“Free Playing, Free Life”: The Zodiak Free Arts Lab and the Rise of the German Avant-Garde

How the short-lived collective paved the way for Berlin’s experimental scene

Conrad Schnitzler Mueller Schneck

On the north bank of Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, which flows mundanely through the Kreuzberg district and is flanked by rusty barriers covered with graffiti, is one of the city’s great lost cultural landmarks. There on Hallesches Ufer is a small building squashed insignificantly between two larger grey tenement blocks, a theatre of sorts, sitting beneath a blue neon sign reading “HAU 2.” Part of Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer theatre – around the corner is the grander, more substantial HAU 1 – it was here that the Zodiak Club, or Zodiak Free Arts Lab, was founded in 1968. It only lasted a few months – complaints about the amount of smoke generated by the venue’s young inhabitants were but one of the reasons for its demise. However, in that short time it was a vital crucible for new German music, a place where the great free jazz player Peter Brötzmann cleared the complacent, stale air of postwar West Germany with the blast of his horn, and new groups like Agitation Free and Tangerine Dream signalled the dawning of a new identity for German rock as the ’60s drew to a fractious close. It was here that barrages of raw, free improvised, untutored noise would provide one of the strongest inklings of a sound which would revolutionize, if not the world, then certainly the future shape of music worldwide. It was, as one of its co-founders Hans-Joachim Roedelius told me, “the beginning of free playing, free life.”

Roedelius was one of the club’s three co-founders. A child film actor in the Nazi era, after World War II he had led a troubled life, foraging to survive, buffeted between East and West Germany, suffering arrest and imprisonment in the East before finally making it to West Berlin just before the Wall precluded escape. There he took a variety of menial jobs, as well as training as a masseur, before he found himself – already in his early thirties and without any sort of musical training – drawn to the avant-garde music scene. The rigorously trained Stockhausen was in ascendancy in the late 1960s, a vast father figure to new German music which, despite its difficulty in terms of execution and the demands made by its composer, spoke of a new existential “freedom” in terms of places for music to explore. Roedelius joined a collective known as Human Being, who, as their album Live At The Zodiak demonstrated, dabbled in free noises from acoustic and electronic instruments – “fiddling around with feedback, echo machines, tape and loops,” as Roedelius put it. Despite that self-deprecating definition, this was a music that represented a first, gaseous foray of what would later be codified as the “Berlin scene,” which included the likes of Faust and Roedelius’s later group Kluster (still later, Cluster).

This noise-making was meant as a way to express and explore your inner self.

Conrad Schnitzler

The drummer in Human Being was Boris Schaak, second of the Zodiak’s co-founders. The third was Conrad Schnitzler, with whom Roedelius had formed the duo Gerausche (“noises”), a combo of pots, spoons, contact mics and the distortion of conventional instruments such as violin using amplifiers. Schnitzler, Roedelius agrees, was the person most responsible for defining the aesthetic and philosophy of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab.

Born in 1937 to a German father and an Italian mother, Schnitzler grew up in Düsseldorf, his childhood memories full of the fiery, metallic chaos of war and the ruins it left in his wake. He would later recall window panes which revealed not domestic interiors but raging fires following bombing raids. All of this seems to have left as much of an aesthetic impression on him as it did scar him psychologically. His father was a trained musician, but Schnitzler himself had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps – where, after all, had they and others of his generation led? He refused to learn any instrument formally and remained an “outsider” musician his whole life. He took a labouring job in a textile factory, and once again found himself assailed by modern, industrial cacophony, but one which he now embraced. From formative experiences like this, he would forge a noise-based aesthetic, one designed to blast down the bourgeois walls and conventions of a West German society whose unique condition of stuffiness was becoming insufferable.

Schnitzler was very much a countercultural creature, but he had no truck with the flowery, colourful tones of the hippie era. “All these people making music with the drums and flutes, I hated it – and melodies that were like worms in your head. All day long, rattling in your head. Only if you can’t play instruments can you really make free sounds. And I wanted to have noise/sounds composed together – a steam hammer here, a bird piping there, a car goes by… and be like the director of all this. As an artist, you have to create something new.”

His ideas had more in common with the early 20th century art movements such as Futurism and Dadaism than the Age of Aquarius. And when he, Schaak and Roedelius approached the venue that would play host to the Free Arts Lab, it was on a similar basis as the Dada club Cabaret Voltaire was founded – you lay on the food and the liquor, we’ll put on the events that draw in the paying customers. (As it happened, the artists would often help with food preparation prior to events.) It helped that the fellow from whom they were hiring the two rooms that constituted the club, Peter Stein, was a radical theatre producer with strong anarchist leanings.

Sparks and shards of beauty flew forth from the chaos, augmented by further background noise from pinball machines and even radio sets.

Schnitzler and the others immediately got to work. In a brusque and brutalist statement of decorative intent, they painted the two walls of the room not in the riot of colour that was the common order of the late ’60s, but rather in tones more redolent of the early post-punk ’80s – one room black, one white. There would no consoling, peacenik connotations to distract the eye, no respite. All focus would be on the spontaneous-creative artistic experiences staged in the rooms. Even the windows were blacked out.

