© t thaemlitz/comatonse recordings
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In i/e, Issue 11, March/April 1998. Author's note: The title of this article is taken from a book published in 1833 ad 1834 by Thomas Carlyle, whose principle character Diogenes Teufelsdrockh (literally god-sired devil-dung) undertakes a history of ideas through an examination of clothing.
It is a cold November night, and as the impending winter steals each scrap of warmth remaining from the fall I am wandering through the rainy shadows of Spanish Harlem in Manhattan in search of what appears to be converted classroom. Upon entering I am greeted by an irresistibly funky rewriting of the history of dance music. Later in the evening, the digital deconstruction of a '70s pop song, the voices reduced to chattering chipmunks overwhelmed by a sonic tsunami, shows the degree to which even this part of history can be readdressed - an redressed - in Terre Thaemlitz's music discourse. It is the end of 1997, the year the Musical Industrial Complex attempted to colonize electronic music, and Terre Thaemlitz, whose party I am visiting and whose music ("G.R.R.L.") has greeted me, is leaving New York. Having arrived here in 1986 for study, he spent a good deal of time as DJ in clubs, before shifting his attentions to his own compositions and recordings. He's released 5 solo albums since 1994 on such ideosyncratic labels as Instinct, Mille Plateaux, Caipirinha, Daisyworld, and his own Comatonse Recordings, as well as a collaborative album with Bill Laswell, and various 12-inches, remixes, and contributions to compilations. During that time his music has touched upon various localities within the realms of dance music and electroacoustic experimentation without nesting in any particular area, all the while engaging in a simultaneous critical commentary upon the visited territories. Leap ahead to January '98. Thaemlitz has moved Comatonse and himself to California (where the rain continues), a new album (Means from an End) is out on Mille Plateaux, and we are using e-mail to conduct the following interview.
IE: Was there an initial moment for you at which you became aware that your path would necessarily be through music? Or did music assert itself by chance accretion rather than by teleological direction?
TT: Well, I don't feel that audio is inherently THE medium of mediums. It is A medium, and I feel reasonably comfortable with it. And as one of your questions points out, the clarity of a producer's intentions is often lost within a dominant sphere of abstract and bourgeois esthetics that suppress socio-political contents. This is why I also try to incorporate text and imagery with my releases whenever possible, or append them on my web site.
In retrospect I think that I was a little over-indulged in music growing up, in a rather adolescent-fetishistic way, but I never thought I would do it myself in any fashion. The only relationship I identified with music production was my unhappiness at being forced to play the violin from age 5 to 12, and trombone from 13 to 14 (I had to take up trombone as a condition of quitting violin). The notion of actually living as a producer was no more than a rock and roll fantasy. Both of my parents were involved in music strictly as hobbies - my father in chamber chorales, and my mother with folk musics like accordion, folk guitar and hammer dulcimer - and in typical upper-lowerclass fashion this coalesced my understanding that anything "creative" is impractical and removed from the economics of "everyday life."
The "creative hobby" I was encouraged in while growing up was drawing, and it was actually a hard thing for my parents when I went on to study visual arts on a college level at the Cooper Union. During my studies I became disgruntled with the elitism of the Gallery and Museum industry, as pointed out in countless texts and manifestos by the Constructivists and Minimalists which I had uncovered to the dismay of much of Cooper's faculty, so by the time I graduated I wanted nothing to do with the visual arts.
This left a big void in my life - I had basically pulled the carpet out from under my own feet. It did lead to new interests in activism and cultural theory, but it was not an easy transition. It was during this time that I slowly became conscious of the fact that I had recorded boxes of cassettes since early childhood. They ranged from radio excerpts to dialogues to taped phone pranks to noise loops. The strangest were from when I was about 8 and I would sit alone in a room babbling into the tape player for hour after hour, sometimes coherently and often abstractly. So I began rethinking these tapes in relation to audio production, and that pretty much threw me into my current deconstruction of traditional music methodologies. I've told the story of my transition from a DJ at activist benefits and in transsexual clubs to being a producer a million times, so I won't go into that here.
IE: What was the first piece of music you liked? What was the first piece of music that changed your life?
TT: Hmm... I was probably affected by the closing piano theme to the "Incredible Hulk" more than I should have been. But the first record I ever bought was Gary Numan's "The Pleasure Principle," which is pretty cool for a little kid. It wasn't really disco, it wasn't rock and roll, and it didn't have any guitars in it. That was a good place for my record collection to start.
