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Terre Thaemlitz
"Challenging the Boundaries of Contemporary Ambient Music"
- J.

In Stiction, Issue 7, February 1998.


As an award winning international DJ and long time audio experimentalist in New York's underground clubs, Terre Thaemlitz produces audio works which exploit the contrasting functions of music as a socializing force and a point for subjective release. Thaemlitz arrived in New York in 1986 to study at the Cooper Union School of Art, where he focused on issues of cultural theory and identity politics. Surrounded by the musical subcultures of the Lower East Side, Thaemlitz' longstanding interest in electronic music quickly led him to DJ-ing in clubs, where he was presented with an Underground Grammy Award by the House of Magic in 1991. Thaemlitz became infamous for his unique intermixing of musical genres and moods, an approach which predated the presence of "Chill Rooms" in New York.

Looking back on the history of his musical endeavors, one can see a wide range of projects and affiliations with many artists. Terre is someone who enjoys wearing the many hats often needed in his chaotic world of running a label, doing remixes, producing, writing, recording, etc. There is no stopping this man.


Why did you relocate out to the west coast?
I had lived in New York City for over 11 years, and basically got burned out on the senseless aggression. I was not particularly tied to any musical scene in New York, and had the opportunity to move, so I took it. I actually wanted to move to western Canada, or maybe Toronto, but I didn't know how to deal with the papers so I could work there. I'm not so keen on a lot of the cyber-spiritual stuff going on in San Francisco musically, but I knew some people out here and it seems to have been the right choice so far.

You have been writing and DJing for over ten years. What do you see as your greatest accomplishments?
I think the biggest thing for me was quitting my full-time job in 1996, in order to focus on music production. I was in a rather serious position as a department administrator for the computer department of a medical college. I had never thought I would be afforded the luxury of focussing on something so essoteric as audio production, let alone leave a nice and secure position to do so.... Especially after going through the big family fights as a teen in order to study visual arts for four years, just to graduate into a totally unrelated beurocratic job. So I am really enjoying my current situation for all that it's worth. Music production is not a solid economy - particularly producing Electroacoustic music with no academic or institutional affiliations - and it can definitely get scary at times.

What is it about the ambient music scene where everybody has their own solo projects, but they all collaborate with each other?
Well, we live in a society, I guess? ;)

No, I know what you are saying. The market gets flooded with a lot of bad jam sessions. Hardly any of my processes are real-time, so all of my collaborations have taken place by sharing parts with others working independently. I think this is a good thing for me, since I work so slowly - and I'm a control freak, too, so it's best for me to finish something and send it off for feedback, rather than have people interrupting one another. The problem is that this is a turn-off for some people I would like to collaborate with who rely upon spontaneous interaction.

I just finished one of my funnest and most interesting collaborations with Jane Dowe. Dowe is a music journalist and is also affiliated with some major computer music programs at U.S. universities. It's the first time I have collaborated with another person who is strictly using computer synthesis, so that freed me up from my usual role as the "computer gal" to focus on other issues of production. The project deals with our simultaneous positionings between an Ambient marketplace, the popular music media, and academia. We're both really happy with the outcome. The project is called Institutional Collaborative, and we are currently shopping it to labels.

What effect has DJing had on your writing style?
Maybe my DJ-ing and audio production has been affected more by my writing than vice versa. Or maybe they've all developed together. I started producing audio at a time when my desire to write had collapsed. A lot of activist associations I had developed in the late '80s and early '90s were falling apart for very complex reasons, and the manipulation of language had become an incredibly consuming burden to deal with. And on top of everything there were a lot of "anti-P.C." attitudes going around at the time, which just confused a lot of issues that were only starting to come to surface. I basically stepped away from text, and didn't really read or write anything for a year or two. But I have come back to it over the past few years because of frustrations with a lot of discourses around Ambient music which really countered my interests and intentions. It is still hard to find materials out there that deal with Electroacoustic production from a socio-materialist Queer vantage point, so I figure it's more important to contribute to the distribution of discourses that are important to me, rather than always serving someone else's agendas. Instinct Records was afraid my ideas would only alienate people and make my music less marketable, but I think my recent releases have proven that not to be the case. People don't have to agree with everything I do in order to appreciate it, just as I still enjoy producing it without agreeing with the ways that a lot of people receive it. Everybody deals with these types of compromises every day - it just depends to what degree we can acknowledge it and incorporate it into our activities. Of course, this type of contradiction is the basis of a lot of my theoretical and political beliefs, so I'm lucky that it conveniently fits in to my larger scheme of things.

