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Klaus Schulze, pioneering electronic composer, is dead at 74
In a prolific career spanning five decades, he helped pave the way for ambient, techno and trance music.

by Jon Pareles

NEW YORK, NY.- Klaus Schulze, a German electronic musician whose hypnotic, pulsating, swirling compositions filled five decades of solo albums, collaborations and film scores, died Tuesday. He was 74.

His Facebook page announced the death. The announcement said he died “after a long illness” but did not provide any details.

Schulze played drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. But he largely abandoned them in the early 1970s and turned to working with electric organs, tape recorders and echo effects, and later with early analog synthesizers. His music thrived on every technological advance.

He played drums on the debut albums of the German bands Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel before starting a prodigiously prolific solo career. In 2000, he released a 50-CD retrospective set of studio and live recordings, “The Ultimate Edition.” But he was far from finished.

While he announced his retirement from performing in 2010, he continued to compose and record. A new album, “Deus Arrakis,” is due in June.

Schulze’s music encompassed the psychedelic jams of early krautrock, orchestral works, song-length tracks with vocals, an electronic opera and brief soundtrack cues. Much of his music was extended and richly consonant, using drones, loops and echoes in ways that forecast — and then joined and expanded on — both immersive ambient music and beat-driven techno and trance music.

He was habitually reluctant to describe or analyze the ideas or techniques of his music. “I am a musician, not a speaker,” he said in a 1998 interview. “What music only can do on its own is just one thing: to show emotions. Just emotions. Sadness, joy, silence, excitement, tension.”

Klaus Schulze was born on Aug. 4, 1947, in Berlin. His mother was a ballet dancer, his father a writer.

He played guitar and bass in bands as a teenager, and he studied literature, philosophy and modern classical composition at the University of Berlin. Drawn to the avant-garde scene around the Berlin nightclub Zodiac, he played drums in a psychedelic rock trio, Psy Free.

He became Tangerine Dream’s drummer in 1969 and performed on the group’s debut album, “Electronic Meditation,” a collection of free-form improvisations released in 1970. He was also experimenting with recordings of his latest instrument, an electric organ. But Edgar Froese, Tangerine Dream’s guitarist and leader, didn’t want to use Schulze’s organ tapes onstage and told him, “You either play drums or you leave,” Schulze said in a 2015 interview.

Schulze left. He formed a new space-rock trio, Ash Ra Tempel, and played drums on the band’s 1971 debut album before starting his solo career. Instead of drumming, he recalled, “I wanted to play with harmonies and sounds.”

He didn’t yet own a synthesizer in 1972 when he made his first solo album, “Irrlicht” (“Will-o’-the-Wisp”). Its three drone-centered, slowly evolving tracks were made with his electric organ and guitar and with manipulated cassette recordings of a student orchestra.

Schulze began playing solo concerts in 1973 and amassed a growing collection of synthesizers. “By nature I am an ‘explorer’ type of musician,” he told Sound and Vision magazine in 2018. “When electronic musical instruments became available, the search was over. I had found the tool I had been looking for: endless opportunities, unlimited sound possibilities, and rhythm and melody at my complete disposal.”

Using drum machines and sequencers, Schulze introduced propulsive electronic rhythms to his music. His vertiginous album “Timewind” (1975) is widely regarded as his early pinnacle. In France, it won the Grand Prix du Disque International award, boosting his record sales with compulsory orders from libraries across the country. He moved to Hambühren, Germany, and built the studio where he would record most of his music over the next decades.

“Timewind” was dedicated to Richard Wagner; its two tracks were titled “Bayreuth Return,” named after the town where Wagner’s operas are presented in an annual festival, and “Wahnfried 1883,” named after Wagner’s villa there. Schulze would later record a series of albums under the names Richard Wahnfried and then Wahnfriet. “The way Wagner’s music introduced me to the use of dynamics, subtlety, drama, and the possible magnitudes of music in general remains unparalleled to me,” he said in 2018.

Another acknowledged influence was Pink Floyd. From 1994 to 2008, Schulze and German producer and composer Pete Namlook collaborated on “The Dark Side of the Moog,” a series of 11 albums drawing on Pink Floyd motifs.

In the mid-1970s, Schulze visited Japan to produce and mix the Far East Family Band, whose members included the electronic musician who would later go solo and achieve fame as Kitaro. He also recorded and performed with Stomu Yamashta’s Go, a group that included English multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Steve Winwood, American guitarist Al Di Meola and American drummer Michael Shrieve. And he continued to pump out solo projects, including the soundtrack for a pornographic film, “Body Love” (1977).

He collaborated through the years with Ash Ra Tempel’s guitarist, Manuel Göttsching. In 2000 Schulze and Göttsching revived the name Ash Ra Tempel for a duo album, “Friendship,” and a concert recorded as “Gin Rosé at the Royal Festival Hall.”

Schulze toured Europe extensively from the 1970s until 2010, though he did not tour the United States. In 1991, he performed for 10,000 people outside Cologne Cathedral.

In 1979, the German division of Warner Bros. Records gave him his own imprint, Innovative Communication, which had one major hit with Ideal, a Berlin band. He started his own label for electronic music, Inteam, in 1984. But he abandoned it three years later after realizing that it was losing money on every act’s recordings except his.

Schulze announced his switch from analog to digital synthesizers with the 1979 album “Dig It.” As sampling technology improved in the 1980s and ’90s, he incorporated samples of voices, instruments and nature sounds into his music. In the 2000s, as faster computers fostered more complex sound processing, he turned to software synthesizers.

In 1994, he released “Totentag” (“Day of the Dead”), an electronic opera; in 2008, he began recording and touring with Lisa Gerrard, a singer and lyricist of the band Dead Can Dance. By the 2010s, he was mixing his new compositions in surround sound.

Schulze is survived by his wife, Elfi Schulze; his sons, Maximilian and Richard; and four grandchildren.

Through his copious projects, Schulze’s music maintained a sense of timing: when to meditate, when to build, when to ease back, when to leap ahead, how to balance suspense and repose, dissonance and consonance.

“I prefer beauty, I always did,” he told an interviewer in 1997. “Of course, I also use brutal or unpleasant sounds sometimes, but only to show the variety. Beauty is more beautiful to a listener if I also show him the ugliness that does exist. I use it as part of the drama of a composition. But I’m not interested in music that shows only ugliness.

“Also,” he added, “I believe that ugliness in music is more easy to achieve than — excuse the expression — ‘real music.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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