Schnitzler’s ideas about free improv were at odds with the likes of British group AMM, who featured highly trained musicians and composers such as Cornelius Cardew and who insisted, contrary to punk’s future dictum that “hardly anyone can do it,” that the supposed “cacophony” of free improv was the result of rigorous practice and an advanced theoretical understanding of what it meant to “play.” Schnitzler was into absolute democratization and a complete breakdown of what was considered the divide between musical and non-musical sound.

“If lots of people make noises, it becomes an orchestra,” he explained. “If you do it alone – for example, the sound of a stone on linoleum – that’s a solo track. If you play these sounds and record them onto different tracks, it becomes a composition. Make horrible noises with instruments and microphones and echo machines. Just do it and produce as much noise as you want. If you organize this noise it’s not just pure chaos... it can grow into music. This noise-making was meant as a way to express and explore your inner self. It wasn’t meant to create music in a traditional way at all. Basically, the idea was to create sounds for communication, to let others experience your own philosophy.”

Schnitzler would arrange onstage soundclashes between bands playing simultaneously, as if part of one great discordant melting pot, with Schnitzler himself joining in as a noisemaker. Sparks and shards of beauty flew forth from the chaos, augmented by further background noise from pinball machines and even radio sets. These were late-night events – the “musicians” were not allowed to strike up until the evening theatre performances were long over. Performances would last hours and hours, conclusion not being a part of their structure; this was notionally infinite music, stretching way into the future as pre-imagined.

Nonetheless, the range of highly capable, subsequently well-established artists who played the Arts Lab was impressive – a venue, after all, is a venue. These ranged from the avant-jazz titans Brötzmann and Alexander von Schlippenbach to didactic but more musically orthodox groups like agit-troupe Ton Steine Scherben, while Berlin sceners such as Ash Ra Tempel and Edgar Froese’s emergent combo Tangerine Dream would take their first baby steps at the Arts Lab.

The bath of noise and the haze of dope made evenings at the Zodiak an immersive, zonked-out experience.

1968 had seen West Germany have its own take on the student/workers’ riots, sit-ins and protests that were taking place in Paris and around the world to varying degrees. For young West Germans, the killing of a protestor, Benno Ohnesorg, during an anti-Shah demonstration and, a year later, the attempted assassination of student movement leader Rudi Dutschke, were reminders that although the targets of their ire were capitalism and global imperialism, they themselves were suffering domestic repression under a state still governed by “Altnazis”: former Third Reich functionaries still involved in politics, abetted by right-wing tabloid newspapers and an older generation still refusing to come fully to terms with the horrors of the Third Reich, taking solace in Schlager and lager.

The Zodiak Free Arts Lab was one of the stirrings of a broader cultural response to this state of affairs, emanating from musicians of a younger generation coming of age, learning of World War II and wondering why none of this had been discussed at the family table. These were musicians also keen to shake off the Anglo-American dominance of pop and rock, part of the Coca-Cola-isation of West Germany, with young German musicians expected merely to ape the prevailing styles of the Beatles, traditional jazz and Motown on Saturday nights for the Allied soldiers still stationed in the country.

The Free Arts Lab self-evidently sat in opposition to all this. However, looking at scratchy, black and white footage of events there, it is clear that, far from being in a state of heightened consciousness, most of the patrons look like they’re in imminent danger of lapsing into unconsciousness. For them, the bath of noise and the haze of dope made evenings at the Zodiak an immersive, zonked-out experience. As with early footage of Can and Kraftwerk at the Rockpalast, it is not entirely clear in their eyes that audiences are aware of witnessing something quite new, whose implications would alter the shape of sound-making for decades to come.

Zodiak Free Arts Lab, 1969

Certainly, the amount of dope smoked is what brought the Free Arts Lab to the attention of police, rather than its crimes against tonality. They regarded the place as a hotbed of subversives. While it is true that groups such as the Umherschweifenden Haschrebellen, or Rambling Hashish Rebels, planned outrages against President Nixon at the venue, it’s clear looking at the heavy-eyelidded crowds in attendance there that they weren’t in much of a state to overthrow anything or anybody.

In the end, Schnitzler lost interest in the day to day running of the Free Arts Lab and departed to concentrate on his ever-myriad projects. He would join Tangerine Dream for their first album, Electronic Meditation. He would be a member of Kluster, alongside Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, but swiftly moved on again from both, to work principally solo.

The Zodiak Free Arts Lab closed after just a few months in 1969, minus Schnitzler’s impetus – everyone involved in it fairly quickly outgrew it, in those fast-evolving times. In later years, there were prominent cultural signals of Berlin’s emancipation – a concert featuring Roger Waters to mark the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and, in 1995, the artist Christo wrapping the Reichstag in silver cloth in honour of its restoration as the seat of German parliament. However, the short-lived, unmarked Free Arts Lab deserves a great deal more recognition than it has been afforded – a cradle of “free music, free living,” whose musical reverberations and implications were felt across the globe years after its demise.

By David Stubbs on September 5, 2018

On a different note