IE: Are there any musicians out there on your Wish List for future collaborations?
TT: Haruomi Hosono! The idea came up when he released my album "Couture Cosmetique" on his Daisyworld label, and I really hope it happens because he's a real hero of mine. I was supposed to collaborate with a great Japanese post-Rock group called GPP, but I'm not sure where that stands right now. I think I might have inadvertently pissed them off because there was confusion about who was going to contact whom and when. I think it would be great to collaborate with NY producer Fred Szymanski, anyone involved with Oval/Microstoria, and Ryoji Ikeda. There are lots of people. Unfortunately it takes me so long to do my own stuff that I am afraid to line up too much at once - especially when many others are quick to turn stuff out.
IE: Listening to Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" several nights ago as background music, I reflected that here was an album provocative of furor in the jazz world at its release now reduced to the pleasant background of cocktail chatter, much as the initially riot sparking "Sacre du Printemps" has become comfortable symphony fare for chair-warming season ticket holders. How then does music subvert? However radical the precursors of Ambient Music (Satie, Cage, Feldman, even Eno) happened to be, they appear to have empowered a sort of Muzak-derived Big Brother, capable of pacifying even the most brutal noise into the lazy comfort of the background. Or is it precisely In The Background that the subversion can take place?
TT: I think your example explains perfectly the need to address CONTEXT during playback. The presupposition of Ambient is that what may first appear to be "background" may help deconstruct the privileging of certain "foregrounds." The ability for that to happen relies on the contexts of presentation, as well as the state of mind of the listeners. Nothing is inherently subversive, and what is often considered innocuous is often the most over-politicized via our hyper-internalization of the cultural processes which make us understand something as benign without further consideration of circumstance.
I try to play on this inherent "misunderstanding" that occurs with all of my releases as they emerge in a Humanist marketplace which counters almost all of my ideals through notions of Individualism and Universalism (the hypocrisy of these two notions somehow eluding most people).
IE: Your albums and other assorted tracks are associated with certain theoretical approaches to music, politics, society, gender, and any number of other areas. Yet much of this music - I am thinking in particular of "Couture Cosmetique" and "Soil" - seems almost entirely abstracted from theory or reference, playing on the ear's reluctance to demand representationality from sounds developed in the unrepresentable space of the processor. If music has a theoretical dimension, is this something transmittable within the listening experience (like a macro virus in a word processor file) or is this a critical operation performed from without (like a Photoshop filter upon a photograph)? If music does not show, how does it tell?
TT: I think it does show if you are familiar with certain discourses. Discourses that people ARE familiar with, even if not at a dominant cultural level. I used to be concerned about "dumbing down" the content or allusions, which is not only patronizing to everyone, but alienating to audiences which are already familiar with the issues I am addressing. I decided I would rather directly contribute to existing discourses, and give them whatever little visibility I can, than build a whole catalog of releases that say nothing. From my own experiences, I'm going with the assumption that people who "just like the music" will ignore my texts if they don't like it, or program their cd players to skip tracks they don't like. That's not censoring me, and I'm not imposing anything on them. But maybe with time and exposure they will be able to find voice in something they hear or read.
Take your Photoshop example - to someone without a computer they may look at an image and have no idea how a certain effect was done. Meanwhile, anyone who has used Photoshop filters can almost immediately say "That's Kai's Power Tools," or "That's a Twirl filter," etc. It's about exposure.
And with my liner notes I try to address processes rather directly. Actually, the notes to "Means from an End" are comprised of "Statistical" sections which outline the processes involved in a track, and "Rationale" sections which talk about how I associate those processes with metaphorical contents. I also try to leave a lot of dialogue clips legible, even if you have to listen to a track four or five times before you actually "hear" what the voice says. But it's kind of like asking my Mom to explain Constructivism. She may get a Heartfeld collage. She will not get a Malevich square or triangle on a canvas. Hopefully my tracks move between these two states.
It's also totally true that a lot of my music, electronic music, music in general, is masturbatory and cathartic in execution and reception. That's the fundamental premise of an aesthetic of pleasure, which includes the music industry, and which is also important for my own historical relationship to music as a home listener. I WANT to enjoy what I do. I WANT to be able to merge a content of social action with pleasure - and pleasure is not always passive. This is the contradictory condition I live in, day in and day out, and hopefully these desires are fairly clear in the agendas I attach to my music. At some point or other almost all of my texts end up talking about the crisis which emerges from my inability to escape esthetics and the seclusion of the studio - and what these mean in Western cultures.
