Conny Plank

John Foxx interviewed about pioneering German producer Conny Plank.

(Questions by Geeta Dayal)

1. What was Conny like as a person? What were your impressions of him, when you first met?

JF: ‘Physically, a tall, powerful guy – beard, jeans, boots and sweater.
His manner was patient, tolerant – not at all arrogant, in fact he could be rather self-deprecating – but you also felt he wouldn’t suffer fools for long. A little later, you discover a wry sense of humour.’

2. What about Conny did you find most interesting or inspiring — about his way in the recording studio, or the creativity of his work as a producer and engineer?

‘He provided this safe place to operate and gave permission for you to do whatever you wanted, then he quietly recorded everything. He said he felt it was important to allow people to go mad in their own particular way – to go through all the boundaries in order to get something new. Afterwards, he’d carefully sift through what you’d done. He became a collaborator, like another member of the band. At times, you’d also notice he could be like a good anthropologist – detached, observing the tribe by taking up temporary residence. A wee smile would also appear on occasion.
It takes pretty good judgement to remain objective while maintaining just the right amount of subjective participation, even at times allowing things to go out of control around you. But always recording. A good producer knows these sorts of approach are indispensable to obtaining anything new or exciting. It’s the polar opposite of bullying to get results, which many producers of that era were inclined to do.’

3. What did you find impressive about his approach, or technique? What did you learn from him?

‘He was always imaginative – capable of devising radical new uses for existing equipment and new means of obtaining the sounds he wanted – this is another thing that defines great producers from more pedestrian ones. He was always one step ahead of the technology – he could anticipate where it needed to go.
I began to realise that many engineers and producers had actually been dominated by technology themselves, so expected a rather obedient attitude from musicians.
Conny certainly had none of that.’

4. On listening to many of the records that Conny produced, it sounds like he’s sort of playing his mixing desk, using it as an instrument, in a
very active way. What were your impressions of his custom-built mixing desk, and how he used it? (I’d recently read this: “In Conny’s hands,
a simple tool always turned into a sophisticated instrument,” recalls Petrus Wippel, who worked as Plank’s assistant during the mid-1970s. “For instance, a few channels on the [mixing] deck had a quadstick instead of a pan pot, but not because he did many quadrophonic mixes. He used them in his own way: routing the front channels into the main mixing buses while using the back ones to drive an effect such as an echo machine. This way, he could pan an instrument left and right, as well as dry and wet, with only one fingertip, thus making a guitar solo fly through time and space during a mixdown session.”)

‘Yes, exactly – that’s a very good account – such brilliant and practical ideas. Conny was an innovator in many other ways, as well – I loved his method of sampling and looping, for instance. He anticipated digital sampling by at least five years. He would isolate certain notes, record them onto a stereo tape machine, loop these so they played continuously, then re-record these extended notes onto separate tracks of multitrack tape.
Then you could replay all the notes selectively, through the console, by using the faders. By this method, he literally turned the mixing desk into a musical instrument – in fact, it was the complete anticipation of a polyphonic sampler.
In addition, he could use that method described by Petrus to control the nuances of sound as this was being delivered. He used all this on Dislocation, on Systems of Romance, and around the same time on Music for Airports with Eno.
He had this vital ability to turn a technical environment into an organic entity – an extension of human desire – rather than an inhibitor of it.’

5. What memories stand out in your mind of working with Conny, during the time of Systems of Romance? And what were his biggest contributions to Systems of Romance – in terms of the sound, overall concept, etc?

‘He was very interested in reverberations and echoes – using them to create a series of overlapping harmonic layers and notional spaces – as well as understanding the appropriate emotional resonance of such things.
He had several Roland Space Echoes, which he used all the time in mixing, as well as plate and spring reverberation devices. With just that bank of Space Echo machines, and the method of fader control Petrus described, he could create and control spatial scenes during the mixes. All this gave the music an enormous deep and wide sound – with the possibility of rapid or subtle scene changes during the song. It was also a development of psychedelic music – mind cinema. Exactly what I was looking for’.

‘Conny would use anything to get the sound he wanted. Nothing was too much trouble. During the recording of

  • Systems
  • , for instance, he recorded vocals outside and in the big barn, he also put them through Marshall valve guitar amplifiers. On other songs he’d put them through a Hammond rotary speaker. He’d also play instruments into a speaker placed in the grand piano – to catch extra harmonics from the sympathetic string vibrations.

    There were also phasers and flangers and all manner of effects. Some cheap and some more expensive – all he cared about was the sound – not the technical specification – of a piece of equipment. He was fascinated by valve and transistor distortion and used this on synthesizers, drum machines and even on voices, to thicken and vary the sounds. He also had some people nearby who would modify or build electronic equipment in ways he specified.’

