The career of Bernd “Burnt” Friedman has had a truly unique trajectory over 40 years. Like many of his generation, he was involved in the post-punk electronic experimentation of early 1980s German music – the “Neue Deutsche Welle” – and then went on to discover techno and electronica as the 90s started.
But where many were content to stay and prosper within that electronica sphere, and though he made notable records in the 80s with his duo Drome and in the 90s with his Nonplace Urban Field guise, Friedman’s experimental urges pushed him further still.
Then, in 2000, he met the legendary drummer Jaki Liebezeit formerly of Krautrock originators Can, and his style transformed into something new and distinctive.
Jazz, dub and global sounds which had been audible as influences before now fused into a totality, as Friedman pursued a quasi-mystical vision of musical fundaments.
A partnership began which lasted up until Liebezeit’s death at 78 in 2017, but Friedman has also been prolific in a number of guises and bands. This has included Nu Dub Players and Embassadors, and collaborations with the likes of former Japan frontman David Sylvian, funk singer/poet Daniel Dodd Ellis, Persian percussion virtuoso Mohammad Reza Mortazavi and many others besides.
We spoke to Friedman on the occasion of the release of new collaboration tracks with Mortazavi, and some previously unreleased tracks with Liebezeit, as well as the launch of a new partnership with drummer Joao Pais Filipe from Portugal where Friedman now lives.
We find him in reminiscing mood, thanks to this relocation.
“When I was packing up in Berlin,” he said, “I decided not to move with all the tapes – there were a lot of boxes, hundreds – so I decided to copy them all onto the computer and listen to them.
“Some had never been touched before, and they dated back to 1979 when I was recording in my teenage room at my parents', through to the late 80s.”
He grew up, and studied art, in the central German city of Kassel, where “there were no record labels and no venues... in the German new wave, as a dilletante, you might have a new band every week: there might have been 20 names I was recording under, though maybe none reached beyond the local scene in Kassel.”
Eventually, though, his records made with partner Frank Hernandez under the names Some More Crime and Drome found wider audiences in Germany, and his career began, and began to follow the shifts in electronic music.
“The occurrence of techno music,” he says, “Had an impact on me in 91, 92, when I was attending the techno parties in Kassel and Berlin and that definitely influenced the Drome project with Frank. But I wasn't a fan enough to dive into that properly, it was just a glimpse of a genre that I could contribute to.”
Already he was pushing at the boundaries of what could be done in existing scenes, driven by a love of things like Frank Zappa’s non-standard time signatures; notably Flanger, his collaboration with Uwe “Atom” Schmidt, treated electronica like far-out jazz, seeing how complex patterns could get while still grooving.
But when he moved to Cologne in 2000, via his friendship with Jann St Werner of renowned electronica band Mouse On Mars and Marcus Schmickler from the A-Music store and DJ collective, he met Jaki Liebezeit.
Liebezeit had been busy creating his own drumming technique, known as “E-T”, with a morse code-like notation, and which focused on balanced bodily motion for the drummer instead of adherence to traditional bar patterns. As a result, it can incorporate timings very unfamiliar to Western ears, yet create music that flows in a surprisingly natural and danceable fashion.
It’s a technique that Friedman says “finds congruences all over the world” and has allowed him to find points of connection with traditional styles from Japan to Uganda.
“When you look at the dominating drumming language,” he says, “It seems like an anomaly, it seems strange to not question how jazz and rock drummers today play their drums. Of course they can also express themselves and do many things, but I think… what they do is not actually based on universal principles but on somebody else's mind.”
Liebezeit’s techniques, however, which he learned through years playing together, do approach universal principles of how the human body moves and responds to rhythm.
“This is often discredited as being esoteric,” he says, “But in fact it's just basal – it's the basic motion pattern.”
And it’s here that Friedman’s ethos came into focus. The motive behind his almost impossibly prolific last 20 years is first of all that he’s not aiming for self-expression, or a particular aesthetic, but sees himself as a researcher.
“Working with materials or sound sources,” he says, “For you to have such a preconception of what you want to achieve or a product you want to sell to a public, this is foreign to me. I think that's maybe why I went on a path that allowed me to create music that wasn't immediately recalling existing musical mediums.”
He talks of the ideal of the artist as it arose in the European renaissance of the 1500s as being the same as the scientist: someone who tests reality and in so doing reveals things that are related neither to their personal tastes or beliefs, nor to their culture.
“An artist or scientist,” he says, “Doesn't speak in the name of the Pope, doesn't speak in the name of the football club, doesn't speak in the name of the culture. The development of the artist has shown that you can, despite the majority, make a point and make a difference. Even if it was just a singular view – and in science this is even more apparent – that can disprove or criticise the common view, you would be able to allow a new experience, a new worldview and so forth.”
This search for something universal beyond the personal or cultural isn’t just a preference: Friedman is impassioned about its importance. He talks about the German concept of “wirklichkeit”, sometimes translated as “actuality” or the structure of reality beneath appearances.
“To put it more clearly,” he continues, “A Fascist translates his vision one to one into reality, and what we get is Auschwitz, but an artist and scientist, they know that the reality has a life of its own, the reality is what you can't influence.”
From a lesser musician, you might hear something like this and think of it as a provocation, or a quasi-academic justification after the fact for their work.
But with Friedman, the development of his work speaks for itself: while his 20th century work is good, often sublime, his work since meeting Liebezeit, right up to and including the newest tracks with Mortazavi and Felipe, truly do feel like ideas unfolding and being examined – and indeed for all their fiendish complexity, they feel like natural expressions of the human body too.
In Friedman’s hands, music that’s experimental in the most literal sense is not something dry, cerebral or awkward: as he is at pains to point out, “There's nothing abnormal about it!”
Cover Image: Nonplace Records
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs