A couple of years back, the big buzz in the music business was about British synthesizer bands, brave new rockers who wanted to use electronic instruments to the exclusion of all else. As one group put it, the ultimate goal was to make an entire album without so much as touching a guitar or a drum.
Which, to Edgar Froese, seemed kind of silly. "It goes back to the bottom ground," he says, dismissing all the tech talk. "The bottom ground is to compose music, and to see the instruments through which you do your work as secondary."
Don't take that as a dismissal of synthesizers themselves, though, because it would be difficult to think of another pop musician with more experience in musical electronics than Froese. After all, as a founding member of Tangerine Dream, the German synthesizer trio that plays the Warner Theatre Sunday, he got into synth pop on the ground floor.
"More or less, we started the thing," he says. But back in the beginning, the technology was rather primitive. Froese describes his early synthesizers as "little toys, very uncomfortable devices. In those days, the equipment itself became very important, because it was new, and the way of using it was not very familiar to anybody, even to ourselves."
That novelty justified making a big deal over the instrumentation, but, Froese argues, that rationale no longer holds. "Nowadays, it gets back to the roots of music in general, and that means to compose structures that go into a serious meaning of music. I don't want to criticize any of those young bands, but honestly, I do not think most of them will survive for more than a couple of years."
Tangerine Dream, on the other hand, has not merely survived but flourished. In the last 16 years the group has churned out 24 albums plus a handful of sound tracks -- and that doesn't count the eight solo albums Froese has released since 1974. Such prodigious output amazes even the artist. "We never have any difficulty coming up with music," Froese says. "Sometimes, it's a bit like a miracle, because we have a sort of never-ending energy. I don't know where it comes from, but it's still there."
Perhaps part of it stems from the group's philosophy of music. Despite all the hardware the band employs (even after leaving the heavy equipment behind in the studio, the band tours with an awesome array of synthesizers, sequencers and sound-processing devices), the members of Tangerine Dream are not technocrats. In fact, complains Froese, the trouble with advancing technology is that with each new instrument "you have to read all these manuals, which is boring, a very energy-taking and stressful procedure, because a lot of manufacturers don't know how to build it so that a musician can use it easily, and can let his thoughts flow through the instrument, just use it as a transmitter."
Because ultimately, the synthesizer is just a means for the band, a tool that is in no way inherently superior to any other instrument. "If you've got something to say," Froese insists, "then you can say it with whatever instrument.
"It's very funny, but Rubinstein said once that if you are a great piano player, you have to be that at the age of 6, no matter if you ever touched a piano or not. So, in other words, there has to be something inside you, from the very first day of your life."
Which means that for Tangerine Dream, a performance should be centered on expressing that innate musical spirit. "If you are going to try to be an honest musician," Froese says, "you're going to have some feelings that you will want to show every night."
Consequently, while most synth groups take advantage of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), the technology that allows synthesizers to be played by preprogrammed computers, Tangerine Dream eschews such automation.
"Of course," says Froese, "we do have preset program rings, in terms of MIDI interconnections, in terms of programming on floppy disc. For sure. But that's one side of the matter. The other side is to show what we can do with our personalities, what we can do with our knowledge about music. So that has to be free, and, of course, that's quite different every night."
In fact, about half the music played each night is improvised. "But," cautions Froese, "improvisation, for us, is not necessarily the same as what could be called free jazz, for instance."
Instead, he sees it as a means to describe "the interaction between the three of us. We know each other quite well, and so we understand our personalities. That makes it easy for each to understand what the other wants to do, which way he has chosen, how to follow him, and so on and so on."
In the end, the technology becomes secondary. "What we do is pick up those feelings and filter them through our own human system," Froese says, adding that, as with all worthwhile music, it's "a transmission of certain types of human feelings. And that's what counts."