What release or track best represents you in your best form?
For me, "form" is about representation, and my releases try to play against the notion that any one media can contribute to a "truer" form than another. As for personal favorites, I think I like Die Roboter Rubato, just because it is such a culmination of so many years listening to Kraftwerk, and taking the time to consider just how I have distorted their objectives to serve my own gender-fuck agendas growing up. And it's definitely my most intense appropriation of a medium I have no training in - piano.

A lot of people think Soil is a good place for people to familiarize themselves with my music, though. I think because it is situated between direct digital synthesis and more traditional electronic instruments.

Have you ever released something that was so experimental or disturbing to you, just to see what kind of reaction you would get?
Hmm, maybe G.R.R.L. falls into this category. I have been working hard on diversifying my recording styles to try and keep my theoretical and political agendas from getting too associated with a specific sound. I think G.R.R.L. was more shocking to people than the piano solos on Die Roboter Rubato, just because I had never released a straight-up beat record before. It was kind of disturbing for me to find myself producing all of those types of dance music (each track is a different genre of electronica). I like tearing down notions of creativity and authorship by fumbling in areas I have no real training in, and pulling them off to some degree.

Have you ever studied music?
No. I can't "play" any acoustic instruments or read music, even though I was forced to play violin from age 5 to 12. I never practiced, it was just a waste of my time. When I produce music it's usually about a subversion of conventional music practices, or else critically engaging them to convey an illusion of virtuosity in order to deconstruct it.

Almost everyone we've spoken to says running a label isn't what it's cracked up to be. Did it fall short of your expectations? Does having several contracts with different labels help you run Comatonse on a daily basis by seeing how things are run from an artist point of view?
Running a label sucks. It really does. That's why I prefer licensing my projects to other labels who are set up to deal with all of the stuff involved, while Comatonse is more of a labor of love. I have found that almost all U.S. distributors suck and always go back on their word when it comes to placing orders. And when you carry stuff around it's hard to find cool stores that treat you with respect and don't try to haggle you down when you're selling things lower than distribution cost anyway, just because you're standing there in front of them like some little worthless fuck who can't get distribution. For real, I have this shit happen at stores where they have a big-ass section of my releases on other labels, and they could just care less about what I do on Comatonse. I just find it weird.

But I have also been lucky. Some of my Comatonse releases have done well in Japan, and a number of underground stores in New York have really supported me over the years. And I do get a lot of positive feedback from people on the internet. That's a help - to think someone's enjoying the shit, since the things I put out on my label are almost always done out-of-pocket. I think Comatonse will most likely remain small, just for control purposes, and to allow me more time for audio production, which is what I really enjoy the most.

Do you do a lot of sampling to create textures or are sounds constructed from scratch ?
Most of my Electroacoustic production is based on synthesis from digital sound sources, either things I have sampled, or other peoples' music. I think sampling is an important way of making references to other compositions and histories - basically like a footnote in a text. Unfortunately, unlike in writing, the music industry does not allow for such easy referencing. I think it's all tied up in an economy which relies on representations of musicians as "original" and "individual."

The idea behind digital resynthesis, just to break it down for you, is that a digital sound file consists of numbers which represent soundwaves. Those numbers can be scrambled and run through mathematical equations, the results of which are then resynthesized to produce a new sound file. The results can sound very far removed from their original sources, or the original source can still be recognizable, depending on your processes and objectives.

Is there anything that you have done that you can attribute to your level of musical success?
This is the second interview in a row that has asked me about success, and it kind of catches me off guard. I'm not really aware of how people perceive my "level" of success. Is it good? ;) I tend to think more in terms of survival than success. I guess my fortune cookie advice would be to have a back-up plan - that makes it easier to take risks in the present. ...At least fool yourself that you have a back-up plan. I could roll into a career as a crack whore at any time I like.