(photo: Kai von Rabenau)


As Pole, Stefan Betke retains a towering presence within the electronic community, having irrevocably transformed its musical landscape with his influential Pole 1 recording. But, like many musicians whose performance beginnings hark back to the 1980s and early 90s, Betke played in traditional rock and jazz settings before shifting into electronic music. Born and raised in Düsseldorf and trained in classical piano, he relocated to Cologne at the age of 21, eventually moved to Berlin in the mid-90s, and visited the infamous Hardwax record store, part of the Basic Channel/Chain Reaction headquarters. It was there that he secured his crucial position as cutting engineer at Moritz Von Oswald’s Dubplates & Mastering (trained, incidentally, by Monolake’s Robert Henke). He then became exposed to the dub and reggae of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Scientist, and Horace Andy, influences so strong he christened his own music ‘dub reggae’ (albeit of a drumless, purely instrumental sort). He proceeded to adopt dub qualities of echo and repetition to his own recordings, each noticeably different yet all sharing a minimalistic approach to melody, cavernous bass, spacious production, and filter-generated crackling. The seeming simplicity of a given Pole track is deceptive, for Betke carefully reduces his music to its essence, every detail meticulously considered. Of course, electronic music aficionados are no doubt familiar with the details surrounding the development of his unique sound courtesy of his damaged analogue Waldorf 4 Pole-Filter. Given to him by friends as a gift, it fell onto the floor and, when Betke then switched it on, its defective frequencies generated the sounds of interference reminiscent of the surface noises of decaying vinyl. Betke’s accidental discovery catalyzed his approach by introducing crackling, ghostly qualities to his music, thereby suffusing it with a melancholy, nostalgic feel. His debut Pole 1 (released in September, 1998) had a detonating impact within the electronic community. Betke was seemingly the quintessential embodiment of the term sui generis, his sound immediately distinguishing him as a stunningly original voice. So incredible was the release that cognoscenti awaited its successor with breathless anticipation, hoping that it might offer a similar advancement. However, the subsequent releases Pole 2 and Pole 3 challenged disconcertingly the expectations wrought by Pole 1, and the later release, Pole R, provoked further disquieting reflection. Given the generous passage of time that has transpired since Pole R, a timely opportunity arises for a reappraisal of the four recordings and an overall assessment of Pole’s oeuvre. What follows, then, is an attempt to hear each release anew buffered by the clarity time affords, to trace the trajectory of his development, and to offer an overall determination as to the scale of Betke’s accomplishments.

The first sounds we hear on Pole 1 are ghostly, echoing crackling and skipping augmented by high-pitched pinging keyboards and a hovering bass line. Immediately we find ourselves in foreign territory, confronted by a cavernous, hissing terrain and a drifting dubbiness unlike anything heard before. Keyboard stabs and propulsive bass lines punctuated by thick layers of gaseous clouds and washes of rhythmic crackles, pops, and hissing pervade many pieces. A hazy ambience permeates throughout, coupled with skipping percussive accents and sporadic keyboard accents. Professing that bass lines are most important for establishing groove, Betke’s tracks eschew conventional drums. He meticulously maintains interest by stretching and transforming the percussive treatments, by abruptly dropping out instruments, leaving a lone keyboard pulse to maintain a track’s flow, and by modulating the instruments’ levels within the mix. “Lachen” (Laughing) begins in the ether, with synth accents shooting out amidst deep ambient hissing. This subsides, replaced by harsher stabbing accents, snaps, and crackles; a deep bass hangs suspendedly while percussive pops and whirring carry on an incessantly chattering dialogue around it. “Paula” is a masterwork with its wavering, high-pitched whistling tones offset by its stretched accents, all underpinned by a gorgeous melancholy bass line and a massive cloud of hiss. Atomistic pinging sounds, like fire crackling, pepper the aural gauze, leaving one awestruck by the stunning originality of Betke’s conception. Melancholy keyboard lines maintain the poignant mood, yet the music never lapses into sentimentality, permeated as it is by all manner of pops and crackles. “Fliegen” (Fly) ends the recording in a more conventional manner compared with what has gone before. Yet closer listening reveals that it too includes a vast array of crackling, whooshing, and hissing on top of the bass line and keyboards. In addition to the incredible attention to sonic detail, the pacing and compositional contrasts of Pole 1 help to distinguish it. While the tracks share certain dub and glitch-like qualities, each one is masterfully sequenced to emphasize its uniqueness. Pole 1 sets such an incredible standard that one wonders what Betke could possibly do to match it in his next effort.

