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What is Techno Today?

Report by Omar Muñoz-Cremers about the music programme curated by TodaysArt at DEAF07.

What is techno? One way to place the phenomenon in the context of DEAF07 would be as the unconsciousness of the daily program where civilized talk and discussion bloom, a site of language and visualization, a well-lit space of ideas getting transmitted. Into the night, at the margins beyond speech is were we find a different perspective on electronic art. Another metaphor might be the street. Techno as an open culture, based on self-organization, less dependent on institutions, the street as (mental) space which, in the words of William Gibson “finds its own uses for things.”

This careful addition of the word mental is necessary since the street as signifier of authenticity has lost much of its force. We will see it still plays a role in Detroit techno although there is a perpetual danger of it getting calcified in a set of codes that make up a certain unreal realness which has turned hip hop, with its depressingly narrow codes of clothing, speech and bodily postures, into a static genre. It can be argued that techno never was (as hip hop was during its very beginnings) a music performed in public spaces – except for the relatively late, and mainly European phenomenon of the street rave. Indeed one could make the case of techno being a music of the imaginary street. Certainly such techno classics as ‘Cosmic Cars’, ‘Nightdrive (Thru Babylon)’ and ‘Landcruising’ have this mentality in common, as science fiction fantasy, movement through paranoid cityscapes or a more existential fusing of being and mechanical movement.

The TodaysArt evening grants an opportunity to delve deeper into the status of contemporary techno, playing off some interesting subjects and differences. With its somewhat uneven mixing of Autechre’s sophisticated broken layers and Tangerine Dream’s cosmic longing, the music of Berlin-based Rechenzentrum can hardly be described as a complete success. Even so they regularly embody a very typical European style of techno that recently has risen to prominence. Their wide cosmic/romantic sound at first feels at odds with their name, which translates as Computer Center, although when it evolves there are instances where the music suddenly feels like cascading printouts. The visuals projected behind the group tell a different story. Digital animations of slightly distorted forests, wildlife and mountains place the music in a distinct continuum which has offered an alternative to techno as an urban music with popular connotations of the inhuman, coldness and the mechanical. It isn’t all that hard to come up with interesting sounding sub genre tags such as nature techno, green techno or pastoral techno to describe the somewhat paradoxical feel of this digitized romanticism.

And yet one could make the case that there always has been a pastoral undercurrent in techno. The original Summer of Love raves around 1988 were large outdoors affairs in the England countryside causing a motorized exodus out of the city. Their spiritual satellites of Ibiza and Goa organized the experience along the liminal space of the beach. And through the years green techno has made occasional visual appearances as in the groundbreaking animations of lush plant life accompanying Warp’s 'Artificial Intelligence II '(1994) that later are echoed in the hypnotical artworks of Dutch artist Saskia Olde Wolbers.

The pivotal moment takes place when Cologne-based producer Wolfgang Voigt starts releasing a minimal brand of techno under the name of Gas. Voigt lets his music be guided by two daring moves. Firstly by sampling and looping string sections from crackling vinyl records of German classical music. Secondly through conceptualizing this music within an unmistakable German literal and philosophical tradition by giving his albums titles like 'Zauberberg' and 'Königsforst'. This deceptively simple music radically dissolves boundaries between classical music and techno, nature and technology and proposes through its ghost world of sound memories a different space for techno as a whole. Away from the nightlife, the black box of the club, out of the city.

Slowly this template has become the main force in European techno. Whilst Voigt explicitly placed his music in a German tradition and one can easily hear it infused with 'Geist', there is something of a geographical determinism guiding the spread of this music beyond national borders, which in techno were permeable to begin with. Much of the green techno and its off-shoots in electronic indielabels such as Morr and Karaoke Kalk has its basis in Germany but one suspects this is the case simply because techno is so strong as an overarching cultural force. Indeed a clear shift in techno is discernable away from the U.K. with its specific adherence to the triangle of cultural flux known as the Black Atlantic or The Netherlands, which has had tendency to keep lines open with Chicago and Detroit. From a geographical viewpoint it is obvious that the Dutch landscape is inherently incompatible with the notion of green techno, simply because it is a deeply cultural landscape, pure horizon, where nature is given its designated place. New European techno as propagated by such diverse producers as Dominik Eulberg, Markus Güntner, Efdemin (Germany), The Field (Sweden) and Ripperton, Quenum (Switzerland) is a Central European affair, a continuum drawn along forests, lakes and mountains instead of cities and ports.

The challenge this offers to Detroit techno is obvious. The answer, if one can really speak of communication, has until now not been one of disregard. Detroit techno can only respond by fleeing into myth (in the sense of a traditional story accepted as history to explain the world view of a people.) Or better one central myth with a subset of myths. At the center stands the city, Detroit as industrial ghost town. Techno clings to this myth because from it flows every aspect of its being. So during the Scan 7 set one is almost immediately bombarded with images of graffiti branding the name Detroit on walls juxtaposed with visions of deserted streets. Detroit stands for a brand of authenticity, of life during urban decay that directly permeates both the hardness and melancholy of the music. A folk music that tells of myths not of creation but of the future, forming a permanent sense that techno is a probe from the future, a suspicion that all cities will eventually turn into Detroit. From this sense of frustration and loss are created techno’s more cosmical longings, the rebuilding of the city in fantasy and daydream, of escape beyond the stars. As such it presents a radical, one could say alien form of pop music that in its purest form (as Scan 7 does here) adheres to new rules. So whilst this is not so much music to contemplate but to enjoy in a physical sense (dance) it eschews the use of personality and charisma.

The masked performance remains to this day an extremely powerful strategy, a refusal that will only grow stronger in a mediated culture, which demands visibility, not only of its entertainers but of all of its participants. The other difference concerns technology. With the unstoppable rise of the laptop in European techno there seems almost something quaint in Scan 7’s live programming of a drum computer combined with a hands-on turning of knobs and switches. There is a sensation of observing craftsmanship, of controlling and channeling a massive musical force. Indeed over the years there has been a lot of discussion within the techno community on the dominance of the laptop and popularity of the Ableton Live program, which gives the musician previously unimagined possibilities in recombining and changing the texture of existing sound files and recordings during performances.

The earlier use of the term nature opens up the danger of importing into techno a certain strain of cultural pessimism if it also is suggested that something seems to be lost in the relation of laptop, mouse, hand, ear and eye when making music. A case of one link too many distancing the mind from creative apparatus, of underestimating the status of touch in techno, which is discernable in the difference between DJs that still manipulate inscribed slabs of information (vinyl) and the new wave of digital DJs with their musical carrier of choice in the form of the frictionless mp3. Indeed the mp3 may be symptomatic of devaluation of sound, necessary as a liberation of music from market forces but with its uncanny negation of aura (nothing metaphysical, just simply the so-called imperceptible spectrum of sound erased in the process of compressing sound to mp3) that is quite dangerous as a tool for musicians. One can’t help wondering if ears slowly getting used to deteriorated, airless sound are then woken up by the power of direct touch. Forcefully sounding myth, no wonder Scan 7 at times sound like Truth.

 

2007 Omar Muñoz-Cremers

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