On the paper sign of set times at the entrance to the back concert space at Amsterdam Bar in downtown St. Paul Monday night, the headliner, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, was listed to perform at 8:15. And 9:00. And 9:45 as well.
That was both whimsical and apt. Roedelius is one of the great German synthesizer pioneers of the 70s—he co-founded krautrock heavyweights Cluster and Harmonia, collaborated with Eno (alongside Cluster partner Dieter Moebius), put out over 100 releases with his name on them. His Discogs page weighs a ton. (So did a very well-stocked merch table full of CDs, not to mention the side boxes of vinyl.)
A synthesizer fantasist with a taste for both distended tones and gentle admonitions to “turn off our minds and open our hearts” (to paraphrase something he said from the stage), Roedelius is a real-deal electronic-music legend, and seeing him in a comfortable setting (the back half of Amsterdam was full of chairs) would have been a treat no matter what.
But while his rhetoric and his sounds may be lofty, Roedelius carried himself without fanfare. The listed set times, as it turns out, were off: At 8:40, the stage was bare apart from a couple old synths and a laptop and mixer on a table, wires galore. (This was minutes after Paris 1919, a six-piece electro-acoustic chamber ensemble led by Chris Strouth, finished—I was impressed by how quickly their equipment was cleared.) Roedelius, in a jacket and red plaid scarf, materialized onstage, typing into an iPad and checking his phone, then retreated. Finally, at 8:52 he tapped a few notes on his Nord Stage 2 synthesizer, tried out some tones, then said a quizzical, “Let’s do it?” Show on.
What Roedelius did, mainly, was move between a handful of tonal and timbral home bases, from orchestral fanfares to sonar tones and submarine bells, and the shifts rendered it all as alien air. With his striped glasses and professorial air, Roedelius was intent and curious, a patient conjurer. He’d play some notes on the synth and then phase, alter, smear, pixelate them; then they’d be overridden by another dizzy bell tone or undulant undertow. Motifs repeated even if parts (usually) didn’t; often they were meditative, playful, tender. Playing the Nord programmed to a crystalline electric-piano bell tone, Roedelius showed us the remnant of an age when technology was, especially in music, feared as a usurper of humanity. Decades later, having seen technology do far worse things than even his most tepid records could ever have managed, Roedelius communicated a delicate human touch.
After close to 40 minutes of this, Roedelius’s music came to a slowly decaying stop; there was a good ten seconds’ silence before the headliner finally said, in his heavy accent, “Dat was de first part.” A couple hundred-odd polite Minnesotans clapped with relief. (A colleague recently visiting from New York expressed an interest in living in Minneapolis in part because show-goers turn off their phones and pay attention. This was like a comic exaggeration of that.)
At quarter to ten, Roedelius returned to the stage his wife, Christine Roedelius, who recited a poem he had written in German. Once the audience grokked their intent, its noise cut by about 80 percent, then for good after Roedelius urged: “Do it, woman!” As she read, a handful of coiled flutters from his machines darted out and then back. She finished quickly, and he read a statement of his own—hearts over heads, etc. Then back to the music. This time around, he teased out some beats, eccentrically irregular if not precisely funky; one distended snare crack resembles a bare tree branch slapping the side of a bus over the usual wowing sine waves and ghost bells.
Finally, after a long spell playing contemplative figures on the Nord—this time in natural piano mode—Roedelius threw the music back over to a high pitched chirp that bounced and echoed before fading. This time no one waited to clap. “We did it!” Roedelius crowed after taking a photo of the crowd. “It vorked!”
The crowd: Definitely getting on in age (hi!), as befits fans of someone who made his first synthesizer records when DJ culture was just getting its legs, though I recognized a couple of younger faces from recent nights out, which is encouraging. (For example, this would have been fascinating to the younger crowds that go to the Kitty Cat Klub for the Tuesday-night analog-synth-heavy SpaceSex parties.) Roughly two-thirds of the crowd wore glasses.
Overheard in the crowd: After the show, at the opposite end of the room from the heaving merch table: “He’s got, like, 80 albums.”