terre thaemlitz writings

The Crisis of Post-Spectacle "Live" Contemporary Ambient Performance
(Or... Why I Can't Get Paid to DJ A-structural Audio)1
- Terre Thaemlitz

April, 1997 (comatonse.com). This text was originally produced in April 1997 for a collection of essays to be published by Mille Plateaux, but the book project was ultimately cancelled.

Perhaps the failings of an economy around Contemporary Ambient performance may be expressed in terms of an unconscious attempt to reconcile antithetical musical codes of repetition and representation, rather than a deliberate exploitation of their multiplicity.

It is largely assumed among producers and listeners that the performance of Contemporary Ambient music incorporates a strategic convolution of noise with composition, presenting listeners with experiential conditions that emphasize their own performance within a sonically active social theater, rather than suppressing their performance in favor of frontal spectacle. Similarly, it is well known that production methods for Contemporary Ambient music such as non-realtime computer synthesis typically involve processes which are not immediately reconcilable with conventional listener/virtuoso performance paradigms. However, when it comes to "live" Contemporary Ambient performance, there seems to be a great deal of regressive desire among producers, organizers and audiences for conventional stage-based performance. This differentiation between concepts of production and performance encompasses what Jacques Attali refered to as economies of repetition and representation.
1 I would like to express my appreciation to those organizers, local and distant, who do support alternative performance strategies through their events, and their fair compensation to post-spectacle performers at such events.
2 Jacques Attali, Noise, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 40.
3 Ibid., p. 41.
According to this model, processes of musical production and distribution engage an economy of repetitions in which "[the producer's] income is independent of the quantity of labor he provides. Instead, it depends on the quantity of demand for that labor. He produces the mold from which an industry is built."2 Performance, on the other hand, partakes in an economy of representation in which the direct labor of the producer results in value for exchange: the show. Of course, missing from Attali's analysis is the manner in which these economies are inextricably intertwined as record sales impact performance draw (including an impact upon a DJ's selection of materials to play), and vice versa. However, if we concede Attali's assertion that "in music, as in the rest of economy, the logic of the succession of musical codes parallels the logic of the creation of value,"3 then perhaps the failings and contradictions of an economy around Contemporary Ambient performance may be expressed in terms of an unconscious attempt to reconcile antithetical musical codes of repetition and representation, rather than a deliberate exploitation of their multiplicity - a multiplicity which is suggested by Ambient music's historical claim to address a restructuring and multiplication of cultural relations between production, performance and listening.

Transposed to the stage, the "live" performance of computer music boils down to pressing ENTER on a keyboard.

Integral to any concept of performance is a strategic understanding of the means of production to be performed. For producers such as myself, who are almost entirely dependent upon computer synthesis, there is little room (and even less necessity) for the realtime modulation of elements during final mixing. 4 The heroics of authorial gesture are replaced by the uneventful establishment of variable programming parameters. Spontaneity and decisiveness occur throughout the compositional process, but unlike in Modernist compositional strategies, they are not cherished as golden nuggets of primal and universal Humanist contents.
4 While several companies and eductional institutions are developing "accessible" realtime synthesis software packages on several computer platforms, the majority of products remain expensive and non-user friendly. This tends to limit their utilization to persons associated with production houses or educational institutions which can provide the financial backing required to immerse oneself in such processes. Even when realtime synthesis is implemented in a rather user-friendly manner, such as Arboretum Systems' GUI-friendly standalone application "Hyperprism" for the Power Mac, the realtime thruput can only apply to one sound at a time, and on slower machines presents a significant increase in errors (heard as pops) compared to using the same program to process effects to a new sound file (a non-realtime process). Multi-file realtime processing through plug-ins such as TDM and VST still relies upon costly secondary processor systems such as ProTools, or the speed of high-end CPU's. Thus, non-realtime sound generation remains the primary form of computer synthesis available to independent producers.
5 This scenario is the audio equivalent to the white walls of the museum, in which an attempt is made to engage a "neutralization" of space so that True Art may exist in-and-of itself, timeless and transcendent of cultural context. Of course, the cultural development of such "neutral" environments is a social (political) process, the frailty of which is reflected in the designing of such spaces so as to keep the "real world" out (darkened and silent auditoriums, white and windowless galleries, etc.). The elitism and discrimination behind such spaces was heavily critiqued by Constructivists in the 1920's, whose arguments have been repeatedly updated since the seventies by such groups as the Guerilla Art Action Group [GAAG], Artists Meeting for Cultural Change [AMCC], the Guerilla Girls, etc. While such critiques are rather widely accepted (or at least acknowledged) within the visual and performance arts, they are largely unknown to and unrecognized by musicians. This may lie in the manner in which contemporary Industry-based music production and distribution emphasizes broad product placement and consumer accessibility structured for consumers to "take the music with them" into busses, cars, homes, businesses, restaurants and clubs. In this manner, the "neutralization" of space engaged by music is not locationally fixed, but is rather a manifestation of the internalization of musical stylings (genres and artists) by consumers and producers as extensions of their subjective selves - a far more insidious and economically volatile relationship to deconstruct.
The ultimate inclusion or exclusion of serendipity is understood in terms of editorial decision making rather than divine manifestation, subjecting such occurrences to the same processes of social signification as strictly planned factors contributing to a representation of contents.