IE: It is curious that you have taken Kraftwerk by its Robot horns rather than by its many others. [The reference here is to "Die Roboter Rubato," an album of piano treatments of Kraftwerk songs.] While that group's conjuring of the robot echoes the images of "Metropolis" - with the perhaps eerier implication of a technically rather than magically developed golem - Stanislaw Lem offers the rather different prospect of the robot as mechanical analogue by which owners reinvent themselves socially and erotically in machine space. How do your Robots allow you to play within these realms, and how does Kraftwerk (as a group, a historical influence, and a sampling reference) function within this music?
TT: I don't have an interest in technology as a means of reinvention. Technology is developed socially, reflects cultural agendas, and is often restricted to specific sectors of society. I have interest in technology as a means of representation.
My proposal in "Die Roboter Rubato" was a concept of a Femme Machine (as opposed to the Mensch Machine). The Femme Machine cannot escape conventional Patriarchal associations between Science and Masculinity (and the reciprocal association between Femininity and Nature). The Femme Machine cannot escape the fact that on a dominant cultural level technology is fetishized to a point of otherness - "that which completes where Man fails alone" - much as Women are. But by encompassing this dual state of fetishization - both as an extension of hyper-Masculinity, and the Feminine Other-object, the Femme Machine exists in an explicit state of contradiction. A state of contradiction which I find parallels certain agendas of non-essentialist Transgenderism (Transgenderism as a convolution and subversion of signifiers, and not as a disclosure of a secret internal essence such as being "trapped in the wrong body").
Kraftwerk, by being so fixated on the Man Machine in a completely Patriarchal fashion, seems to have a Homoerotic quality in its affinity for the Masculine-self. Not that this Homoeroticization is necessarily Queer-positive, but hopefully by identifying it we can begin to deconstruct the hegemony of certain preconceptions about gender and sexuality - that if one can identify something Homoerotic at the core of Heterosexual privilege and power structures, perhaps we can broaden popular discourses on gender and sexuality to move beyond the dicotic restrictions of conventional paradigms such as Man/Woman, Heterosexual/Bi/Homosexual. Not under the guise of Universalizing "We're all the same" Humanism, but as an explosion of diverse pan-sexual and transgendered contents.
IE: Picking up on the robots, your deconstruction of the mensch machine raises a somewhat troublesome point about electronic music. Whereas rock has tended to more or less explicitly wallow in a pervasive phallocentrism with the guitar as its obvious musico-anatomical symbol, leading to currents of female rockers leaning either in the direction expected by male stereotypes (waif pop) or toward strap-on imitation ('foxcore'), electronic music would seem to offer a more androgynous zone in which the standard signifiers may be rearranged and conventions discarded. Yet electronic music, even more than rock, seems to have been for quite some time a male club, a fraternity of Boys With Toys cloaking now the less obvious symbol (the Great and Powerful TB-303 or some other box) in the familiar Oz-curtain of masculine mystification
TT: I am still always shocked when I hear this sort of thing. I mean, yes, we grow up in an environment which purports the "neutrality" of technology and the sciences, but what about them is neutral? It's like those people who claim VR is a path to everyone making our own unique realities. Just how will the technology get distributed? Who will develop the interface? Will the visual standards be set by Bryce or Kai's Power Tools? And what impact will it have upon South American migrant workers? It's commodity fetishism to the point where technology takes on value (or in the case of neutrality, an absence of values) seemingly on its own, transcendent of the cultural processes in which we all operate on a daily basis. Technologies are developed within, and therefore primarily serve, dominant cultural interests.
Take a look at toys, which are always a good indicator of a culture's dominant outlooks, and you'll immediately see that boys are pushed toward machinery and aggression, while girls are pushed towards domestics and child rearing. And on a high school and vocational level, how many women attend shop class - the fundamental technological tier of our society? The gender split is overtly clear, and when you combine this with class issues and accessibility to technology, I think it's easy to see why the majority of women involved in "Experimental" and Electroacoustic music deal more with performance art and traditional tape techniques, while men lean towards tech-toys and macho improv stage performance. Neutrality is a cultural fiction intended to help us ignore power imbalances and get on with our day despite our various plights. I think it is important to actively debunk these myths in order to better understand our use of media, which in turn fosters more effective communication.
