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Interview With Karl Bartos

Got a chance to catch up with synth legend, Karl Bartos.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Karl helped propel the use of the synthesizer with Kraftwerk on albums like The Man-Machine and Computer World. Along with Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider and Wolfgang Flür, Karl would inspire an entire generation of electronic musicians..

In the 1990s, Karl would leave Kraftwerk and embark a solo career, continuing to collaborate with a number of musicians, like Bernard Sumner of New Order and Andy McCluskey of OMD. His discography is vast and spans decades.

Below, we talk about his latest release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and more.

If you’re curious to read more about Karl after this interview, check out The Sound of the Machine – My Life in Kraftwerk and Beyond by Omnibus Press.

Without further ado...

Karl Bartos in 1981 by Bettina Michael.
Karl Bartos in 1981 by Bettina Michael.

Synth History: What music were you listening to in your teenage years?

Karl Bartos: Like in every family, it was my mother who sang me my first songs. That’s the way it’s always been, and presumably it’ll always stay that way.

The medium of those days was still radio, to start with. But I didn’t regard the radio as a transmitter of music or news; it just stood on the sideboard and made sound, somehow. What the content of that sound was, didn’t really seem important to me. It was more a question of ‘radio on – radio off’. The device didn’t make much of an impression on me. Then came the day when my father surprised us with a black-and-white television set. American series flickered across the screen: Lassie, Fury and 77 Sunset Strip. Or the German children’s programmes, crime shows and kitschy films. It all started 1964 when I heard the Beatles. They changed my life! They came from space totally unexpected and hit my Kinderzimmer! A revelation. I wanted to feel how they sounded. And the wheel started turning...

Synth History: Do you remember the first time you heard a synthesizer in a song?

Karl Bartos: I recall it was 1968 when I heard ‘Switched-On Bach’ by Wendy Carlos. I was already a huge Beatles fan back then and Revolver and Sgt. Pepper really changed everything. I found Wendy Carlos’ album to be a kind of comedy, which of course was also due to the cover. Stanley Kubrick then choose this synthesizer sound to musically illustrate the irony in A Clockwork Orange in 1971. Although with the 9th Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Psyché Rock by Pierre Henry
Psyché Rock by Pierre Henry

Synth History: What was the music scene like in Germany in the late 1960s and mid 1970s and what did bands think about incorporating synths into their music?

Karl Bartos: I don’t know what bands thought about synthesizers. I’ve heard electronic instruments on pop records like Psyché Rock by Pierre Henry (1967); The Beatles had a Mellotron on "Strawberry Fields" – that was 1967 and Moog synthesizers on Abbey Road in 1969. When I began my musical studies in 1970, I got to know the music of Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen. There were a lot of electronic pioneers. It is all good documented in books and on film.

Synth History: Can you tell me about how you joined Kraftwerk? 

Karl Bartos: My professor at the Robert Schumann Conservatory said after a lesson, "I got a call from the Kraftwerk group. They’re looking for a classical percussionist for their concerts. Have you heard of them? Do you know what kind of thing they do? Anyway, I recommended you." So I went to their studio and that was it.

Synth History: Can you recall some of the synthesizers you were using then?

Karl Bartos: Well, the core of our instruments between 1974 and 1981 were Minimoog, Polymoog, ARP Odyssey, ARP 2600, Korg PS-3100, Vako Orchestron... and the 16 step Synthanorma sequencer. The Emulator sampler came into the studio in 1981/82.

Synth History: What do you think of synthesizers now, versus when you were first starting out?  

Karl Bartos: The small analog synthesizers from EMS, Moog and ARP were the first relatively inexpensive devices on the market. They were invented by electronic engineers and manufactured for musicians to play them intuitively. The settings were written down on paper and were used to visualize the sound settings.