Transposed to the arena of the stage, the "live" performance of such compositions boils down to pressing ENTER on a computer keyboard, and ends with approximately ten minutes of silence required to rewire and EQ equipment for performance of the next track. Because of this, in academic computer music circles the popular alternative to real-time computer playback is to play compositions previously recorded on digital audio tape (DAT), typically in a darkened auditorium with the audience facing an unused and blackened stage. 5 To avoid these uneventful tediums, many Contemporary Ambient producers' preferred approach to performance involves multi-channel realtime tape manipulation - DJ-ing - incorporating as many DAT drives, CD players and turntables as can be arranged. Like direct computer playback, this method of performance allows for the "live" playback of digital sound files, plus it has the added advantages of allowing for realtime manual editing and mixing of a producer's own input sources, as well as the intermixing of other producers' audio and external sound sources (an eschewing of authorship and establishment of referentiality). In terms of economies, such "live" performance becomes a representation of the productive processes of repetition. However, the deconstructive values I wish to infuse this multiplicious economy with are currently (perhaps hopelessly) circumvented by popular musical codes around performance as a consumer process, through which the performer is required to exist as a celebrity (including personnas of humility), and all sounds recorded and ambient are exhalted only for their production of exchange value.

It is in this latter spectacular manner that the economic viability of DJ performance as an instrumental medium has been established, both within Underground clubs and Dominant Culture (as exemplified by the global economic success of Rap, House and Techno). And as the majority of Contemporary Ambient events are organized by club promoters who deal with DJ's on a regular basis, one would think that a stratification between DJ-ing and "live" performance of conventional theatrical instruments would no longer exist. But this is not the case, particularly within the price scales of Contemporary Ambient performance. Speaking from personal experience, after hearing that my standard presentation techniques do not involve keyboards or other traditional theatrical instruments, I have had countless organizers reduce their initially proposed "live performance" fee by more than half. In New York the common practice is to ask producers to DJ for free (with a "we're all trying to make this happen together" snuck into the invitation somewhere), regardless of the fact that people attending the events must pay a cover charge at the door to enter. Such prioritizations of performance strategies enter the realm of cultural production by presenting an economic boycott which effectively censors the efforts of post-spectacle computer based producers by restricting access to the cultural outlets and economic means which both allows and relies upon studio production to occur. The long-term effect of such an environment is Contemporary Ambient's restriction to popular musical paradigms of production and presentation.

The cultural impact of such restrictions can be traced in the Orb's rise to supergroup status. Fronted by Alex Patterson, a former A&R person for EG Records which handled Brian Eno's original Ambient releases,
When the Orb took center stage with drummers and guitarists on hand, dominant Contemporary Ambient performance was no more than a musical staging of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
the Orb is largely credited for the mass popularity of Contemporary Ambient music. Like many Contemporary Ambient producers of the late '80s and early '90s, the Orb's early performances took the form of DJ sets in "chill rooms" which were secondary to main dance floors in nightclubs and Raves. The decentralized placement of such performances seemed to be reiterated in the DJ's preference for anti-spectacle audio, including '70s Ambient music, sound effects, Minimalism and Music Concrete. Despite the notoriously transcendental overtones of Rave "chill rooms," several producers (myself included) found affinities with the Contemporary Ambient movement through a realization that most of the stylings and circumstances of Contemporary Ambient performance invoke histories which emphasize a social (material) positioning of the audience in relation to the sounds being performed.

With time there began to be entirely Contemporary Ambient events, including Ultra-red's opening of Public Space in L.A. in 1994. Ultra-red drew from their experiences as activists to present "ambient music in its most obvious, material manifestation: the sound culture of everyday life."

