A Quiet Farewell

On Cluster’s forgotten record Curiosum

by Benedikt Eiden


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 1980s. Moreover, it says the album was completed with the simplest of means somewhere in Austria, drawing on concepts from their early days such as ‘randomness’ and ‘spontaneity’. Now, by looking at the postmodern album cover with its references to constructivism, Curiosum could still well be located in the time’s zeitgeist, musically it is indeed a conscious rejection of that, and not seldom I have asked myself how the otherwise exploratory Clustersound, ranging from sprawling synthesizer-improvisations to quirky future pop to a kind of pastoral electronica, has been condensed here in the most consistent way. One almost gets the feeling that the group of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius was in a state of disorientation and in spirit had already bid farewell to the music industry business. In the end, it is only possible to guess how this came about; Curiosum should remain the last studio album for a whole ten years and is something like an absolute submission to sound reduction. And even though most of this, when viewed soberly, has a sketchy or marginal character and is probably only reserved for those followers who, with slightly dubious thoroughness, work their way through entire oeuvres of artists and can best be described with Rainald Goetz’s statement that the fan is structurally an idiot: Curiosum stays a criminally overlooked record in an already underrated body of work.


When Roedelius and Moebius started recording in early 1981, the times had already changed against them. In those days of flashy, exalted NDW, electro-funk and pop, their once pioneering approach to electronic music must have seemed mulchy and dated. Whether it was out of resignation, melancholia, or even better, black humour 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! Apart from two primitive – somewhat goofy – drum machine studies (which, in their radicality, evoke nothing but enthusiasm in me,) there are also those tracks that surely can be attributed to ‘randomness’ and ‘spontaneity’ and that were certainly not keen on raising the group’s market value in any way. On the contrary: pieces like “Helle Melange” or “Seltsame Gegend” seem to exist only in the most fleeting way; are inner landscapes which hang onto like dream fragments with their quiet, mythic melodies, causing an effect not too dissimilar from the Hauntology sounds of contemporary acts like 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 with a production created ‘under the simplest of means’. How should one otherwise explain this (sometimes absurd) naive music constituted by flickering little synth lines and a drum machine that is more throbbing and stumbling than providing a solid rhythmic base? And although in retrospect, it may have been other Cluster albums that were personally more important – and objectively better – for the development of my listening habits, especially when it comes to electronic music, it is still this one (titled Curiosum, by the way) that somehow seems the closest to me in its deliberate departure of big talk and grand gestures, in its provisional habit and also strange humour. It should be noted that at those fringes of the group’s career (which apparently 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 passing over the listener. As if it all were only an image of certain music – and often that very idea is quite enough for me.


Roedelius once said that some of his most formative impressions were primarily those from his early childhood explorations of his homeland. Born in 1934, he had experienced the roar of the bombs, the grenades and all the madness in Berlin, Friedenau, during the Second World War. In ‘43, he and his family were then evacuated and brought to East Prussia in the countryside. There, Roedelius, 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 could listen intimately; that was given to me.” These years, Roedelius continues, had a significant influence on his “sound memory” and “listening consciousness”. 


While his earlier works with long-time partner, the late and great Moebius, were still clearly influenced by the polemic spirit of the ’68 era, improvisation and a tendency towards the cosmic, this ‘impulsive’ streak soon disappeared after their move to the Forst Studio amidst the idyllic and rural Weserbergland in 1972. There, 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 their (new) positioning in the world. Looking at the photos of these years, especially at the romanticist record cover of 1976’s Sowiesoso, one could think 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 their refusal of the zeitgeist and consequently their turning into calmer areas of an ever faster developing music industry. The musicologist Christopher Small once wrote regarding the minimalists of the 1960s: their reduced, repetitive sounds were a kind of a “silent criticism of the state of the world.” And so one would now like imagining the two musicians of Cluster in their rural home recording studio, far from the madness of the world, where they unwaveringly twisting their little wheels and knobs; and now and then Brian Eno would join them to casually record some of the better Ambient albums of the last thirty years (and at the same time, the profitable collaboration also would provide a solid foundation for their way of life.) Throughout the 1980s, however, they hardly found any appeal. I think it wasn’t until Julian Cope’s book Krautrocksampler in 1995 that a number of musicians, such as Ricardo Villalobos, Gudrun Gut or Tortoise were to refer to Cluster again. Among the limited number of those who still embraced them at the time, one might imagine Hamburg’s underground and industrial institution Uli Rehberg in his nutty record shop Unterm Durchschnitt, who, due to the austere impression of many of the tracks on Curiosum, probably couldn’t contain himself any longer. 


When on 1974’s Zuckerzeit – arguably Cluster’s most accessible work – melodies are heard which, according to Thomas Mießgang in Die Zeit, were “acoustic vignettes in a music box sound” and “worked like micro-cells from which repetition patterns are woven”, then here the micro-cells running on low volume and its repetition patterns are gradually wearing off as the album fades out with the hushed, almost inaudible “Ufer”. And on the miniature arrangement of the music box, you recognize two contently grinning figures who have already let go, who have long since left the days of madness behind.


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