Released in 1971, Hans Edler’s ‘Elektron Kukéso’ album step-programmed its way into the future, at a time when computer pop was still a sci-fi pipe dream. And it’s an enduring delight to this day
How many artists can you name who were making all-electronic pop music before Kraftwerk? Until the mid 1970s, synths added futuristic flourishes to pop, but they were seldom called upon to do the heavy lifting.
Not only did Hans Edler build songs solely from electronic sources on his 1971 album ‘Elektron Kukéso’, he didn’t use any keyboard instruments. Bypassing real-time synth prodding, the record leapfrogged into the modern age, as every tiny part of the music was computer generated. That said, the data was inputted with a wire brush and some metal pads. It was a method that, funnily enough, failed to transfer into the 21st century.
Edler’s contemporaries Silver Apples and Bruce Haack were undoubtedly pioneers, but both augmented their electrostatic rackets with acoustic instruments. Wendy Carlos and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band were fearlessly progressive, but they weren’t really crafting what you’d call songs. Like finding the Northwest Passage, it took musicians a while to marry the Sturm und Drang of avant-garde knob-twiddling with the manic pop thrill of the three-minute hit. Instrumental Moogsploitatious cover versions led the way, with Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ breaching the hit parade in 1972.
As I wait to meet Hans Edler at a cafe in Stockholm on a rainy (pre-virus) Tuesday, I find myself musing on the twists of fate that have brought me here. In certain environments, records can infect humans in high-risk groups, leading to a chronic, long-term condition. I became a receptive host organism for ‘Elektron Kukéso’ 16 years ago.
My path to this place began when I moved to Sweden in the early 2000s. I fell upon the then newly re-released album in a library and was intrigued, if not wholly afflicted right away. By the time the contagion had fully taken hold, the record had mysteriously vanished from the library catalogue.
And so began the hunt. When I asked store owners and record dealers, they would just smile and shake their heads. I was told that original copies virtually never turned up and even when they did they would sell immediately for exorbitant prices. Like any music berk, I don’t like being denied, so hearing this kind of stuff only amplified the mystery.
At the cafe, a gentleman approaches. Hans Edler is 74 years old and is kindly, well-preserved and slim, although it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a restlessly forward-looking soul under the serene surface. He’s happy to discuss his elektro-meisterwerk, even though he’s put it all behind him.
“Young people started calling me about ‘Elektron Kukéso’ in the 1990s from Paris, New York and Japan,” he says. “I’d almost forgotten about it. I thought they must have been talking about something else.”
If Hans Edler’s historic moment passed you by, don’t beat yourself up. ‘Elektron Kukéso’ has been hidden under a Scandinavian glacier for most of its existence. Created at a facility for serious electronic research and sung in Swedish, it hasn’t yet made it into the potted histories. Birthed into a pre-ABBA world where the words “Swedish” and “music” weren’t thought to belong in the same sentence, it eluded 1970s record buyers and disappeared for the rest of the 20th century.
Edler’s life in music has followed a multi-dimensional path and there’s no sign of him retiring. Born into a musical family, he was a teen idol in the 1960s with the groups Ghostriders and We 4. By the end of the decade, he had embarked on a solo career and founded a record label called Marilla. In conversation, he reveals an inquisitive nature and the dogged determination of an experimentalist. Between 1969 and 1971, it’s clear he was on something of a vision quest. Why else would a pop star ditch their career to battle primitive digital tech?
After the release of ‘Elektron Kukéso’, Edler returned to something at least resembling the mainstream and expanded his operations exponentially. He has soundtracked horror stories, gone disco and conjoured up choral extravaganzas in his time. He has also released records by artists from across the musical spectrum on Marilla. At a point in life when many might be winding down, he still tours regularly.
His detour into electronic experimentation began when he read an article about Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion (EMS), a facility for brow-furrowing, avant-garde composition. While the studio was unusual, even within the nascent computing community, the publicly-funded Swedish broadcaster Sveriges Radio saw fit to invest seven million krona in the project.
