R.I.P. Pete Namlook
It is with great sadness that I report the death of one of the deepest musical minds that the ambient music world has ever known. A few days ago Peter Kuhlmann (aka Pete Namlook) passed away at his home in Traben-Trarbach, Germany. He built a successful studio in this small town after starting out in Frankfurt in the early 1990’s. Through his music platform, Fax Records, he created well over 100 albums of exploratory electronic music, both solo projects as well as albums with many noteworthy collaborators. The label, also known as Faxlabel, was originally entitled Fax +49-69/450464, for in the pre-web era this was the fax machine number anyone could use to contact him. Over the course of two decades, Faxlabel grew into one of the most significant musical platforms in electronic music. To emphasize the prolific nature of his artistry should not diminish the consistently high quality in which it was produced. Kuhlmann had stated previously in interviews that nature was his favorite musical guide, and I can remember at least one story of him playing music ‘in collaboration’ with the sounds of a river he had sat down next to. This anecdote speaks volumes about his approach to music making as well as his relationship to the world he lived in. To put his musical genius into context, consider a list of some of the individuals he worked with:
Over two dozen albums with David Moufang (aka Move D)
11 albums with Klaus Schulze as Dark Side of the Moog
10 albums with Bill Laswell (5 albums as Psychonavigation & 5 more as Outland)
5 albums with studio wizard Atom (Uwe Schmidt) as Jet Chamber
9 albums with Tetsu Inoue as 2350 Broadway, Shades of Orion, 62 Eulengasse, etc
3 albums with techno architect Richie Hawtin as From Within
3 albums with Turkish percussionist Burhan Ocal as Sultan
2 albums with Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere) as Fires of Ork
2 albums with Jonah Sharp as Wechselspannung
2 albums with Dandy Jack as Amp
2 albums with Higher Intelligence Agency as S.H.A.D.O.
This list goes on. Other outstanding releases include numerous albums under such names as Silence, Air, 4Voice, and the ubiquitous Namlook moniker, under which he released dozens of recordings of live solo performances and other studio experiments. Of course, writing about his musical endeavors hardly does their content justice, as listening to some Fax releases could approach a ‘spiritual experience’ quality for many of his fans. Faxlabel continued for 2 decades, without promotion of any kind, other than the accolades of those who knew and followed his music closely. In an industry with no shortage of overly inflated egos, this man was humble and unpretentious. My impression from the few online conversations I was fortunate to have had with him was that he was very down-to-earth, polite and personable. Particularly during the recent digital age in which music is distributed and often freely ‘shared’ it is hard to imagine how Fax was able to continue, but continue it did. While many other labels came and went, Faxlabel consistently provided high quality releases which Peter created, along with many others which he strongly believed in but didn’t have a direct hand in writing. For these non-Namlook projects, Peter also formed a Fax sublabel which provided many producers a platform to distribute their own music. Especially throughout the 1990’s, the Fax sublabel enjoyed a prestigious reputation for unique musical styles only found there. Drawing influence from German kosmische music, Namlook (‘Kuhlmann’ backwards) helped establish the blossoming trance musical style in Germany during the early 1990s before becoming disenchanted with the direction in which trance music was headed. Many of the early Fax twelve-inch vinyl records were in this dance floor style, but often Peter cleverly included ambient tracks on the B-sides of these releases in efforts to expose the club-going crowd to more significant mind expanding, and often beatless, musical soundscapes. Faxlabel was a fascinating incubation chamber for several nascent electronic musical styles that had not yet fully emerged, and a color coded layout scheme was used in the graphic design of the album covers to vaguely categorize what type of music each release contained. Due to the limited nature of all Fax CDs and vinyl (along with the inconsistent availability in records stores) there was a period in the 1990’s in which Fax CDs would change hands for hundreds of dollars each between collectors. Limitations ranged from a high of 3,000 copies (as in the case of the Dark Side of the Moog VII CD) in the late 1990s to the current limitation of only 300 copies for a market that barely supports physical album sales. The number of copies changed according to a fluctuating market for a physical product that has all but disappeared. Fax music is also available today digitally via iTunes, but often his followers prefer the physical product… if they can find it. Kuhlmann also innovated in the more technical areas of his craft. For the past few years all his albums were only available as double CD sets, which included one stereo CD of the album in addition to an immersive DTS surround mix version on a second disc. Early in 2012, to celebrate the 20th year anniversary of his label, Kuhlmann launched his Ambient Gardener series. Aside from compiling many memorable songs pulled from his extensive back catalog, this tetralogy reflected his love of gardening and living in harmony with the earth. Indeed, Namlook also farmed the land surrounding his studio and produced honey packaged in glass jars that shared visual elements with his Ambient World label releases. During a recent stay in Berlin, I was fortunate enough to sample this honey firsthand, and it was every bit as delicious as the ambient music he cultivated. The Ambient Gardener series is the spiritual successor to Namlook’s absolutely stellar Ambient Cookbook series, in which Peter provided many cooking recipes along with four CDs of music. The recipes were paired with photographs of early electronic musical equipment sitting on the countertop of his kitchen. There are many ambient musicians working with electronics these days, and many of them will tell you that Kuhlmann was a source of great inspiration. I have no doubt that they will all dearly miss Pete Namlook, whose memory lives on through a legacy of fantastic musical soundscapes.