Michael Hoenig – Interview (Synapse 1978)

This interview with Michael Hoenig appeared in Synapse magazine (V2 N5 March/April 1978), wrritten by Doug Lynner. Just after Honig’s album Departure from the Nothern Wastelands was released.

Please note that all (c) are with the magazine and the authors.

Below the (scanned/edited) text of the interview you’ll find images of the original pages from the magazine and further down is a downloadable pdf with the article. We have added some better images because the original photo’s where black/white and not of high quality.

Michael Hoenig’s first Warner Brothers release, Departure From the Northern Wasteland (BSK 3152), may well represent a new milestone in the introduction of American audiences to electronically produced music. lt may also introduce a school of consciousness that departs from the long term influence of “the blues” on contemporary popular music.

Hoenig states that, “American pop music has been based mostly on the blues music of slavery, sharecropping and the ghetto.” But he sees the emergence of, “A completely new musical reality where there is not only an inner musical context, but also a context of the global community. There is a new avant garde with an inter-cultural consciousness appearing. I like to call it ‘metamusik’, as it strives for a greater universality. It may lack the pain of a Coltrane solo, but it will project the vision of a more balanced universe where energies flow easier.”

This interview reflects Hoenig’s global consciousness, and there is no doubt that Departure From the Northern Wasteland will decidedly affect the globe’s consciousness of his music.

Synapse: What were your influences when you were starting in music?

Michael Hoenig: I was getting into everything. That was the time-’67, ’68-when the student revolution came near its peak. There were energies flowing around, and you had to enlarge your sensitivity so that you could pick up on many sorts of energies, and decide what they meant to you. I was very much inlo writing, painting, photography, and I went to many concerts of new music. I was just interested in what you could call twentieth century art-everything that happened. I also remember that big art exhibition, Documenta, we have every four years in Kassel. All the things that happened there just turned me on. But in those days, 1 just couldn’t apply it to any specific direction. I met a composer in Berlin-his name is Thomas Kessler-and he said that he was going to form something like Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Scratch Orchestra,’ in Berlin. The idea was that musically educated people, as well as students, housewives, or whatever act together under niles that are extramusical- something like, ‘Go out in the courtyard, and sit under a tree, and play what the tree is like.’ I didn’t play any instruments in those days. and I was not interested in learning any instrument in a traditional way. So, I simply began with a zither that could be found in any fleamarket. I had contact microphones wired up to it, and as I was, technically oriented, it was very easy for me to work with contact microphones by putting them into a tape recorder, into a spring reverb, or whatever. Then I fooled around with musique concrete; getting different collages together. l began to build my own tone generators and ring modulators. I was experimenting with everything that was available sound wise as well as on the technical side, not in any specific direction yet, just to let energies that were there flow through me. A little earlier than those days, acid and dope appeared, and that had a certain influence. Well. we had some funny sessions with the scratch orchestra. I really enjoyed those completely free-form impovisations. Then, I met a guy from Agitation Free, a band that was already quite known in Germany, and they had just split up. Christoph Franke, who was the drummer in Agitation Free, had left to join Tangerine Dream, replacing Klaus Schulze, who then formed Ash Ra Tempel. He was, in those days, the drummer with Tangerine Dream. Well, I joined Agitation Free, and there were only two people left: the bass player. and one guitar player. We were also into free-form improvisations, not playing songs, just improvising. In those days, there were bands in Germany like Amon Duul, Tangerine Dream, Guruguru, Ash Ra Tempel that were into free-form improvisations that had a more or less rhythmic, rocky background: just looking for new forms, new strnctures, with a sort of policy never to play the same thing twice. Agitation Free was also used as an ensemble for avant garde composers.

Synapse: Whose pieces did you perform at that time?

Hoenig: For instance, that composer Doehl in Germany-you probably won’t know him-or, well, we all played in a big Cage performance in the Berlin Philharmonic which was called Hpschd. There is a record on Barclay (a Paris-based record label) from Agitation Free, where one side is a piece by Erhardt Grosskopf called Looping. Looping IV was the fourth version of Looping. Looping II was, for instance, performed by the Tokk Ensemble, Tokyo. We were just known as being open enough to play everything that seemed to be somehow interesting, or involved with new structures. The band then made a Middle Eastern tour under the auspices of the German Cultural Institute (the Goethe lnstitut). We played the first rock concert ever in Cairo, which was a great experience.

Synapse: What was tire Middle Eastern reaction to tlie improvisational music you were doing?

Hoenig: Oh, it was absolutely marvelous. The reaction was so much different than what we were used to. People were really not only enjoying themselves, or freaking out. or letting their own trips go; those people were really into listening, They came up after the concert and asked. for instance, about musical details that we almost forgot after the improvisations ended. I remember very well that they had such precise questions as I never got before that, or a long time after that. A very concentrated audience. Very nice. We gave some introductions that we were not playing just straight songs, and they were all really quiet and nice, and they were very, very perceptive and so thankful that they had the opportunity to hear something different. On that tour we played Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut. Tripoli, Aman, Nicosia, and Athens.

