Kurt Dahlke aka Pyrolator is a veteran of the German electronic music scene. Having begun his career, in the late 1970s, playing keyboards for the Düsseldorf-based post-punk band Fehlfarben, the composer and programmer now claims over 200 production credits to his name. Dahlke is also a core member of the influential electronic group, Der Plan, who have recently reformed and will be releasing Unkapitulierbar via Bureau B in June. It will be the group’s first studio album of original material in 25 years.
Along with fellow Der Plan bandmate, Frank Fenstermacher, Dalke co-founded the Ata Tak record label. Since its inception in 1979, the label has been responsible for publishing works by forward-thinking artists producing “easy-consumable intelligent music”, with originality, innovation and bizarre characteristics always being at the forefront of the label’s aesthetic.
In 2015, Dalke released an album of original material – under his Pyrolator alias – based on recordings made by the late Conrad Schnitzler (Kluster, Tangerine Dream). Entitled Con-Struct, this album is part of an ongoing series that invites different electronic artists to reinterpret Schnitzler’s extensive archive of recordings. In Dalke’s hands, tapes that had originally formed droning sound installations were re-imagined as misty, techno-infused tracks for the Berlin dance floor.
Kurt Dahlke spoke to IKLECTIK’s Ilia Rogatchevski following a recent London show, where Dahlke was showcasing the Con-Struct material as part of the Electri_City Conference.
Ilia Rogatchevski: I would like to begin by asking you what instrument you were playing?
Kurt Dahlke: It’s called ‘Lightning’. It’s an instrument built by Donald Buchla, who is one of the pioneers of building synthesisers. He did also quite a few great controllers. This is a MIDI controller from the 90’s. I’ve been playing it for 20 years.
I’m guessing it’s kind of like a sensor? How does it work?
It’s an infrared sensor and I have one in each hand. I have eight zones and I can assign sequences or whatever media messages to these eight zones. I am pretty much very free in my set. I can improvise. It’s the perfect instrument for performing electronics live.
What about the visuals that were happening behind you? Is there a direct relationship between the sounds that you are making and what the audience sees?
That’s a programme which is running in sync. It’s also getting media messages from what I am doing and it’s adjusting.
The work you were doing today, if I am not mistaken, is a reworking of Conrad Schnitzler’s archive?
That’s what my set was today. It was the last album I did. It’s called Con-Struct (Bureau B, 2015). It’s a series of different artists who were asked to reconstruct the work of Conrad Schnitzler and that’s my way of reconstructing him.
What sort of sounds did you encounter in his body of work?
Actually, what I got were tapes from the 80’s. He recorded 16-track tapes, which were not meant to be on records. They were meant to be used in installations. I got a bunch of them. Everything was so interesting, I said: “Well, today I’ll take track 2 from tape number 5”, or something like that. It was really a treasure of different sounds.
Is that where the relationship to the numbers that you see going up on the screen comes from?
Yes, these are the tape numbers, like 365 and then the track number was 8, or whatever.
I read somewhere that the album was described as being more technoid than what the sounds were like originally.
That was by some close friends of Conrad. I was pretty much criticized for that, because I was saying that he is one of the inventors of this typical, deep-dark Berlin techno. If you listen to his music, if you listen to these tracks, you can put a bass drum under them and it could happen in our time. It could happen on a dance floor in Berlin. And they said: “No! Conrad always rejected doing bass drums and he never used straight rhythms. He was against backbeats”. I said, “Why not?”. It was mostly my work to put backbeats and bases on and filter his sounds.
Actually, there is one track – the last track I played today – when I first listened to that on the tape, I thought, “I can’t do that. It’s 100% trance music, like DJ Tiësto or something. 136 BPM and this major scale sequence going on. If I put a bass drum under that, people will say that’s not Conrad Schnitzler anymore”.
That’s interesting, because his stuff is very dark and yet you managed to make it feel really uplifting.
The last one is one of my favourite tracks. Actual trance disco. I never expected that from Conrad Schnitzler.
Does your performance differ from the recordings at all?
If you listen to it, I would say it’s totally different, because I’m improvising on stage quite a lot. The song, the second to last I was playing, this was mostly improvised. I saw that nobody was moving in there, so I made some noise! You wouldn’t find this on the record.
You formed the Ata Tak label in the 1980’s. How do you feel about it now? Is the label’s legacy apparent in the electronic music scene today?
In the beginning, we had this model called ‘Putting Music in the Arts and Putting Arts into Music’. We were always interested in this cross-over of visual arts and music and I think there is actually quite a lot of this happening in electronic music right now. If you see the visuals that electronic music is using, this is what we had in mind, but we didn’t have the technical possibilities at the time.
Is this Electri_City Conference an extension of that? Crossing over from the underground, not only into the mainstream, but also into the corporate world and fields of academic study?
I would say so. There is, on one hand, totally overground artists like Jean Michel Jarre playing [Düsseldorf’s] ISS Dome for twenty thousand people and, on the other hand, there are little concerts in old graphics studios with 60 people. So there’s a nice cross-over.
Do you have any projects that you are working on? Anything new on the horizon?
We were invited to play a song for the 50th birthday of Andreas Dorau (who was a pop star in the 80’s) with Der Plan, which was a group I was playing with in the 80’s. Everybody else was doing his things and we were invited by Andreas for a little comeback, just for his birthday. We played two songs and then we were asked, “Why don’t you make a new album?” So that’s what is happening. It’s going to be released in June on Bureau B.
Does it have a title?
Yes, Unkapitulierbar. It’s kind of the political way of never giving up. It’s a saying. It means ‘this army is never giving up’.