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Resonant Frequency #20
Electroacoustic Nuggets - Modulation & Transformation 4
- Mark Richardson

In Pitchfork, February 26 2003.


In 1999 I caved in and subscribed to The Wire. I'd been buying issues on the newsstand regularly for a while and decided to save a few bucks. The cover price at that point was $6.50, and an annual subscription was $60. Not cheap, but a savings nonetheless. Plus, if you subscribed you could get a free CD. Not some patch-job sampler, but an actual album.

As part of my subscription, I chose to receive a copy of what was then the most recent Mille Plateaux compilation, the three-disc Modulation & Transformation 4. I didn't have the first three volumes and I wasn't terribly familiar with Mille Plateaux as a label (I liked Oval, and I knew Thrill Jockey licensed stuff from them), but at three discs the set seemed like a good deal. My knowledge of electronic music was limited, and this could be a way for me to hear some new artists. During this period, I had begun living by myself for the first time. My wife, who was then my girlfriend, had decided to get her own place for a while, which left me alone in a studio apartment on the corner of Geary and Larkin streets, near downtown San Francisco. It was a tiny room on the third floor with a Murphy bed that folded out of the wall, a kitchen the size of a closet, and a tiny bathroom. It's crazy to think now that we'd lived in that room together for almost a year. It was tight for one person. Most people would describe that apartment building as a dump (the open window to the garbage chute in the hallway and the dead pigeons on the fire escape were tip-offs), but it had some advantages. From the standpoint of someone with a burgeoning interest in experimental electronic music, the most significant of these was that the neighbors never complained about the noise. I could blast my stereo-- which was nothing special but easily flooded my tiny room with sound-- pretty much at any hour of the day or night and no one in my building said a word. I don't know if everyone's hearing had been dulled by the constant clatter of the 38 bus and the regular disturbances down on the street, but my stereo seemed to blend in with the ruckus without disturbing anybody. In retrospect, it seems likely that my music did bother some people but they probably wanted to avoid a confrontation, and now I feel bad about it. But I felt nothing but joy at being able to play Modulation & Transformation 4 at serious volume when it finally arrived from London.

If you were to trace your relationship to music on a graph, with the x axis representing time and y representing your current engagement with what's happening, the resulting line would mostly consist of small squiggles interrupted by the occasional spike upward. These are the moments when you hear something new and exciting for the first time. Sometimes an entire plane of music, heretofore unexplored, suddenly spreads out before you and fulfills a need you've long had, maybe one you weren't even aware of. I imagine the No New York compilation had this effect on some people, and Nuggets, and further back, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. It's that moment where the possibilities seem endless and you can't imagine being bored with music ever again.

This is what Modulation & Transformation 4 did for me in 1999. It was an embarrassment of riches, music I could live inside for the rest of my life and still never fully comprehend. I felt like a conquistador who'd just found the City of Gold. I had never heard music with the tension and underlying sense of menace of Terre Thaemlitz' "Genrecide ('I Wish Tricky'd Die Any Way I Hope')". With its extreme dynamic range and harsh contrast, where dark string samples gradually swell from imperceptibility to room-shaking levels, Thaemlitz's track showed me that some musicians were approaching computer music in a completely different way. I was a big fan of the music Mouse on Mars had released to that point, but hearing Jan St. Werner's solo track as Lithops, "Between the Jolts There Were Gritty Regions", which was built around a metallic-sounding, overdriven hum, made me realize how complex a musical figure he was, and what he might be capable of. The idea of making music using only sine waves, as Ryoji Ikeda did on "Interference 003", was something I'd only read about. Then there was Gas, who made music using only jet-black Wagnerian string samples and a primitive house drumbeat-- a combination that seemed absurd on paper but turned out to be strangely addictive.

There was such a massive amount of variety on these three discs, and each of the 36 tracks seemed like a door with an unexplored music universe behind it. I enjoyed Oval, but Markus Popp never would have considered humanizing the CD skips by sampling a woman's voice on Curd Duca's "Touch". Then there was the blistering, trebly racket of Panacea's "Hear with Fear", which made noise music seem disturbingly sexy. The microscopic clicks and scrapes of Thomas Köner and T.T. Wip's "Mesurait la Force" were the sounds of another planet's windswept landscape, some place I'd never been but wanted to visit often. But it wasn't all esoteric digitalia-- Steel's "Idol Talk" was built around manipulated samples of the famous threats Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love left on a journalist's answering machine to chilling effect. Elsewhere, even DJ Spooky and Merzbow clocked in.

My experience with Modulation and Transformation 4 was a chance meeting place of personal circumstance and musical zeitgeist which I doubt could be replicated. Perhaps someone hearing it now for the first time would think the compilation seemed too schizophrenic. Objectivity is a problem for me in this regard, as even now this collection holds a special place for me. I can say, though I didn't know it at the time, that M&T4 is an excellent summation of everything Mille Plateaux accomplished in the 1990s. At that point, the label's core value was experimentation, and minimalism was just one possibility. Any abstract music that tried something new might find a home on the label. Mille Plateaux came into its own when computers reached a certain level of power and artists were figuring out what could be done with them. Considering that CPU clock speeds have doubled five times since most of the music on Modulation & Transformation 4 was recorded, it seems clear that computer music has reached a point of diminishing returns. Simply put, from a technical standpoint, there's little in these tracks, most of which are about five years old, to give away their age.

Despite the track-by-track variety, the unifying force on Modulation & Transformation 4, as I heard it in '99, was an overall sense of uneasiness. The music had a tendency to make the listener feel just a bit uncomfortable, whatever its other qualities, and there was the rub: Modulation & Transformation 4, and the places where these tracks came from, are things to experience alone. Some of my friends liked some of it, but no one wanted to put it on when we were hanging out, and with good reason. This was not social music and it happened to come into my life during a time when I began spending a lot more time alone. There I was, by myself in my tiny studio apartment, exploring what seemed to me to be another universe. These two conditions intertwined and my admiration of experimental electronic music began to seem like a lonely endeavor. But there was an upside to this state of affairs: Writing about music becomes an enormous pleasure when you're trying to get all the conversations you've had in your head out into the world somewhere.