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Terre Thaemlitz "Soulnessless"
Performed at Issue Project Room, June 14th, 2011
- Albert Freeman

In Halcyon (US:, June 2011.


Following the slamming Saturday session by DJ Sprinkles at Sound Noir’s packed event where he played his first House DJ gig in New York in 20 years, Terre Thaemlitz appeared again at the Issue Project Room for an unconventional presentation that served as the public introduction of his new magnum opus, Soulnessless. Combining lecture, 2 video projections, portions of pre-recorded music, and a question session with the artist afterwards, the event provided much needed background into both Thaemlitz’s personal history as well as the ideas that underlie his newest project, a 30-hour multimedia “album” designed to confront the conflicting demands of the contemporary music audience and industry head-on.

Terre Thaemlitz aka DJ Sprinkles is a true enigma in the music world. Originally hailing from Minnesota, Thaemlitz’ career took off in New York City during the rise of House music. It was the late ’80s and early ’90s, a period when the scene was closely linked to gay Black and Latino subculture. In the thick of this is where Terre got his start, DJing House music at drag balls where his challenging and unique approach to the music quickly earned him a devoted following amongst music heads. But not everyone took to Terre the same. Already transgendered at this early point, Thaemlitz’s insistence on challenging his audience with advanced ideas coupled with his confrontational intellectual views on other topics earned him few friends in the House community. By 1997 the collapse of the scene alongside his ostracism from it had left Terre grasping for greener pastures. He moved on briefly to Oakland and then finally to Japan where he has resided since. Also, beginning around 1994, Thaemlitz began experimenting with production techniques that saw him progressing from a sort of ultra-deep House to genre-defying collisions of Funk, Soul, Musique Concrete, and Disco that eventually boiled down to the advanced ambient music he began to release on the soon-to-be legendary Mille Plateaux label in ’97. After debuting as DJ Sprinkles the following year, he would produce only one more record under that name in 2001 before retiring it for seven years. The material under his own name continued apace though with numerous albums released on Mille Plateaux until its 2003 demise, followed by still others on various labels afterwards, including Mule Musiq, where the DJ Sprinkles moniker finally made it’s return.

The night’s event revolved around Thaemlitz’s new, not-yet-released project Soulnessless, which serves as a follow up to his final Mille Plateaux album Lovebomb. Much like that record dissected the record industry’s obsession with and exploitation of love songs for commercial purposes, this conceptual piece deals with the myriad ways in which soul and the idea of Soul music has been relentlessly commercialized and inverted by the music industry, with the end result being exploitation of the ideas of honesty, religion, and feeling in music. The project is actually more complicated than that because it likewise engages the digital revolution head on by attempting to make an album of format-busting length specifically designed to reach the limitations of the MP3 file and openly engage the audience and industry with the question of what, in the digital era, constitutes an album. There’s clearly a ton of information here, and beyond that Thaemlitz has thickly layered the project with his own personalized and nihilistic interpretations of religion’s place in and effects upon society as well as much other social commentary directly or tangentially related to these ideas. He led off with a long and winding lecture where he showed various clips from the completed parts of the project and explained at length what the meaning of the images was as well as where he was going with this. It’s impossible to separate Thaemlitz’s background from his discourse. He was raised in a traditional European religious household before, as a teen, coming out as transgendered with the aid of his grandmother. These experiences coupled with the homophobia and brutalization he experienced from other Americans growing up have forever altered and twisted his viewpoint to something deeply rooted but certainly contrarian. This is even expressed in the basics of his two main projects: under the DJ Sprinkles name, Thaemlitz performs as a man and, according to him, simply to make money by entertaining wasted people; under his own given name, he is transgendered, and the concepts and music are unapologetically highbrow and relentlessly developed results of a 17-year career in highly conceptual audio and art.

If this all sound confusing and a bit scattered, the lack of cohesion between the project’s five distinct parts is all part of Thaemlitz’s metaphor for the effects of faith-based institutions on society. In his world, the institution of religion has been replaced by science but retains lingering control over many aspects of society, and its highly effective efforts to move people away from logical thought processes in preference of faith or superstitions counteract social progress and are the evil of his minds eye. He has taken this idea to great lengths by even proposing Mary and Jesus as two aspects of the same transgendered body and comparing a statue of Mary hidden in a folding wooden case to a phallus in the first part of the presentation. Further yet, he included a vignette in which his grandmother presented to him a statue of the Virgin holding baby Jesus where the statue had a conspicuously erect penis on Mary’s lower half. He claims these ideas of “soul” that are sold in music are simply another blindly commercial idea meant to turn off the minds of the masses, and the frequent mentions of religious ideas in Soul are the reason for his broad-ranging sacrilege included in the three earlier parts of the piece. Some of the images included grotesquely depicted sex-change surgery as well, an idea Thaemlitz decries as simply a wrongheaded and mainstream way to “correct” the problems of people that identify with genders other than their biological gender. Later on, the fourth part of the presentation turned to the topic of the plight of Filipino migrants that are now being hunted in Japan and their existence as “ghosts” in Japanese society as well as their further hallucinations of ghosts in their persecuted every day life. It included much horrific documentary footage of living conditions in the Philippines and their voyages to find better lives elsewhere as well as commentary that their own highly religious country came closer to the old European idea of religion as a way to escape inevitable persecution in one’s life time. Unsurprisingly, Thaemlitz did not hesitate to point out that such persecution was directly tied to the domination of society by faith-based institutions.

Of any of the presentation, it was the last part that had the most relevancy to the contemporary music industry. Entitled Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album, it is a 30-hour long live piano performance that Thaemlitz actually performed and recorded in the United States. It’s essentially an abstract discussion of the exploitative practices foisted upon the artists by the music industry for essentially the entire history of recorded music as well as an attempt to permanently silence modern audiences concerning their unrelenting need for more and more music in longer and longer formats despite ever-diminishing pay on the part of the artists. Using a calculation explained in the lecture, Thaemlitz attempted to find the maximum playable length for an MP3 and then exceed it so that the resulting recording could not be played by modern means. In addition, he included over 100 pages of text and images with it for a package totaling more than 8 gigabytes intended to be insurmountable and, in his words, to make the audience “shut the fuck up.” The piece itself is a sort of Cageian drifting piano solo that he played in segments during the lecture and question and answer portions of the night’s event, but given hearing such small segments of it I would not venture to comment how it sounds overall (it lasts over a day!). The other music he played with the performance was similarly abstract and drifting, and given that it’s still a work-in-progress with large portions unfinished I would again suspend much commentary about it. What was gained in the night however was a fascinating look into the mind of a uniquely complex and developed individual delivered to an audience interested in his work and small enough for personal interaction, which is a blessing for anyone trying to figure out exactly what makes Terre Thaemlitz tick. Transgendered performer, legendary House DJ, artistic intellectual and creator of a number of celebrated classic releases, Thaemlitz is easily amongst the most interesting and bravest of contemporary musicians and for that reason an asset to any artistic movement.