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In Interrobang?!, December 2000. Terre's note: This is a relatively un-edited transcription of an interview recorded in November 1999 - which means it suffers from random derailments of thought and some bad word choices. It was published in a magazine focussing on transcendence in music - I was interviewed as the Devil's advocate, of course.
I don't feel that I can speak for you by way of an introduction. Maybe you could pretend that you're writing it....
I'm Terre Thaemlitz...? I don't know what kind of overview or what angle of my music you're most interested in...
I primarily produce electroacoustic music like direct digital synthesis, but I also produce different styles like deep house or jazz, I kind of have this style called 'Fagjazz' (it's like a jazzy deep house), computer generated piano solos....
Music styles are so often ascribed to a certain type of personality or an expression of a certain type of soul or personality that, moving in between all these different styles, stepping in and out of musical identities without having any musical background, is a metaphor for the different types of identities and personalities we have to step into in society on a daily basis. De-essentializing identity politics.
At the same time with the electroacoustic stuff, what I do is I start out with some audio sample, either a source sample or somebody else's music, and treat that like a footnote. I'll use computer synthesis to process off of it and produce new sounds and put it through a different aesthetic framework than the original. Part of that has to do with the recontextualization of content and subjectification of information. You're familiar with it enough to know that it's noisy and crunchy sounding. Pulling out the line noise and the distortions and the fuck-ups of the software and hardware itself and exploiting this idea of the sound of the periphery, which is a metaphor for a cultural periphery.
How much do you think your process and the music you make is a metaphor for these things you're talking about and how often is it the very thing?
Always a metaphor. Music is a discourse in the same way that text and anything else is. Especially when you start dealing with structure, or abandonments of structure. You're still dealing with parameters of a discourse. That's one thing that plays into what we'll get to later with the ideas of music and transcendence, and trying to take music as a kind of extra-social type of experience or something that has extra-social potential. In fact, when you're dealing with constructed instruments that have built-in limitations, whether they're acoustic or digital, you're always working with something that somebody else has set out in front of you. Interpretations of sound... everything is always going to be contextualized. So it's never about 'the real thing. 'And I'm also not really interested in a truth of meaning or truth of content. It's more about what truths are circumstantially relevant.
In your writings and interviews you make a lot of references to Ambient music, almost like [TM] - like this institution. In terms of the fluidness of the digital synthesis versus samples that are very loaded, how do you feel that's played out in most ambient music?
I think that most Ambient producers aren't interested in it. The term Ambient is really confusing now because there are still people who are into the early nineties type of ambient as a kind of Techno extension. Then there's a lot of digital synthesis stuff going on now, especially coming out of Europe -really minimal - that they try to pass off as digital synthesis, but it's really just minimal noise that's done analog if you really listen. [laughter] I think that overwhelmingly in electronic music, and especially in Ambient music, there's a real interest in people not clarifying content. People who are into Ambient tend to be more into spiritual elaborations if they do say anything. And then there's the German minimal stuff where nobody says anything, you know what I mean?
Or even have their name on the package.
Yeah. In either case, you're dealing with processes of silence, which in some ways, if you analyze it, like if you're a critic and think about it and talk about it, then ok this silence of the artist is in some way also about a silence of process that Ambient music is trying to bring to the forefront. But nobody's really bringing it to the forefront, you know? The press isn't really interested in it and the musicians aren't interested in it, so....
How much do you find that you have in common this new wave of music coming out of mostly Germany?
I mean, obviously, stylistically I have things in common, but at the same time there are real differences. If you listen to my stuff, or somebody like Ultra-red, I think there's definitely a more American thing that is about letting source material and associations come out a little more. Whereas in Europe, it's getting towards a really minimal sound-as-sound. Which is, ultimately, a formalistic gesture. Radically conservative. Maybe I'm thinking this because when we were both on tour with the Mille Plateaux people, we really realized how American we were compared to the other producers. Not just in terms of their generalizing, "Oh, Americans love to talk about politics."Which is obviously not true. But in terms of stylistic approach, it's interesting to see the differences come out.
What about the Mille Plateaux angle and the whole crowd that associate with that kind of level of theory and music. Do you find that ends up being very apolitical despite its high theoretical baggage?
I've definitely talked with the Mille Plateaux people a lot about this. The one thing that made me uncomfortable for a long time was that I was the only person writing or actually generating content deliberately. The label people were ascribing a content onto the artists that, really, the artists themselves were not invested in. Now Ultra-red is doing stuff through Mille Plateaux and Autopoises is doing text.
