In 1986 Tangerine Dream were in Berlin recording what would become Underwater Sunlight, a perfectly standard mid-1980s Tangerine Dream album. It has its fans, but it failed to win many converts. It’s most notable for introducing pianist Paul Haslinger to the world. Austrian-born Haslinger had studied at Vienna’s Academy of Music and was sitting in with bands along the Viennese club circuit when he was approached by Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke to replace the exiting Johannes Schmoelling, who had helped guide Tangerine Dream through a fruitful and transitional period throughout the first half of the 1980s. Now, with classically-trained Haslinger in tow, they set about to expand their reach by tightening and focusing their sound for the rest of the decade.
Haslinger recalls this time with the groundbreaking electronic group (which lasted for five years over a total of 15 albums) on “Berlin 86-11”, a contemplative track recorded late at night as part of his latest opus, Exit Ghost. The “86” obviously marks the year he first recorded in Berlin. The “11” represents 2011, his first return since when he was working on the score for the latest film adaptation of The Three Musketeers. The years — including the dash between — in the track’s title offer a convenient overview of Haslinger’s professional career. Start with a legendary group, then move into film, television, and video game scoring for the last 20 years, including the Underworld franchise, Crazy/Beautiful, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Showtime’s Sleeper Cell, and music for the game Need For Speed: Undercover, among others.
What makes Exit Ghost an outlier in Haslinger’s catalog is the freedom that comes from composing music with no boundaries (film, television) in which to frame the work, allowing for the muse to come from a much more personal and introspective place. In turn, the listener is taken on a more intimate journey. Piano improvisation is at the core of Exit Ghost, but the songs do not meander; they are beautifully and carefully constructed, with enticing melodies cascading in and out of subtle yet enveloping atmospherics.
With Exit Ghost, Haslinger drew inspiration from Philip Roth’s novel, Exit Ghost, as well as John Fowles’s classic, The Magus. Both books center on creative characters in search of truth and identity. The music here indeed feels like it is searching, advancing to discover and uncover a place of solace and higher knowledge.
The moments that resonate the most are, naturally, the most melodic. “Intrinsic”, for example, relies on a descending progression reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” while surrounding its repetition with dynamics that gradually and dramatically intensify. Haslinger knows it’s a strong piece; its melody quietly repeats at the end of the album’s final track, the epic-length “Alcina”, as the sound of, appropriately enough, a ghost exiting.
Shakespeare used the term “exit ghost” as a stage direction in the scripts of three of his plays: Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. In the hands, ears, and mind of Paul Haslinger, a simple stage direction becomes an album-length meditation on freeing oneself from the constraints of expectations and obligation. The ghost could be the muse that has been inside for too long, now let loose to wreak havoc – a beautiful havoc – on the daring and patient listener.