If we can credit Miles Davis for the birth of the cool, maybe we can credit Klaus Schulze for the birth of the drone. Strictly speaking, I know others got there first -- La Monte Young, for instance, was producing "musical environments" a good decade before Irrlicht was waxed. But Irrlicht serves the dual function of being Schulze's first album proper — the start of one of the longest and most durable careers in electronic music — and one of the first works to point people at when they ask, in all innocence, so what's this "ambient" or "space music" thing all about anyway?
The title of the record means "Will O' The Wisp" in German, and it's a fitting name for an album that conjures up, out of the most rudimentary material (I'll refrain from using the world minimal here), the most frightening energy and presence of menace I've heard in an album since some of the stuff on Miles Davis's Get Up With It. That album had much dross and a few passages of such seething horror or sorrow that I can barely stand to listen to them very often. Irrlicht is either more or less sorrowful, depending on your inclinations: if you think music that doesn't fit into conventional genres sounds less emotional than its more familiar counterparts, you aren't likely to be as moved. Get Up With It moved me; Irrlicht shook me. Both are commendable, but the latter album is the real pathbreaker of the two.
Stories abound about how Irrlicht arose from Schulze's involvement with the early years of Tangerine Dream, specifically the recording of its album Zeit. Schulze had different ideas about what to put on the album than the other bandmates, and so went ahead and implemented those ideas on his own using what little material he had to work with: a partly broken organ, a tape recording of an orchestra rehearsal, and some studio electronics.
To that end, most of the album isn't "electronic" in the sense that most of us would associate with such a term or with Schulze's career generally (e.g., synthesizers) -- but in that sense it corresponds well to what Tangerine Dream did early in their career as well, where they worked with studio technology and conventional instruments to produce otherworldly sounds. The first two tracks that constituted side one of the original LP — the side that seethes — mainly uses an electric organ and a few basic studio effects to modulate its sound, creating a beat out of something normally beatless by oscillating it between channels. At first this is dreamy, then uneasy, then finally terrifying; the explosion that climaxes the side requires a good five minutes of bubbling, twittering electronics to finally taper off.
Side two, on the other hand, is all tapering-off — one giant, undulating drone, apparently created by playing an orchestra rehearsal backwards through an array of electronics. The fact that the technology involved is so primitive only endears it to me all the more; the real technology here is the ingenuity and nerve required to put something like this together from only what was lying around, and make it sound as if some far more sophisticated engineering was at work. In both execution and flavor, I'm reminded of Keith Jarrett's Hymns/Spheres* album, one easily filed alongside this one in because of its experimental air and space-music sounds, but accomplished with only a pipe organ as it was originally built in the 18th century.
Much of the rest of Schulze's catalog documents his adventures at the forefront of synthesizer-based electronic music, in much the same way Tangerine Dream graduated over time from regular instruments (albeit heavily treated with studio technology) to the synth wizardry most people associate them with. But those early years show that the real genius wasn't in the fact that they had synths; it was in how they saw them as the next level up from what they are already doing.