Tangerine Dream’s Zeit: How Dark, Ambient Music Breaks Away from Reality, by Henri Robbins
There’s a certain chill to discovering music that changes your perspective on art as a whole, a silent awe that it leaves you shocked and anxious to experience more
For me, that music was Tangerine Dream’s Zeit: a half-century-old, hour-long piece of dark ambient music that explores dark and twisting soundscapes through subtle shifts of sound and gradual crescendos of strings and synthesizers.
I first heard this album the night after 2018’s Record Store Day. With Bowie and Car Seat Headrest releases in hand, I waited in line with my dad at Plaid Room Records in Loveland behind three dozen people He pointed to an album on the wall and asked me if I’d ever heard of it; as I stared at its black and orange cover, an abstraction of a solar eclipse, something struck me about it. I can’t tell what, or how, but it resonated with me.
It was the first record I listened to when I got home. And soon after, it was also the second.
Zeit is breathtaking. As an experience, it’s a perpetually swelling orchestral buildup of compounding tensions that never quite release, that never quite jump from the precipice they stand at. The slow, moaning strings gaze down from atop a cliff toward crashing waves, never blinking and never stepping over the edge. It’s music in the form of observation and contemplation, relief from the constant engagement of the world today. Its sound pulsates and grows, always just slower than your own heartbeat.
Despite being created 49 years ago by Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music collective, the soundscapes and palpable presence of Zeit border on contemporary. The deep howls of synth mix with morphing strings, sounding just as striking today as they would have been five decades ago; within this layering of emotions is a reflection of the group’s own soul.
In its hour-and-twenty-minute runtime, its exploration of this space and sound is not only captivating, but thorough as well. Throughout, slow, dragging notes brush up against near-silence and encourage a patient and precise ear. Deep tones waft like a whale’s call, and the most distant tones always feel as if they’re breathing right behind you, but always just so far as to be near-imperceptible.
Looking back, Zeit bears clear resemblance to classical works from centuries before. Subtitled Largo in Four Movements (“Largo” meaning “slow”), the album is structured much like a classical symphony. But where symphonies were often fast and dramatic even at their most calm, Zeit celebrates and indulges in its low tempo.
This focus on slowness now can provide the same role as an energized performance then: when classical music was at its peak, it served to create contrast to calm, simple lifestyles. Back then, it would take over a year to know as much about the world as anyone can learn in an hour today. Music—energetic, emotional, powerful music—could provide fast-paced dramatics, but this fast pace was not something people were constantly victim to.
Today, in the modern digital age, we are constant victims to the fast-paced. Driving, working, constant notifications, constant tragedy across the world all beamed directly into our hands, our eyes, and our now-digitized minds. We can separate ourselves from it, but it’s hard; every part of this fast-paced life feels perfectly engineered to be addictive.
And there lies the need for music that separates us from all of it, music that stretches a single thought across minutes and allows us to gaze into it. We have to learn how to truly stop and reflect again.
Despite this, works like Zeit have never broken through to the mainstream. In many ways, they’re even antithetical to “the mainstream”—they’re slow, vague, and indecipherable at times. Without clear direction and intent, the experience of listening is as much up to the interpretation of the listener as it is the artist’s intention. They don’t compel narrative, or even experience, onto viewers. Instead, viewers are asked to find their own.
Tangerine Dream’s Zeit is an unrelenting behemoth of sound: Powerful, gargantuan and looming, yet all it does is crawl past at such a pace that it would almost seem as if it isn’t moving. It’s like an iceberg, slowly drifting, crushing whatever’s in its wake through sheer, slow force.
And within that slow movement is time for reflection, for self-realization. The first time I heard Zeit, I was entranced; it wasn’t only by the music,it was also by the introspection it allowed me—an experience that was consistent, peaceful, yet never entirely calm.