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Berlin School of Electronic Music

Berlin School was a development of electronic music in the 1970s shaped by Berlin-based artists like Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel. The style is characterized by soaring electric guitar or synthesizer melodies in high-register accompanied by complex, shifting analog sequencer bass lines. The lead soloist's warm, human improvisations were a counterpoint to the cold, robotic precision of the bass-lines. Sound effects such as wind, and washes of Mellotron choir, flute, or strings were often added for color. Experimental or ambient stretches were not rare either, especially as intros. Most works were instrumental, vocals were used sparingly. Vintage Berlin School tracks typically ran about twenty or thirty minutes, filling one side of a vinyl LP. The genre was so thoroughly identified with the long form that a general shift to shorter pieces in the 1980s seemed to herald the death of the movement. After the coming of the compact disc "retro" artists were no longer limited by the need to flip over a vinyl record. Some newer works run continuously as a single track for almost 80 minutes.

An outgrowth of Krautrock, Berlin School was so named because most of its early practitioners were based out of Berlin, Germany. The genre's identification with space music made it distinct from the more percussive and rhythm-oriented Düsseldorf School which included Can, Cluster, Kraftwerk, and Neu!.

Berlin School was and still is a relatively self-contained style that has not had nearly the impact on music in general that Kraftwerk has had on synth pop and techno, but ambient, electronica, New Age, and trance are partially rooted in Berlin School. The genre is sometimes considered a sub-branch of New Age or ambient, though it predates the widespread usage of both terms.

In 1963, years before the invention of the Moog synthesizer, the UK television show Doctor Who had a theme constructed from tape recordings of oscillators, which sounds very much like Berlin School. In 1971 Pink Floyd recorded an instrumental titled One of These Days for the LP Meddle that sounded very similar to the Dr. Who theme (but used two bass guitars interacting with a tape delay system). Its use of wind and other incidental sound effects foreshadowed (or possibly inspired) the Berlin sound.

Tangerine Dream's former drummer Klaus Schulze recorded the track Totem in 1973 but did not release it until 1975 in Picture Music (after Tangerine Dream's seminal Phaedra charted well in the United Kingdom). Totem featured an ARP Odyssey synthesizer utilising the Sample & Hold function (combined with tape echo) that resembled the sounds produced by his later sequencer work.

Analog sequencers were used by Pete Townshend on The Who's Baba O'Riley in 1971 and by Pink Floyd on 1973's Dark Side of the Moon, but the classic era of Berlin School commenced with the release of Phaedra by Tangerine Dream in 1974, their first on Virgin Records, and closed with Hyperborea by the same group in 1983. Bandmember Christopher Franke is credited with turning the Modular Moog's control-voltage analog sequencer into a live performance instrument and launching the Berlin sound.

In 1975 Tangerine Dream more or less reigned alone with a studio album, Rubycon, and the live album Ricochet. Klaus Schulze delivered the popular but transitional LP Timewind. It contained the side-long track Bayreuth Return, recorded in one take, structured around a sequencer pattern transposed and manipulated in real time.

Moondawn by Klaus Schulze in 1976 is often regarded as his first real entry in this genre, joined by Jean Michel Jarre with Oxygène in the same year. Tangerine Dream delivered a studio work, Stratosfear, and the soundtrack to the film Sorcerer.

In 1977 Ashra (Manuel Göttsching) released New Age of Earth, along with Michael Hoenig's Departure from the Northern Wasteland, and Vangelis' Spiral. Tangerine Dream toured the United States and released a double live album, Encore, with three sides of Berlin School and a side of proto-Ambient.

Tangerine Dream drew some fire from fans for resorting to vocals on 1978's Cyclone, but "Madrigal Meridian" (which occupies the entire second half of that disk) is a slab of pure Berlin School similar to the shorter "Frank Herbert" track from Klaus Schulze' classic double LP X. Jean Michel Jarre's Equinoxe relies on the sequencer for more than half of the album.

Each artist had a unique signature. Tangerine Dream's extremely complex sequencer lines used a variety of tone colors: the lines were created out of simple sequences by real-time manipulation, with the analog sequencer basically being treated as a performance instrument in its own right. Jarre's galloping sequences were heavy on the bass. Michael Hoenig's sequences (often several run in parallel) constantly and steadily changed, often creating polyrhythmic phasing patterns resembling some of Philip Glass' and Steve Reich's minimalist work. Klaus Schulze preferred his sequences to be an octave or two higher than Hoenig's, shorter and more hypnotic. He tended, however, to transpose sequences in real time from a controller keyboard, thus introducing modulations in his pieces.

Between 1979 and 1984 Tangerine Dream exhausted most of the possibilities of this genre and began to record more accessible, short-form and increasingly New Age-like tracks for albums such as Exit, Le Parc and Underwater Sunlight. Jean-Michel Jarre delivered his ultimate sequencer statement with Magnetic Fields in 1981 and then began to record rock-oriented tracks that would please more fans in a concert setting. As the technology improved and MIDI came into the picture, musicians began to see synthesizers as a means to have the sounds of traditional instruments available at the touch of a button. It became apparent that the Berlin sound had arisen from work-arounds to technological limitations that were rapidly disappearing.

But some newer artists began to deliberately record in the mode of Berlin School from a genuine affection and budding nostalgia for the genre. In 1988, five years after Tangerine Dream left the Virgin label, Wavestar released their acclaimed CD Moonwind. The clean picked-bass and synthesizer trills of "Chase the Evening" distilled the Berlin sound to its essence. Even Tangerine Dream continues to send an occasional nod in that direction, such as the track "Culpa Levis" from Dream Mixes 2: TimeSquare in 1997.

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