Cluster

Curiosum

Sky Records, 1981

Every so often the most beautiful things happen on the fringes of a musician’s career, when the sense of excitement and visions have dissolved into air and melancholy.
     In the press release issued by the record label Bureau B in 2009 on the reissue of the Cluster catalogue, it says that Curiosum, with its radically minimalist music, deliberately sought to counter the loud zeitgeist of the early eighties. The album was completed with the simplest of means somewhere in Austria, drawing on concepts from the early days such as randomness and spontaneity. By looking at the postmodern album cover, Curiosum could still be located in the zeitgeist of the time, musically it is indeed a conscious rejection of that, and not seldom I have asked myself how the otherwise so exhilarating Clustersound has been evaporated here in the most consistent way. And even though most of this, when viewed soberly, has a sketchy or marginal character and is probably only reserved for those followers who work their way through entire oeuvres of artists with slightly peculiar thoroughness and can be described most aptly with Rainald Goetz’s statement that the fan is structurally an idiot: Curiosum remains a criminally overlooked record in an already largely underrated body of work.
     Cluster were always perceived as a second-tier group within the krautrock movement. Although in retrospect regarded as highly influential (the German label Bureau B cites them as “among the most important international protagonists of the electronic avant-garde”), their sound inevitably seemed a bit too free and unassuming – naive maybe – for the casual listener. From the sprawling improvisations of Cluster ’71, to Zuckerzeit‘s quirky future pop, towards the pastoral electronica on Sowiesoso – the duo was constantly tiptoeing along the edge of what was received as popular music. 

1981’s Curiosum would eventually mark the end of an era for Cluster. Not only would it be their last studio recording for over a decade, but it also saw the group in a different, technically more advanced musical environment, where electronic music had become an established genre and where the once distinctive Clustersound no longer seemed to have a voice or relevance. Whether it was out of resignation, melancholia or even better, black humor that led them to make a record which could be best described as regressive – it was their way of saying “Tschüss, Tschau, Ade” for now! There are no traces of the feathery utopia that constituted their most popular record Zuckerzeit, instead, you hear dark miniatures of ponderous drum machine rhythms, throbbing and stumbling; demented little synth lines that flicker in and out, wandering around aimlessly. The primal “Proantipro” most definitely had an eye on the young industrial movement in the U.K. at the time. My favorite piece though is the, almost inaudible, album closer “Ufer”: an inner landscape that hangs onto like a dream fragment with its quiet, mythic melody and static hiss; causing an effect not too dissimilar from the hauntology sounds of contemporary acts such as Brannten Schnüre or even The Caretaker. It’s no artificial nostalgic patina, though: this is something like the immediate swan song to one’s own past by means of a sound production created “under the simplest of means”. It should be noted: at those fringes of the band’s career (which probably never claimed to be one), Roedelius simultaneously released sun-drenched, rather upbeat solo records. What they have in common with Curiosum, however, is the ephemerality, the characteristic of seemingly dissolving while listening. 

Roedelius once said that his most memorable experiences were primarily the early childhood exploration of his homeland. He, Roedelius, had always spent his time outdoors, roaming rivers and pastures, was a cowherd and thus surrounded by a vivid soundscape: “These were deep experiences with natural sound quality. I was able to listen intimately, that was given to me.” These years, Roedelius continues, had a significant influence on his “sound memory” and “listening consciousness”.
     Now, of course, I have neither herded cows nor grew up in former East Prussia, but reading these stories, no matter how sweet or trivial they may sound, they inevitably remind me of my own childhood in the country – experiences that have filled my memory of images and that follow me in constant latency. So it is neither attributed to pubertal experiences nor other biographical choices, such as the first or best concert, the first important record and the like (that kind of music would have left me rather overwhelmed and disturbed back then) that the sounds of Cluster have always triggered an unusual  familiarity in me. Sounds that are more psychological than many, yet so modest and reserved. Sounds that are completely with themselves and at the same time can linger freely in the atmosphere. 

While their early works were still clearly influenced by the polemic spirit of the ’68 era, improvisation and a tendency towards the cosmic, this impulsive streak soon disappeared during the move to the Forst Studio in the idyllic Weserbergland in 1972. In this place, far away from all the everyday noise, Roedelius’ deeply buried experiences of nature reappear and merge with the pragmatic approach of his counterpart Dieter Moebius in almost somnambulistic clarity. The tranquillity, the peaceful landscape, as well as a certain amount of rural self-sufficiency, including cattle breeding, gardening, chopping wood and the like, are as much a tactful element for their music as they are for one’s own (new) positioning in the world. Looking at the photos of these years, especially the record cover of Sowiesoso, one could think that someone stopped time here and said: this is how it should stay forever. The “eternal” that these pictures evoke may already offer a hint of the refusal of the zeitgeist mentioned at the beginning and consequently the turning into calmer areas of an ever faster developing music industry. The musicologist Christopher Small once wrote in reference to the minimalists of the sixties: their reduced, repetitive sounds were a kind of a “silent criticism of the state of the world”. And so one would now like to imagine the two musicians in their rural home studio, where, far from the madness of the world, they unwaveringly twist their little wheels.

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