As any runner can tell you, there’s a fine art to selecting the right music to keep you going, mile after mile. As a result, a whole mini-industry has sprung up to supply athletes with performance-enhancing playlists, from websites like Jog.FM and Rock My Run to Nike’s Original Run series of asphalt-friendly mixes from A-Trak, Cassius, and LCD Soundsystem. Yay, capitalism! But, as it turns out — and is so often the case where sports are involved — the Communists were way ahead of us. In the 1970s and early ’80s, the East German Olympic program employed the electronic composer Martin Zeichnete to create workout soundtracks for the GDR’s teams — shimmering, motorik pulse-music that, in combination with a top-secret doping program, would aid the athletes in their goal to become the ultimate Menschen-Maschinen.
Now, Edinburgh’s Unknown Capability Recordings has collected some of Zeichnete’s work as Kosmischer Läufer: Cosmic Music of the East German Olympic Program 1972-83. In an interview published in Slow Travel Berlin, Zeichnete discusses how he was influenced by West German artists like Kraftwerk, Cluster, and Neu!; he discovered the music — banned in the GDR — by listening to Düsseldorf radio broadcasts he managed to pick up in his native Dresden. As an amateur runner, he had the idea that hypnotic, repetitive music might help athletes focus. When, in 1972, the German-Brazilian inventor Andreas Pavel introduced the Stereobelt, a predecessor of the Walkman, Zeichnete knew how to make his dream a reality.
From there, the story begins to sound more like a Cold War cloak-and-dagger story, with all the olive-drab detail of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others. Upon mentioning his idea to his coworkers, Zeichnete is whisked into an official car and spirited off to an athletics camp on the outskirts of Berlin, where he is put to work composing space-rock fugues on temperamental Soviet synthesizers. The program was finally shut down in 1983, but some of the music, miraculously survived, says Zeichnete: “I was not supposed to take the music from the studio as it was state property, but I did manage to sneak a lot out. I thought the master tapes had been destroyed or lost in the chaos after the Wall came down, but one of the engineers, who ‘got’ it, had rescued a lot of them. We transferred them to digital in the early ’90s.”
As heard on Kosmischer Läufer — the title translates as Cosmic Runner — those tapes reveal themselves to be a gold mine of tightly-wound Krautrock and trippy electronic fantasias. Given how significantly they rewrite the history of Krautrock, they seem almost too good to be true — and skeptics could prove that they are.
Strangely, a Google search for “Martin Zeichnete” only turns up links related to the compilation; a Google search for German-language documents returns no results at all. (Indeed, “Zeichnete” — which is also the third-person preterite of “to draw” — doesn’t appear to be a common German surname, although “Drew” does happen to be the name of one of the label’s founders.) The interview published in Slow Travel Berlin turns out to have been published on Scribd.com by Unknown Capability Recordings, the label responsible for the anthology, back in February. Neither interview includes photographs of Zeichnete, and he doesn’t appear in a series of promotional videos for the release. (A Facebook page for the compilation features photographs of cassettes allegedly used by the East German athletes, complete with Olympic rings and a GDR logo, but those could have been mocked up.) And the more you listen to the music, the more it begins to sound both too pristine, given the tapes’ alleged age, and too stylistically perfect in its aping of Neu! and Kraftwerk. The resemblance is almost uncanny.
If it is a hoax, it wouldn’t be the first in its genre. Jan Jelinek invented a “forgotten” electronic-music pioneer, Ursula Bogner, for the 2008 anthology, Recordings 1969-2008. In 2011, Digitalis released Science of the Sea, an album of burbling ambient music that was said to have been taken from private-press records recorded in the 1970s by a marine biologist named Jürgen Müller; in fact, the music was by the present-day Seattle artist Norm Chambers, a prolific synthesizer musician better known as Panabrite. On John Elliott’s Spectrum Spools label, the 2011 album Temporal Marauder Makes You Feel was presented as a reworking of lost tape music by a certain Jean Logarin — a name suspiciously similar to Temporal Marauder’s own name, Joseph Raglani. (To Spectrum Spools’ credit, they didn’t try too hard to sell the backstory. The press release began, “If Jean Logarin did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” and it ended, “How could he not be real?”)
So perhaps we shouldn’t peer too closely at the story of Martin Zeichnete. After all, East Germany pioneered the use of performance-enhancing drugs; what’s a little history-enhancing fiction, as long as it helps to get us across the finish line?