Do you find that, despite that, a lot of the artists, with their heads in that space, are essentially still just creating this humanist, high philosophy, ungrounded?
I think that's pretty much going to be the convention when you're dealing with something that's relegated as a creative process. You're always going to have this distinction between the critics and the artists.
Of course, I'm interested in convoluting those things in an attempt to actually deconstruct them and maybe get away from them or change them. But by and large, people who make the music are more interested in the sounds and turn to music as a kind of non-literal discourse. When people turn to something that's so abstract, in some ways it's an attempt to abandon or try something other than the literalness of words. Which is the standard musician versus press or versus critic paradigm.
What do you think about people like Spooky and the whole Soundlab crew doing...
You're going to get me in trouble again. [Marc laughs] Actually, , Soundlab and Spooky aren't really connected anymore, and I believe Soundlab has made an effort to distance themselves from Spooky. But I think that they're all invested, in various ways, in a kind of utopian Humanist pluralism that ultimately homogenizes rather than gives voice to difference. I've expressed that before and I get in trouble every time because Paul [Miller/DJ Spooky] likes to email people and yell at them.
Isn't that creating a dialogue?
No, his emails are one-way diatribes.
Just because two producers both write and both use high-falootin', postmodern jargon, people instantly think, "Oh, Paul Miller and Terre Thaemlitz are on the same wavelength." We really have very little do with each other. He has said in response to my work that Queer identity politics don't touch on issues of multiculturalism, and I think he is full of shit. He is basically invoking a heterosexist race politic that is blind to a shared interest in strategizing identities of empowerment in response to dominant Hetero-normative Western culture. Not to mention totally ignorant of everything I have ever produced, written and said in interviews against ethnic and audio imperialism, including imperialism within the Illbient scene. Basically, all of my experiences with anything Illbient have always been overshadowed by straight White boys speaking Ebonics. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that it's a lot of salt with a little pepper.
There are certainly serious problems with a type of White Academic dominance in Queer theory that needs to be addressed, but to then say Queer identity politics excludes issues of race is like saying the dominance of straight White men making electronic music excludes Paul himself from making music, and in terms of financial success he's more successful than any electroacoustic producer I know by a long shot. It's an oversimplification which precludes the possibility for a real complication of issues, and I think that's a dangerous subtext for someone talking about representing a unified multi- cultural front giving props to everyone. I'm not interested in representing everyone. I'm interested in people representing their own experiences, helping facilitate that representation if I can, receiving help from others in representing my own experiences when they can, and still being critical of superficial alliances that ultimately conceal important differences which need to be investigated. Diversity is not about social equilibrium or seeing your own concerns in everyone else. That's a Humanist trap that ultimately imposes one concept of the 'Human Condition' over that of another. Diversity's about acknowledging a type of chaos or cultural schizophrenia - living with people in whom you can't see yourself at all. Where the fuck do the Puerto Rican female-to-male transsexual Gay men lay their identity alliances in Paul's world?
I'm going to back up. We were talking about the early nineties Ambient music often floating through spirituality and that sort of thing... why do you think that happened?
I think a lot of it is because the Techno community itself was very heavily invested in a lot of those things and I think that issues of transcendence were really buzzy at the time. I think that's also why it fell away. It was too loopy and ethereal to really have much of a long-term stay. It really verged on something religious or cultic. You know, Ambient music from the seventies as the word was originally used by Eno was about trying to draw attention to an environmental condition. It wasn't just about the music being soft, or the music being in the background, it was about listening to music in which the environmental context was also an influence in how the music was perceived. Then around '81, [Haruomi] Hosono [of Yellow Magic Orchestra] wrote that introduction in the comic book, "Globule"where he talked about trying to take Ambient music to a club or social context with his Monad Music label.
I think that's where the first historical shift happened. I think that Eno was more invested in an existential crisis of isolation and a loss of focus, and Hosono was about this loss of focus as a metaphor for club culture or for a peripheral alternative to dominant musicology and dominant pop music. So that fed this thing that ultimately happened in the late '80s and early nineties. Not many people trace it like that, but that's what I do.
How did you come to a place of writing about the implications of your music?