Synapse: What year was the tour?

Hoenig: Thai was 1972. From thal point, Agitation Free got a recording contract with the publishing company that owns the Wergo label, They had a licensing deal with Vertigo (Phillips). Our “When those first Berlin albums came out, there were no terms by which to judge them.” first album, ‘Malesh,’ was very much innuenced by that tour to those Middle Eastern countries. It got very good reviews, but Vertigo didn’t really work for it, because it was a licensing deal, and they had their own bands like Atlantis in those days, so we actually had more success outside Germany. We had more concerts in France in those days than in Germany, We had more tours there, and we played wonderful venues. We played, for instance, the Opera Comique in Paris, which was a triumphant success. The French audience was very much into German rock between ’72 and ’74, and Agitation Free, together with Tangerine Dream, Can and Amon Duul, was one of the first bands that opened the whole thing up. We found the French audience much more receptive to improvisational styles.

Synapse: Even in the rurai areas?

Hoenig: Yes. And, well, the strange thing was, as we got more and more successful, the improvisation didn’t work out anymore. We actually played and exposed the energies and the tensions the musicians had amongst themselves, or those that we felt surrounded with. Once we went to the country for two weeks, and always had a tape recorder running. We were interviewing each other, and we were talking and disrnssing, and every• thing came to the top. It was very obvious when we played after those discussions, that our music lived off the tensions the musicians had amongst themselves on various levels. So we cut that together for a radio show that was 1 1/2 hours long.

Synapse: The tapes of ….

Hoenig: Yeah, those tapes, with the discussion and the music, and it was a really marvelous experience to see how it worked. It was really where the music came from. But then it turned out that the more concerts we had. the less tension there was because we just played the gig, went to the hotel. fell asleep, went to the next date, and played again. Whal could happen in between that7 I must say that band began to just imitate the best structures it already had played. As soon ~f;lV’. as we realized that, the band stopped.

Synapse: Was that when you started playing with Klaus SchJulze in Timewind?

Hoenig: We were doing Timewind, and we were touring. The actual record, Timewind, is not that group, so the name of the band wss later the name for one of Klaus’ albums. Klaus and I were in some musical things completely different. We were very close friends, but we split, and then immediately it came up that I should join Tangerine Dream instead of Peter Baumann.

Synapse: And that was for only a short period of time?

Hoenjg: In March or so. I left Agitation Free. I played a half a year with Klaus until October-November. I think we played the last gig together in Paris in the Salle Wagram. Right after that, I joined Tangerine Dream for an Australian tour, and a Royal Albert Hall concert.

Synapse: I think that ‘Departure From the Northern Wasteland’ will often be compared with Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, or possibly Jean-Miche Jarre because of the musical relationships between the albums on some levels. I want to discuss. first of all, where some of the similarities and common inluences may be coming from. For instance, on the most basic level, the predominance of the sequencer is something that will remind people of Tangerine Dream. How do you see your use of the sequencer as being separate, or different from their use of the sequencer?

Hoenig: Well, I actually split from Tangerine Dream with the thought that I would go more into composition from that time on. Tangerine Dream was still very much into improvisation and I felt somehow that that time had passed for me. It just didn’t give me back enough compared to what I was putting into it. When people put all the electronic music together that Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, myself, Manuel Goetsching, and Ash Ra Tempel did, I th.ink it becomes clear that something developed over there that could be described as the ‘Berlin school’ of electronic music. What we are doing now is still basically influenced by the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, when everybody was into experimenting and searching for new structures and new sounds. Nobody wanted to play the same old songs with their defined and narrow messages. That time simply demanded new ways. The first similarity people will see in Berlin electronics. is the similarity of sound colors-of that typical Moog bass, for instance. I’m sure it’s still too new for people to really have terms by which they can differentiate between pieces and judge whether they are good in their own sense, or even played well. When those first Berlin albums came out, there were no terms by which to judge them. You could judge them in terms of avant garde music, or in terms of commercial music, but neither works. I think it’s just a question of time how long it takes before people can differentiate the colors and structures. I would simply say that my work is very much different from Klaus’ and Tangerine Dream’s from an int~rnal musical standpoint. I have a feeling that my music is much more composed, and the structures are more directed.

Synapse: To parap/irase, the first big difference would be tliat you have bel’n moving away from improvisatiot1. mid therefore have become more interested in orchestrafio11, and in exact relatio11ships, as opposed to approximate relationships.

Hoenig: Right. That’s very true.

Synapse: I would think that that would have a lot to do with defining the listener’s experience, in terms of what you present them with.

