Filed under: Interview
Not many artists will start musing about Mozart, Thomas Edison or Johannes Gutenberg during an interview before their set but then again most DJs aren’t about to start lecturing at the Berlin University of the Arts in a course, not about music, but about sound. Karl Bartos didn’t seem particularly interested in talking about mix CDs, albums or the next big thing in dance music, but after thirty years in the business, who can really blame him?
Karl Bartos started out his musical journey as a classically trained percussionist and keyboardist. Soon enough he joined up with possibly the most renowned electronic outfit of the 70’s and 80’s, Kraftwerk. While performing and writing for the German legends, Karl was instrumental in the creation of modern day classics like ‘Trans Europe Express’ and ‘Computer World’.
The sound of Kraftwerk and Karl Bartos had a great influence on the world of electronic music, although this is something the man himself plays down. Despite being 53 years of age and being dedicated to his work at the Berlin University, Karl is still traveling the world with record case in hand playing to packed out dancefloors.
Interview & Introducion by Nick Lawrence (HigherFrequency)
Karl Bartos : So, what do you want to know?
Higher Frequency (HRFQ) : Everything!
Karl Bartos : Ok you’re asking.
HRFQ : A lot of people won’t know what you are doing at the moment, a lot of people will still be thinking of Karl Bartos thirty years ago. If you could please explain what you are doing now.
Karl Bartos : At the centre of my life at the moment is my work at the Berlin University of the Arts. Three years ago they asked
me if I wanted to join a new course of study called Sound Studies. Which starts in April and actually I am very excited about it because I have had the chance to build an electronic studio in the centre of Berlin, which is the place to be in Germany. The first class is waiting so I have designed my schedule for the summer semester, and this takes a lot of energy. Although I am still a musician working in the studio this gives a new perspective on life because the study is about sound and not about music. It is about what importance sound has for us as human beings.
HRFQ : We believe you have performed with a group called Audiovision which is the bringing together of audio and visuals.
Karl Bartos : Yeah, my main focus is pop music of course but my other focus is the convergence of image and sound. Right now I am preparing a lecture that I am giving at a movie festival in Denmark. Usually people can’t remember what they have heard when they see a movie because our main focus is how we perceive the world through our eyes. We see what is going on in the world, apparently the eyes are our main organs. This also applies when we go to the cinema. While we are concentrating on what we are seeing, we are conditioned by what we hear. If there is a certain scene and you change the background music, then the scene’s meaning will change completely. I find this very interesting, the interaction between what we see and what we hear. How these two major organs are working together and keep influencing each other.
HRFQ : What about your musical influences? Who or what has been a major influence on you?
Karl Bartos : How I perceive music? Difficult…You know a chord? It doesn’t mean anything and a melody has got no sense at all. It’s just a melody, it means nothing. If you draw a picture it gives you a view of the world but a melody or chord doesn’t. The interesting thing about music is that if you boil it down, in the end it is just mathematics. It’s just layers of frequencies. But the secret is, while it is just pure mathematics when we hear it, it turns into feeling. How can that be? It is amazing. So it is this magic quality of music…I am trying to find the words to explain. It is just something that we all know and we all experience but we don’t know why. Why is it that for some reason mathematic calculations turn into feelings? So this is the driving force [behind my music], that I can reach people through a secret. I use it all day but I don’t know why it’s happening. The second thing is the communication factor of music. It is very easy to reach people through music.
HRFQ : How do you continue to reach people with your music after so many years?
Karl Bartos : It is nothing I do on purpose. It starts when you are very young at school. For me it was music. I was successful and then I fell in love with music. Also music has a certain sexual quality, it evokes emotions and it can reach people. I think the quality of music is very often overlooked, because it is so deep. I don’t want to sound like Nietzsche but music is here to save us. Can you imagine a world without music? It would be boring.
HRFQ : That’s music in general, but what about DJing? Why did you start DJing back in 1999?
