Father of sampling’s everlasting memory
The first time listening to Cinema, the drone of the opening tracks, specifically “Canaxis,” lulls you into a semi-awake state as the music washes over your consciousness. The sharp ambient noises are soft enough to stay relaxed but unsettling enough to put you on edge. The twenty-minute track melded a song from a man whose voice sounded more like moaning than singing with Asian string instruments glimmering across the ambient noises. With eyes closed, awaiting the Renaissance-style chorus of the following song, its elegance rings proudly within the first few seconds. As the song progressed, it became clear that it was a recording spliced to repeat over and over in a slightly choppy manner, re-contextualizing the energy of their voices. As those vocals faded into the background, two wailing female voices’ moaning and whining carried such inconceivable pain. My eyes immediately snapped open.
These voices were familiar, and so was this particular style of music. Their words slurred together into guttural moans rather than clear-cut words. The anguished groans of these women, later identified by the song’s title, “Boat Woman Song.” What sounded cacophonous and sour to some Western ears are the nostalgic folk songs that many Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American households played in the comfort of their homes whenever they could. As an outsider looking in, Holger Czukay managed to spotlight the voices he sampled and spliced, no matter how foreign and distant it may sound to his European fanbase. Czukay was greatly interested in the pure musical value of sounds from all over the world, proving his genius and musical inquisitiveness.
Czukay was the bassist and co-founder of the legendary German rock band Can, leaving the group after their ninth studio LP Saw Delight in 1977. Shortly before leaving, he embarked on a solo career as well as many collaborative efforts with many artists, like U-She (who is also his wife), Brian Eno and David Sylvian of the English band Japan, to name a few. After Czukay passed away in September of last year at 79 years old, the German label Grönland planned to release a five-disc box set with selections from his solo and collaborative work in memory of the late musician.
Because Cinema spans Czukay’s entire solo career, the three-hour, 48-minute running time of limited material should be indicative of how deeply committed Czukay was to music and exploring the sampling universe. As one of the first people to ever sample audio and incorporate it into his own songs, Czukay experiments endlessly with sampling random noises or voice recordings to use as textures for his musical paintings rather than as tracing paper for copying ideas. The samples are rarely at the forefront but are so vital to the songs that it would be unrecognizable without them. Take “Hollywood Symphony,” for example. The fifteen-minute-long epic starts out with harsh electric guitar and rumbling drums building up in suspense. However, Czukay’s diffuses all of this gritty energy with his soft voice, replacing it with a beautifully plucked acoustic guitar and synths that foreshadowed the ‘80s. It is peaceful and surreal with euphoric electronic buzzes, but as the drums and strings get quicker, Czukay also starts to leave Easter eggs in the sampled movie recordings.
Most of Czukay’s lyrics are random and nonsensical, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t add anything to the song. His strange ramblings make the songs even quirkier, and this is best seen in songs like “Trench Warfare.” Here, Czukay pairs punchy percussion with equally catchy bass. Everything is light until all of the eccentric textures and Czukay’s strange vocalizations that emulate (or perhaps is) a drug-induced state, pondering “Am I dreaming? / Is this reality?” and other “metaphorical being[s].” With the watery samples, metallic clatter and noisy horns, the entire song is chaotic and gritty, but somehow still benevolent. “Trench Warfare” embodies how Czukay makes no attempt to be the bad-boy type of cool that is associated with rock groups like Can; instead, he delves wholeheartedly into the strangeness of his textures with obvious and unabashed enthusiasm. He is the weird uncle whose genius is never boastful but consistently present.
Cinema also includes two unreleased tracks, one from the start of his solo career and one near the end of it: “Konfigurationen,” recorded in 1960, and “Breath Taking,” recorded in 2008. “Konfigerationen” is a gentle guitar ballad enveloped in white noise. It introduces a light reedy instrument that eventually sounds more like a distorted, lo-fi horn. “Konfigurationen” is gentle and jazzy, unlike much of Czukay’s ecstatic work later on, but still manages to capture the nimbleness that Czukay has with compositions. “Breath Taking,” on the other hand, shows the accumulation of all of Czukay’s quirks and skills over time. There are “oohs” similar to the chants of Tibetian monks, deep bass hits, light chimes and dinging noises and feedback squeals. Karlheinz Stockhausen sings over the textured, droning instrumental until her voice becomes a texture as well. It fades in and out until the track rings back into the Tibetian-style moans. Though both songs are vastly different, they are wonderfully demonstrative of how Czukay’s diverse interests and tastes resulted in a discography that spanned far and wide.
It would take a lifetime to completely discuss all of the intricacies that have been highlighted in Cinema. Whether it be the beautiful simplicity of the bass and drum played in unison or the whistled echo on “The Photo Song,” the surprisingly solemn white noise and melancholy electric guitar melody of “Music in the Air” or the unknown satisfaction that comes with the monotone whispers layered on top of extremely eccentric samples on “Das Massenmedium.” Czukay’s works are so diverse that it is hard to ever categorize him as anything other than a true musician. His passing marks the loss of one of the fathers of experimentation and sampling, especially in his contributions to electronic music and possibly even extending to the sampling so embedded in hip-hop. Holger Czukay’s prophetic work set the stage for all of the music we have today, and Cinema captures the depths of his work in all its glory.