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In Angbase, Fall 1998, Issue 3.
Liner notes to the album Die Roboter Rubato by Terre Thaemlitz
Terre Thaemlitz' body of work is just as varied and can be just as perplexing as the entire A-Musik and Mego catalogs. Unlike those mysterious European entities, Terre usually packs his releases with enough self-analytical texts to put even the bravest potential listener/reviewers on edge. Terre's intentions are complex - humor might be the key that ties the themes of activist sex, populism and revolution together into a deliciously subversive whole. Revolution? Yup - read on.
1. Can you talk about the G.R.R.L. CD- and how the concept (at least as expressed in the notes) took form- and the reasons behind doing a "beat-oriented" CD?
For the past couple of years many labels, especially in the US, have been moving away from Contemporary Ambient and a-structural audio, first focussing on Trip-Hop and then Jungle. And many major Contemporary Ambient producers quickly followed suit. The labels were and are backpeddaling as fast as they can to distance themselves from the "breakthrough ambient marketplace" they all claimed they were so proud to be giving birth to just a year or two earlier. To make a long story short, my increased interest in electroacoustique computer production was hitting a lot of brick walls. Labels would ask me to do Trip-Hop and Jungle, and explicitly state that was all they were interested in. So I thought it would be interesting to do a project that played into notions of markeability and genrefication, while at the same time deconstructing those relationships. This also meant a self-analysis of my own relationships to production, and acting out market strategies in a very literal fashion by producing tracks in styles which I like as well as others I dislike - an amalgamation of influences both positive and negative. The result was a compilation of diverse electronic music genres which we've all liked or disliked in the past and present - so hopefully listeners can think about their own changing tastes in relation to genres and the marketplace. And of course, a large part of these changes is about nostalgia, good memories, and enjoyment in the present - not just cynicism - so its this type of critical pleasure that I referred to as "cyncerity" in the little liner notes.
2. The ideas on the G.R.R.L. booklet- as I read them, they do and they don't have a relation to the music- in what way is there no relation? Specifically- did you try and match a piece of music with a genre, or did you set out from the beginning to make a set of tracks to fit certain standard types? Or were the descriptions randomly generated?
I decided the style of each track as I went along, so they weren't totally predetermined. Of course, I made up some of the genres to fit my own needs, like "electrocynicism" and "techxotica." And most of the tracks are cross-referenced by multiple genres, which hopefully upon listening breaks down some of the hegemony of certain genre-aliances people can take to extremes at times. Maybe this overlapping of categories typically considered autonomous is what you are referring to as having "no relation" to the music?
3. Who is Chiu-Fen Chen? How did that collaboration came about?
Chiu-Fen is actually a professional stylist. We've known each other for a long time, and we're very close. She most recently did some stylist work for me at my performance of "Die Roboter Rubato" in New York. Anyway, as I was making G.R.R.L. I decided that I wanted to do a track based on the Frank Chickens style from the mid '80s. The Frank Chickens were Kazuko Hohki, Kazumi Taguchi, with electronics by David Toop. They sang alot about leaving Japan for England to explore their identities as queer women, only to find themselves having to deal with the dynamics of Asian fetishization. Really wonderfully complex stuff, but at the same time very campy. I was talking to Chiu-Fen about it, and she was always wanting to do something in Taiwanese, so we came up with "China Doll (Kill All Who Call Me)." She's just put up a little (and I do mean little) web page at http://www.comatonse.com/chen/
4. In my review of G.R.R.L. I mentioned something about the "distinct loud and fuzzy digital sound" of the CD- I don't know if I was imagining things or not but I still think the sound of that CD is very "dry" and disorienting- moments like the middle of "Turtleneck" sound positively deranged- I was wondering if you'd care to comment on that?
Thanks, I actually made myself come up with some different production techniques to set the project further off from my other releases. I wanted it to sound both low-tech and overproduced (well budgeted and stylized for the marketplace) at the same time, and I thought that "dryness" you mentioned was the way to do that - clean but fuzzy.
