In April and May, within a mere month of each other, Klaus Schulze and Vangelis Papathanassíou passed away. Legends of electronic music both, they were icons more than pioneers. Because their music could only be created by spending hours of physically performing rather than programming it, their style was so personal that it was hardly ever copied verbatim, never crystallising outright into a genre or movement - where they went, very few would follow. They were also among a handful of artists who changed the way I think about music, how I experience and feel about it.
Neither death came as a big surprise to those with a keen interest in their work, although Vangelis's, caused by heart complications in the wake of Covid, feels tragic at a time when vaccines seemed to have significantly reduced lethal complications of the disease. Schulze, however, had been suffering from severe health issues for a long time and his once prolific release rate, just like Vangelis's, had slowed down to a mere trickle – from thirteen albums between 1990 and 1997 alone (five of which were doubles) to a mere two LPs with new material since 2013's Shadowlands.
For years, every time I'd visited his homepage, I'd braced myself for that ominous message: “R.I.P. - Klaus Schulze” - until it finally appeared there for real. And still, prepared as I was, when it did, I choked up and did nothing but stare at the screen for a few minutes. It didn't just feel like we'd lost a musician. It felt like I had lost a companion.
Going online on the day of his passing, April 26th 2022, did nothing to improve my mood. All over social media, there was an outpouring of grief on a similarly personal level, an emotional response usually reserved for the departure of close family members or friends. Contrary to Vangelis, who had withdrawn into privacy far earlier, disavowing his wild days as a flamboyant rock star, many of his fans had actually built a personal connection with Schulze, who had been an avid live performer throughout the peak years of his career.
Despite the trippy, meditative and reflective nature of these concerts, their effect was usually uplifting, mesmerising and, surprisingly, endearing. This is what I wrote in my concert report after his 2008 performance at the Schillertheater, Berlin in the wake of his Farscape collaboration with Lisa Gerrard, about the moment he came on stage:
“Moved by the intensity of the welcoming cheers and hollers, Schulze jumps from his seat like a young boy, throwing kisses and showering the room with a smile that could light up the entire city.”
If an artist is so obviously not treating a gig as “business as usual”, listeners won't either.
In some ways, Schulze would forever remain that little boy. He was an outgoing, and captivating personality, someone who could bond quickly with anyone who shared his passion for music. Although his technical expertise was second to none, his approach to music was intuitive, naïve almost. A sense of wonder remained until the end.
In fact, that's pretty much exactly how he described it in the liner notes to Silhouettes: “A true and total wonder.” What drew him to Gerrard, too, was the mutual agreement that “music is something sacred.” Schulze himself was the first to admit that might not be a particularly popular opinion: “Try explaining that to a normal human being.”
There has been criticism that much of his later work is based on the same handful of chord progressions and melodic motives. That he kept churning out almost-identical works which no longer pushed the boundaries and instead retreated into a zone of lush pads and dreamy ambiances. But just like a child can listen to the same joke time and time again and keep laughing, Schulze kept revisiting these sacred and wondrous places because they still awarded him inspiration, and, perhaps in the last years of his life, comfort. And to me, being able to accompany him on his journeys into sound, discretely but decidedly different each time, was always a gift.
It is one of the personal disappointments in my life that I never got to speak to either Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. With both, I came pretty close: In the build up to the press campaign for what would turn out to be his last album, Jupiter to Juno, there was a serious opening for a Vangelis interview a mere six months before his passing. Having just read the famous Ernest Hemmingway piece in the Paris Review in which he talked about his process and life as an artist ("Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through."), I even wrote an impassioned personal appeal to save his thoughts on creativity for posterity. His label seemed to really want to make it happen. But, just like almost any other offer he undoubtedly received for the past decades, he ultimately remained silent.
Froese, on the other hand, had already agreed, then withdrew at the very last minute due to sudden scheduling issues – there would not be another opening.
With Schulze, at least, I had the pleasure of talking to him in person when I interviewed him by phone in 2005 for a German underground webzine. The phoner was a particularly moving experience, as I was only just starting out as a music journalist and had desperately little experience.
Schulze, however, was in the best of spirits and made me feel comfortable. Surprised perhaps by my earnest interest and enthusiasm, he, too, got carried away by what were most likely slightly over-detailed and nerdy questions. We ended up talking for what I remember to be 1,5 hours, far more than what had been envisioned by the record label; so much in fact that, in the process of taping it while we phoned, I had to quickly find a new micro casette for my old fashioned dictaphone to capture all of it. It was an experience which, in a way, spoiled me, as very little of what followed could ever live up to the joy and richness of this interview.
