A Different World: Holger Czukay Interviewed

Holger Czukay, co-founder of Can, student of Karlheinz Stockhausen and maker of great music, has died. In this interview, originally published on tQ in 2014 to mark 40 years since the release of Canaxis 5, he spoke to Bobby Barry about Stockhausen, John Lydon and learning to fly.

Photograph by Heinrich Klaffs

Forty-five years ago, a truly singular album first saw the light of day. Like a kind of musical vanishing point, Canaxis 5, as it was called, as if named after the far off satellite of some distant star, landed in West Germany at the confluence of two hitherto parallel but quite distinct streams which up to that point had regarded each other either with suspicion or a kind of mystified fascination.

Two years earlier, The Beatles had put Karlheinz Stockhausen on the front cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, nestled not entirely comfortably between Lenny Bruce and W. C. Fields, as if warning their fans not to take the German composer too seriously. At that point at least, the Fab Four’s experiments with tape and electronic sound were always strictly subordinated to pop song structures, periodic rhythms, and diatonic harmony (all of which were anathema to Stockhausen himself).

But in 1968, one of Stockhausen’s former pupils, a thirty year old shortwave radio enthusiast named Holger Czukay, crept into the the electronic music studios which Stockhausen managed at the West Deutscher Rundfunk and made one of the strangest albums to be released in what was already one of music’s strangest periods. Earlier in the year, amidst student protests mounting in intensity, along with one of his guitar pupils and a classmate from the Musikschule composition class, Czukay had formed what would one day be recognised as amongst the most influential bands in rock history: Can.

Picture the scene: the WDR electronic music studio in Cologne. Night time. Stockhausen "had left the studio to go home," Czukay told me over the phone, "And then I went in. Without telling Stockhausen. We had several tape recorders in the live room and we were making loops. And it was really live. You could say that Canaxis was actually an experiment. A live experiment." The whole thing, Czukay claims, was done in four hours (although he had "made a plan of all the material" in advance).

"I knew the studio a little bit," Czukay admits, but "it was his [i.e. Stockhausen’s] assistant that made it possible that Canaxis was born in four hours." Stockhausen’s assistant at that time was David C. Johnson, a flautist and early member of the Can line-up. According to Julian Cope’s Head Heritage website, Johnson was responsible for the "vrrooongggg!" sound at the beginning of ‘Father Cannot Yell’ on Monster Movie. That, too, was recorded at the WDR electronics music studios. But when Canaxis came out, the album credits claimed it had been recorded at Can’s own studio, Inner Space. "To mention the name of this electronic studio in 1968," Czukay ponders, "Maybe that could have been a problem…"

Even if Czukay and Schmidt were both former pupils of the composer, to mention Stockhausen by name was verboten in Can circles. "We had to kill Stockhausen," he says, "Otherwise you are not free, you don’t dare to make music under the shield of this huge influence which he had."

Czukay and Stockhausen had first met about ten years earlier, at the conservatory in Duisborg, forty miles north of Cologne. Czukay is apt to drift into raptures when he recalls the moment. "Oh, I loved him," he confesses. "From the very first moment."

Stockhausen had arrived with the percussionist Christoph Caskel in order to perform some of his earliest electronic pieces. Czukay had heard his music before on the radio and found it extraordinary, but many in the audience that day were unprepared for the likes of Kontakte and the Gesang der Jünglinge. They laughed and accused the composer of being a charlatan, just out to shock and make a quick buck.

"I can assure you," Stockhausen replied, "I am doing this only for musical reasons. Where money is concerned, I don’t need money – I have married a rich woman." Deeply impressed, Czukay left for Switzerland to find a rich wife. "I thought, you will do it the same way as Stockhausen does!" (Instead, he found a promising guitar pupil called Michael Karoli).

When Czukay first applied to study music at the prestigious Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, he recalls them telling him, "you are not talented. You have no talent for music." But a little bit later, in the early sixties, Stockhausen started his Cologne Courses for New Music at the Rheinische Musikschule across town. Czukay introduced himself to the master as someone who had been rejected by every other music school in town. What do you hope to become, Stockhausen asked. "Composer," Czukay replied. "Ok," said Stockhausen, "you can stay."

As the Courses for New Music became more and more influential, it seems the deans of the Hochschule came crawling to Stockhausen, offering his use of their orchestra and so forth, hoping to bask in the reflected glory of their suddenly notorious former pupil. Stockhausen rejected the offer, dismissing the Hochschule’s overtures and harshly criticising their orchestra. "I was really delighted to see how he was attacking them" Czukay recalls, giggling with delight at the memory. "Fantastic!"