5. This line from the G.R.R.L. notes: "G.R.R.L. adopts 'Space Jam's' intermixing of technology and nostalgia in the fabrication of new desires"- pretty much sums up the state of contemporary pop culture- is there any other way to operate as an artist? If we can agree that cynicism is a highly necessary thing (and I speak for myself here) can you elaborate on the "intermixing of technology and nostalgia in the fabrication of new desires" as it applies to your musical output both as G.R.R.L. and as "Terre Thaemlitz"?
This kindof brings up one of my other agendas with G.R.R.L., which was too repackage some of the same ideas I deal with in my electroacoustique "Terre Thaemlitz" projects in a lighter manner - since some people get put off by my analytical texts. I discuss a similar notion of nostalgia in historical processes in "Resistance to Change" on the Means from and End cd. I think that employing notions of cultural change requires some degree of "nostalgia" or "familiarity" to allow people to retain some sense of historical continuity, and minimize alienation. But this can be done in either overt or concealingly deceptive ways. The liner notes to G.R.R.L. picked up on the marketing for the movie "Space Jam" as something that did this in such an obvious manner that it actually worked against itself, and made even the most commonplace pop-cultural people aware that their heartstrings for Bugs Bunny were tied to a big-ass corporate boardroom. G.R.R.L. was more about mirroring this condition to draw associations between corporate marketplaces and the "underground" music marketplace. My electroacoustique projects as "Terre Thaemlitz" try and talk a little more about how to strategize change within these conditions.
6. The issues you are grappling with in the G.R.R.L. CD seem very alien to the contemporary "Electronica", "IDM", "Techno", "Ambient" music genres- Not to sound flippant, but, why bother dealing with these ideas at all, when your presumed target audience merely wants to "chill out"?
...Hence the absence of any lengthly notes on my Instinct releases. But these issues aren't alien to the genres - they are suppressed by the homogenizing universalizations of conventional humanist music discourse - one experience, one love. Bullshit. I think most people know life is way more complicated than that, but some people are unsure how to deal with the larger issues without losing a sense of pleasure. There's a common fear that complexity detracts from happiness. But I'm all about pleasure myself, so hopefully people can recognize the humor and sex in even my most serious projects.
7. Many artists in the contemporary electronic field seem to purposely "obscure" their intent- I'm thinking of the european labels angbase has covered- Sahko, Mego, Raster, a-Musik, and others such as Sabotage- you on the other hand go into detailed explanations of your intent- can you tell me your reason for this? How do you feel the reaction of your audience is affected by this? Does it matter if your texts are (mis)understood? Have any of the labels you've worked with ever objected to your use of liner notes?
With labels, producers and listeners, I think "obscurity of intent" typically means one of two things: 1) a fear of alienating themselves from a notion of the "lowest common denominator" audience; or 2) an uninformed preservation of Modernist ideals of sound-as-sound above and beyond notions of content or social contextuality. Both of these things not only bore me, but really bug me. They are both incredibly passive-agressive stances that become self-righteous in their inability to clarify a social position. Of course, I'm sure right now someone is grimacing at the implication that my texts are not self-righteous. Of course they are, but I do make a large effort to disclose the limitations of my own sense of vision which is about all one can do. I'd rather be contributing to discourses that interest me, than just cranking shit out and pretending I don't care about anything, and wondering why so few people are doing anything interesting - or why I always have to feel like I am appropriating the music of others to suit my own agendas. There are other folks who have been discussing these issues for a long time - and hearing works like theirs really inspire me in a way that obscured intentions never could. There are definitely some people who hate my "issues," but I can't really help them - that's their "issue." Most people, even if they don't like it or don't really follow it, can at least ignore it enough to still make the music fit into their preferred listening contexts. And I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of press who have started to discuss my cds in relation to issues such as transgenderism, queerness, economics and the construction of audiences.
