Some classic albums have origin stories that threaten to eclipse the music itself. My Bloody Valentine almost bankrupted Creation over Loveless. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was just a cassette demo that he carried around in his pocket before deciding to release it. Brian Wilson’s inability to finish SMiLE caused him a mental breakdown. Add to these E2-E4, the marvelous extended electronic work by Manuel Göttsching, former leader of the key krautrock band Ash Ra Tempel.
After the dissolution of Ash Ra Tempel in the mid-’70s, Göttsching began working solo as Ashra, moving away from his earlier band’s wooly psychedelic rock and toward structures based on ambiance and his interest in Terry Riley-style minimalism. Both the trance-inducing repetition of 1975’s Inventions for Electric Guitar and the softer drones of 1976’s New Age of Earth showed his mastery of these forms, and he would build on them. In December 1981, having just returned from a tour with his friend Klaus Schulze, Göttsching was alone in his home studio and decided to create an improvised piece as an exercise, and also to give himself a tape to listen to on an upcoming trip. Moving between his battery of synthesizers and sequencing devices, he settled on a gentle two-chord vamp on his Prophet 10, to which he added an array of pinging electronic percussion and simple melodic figures. And over the second half of the piece, he laid down an extended guitar solo. Cut live without overdubs in a single hour, E2-E4 became, upon its eventual release in 1984, an electronic music landmark.
E2-E4 has an elusive appeal, one that is mysterious even to its maker. In 1981 and ’82, Göttsching was partway through planning a new solo album—it was quite complicated, with different sections and laborious themes. He wasn’t sure what to do with this new music, which came so easily. By 1981, Göttsching had made many pieces at home on his own for many purposes, but this one was lightning in a bottle. Like the longjumper Bob Beamon—whose one perfect jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics set a world record that he never came close to reaching before or since—Göttsching puzzled over his flawless moment. He listened to his creation over and over, trying to figure out why it worked so well, looking for some reason it wasn’t as good as it seemed. But he was at a loss. There were no mistakes, no incomplete ideas. It wasn’t too loud or too soft or too derivative. For one magic hour, the perfectly realized music floats in space, inviting listeners to admire it from the outside and then dance within it.
There are two things to hear in E2-E4: what the music is, and what the ideas within it would become. It’s sublime as a present-moment listening experience, with beautiful textures and a glorious symmetry. E2-E4 is like one long pop song stretched over 60 minutes, which is to say it’s sort of like its own DJ set. It plays with pop structures, but on a much larger canvas—a change that might last for a few bars in a pop single might last, here, for four minutes. At the 23-minute mark, there’s a several-minutes-long section where Göttsching starts flanging the tones and it feels something like dub; it’s kind of like a bridge. At the 3:35 mark, a pinging melody first enters, and that feels like a verse. As with many pop songs, there is an instrumental break, and in this case, it’s a guitar solo that lasts for a full album side. Göttsching vibrates with his riff in harmony, winding out fluid lines in the middle register that function as a rhythmic counterpoint and shifting melody simultaneously.
If three chords form the skeleton of punk, then two chords are the soul of techno, the minimum the music can move and still be changing. Göttsching’s guitar solo is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, with its clean but expressive tone that mixes a touch of jazz and blues with a more free-floating pointillist psychedelia. And Göttsching’s guitar work highlights one of E2-E4’s most appealing qualities: that the music sits precisely at the point where the human meets the machine. The great bulk of the music is synthesized and sequenced, a Rube Goldberg-like device that winds through pre-programmed sections, but when his guitar enters, we hear the touch of a musician brought up playing classical music on nylon strings. The human hand and the circuits also switch roles, though. If the warm tone of the machines can feel almost human, like an invitation—a friendly and welcoming sound perfect for the communion of the dancefloor—Göttsching’s tightly controlled guitar work sometimes has a mechanical quality, existing in clear relation to the sequencer’s grid.
So that’s the music as it plays. But for those interested in the larger sweep of history, it’s impossible not to listen and hear how ahead of its time this record was. Simply put, E2-E4 sounds a great deal like techno would when it emerged roughly a decade later, and it came from someone with no interest in dance music. As he was contemplating releasing E2-E4, Göttsching visited Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Records, his then-current label, on Branson’s houseboat in order to play him the tape. In a beautifully told story from the liner notes of this reissue, Göttsching says that Branson was rocking his baby in his arms as the tape played, an apt image given the gentle undulations of the chords. “Manuel, you could make a fortune with this music,” Göttsching quotes Branson as saying, and indeed, a fortune would be made from the ideas found on E2-E4. But Göttsching wouldn’t be the one to collect it. Göttsching eventually issued E2-E4 in 1984 on Klaus Schulze’s label, and it didn’t sell well, moving only a few thousand copies. But a handful of those wound up in the right hands.
E2-E4 is also the story of formats. When Göttsching first contemplated releasing it, he realized that its 58-minute length presented difficulties. It was conceived as a single flowing piece, but an hour was generally considered too long even for a single LP, if one wants it to sound good. A skilled disc cutter was able to get a 30+ minute side down in 1984, and thanks to the record’s popularity in clubs, it still feels like a vinyl artifact. Which is one reason this exceptionally well-done reissue is so welcome. Great care was taken in getting the cut right. The 31-minute side, though at a relatively low volume, is clean and clear, even in the inner grooves. One could argue that a seamless digital version of the piece is the “real” version, but if vinyl was good enough for Larry Levan—who, unbeknownst to Göttsching, made the record a regular part of his sets for a time at the Paradise Garage—it’s good enough for me.
The music’s reputation in dance music circles reached a peak when three Italo producers approached him about re-working the tune for a dance music 12” in 1989. That record, released under the name “Sueño Latino,” turned out to be an international hit, and a 1992 remix from Detroit producer Derrick May brought the music full circle. Which gets back to one of E2-E4’s essential qualities: cut in a single hour, it wound its way across the world, morphing and changing with formats and remixes, finding new contexts, a music that is constantly in the process of becoming.