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Conrad Schnitzler (1937–2011)

by Geeta Dayal

Photos of Conrad Schnitzler, taken by Ken Montgomery in Schnitzler's Berlin apartment, 1983; all photographs courtesy: Ken Montgomery

In the early 1960s, Conrad Schnitzler met Joseph Beuys in a bar in Düsseldorf. Beuys was at the start of his legendary run as a professor of ‘monumental sculpture’ at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie. Schnitzler was a sailor, who specialized in fixing the engines of merchant ships in nearby ports. Beuys took a liking to Schnitzler, inviting him to be one of his students. Schnitzler enrolled at the Kunstakademie, but dropped out a year or two later, much to Beuys’ dismay. If, as Beuys famously entreated, ‘everybody is an artist’, why did he have to go to school to be one? Schnitzler travelled for a few years, making metal sculptures and performance art. Then he took the metal sculptures he built during his time with Beuys, which he had covered in stark planes of black and white paint, dragged them all to a grassy field, and left them there.

Schnitzler during his days as a performance artist, c.1979.

Schnitzler made his way to Berlin, where he made the transition from sculpture to electronic music. But Conrad Schnitzler – or ‘Con’, as he liked to call himself – never liked to be called a musician; he preferred to use terms such as ‘intermedia artist’. He didn’t really align himself with other artists, either; despite associating with many prominent members of Fluxus, including Al Hansen, he never called himself a Fluxus artist. In 1968, Schnitzler established the legendary Zodiak Free Arts Lab on the Hallesches Ufer in Kreuzberg, the cradle for Berlin’s budding Krautrock scene, but he rarely talked about it in retrospect. He was a founding member of Kluster – the roots of which would become the group Cluster, a few years later – and of Tangerine Dream, but left both groups soon after forming them. Despite releasing nearly 100 records over the course of his career, he never once signed a record contract. In the 1970s, he released a string of increasingly impressive solo records, but at the seeming height of his powers, in the early 1980s, he grew increasingly reclusive, rarely leaving his home in the outskirts of Berlin. In a statement Schnitzler penned in 2001, he wrote: ‘I never leave my hometown. I do l’art pour l’art. I don’t need popularity. I don’t like to answer questions.’

Schnitzler’s refusal to align himself with any group – whether it be a label, a band, a movement – stemmed, in part, from his memories of being a child in Germany during the time of the Third Reich. ‘Because of being a young child during World War II, he had an extreme aversion to any groups getting together to promote anything,’ says his old friend and collaborator Ken ‘GenKen’ Montgomery. Schnitzler was also too individualistic, too idiosyncratic, to be content in any group for very long. ‘He was someone who couldn’t submit to any rules,’ remembers his longtime friend Wolfgang Seidel, who was the drummer, for a time, in the outspoken leftist rock band Ton Steine Scherben. Seidel met Schnitzler in 1969, first playing with him in the loose collective known as Eruption, before going on to collaborate with him on many other albums, often under the name Wolf Sequenza. ‘On one side he was eager to create new things,’ says Seidel, ‘but he had no interest in doing so according to rules defined by someone else, by tradition, or by a market [...] in sculpture, you’re in a long tradition, which for Conrad wasn’t so attractive. But this new music was a field that was very, very open, in that day. He never stopped being someone who worked in fine arts. His little studio was somehow a sculpture. He built everything – he built the furniture. Everything was created with some sort of master plan in his mind. The ideas he had, like the suit with the built-in cassette players, and the helmet with a loudspeaker in it – normal musicians would never have these ideas.’

Schnitzler was part German and part Italian, and sometimes said that he owed his rational, mathematical side to his German father and his feisty, passionate side to his Italian mother. There was Conrad Schnitzler, the friendly, cheerful family man who cared deeply for his wife and three children. Then there was Conrad Schnitzler, the avant-garde performance artist with a speaker mounted on his head, who once punched a journalist at the Venice Biennale for asking him a stupid question. When I corresponded with him, in 2008, he first told me that he had no time to answer questions, and then sent me an email that was nearly 30 pages long. In it was a long letter, along with artist statements he had written, clippings, memories from his childhood, detailed lists of equipment he was using, extended essays and lists of his favorite artists and musicians. In the letter, which was sad and poetic, he told me that he knew his life was ending, and that he had no interest in the past; he was always searching for a new beginning. ‘I live for today,’ he told me.

Schnitzler had a radical, sculptural approach to sound, an approach that descended from his time with Beuys and his time spent toiling in factories and engine rooms. During his days as a sailor in West Germany, Schnitzler listened to the radio at night, tuning into the likes of Stockhausen and Nono on Herbert Eimert’s pioneering Neue Musik broadcasts. He drew connections between the music he heard on the radio and the music of the ship engines. ‘He knew the sound of the ship’s engine so intimately, every creak and sound that the engine made,’ says Montgomery. ‘He knew by listening what he had to do to fix it. When the ships would dock in the ports – when they’d shut down for the night – they would have their foghorn signal. I remember him talking about standing on the deck of the ship and hearing this, when the ship would shut down. Basically, it was this fantastic sonic experience for him that was coming from all directions.’ Over the course of his life, Schnitzler tried to recapture that experience of being on the deck of a ship, making music that felt like it was coming from all sides. In his studio, which he painted black, he surrounded himself with speakers.

