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Transgendered Express
Technology, queer thought and ambient music are the keys to Terre Thaemlitz's anti-binary queendom.
- Ron Nachmann

In The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Feb. 9-15, 2000, Vol. 34, No. 19.


You can't keep a determined digital-age cross-dresser down, especially when it comes to the technology of vroom. –A self-proclaimed former "motorphobe," Terre Thaemlitz speaks proudly of his dream car, a badass, gas-guzzling 1971 AMC Javelin SST 360. A rip-off mechanic had recently been sabotaging the engine in order to ensure regular business, and when Thaemlitz got his mechanic brother to repair the damage, he kept a steady eye on the proceedings.

"I just had this mantra: 'The people who mastered this are the people who used to beat me up all the time. I can do this.' "

It's an attitude that has enabled him to maintain what he boastfully calls "the butchest wheels of any drag queen in the Bay Area." It has also let this postmodernist, transgendered electronic composer-theorist break into the straight boys club of electronic music production.

Thaemlitz – one of the more respected figures in the global contemporary ambient music scene – instinctually fosters a fondness for ambiguity, contradiction, and identity shift, all of which permeate his work and life. That instinct got him an intensive education in harassment as an androgynous kid in Springfield, Mo., connecting him with the early electronic pop of Yello, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan in the early '80s.

"I used to be shoved and spit on every day between every single class in high school," he remembers. "I'd be covered in spit by the end of the day. Thankfully, somehow I was able to get through it and still be myself. But it helped inform the way I do what I do."

Thaemlitz is almost the definition of cultural paradox by virtue of his existence. Among other things, he's a drag queen who avoids gay community connections and eschews essentialist notions of being "born in the wrong body," an ambient and electroacoustic producer who does dance music and theoretically flames the commodified nuances of all three of those musical realms, and an independent label owner who critiques the music marketplace on which he depends.

Identifying himself variously as schizophrenic, queer, and pansexual, Thaemlitz seeks to apply these variegated modes into his aural and written art in order to "avoid being chained to a singular vision." Aside from his ambient work, he produces deep-grooved, jazz-imbued house and what he terms "computer-generated improvisational acoustic performance" under such monikers as Fagjazz and Terre's Neu Wuss Fusion. One example of this makes up disc one of his upcoming Fagjazz double-CD release. It's called Super Bonus, and it's a swirling noir-jazz piece best suited for the nighttime BART ride to Thaemlitz's Oakland home, where he runs his Comatonse label and his all-digital Meow studio. The notes accompanying the CD first present it as an hour-long jam session with a four-piece band, then reveal it as the solo product of a painstaking monthlong computer sound process.

Thaemlitz's rationale for Super Bonus makes tangible his theoretical stare-down with both artifice and the authenticity myth in culture. "I want to demistify improvisation and remind people that spontaneous gesture can be digitally replicated, as it is all the time in the music marketplace."

Thaemlitz's first impacting encounter with dance music's economic forces have informed his ideology ever since. While studying visual art at New York's Cooper Union in the late '80s, his involvement in women's health and AIDS/HIV activism led to his DJing experimental deep house at ACT UP benefits and drag and transsexual clubs in midtown Manhattan as DJ Sprinkles. Thaemlitz was eventually awarded an Underground Grammy as DJ of the year from Sally's esteemed House of Magic in 1991. Five months later he was fired for not spinning enough major-label music – an episode he recounts in the liner notes to his Comatonse-released DJ Sprinkles EP Sloppy 42nds, an emotionally loaded deep-house taste of queer Times Square before its Disney buyout in 1997.

Thaemlitz's sexual-political burnout and switch-over to theory and criticism – prompted by the didactically nonqueer, group-identified approach of many gay activist groups – mirrors his musical evolution from dance music spinner to ambient music producer. But Thaemlitz's move to abstraction meant a move to a whole new set of issues for this pomo homo electronique.