    ‘Incidentally, I also got the title of Systems of Romance, after learning of Conny’s interest in systems music and systems of recording – especially that looping system he developed.
    I liked the idea of intangible emotional elements running through mathematical frameworks.
    These sort of images were very much themes of the time – you’d find lots of nebulous or organic forms held in mathematical structures in paintings of that era – look at Francis Bacon or Giacometti, for instance. I’d been trying to find the words for some tangent to Koerstler’s concept of ‘The Ghost in the Machine’, which was a sort of literary equivalent, and had been very useful – plus the idea of systems music.
    There were some struggling conversations – meandering through Stockhausen, systems music, Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air, psychedelia and comparisons to Romantic music. Conny’s English wasn’t that good and nor was my German. One afternoon at the studio, I suddenly got the title. I had to rush out of the room and write it down.
    It seemed a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of the music I was attempting to get to at that moment.’

    4. I read in an interview that you were in Conny’s studio during the making of ‘Music for Airports’ – what do you remember?

    ‘I remember Christa and the women working around the studio, who Conny and Brian asked to sing the notes – they were to be the choir which Conny built up through that loop system, from layering just two or three voices – Christa Fast, Inge Zeininger – I think perhaps Christina too, but I’m not certain. There were certainly lots of long tape loops tapes running right around the control room.

    (I also remember those voice pieces reminding me very much of Popol Vuh’s music for Aguirre, which I’d particularly loved at the time it came out, a couple of years before. It seemed like an emergent genre – music that was not classical or rock or jazz, but intended for tranquil, intelligent listening – as well as decorating an environment. An extension of Satie’s ideas of wallpaper music).

    I know that his wife Christa was one of the voices, and that one of the repeating notes was a long loop running around aluminum chairs in Conny’s studio.

    Oh yes – and around pencils wedged into gaps between the wall, the mixing desk, and other pieces of equipment. ‘

    5. Here’s a Conny quote, from shortly before he died in 1987: “I’m not
    a musician. I’m a medium between musicians, sounds, and tape. I’m like a conductor or traffic policeman.” Do you have any thoughts on

    ‘Well, he was far too modest – Conny was a very good musician, he was equally a sensitive facilitator, an original – he understood where everything was going – and where it all needed to go.
    I think his approach was gained through real experiences in listening and recording, because he’d built up slowly from a single, borrowed stereo recorder to a full studio – so he knew how to maximise the use of every piece of equipment, and because he’d often had to improvise, he knew how to use it all in innovative ways, often unanticipated by the designers.
    Another thing worth mentioning was that he did all this with an attitude of play – gleeful and totally involved, he delighted in innovation – but always in order to make some new, imagined aspect of music obtainable.
    He worked from such broad understanding – he loved psychedelic music, folk music, avant – pop, experimental electronica, classical music, avant-garde, modern systems and random music, from Stockhausen to Cage to Schaeffer, to Terry Riley – a huge range of sound and ideas.

    ‘I think much greater than any other producer of that era. Perhaps the only other equivalent might have been George Martin, the Beatles’ producer. I know that Conny appreciated his innovative work on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. This is a moment I also regarded as pivotal – the entry of avant-garde ideas into British pop music – George Martin was entirely responsible for that – he was interested in Cage and Stockhausen, and he’d used random and backward tapes and loops and drones in that track.
    Oddly enough, the spirit of all this wasn’t really recognised in Britain – instead we took an odd turn into Prog-Rock – while the real spirit of adventure went over to Germany. Conny was responsible for recording much of the most adventurous music of this era. He was the George Martin of new German music, but he was also working in a much less conservative context, with focussed, radical and adventurous musicians and bands.
    It has always amazed me that all these riches have been so overlooked. This was the most fertile musical scene on the planet at the time. Conny focused all his knowledge and experience into the work of these musicians, and in doing this, he was recording and making the music of the future – Can, Kraftwerk, Michael Rother, La Dusseldorf, Neu, Cluster, Moebius and Roedelius, Eno, and all the others, came to him because they recognised and needed his ability to realise their very different visions, and the chemistry is clear in all these historic recordings. Each one breaks boundaries, makes brave, beautiful statements, and provides entire new sonic landscapes and maps of further possibilities. It’s an inestimably rich legacy he left behind. An unparalleled body of work.
    I’m certain this influence will never be played out, because it has now become a permanent part of the DNA of so many kinds of music.
    He’d ditched all the boundaries between engineer, producer, artist and equipment, and reinvented the whole environment into something human, organic and intelligent, rather than received or conventional. The best operators do this – George Martin to Lee Perry. Conny was equally important. He’d discovered and recorded an entirely new genre of music – allowed it to retain complete integrity and made it available to the world. Without him, most of that might have remained undiscovered – may have been disregarded, misconceived, or lost completely.
    At that point, of course, a new generation in Germany was trying hard to reinvent itself, attempting to acknowledge but transcend the horrors of the war, by building a new, optimistic and humanitarian present. You can see this in the work of filmmakers, painters, and artists of all kinds in that postwar generation, and this energy is manifested in all Conny’s recordings.
    They represent the successful reinvention of an important aspect of German culture at that point, the clear differentiation of a new generation with new ideas, and I think this adds to their significance.
    Conny is one of the great producers, and still fantastically underrated – but that is bound to change, as writers and critics uncover the real story of what he achieved – and what he made possible for others to realise.’

    Thursday, September 13th, 2012 JOURNAL