To open its brief Short Circuit festival of pioneering electronic artists, the Roundhouse couldn't have chosen a more genial pioneer than Holger Czukay, former bassist and mix manipulator with German avant-rockers Can. Czukay is that rarity, a German whimsicalist, and his recollections of breaking barriers with Can, and on his own albums, are delivered with a bumbling, mad-professor charm that confirms his long-standing affection for English eccentricity. As he bustles between his desk of equipment and the microphone alongside, his baggy trousers flap like flags, their midcalf hems giving the impression they've had an argument with his ankles.
Czukay is an astute and witty assessor of musical developments and the evening's opening selection of rare videos from the Seventies and Eighties are introduced with a keen appreciation of the absurdity of, for instance, creating a video "message" to introduce the band to Virgin Records' sales force when Can signed with the label in 1976. Following a random smattering of entirely unhelpful observations, his message concludes: "Go forth into the world, and multiply Can record sales!"
Back then, the music scene was less Thatcherite than it is today and labels were less ruled by formula, more indulgent of Czukay's kind of pranksterish, experimental weirdness. At one point in the Eighties, he reveals, one suggested he should make a record with the Pope. When he asked why, he was told: "He's looking good and he has a good sense of Popish rhythm!" In the video Czukay made to accompany the record, he shows himself picking His Holiness's pocket and making off with John Paul's wallet. Another video clip depicts him roller-skating uncertainly and then being towed along in a bath-chair by a pair of powerful dogs, a scaled-down version of Roman charioteering that has no discernible connection with the music.
Initially, Czukay admits, he was terrified of the video camera, and took to working alone when asked to make videos for his solo works, such as the brilliant "Cool in the Pool", a seminal cut-up pop single that prefigured both sample-collaging and world-music crossovers. The video doesn't really do the record justice, being a static camera shot of the composer leering into the lens and occasionally tootling bathetically on French horn. Far more intriguing, if only for historical reasons, is the film he and Can guitarist Michael Karoli made in 1972 in support of "Mushroom"from the band's epochal Tago Mago album. Incorporating random footage of a ferry, a manatee, a mushroom cloud and sundry clips from an early Russian film of The Pit and the Pendulum intercut with poorly lit shots of the band performing, it's powerfully redolent of the sense of open-ended possibilities that prevailed in the hippy era.
The latter half of the show features Czukay playing, and occasionally playing along with, unheard audio pieces from different stages of his career. There's a languid remix dubscape made in tribute to his teacher and colleague Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died just a few days after it was completed. At its core is a deep, humming sussurus, which takes on a chilly, premonitory tone when Czukay explains that Stockhausen's final words were "I've found a new way of breathing." There's a horror soundtrack, "Bio Mutantes", made with Krautrock producer Conny Plank, which ends with the repeated invocation, "die mutante dansen"; excerpts from Czukay's "Ode to Perfume", whose melody echoes the standard "Smile"; a Can suite of leftover fragments from the late Sixties, including elements of the landmark "Father Cannot Yell", with Czukay adding live guitar parts over the metronomic motor of Jaki Liebezeit's cyclical drum groove.
And perhaps most representative of his innovatory influence on modern music is a remix of "Canaxis" from his 1969 album of the same name, born out of Czukay's discovery that Oriental music could fit congruently within the Western harmonic tradition. It became the first world-music crossover recording, a blend of Vietnamese singing, electronics, strings and sampled koto, which tonight resolves satisfyingly into a loop of choral plainsong.