In the mid-1960s, Schnitzler met Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who became his bandmate in Kluster a few years later. ‘He was like a father to his child to me in Berlin when I was in a miserable situation,’ remembers Roedelius. ‘He motivated me to become an artist.’ Roedelius stayed with Schnitzler’s family for a while. ‘We worked together to earn our living in Berlin,’ says Roedelius, ‘as well as in Corsica, where we worked as roofers building bungalows in a camp for nudists in the mountains.’ Schnitzler’s first musical project, which also involved Roedelius, was called Geräusche, which translates as ‘Noises’ – one can only imagine what they sounded like, because no recordings exist. In 1968, Roedelius and the collective he aligned himself with at the time, Human Being, helped Schnitzler start the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, but Schnitzler was the heart of the project. ‘Con started the Zodiak by himself,’ says Roedelius. ‘We (at the time ‘Human Being’) got involved, but the main activity to find and rent the rooms of this venue came from him. I was in Paris when Con called me to come and help renovate the venue, and when I arrived everything was almost ready, but the Human Being guys (Boris Schaak and Elke Lixfield, mainly) helped Con to do the work.’

Schnitzler photographed with two Buddha statuettes on his knees c.1982

The Zodiak was, like many of the things Con did before or since, painted white and black. ‘It was two rooms,’ recalls Seidel. ‘One was white – when you entered, you walked into a white room. At the entrance there were several pinball machines and TV sets. And there was just a white room with furniture that was taken from everywhere [...] the second room was completely black, and had no furniture at all; it had four scaffolds painted black that could be used for sitting down or could be used for stages.’

The Zodiak wasn’t just a performance space, though many key performances happened there. The white room was designed to be the space where communication happened, where like minds collided. Kluster – and by extension Cluster – rose from the Zodiak; fellow member Dieter Moebius, an art student in Berlin who was then working as a cook, met Roedelius and Schnitzler there. In 1969, Kluster played a marathon 12-hour concert in an art gallery above a shopping center in Berlin. It was a crazy stunt, but it worked; the gallery was crowded all night, according to Roedelius. ‘The 12-hour concert was Con’s idea, a great idea,’ says Roedelius. ‘The 12 hours were the loudest 12 hours of my life!’ remembers Moebius.

Moebius and Roedelius soon splintered off to form Cluster, exploring softer, more melodic avenues than their noisier predecessor. Schnitzler remained resolutely anti-commercial, but the issues between them were more aesthetic than financial. ‘In the beginning, it was no problem to work together,’ says Moebius. ‘We split because he really was making very harsh sounds, not because he didn’t want to make money.’

‘He said he wanted to break up their sound,’ says Montgomery. ‘He came with a bunch of metal pots and he put microphones in, and he put stones in them, and was connecting them to tape delay, and he was playing a lot of noise and trying to play louder than them, and making it more like a factory or the engine of the ship. He was trying to make a cacophony, or noise, and they were trying to play an organ, or a guitar riff, or whatever.’

Though the Zodiak itself was short-lived, the mythic status of the space only grew with time. Schnitzler didn’t really talk about it. ‘Con never said “Oh, I started the Zodiak club,” says Montgomery. ‘He was really into starting things and not taking credit for it. He’s notorious for getting major labels interested in his music and then just being like “Oh, forget it, I’d rather do it for a friend.”’

Schnitzler was also briefly in Tangerine Dream, appearing on the album Electronic Meditation, released in 1970. One of the instruments that Schnitzler played during his short stint in that band was a metal cup, which he filled with shards of glass. Schnitzler’s distaste for conventional melodies and instrumentation ran deep, back to his childhood. Schnitzler’s father played music, according to Seidel, but whenever young Conrad tried to play an instrument, his father would grab the instrument from his hands to show him how to play it properly.

In the early 1970s, Schnitzler found his instrument of choice – the newly released EMS Synthi A, a portable analogue synthesizer that fit in a briefcase. It was essentially a slightly cheaper VCS3, the synthesizer that Brian Eno was using with Roxy Music at the same time. Schnitzler initiated a ‘colour series’ of records, beginning with Schwarz (Black), a 1971 recording with Kluster, sometimes also confusingly titled Eruption, and proceeding to solo territory with Rot (Red, 1973), Blau (Blue, 1974), Grün (Green, 1981), and Gelb (Yellow, 1981). ‘I really love the colour records, especially Rot,’ says Keith Fullerton Whitman, who released his own tribute to Rot in 2000. ‘It’s very unusual. It was rhythmic, but it didn’t adhere to this pulse-oriented Berlin school thing; it was still very free. I think it was the first time I heard all these unsynchronized rhythms going at once, and it made perfect sense; it wasn’t this random crossing of things. A very schizophrenic record, in a way that I could really relate to at the time.’