That said, I never got to physically meet either Vangelis nor Schulze. And so, the question remains: Why am I experiencing this intense sadness over the farewell of two persons I hardly knew? I can come to terms with the fact that there will never be any more new music from them. Both have made good use of their limited time on this planet, left a rich oeuvre which rewards repeat listens and which, after Schulze's floodgate-like opening of his vaults in the 2000s resulted in so mich high-quality music, even the most dedicated fans may never get through. Had they lived to become 100 without ever recording a single further note, I would have been content with what we have. And yet, the sadness was there, undeniable, and ongoing until the moment I'm writing this.
Some claim that music is the soundtrack to our lives. Although that can be true – especially if you are in the luxurious position of being able to blast music at your workplace all day long – I believe another analogy is more suitable: Music is a marker of our memories. It attaches to phases and rites of passage on our journey, condensing them into burning points of emotions and impressions.They tell us who we are and where we're going by giving context to what could otherwise be random events.
David Stubbs, in Future Days – Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany, talks about how he once played Faust's “Why don't you eat your carrots” (off the homonymous debut) to his classmates at school, and earned a bewildered and bemused response. Schulze's music was my version of this, my own personal punk music – its sometimes jarring sounds gave my parents' “tooth aches”, it was the one exception they would refuse to play on our car stereo on vacations, its sheer extremes in terms of duration tested my own stamina at times. On the other hand, during my college years, his work was suddenly deeply fascinating not just for me, but for a few of my fellow students as well.
I remember a long drive home on a dark and empty Autobahn with a friend, who was utterly mesmerised by tape of Moondawn I'd brought along and confessed to having almost completely lost track of time and space. He was still talking about that experience for years whenever we'd meet.
If we keep listening to the music of certain artists throughout our entire life, these points add up to a timeline which overlaps with our actual timeline as a person. The music keeps our memories fresh, and present and serves as a reminder that we're alive. In the moment that Schulze and Vangelis died, someone hoisted that that anchor and sent the ship floating into limbo. Gone was the reassurance that experiences would simply keep adding to this timeline for perpetuity – something had ended, although it wasn't quite clear what this “something” was, exactly. I wasn't mourning their death so much – I was mourning he death of a part of myself, mourning my own mortality.
It is the same sensation, I believe, some may get when a favourite band splits up. The members may go on to make music, great music even. But whatever emotional investment you had with their body of work and their performances and the prospect of them continuing into the future, feels questioned. There is a void where something fundamental used to be.
But there is more to the sensation of grief than this. When we listen to the music that truly moves us, we're going some place - figuratively speaking, or perhaps, in a spiritual sense, literally. Both Schulze and Vangelis had pieces which were immensely immersive and invited for dream-like listening – huge tonal worlds like “Totem” (from the former's Floating Music) or, particularly, the latter's 22 minute “Horizon” (with Jon Anderson), a brooding pop song which keeps playing and unfolding until it's turned into something entirely different.
But the same is very much true as well for pretty much anything else - black metal, hardore punk, Mahler's symphonic work, or any other style of music which means something to us: They're transportations into the world of imagination of another person. In their most accomplished creations, the artist is opening up completely to let us in – and to truly enter, we must do the same. Real listening is never a passive experience, it is a shared one. And it creates a bond which, if it occurs at the right place and time, can become as deep as those with an actual person. As Tine von Bergen of German band I Want Poetry recently told me:
"When I hear Joni Mitchell's “River”, I feel connected to her in a beautiful, inexplicable way. I’ve never met her and the song’s more than 50 years old, still the song has the power to make me feel at peace - here and now."
So intense is this connection that whenever I listened to some of their greatest pieces, it felt like Schulze and Vangelis were there in the music with me. I never got to meet them, and yet I did get to know them. In fact, I may have spent more time with them than with some of the people I consider my friends. And so, it does feel like losing someone dear to me, not just someone who happened to create a few masterful recordings.
Of course, and this is the most bewildering thing, we can still sense their presence in the music they created. When listening to Schulze's Silhouettes, for example, an album which, in the music, liner notes and track titles, felt like a goodbye from this world ahead of the fact, he still feels “there”, transcending the borders of time and physicality.
We never really die, we merely continue in a different energetic form, some have said to ease the pain of parting. Right now, when listening to “Der Lange Blick Zurück” and “Quae Simplex”, the two long key pieces of Silhouettes, or the textural magic of “Into Eternity” (off the 1492 soundtrack), this thought doesn't feel particularly consoling yet. But perhaps it's true, perhaps there are traces of an artist's energy left in their compositions. And for as long as the music is playing, that, at least, gives us hope of coming to terms with the emptiness we're left with.
By Tobias Fischer