IE: The change between rock and e-music seems to me to be one between extroverted male narcissism and introverted male fetishism. First of all, have you observed this to be the case?
TT: Yes, I would pretty much agree with that. I mean, early analogue gear is right in line with jazz and rock notions of improvisation, which is totally entrenched in conventional balls-out performance strategies.
IE: Do you find that Ralf, Florian, and the gang were instrumental in erecting the Mensch Machine as a grounding myth of e-music, or rather that they were themselves observing and bringing out an already pervasive current in this music?
TT: Both Ralf and Florian had classical music backgrounds, as well as having been part of the German avant-garde rock scene in the late '60s, so I think Kraftwerk's use of Futurist imagery was more about establishing points of reference than establishing something new. I don't think they had any interest in the historical gender critiques of Futurism, and emphasized the notion of Mensch with a rather conventional ambivalence. Like saying, "All men are created equal." Gender wasn't their interest, so they didn't take an informed stand. But their consistency did help make obvious some of the longstanding gender dynamics within technology and music.
IE: Beyond theory, what is to be done in the realm of practice and action to bring about a shift in the hormonics (?) of musical composition and consumption?
TT: One thing I learned from activism is to separate my ideals from my capacity to directly engage social policies - policies which in turn condition and alter my ideals. And my nihilism against the potential for sustained radical transformation is such that I couldn't even pretend to have the initiative to launch an attempted communal shift in musical composition and consumption. I am interested in elaborating on social circumstances as I see them affecting myself and those around me. And my use of audio, text and imagery are intended to contribute to existing dialogues around non-essentialist social strategies, which may in turn help others look more critically at their own circumstances. And this might lead to a shift in their communal involvements. But by the time you get to this level of cultural transformation, music is inconsequential, so what claims of influence could I or any other producer make? That is why I try to stress the symptomatic and contextual side of analyses, rather than proposing lofty ideals which, in their abstractness, can conceal from us the social dynamics which contribute to the prioritization of our desires.
IE: Since your earlier days of DJing, much development is claimed for the artist of 2 decks and a mixer, to the extent now that some DJs portray themselves as "turntablists" or instrumental virtuosi of the medium. Elsewhere the DJ is described as a shaman, with occult power over the worshipers on the dancefloor. Even the Technics 1200 turntable seems to have become as fetishized as the Gibson Les Paul guitar is elsewhere, and some people seem to believe that all music is really Made on this magical machine. What are your observations about the current DJ Culture and its role in musical composition, dissemination, and conceptualization? How does this Culture fit into or subvert existing archetypes of the Musician?
TT: I dealt with this in a short text I wrote for a book to be released by Mille Plateaux. The article is called, "The Crisis of Post-Spectacle 'Live' Contemporary Ambient Performance (Or... Why I Can't Get Paid to DJ A-structural Audio)". It talks about the failure of a Progressive Rock based Ambient performance economy in the late '80s and early '90s (The Orb, etc.), and how this led to an uneventful reintroduction of the DJ as spectacle/superstar (Illbient, etc.). When I was a DJ I argued against notions of authenticity and authorship, and believed that DJing was just as valid as any other tape-based method of composition. I still believe this. But the point where I (and maybe you) think it becomes bullshit is when DJ's try to lay claim to conventions of authorship and creativity, perpetuating this notion of "specialness." Once you believe in Artistry it's all about ego and setting yourself apart. Apart from other DJ's, apart from your audience. All the while spouting some bullshit about "community vibe." Typical hypocritical.
IE: For readers interested in following the currents you have discussed and implied, do you have any recommendations for illuminating reading and further study?
TT: George Lipsitz' book "Dangerous Crossroads" (London/NY: Verso, 1994) is a good and readily available introductory text, particularly since he deals a lot with pop and world musics, which a lot of Ambienteers are also interested in. Also, the "Listening Material" archive on my web site deals with the development of general social-materialist listening strategies (W). It currently features texts by Hannah Bosma on gender and Electroacoustic production; Ultra-red on the politics of sound, and Ambient space in particular; and myself on the Ambient marketplace and transgenderism. Several of the texts feature images, and there are plenty of footnotes and references which can serve as jump-points. I would really like to see this develop into more of a resource than it currently is. People wishing to submit texts along similar lines can e-mail them to my attention at firstname.lastname@example.org .