“I called to take a tour of EMS and was shown around by Knut Wiggen, the head of the studio,” says Edler. “It was fascinating, but eventually I left, thinking I was just another visitor. I was surprised, to say the least, when Knut rang me a few weeks later and said, ‘OK Hans, when would you like to start?’.”
The term steep learning curve might be cliched, but none of Edler’s previous experiences prepared him for the ascent he was about to make.
“I was interested in electronic music and I’d been experimenting with radios and tape since the mid 60s,” he continues. “But at EMS, I had to take maths lessons before I could even start programming. Over time, I began to understand the possibilities for creating songs. Technologically, it was too early, but in that environment you could see the future. Building a chord involved setting a large range of parameters. Drum hits meant programming short bursts of noise.”
Programming the EMS computer required limitless reserves of patience and forethought, but it also enabled microscopic levels of precision. In addition to this, the operator could sweep a copper brush across an array of metal plates to allow for composition and improvisation in real time, and Edler is shown brandishing a brush at the console on the sleeve of ‘Elektron Kukéso’. He utilised both facets of the system to build melodies and rhythms, even though it was designed with the classical musician in mind.
“The system was a homegrown Swedish invention. The console is now in the Museum of Performing Arts in Stockholm.”
While most early electronic music conveys an aesthetic of cold isolation, whether intentionally or otherwise, ‘Elektron Kukéso’ has a very human sensibility. There’s a poetic, wistful quality that transcends the advanced means by which it was produced. Ralf Hütter might pretend to be a robot, but he appreciates that it’s the interaction of mensch and maschine that makes magic.
I’m faintly aware of being tested for my rigour when I meet Edler. He is open, but far from naive. He knows that ‘Elektron Kukéso’ pushed the boundaries of what was possible at the time. The album was way too proto and strange when it landed in its home market and it wasn’t released anywhere other than Sweden.
“I wasn’t expecting the record to reach a large audience and that wasn’t my motivation,” he says. “After all, I sang in Swedish. It was a personal project and I wasn’t concerned with its reception or longevity.”
Over the years, the album gained a reputation as an eccentric curio rather than a road map for the future, so not everyone who approached him on the topic was warmly received. Like an occult artefact, it was passed among fans of esoterica in Sweden, before one brave soul contacted Edler about a re-release. He wasn’t immediately receptive and he compelled the devotee to prove his commitment by consenting to a detailed account of its methodology in the liner notes.
Making music on the EMS computer was a multi-stage process. The first step was tuning the 24 tone generators individually. Pitch, duration, attack and decay had to be painstakingly written into the machine’s memory and stored on digital tape. The computer would then play the resulting composition onto a conventional analogue tape machine. At which point, it was best to simply cross your fingers.
“I was programming in millisecond increments. Many times, I’d spend the whole day working on something, only for the computer to overload, and I’d have to start again from scratch. There was no way to edit what I programmed. If something wasn’t right, then I had to go all the way back to the beginning.”
Despite the 21st century reanimation of ‘Elektron Kukéso’, it’s still desperately elusive. I finally found a CD of it in Chicago, seemingly the only available copy on the internet. I might have sat back and lit my pipe at that stage, but it hadn’t finished with me yet.
It’s worth remembering that when this record was made, there were no tropes and no conventions for electronic pop. In Edler’s case, these efforts were conducted in near total isolation.
“Hardly any electronic music had reached Sweden at the time,” he notes. “We only heard guitar groups from Britain and America. There were broadcasts of Stockhausen’s music once a month on the radio. They were the only electronic recordings I’d heard.”
I’m immersed enough in Swedish culture to be able to hold a conversation in the local lingo. Nevertheless, I secretly hoped that Edler would let me off the hook, as many Swedes do, and suggest we speak English. But now I’m glad that what turned into a three-hour conversation was conducted in his mother tongue. It would have been too easy for his phrases and concepts to get scrambled as he converted them into foreign parlance.
