Edgar Froese (1944–2015)

Edgar Froese on Lanzarote, 2002. Photo: Bianca Froese-Acquaye.

WHAT IS CALLED DRAMA in musical terminology is frequently valued but often overrated: too often associated with the operatically overblown or the whining catgut of suspense. Watching the nail-biting sequences in William Friedkin’s unjustly forgotten, jungle-juggernaut movie Sorcerer (1977), with its monster trucks teetering on rope bridges above a torrential Amazon in full spate, you’re struck by how much the background music—a gray, insistent hornet hum of synthesized sound—helps ratchet up the desperation of the scenario in a ruthlessly restrained manner that’s nothing like the Wagnerian meltdown you’d expect in such a scene from the Hollywood of today. Friedkin later said that if he had discovered the German musicians responsible sooner, he would have asked them to score The Exorcist (1973). The director had stumbled upon them performing in a derelict church in Germany’s Black Forest. They were Tangerine Dream, and their chief synthesist, Edgar Froese, died suddenly this January in Vienna, age seventy.

Born on D-day, 1944, Froese settled with his family in Berlin after the war and studied piano as a teenager. By 1965, he found himself leading a psychedelic band called the Ones, at one point performing at the request of Salvador Dalí at his home in Cadaqués, Spain. Two years later, Froese founded a new group with Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler called Tangerine Dream (after the British psych band Kaleidoscope’s debut LP). Their first, landmark album, Electronic Meditation, was recorded in a Berlin factory space in 1969. It’s a gas giant of a record, votive and solemn in mood, cosmic in scale, yet built of recognizable materials: Mellotron, analog rumbles, and amplified flute. Somewhere between improvised music, contemporary classical, and the future direction of progressive rock, the early Tangerine Dream revealed themselves clear-sighted as to what was to come.

Tangerine Dream continued as a working unit right up until Froese’s death, releasing over one hundred albums, touring all over the world, and contributing to more than sixty motion-picture sound tracks, including Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and The Keep (1983) and Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983). For nearly five decades, Froese remained the group’s lone constant, holding them on course through continual sea changes in synth technology and audience expectations. The group’s watershed moment came in 1973, when Richard Branson signed them to his Virgin imprint, and their sound became incrementally less organic than on previous records such as Alpha Centauri (1971), Zeit (1972), and Atem (1973), the payoff being that they were suddenly exposed to a substantially larger international audience. The final incarnation of Tangerine Dream took great literature as its launchpad, from the Dante-inspired Divine Comedy series (2002–2006) to the group’s last major recorded statement, Eastgate’s Sonic Poems (2011–13), a series of tributes to writings by Joyce, Meyrink, Kafka, Poe, and others.

Froese himself hated his music being defined solely as “electronic,” considering the term too redolent of arid experiments. Instead he favored resonant, sacred locations for his concerts, notably one in 1975 at Coventry Cathedral, which had been razed to the ground by German bombs during World War II then rebuilt as a modernist shrine. Exorcising the wartime ghosts of bitter enmity, the concert was broadcast to a live television audience. “Thirty years ago they came to bomb the place; today they come with synthesizers,” Froese quipped at the time.

Tangerine Dream: Live at Coventry Cathedral in 1975.

Tangerine Dream played inside many of the cathedrals of Europe over the years, and Froese’s music—sometimes filed under “new age”—could be seen as a counterpart to the so-called holy minimalism of composers such as Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, and others, made by channeling electrical power instead of orchestral forces to feed its expanding universe. Humans, he once said, are “lost . . . in cycles that span hundreds and thousands of years,” but were blind to the environmental fate of the planet because they were too constrained by their own tiny life-cycles. Both sonically and philosophically, Froese was always seeking the biggest possible picture.

Rob Young is a writer, critic, and contributing editor of The Wire. He is currently writing a biography of the German group Can.