Memory Motel: Whatever Became of Peter Baumann?
In search of the lost German synth wizard.
Maybe it's better this way. After all, Peter Baumann's erstwhile compatriots in Tangerine Dream, like many other electronic pioneers of their generation, hung around way past their expiration date, ultimately defecating on their luminous legacy with one iffy, overproduced, ill-advised album after another. By pulling one of the most successful vanishing acts in electronic music, the man who made history with Tangerine Dream and on his own has, intentionally or not, kept his own reputation untarnished. Still, looking back on the music he made, one can't help wondering if the old master split the scene with an unrealized masterpiece or two left in him.
At this point it seems unlikely that we'll ever know the answer to that question. The Berlin-born synthesizer sultan hasn't released a record in three decades, and shows no signs of breaking his streak anytime in the near future. Nevertheless, from 1972 to '77, he was a crucial contributor to Tangerine Dream's most impactful albums (i.e. part of the canon of both electronic music as a whole and krautrock). The classics Zeit, Atem, Phaedrea, Rubycon, Ricochet, Stratosfear, and Encore all found Baumann at the center of a swirling microverse of analog synths, Mellotron, primitive drum machines, and more, making for some of the most transportive electronic sounds ever captured on tape.
Baumann, who was still in his teens when he started working with Tangerine Dream, unleashed his first and finest solo album, Romance '76, before parting ways with the group for good. Still available in MP3 format but long out of print as a physical release, it's literally a solo effort, with Baumann playing all the parts himself (apart from the epic orchestral track). It's a largely unheralded classic of ‘70s Berlin-school instrumental electronic music. While it contains all the forward motion and timbral intrigue of T. Dream's best, it utilizes a more concise, often minimalist approach, with succinct melodic statements set in a simple but sophisticated framework. It's one of the few albums of its kind that's actually hummable.
In 1979, Baumann followed up with the similarly inclined, only slightly less effective Trans Harmonic Nights. Even if his story had ended there, he still would have achieved more than most musicians ever accomplish in their wildest dreams. But in 1981, seemingly inspired by the freshness and energy of New Wave (especially the Neue Deutsche Welle or NDW variety) and synth pop, he released Repeat Repeat in 1981. A drastic volte-face, the album has more in common with Kraftwerk's seminal, contemporaneous Computer World, or the work of young electro-pop acts like Telex, Depeche Mode, et al. Short songs with kinetic grooves, catchy riffs, and pop song structure abound, with Baumann taking a surprisingly successful turn as a vocalist. 1983's Strangers in the Night, an attempt to maintain the commercially oriented momentum of its predecessor, has its moments, but it's ultimately a pale reflection, and its title track, a head-scratching synth-pop reimagining of the Frank Sinatra hit, is Baumann's inexplicable nadir.
Maybe this was what drove Baumann from his recording career, but more likely it was his entrepreneurial shift into the role of music-biz mogul. In 1984, he started the label Private Music, which released albums by everyone from old pals Tangerine Dream to Ringo Starr before Baumann sold it in the mid '90s. In more recent years, his path took a more unpredictable turn - he started The Baumann Foundation, which the organization's website describes as "a San Francisco-based think-tank that explores the experience of being human in the context of cognitive science, evolutionary theory and philosophy." The site also informs us that Baumann is "director of several privately held real estate and natural resource companies," as well as a long-time family man with three grown kids. So he may no longer be blazing away at the forefront of electronic music, but Baumann apparently still has plenty to keep him busy.
|Peter Baumann - "Bicentennial Present"|