IE: Have recent developments in computer technology changed your approach(es) to composition? What are some of the most useful tools you have found, within and outside of the computer?
TT: You should probably ask me this in another year, because I really need a new computer. My current one is not fast enough to exploit the developments in performance for digital synthesis. There is a lot of very powerful and useful shareware on the internet, so I use a lot of that. My approach has never really radically altered because I started with computers and digital synths. I never really had the desire for "jamming" which I think is key to understanding analogue electronic gear. And aside from making tapes since childhood, I was really into visual collages as well, so computers really fit in with the "cut and paste" mentality I had already been living through.
IE: What are some of your upcoming projects for yourself and for Comatonse?
TT: My biggest project was moving my studio from New York to Oakland, CA. My latest electroacoustic ambient project "Means from an End" was released January 12, 1998, on Mille Plateaux. "Means from an End" focuses on the critical and non-critical construction of "historical closures" in the development of social agendas. There will also be a new electroacoustic track "What is Between is Missing" on a Mille Plateaux compilation (the next volume of the Modulation and Transformation series). This track deals with some ridiculous media representations of Transgenderism. I also just finished a collaboration with Jane Dowe, who has studied computer music with Charles Dodge and the like, and is also a music journalist. It's entirely computer synthesis, which was a big deal for me since in collaborations I'm usually the only "computer person." The project plays off of our simultaneous placement within economies of an Ambient marketplace, academia and the popular music media. We're looking for a label for it right now.
After two years with no new releases, Comatonse picked up quite a bit in 1997. I'm really trying to keep Comatonse my safe-haven for having fun and not letting people pigeonhole it (or me). In addition to doing a special reissue of the first Comatonse release, I got out my first all-rhythmic project (and Comatonse's first full-length cd) "G.R.R.L." It's a sampler of all different genres of electronica, playing notions of genre-allegiance off of the use of identity constructs in everyday life. It features a collaboration with vocalist Chiu-Fen Chen on the track "China Doll (Kill All Who Call Me)". It has been getting unusually good press, including in The Wire and AOL's MTV Online, so I'm hoping it might get distribution soon, but it's currently only available through my web site (W). Also, we recently got out a blue-vinyl 12" by Chugga (a.k.a. the Memphis duo of Lester Fuero and Jeff Hanes) of "Theme for the Buck Rogers Light Rope Dance" which features two dance-ambient mixes by myself. These are from a larger album I produced by Chugga called "Memphistophelis" which I have been trying to get out forever. Chugga has also appeared on the compilations "Abstrakt Workshop 2" (Shadow) and "Synthetic Pleasures 2" (Caipirinha Productions). This 12" is currently only available in Japan through Cisco Music, and will be available elsewhere through Comatonse in February 1998. Chugga is going to be remixing some tracks for Ultra-red, which should be released on Comatonse this spring. Ultra-red's tracks are from an outdoor installation they did in L.A. based around issues of public sex, and using field recordings of people cruising and fucking in the parks. I'm also getting ready to start pressing a yellow-vinyl 12" of a new project called "Terre's Neu Wuss Fusion," which is a somewhat jazz/funk/ambient thing like "Raw Through a Straw." It's two versions of a track called "She's Hard," one side being the studio version, and the other side being recorded live from the 1997 Hug Parade in Belarus, which is like the East-block's leftist answer to the Love Parade. This will be out in Japan through Cisco Music.
I've also had a collaboration in the works with Scanner for the past year, but he's been so busy with touring (good for him!) that it's a little off track. My big thing right now is to start my next "Terre Thaemlitz" electroacoustic ambient album, which I really haven't gotten to think about yet. Why do I always feel "between projects"??!!! I guess I'm just "between paychecks"!!
IE: What are you hoping to accomplish within and beyond music?
TT: Electroacoustic music doesn't really point to a realm of financial success, and I don't believe in any successful large-scale radical subversion of "The System." I am just really thankful for all of the success I have had so far. To be able to produce projects on a fairly consistent basis, to have the support and interest of other producers and labels, and more recently having the press start to discuss my interests in non-essentialist theory and transgenderism, although not always so successfully by the mainstream. And long-time listeners who are willing to seek out my projects and go through these changes in representation with me.