Hoenig: Yes, well I didn’t think of that in the beginning. I was involved in all that avant garde music, and knew what was happening in that scene. I was looking around for which things would last, and which things would not last. Some friends of mine and I were very much interested in the relationship between old folk music and its influences on, avant garde music.

Synapse: What do you feel those influences are?

Hoenig: Well, to describe it as a general phenomenon that seems to happen in many places, those influences are very heavily reflected in five or six American composers that I admire very much and they are, for instance, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Phjllip Glass, Lamonte Young, and Bob Moran. There are many people in this country who just got back to basic musical sources, as I would say. And there is one sentence from Steve Reich that describes it very accurately, which says something like The clear tonal center and the basic pulse will re-emerge as basic sources for new music’; and it couldn’t be better said. 1 agree with that completely. So knowing those people, listening to Eastern music, listening to rock and avant garde music, and seeing what I was doing-where my mind and my emotions were drifting in improvisation-I simply got more interested in older European, African, and Indonesian folk music structures. In time, I began to arrange patterns that had certain similarities. Basically what comes out is something that is an element of African music: rhythmic cycles of the same, or relating length, each with its own separate downbeat. Or something that J like very much is a drifting downbeat; for instance, a five note pattern with the downbeat on every six. If you have several of those cycles, it gives an overall moving structure with a certain endles-sness. or infinity, and that can make your mind drift too. The other thing is a clear tonal center which is related to, for instance, Indian scales. If you listen to the piece ‘Departure From the Northern Wasteland,’ it is strictly in c minor. It is absolutely strictly in that scale. All the harmonies and melodies are built from that scale with no other pitches. 1 found that this provokes a certain basic magic with a very reJaxing influence. These are energies that have been known for thousands of years in all folk cultures; but the b,1sicp vlse, for inslMce, has been completely lost in Western music since the fifteenth. or sixteenth century. And after Organum and Perotin-1100, in Parist he clear tonal center was also lost. I think the clear tonal center and basic pulse are “We actual and the tensions I just coming back, and more and more people are realizing that this is going to be a very heavy new energy. It’s going to be a new form of music-metamusik with an up to now unknown universality-and it’s just the very, very beginning.

Synapse: On your new disc. the piece called ‘Voices From Where’ is to me the most interesting piece the album in lots of ways; but one respect is certainly in how it differs from other pieces on the album. There is not really a clear pulse, but there is a clear rhythmic cycle that’s being dealt with, except, I believe they’re phasing, aren’t they?

Hoenig: Yes.

Synapse: There are two tape loops and ….

Hoenig: No, it’s not two tape loops; there are several. There are some tape loops, and some are played in real lime. Many people ask me about the voice$ at the end of the piece. It is basically a poem; a collage concerning Lime. The other thing is basically the Yamaha organ played in very low cycles, very slow, as loops, each with its own time base.

Synapse: How do you, within the piece, envision the connection of the voices and the instrumental material? They are both looped, and they have a rhythmical relationship. but why do they exist in the same piece?

Hoenig: I worked on both as separate pieces, but they were created in the same period of time. Emotionally I felt they had a connection. I only know that this piece reflects a time of utmost reduction musically, as well as socially. The distant choir-sounding part is just one sound color within one octave, slowly moving upwards; the rest are some words concerning the phenomenon of time. And when I finished the two parts, I realized both had the same time relation, and a basic interior energy that is very similar.

Synapse: At the point where the piece changes from the instruments to tlie voices, there are tire . .

Hoenig: There are those flying things.

Synapse: Were they originally on either piece, or were they made as part of the transition?

Hoenig: It was part of the transition. It was a question of how to make them flow into each other. As you might have noticed on the whole album, the melodies and rhythms always flow into one another. So that was a link. It is just to switch you somehow to another level. I can only describe ii with other experiences I’ve had with the piece. I’ve played it lo people, and some just relaxed, and some got afraid. It got into their heads-those drifting voices. Their minds drifted, and if your mind drifts. those who can’t relax simply get afraid. Those who can relax get even more relaxed, and feel very happy, and just enjoy it. So this piece is actually the strangest, I think. on the album. I enjoy it very much. I thin’k it’s fantastic that this piece is going to be distributed by an entertainment label when the music itself is not entertaining in the same way as most music in the rock market. I would never have thought that this would be possible. I really love it. Tape loops were one of the first things I was doing in ’68 or ’69. Everyone worked with that, everyone could do ii. And, as this is on the album. You can see the whole album, especially the piece ‘Departure From the Northern Wasteland,’ is a conclusion, or roundup of ideas that were in my mind for a long time. I think there are so many different elements in that piece, that I actually needed much more time to play them out; for instance, that rhythm phase. I mean, you can make a 10 1/2 hour piece of just that. I just had to put everything in there. That’s maybe why it’s so rich.