Basically, as soon as I thought about the idea of releasing stuff and having it heard by an audience, I felt compelled to contextualize it and elaborate. Part of that was because I had a cultural criticism background and I was involved in a lot of community-based activism and lot of that was about defining context. So from the beginning, I've been concerned about presentation and in some ways trying to play on that, and be sarcastic and allow humor - cynical humor to play a part in the compositions.
I noticed, especially with the "G.R.R.L."cd, it's extremely cynical. [laughter] You also use the word "cyncerity"in describing it, how much does sincerity come into play with your approach to your work?
I think the way that you're using "sincerity"and the way that people usually talk about sincerity in terms of music production -I'm really not interested in that because I don't think that it's relevant."Intention"is the word that I would use. I think that sincerity ultimately comes down to nothing when it comes down to -"what are your intentions and were you successful in outlining those or presenting some portion of them to people? "
I'm thinking about sincerity, almost as a flipside to cynicism. How often do you approach something without that jadedness? Or do you find that that just doesn't play, that's not a conceptual element?
Well, I want to like what I do, and I do like what I do -if I'm allowed to say that -[laughter] and for me that's important. I don't want to release crap, you know? I don't want to make compromises that I'm not comfortable making. And for the amount of money I'm making, I might as well just hold to my values because nobody's coming close to anything that would be worth selling out for. So in that sense, I approach it seriously.
Do you find that in your work, or do you even try to create in your work, a visceral element?
Well, yeah, like the random volume changes -having very quiet passages and then, suddenly some very loud burst or something that might not only shock people, but make them get stereo. Then they go back and they realize now it's too soft and they have to turn it up again. For me, that's about trying get people involved or to acknowledge their role in the listening process, that they're actually contributing to it and to actually catch themselves in a position of adjusting things.
Is that an active way of disrupting the traditional Ambient music listening experience?
Another thing that strikes me about Ambient music is how it's generally written about and acknowledged in terms of some sort of purity because it's so minimal. I just find that really disturbing.
Yeah. In general, Minimalism can actually be more concealing than something really layered. You think, "Oh, all these layers, something's getting lost."Well, when you're dealing with something really minimal, like minimal painting or something, there's a way to look at it that's about trying to get closer to a perception of a kind of material context of production or perception. But at the same time, if you just go for the idea of "form is form"or "sound is sound"like some minimal sine wave thing that goes on for sixty minutes, what it's really about is "what kind of ideological framework facilitates this kind of production and distribution? "And then that whole process gets concealed behind this sine wave that's speechless. It's a silence really. It's not about sound;it's ultimately about silence. That's why, for me, when you get so dry and minimal it's not interesting anymore because the only thing that's talking to me when I listen to it is the capitalist infrastructure and it's obviously being done in a way that's of no concern to the artist who produced it.
In what way?
Like if somebody's just doing this sound-as-sound type stuff, then in some ways it's about conceding to whatever circumstances are going to facilitate the music's recording, distribution, commercialization and sale. The less the artist says, the less explicit the artist is, the more they're capitulating to the operations, to the whole workings that they're in.
So I'm obsessive/compulsive in the other direction where I'm always trying to elaborate in miniscule detail what the possible consequences are, and what my limitations of vision might be.
Do you not then spend a great deal of time considering your work as consumer objects?
If I'm doing something for distribution and that's what's going to happen with it, then I feel that I should.
Then to what degree do you end up getting trapped by that? By spending so much time...
This is the thing:people believe that if they don't talk about it, then they're not trapped by it. For me it's more interesting to be actively involved in the things that limit me and confine me rather than pretend that they're not there and basically shirk responsibility. Because a lot of my music deals with issues of cultural transformation or political agendas, then I think that it would be really ridiculous of me to then not address the mechanisms that get my music into the hands of my audience.
Obviously culture has shifted a tremendous amount since when you started, but in what ways has that affected your strategies and aesthetic decisions? How have you shifted with it?
I think the diversification of the styles that I produce in now is part of it. Also, trying to keep myself out of this model of musicians who produce a lot of things over a number of years, but are honing their style or honing their technique. For me, it's about appropriating style. Style is always about appropriation and reference;it's not about uncovering some inner self or something.
But, essentially, you are honing...
I hone techniques, but I'm not honing some sort of over-all expression of who I am as an artist. The projects still have individual contents by-and-large. I have my ongoing themes that come from my own interests and my own experiences, but I try and have each project have a distinct theme or approach to it. I also try and make them sound different from one another and use different types of processing in them.
