BY Simon Reynolds in Frieze | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

Into the Wild

Wolfgang Voigt draws on Romantic landscape and classical music as much as technological minimalism

BY Simon Reynolds in Frieze | 05 MAY 08

Image from Gas: Loops

It starts with a dilated fanfare, a canopy of sombre sonorousness that could be the distant lowing of massed alpine horns. It makes you feel like you’re on a mountain path looking down on mist draping the lower slopes. When the bass-drum pulse kicks in, it’s like your heart starting up after being stopped with awe.

This is the titleless and 15-minute-long fifth track of Königsforst (King’s Forest, 1998, named after a wood near Cologne), part of a remarkable tetralogy of techno albums released in the late 1990s under the name Gas by the prolific and critically acclaimed producer Wolfgang Voigt. Today he’s best known as the co-founder of Kompakt, the Cologne-based label that’s contributed more than any other to Germany’s dominance of electronic dance music. Voigt’s decision to reissue the four Gas albums as the de luxe box set Nah und Fern (Near and Far) along with the publication of a book of photographic work, Gas: Loops, which includes a CD of unreleased music, is an intriguing gesture. It’s a statement of belief in the durability of (some) electronic music, at a time when the volume of output and turnover of micro-fads in post-rave music contributes to a sense of, in Voigt’s words, ‘growing ephemerality’. The monumentality of the box set asserts for techno what is a routine claim for rock: this music will stand the test of time.

The core of the Gas series resides in Königsforst and 1997’s Zauberberg (Magic Mountain). Although partly bidden by Voigt’s overt framing of the project – colour-treated cover pictures of sunlight dappling through trees etc., drawn from the photographic stockpile that makes up the accompanying book – the music does irresistibly conjure up mind’s-eye imagery of rugged natural grandeur: the deep forest’s rustling shadows, alpine vistas of altitude and remoteness. Gas is the by-product of a ‘lab project’ that involved putting Austro-German classical music (Richard Wagner, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg), brass bands and the schlocky middle-of-the-road pop known as Schlager under the microscope in order to find a sort of audio-cultural DNA. The Gas sound is spliced together from small samples of classical records, which Voigt has subjected to processes of ‘zoom, loop and alienation’. The music’s provenance is instantly audible from the rainfall-like hiss of old vinyl and the orchestral sonorities of grave cellos and tingling violins. There’s a wonderful irony here that one of the signal triumphs of techno, that most future-fixated genre, is sourced almost entirely from music from the latter decades of the 19th century, when classical music scaled its summit of portentous majesty before swerving into the angst-wracked realm of Serialism.

Interviewed in the late 1990s, Voigt talked of wanting ‘to bring the German forest into the disco’. When the albums first came out, he received some criticism from left-wing German journalists hypersensitive about a shady side to the national cult of the Alps and those large areas of uncultivated woodland known as the Wald (wilderness). And it is true that Germany does have a thing for its mountains and forests. Zauberberg’s title obviously nods to Thomas Mann’s novel of the same name, but ‘Magic Mountain’ also has resonances that run through the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the music of Wagner and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (who described his ideal reader as a hardy soul ‘accustomed to living on mountain tops’). Zauberberg is close to Arnold Fanck’s Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926), one of the most famous ‘mountain films’ (a genre unique to between-the-wars Germany), which starred the young Leni Riefenstahl. Her later, supposedly apolitical, film Tiefland (Lowlands, 1954) was based on an obscure opera that contrasted decadent lowland folk with pure-of-spirit mountain people: an opposition between ‘civilization’ (seen as Franco-Mediterranean) and ‘culture’ (Germano-Nordic) briefly espoused by Mann himself during World War I.

The association between the forest and German national identity can be traced as far back as the Romans’ failure to conquer the Wald-dwelling pagan tribes, and it reverberates on through German Romanticism, the Brothers Grimm and painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Anselm Kiefer. Although Voigt was tapping into all of this as part of his long-term desire to make a ‘genuinely German form of pop music’, his primary associations were personal: childhood vacations to the Alps and psychedelia-enhanced teenage adventures in the Königsforst, which he describes as both ‘Hansel and Gretel on acid’ and a womb-like ‘spiritual refuge’.

Contrasting the amorphous immensity of Gas with today’s German electronica, you can see a revealing shift in the meaning of ‘minimal’. In the mid-1990s the word was suggestive of austerity and spirituality. Beneath the scene’s rampantly druggy hedonism there was a sense of a reaching out to a transcendent beyond, a vastness conjured through music built to overwhelm. Gas took that impulse and connected it back to the Romantic idea of the Sublime as outside society and essentially barbarian. Contemporary German electronica drifts diffusely in the area between house, techno, trance and the more glitchy-twitchy zones of experimental electronics, and although it’s still confusingly known as ‘minimal’, it has little in common with 1990s’ minimal techno. The latter was based on reduction (Voigt’s ‘high art of leaving out’), taken to the level of sensory deprivation. But today’s minimal is sensuous and relatively busy, to the point of being cluttered with fiddly nuances. It’s designed to reward the close attention of the connoisseur’s ear, attuned to minuscule fluctuations of texture and rhythm but also historically informed enough to appreciate allusions to earlier phases in dance music’s rich tapestry.

Contemporary minimal presents itself as gourmet audio for the discerning aural palate. Alongside its German counterparts such as Get Physical, Kompakt pioneered the art of positioning the record label as a quality brand. Of course, there has long been a cult of particular labels within techno. But what’s changed is how electronic music as a whole situates itself in relation to the mainstream. In the 1990s the subculture saw itself as both a vanguard and an underground; techno rhetoric then was full of appeals to ‘belief’ and paramilitary imagery. And operations such as Basic Channel or Underground Resistance did seem shrouded in mystery in a way that today’s labels, including Kompakt, couldn’t recreate even if they wanted to; digital culture’s over-bright omnipresence of knowledge has chased away the shadows. So the model today is no longer the underground (in opposition to mass culture) but the boutique (a niche market running parallel to mainstream but at a slight elevation).

As I write this however, I realize that I’m reconstituting that dubious binary between culture and civilization: 1990s’ techno representing a cluster of values (heroic pioneers and explorers, the great outdoors) with an unmistakably virile cast, while early 21st-century electronica suggests an equally gender-coded opposite (audio-décor, metrosexuality, Postmodern pastiche). It all seems an aeon ago, the idea of being a soldier for the techno ‘cause’ – irrecoverable, even slightly silly. Gas was arguably the swansong of that impulse. Beneath Voigt’s shimmering clouds of glory there’s often a submerged martial feel to the rhythm, a trudging resoluteness. The sound, perhaps, of an army marching home to disband.

Simon Reynolds is the author of books including the postpunk history Rip It Up and Start Again and, most recently, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy from the Seventies to the 21st Century.