    From the start, we were not in the least persuaded by ambient music's pretensions for spirituality or its mystical capacity. Perhaps this cynicism stemmed from the very real experience of harm reduction and needle exchange. No amount of ecstasy - particularly spiritual ecstasy - completely erases the body and its material needs. In fact, the capacity to experience pleasure is directly linked to the quality of care given to the body. This we learned from harm reduction. The same seemed to apply to a musical movement which took its inspiration from a history of avant-garde music, from Russolo and Cage to Eno and the Orb. Central to that tradition was the notion of giving audition to the sound culture of the everyday: finding musical pleasure in the mundane soundscape.6

6 Ultra-red, Introduction: Noise and Public Space Three Years Later.
7 The opening words to Karl Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (in Die Revolution, New York, 1852): "Hegel remarks somewhere that all the events and personalities of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." In this instance, the tragedy of Eno's Ambient was the treadmill tragedy of Existential isolation and self-reduction. The farce of the Orb's Ambient was the Prog-Rock packaging and staging of a premise claiming roots in anti-spectacle.
8 Thaemlitz, Soil, (US: Instinct Records, 1995). A viewing of the CD booklet is intended to mimick an emergent awareness of processes of social contextualization. The front of the CD booklet features a triangular excerpt of a photograph of trees, playing on popular Contemporary Ambient associations with Nature as a transcendental signifier. The back of the booklet shows the entire photograph, with the triangular excerpt transformed into the inverted pink triangle symbolic of Queer empowerment and the "Silence=Death" HIV/AIDS activist and education movements. The inside of the booklet contains a photograph of a used condom discarded in woodland soil, which would trigger a (hopefully recognizable) socially developed response in the listener, such as intrigue, beauty, offense and/or disgust. The title Soil was not only a cynical stab at amnionic "Mother Earth" Ambient music titles, but was a reference to ejeculate, indicative of the mastrubatory nature of music production and "creative" processes (including those I myself engage in). Similarly, the image of the condom references the phallocentrism implicit to conventional definitions of such processes.

But in the absence of any large-scale understanding of how to stage events around a concept of decentralization, most organizers and producers grappled at the most familiar performance strategy associated with free-form and a-structural music: the Neo-Bohemian Progressive Rock festival, a thoroughly mainstream marketing strategy which, by the early '90s, was already consuming the Rave community. In this manner, Contemporary Ambient producers fell prey to all of the demands of other stage and personality-based performance strategies. Decentralization was overwritten by a concept of authorship, and any remnants of desire among producers for anonymity only resulted in confusion. Disoriented producers took darkened stages, beginning and ending their sets unannounced and intermixed with opening and closing DJ's. Meanwhile, audiences now faced stage-forward, asking if the show had begun and complaining that they could not spot their favorite stars clearly on stage. By 1996, when the Orb took center stage at New York's Roseland Theater with drummers and guitarists on hand, dominant Contemporary Ambient performance was no more than a musical staging of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.7 Frustrated and confused by the lack of populist satisfaction derived from such stagings, producers, organizers and audiences declared, "Ambient is dead." Few seemed to realize that this disorientation was a byproduct of the functionality of Contemporary Ambient production. Few seemed to realize that Contemporary Ambient's inapplicability to a Prog-Rock metaphor involved a disclosure of Prog-Rock and all music's site specificity and non-universality, and suggested the development of new performance strategies.

Under the collapse of Prog-Rock staging, a number of producers including Oval, Scanner, Dumb Type and myself increasingly turned toward production methods which attempted to address processes of deconstruction present in our own methodologies. For many of us, digital editing and computer synthesis emerged as the primary studio process capable of representing a decentralization of authorship through the sampling and resynthesis of other peoples' recordings, as well as by exploiting a high prophile technophobia present in the popular media which identified computers and the internet as threats to the loss of personal identity. In this manner, the subjectivity of the creative process, as well as the listening process, was audibly connected to a social history of inputs and cultural variables.