The secret of our creative years was that we aestheticized the technology using relatively simple means. Imagine a photo of the Eiffel Tower. You can see the steel structure with 2,500,000 rivets and all the trimmings. At the same time we perceive the sky, the sun, houses, cars, people, animals, etc. We also wanted this aestheticization of technology in the music and played and recorded most of it by hand. The analog step sequencer - musical box! - resulted in partial quantization that felt human in the context. This corresponded to the man-machine credo and still breathed the tradition in Do Re Mi. You know, in contrast to the medium of film, repetitions often act like a kind of time amplifier that reinforces what is heard and is perceived as trance-like.

When the computer arrived in the studio everything changed. Up to that point, the band had composed all of its work on analog instruments. But while we were programming the computer we stopped listening to each other. We lost our physical feeling, no longer looking each other in the eye, only staring at the computer monitor. The interface between man and machine was the PC keyboard or the mouse, held by one of us while the others more or less passively watched what happened on the computer screen. We interacted with the digital machines by typing and clicking - swiping hadn’t yet been introduced - and our verbal communication was reduced to an exchange of information about technical procedures. In this situation, ‘copy & paste’ became our manifesto. Copying and duplicating data didn’t have nearly the power required to supersede the artistic spirit of composition with the musical content created in this way.

One might say that the studio had finally adapted to the legend around it. All the mechanical stuff of the past – the way we had once invented our music – really was totally off the agenda. Instead, we scanned analog signals and translated them into digital data, technically optimized them and sorted them into neat categories. Then we programmed – often independently of each other – imitations of the musical elements and shapes of our originals. In our ‘Kling Klang Future Lab’, computers were more like parasites, absorbing and destroying our collective creativity.

Synth History: It’s kind of crazy that today you can have a synth on your phone. I actually downloaded your app, Mini-Composer. What was the process like making an iPhone app and would you make another one?

Karl Bartos: It was fun to release it but I’d rather play the piano or the guitar nowadays. Machines have this autoplay algorithm. They always play back what you put in immediately, but sometimes, you need silence and time to think so that the subconscious comes up with something.

Synth History: You’ve collaborated with a number of artists, like Bernard Sumner of New Order, guitarist Johnny Marr, Andy McClusky of OMD and more - big fans of their’s, too - what are the biggest differences when it comes to collaborating versus making your own music? 

Karl Bartos: When I make music, invent music with musician friends like Bernard, Johnny or Andy, it's hard to describe. I think people's ability to combine their creativity is what makes us a human being. When I sit at the piano or play the guitar or throw some ideas into the computer, I am alone, but not lonely. I look at the world and try to translate what I feel and think into music. That's fine, but once you've experienced creative sparks flying between people, you'll want to do it again and again.

the cabinet or dr caligari

Synth History: You’ve been a longtime admirer of Weimar-era* culture. Can you tell me what that era means to you, and how it inspires your music?

[Editor's note: The Weimar Era was a period of cultural and artistic innovation in Germany from 1919 to 1933, marked by the rise of the Bauhaus movement, German Expressionist cinema, and advancements in literature, theater and music. Set against social and political upheaval, it ended with the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933, which led to the suppression of much of the cultural experimentation and innovation that characterized the period.]

Karl Bartos: The historical context of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari cast a spell on me: the horror and madness of the First World War are reflected in Caligari. The killing industry was invented. And those who survived the trenches were severely traumatized. We meet them in the madhouse scene. For the inmates of this institution, nothing was like it used to be.

Synth History: Can you tell me about the process of making your soundtrack?

Karl Bartos: This expressionist silent film is considered a milestone in film art. At the beginning I asked myself the question, How do I transform silence into art? Yes, I really have that in my head. In other words, How do I support the film sonically? How do I make it even more accessible with sound?

When I got to know the first psychological thriller in film history better, I realized that it is a product of the 20th century, but the story goes back to the 18th century. So my film sound has the task of connecting these time periods with each other. It quickly became clear to me that only the sound of a symphony orchestra - albeit electronically generated and modeled - was suitable for this. So I consciously place myself in the tradition of classical music, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Steve Reich.

