Conrad Schnitzler: Pioneer of German experimental music


Over four decades on from its first rumblings, the Krautrock music that cameout of Germany at the tail end of the 1960s and into the '70s has become one of the touchstone genres for alternative bands around the world. While not as well-known as members of Can, Faust or Kraftwerk, Conrad Schnitzler was one of the early catalysts of the German scene and a founder member of two of its most influential groups, Tangerine Dream and Kluster.

Having played cello, violin and typewriter on Electronic Meditation, the largely improvised, mostly instrumental debut album recorded by Tangerine Dream in 1969, he suggested that his bandmates Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze forsake traditional instruments and embrace electronic keyboards and sequencers. With Froese the only constant, Dream went on to define "kosmiche musik", become one of the best-selling acts on the Virgin label in the mid-'70s and create make critically acclaimed film soundtracks, while Schulze achieved substantial solo success throughout continental Europe.

The three groundbreaking, limited-edition albums Schnitzler recorded as Kluster with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius between 1969 and 1971 brought him into contact with the engineer Conny Plank, another influential Krautrock figure, who collaborated with Brian Eno and produced seminal albums by the British groups Ultravox, Eurythmics and Killing Joke. "I didn't want the music to remind of the normal," Schnitzler said of his early work. "My criteria were not folk music, not rock music, not pop songs and not dance music."

A more maverick – and prolific – figure than his contemporaries, he made over 90 self-released albums, though his reach remained limited until the age of the internet, even if his ideas inspired successive generations of musicians.

Born in Düsseldorf in 1937, Konrad Schnitzler changed the spelling of his name and became known as Con. He remembered the sound of the bombing during the Second World War and retained a fascination for the industrial noises that surrounded him as he trained as a mechanic, worked in factories and toiled in the engine room of a cargo ship. He studied painting and sculpture with Joseph Beuys and applied some of his mentor's principles to music-making. "Everything is art," he said in 1980. "By the way, I'm not a musician. I'm an intermedia artist and composer."

Having visited underground clubs like UFO in London in 1967, he started the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in West Berlin. Though the venue only lasted 18 months, it had a huge impact and hosted several acts subsequently associated with Krautrock, including Agitation Free and the fledgling Tangerine Dream. The Zodiak's unusual performance areas, one painted black, the other white, matched the mood of the free-form music Tangerine Dream made with a vast array of instruments, contact mics and effects devised by Schnitzler, sound manipulator extraordinaire. "Schnitzler was a real madman," Schulze recalled. "He wanted to destroy everything."

Schnitzler let Roedelius and Moebius continue as Cluster after 1971. He shaved his head and performed on the streets as a battery-powered, one-man electronic band, complete with cassette decks and mixer attached to his leather jacket and a speaker on top of a helmet, turning himself into a "living cloud of sound", as he put it. His radical outlook encompassed Cassette Concerts performed by several decks, not necessarily in his presence, a technique now commonplace among avant-garde composers. "I never leave my hometown, I do l'art pour l'art. I don't need popularity. I don't like to answer questions," he wrote in 2001. He died of stomach cancer four days after completing his final work, 00/830. Before his death, he sent his own hairs to nine locations around the world, including Sefton Park in Liverpool, to be buried there as part of the Global Living Project.

Konrad Schnitzler, musician: born Düsseldorf, Germany 1937; died Dallgow, Germany 4 August 2011.