Released in May, 1999, the six tracks comprising Pole 2 were apparently almost finished by the time the first recording was released. This fact would seemingly bode well, for it suggests that Betke did not have to contend with an intensified degree of pressure in following up his influential and attention-getting debut. However, while the minimalistic aesthetic persists in the cherry-red packaging of Pole 2, its EP-length 33 minutes leaves the listener uncertain as to whether it should be regarded as a full-blown follow-up to the first recording, or whether to view it as a stopgap until the next full-length. The opening notes of “Fahren” also signal a radical change from Pole 1 by overtly evoking quintessential dub qualities like spacious echo and reverb treatments, and through the mimicking of a melodica (calling to mind Augustus Pablo). These dub elements are soon fused with Betke bass lines that are at times driving or languid, alongside clouds of burbling, popping hiss, crackling vinyl, and keyboard accents. Multiple layers of organs, synths, and percussive effects propel the tracks, with echo treatments pushed to extremes. Pole 2 assumes a more cohesive shape overall but perhaps can’t help but seem like a lapse after the first release. The music is now more predictable and one-dimensional, whereas the first constantly confounded expectations by shifting into foreign territories. While Betke expertly adopts dub techniques to his style, the consequence is that the sound now seems thinner, more constricted and less expansive. Melodies that flitted in and out of the mix on Pole 1, that were at times buried and at other times central, are now more conventionally positioned, with the crackles constellating around them. Ultimately, the listener is impressed by Betke’s fusion of his trademark Pole sound with dub, but a nagging feeling persists that he has taken a step back, that the follow-up is a retreat into an established realm as opposed to a further advance into even more personalized territory.

June, 2000 saw the release of Pole 3, its bright yellow packaging carrying on the minimalistic aesthetic established by the first two releases. Betke now fashions a ghostlier, narcotized sound that is more lugubrious and mournful, less cluttered by incessant detail. Again conventional drums are absent, the rhythmic focus solely on the thunderously deep bass lines. Betke demands to an even greater degree that the listener recalibrate and intensify the level of attentiveness. “Silberfisch” (Silverfish) starts things off with the now-familiar crackles, hissing, and pops augmented by ghostly, echoing keyboards anchored by a prototypical dub bass. There is now a greater suggestion of dread in the hypnotic sound, and the dragging tempo has slowed entropically, hinting of an opium-like lifelessness. “Taxi” dramatically picks up the pace and introduces a new wrinkle, sampled sounds of garbled voices buried within the deep haze of the mix, voices gleaned from years of field recordings Betke collected. Trademark crackles, hisses, and pops accompany keyboard accents and a deep surging bass, the skeletal melody fragment an intermittently repeating two-note synth motif. “Karussell” (Carousel) skips slowly along, its minimal traces of melody generated by the repeating echo-laden accents of keyboards accompanied by persistent muffling sounds and faint, buried voices. “Klettern” (Climb) literally suggests climbing with the incessant repetition of its ascending melody. A remote keyboard melody—its tone suggestive of melodica—is simulated on “Strand” (Beach), its presence dominated by the insistent bass line, percussive clattering, and billowing hiss that cover it. “Fohlenfurz” is almost bereft of melody, characterized as it is by the relentless activity of pops, crackles, and prickly tones. Having reduced his music to its skeletal essence, Betke leaves the listener adrift in a decaying galaxy of sonic detritus. On the one hand, a listener may find the reductivist approach of Pole 3 less satisfying when compared to the abundant sonic detail on the previous recordings. However, it focuses the listener’s attention on the elements that remain, and consequently these now assume a more nuanced quality, with the spaciousness creating an aura of abstraction far greater than on the prior releases.

Those dispirited by the relative disappointments of Pole 3 might have concluded that Betke had painted himself into a proverbial corner, having pared his music to its essence and stripped it of its energy. At this juncture, one might have wondered if Pole felt handcuffed by the considerable stature of his past accomplishments, and unsure of what to do next. Laterally shifting from an expected Pole 4 release, Betke instead released Pole R on ~scape in 2001. Recorded in late 1996 and eventually released as a 12 inch by DIN in 1998, the tracks “Raum 1” and “Raum 2” act as source material, allowing Betke to displace attention from himself by enlisting Burnt Friedman, Kit Clayton, and guitarist D. Meteo as contributors. Perhaps he decided that his own work had become too hermetic, too claustrophobic and entrapping, and so opened himself up to outside influences. The two originating tracks exhibit the textbook traits found on the first full-length release: billowing clouds of hiss, crackling pops of noise interference courtesy of the Waldorf-Pole filter, surging waves of echoing keyboards, deep dub-heavy bass, and the omission of conventional drums. “Raum 2” is the more propulsive of the two, its insistent bass line pushing the track along amidst the billowing amalgam of pops, hiss, echo, and keyboards. Gone in “Raum 1 variation” are the signature crackles of the first three releases. Instead, the lumbering, drumless track inches along, its wavering bass line accompanied by familiar echo treatments as well as the new contributions of D. Meteo’s guitar. While not unpleasant, the track unimpresses, especially in light of the astonishing advances heard on the previous releases. “Raum 2 variation” picks up the pace, enhanced as it is by Meteo’s funky accents, but is little more than a retread of the opening track. “Raum 3” reintroduces the familiar Pole hiss without its attendant pops and crackles, yet the lurching pace remains. The sound is now less cluttered than before, the separation of instruments clearer, making for a more conventional but less personalized sound. Development and dynamics are almost non-existent, the tracks stumbling along with only the constantly changing sonic detailing hovering around the main melody undergoing development. Burnt Friedman’s versions evidence his expected reggae/dub treatments, yet his tracks’ propulsive energy, fueled by the insistent attack of the drums, the accents of marimbas and synths, and the memorable compositional developments, makes Pole’s tracks seem static by comparison. Kit Clayton also infuses his tracks with an excitable energy and joie de vivre missing in Pole’s variations. Clayton’s skipping treatments impute an irrepressible funk flavour to his versions of “Raum1” and “Raum 2.”

