Monday, September 18, 2017

Holger Czukay - Sound Surfer, 1938-2017

Found dead, earlier this month, in the Innerspace Studios apartment where he’d lived for many years, Holger Czukay was a unique musician.  I didn’t always ‘get’ his work.  Experiments, by their nature, are not always going to be successful.  Chances taken are not always going to pay off.  But my respect is reserved for those who take such risks, especially when they’ve the skill and vision to achieve at least the occasional sublime result.

The 1979 album ‘Movies’ is, for me, the most wholly successful of his works.  It was re-released in 2016 under the title ‘Movie’, remixed presumably to its creator’s satisfaction and with an additional instrumental version of its opening track.  I’m still living with the original recording, listened to once more on the day I read of his death, and still as fresh and vital a set as when I first heard it.  Intricately laced into its exhilarating rhythms, filigree guitar patterns and occasional, archly quirky vocals are a seemingly endless sequence of what we eventually learned to call ‘samples’.  Music from the middle east and elsewhere recorded with the scratchy sonic patina of imperfect reception on a.m. radio, plus snatches of American film dialogue and animated cartoon sound effects are the principal elements of this dazzling weave.  This audio collage is all the more amazing on account of its painstaking construction, involving the splicing of magnetic tape by hand, from what I can gather.

Whilst it was not an album by Czukay’s former band, Can, his bandmates all contributed, drummer Jaki Liebezeit most consistently.  Also recently deceased, Liebezeit continued to work frequently with Czukay during the 80s and 90s.  Interviews indicate a deep mutual respect.  On ‘Movies’ Liebezeit plays in a more nuanced and subtle manner than in the heyday of Can, but his utterly precise yet deeply felt rhythms are an essential part of the drive that carries the listener through its two lengthiest pieces: ‘Oh Lord Give Us More Money’ and ‘Hollywood Symphony’.  It’s been a few days since the evening I played it, but it’s a testament to its quality that the music has soundwormed its way into my thoughts and sequences of it still replay frequently somewhere within my brain.

There are equal, if not quite such consistent delights to be found on the majority of Czukay’s other recorded works.  The delightful ‘Ode to Perfume’ on follow-up album ‘On the Way to the Peak of Normal’, another lengthy and intricate piece; the haunted ambience of ‘Träum' mal wieder!’ and ‘Music in the Air’ on each of the albums that followed…  These spring to mind as personal favourites.  What anyone will pick out for his or herself will depend on taste, of course.  What might be chosen can be picked from an astonishing diversity of sounds and moods, from merry melodies to jarring discords.  One thing Czukay never was was predictable!

He got himself involved in some marvellous collaborations too.  Lengthy ambient works constructed with David Sylvian over two albums and occasional work with Jah Wobble stand out for me.  In later years, Czukay also worked closely with partner U-She – although at this point in his career the beauty came for me in smaller and rarer snatches.  That doesn’t matter – he’d earned the right to explore wherever and whatever he wanted.  The last of his albums to really draw me in was his ‘internet audio collaboration’ which was released as ‘Linear City’.  Its slow developing, techno immersed patterns took a while to penetrate but proved eventually to hold a full wealth of musical sensations.

Since I first got into music there have been certain artists whose individuality as creators has stood out and shone for me in ways that somehow go beyond just being great musicians.  I’m thinking of Don Van Vliet and his Magic Bands; of Lee Perry in his Black Ark Studio period; of Michael Hurley and his extraordinary songs…  It’s stuff that touches me beyond taste, beyond intellect.  On a direct line to whatever I think of as my ‘soul’, I guess.  Czukay was one of them, without a doubt.  Our world is more impoverished without him, but his achievements shine on.

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