The plan was to invent an acoustic code for this 100-year-old film artwork that would translate it into the here and now. Of course, the new film sound has to fit the action, no matter whether we are spectators or walk around in our imaginations in the world being told. Because people today perceive films audiovisually. So I wrote music - which also includes a sound architecture - that uses the human voice, sounds and noises to eliminate the separation between image and sound that was not possible at the time.

Synth History: You’re touring Dr. Caligari this year, what have the shows been like? 

Karl Bartos: My musical partner, sound engineer Mathias Black and I act live during the film screening. The story of the demonic Dr. Caligari and his hypnotized somnambulist takes place in an unreal dream world and Mathias’ job as sound director is not only to design the respective sound systems, but also to control and modulate the multi-track audio recording of our transformed film orchestra and the sound design using precise knowledge of the score.

I personally play various orchestral parts – violins, brass and piano – from the score live. Like a film, the sound recording captures an event that we can replay over and over again. In contrast, a concert is unique and unrepeatable.

At this stage, our silent film soundscape will change somewhat from performance to performance. We improvised with some elements during the premiere and changed the sound of the music in places.

Synth History: Do you prefer writing and recording or being on stage?

Karl Bartos: Today I love composing more than playing, I think.

Synth History: Do you prefer analog synths, digital synths, or a combination of both? 

Karl Bartos: The analog synths are more like traditional instruments. The digital machines are extremely powerful, however, they require a large amount of time and effort on their own and take up all of people's energy for administrative processes. One should always remember that the digital universe is only a looking-glass of nature. I don’t want to go into the topic of AI now – that’s another interview. But the business model of digital stock corporations has little in common with artists. It's more like a giant conveyor belt, a growth machine. All I can say is that when working with computers, you should definitely not forget how to shut them down. Technology doesn’t actually play a crucial role. It’s always about the emotion conveyed by music. This is true. It is said that music is the physical expression of the human spirit.

When I was young I was addicted to music machines, though. I still have my old synthesizers, the Moog, the ARP etc. and I think they are really the best. The Minimoog in particular is already a timeless musical instrument that has left behind this strange idea of progress without any tradition of digital companies.

Today I compose more in my head. Piano and guitar support my creativity. I orchestrate the synthesizers during production.

By the way, John Cage once said that he noticed that technology was getting smaller and smaller over time. As a result, that would mean that it would disappear completely again at some point. Well, the future might be digital but to me making music is more about listening, feeling, playing, thinking.

Synth History: Last question! What are three albums that you think everyone should listen to at least once in their lifetime (apart from your own); and three films that you think everyone should watch at least once in their lifetime?

Karl Bartos: Ha, this is a hypothetical question. Let me give a modular answer then. When it comes to making aesthetic recommendations, I would always take a step back and look at the spectrum. Let's look/listen to the musical development from Johann Sebastian Bach to Steve Reich and select key compositions from the eras. For example:

J.S. Bach – St. Matthew Passion,1727

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – The Magic Flute, 1791

Ludwig van Beethoven – 5th Symphony, 1808

Richard Wagner – Tristan and Isolde, 1865

Claude Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, 1894

Igor Stravinsky – Le sacre du printemps, 1913

Karlheinz Stockhausen – Gesang der Jünglinge, 1956

Steve Reich – Music for 18 musicians, 1976

When it comes to film, I prefer to stay in Germany and zoom in on the Weimar period:

Robert Wiene – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

F. W. Murnau – Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922

Walther Ruttmann – Berlin – Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, 1927

Fritz Lang – Metropolis, 1927

Fritz Lang – M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, 1931

Finally, a quote from Douglas Adams that I really love, "Beethoven tells you what it's like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it's like to be human. Bach tells you what it's like to be the universe."

Grab a ticket to one of Karl's upcoming shows here.

Interview conducted by Danz.

Photo by Bettina Michael.


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