In spite of their clear differences, certain traits persist throughout all of Betke’s recordings. In general, his music is unfailingly cerebral and often sensual, even sublime. It’s a particularly European, citified, urban music that merges the warm spaciousness of Jamaican dub and the cool precision of Teutonic electronica into a compelling hybrid. His music demands a recalibration in one’s conventionalized approach to listening. Instead of fixating upon the horizontal quality of melodic development, attention must be reoriented towards the vertical qualities of the mix itself—where instruments are positioned, the sonorities of the bass, the textural qualities of noise interference, the summative atmosphere woven by all such elements. The magnitude of his accomplishment and his music’s degree of influence are considerable. If, for instance, he were to have released Pole 1 and then vanished, his presence would have remained ineradicable and his music a nonpareil influence within the electronic community. If anything, his mystique would have deepened, enabling one to effortlessly conjure the image of deprived Pole listeners desperately awaiting some forthcoming work. The mystique has admittedly dimmed due to the lesser satisfactions of the subsequent releases, yet presumably this current assessment will turn out to be nothing more than an interim report. Perhaps Pole will find a way to transcend his legacy and produce music that again distinguishes itself from all else. Then again, perhaps such an idea is itself unfair, for should we not be grateful for what Betke has given us already and resist the urge to impose further expectations upon him?

Betke established the ~scape label in 1999 which has since given us superior releases by the likes of Kit Clayton, Burnt Friedman, Jan Jelinek, Andrew Peckler, System, and Deadbeat. In addition, ~scape has released three Staedtizism compilations, each with a predominating theme. The successive collections have focused on dub-, jazz-, and hip-hop-inflected permutations of Betke-flavoured electronic music. Interestingly, Betke contributes to the first one only with “Sachtesachte.” Given that he initially expressed little interest in starting a label, preferring to focus on his own music and playing in clubs, Betke surprisingly changed his mind and invested the requisite energy into making the label a credible enterprise. One wonders whether his involvement with the label might be seen as a strategy deployed to help him transcend the delimiting, hermetic Pole persona that listeners, critics, and he himself have fashioned. Sublimating his energies through a coterie of label artists, perhaps he is wilfully devising possible plans for the future and charting new directions. Perhaps a recent development augers promisingly for Pole’s future. Taken from the upcoming 2003 Mute release 45/45, the track “Back Home” has been pre-released on the Club Transmediale 03 collection. This funky track is hardly recognizable as Pole at first listen, especially given its prominent drums. Bass is still a central component but pops and crackles are downplayed if present at all. Instead, percussive accents, drums, bass, keyboards, and rising waves of hiss blend to create a warm, joyous track. If this is a signpost for Pole’s imminent direction, it signals—wisely and encouragingly—a radical overhaul of his signature sound.

Ultimately one wonders if Betke is a victim of the Orson Welles’ syndrome. Put simply, the theory purports that when, by some miracle of talent or luck, an artist creates at the beginning of his/her career a towering work that redefines all in its wake and influences profoundly everything that follows, that artist is then cursed or immobilized by the stature of that work to the degree that all he/she produces thereafter cannot help but seem inferior. This does arguably seem to be the case with Betke, as none of the subsequent recordings quite measure up to the first. One key difference between Welles and Betke is that Citizen Kane was a work created with deliberation and calculation, whereas Betke’s originates out of an accidental—lucky and serendipitous, admittedly—moment of discovery. Having noted that, one shouldn’t exaggerate too much the importance of the filter sounds, for even without the crackling so associative with Pole’s style, his recordings would still hold up well enough. To that end, one shouldn’t mistakenly underacknowledge Pole’s accomplishment when his influence has been so pervasive and totalizing. One might well ask, for example, whether there would have been a ‘Clicks ‘n’ Cuts’ movement without Pole having initiated the genre (although one also would have to acknowledge Oval’s critical contributions to its development). If one situates oneself in the year 1998 and scans the aural landscape, one will recognize just how radical Pole’s first release actually was.

January 2003