Edler, literally and metaphysically, found a new voice to accompany his sharp left turn into electronics. Singing in a delicate baritone not heard on his earlier records, the lyrical content also underwent a rethink.
“I wanted to contrast the electronic sounds with my voice and create a mystical element,” he says. “I was influenced by Icelandic folk sagas and the writing of Halldór Laxness [the Icelandic Nobel Prize-winning author]. These use a special kind of verse. They are magical, dream-like stories. I was seeking to awaken the subconscious of the listener.”
Matching words steeped in mystery, the music was produced in conditions of meditation and trance.
“It wasn’t difficult to enter into those states after long days working with the computer. With the song ‘Leka Med Ord’ [‘Playing With Words’], I was speaking in tongues. I wasn’t taking drugs, but the psychedelic was always in me. At EMS, I was electronically high all the time.”
The lyrics might be unintelligible to non-Swedish speakers, but there is something pure and uncontrived about these electronic songs. ‘Jag Söker Efter Kärlek’ (‘I’m Looking For Love’) opens with a motif, which stays with you long after you’ve lifted the needle. ‘Vi Hör Ett Skrik’ (‘We Hear A Scream’) is just a beautiful, elegiac composition. That it’s rendered on computer is neither here nor there. The album as a whole possesses an ability to affect the listener that multiplies with repeated plays.
Edler describes the three years that he devoted to ‘Elektron Kukéso’ as the most rewarding period of his career, even though it offered no financial compensation.
“I was so poor during this time, but I was married to the project,” he says. “I would often fall asleep in the studio, then wake up and work straight away. All the time I was away from EMS, I just wanted to get back in there.”
One thing that has puzzled fans over the years is the title of the album. ‘Kukéso’ is not even a Swedish word, so what does it mean?
“‘Elektron’ came from the name of the studio, but to find the second word I placed letters on each of the 24 tone generators, turned my back and picked tones at random. ‘Kukéso’ was the result. It was generated by the generators.”
Only eight tracks appeared on the record, with a handful of earlier pieces surfacing on the reissue. After three years, that’s a frightening ratio of man hours to finished material. In 1968, EMS was praised as a unique facility by the French musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer. But even Schaeffer, who was used to slaving over ribbons of tape at RTF in Paris, might have baulked at the level of dedication it took to craft this album.
At the dawn of the 1970s, only a path-finding few were making original electronic songs. Hans Edler emerged from his three-year vigil clutching the master tapes to a predictive jewel. No revolution, musical or otherwise, was ever slick. That you can hear these songs as both laboriously programmed sequences and spiritual projections is a testament to Edler’s technical and creative prowess.
My final test of devotion to ‘Elektron Kukéso’ happened at a concert in an amusement park featuring Silver Apples. Thumbing through a record stall by the stage, time suddenly stood still. For there, in a box, was what seemed to be an original copy of the album that had consumed my soul. I clocked the price tag and said, probably out loud, “HOLY FUCK!”.
The gig passed in a haze. There was no way on earth I could afford it, but how could I leave it behind? This might be my one and only chance. I took the seller’s number and left the venue humming with anxiety.
The next day, I called the dealer to arrange a meeting at my home. I offered armfuls of vinyl in exchange, but he wasn’t interested. As he flicked through the last of what I had to offer, he paused. “This is nice,” he intoned dryly when he got to ‘Simple Headphone Mind’, a 12-inch collaboration between Stereolab and Nurse With Wound. The vortex was spinning in my favour. Miraculously, I happened to have six box-fresh copies. I’d bought them when it was released in 1997. It’s not something I normally do, but it was foil wrapped and felt special. Subconsciously, I must have known it would be worth it one day.
We did the deal. After he’d left, I sat breathless, unable to comprehend how this precious cargo had fallen into my lap.
It is, of course, just a record. For me though, it was the final station of the cross that meant I was ready to board a Stockholm-bound train in early 2020 and meet the album’s creator. Some records mean that much.
Check the current prices of and first edition of ‘Elektron Kukéso’ here