For a musical piece that had been considered lost for 20 years since its first recording, Harmonia & Brian Eno’s 1976 album ‘Tracks & Traces’ has had quite a telling influence on the music of today. The notion that Brian Eno, as one of ‘popular music’s most influential and innovative figures’, was himself influenced by the days he spent not only recording music but also living a communal life in hamlet of Forst in Germany’s Weserbergland hilly region is hard to separate – taking into account the shift he had in music production ever since. But it wasn’t all about Eno. It was about Harmonia – the German ‘Krautrock’ band which was regarded as the ‘world’s most important rock group’ by Eno.
Harmonia’s own components are ‘Krautrock’ pioneers in their own right. It’s three member setup of Michael Rother from Neu! and Cluster duo Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius was at the helm of the experimental music stemming from the German music scene along with the likes of Can, Ash Ra Tempel and Kraftwerk. The story begins from Rother being dissatisfied with the opening acts who had been allotted to perform for his live shows along with former Kraftwerk and Neu! member Klaus Dinger. This led to Rother to travel to the idyllic setting of Forst in 1973, carrying his guitar and a proposal for the Cluster duo to join them as a backing act. The resulting jam session between the three was defined by Rother as ‘musical love at first sight’ and forced him to put Neu! on hold and join the Cluster duo in Forst. With the coming of Rother the group finally had a member with music training where Roedelius was a physiotherapist and Moebius a graphic designer.
What stood out for the band as a whole was not their music but their lifestyle in the picturesque setting of Forst. Years earlier, during his days as an avant-garde composer and Parisian esoteric personality, Erik Satie would lay down the foundations of ambient music, or ‘furniture music’ as he called it, remarking that he intended to create music ‘which will be part of the noises of the environment’. The pastoral surroundings, Rother recalled, reminded him of an ‘island in the midst of reality’. Stretches of fields, mountains and greenery are they visual sentiments that one can sense in tracks such as ‘Dino’ and ‘Ahoi!’ from their debut 1974 album Musik Von Harmonia. Taking just a year to come out with their next album titled De Luxe, Harmonia’s music development was on its way. As Rother explained in an interview, working with better equipment provided by German producer Conny Plank didn’t necessarily mean to become restricted but to come undone and be more intuitive. The second album featured more upbeat and melody centric production. It had more periods of music happening than silence or nothingness. Tracks like ‘Monza’ and ‘Notre Dame’ embody the faster and a more pop-centric approach that the trio took.
But Rother’s aims and ideas for the music and the band were incoherent with those of Roedelius and Moebius. Following disagreements, the three disbanded as Rother focused on his solo career and the Cluster duo returned to their old ways. The days of building homes as per their wish, setting up studios away from the city and roads, baking bread, collecting water and living in harmony with nature looked over for the trio but for a phone call made by Brian Eno in 1976. Eno, who was heading towards Montreux to record with David Bowie, had met with the band back in 1974 at their Hamburg concert and expressed his desire to live and record on this phone call. The trio decided to get back together at Forst, but for a musical icon of the 70’s glam rock and rock, Eno was set to have a musical experience quite unlike that of the studios on either side of the Atlantic. As Roedelius and Rother recall, Eno was assimilated into the communal lifestyle and took walks, played ping-pong, exchanged ideas, talked inspirations and didn’t feel the studio clock ticking around him.
This calm environment was reflected in the music that they set out to record. The 11 days that Eno stayed with the trio are now subject to various anecdotes and myths. Intending to simply make music and work as equal partners – deconstructing the studio hierarchy that existed in the mainstream – the four artists poured their souls into records such as ‘Welcome’ and ‘By The Riverside’. The atmospheric softness from ‘Almost’ and the iconic 4/4 Motorik beat from ‘Atmosphere’ have influenced a flurry of modern day indie, electronic, alternative artists. After their time together, Eno left with the tapes of their recording sessions to join Bowie on his ‘Berlin Trilogy’. The tapes were subsequently considered lost. The story lacked the twist, the thrill, and it wasn’t until Roedelius looked through the archives that the album was found again. Remastered with Austrian sound engineers Eric Spitzer-Marlyn and Othmar Eichinger to make it a more palatable listening experience, the album was originally released by the German label S3 and then by American label Rykodisc.
It would be safe to say that Harmonia, along with fellow ‘Krautrock’ bands, have laid down the foundations of a lot of music that rules the charts today. The post-war era longed for reinvention of music and Rother recognizes that he himself answered this by stopping to imitate his heroes and trying to express himself. The music still carries on as each of the members still has their solo projects going on. Eno has more or less become the face of ambient music after coining the term. Tracks and Traces will always be that gem that was lost and found, an iconic album that has yet to receive its due share of credit.
Today, when either listening to music on the charts or revisiting hits from the times gone by, an often read sentiment that rushes to the head is that Harmonia are often imitated, but seldom acknowledged.