A Little Time: On Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream

In over twenty years of record collecting, there are only a half-dozen or so albums I’ve bought, sold, then repurchased at a later date. In each case I remember exactly why I got rid of them, too: some were reluctant partings due to a need for cash. A couple were about lyrical objections which I later resolved (or disregarded) in my own mind. A few more were sold because I was running out of space in my apartment, and mistakenly thought I wanted to do without them.

But Zeit by Tangerine Dream is the only album I bought twice because I’d had a complete change of heart about the music.

As a teenager growing up in the Chicago suburbs — a precocious but anxious kid who found solace in the the possibilities of experimental music — Zeit (translated simply into English as “Time”) seemed on paper to be a godsend. Its associations with the likes of German Kosmische favorites like Faust and Neu!, lauded in Julian Cope’s now-legendary booklet Krautrocksampler, ignited my imagination. And by the time I’d read online message board reviews affirming the lineage of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II and Oval’s Systemisch with Zeit, I was convinced of its perfectness, and on a mission to track down a copy.

Only thing was, I found myself completely unsatisfied with the record once I’d heard it.

Saw-toothed synth patches, 8-bit samplers, and reverb-drenched guitars created sounds that made sense to my 18-year-old mind. But cellos? The opening moments of the album found in “Birth of Liquid Plejades” — conjured from dramatic, legato strings — were too classical, too 20th century for me to find much of a link to the techno-futurist ambient artists of Warp and Thrill Jockey Records. And I certainly wasn’t given much latitude by the record’s length: well over an hour of long-form, rhythmless space is a lot to ask of even the most patient and adventurous listener, and after about 20 minutes I discovered that I simply couldn’t make my way through composition in its entirety.

For years, Zeit sat on the shelf of a large, jet-black media console until a sunny July afternoon just before my senior year of college, when I brought it to a buy-and-sell record shop along with a stack of other CDs, and Tangerine Dream’s third album exited my tiny corner of the universe.

Though I can recall the exact circumstances that resulted in my estrangement from Zeit, I’m a little foggy on what led to our reunion. I think I might have found an inexpensive used copy of Phaedra 7 or 8 years later — giving me cause to ask whether my initial assessment of Zeit had been hasty — and it wasn’t long before I’d tracked down the recording on Spotify, ready to give it another shot.

Upon second consideration, I was astounded. Had I changed, or had the record? Had the earth shifted under my feet? Though intellectually I understood the reasons for my first-time disappointment, I’d rather wished that my younger self had been ready for Zeit’s restless magnetism.

Today, in those cellos of “Plejades”, I now hear tragedy, and surprise, and sadness. Subsequent album tracks which I’d once glossed over — perhaps due to their increasing atonality — unfold slowly, a nascent universe, patient yet hostile. I look at that stark record cover — is it an eclipse? A black hole? — and I see the infinite promise of the world swallowed by the inevitability of death. It’s all there: the origin and the collapse, in one amazing record.

I spent this last weekend listening to Zeit after reading about Edgar Froese’s passing, and have found it difficult not to hear a funeral dirge, a tacit acknowledgement by Froese some forty odd years before the fact that he will be gone someday, that we’ll all be gone someday, that all the planets and the stars and space and music and possibility, it’ll all be gone. But I’m still here. And though I’m not sure that it was impossible for me to recognize and relate to the themes contained in Zeit as younger man, I certainly understand them better now. It only took me a little time to figure it out.