Thomas Fehlmann has been involved in the thinking person’s electronic music for nearly three decades, and has the resume to prove it. In the 1980s, he served with the German New Wave group Palais Schaumburg. That band also included Holger Hiller, who went on to help pioneer digital sampling, and F.M. Einheit, who later served with legendary noisemakers Einstürzende Neubauten. Fehlmann then formed the group 3MB with Detroit techno legend Juan Atkins, and worked with the innovative British electronic “mood music” outfit the Orb. Now, he records for the iconic Kompakt label. Even with such a diverse, time-tested career, scoring the German television film 24H Berlin must have been a genuine, unique challenge.
That’s because 24H Berlin is one of the longest television programs ever presented. Set to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the documentary employs 80 film crews to capture the essence and scope of life in the German capital over a 24-hour period. It runs in real time for, you guessed it, 24 hours. With that much film to mull over and score, where do you even start? At least Fehlmann didn’t have to do all 24 hours. Veteran German television composer Maurus Ronner, working separately, also provided some of the score. Still, the task for Fehlmann was monumental. With Gute Luft, he’s gone beyond that task and assembled an essential album.
Gute Luft is the product of Fehlmann’s editing and reshaping some of his work for 24H Berlin. The title translates to “Good Air”, and it’s a perfect summation of the sound and mood within. Fehlmann has said, “I figured that air, the good old Berliner Luft, is something that is guaranteed to touch everyone and everything in the city.” He should know, too. Though he was born in Switzerland, Fehlmann has lived in Berlin for the past quarter century.
The way Gute Luft works out, though, the Berlin air is no easy-going breeze. Rather, it’s a delicate, multi-layered, often dark, but ultimately redeeming atmosphere. The 15 tracks here take the often chilly, pulsing synthesizer arpeggios and 4/4 rhythms of vintage Detroit and Germanic techno, and warm them up with gauzy dub effects, strings, and chords. Two chords, in particular, which serve as the ominous yet strangely soothing theme of entire work. They swell up on the first track, “Alles, Immer”, and at various points throughout Gute Luft, a comforting refrain. Between such points, Fehlmann puts on a masterclass in the art of subtle dynamics. Beats fade in and out of the ether in almost subliminal fashion. “Wasser Im Fluss” starts out with a calm rhythm and echoing synthesizers, before the synth tone turns menacing and strummed guitar lingers in the background. Then, just shy of three minutes in, the track gracefully yet unmistakably takes flight. The sensation is almost physical.
This is the power of the best of Gute Luft, which is most of it. “Von Oben” creates a wash of urgent atmosphere, then simply dissolves midway through, like exquisitely broken glass. Then it all comes back together. Arguably the best tracks of all are those on which Fehlmann forgoes beats altogether and lets the synthesizers and strings bear all the sonic weight. “Falling Into Your Eyes” and “Berliner Luftikus” are two prime examples of the shimmering, poignant beauty Fehlmann can obtain from his machines, as is the blanketing, swelling crescendo of “Darkspark”. Only when Fehlmann nears more dissonant, near-industrial sounds does he even come close to the nondescript, meandering fare that film scores are notorious for.
It’s quite possible that Fehlmann’s varied, estimable past has prepared him for just this occasion. This is music that has time on its side, that quickly makes you thankful for its patience and care. Good, yes, but a goodness that implies humanity and all its complexities, so much more than just an easy amble down film-score lane.