8. The exception to the "obscure intentions" labels in the above question is perhaps Mille Plateaux, with whom you've worked- Achim Szepanski used to be involved with the 80's industrial group P16D4- many of the industrial/noise groups of that era seemed to make an effort to address some of the cultural issues you deal with- did you have any connections with those outfits like Negativeland, Coil, SPK, etc.?
There was definitely a lot of great "content-based" Ambient music that came out of the '80s industrial scene, like Laibach, Hafler Trio, and those you mentioned. I wasn't producing music back then, so my connections were those of abstract consumption. I think it's interesting to note that the popular Contemporary Ambient scene we've been mostly talking about here - the techno-accompaniment Ambient - is largely associated with a former A&R rep from a New Age label (Alex Patterson). These are very diverse elements of a common ground, and the techno-spiritualist camp can sometimes forget they didn't invent the wheel alone - some of these ideas simply don't reconcile, and that irreconcilability has to be accepted.
9. Having read your "Roboter Rubato" notes, I couldn't help but associate the "heavy breathing" snippet throughout "Rollerfreak" with the sound of "two men fucking" in "Tour De France"- or perhaps in your track's case, one man fucking (though I realize my reading of that is probably way too literal to be true) - was this in any way intentional?
Sure! You can't have an old-school breakdance electro track without some blatent references to Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock!
10. I buy most of my music by mail- Ear/Rational seems to be the only mailorder place where I've seen the G.R.R.L. CD listed- how is the CD being distributed in the US and abroad?
Er... it's not. Distributors won't touch it because it convolutes the genres they work so hard to nudge everything into so neatly. This is even though it has gotten surprisingly good press from the diverse likes of Wire, Keyboard, Urb and Angbase (excuse me while I slip my tongue out of your ass). The only good distribution I've ever gotten for my own label has been through Cisco Music in Japan, but they only really deal with vinyl, so they didn't do much with it either. I've gotten it into a lot of stores in New York and San Francisco using my Mobile Distribution Unit (my backpack), but most people get it from the website: http://www.comatonse.com/ordering/
11. Your answer to questions #1 mentions the way labels latch on to new genres and sub-genres (which seem to pop up faster and faster these days)- is there no end to this "evolution"? It seems that the whole contemporary "electronic" field seems more attached to the idea of "evolution", or the idea that the "new" is always the best (a very retro "modern" concept in many ways) more than any other music field- do you foresee a time when this levels off?
I think this notion of "new as better" is problematic when it presumes what is "new" is inherently "different" and somehow set apart (or hierarchally above) the things around it. Of course, general techno-fetishism totally plays along with this, so it's not surprising that electronic music does likewise. It's fucked up, though. In the computer world something is considered obsolete the moment it hits the market, and with a techno-fetishist or vanguard mentality that can apply to music as well. It just becomes pointless and erodes any efforts at contextuality or history or the importance of the present - even though the vanguard is presumably about moving history forward. As far as labels are concerned, they have an invested interest in tapering off "newness," since they need a stable marketable concept to develop sales around. This is why most electronica falls into two sub-genres of Trip-Hop and Drum'n'Bass. I prefer to embrace genres as established signifiers, no matter how new they might be, and not invest them with any super-evolutionary status. A world taken over by abstract computer synthesis would not interest me - it would no longer hold critical potential.
12. In your answer to question #5 you say: "My electroacoustique projects as 'Terre Thaemlitz' try and talk a little more about how to strategize change within these conditions." Can you explain what you mean by the word "change"? Do you mean attitude change, "marching in the streets"-type change? I ask because the whole idea of "change" (as I think you mean it) once again seems so alien to contemporary electronic music.
Sure, I'm coming from that post-Modern activist outlook and background, so I'm thinking of change in relation to personal and social attitutes, which means real material change and organization. Obviously music performance or some little cd cannot do that, but there is a type of audio discourse going on that can inform people in ways that are analogous to texts.