Schnitzler playing his self-built cassette tape organ the ‘Kassettenorgel’, c.1985

The peak of Conrad Schnitzler’s solo work in the 1970s, and one of the great peaks of his career, was the album Con, produced by Peter Baumann and released in 1978. Also known as Ballet Statique (Static Ballet), the album was the most elegant statement realized by Schnitzler, and still stands as a timeless work of electronic music.

In 1979, Schnitzler served a brief but influential two-week appointment as an art teacher at Hamburg’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste. Thomas Fehlmann, who had recently started a band with some of his art-school compatriots called Palais Schaumburg, was one of Schnitzler’s students. ‘He set up a little studio in his room and invited everybody to come along,’ recalls Fehlmann. ‘I was really interested in this idea of a studio, and of electronic music making. I found him to be a really open person […] it wasn’t electronics only, or exclusively. It was, ‘Let’s see how we can get these guys who usually make photos or paint or make films to make music.’ We collected quite a few recordings after his two-week stint in Hamburg, and we decided to make a record.’ That record was Das ist Schönheit (This is Beauty), a double LP that featured several current or future members of Palais Schaumburg, including Fehlmann, Holger Hiller, and Walter Thielsch – along with many others.

In the 1980s, Schnitzler became more reclusive. He continued to churn out albums at an astonishing rate. Each album was different from the last; each was on a different label. His 1980 record Auf Dem Schwarzen Kanal was a mangled new wave 12-inch released on the major label RCA. ‘With that RCA record in 1980, he didn’t get paid a cent,’ says Montgomery. ‘Because when he went in the room to sign the contract, he wouldn’t sign the contract. He would say, ‘Here’s my music. If you make money, give me some money.’ He didn’t sign the contract, so he didn’t get money.’

The theatrical cover featured Schnitzler in full black and white face paint. The look was au courant for the time – in make-up, he bore a striking resemblance to Klaus Nomi – but it was a long-running part of Schnitzler’s whole aesthetic. Schnitzler would paint his whole studio black – the floors, the ceilings – and only wear white. Or he would paint his entire apartment white, and only wear black.

Music was catching up to where Conrad Schnitzler had been in the flower-power 1960s, with industrial groups such as Throbbing Gristle in England and Einstürzende Neubauten in Germany. Put Auf Dem Schwarzen Kanal on side by side with the Neue Deutsche Welle groups of the time, such as DAF, and it seems less strange. Schnitzler was already bored with this, coming up with fantastical new visions of what to do with his music, like playing at Yankee Stadium with 50,000 cassette players in the audience. He wanted to do cassette concerts with trees, too, perhaps inspired by Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks project for Documenta 7 in Kassel in 1982.

Schnitzler at Generator gallery, New York, pointing to the ‘NOW PLAYING’ sign, 1989

In 1989, Schnitzler ventured to New York City, in a rare stateside appearance, to visit Montgomery at his space, Generator, a gallery dedicated to sound art. But Schnitzler didn’t advertise his arrival. ‘When Con came to New York, he didn’t say he was going to do a concert or that he was going to perform,’ says Montgomery. ‘I just put an ad in the Village Voice, saying that Conrad Schnitzler will be at Generator on this particular night. He was just entertaining people, talking, telling stories [...] occasionally someone would say, ‘When are you going to play?’ He had a sign on the wall that said ‘NOW PLAYING’. When anyone would ask, he would get his conductor’s wand and point it to the sign that said ‘NOW PLAYING’. This went on ‘til midnight. At midnight, he put a black bandanna on his head and sat in the corner and wouldn’t speak to anybody. And when everybody finally left, he just took off the bandanna.’

Schnitzler continued to make records through the next two decades, up until four days before his death. He inserted himself more heavily into the production and distribution process, self-releasing his own CD-Rs. Shortly before he died of cancer on August 4, he initiated the ‘Global Living Project’, sending strands of his hair to far-flung geographic locations throughout the world. ‘I send my DNA (my hair) to different places in the world,’ he wrote. ‘This means I’m all over the world. I’m everywhere, even when I’ll be dead. Nobody must come to my grave in Berlin. My friends can visit me in the whole world now.’

Schnitzler’s decision to send his hair around the world made cosmic sense; it fit in perfectly with his life’s work. ‘There is this Fluxus idea of little boxes of things that you leave as an artist,’ remarks Seidel. ‘No big paintings in galleries – just little boxes of things. The idea to separate the art and the artist is something that goes back a long way in Conrad’s way of working [...] musicians want to perform on stage, and in the end, get the applause. But Conrad created music that could be performed without him. These hundreds of solo tracks he made – for cassette and then on CD – that could be mixed and combined by someone else […] Conrad gave people all these tracks that they could combine how they like it. Conrad’s idea was to have people in different countries on every continent who get supplied by him with these solo tracks, to be able to perform his music all the time, in a different way.’

In Schnitzler’s life, everything was integrated. ‘It’s not haphazard,’ says Montgomery. ‘The way he makes his records, the way he makes his covers, his apartment. His life, and every decision in it, was part of his art. He really lived the way Joseph Beuys taught […] he breathed and lived art.’

About the author

  • Geeta Dayal's photo

    Geeta Dayal is a journalist and critic based in San Francisco. She is a regular contributor to frieze.