Imagine creating one image of yourself now, and another after forty years. How different would they be? Inevitably, a lot would have changed. Not just your body, but your sense of identity; your way of looking; your approach to the task of portraiture. Hans-Joachim Roedelius took his first Selbstportrait in the 1970s, capturing meditative miniatures in keyboard and synth. After a swathe of time, he’s back at the easel and pushing the series towards double figures. Roedelius himself never went away. But after a long series of collaborative albums in the 2010s, this album returns to introspection. What’s more, it returns to the same equipment (and artwork) that characterised his 1970s efforts.
Roedelius’s solitary music emerged as respite from his legendary collaborative efforts with Harmonia and Cluster. An album like Cluster (1971) is monolithic in its pre-industrial droning kosmische. By comparison, the first self-portrait was understated and subdued. On many tracks, rhythmic ostinati circle behind gently soaring melodies. Roedelius made later music that blurs figure and ground, our perception shifting from one to the other. On this new album, “Geruhsam” [“Peaceful”] is a great example of ambient music establishing its own space. The purest moments of Brian Enos’s Another Green World (1975) seem to have been distilled and elongated into an isolated microcosm. In gently bouncing synth lines, the music heralds a robotic Spring blossoming into life.
The subtitle of the original Selbsportrait offers the listener Sanfte Musik [“Soft Music”]. The second instalment in the series would offer Freundliche Musik [“Friendly Music”]. Just as softness can lead to companionship, the decades have allowed friendship to blossom into Wahre Liebe [“True Love”]. All these descriptors seem apt in the gentlest moments of Roedelius’s artistry. The title track meanders and picks its path carefully, as all love must. “Winterlicht” is more lyrical again, a simple melody gradually rethinking itself. Both are echoey keyboard pieces, their notes rebounding in an intimate grotto.
Not all of the album is naturalistic or romantic. We also get space-age synth, harmonised by ambient textures and interspersed with plink-plonking bursts. The opening track, with its tightly coiled piano line, opens the door to American minimalism. A highlight of the record, “Im Kreisel” [“In the Gyroscope”] follows through on this promise. It comprises a claustrophobic loop with the insistence of an alarm clock and the cadences of Philip Glass.
“Vormals” is minimal in a different way, pursuing the condensing properties of ambient music. In thirty-eight seconds, Roedelius conveys us from stability to uneasy tension, and all the way to resolution. By contrast, the album ends with a fifteen-minute excursion. Dissonant notes sound and reverberate, ripples on a melancholy surface. Unsettling atmosphere takes over, then dissipates in a gradual fade to silence. Is that where true love leads us? The album asks the question, but we have no answer yet.
“Soft music” was a vital brick in the foundations of the modern ambient genre. It is natural that Roedelius, now 85 years old, take a backward glance. However, he is hardly dining out on the achievements of the past. This album creates something fresh, modern, but in keeping with the original portrait. Rather than careering into the unknown, the series has completed a satisfying circle. In much the same way, linear progression is often downplayed within each composition. Fans of this friendly music will rejoice that it continues to achieve great impact from the little fundamentals. With enough practice, you can find true love in delicate details. (Samuel Rogers)