13. In your answer to question #7 you say: "I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of press who have started to discuss my cds in relation to issues such as transgenderism, queerness, economics and the construction of audiences." Can't think of how to phrase a question here- could you define "transgenderism" as it connects to your ideas about music and your working process in making music? Is there a possibility of the same "fetishization" (by your audience- and I could be as guilty of that as anyone by just posing the original question) the Frank Chickens dealt with when dealing with these ideas?
Anti-essentialist transgenderism is about an appropriation and recontextualization of cultural signifiers around gender. Anti-essentialist refers to an outlook that does not believe in an inherent "essence" or content, as opposed to an essentialist transgendered outlook that one is "trapped" in the wrong body, etc. I think computer synthesis is also very much about appropriation and recontextualization, drawing from external audio sources and materials much like quotations in a book. There is no essentialist core of creativity, or sense of originality - but there can be an awareness of difference and change. So from my experience, transgenderism and comptuer synthesis definitely have resonations between them. When you ask about fetishization, are you asking about people fetishizing or tokenizing my music as "Queer" above any other contents? I haven't really seen that happen. I like to think when I talk about Queer issues in my projects they arise in a complex way that doesn't reduce easily. Queer sensibility, as opposed to Lesbian and Gay sensibility, is also about anti-essentialist appropriation (the appropriation of a derogatory term to referece a notion of one's sexuality being inextricably tied to a larger social condition) and notions of pan-sexual diversity, not rigid Heterosexual vs. Homosexual binarisms. To be honest, I'm not sure how much of that gets across to people who equate Queer with Gay, but I haven't really sensed any problems with negative over-simplification. All of these ideas are simultaneously about processes of identification and processes of transition between points of identification, so that inability to solidify an essentialist identity can lead to misrepresentation or offending those with essentialist outlooks, but you can't worry about that or it will socially paralyze you.
14. With this line from your answer to question #6 maybe I can start asking about "Roboter Rubato": "I'm all about pleasure myself, so hopefully people can recognize the humor and sex in even my most serious projects." What sort of (press and audience) reaction did the CD receive? Do you think it got tossed in with the Balanescu interpretations CD, or "tribute" CDs? I've seen it described in catalogues as "piano interpretations of Kraftwerk tunes"- how exactly were the pieces recorded (I think I remember you saying you did not play the piano, so...)? After reading the notes, I felt the CD was very enjoyable but perhaps unreviewable, since I could probably do no better than reprint your text in full- this makes the CD a "closed object", it seems to resist audience (or at least critical) interaction- would you agree?
The Wire review definitely treated it like a Balanescu "tribute" cd, but overall I think it was well received. The All Music Guide to Rock, of all things, did a great critical write-up in their print and online editions. Anyone who has heard the cd definitely knows they are more complex than reconstructive "tributes." A lot of people can't even hear any of the original melodies. It's definitely my most "cult" project, and I think it has a good shelf-life, although I'm not always sure how deep people go into it, since I get the feeling that most of the people buying it are not that into piano solos to begin with.
You're right that I don't play piano, but I've always been aware of the ability for persistant "unskilled" improvisation to invoke a sense of competency, if not virtuosity. The tracks themselves were done by slowing playing in the Kraftwerk melodies one note at a time, and then using the computer to layer, invert and reverse those melodies. These more ordered segments were then combined with improvisational elements. I wanted to incorporate Kraftwerk's notion of an integrated human-technological process into my production techniques.
I'm very interested in dispelling notions of "creative genius" or "natural talent" by challenging myself as a formally unskilled musician to pull off any style I set my mind to. I see these stylistically diverse production roles as a metaphor for the diverse roles we engage in daily social activity - that our sense of self is actually derived from highly fragmented interactions, despite common desires to "center" one's identity.