Synapse: I would like to talk some about the actual technical processes that you went through with the synthesizers, since many of our readers are synthesizer players. But first, I’d like to find out what equipment you used on the album.

Hoenig: The equipment I used-and this should be very encouraging, for everybody-is very, very basic stuff. I was very technically oriented, and I was always into new equipment, but one day I simply said, ‘Stop it, and just use those things you have, and get more into the music than into the hardware.’ I used a Yamaha YC 45D organ, two Minimoogs modified in such a way that I can trigger the VCF and VCO envelopes separately; and a Moog sequencer unit with a sequencer, two sequential controllers, a sequential switch, and interface. I also used an Elka Rhapsody. modified so that I can switch or blend the amount of modulation, and an EMS Synthi A with the DK-1 keyboard. In the recording process, I used a 3M 8-track M 28, an ITA 8-track, an ITA 10-into-4 mixer, and a speed control Revox, with digital readout, so that I could precisely reconstruct delay rhythms. I must thank some people who gave me the opportunity to use their machines. I had all the production facilities at hand. It was a great thing to have. I didn’t have any studio costs, so I had twenty months just to develop my ideas. That’s the technical side of it, which is really very, very basic.

Synapse: It’s interesting that it is so basic, because the album comes off being much more complex.

Hoenig: Yeah, it is much more complex because it is much more polyphonic, and much more polyrhythmic than most electronic music around. This, to me, is the biggest difference between my music and those groups we mentioned earlier. There’s not only one line you can follow. People have told me that they have listened to the album ten times, and they’re still hearing voices that they did not hear before. In fact, all rhythmic and melodic lines are played monophonically and, no matter which line you follow, all the others will fit perfectly as backing chords. Another element is that each melody line has something to do with the following one, and even the last orie is related to the first one. The melodies are not just there by chance. I don’t want to say that improvisation has no meaning, but anyone who looks at my piet:es from a strictly musical standpoint can see very easily that there are in each piece more or less strict principles and relationships in the melodic and rhythmic structures. I also added richness by playing separate sound colors in unison. I am searching for sounds that are inbetween instrumental sound colors that are already known, where there aren’t already existing associations, or pre-determined moods.

Synapse; I am curious to know some of the basic technical procedures used on the album. For instance, anything like the use of a clicktrack on the tape recorder, so that you can re-align all of the sequences: or the use of the sequencers free running with each other lo cause phasing.

Hoenig: There was a basic clicktrack on the 8-track, but because I played most things by hand, I didn’t use it too often; but it was always there if it was needed.

Synapse: Were you using divisions of that pulse for different rhythmic situations?

Hoenig: Yes, the pulse was faster than the sequence itself. For instance. The piece ‘Hanging Garden Transfer’ builds up the rhythm in the beginning, and in the end falls apart. In that piece, it was very important that I had the clicktrack faster than its perceived rate at the beginning of the piece.

Synapse: Are there any other aspects of the way that you were using the synthesizer or the sequencer that you tlrink would be of μarticular interest to our readers?

Hoenig: I think there is nothing technically new to any synthesizer player on the album. I think everybody who’s into synthesizers knows it. The basic structures are so simple that they do not require extremely complex patching.

Synapse: Could the music of the entire album be performed live?

Hoenig; Yes.

Synapse: Will you be doing any touring?

Hoenig: I haven’t made up my mind yet. I know that there is a big demand by American audiences to see live performances, and live performance has a much bigger value in the States than in Europe. I won’t do concerts unless I can perform in places and venues that are not strictly limited lo rock audiences. I’ll never perform clubs and that sort of scene. I would limit myself strictly to a good listening audience in places like greenhouses, planetariums and concert halls, not using any visuals. Places where people really listen. That, of course, requires a basic audience to make it happen, and ii costs a lot of money to tour the United States. So, if the support was there, it would be possible to perform the music using three or four other synthesizer and keyboard players.

Synapse: What do you feel, for your own music ould be useful to have designed?

Hoenig: What I want are sound colors that don’t have definite relationships in one’s mind yet. I want, for instance, a soft blown sound, but it shouldn’t be precisely a flute: it should be between a flute and an oboe. That’s one very important step. So, what I certainly need in the not too distant future, is digital sound equipment, such as is being developed by John Chowning. IRCAM or Hal Ellis at Bell Laboratories. Unfortunately, all these machines I’ve seen so far are not usable from the interface side. First, they don’t have enough software yet. On the other hand they are so obviously built by engineers and not by people who use them as instruments. Another example is all of those digital sequencers they have out now, such as the Sequential Circuits, and the Oberheim sequencers. They are completely uninteresting for me, because when I have a sequence, I am not at all interested in letting the sequence run. I want the sequence to be played with. I want access to all steps, whether it be pitches, the sound color, or whatever. I want access.

Original article – separate pages

Original article – downloadable pdf