Despite this newfound enthusiasm among producers, on a market level the retreat from Prog-Rock aesthetics was accompanied by a new emphasis on the homogenizing power of quantized rhythms, and an increasing resistance to a-structural and beatless performances. As for myself, proposals to incorporate texts with releases so as to familiarize listeners with my own rationale behind particular processes, as well as to generate discourse around materialist listening practices, were discouraged by the record company I was signed to, resulting in semiotically burdened and textless covers such as Soil. 8 Record labels began pressuring Contemporary Ambient producers to produce Neo-urban music: "Trip-Hop," "Abstract Beats," "Drum & Bass," "Ambient Jungle" and "Acid Jazz." Both in sales and performance, this new predominance of rhythm serves to synchronize and pace a production's reception, using the restraints of simple mathematics to invoke a simplification of interpretive formulas. Only a few committed record labels which had developed steady followers continued to release a-structural Contemporary Ambient material, and they now found themselves flooded with submissions from producers rejected or abandoned by other labels. This frustrating situation was poignantly described by Ultra-red:

    Without financial support (however contingent as provided by the academy), no fair effort can be engendered. What is left? .... Becoming tied to the whims of marketplace innovation (the spectacular failings of avant-garde "development") as witnessed in the current "death of ambient" phenomenon? Yes, the market declares its death at the moment a cleavage appears between ambience metaphysicians and the sound materialists. Death? Or, reinvention. Quick, declare its death before it constitutes an audience around itself. Stigmatize the music, and by association, its audience. And accomplish this task at the precise moment art practices develop which actually intervene upon the conditions of reproduction.9

9 Ultra-red, via correspondence May 1996.

One intriguing result of the Contemporary Ambient record industry's transition toward Neo-urban music is a renewed emphasis of the DJ as the ideal Contemporary Ambient performer. However, this return occurs in the most conventional of ways, engaging familiar images of DJ's as the celebrities we have come to know through the Rap industry and nightclub followings. There is no secondary displacement of identity as was suggested (however unintentionally) by early "chill rooms." The DJ is center stage, and fully reconcilable with dominant personality-driven performance structures. As a personality figure, the DJ's sense of individuality is used to generate authenticity, thus distracting one from questions of authorship (as opposed to encouraging a direct deconstruction of such issues).
In the disaffecting aftermath of the Death of Ambient, Illbience has emerged to clarify electronica's reconcilability with institutions of Modernity.
The listener's act of consumption no longer emphasizes the traditionally Modernist fetishization of a producer's creative output. Rather, it reflects a tertiary commodification of the DJ's selection and performance of other producers' outputs as the ultimate in informed commodity fetishism. In a cultural atmosphere which conflates the consumption of music with the definition of self, what process of self-identification can a consumer more closely relate to than the very act of consumption? Thus, the popular elevation of the DJ as celebrity allows consumers to not only purchase music, but to vicariously engage in the DJ's expert and near pathological process of consuming music. Transferred to the realm of Contemporary Ambient performance, this condition is the essence of Illbience.

In the disaffecting aftermath of the Death of Ambient, Illbience has emerged to clarify electronica's reconcilability with institutions of Modernity, a jargon-infused attempt for dominant viability within the crumbling Necropolis.
10 Beth Coleman and Howard Goldkrand, "Enter the Mix," (New York: Soundlab, with The Whitney Museum of American Art 1997 Biennial Exhibition, 1997).
11 Paul D. Miller [a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid], "Flow My Blood the DJ Said," as printed in Songs of a Dead Dreamer, (New York: Asphodel Records, 1996).
12 Seeing as this is the very paradox which has been debated within the Visual and Performing Arts for decades to little avail, I find it difficult to infuse this observation with a sense of urgency, threat, or immediate transformative potential.
In a classic affirmation of Modernist hegemony, the Illbient construction of content occurs within the sound itself in a theoretical suspension of temporality and objecthood, suggesting "a full immersion of sound and visual electrotectural experimentation in the temporery autonomous" [sic]. 10 Much like Pablo Picasso's colonialist appropriation of African masks in Les Madamoiselles d'Avignon, the Illbient DJ seeks to conceal processes of re-contextualization through ideologies of de-contexualization and replacement, as "each and every source sample is fragmented and bereft of prior meaning - kind of like a future without a past. The samples are given meaning only when re-presented in the assemblage of the mix." 11 The suggested decontextualization of inputs into a melting-pot mixology is used to declare an open sense of community. However, its practical effect as a context whose precise moment of production denies contextuality enacts a process of social homogenization implicit with any Humanism that replaces an unresolvable collision of contexts (difference) with a fictional reconciliation of contents (unity). For Illbience, this replacement of difference with unity is necessary precisely because Humanist ideology is unable to sustain concepts of irreconcilability which inhibit the cohesion of a singular and sharable Human Condition. It is this paradox which poses the greatest challenge to the mechanisms of Illbient ideology.12

