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R.I.P. Edgar Froese, founder of Tangerine Dream

Edgar Froese—who, as founder and stable center of Tangerine Dream, crafted sounds that inspired generations of electronic music artists—has died at the age of 70. According to a message posted on the Tangerine Dream website, Froese “suddenly and unexpectedly passed away from the effects of a pulmonary embolism” this past Tuesday. Froese was the only constant member of Tangerine Dream throughout its nearly half-century of existence.

Froese was an art student who arrived in West Berlin in the late 1960s, amid a rising generation of young experimentalists who were inspired equally by psychedelic rock, surrealism, and rapidly developing electronic technology. Froese and his compatriots in exploring music and multimedia would soon come to be known as the “Berlin School.” While their counterparts in the Dusseldorf School such as Kraftwerk, Can, and Neu! would develop the more percussively rock-derived, motorik rhythms into the Krautrock that would eventually give way to techno and synth-pop, the spaced-out Berlin School created the lengthy soundscapes that presaged ambient music, trance, drone, and new age.

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Froese collaborated with Berlin School colleagues like Conrad Schnitzler and Klaus Schulze on some of the earliest Tangerine Dream recordings—most notably its 1970 debut album, Electronic Meditation, a tape collage that pieced together free jazz-inspired rock, found sounds, and wows and flutters from Froese’s homemade instruments.

With its next record, 1971’s Alpha Centauri, Tangerine Dream made the important steps of bringing in then-teenage drummer Christopher Franke and shifting to a more electronic sound, which was driven by Franke’s newly acquired synthesizer. The experimenting with sequencers on the space odyssey that is the sprawling, 22-minute title track pointed the way to Tangerine Dream’s future.

By the time of its next two albums, Tangerine Dream was the sound of the future. The first of these, 1973’s Atem—which featured Froese’s infant son on the cover—marked a more gradual turning away from the freeform experimentalism of its so-called “Pink Years” era (after the Ohr label logo). Atem was named “Album Of The Year” by influential DJ John Peel, sparking an intense interest in the group.

Tangerine Dream’s musical transformation was fully realized on 1974’s Phaedra, its first to be released on Virgin Records. The intricately layered Moog synths and analog sequencers, burbling like distant satellite signals, under the slow symphonic sweep of Froese’s Mellotron—and the sense of foreboding and awe they conjured together—would define the Tangerine Dream sound thereafter.

Although it would sometimes augment that sound with live drums and distorted rock guitar, make occasional forays into adding vocals (not all that successfully), and in its later years, dabble in pop and classical covers, it was this classic Tangerine Dream atmosphere—pulsating, propulsive, neon-lit, otherworldly—that would be inseparable from the band’s name, and inspire countless electronic and pop composers to come. And Froese and the dozens of musicians he corralled to play with him would explore it across more than 100 albums over the course of Tangerine Dream’s long career. (For further recommended listening: Rubycon, Force Majeure, Tangram, and Exit are all excellent starting points.)

That sound also found a natural place on movie screens, as the cinematic scope of Tangerine Dream’s music lent extra dimensions of drama and urgency to more than 30 films total. Among the most notable: the menacing theme for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer; the back-alley night drives of Michael Mann’s Thief (nominated for Worst Musical Score, in one of the earliest instances of the Razzies being wrongheaded); the Steve Reich-meets-steamy urban dreams of Risky Business; the gauzy synth-pad fantasies of Legend; the lurking choral creeps of Near Dark.

These works, plus the scores for movies like The Keep, Firestarter, Wavelength, Flashpoint, and Miracle Mile, made Tangerine Dream one of the most sought-after—and oft-copied—composers of synth-based soundtracks in the 1980s, until that style fell out of favor and was replaced with more traditional, bombastic orchestration. But their influence lives on today, in modern movie scorers who owe an obvious debt to Tangerine Dream like Cliff Martinez (whose Drive soundtrack owes as much to Thief’s as Nicolas Winding Refn’s film owes to Michael Mann’s), as well as artists who make music in that vein such as Com Truise, Umberto, Pye Corner Audio, Johnny Jewel, and so on.

In addition to Tangerine Dream’s massive, intimidating discography of studio albums, EPs, live bootlegs, and movie scores, Edgar Froese also released several solo recordings—most of which never strayed far from the Tangerine Dream mission. But he always maintained Tangerine Dream as a going concern, even through the decades of changing lineups, shifting tastes, and technological advancements that rendered the group’s pioneering achievements all but commonplace among rising knob-twiddlers and programmers, as the future that Tangerine Dream’s sound predicted finally caught up to it.

Most recently, Tangerine Dream brought that sound to a new generation by providing the score for Grand Theft Auto V. It also released its latest studio album, Chandra – The Phantom Ferry Part II, in June of 2014. And as it had across years of memorable shows (even if a cough syrup-addled Lester Bangs was less than impressed), it continued to perform live—with Froese, as ever, at the helm—on tours that included a gig just this past November. The band has seen numerous incarnations over the years—its latest including Ulrich Schnauss, a noteworthy ambient artist in his own right, whose own music is an obvious direct descendant. And as of now, there’s been no official announcement yet of it disbanding. But the death of Froese is, for all intents and purposes, the end of Tangerine Dream.

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