you consider yourself a fan of Budd, then check out this album immediately. The second is Plays Piano, a live recording from 1985 (released in 2011) that sees Roedelius once again on solo grand piano: twenty-one sketches that capture his mercurial imagination in motion – and a spryer version of “By This River” as well.
In 1991, Roedelius released Piano Piano. In musical notation, it refers to the term “pianissimo” which is a directive to a musician to play a passage or piece of music softly. Roedelius is once again at the grand piano, and his resolute, passionate, unadorned playing eliminates the line between the composed and the improvisatory. There’s a quiet intensity at work throughout as if one had walked in on him daydreaming and experimenting at his keyboard. The surety of his touch, the varied approaches in style, and the range of mood and melody are all indicative of a confidence and expertise honed and developed and caught in full flower.
Four years later, Roedelius released Selbstportrait VI – Diary of the Unforgotten. The album includes a personal essay of sorts in which he writes about his early years as a musician, living in a sprawling estate building in Forst, West Germany, with his musical partner, Dieter Moebius. After a year of squatting and living without heat or running water, the two were able to set themselves up and get down to making music while also becoming more self-sufficient and learning to live off the land around them. Eventually Roedelius married a woman (whom he doesn’t name) and together they had a daughter, Rosa. Roedelius writes:
“…Rosa, our first child, was born, not long after our wedding, at home in front of an open fire whilst (my own) music played softly in the background. This fireplace birth had a profound effect on my daughter, with Forst enduring for her as an image of paradise entered. Which it had always been for me as well, from the beginning to the inevitable, bitter end.”
That inevitable, bitter end took shape in the form of the nearby Würgassen nuclear power plant, “constantly being shut down for some fault or other.” Roedelius further states that “a rise in leukemia and cancer-related illnesses in the area,” forced his eventual departure.
This feeling, rooted in the actual experience of a utopia gained and lost, goes to the haunted, wounded, core of Roedelius’ Selbstportraits. There’s a built-in bereft quality, heightened by his playing alone. But it’s the sorrowful, melancholy melodies that tell the real story. Even his lighter, happier work in the series is marked here and there with a musical stain or blemish. The impact of his brief idyll in Forst, when he was young and in love, discovering himself, his family, and his art, reverberated through his life and indelibly formed him as a musician. But the beauty and wonder from that time survive in his music, too.
Selbstportrait VI is a highlight of the series, with standout tracks including the blissful “Remember Those Days,” the ragged lament of “Du” with its minor mistakes left in place while the tape runs, the steady tranquility of “Schoner Abend.” Frankly, I could point to any track and recommend it. The centerpiece though is “Hommage à Forst” an epic, 24-minute collage, loaded with Cluster and Harmonia samples, granulated room tones, field recordings from the grounds of the estate, and what sounds at times like an old film projector. It’s one of the least “musical,” most directly autobiographical tracks Roedelius ever created and, in light of the meaning of Forst for him, one of the most fascinating.
So now, here in 2020, we come to the latest Selbstportrait, Wahre Liebe (True Love), available on the Bureau B label. Apparently, Gunther Buskies at Bureau B asked Roedelius if he was interested in creating another installment in the self-portrait series using all the old gear he’d used to record his earlier albums: “a Farfisa organ, drum machine, tape-delay and a Rhodes.” Roedelius dove in, and the result is a stunning thing, a work of true love, and a necessary expansion of the Selbstportrait series. Each track embodies the specific ideas and moods that are Roedelius’ own but there’s no straining toward the epic, no sense of an artist unearthing his difficult late period work or attempting to define the ultimate meaning of his legacy. It’s just Roedelius doing what he’s always done best – presenting more musical plein air gouaches, quick and light and immediate, yet saturated with color, feeling, and depth.
Furthermore, there’s no sense of time passed or lost, nothing elegiac. He sounds as solidly connected to the foundational source of his musical imagination as he did when he first ventured into the realms of his solo work. His wit and creativity and feeling are as fresh and alive as they ever were. Wahre Liebe is a brilliant addition to a catalog already brimming with great work.