From its late-'70s beginnings and through its contemporary resurgence in the early '90s, ambient music has been plagued by a pseudospiritual, apolitical vision of itself that superficially matches its seemingly tranquil nature. Via the 10 solo and collaborative albums he's recorded during the past seven years, Thaemlitz has confronted this paradigm head on, both aurally and ideologically. The dense, jangled, airy soundscapes on such releases as Soil (on the Instinct label) and Love for Sale (on Comatonse) have integrated broad harmonic tone structures with haywired remnants of his digital compositional process, muted and noise-ridden loops, and signifying samples and found sounds (from bits of Thai radio dialogue to threats from gay bashers to cheesy lounge music).

By the mid '90s the honeymoon was over; the electronic music industry had replaced the hype around ambience with an equally reductive hype around rhythm. After enough of the labels Thaemlitz was working with requested him to fall into line, he released the beat-ridden G.R.R.L. (on Comatonse), which comprised 11 by-the-numbers dance tracks; the back cover graphic features the titles integrated into a flowchart that cheekily guides you through a tour of the flavors of the month: "techno," "deep house," "abstract drum 'n' bass," "electro breakbeat," etc. And, lo and behold, as satiric as Thaemlitz's approach was, the tracks actually compel you with some of his beat-glitching production techniques.

"It was funny," Thaemlitz notes with a bemused grin. "On the one hand, I made it to hand to these labels – like, 'O.K., here, now leave me alone' – but it was also a kind of musical drag where I tried on styles that I didn't know or even like in order to challenge consumer expectations about them."

The legendarily extensive and academic liner notes Thaemlitz has written for most of his albums weave his personal politics of anti-essentialist transgenderism into critiques of gay and lesbian assimilation, music-marketing and distribution setups, and methods of cultural production, including his own composing methods. These texts have come under fire repeatedly by pundits who think musicians should rock instead of talk.

"In the pop music marketplace, an artist is expected to just talk about how they wrote a song while they thought about their girlfriend or drank a beer, while critics tell you what it really is or isn't about. So critics are supposed to own words, while musicians only own sounds? That doesn't make sense.

"When I started involving these texts, especially as an ambient artist, there was a lot of resistance – 'who the fuck is this smartass?' Some people took it as my telling them how to listen rather than as part of the project as a whole, which is how I intend it."

Of Thaemlitz's most recent recordings, his solo piano tributes to electronic pop pioneers Kraftwerk (Die Roboter Rubato) and Gary Numan (Replicas Rubato) prove most intriguing. Thaemlitz's tenderly arhythmic, floating rubato style counters the rigid aesthetics of both artists with a strangely emotional texture – which in turn runs into the fact that it's all digitally processed. In his extensive liner notes to Die Roboter Thaemlitz presents a transgendered femme-machine ideal to deconstruct Kraftwerk's de facto homoerotic mensch-machine aesthetic. For Replicas he posits his personalized reading of Numan's dire, post-glam sexual ambiguity as it connected to his own coming up as a queer kid.

The fact that most people play Thaemlitz's discs in order to simply chill rather than tackle an essay bothers the producer not one iota. "Oh, I fully anticipate it," he says without hesitation.

"Of course, I care for the music like anyone else. But for me it's also about the music's function as an item in the marketplace and as a way for we as consumers to look hard at ourselves and our circumstances. There can be something liberating in finding content rather than just spacing out."

Thaemlitz sees his subversive use of technology as analogous to his cross-dressing politics. "I mess with the sound software that's supposed to make, say, Paula Abdul's voice sound good until it exposes the bugs and fuck-ups under the surface. Similarly, I do drag in order to tweak the clean gender types by which we live in this society."

Along with more of his solo work, Thaemlitz plans to release albums by Los Angeles-based "ambient terrorists" Ultra-red (who incorporate sounds from the Griffith Park public-sex scene into their ambient mix) and Tokyo electronic bossa nova and noir act eureka!. But of course, it's not simply about pumping out product.

"What I mainly want to keep doing is messing with genre reification, consumer desires, and gender boundaries, while making sound that makes you think."

For more information on releases by Terre Thaemlitz on the Comatonse label, see the label's Web site at

Photo: Ruthie Singer-DeCapite