(As for Die Roboter Rubato being 'unreviewable') I'm kindof surprised. There's definitely this dynamic that music press often feels it's job is to "speak" what musicians present as "unspeakable." And I think the typical rock-mentality musician plays into this. "Yeah, we just like jamming. It's about funk," etc. What the fuck kind of pointless content do most musicians attribute to their work? It's embarassing. My writing has negatively affected me in the past. I did the liner notes for Iara Lee's "Synthetic Pleasures 2" compilation, and two major mags (Option and The Wire) spent over half of their reviews clumsily trying to bitterly argue against my text which they didn't come close to understanding. I think it took Robin Rimbaud's (Scanner) article on me in the Wire to trigger a shift in the press' perception of me, and realize they don't have to reconcile the discourses in my texts with their personal discourses or how they perceive music. At least I noticed it was around that time that people started lowering their dukes and playing with the references I make. So for my Die Roboter cd, I'd say review it as a closed object and the relationship between the text and audio - not just see the text as a synopsis of the music? Of course, I'm not telling you to review it, i'm just formalizing the thought from your example....
15 Can you describe the way the "Roboter Rubato" performance was presented? You spoke of Chiu-Fen Chen's involvement as a stylist- do I take it there were costumes involved? Who else was involved? What sort of press coverage and audience reaction did you get? What are your feelings on "performance" in general- any future plans for performing your music elsewhere?
I made some changes in the show between the time I first performed it in Berlin, and most recently in New York. But the general idea is the same - to confuse the fuck out of the audience as to what "live" performance is really about. The show is done in drag, with costume changes and slide projections of transgenderized Kraftwerk iconography (these are online at http://www.comatonse.com/writings/rubato.html). At the show in New York I was sitting at a highly modified grand piano with wires and monitors all over it. It is very unclear to the audience whether I am playing sections of music live, or interacting with the computer, or simply pretending to play along, or all of these things. Each track is preceded by some vocoded spoken word, which I am tragically lipsyncing to, and a snippet from the original Kraftwerk song about to be played. The idea is to make the audience simultaneously consider that they are witnessing a piece of over-orchestrated shit, and a brilliantly complex theorized performance - and to deal with those conflicting emotions. All the people I spoke with at the New York show said this came across well, but of course you always end up with a few people who think it's pure genius, and others who think it's pure shit - neither of which get the point of the show was in themselves. Kyle Gann gave it a very nice write-up in the Village Voice, and they even ran a moderately cute picture of me, so I was really happy.
For the most part, I think live performance is rediculous. I hate the whole split between the passive audience and active performer. That's why the Die Roboter show is such a "spectacle of the anti-spectacle." I'm supposed to do a show around Means From and End in Frankfurt this spring, and I'm not sure how that will take form yet. All of my computer processing work is post-processing, and cannot be generated in real-time, so there is no inherent spectacle of production. And DJ-ing is kinda lame for that stuff these days. I've elaborated my more lofty ideas about the downside of DJ performance in an article for Mille Plateaux which is currently online at http://www.comatonse.com/writings/crisis.html.
16. In a couple of interviews you've said you mostly listen to old disco and funk- does that still hold? Is it possible to discuss disco (as a musical as well as social thing) in terms of your interests in "transgenderism, queerness, economics and the construction of audiences"?
My first really positive social musical experiences were as a little kid at roller-discos in the '70s. Once a week I was cool for an hour or two, and I had all the moves down. So I think that's my real interest in it - not so much the Gay-disco thing. The Chugga release on Comatonse is totally about '70s retro-nostalgia. I think I try not to overprocess disco too much, because the minute I do, I hate it. A chief difficulty with current Lesbian and Gay identities is their investment (literally) in an economy of sexuality - the "pink economy." Lesbian and Gay identities are no longer discussed in relation to their subversive capabilities, but as "natural" social components which have always been a part of dominant culture - "we're just now beginning to see it." That really sucks. Lesbians and Gays end up just like Hets in their ability to consume a prepackaged formulae for living. Rainbow car stickers, c'mon. A certain aspect of Gay disco can definitely be seen as an early manifestation of this economic homogenization of Gay culture. Really sterilizing and boring. That's why I prefer being a weird and detached Queer. But, er, yes, that's still what I listen to at home. And Erykah Badu's live cd, guilty as charged.
