Lost in the Wilderness

Wolfgang Voigt’s Germany

When I was little, my German grandfather used to complain that American woodlands were not properly managed. At the time, I figured that this was just another one of his button-pushing remarks, designed to lure people into the sort of debate he loved.

Experimental music grown here: Cologne's Königsforst.

Ten years later, though, as I explored Germany myself as an exchange student, I suddenly understood that he had been deadly serious.

Although small forests periodically broke up the monotony of ploughed fields throughout the countryside, they were disturbingly sanitized: trunks evenly spaced, low-hanging branches pruned away up to a fixed height, and even the leaves on the forest floor periodically tidied up by groundskeepers.

Years later, when the computer graphics in games and films became sufficiently sophisticated to render individual trees with enough detail to simulate forests, I was reminded of my time in Germany.

Here were the woodlands that people like my grandfather had lusted after, so pleasingly regular that they eradicated all sense of primaeval danger. Despite the pretence of representing wilderness, they communicated a sense of inviolable rationality.

To someone like me, familiar with the large forests of the New World, the Königsforst outside of Cologne, seems pretty tame, despite its relative messiness compared with the German standard.

But to young Wolfgang Voigt, growing up nearby during the 1960s, it felt like a glorious wilderness. Returning there as a rebellious teenager, he found a way to keep it strange, taking LSD to tune in with dimensions that would otherwise be imperceptible to the mature mind.

Over and over, when trying to explain the aesthetic concerns that motivate his electronic music-making, Voigt has described his relationship with the Königsforst as foundational. Not just the place itself, important as it is to him, but the way he managed to protect it from disenchantment.

Whether constructing ominous abstract soundscapes or streamlined minimal techno, Voigt has always been striving to leave room for wonder.

Looking back over the history of electronic popular music, it is not hard to find many people more financially successful than Voigt and some who have exerted a greater influence. But it is difficult to find anyone who has done more to define the edges of that frustratingly diffuse category.

From the spare minimal techno and acid house with which he first began to make his name to the ambient majesty of his best-known project GAS, Voigt’s astonishingly extensive output is a testament to the rich possibilities available to artists who couple mechanical beats with sampled sounds, encompassing everything from the computerised simulation of traditional instruments to field recordings.

The range of artists Voigt has helped promote through his Kompakt label, co-founded with other key figures in Cologne’s music scene, amplifies his cultural impact even further.

Significantly, the musical variety Voigt managed to wrest from what once seemed a forbiddingly spare aesthetic has been a continuous feature of his work since the early 1990s.

Although he might have seemed at various junctures to be abandoning a particular idiom, he eventually seems to return to all of them. In other words, rather than progressing from one style to another in sequence, Voigt has been switching back and forth between different styles since he began making electronic music.

For example, when Voigt failed to release another GAS album following 2000’s widely praised Pop, some fans speculated that he had retired that particular brand. But then came 2017’s spectacular “comeback” Narkopop and it’s equally strong 2018 follow-up Rausch.

In this regard, Voigt’s career somewhat resembles that of Gerhard Richter, the celebrated German painter whom he has invoked while describing his own work. While best-known for blurry not-quite-reproductions of photographs, Richter also produced colourful abstract paintings for decades, seemingly unconcerned about the disconnect between these two modes of expression.

In a sense, Richter’s consistency inheres in his refusal to conform with an idea of personal style that he finds constraining. And the same could be said for Voigt, who has further complicated matters by releasing material under many different names.

A marketing expert might say that Voigt’s “brand” mostly consists of his refusal to be easily branded. From a musical perspective, however, the message seems more nuanced. As Voigt has freely admitted, every one of his releases derives from the same robotic heartbeat, even when its presence is reduced to a subtle haunting.

In other words, though Voigt grew up on prog and punk played with traditional instruments, his mature sound always signals its allegiance to “electronica” in the end.

No matter how much melancholy Voigt’s music evokes, it eventually turns back towards the future.

Like all music in that ever-more-expansive genre, it is forever bound up with an implicit technological progressivism.  

That is what makes the sheer consistency of Voigt’s eclecticism so compelling these days. It began as an aesthetic that developed in the heady days following the reunification of Germany. It reached maturity as Europe came together in a new spirit of unity.

After eventually coming to represent a Europe led by Germany, for better or worse, it now stands as a powerful reminder of an era that feels distant to us precisely because it is still so close: the years leading up to the financial collapse of 2008.

Bearing that trajectory in mind, Voigt could have reinforced the break with his own musical past, whether by going in new stylistic directions or continuing to invent new names for his different projects. Instead, he did exactly the opposite.

First, Voigt rereleased some of his more adventurous tracks of the early 1990s on 2016’s Ambient Grunge, an oxymoron bound to make Germans think of the years following reunification.

Then he revived GAS, thereby reinterpreting the pre-9/11 music he had released under that name. Particularly 1999’s Königsforst and Pop, which had once been noteworthy for their ambivalent relation to electronic music’s technological optimism, as prophetic warnings about the darkness spreading through what Jürgen Habermas famously called the “unfinished project of Enlightenment”.

As Europe contemplates a future that looks increasingly like the most horrifying parts of its past, we can no longer indulge the complacent optimism that dominated the decade-plus between the fall of the Eastern Bloc and 9/11.

To be sure, there are still bright spots to lift our spirits. But we must not forget that these clearings are the exception to a much older rule. While there might not be much wilderness left on the continent, there is more than enough to contend with inside our heads.

And a retrospective of Wolfgang Voigt’s remarkable work provides an ideal opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with that territory.

Photograph courtesy of Mario Bezani. Published under a Creative Commons license.