Less is More
There is a tradition in Japanese art called 'Ma'
where the goal of the drawing is to lead the viewer to
a state of emptiness and relaxation.
The Zen simplicity of Dieter Moebius' cover art:
a springboard poised over an ocean of white space.
White is the most empowering of all colours,
a blankness that we can shade in.
Likewise, Grosses Wasser starts from "a point of zero".
For Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius
don't do ideas, plans or written music scores.
Each track begins with the random chance of
a sonic fragment that lurks in the subconscious.
That fragment is looped into a hypnotically repeating motif.
The motif can assume any form - it could be a harsh industrial pulse
or melody that flows like clear spring water.
From there, Moebius and Roedelius go with the flow and slip in
their random chords and odd juxtpositions of sound.
Anything could happen: the result may be solemn or
hilariously daft - jaggedly abrasive or weirdly beautiful -
sophisticated or child-like.
But rarely predictable.
The scene: Berlin's Paragon Studios, run by Peter Baumann -
fleeing Tangerine Dream's insanely busy schedule
for life as an independent producer.
Baumann saw in Cluster's music the sonic Zeitgeist
he thought he studio should become known for.
"What I liked in Cluster was their ability to strike a delicate balance
between natural and abstract sounds".
"Most musicians use a synthesizer just to imitate other instruments.
it takes a long time to use the technology creatively and make it
more than just the strawberry on top of the cake."
"You simply cannot go into a shop and buy that knowledge
off the shelf, only the device itself".
So, in June 1979, high technology met chance music.
One one side, Baumann's custom-built Projekt Elektronic,
at $18,000, one of the world's most expensive synthesizers.
On the other, the unpredictable Moebius and Roedelius.
A depth-charge bass guitar pulse, hushed synth strings;
strangely beautiful melodes fall out of the sky.
Weird popping funk, delicate wind chimes, wordless call
and response. Disco music from a parallel universe.
Cluster's mix of grace and slapstick; a tiny musical box
constructed with rusty springs and elastic bands.
Radio pop heaven; the dub chatter of drum machines.
Bio-mechanical whale sounds from the deep.
An unsophisticated rippling nursery tune; back to the womb.
By the close of side one, you can sense that deep-held
Japanese religious tenet: 'Everything is Buddha'.
In Buddhist thought, social judgements about man, machine
and nature become diffused.
As writer Karl Taro Greenfeld notes: "The Japanese have a
different relationship to technology than the West. They simply
view their PC or television as another object, like a rock or a tree,
which is of nature, and hence of themselves".
"This is why such oddities as shrines piled up with lavatory brushes
are not uncommon in Japan, or why Buddhist priests pray
for worn out microchips. Everything is Buddha".
The genius of Peter Baumann is to use the cutting-edge technology
at his disposal to produce Cluster's man-machine-nature muse
as simple clean lines of sound.
He accentuates these with his own subtle index of techniques:
drop out, long and short delay, noise gates, extreme
equalization, zipping highs and rumbling lows.
On the 19-minute title track, Cluster's tiny stream becomes a river
that surges to an oceanic consciousness.
Even on this quasi-symphonic scale, there's often a sense not of music
made my humans, but of found sounds channelled by human hands.
As if music is looking for (and sometimes finding) a way to leave the
human ego behind, to assume states of water, flows of energy,
bodily noises, mechancial functions, landscapes.
As if Cluster's Zen-like objective is to just relax and allow
something that already exists, that has its own laws,
to flow of its own accord.
As Tokyo-based Susuma Hirasawa says:
"It is hard to play a musical instrument without human intent.
My ideal would be to touch them like a guardian angel
and let them sing as they wanted".
"Personally, I could never achieve that state. But if I were free
from inspiration it might be possible to create
something like Grosses Wasser".
"Whenever I feel exhausted by music that is full of ambition,
I listen to this record and find peace".
This text was reproduced as part of the official sleeve notes for the Water label's CD reissue.
By Stephen Iliffe