17. There were recently some very heated e-mail exchanges on the ambient newsgroup about your work- you participated in this dialogue to some extent- why did you step in? Are you surprised at the passionate venom your words seemed to bring out?
I didn't catch the whole exchange. I was having parts of it forwarded to me, and I thought I would reply for the heck of it. All I did was add fuel to the flame(r). His reaction didn't surprise me. I'm sure I came out looking stupider than if I had never stepped in, but what can you do? A few years back there was some of bizarre hate mail from people who were offended at the inner photo of the Soil cd. Others were offended at being called "drug addicts" because my Comatonse records always have a line about safer-sex and IV drug use. This time it was someone who felt my text to Couture Cosmetique totally destroyed their listening pleasure. So don't read it! Silly. And I guess I should take my own advice and not reply to flamers... (unless they really get my goat!).
18. What do you make of people who say they don't like "digital sound"? Do you prefer digital synthesis as a working method alone, or do you prefer "digital" sound, or is the whole idea of analog vs. digital kinda pointless?
I think it's totally absurd. This goes back to the notions of techno-fetishism we talked about earlier. I mean, really, who cares how the fuck the sounds were made if they are appropriate to the project? My set-up is totally digital, that's what I like because I don't like knob-twiddling. I prefer people-diddling. I know what people mean when they say they prefer a "warmer" analogue sound, but for my personal taste I like the dryer and crisper digital spectrum - which is really just harsher because it is broader in range so you can exploit a lot more high-end. But that's just me. I'm not religious about it.
19. Since we're being gear-fetishistic for a second, can you describe your studio setup? You said in another interview that you use a lot of sharewere ediing programs- is this intentional or just convenience?
Shareware is intentionally convenient! It can be incredibly buggy, but it's also free of a lot of "marketing" planning, so the ideas and strategies behind them can be really impractical in a commercial sense - which I like. I also like to play with the edges of a program's functionality, and the glitches in shareware seem to be a little more inspiring than some major application's buggy key disk. My production is pretty split right now. The most recent "Terre Thaemlitz" projects were done strictly through software on the powermac platform. My other Comatonse projects are done with a mix of software and MIDI gear.
21. Beyond what you have listed on your web-site, can you tell me of some of your future releases still in planning stages? What else do you envision coming out on Comatonse? When is the "means from an end" performance supposed to take place?
Up next on Comatonse is a release by my comrades in LA, Ultra-red, called "Ode to Johnny Rio." All of the sounds are taken from field recordings of people fucking in Griffith Park, which they processed into rather abstract electroacoustic and even some electro! They're brilliant. It also includes a remix by Chugga. Then after that is a 12" I'm doing under my old deep-house DJ alias "DJ Sprinkes," which commemorates the closing of the tranny club that gave me my "Underground Grammy" for best DJ back in 1991. They were forced to close, like so many other sex clubs, by Disney's buyout of Times Square. I'm also getting close to having enough picks from 12" to release a CD of selections from the vinyl, but I plan on keeping many of the mixes vinyl-only.
I'm really having fun with more housy beat-oriented stuff, but strictly as a side or accompaniment to computer synthesis. I'll have a 12" out on Joe Claussell's NY house label Spiritual Life under the project name Social Material, and I'm doing some similar stuff for Cisco Music in Japan.
I don't recall if I already mentioned my upcoming Mille Plateaux releases, but they will be putting out my collaboration with Jane Dowe, called "Institutional Collaborative," in August. Molly Taylor from Escape Tank wrote the accompanying text. And I should have a new "Terre Thaemlitz" computer synthesis CD released by MP in October. I don't know why my electroacoustique releases always come out so close to one another, even though they are completed over long stretches of time. I think I will be performing this new solo album rather than "Means from an End" as part of the Mille Plateaux tour this October - or maybe a mix of the two.
22. I remember Asmus Tietchen's being asked: "What else do you do apart from making music?"- his reply: "A lot of things. But I think they should not interest the public." So here goes: What else do you do apart from making music?
I have secret rendezvous with Asmus.