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Holger Czukay - An Obituary

Holger Czukay – bass player, electronicist, composer

Born March 24 1938: died September 5 2017


Holger Czukay, who has been found dead in his apartment aged 79, was much more than a bass player. Whilst with Can, the post hippy purveyors of a form of cosmic free-form rock he co-founded in 1968, the former student of radical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen helped define the band's propulsive and hypnotic rhythmic power alongside drummer Jaki Leibezeit. It was Czukay's work in the studio as editor and engineer, however, that helped shape and focus the band's surprisingly funky sound. His pioneering experiments with sampling, electronics and what came to be known as world music revealed a playful nature that coursed through both his solo and collaborative work.

Czukay was born in what was then the Free City of Danzig, the Baltic port which later became part of Poland as Gdansk. Forced to flee with his parents as the Russians advanced, Czukay recalled arriving in Berlin in 1945. After the war, he and his family were interned before escaping to the city's American zone.

As a teenager, Czukay worked in a radio repair shop, where he was drawn to the random sounds that emanated from each station. Czukay began studying music with a bass player from the Berlin Philharmonic, but with no desire to join an orchestra, decamped to Cologne to seek out Stockhausen, who took him on as a pupil. A fellow student was keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, who, inspired by seeing the Velvet Underground, wanted to start a band. Czukay had little interest in rock until he heard the Beatles play I Am The Walrus care of his own student, Michael Karoli. The result of Czukay and Schmidt's epiphanies was Can, which they formed in 1968 with Leibezeit and guitarist Karoli as the band's core quartet alongside vocalists Malcolm Mooney, then Damo Suzuki.

Beginning with Monster Movie in 1969, Czukay played with Can for the next eight years across peak-era albums that included Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973).

In 1976, Czukay appeared on Top of the Pops with the band, miming to their cross-over hit, I Want More, with a double bass. I Want More was later covered by Edinburgh electronic band, Fini Tribe.

By the time of Can's ninth album, Saw Delight (1977), Czukay had forsaken the bass entirely, with ex Traffic bassist Rosko Gee drafted in to take over, leaving Czukay to concentrate on electronics. Czukay left shortly after.

Czukay had released his first solo album, Canaxix 5, in 1968, and, post-Can, released ten more, the most recent of which in 2015 was Eleven Years Innerspace. The influence of Can and Czukay on the generations of musical explorers who followed in his and their wake was palpable, and Czukay went on to collaborate with fellow travellers including Jah Wobble, Brian Eno and David Sylvian. Where Czukay's use of radios, dictaphones and other found sounds were once considered eccentric, today their use is widespread.

Czukay's influence went beyond music, with Scottish novelist Alan Warner dedicating his debut novel, Morvern Callar, which was laced throughout with Can references, to Czukay. As Warner wrote in Granta magazine, he discovered Czukay through reading an interview with Jah Wobble, who talked about Persian Love, the six minute exotic epic recorded for Czukay's 1979 album, Movies. Warner described Persian Love and Czukay as his touchstone in all arts. Sixteen years later, Czukay's music remains a touchstone of restless experimentalism that also knew how to groove.

Czukay lived in Weilerwest, near Cologne, which was converted from Can's Inner Space studio. His wife Ursula died in July of this year. The cause of Czukay's death is still unknown.

The Herald, September 12th 2017

ends

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