The Illbient community's representation of Modernist ideology is appreciatively reciprocated by Art Institutions, such as with the recent Soundlab event for the 1997 Whitney Biennial Exhibition. The event's placement within a gutted floor in a Wall Street financial building was not so much deconstructive as ironic. Impromptu sidewalk café tables were placed near the main coffee bar, invoking the high-Modernist café atmosphere museum officials have come to associate with progressive thinking. One might still overhear patrons debating Sartre, but in this café the sound of improvisational jazz was replaced by the turntable instrumentalists and free-form poets of the Illbient community. Abstract textural 35mm slide projections and film loops permeated the space, as free-form dancers invoked the motions of '60s performance. The proposed "aesthetic merger of the digital with the analog" 13 did not reflect the use of digital media (which was largely absent) as much as an ideological fissure of the antiquated with the recumbent. And, in typical fashion and without naming names, there are numerous stories of only partial or no compensation of expenses to performers at the event - a condition which I emphasize is not unique to Soundlab, but to Contemporary Ambient performance in general.

13 Coleman and Goldkrand.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.

Despite the contention that "Soundlab happenings are urban illbient community actions, encouraging a dynamic, contentious cultural production rather than passive consumption," 14 for both audience and performers, the primary communal relations of the Soundlab were precisely the Capitalist relations of traditional Marxist commodity fetishism. By its own declaration, the Soundlab is a manifestation of the social relations between the products of artistic production - an emphasis of the alienation from labor which results in fetishism. Producers, along with audience members who 'enter the mix,' "build [their] own different [sic] engines, creating ... personal vocabularies" 15 which function as metaphors for the labors of individuals acting separately. The sum of these difference engines being exchanged in the marketplace of the Soundlab results in the emergence of seemingly independent contents (Illbience) which are mutually engaged by both audience members and performers. As a material exchange relationship, audience members exchange money to vicariously engage in the productive acts of performers - to consume (and hence reclaim) their daily relationship to experiential processes of observation by being transformed into their own mixing boards. Conversely, performers are encouraged to distance themselves from their individual labor so as to produce a communal Illbience which shrouds processes of direct financial compensation in mystery.

I am compelled to tip a hat to the popular observation that "at least an Orb concert or Illbient event can get people together." But then again, I remind myself, so does Sunday Mass, and the act of congregation can never be distilled from the politics of social organization.

The continuity between all of the aforementioned venues for Contemporary Ambient performance - DAT playback in darkened auditoriums, DJ-ing in side rooms at Raves, Prog-Rock staging, or immersive Illbient events - is their failure to address the undesirable yet unavoidable implications of performance as a strategy of representation within the mechanisms of Consumer Capitalism. While such venues claim an Avant Garde inhabitation of a cultural periphery, they fail to address the peripheral as a strategic fictional response to a mythology of the core. A fiction which, when unaddressed, loses strategy and adopts the language of Humanism until it poses no greater threat to social convention than an Expressionist's scratchings upon a Museum's walls. Similarly, Contemporary Ambient emerges from materialist traditions which have been dismantled by their inability to successfully strategize the paradoxical, from Constructivism's and Music Concrete's claims to represent a utopian Social(ist) Consciousness, to Minimalism's quest to isolate the production of contents in the individual's interpretive process while somehow having those contents be sharable. Thus the crisis of post-spectacle "live" Contemporary Ambient performance arises from this historical inability to react to the limitations of performance methodologies as they function within the very core of relations which Contemporary Ambient asserts it is positioned to critique. The economic viability of performance remains contingent upon abstract and homogenizing audience relations which inhibit the incorporation of fracturing diversity. The performance itself serves to represent a reconciliation of intent with process, tempering any attempts to elucidate the sustained collision of distinct and simultaneous economies of representation and repetition.

I am forced to accept the manners in which this circumstance conditions my own reception, as well as production. My own objectives for performance are hopelessly diffused in their actualization. Every composition's abandonment of rhythm imparts an uninvited dissension from the incessant drums which accompany the march of cultural inertia; only to be resurrected through reappropriation by institutions of the Avant Garde. Each attempt for clarification on my part contributes to an air of arrogance and self-distinction which erodes my relationship to the cultural outlets I wish to nurture. I am compelled to tip a hat to the popular observation that "at least an Orb concert or Illbient event can get people together." But then again, I remind myself, so does Sunday Mass, and the act of congregation can never be distilled from the politics of social organization.

All things considered, this is why I can't get paid to DJ a-structural audio.

- April 1997