Ambient music sort of grew up on the periphery of dance music, which is so visceral and so specific to the body -so how much do you think that your music plays into that level of visceral experience?
I feel like you're approaching it from the dancer's point of view - "the visceralness of dance music."
But if you're a DJ, you're interacting with that.
Yeah, I think that there are always these other issues that are more important to me than the visceralness of it, so I guess I don't really have an answer for you because I don't really think about my music in that kind of way. For me, the idea of a visceralness isn't really important compared to an idea of context of playback and performance. So for me the interesting thing about a type of Ambient performance environment, or a Techno dancefloor, wouldn't be "Oh, this bass line coming out and hitting my body!"What it would be is the whole framework of the type of space, the type of people inhabiting the space, how they're interacting with one another. That, for me, is the material interest that I have in it, as opposed to a purely sensory thing.
It's interesting to hear that you came out of DJing with beat-oriented music that is so often about creating these contexts where this idea of escape and release can happen. But your work so flies in the face of that because it's so grounded and so specific about talking about the elements it encounters. I'm hard pressed to think of much dance music that doesn't do the exact opposite, that tries to be essentially nothing but a visceral escape.
I think it's really important to talk about dance music, not in terms of pulling the compositions out individually and considering what each one has to say, otherwise you'll just find out that, yeah, it's the same trappings as when we were talking about formalistic, minimal approaches towards Ambient music or something. The interesting content that comes out of dance music is the context of the dancefloor and that really overrides, or preconditions what the producers and DJs are bringing into that environment. But people on the dancefloor still want to do what you're saying - try to think about the music as just the sounds itself. But really, the sounds are meaningless. That is why it's important for producers to talk about their intentions as opposed to letting the greater condition do the talking for them.
How much spiritual possibility do you think there is in music?
Um, I'm not interested in that. I think that the music industry is overwhelmingly ascribed with emotionalism and spirituality. With Ambient and Electronica, you have Ethno-Ambient -like audio Imperialism where everybody thinks that World Music is somehow about showing that we're all the same. Really it's about showing that within the Western, white, upper-class, First World, we have a way of looking at the world and all these different ethnicities where we can take their music, or take their sculptures out of their temples and look at them and appreciate them as art in the same way that we appreciate our own music and art. It's ridiculous that people feel this type of tribal communion. I shouldn't say, "ridiculous, "I should say "dangerous"that people emphasize communion through world musics when really, I think it's important to talk about the differences of the contexts of production and performance and what it means to take the music out of context and perform it in another context. I'm not advocating some sort of weird musical separationism or anything where it's bad to listen to that type of music here, but I am saying that there is a way that you can be responsible in using certain types of sound sources by discussing their implications.
But can you talk about spirituality in music and spirituality specifically in Ambient music, without resorting to non-Western music? A lot of Ambient music certainly goes right there so quickly -like spiritual equals Other -but can you talk about it without placing it in those terms?
The other thing would be what I consider to be just Humanist spirituality that's also associated with a kind of tripping-out.
It's hard to talk about spirituality in music without getting into the Ethno-implications because a lot of spirituality is also attributed to a type of ideology that associates "primal humanity"with spirituality, where escaping First World, Western culture is a metaphor for returning to the spiritual self -the non-hampered by Western, dominant culture self. Of course, everybody thinks for some reason that every other culture is living perfectly happy, in communion with nature and we're the only ones that aren't. Which is stupid. So I think there is always that invocation of the ethnic Other as a solution. Otherness is presented as this Utopian escape, transcendental solution. I'm coming from an approach [where] Otherness is about alienation and attempts to try and compensate for alienation through organization and identity politics in a strategic way. So that's where I come head-to-head with the dominant musicology approach towards spirituality in music.
There are two different versions of Otherness going on. One is saying that Otherness is the solution. Then even within identity politics, either racial or sexual identity politics, there's also this attempt to ascribe a type of truthfulness of experience that then supercedes other people's experiences. Like, "I'm a gay musician. So my music speaks for gay people and is about a gay experience."I would never say anything like that. Whenever people ask me, "Is there an inherently queer sound? " No. What are you talking about? It's all about contextualization. There is a way in which identity politics often gets caught up in that same trapping of spirituality and essentialization of identity. That there is some sort of essence or core of truth out there that supercedes society.... I think that what people are really trying to get to is a way to talk about subjectivity. Which is very different than talking about spirituality.
Marc Kate is a member of I Am Spoonbender.