One day, Czukay and Stockhausen were sitting together at the Musikschule when the latter suddenly turned round and said, "Mr. Czukay, you are thinking too much. I can see that you are posing a lot of questions before you write down a note. Every serious composer will come one day to a wall which he has to climb over." It was the same, he said, with himself. Czukay felt "a big stone [being taken] off of my heart. I was not able to compose anything anymore – until I was getting over this wall. I didn’t know where I was going to land on the other side."

One year later, Czukay left the course, seemingly at Stockhausen’s urging. "When the bird is ready to fly, he leaves the nest," Czukay recalls the composer saying, "And that was his way of saying, come on, go! Go!"

Photograph by Conny Plank

It was two years later that Czukay crept furtively into Stockhausen’s studio to record Canaxis. In the meantime, Stockhausen had been to Japan, realising a piece of music called Telemusik at the electronic studios of the Japanese national broadcaster, NHK. Despite Czukay’s insistence that Stockhausen "had something against folk music," this piece combined the chanting of Japanese monks with the rhythms of Hungarian csárdás, bursts of Vietnamese radio with rural Spanish dance tunes, according to principles derived from the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Section. The idea, apparently, had come to him in a dream. He had dreamt "of writing not ‘my’ music, but a music of the whole world, of all countries and races."

"That surprised me, actually," Czukay admits, "because he usually doesn’t think in this way." Nevertheless, something of this same dream was animating Czukay himself. Canaxis begins with a loop from a polyphonic rondeau by the medieval French troubadour Adam de la Halle. It was a piece of music that Czukay knew well because Can had used it onstage at some of their earliest gigs.

For the album, just a short segment, no more than a few seconds comprising a single plangent cadence, resounds again and again in a rich undulatory minimalism. Over the top of this, Czukay brings in an ethnographic recording of two Vietnamese women taken from a radio broadcast. The second side proceeds in a similar fashion, mashing up shortwave dial twitching with electronic sounds and a pensively plucked koto.

The combination was an attempt, Czukay told me, to see if "European music could go together with the music of a completely different world. Because they are not compatible, the intervals and the scales and so on. That was something which was for me new."

And how, I asked, did people react to the album when it came out?

"I would say so-so. People were a little bit surprised. It was not immediately accepted in such a way that it could make a hit number."

After its frosty reception, the innovations of Canaxis were put aside for ten years while Czukay pursued a career path that had never really been part of his plans: becoming a bassist in a successful rock band. But by the end of the seventies, he was growing frustrated with the creeping conservatism of his bandmates. "I always had to be confronted with something I don’t know," he explained. "That was something which, in later years, with Can didn’t matter really – they all tried to become perfect musicians instead of taking on an experiment and reaching for something unknown."

With Czukay’s solo releases, from 79’s Movies onwards, some of the themes and some of the means first explored on Canaxis begun to resurface. Songs like ‘Persian Love’ and ‘Hiss ‘n’ Listen’ saw him once again scouring the FM dial for exotic found material. And if Canaxis had once formed a bridge between two musical cultures, between the Cologne of Stockhausen’s electronic studio and the Cologne of the burgeoning krautrock scene, his solo albums would find Czukay building bridges again, this time to the the younger scenes populated by Neue Deutsche Welle groups like SYPH (who played with Czukay on his second solo album On The Way To The Peak of Normal) and post-punk acts like Public Image Ltd. PiL’s bassist Jah Wobble would become a regular collaborator of Czukay’s throughout the 1980s, while John Lydon, as Czukay told me, "wanted to become a singer with Can."

"John Lydon was a conceptualist," Czukay said. "Definitely someone who had plans in a wider sense." While Jah Wobble would simply come in and say, Ok, let’s play; Lydon did things differently. He posed questions before laying down notes. He leapt, by habit and inclination, over whatever brick walls confronted him.

Perhaps, I suggest, there is a link there between Lydon and Stockhausen. In both cases, people presumed they were only out to shock, to outrage people and make money from their outrage, but in both cases there was something much deeper and more thoughtful at work. Czukay agrees fulsomely but can’t help laughing at the idea. "If I were to tell Stockhausen something like that," he says conspiratorially, still chuckling fiendishly, "I think he would turn around in his coffin!"

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