The Man and the Enigma

by Mike Alexander
Sunday Star January 5 1997

Rarely has a musical project lived up to its name as much as Enigma. The vehicle for Bucharest born Michael Cretu has achieved the near impossible in the recording industry - massive global sales while maintaining an almost non-existent public profile.

"The reason why I initially kept my name far in the background was I did not want to promote the single Sadeness Part 1 in the usual manner," Cretu said in one of the rare interviews he gave following the release of Enigma's debut album MCMXC a.D. in 1990.

"I expressed my unconventional wish to the record company to sample this single on radio DJs only to find out what would happen. Mine is not a world of TV studios, promo tours and press interviews, but rather one of working in the studio. Apart from that, I used the pseudonym Enigma so people would not start speculating."

That first single, with its Gregorian chant overtones and sexual references to the church, came about as a wordplay on Marquis de Sade and sadness with some countries actually releasing the track as Sadness.

It's unique, seemingly conflicting musical elements catapulted it to the top of the charts in 18 countries as far-flung as Korea and Brazil and pushed sales of the album to over 12 million copies worldwide.

However, it didn't stop the speculation. In fact, a Frankfurt-based production company, for whom Cretu had worked in the late 1970s, brought a suit against Enigma's record company, Virgin, alleging plagiarism and requesting proof of identity of the artist.

The case was dismissed but not before Cretu had been identified as the brainchild behind Enigma. Even now, little is known about his early background except he was born in Romania on May 18, 1957 of an Austrian mother and Romanian father. He studied piano at the Lyceum No. 2 in Bucharest, a college for young and gifted musicians, before moving to Paris for five months to further his interests and eventually to Bad Homburg in 1975, where he completed a degree with the highest mark for composition at the Academy of Music in Frankfurt. Cretu's first official solo album Legionare was released by Virgin in 1983 and a folow-up Invisible Man in 1985, though some sources say he recorded an earlier effort in 1979 as part of a series called Ausgewahlte Goldstrucke. Neither sold particularly well and it was as a producer and arranger that Cretu got his initial commercial breakthrough. In 1985, while still living in Germany, he teamed up with an unknown singer called Sandra Lauer, who would later become his wife.

Their first collaboration Maria Magdalena, which Cretu wrote, arranged and produced, surfaced as an underground club favourite, hitting No 1 spot in 15 countries. To date, Lauer has recorded seven albums, all with her husband as producer.

Meanwhile, Cretu, who wanted to be a concert pianist but started writing hits the day he sold the piano, was developing what he would later describe as "the realisation of a long dream, music that captures, provokes and reaches new sound dimensions".

His breakthrough came in 1987. Already established as an in-demand producer, Cretu was invited to Paris to produce pop diva Sylvie Vatan's comeback album C'est Fatale. That led to a change meeting with studio boffin Mike Oldfield, who asked Cretu to work with him on his Islands album.

Oldfield was so taken by Cretu's studio skills and musical ideas, he actively encouraged him to put aside his production work and follow his own destiny.

Thus the project Enigma, rooted in Greek and meaning mysterious or obscure, was hatched and brought to fruition with the release of MCMXC a.D. three years later.

"My starting point was simple: I wanted to make music I like myself, I wanted to return to the mysticism," Cretu said.

The Gregorian chants combined with dance rhythms inspired a tidal wave that swept everybody away. The secret of Enigma's magic was the dominating groove, the meditative repetition and the certainty that everything would dissolve in perfect harmony after the mounting tension.

And there was unease. The world's oldest corporation, the Catholic Church, took exception to MCMXC a.D.'s wry musical comment on the often troubled relationship between sexuality and religion.

In Argentina and Mexico, the first two singles, Sadeness Part 1 and Principles of Lust were initially banned from the airwaves, though the underground club scene in both countries still ensured the album was a huge success.

The voice of Enigma, Cretu's wife Sandra Lauer, performed the groans and moans directed at the Marquis de Sade. Originally, it was planned a Frenchwoman, possibly Sylivie Varte, would do the vocals on the final recording, but Virgin boss Richard Branson was so enthusiastic about Lauer's contribution he insisted the groans were kept as they were.

The reaction from the church provoked one of the few occasions Cretu openly talked about his music. "Connecting the chorales to the complicated personality of the Marquis de Sade, who spent 50 years of his life in prison, was done to highlight the discrepancy between the church and sexuality," Cretu said. "Sexuality plays a large role in the life of human beings. This fact is often played down, or simply ignored by the church. Unjustly, I believe.

"Humans possess two undeniable drives: The survival instinct and the instinct to reproduce. We will never succeed in doing away these motors. Looking at world history, you have to come to the conclusion this barricade toward sexuality is based on the teachings of Christianity. This has led to some ludicrous occurrences.

"It is simply irresponsible for the Pope to travel trough-out the Third World and forbid the use of contraceptives. It really comes close to mass murder when infants are born to starve in the streets or children are forced into prostitution."

Despite expectations of a follow-up, Cretu, who had set up home on the Balerian island of Ibiza, locked himself away in his hi-tech studio. Not even film producer Robert Evans could entice him away from his romantic island idyll to score Sliver, Evans' sex thriller starring Sharon Stone, though Cretu did eventually contribute one track, Carly's Song, retiltled Age of Loneliness when it appeared on the second Enigma album. Cretu started working on the follow-up to MCMXC a.D. in 1993.

When word got out he was auditioning vocalists, Tina Turner, Phil Collins and Simply Red's Mike Hucknall were suggested as candidates. However, Cretu shunned the potential for publicity and instead invited another unknown, 26-year-old Munich singer Andreas Harde, known by his stage name Angel, to share the vocal duties with Lauer.

The resulting album, Cross of Changes, released in March 1994, again attempted to unite the sacred with the profane trough sensuous dance rhythms and ethereal textures.

While exhorting listeners to "just believe in destiny", Cross of Changes also explored the murderous insanity of colonization and the genocide of American Indians in Silent Warrior, while The Dream Of The Dolphin took it's lyric inspiration from an old shaman saying.

"Music is part of my soul and ultimately decides everything," Cretu said, when asked why it had taken him so long to record a successor to MCMXC a.D.. The delay could also have been caused by the fact Cretu's manager Juergen Thuernau, who has also overseen Lauer's career since 1985, discovered the initial contract between Enigma and Virgin had expired. Both parties had forgotten to extend it.

Virgin has subsequently signed Enigma up for another five albums, including Cretu's latest project Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi, to be delivered by the year 2010.

Cretu had intended to deliver the third wave of Enigma, released late last year, ahead of schedule, but the birth of twins put paid to those plans. "When I'm in the studio, I'm an absolute night owl," he said. "And when I am working on my music, there can only be my music, but because of Sandra's pregnancy that wasn't possible."

Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi! is music for the dance floor of the mind spiced up with Gregorian chants and Mongolian overtone singing and echoing many of the stylistic touchstones of the two previous albums.

"Within the framework of Enigma, I am trying to do everything musically possible," Cretu said. "Enigma is, to me, a free field without stylistic borders. In future projects, I will probably concentrate more on the problems of the Third World. The basic principle will remain to avoid tying the music either to a language or artist."

Reproduced without permission from Sunday Star for private and research purposes only.