Saturday, 7 April 2018

Sequenced Alternate Universes: Christopher Franke at 65

Chris Fanke, a pivotal former member of the electronic music legend Tangerine Dream, is one of the rare and still active persons who can be inextricably linked with the characteristic sound of the Berlin School of electronic music. On 6 April, he celebrated his 65th birthday.

The originally jazz drummer Franke has become a superlative pioneer in the use of sequencers, which were used by many to produce repetitive sequences of melodic notes or percussion.

The live use of sequencers, notoriously unstable in the analogue era and in need of sometimes heroic on-the-fly re-tuning, was pioneered by him and the other legend of German electronic music, Klaus Schulze.

While Schulze has used it in his solo performances that even now, on archive or bootleg tapes are spellbinding and mind-bending, Franke used them in live jams in a band that demolished any pre-conception on electronic music having been something robotic and pre-determined.

Chris Franke's contribution to Tangerine Dream's and electronic music history's seminal album Phaedra cannot be overstated. Speaking of heroics, one can hear, forever immortalised in the studio recording, Franke's on-the-fly re-tuning of the sequencers as they drift out of tune.

But then there is Ricochet, Tangerine Dream's first live album. Listening to it in 2018, it is still mesmerizing in its use of humanly impossible to perform multi-layered sequences.

Franke has not only expanded electronic music light-years beyond what was humanly playable, but his seminal contribution was that a musician was literally jamming, as in a jazz group or a fiery progressive rock outfit, with the rest of the band, whilst using the dreaded analogue sequencers.

The resulting sound has become a defining one, and even many decades later, known as the  quintessential Tangerine Dream sound.

Even the characteristic "ratcheting" of the sequencer patterns are making their way into the most state-of-the-art synthesizers manufactured now - just think of Arturia's Matrixbrute, demonstrating Tangerine Dream-esque "ratcheting" in its product demo clips.

But this is not about technology.

Yes, he has performed his mind-bending sonic imaginings on often custom-made gear that was way ahead of its time, but the essence of what was happening in his performances was eminently that of a musical mind. Yes, when he did his sequencer magic, it was almost unimaginable to most fans of electronic music that the so far rigidly and repetitively used sequencers can be played as any other instrument.

Chris Franke, as very few others, have demonstrated that superlative use of technology with a through-and-through musician thinking can propel music to levels and spheres never before even imaginable. Any Berlin School electronic music fan will have involuntary pulse rate changes when one mentions seminal live albums like Poland, which even decades later is an essential lesson to wannabe or even self-proclaimed sequencer masters.

Although his split with Tangerine Dream in the late '80s, and his setting up of a California-based solo career has many debated and perhaps painful elements to fans and others alike, it was a musically and technologically interesting move.

One could never expect the superlative master of sequencers to release a, what one might call "new age", introspective and impressionistic album - but that is exactly what his first solo album, the simply beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, is.

Franke has also produced soundtracks with remote over-the-satellite-link recorded symphonic orchestra and state-of-the-art electronics, like Universal Soldier or the hugely successful Babylon 5 TV series.

Whilst he has ventured into architectural photography, too, showing the same connection between a musical and visually creative mind as Vangelis has done, one has to recall with nostalgy the simply superhuman tour de force he has performed during his decades with Tangerine Dream.

However, if one wishes to revisit the sequencing mastery of Chris Franke in a more up-to-date robe, then his London Concert is a good reference point.

One hopes it is in no way offensive to any hardened Tangerine Dream fan or any of the current members, after the hugely regretful passing of Edgar Froese... but Chris Franke, or as he will be forever known, CF, has had a lasting and forever defining impact on what we know as the "Tangerine Dream sound"... and with that, one is actually labeling a whole and hugely significant Universe within the multitudes of electronic music of past, present, and future.

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