Karl Bartos : I’m a musician, apparently I am a professor now as well, and I have a fantastic live performance with six or seven people but it is too expensive to travel. We traveled to London, to Stockholm, to Italy and the equipment goes by car while we fly by plane. Sometimes we go to America and occasionally we go to South America but it is a pain in the arse traveling with a lot of equipment. So DJing is a compromise. At the moment I am working on a project where I am putting music not on CD but on a laptop and it is a lot easier than traveling with 750kg equipment. It’s a lot of stuff and you have to play big festivals and a lot of gigs in a row.
HRFQ : Back in the 70’s and 80’s you were most likely using a Moog synthesizer…
Karl Bartos : I still use it now. I use a lot of computers and I collect everything, so the house is full of analogue stuff and computers from generations way behind. The first computer I bought was an IBM XT. At that time it cost me 6000 euros, too expensive.
HRFQ : Previously you have commented that Kraftwerk’s influence on electronic music is often overstated. What do you think has played the biggest influence on electronic music?
Karl Bartos : 1877, a guy called Edison invented the phonograph. You know what he did? Thomas Alva Edison, he separated sound from the source. Before 1877 the sound was always connected to the mechanism that produced it. Since that day, sound is disconnected from time and space. Since then nothing has changed that much. Now we have the binary alphabet but this was the major step in our acoustic reality.
HRFQ : Do you think that now we are not progressing musically like we were in the past? Has music become stagnant?
Karl Bartos : Everybody is asking about the future of music. All I can say about it is, do you still remember the time when you had an analogue telephone? Now you have a digital telephone, how have your messages changed? Not at all. The means of our electronic equipment will change the content of our culture, but it will take a while. The last time this happened was when Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type. So he brought into our culture a new system of media. Books then became accessible to everybody. In the end this changed the way our society functioned because everyone could have access to the written alphabet. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, a new media entered our reality which was the telegraph. The telegraph changed the way we perceived information. It was now easy to transport any information at the speed of light. Along with this came the photograph. The photograph redefined nature, and we got another reality, a recycled reality. So those things together, the electrification of information along with the picture of information gave us a new cult of information. One of my main concerns is how this electronic technology is really able to change the content of our culture, and it takes a while.
HRFQ : So, you think it is a while before music changes?
Karl Bartos : Well it has changed in one aspect. We come from a word centered culture and we are now in a picture centered culture. And the same applies to music. Music became so visualized through MTV in the 80’s and 90’s and for some reason a lot of the money for producing the music went into the film. So the music has become secondary. The image has become so important that you only overhear the sound beneath it.
HRFQ : Is there anything that gives music hope then?
Karl Bartos : Well music is so super strong because it can reach our soul. But I mean it doesn’t help the quality of the music if you have some tits and arse on the television screen, it’s just a selling process. It is wicked and you can’t get away with it. Why are people still listening to music like the ‘Magic Flute’ by Mozart? What makes this music of such a high quality? It is encapsulated in it’s formula.
HRFQ : Is there any music at the moment that has that same power?
Karl Bartos : It is always there and it will never fade away, but it has to be genuine. It is a cliche, but if people just adapt to a certain style or movement for the sake of it, it may be good but it is not eternal.
HRFQ : Just before you have to get ready for your set, what can people expect when they come to see you DJ?
Karl Bartos : I play some stuff from my last record called “Communication”. I play some comfort tunes like ‘The Robots’, like ‘Trans Europe Express’ and I play some electro tunes from my friends. I am friends with Bernard Sumner from New Order so I play one tune of his, I play some tunes from my friends LFO. So every track I am going to play I am related to somehow.
HRFQ : How do you find new music at the moment?
Karl Bartos : I don’t listen to music at the moment, I listen to sound. You can close your eyes but you cannot close your ears. There is no such thing as silence in our world. I love music, it is going to save us as I said before, but sound is super interesting as well. If you open your eyes to sound, and to discover sound and noise, it is really amazing.
End of the interview
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