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Sonic Youth

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Various Artists

The Black, the White, and the Mutek

tobias c. van Veen

It was sometime around 3:48am on a Monday morning when my mind started wheeling in a serious fashion. Sitting on the edge of the stage and despite the most precisely and sonically aggressive sound system I had heard in several years, I was strangely able to think. It was a conceptual-thinking that was difficult to even translate into words. Usually I am able to rotate words to draw the lines of conceptual objects, but this time each word came to me at about the rate of one a minute. The music was simply speaking volumes about an entire trajectory that I was unable to grasp in its complexity.

The music playing was the descending and live techno madness of Ricardo Villalobos and Dandy Jack. This took place after Atom Heart had joined the duo and treated everyone to Latin rhythms...but after Mr. Heart had sat down to take a break, the beats took a decidedly weird and techno turn, flitting through electro and awkward broken beats before settling into repetitive one bar loops that grounded the ears and the body. Philip Sherburne manages to say it all quite well in his column Needle Dropson

The music was so aggressively present that it became possible to forget it was there at all -- it simply was. And in this odd semblance of silence, the crowd heaved in unison. Adorno would have hated it: the mass mind. I'm not sure I was comfortable with it, frankly. Looking around at a room full of dancers, all ringed around the stage that sat in the center of the room, 360 degrees of zombie choreography. But there it was, and what could you do but submit, if you wanted to listen?

Adorno simply would never have been there, never mind understood. For in all this orgy of zombie choreography, I pulled out my notebook and began to write-- the spitting image of some Frankfurt School intellectual if there ever was one. And which is why he never grasped the incredible possibilities of freedom in such a moment of unconscious collective will.

I'm going to quote some of these notes, and give some interpretations of them based upon rather more disjointed notes from the evening. Then, I am going to speak on how this all somewhat hinges, most carefully, upon a socio-cultural, and perhaps we can say racial-cultural divide between Detroit techno and experimental electronic music.

musical elements are never, and should never, be subjected to ethics, to prejudices and opinions. though they be determined by the ears, they are not so much beyond criticism so much as the semiotic building blocks of a means that holistically destabilizes the end.

-->Music operates before the advent of critical thought and judgement; it cannot in its actuality be subjected to that which comes after it; only its representation, its affect, can be understood as an ethical movement and a powerful affect for critique. Music cannot be organised. As such, it carries within itself all primal drives and movements, and at its base, destabilises all that can be represented from it and all critiques built into systems from its echoes. There is no difference between speech and music.

the arpeggiator leads to other structures beyond the populace - it penetrates enclaves above and beyond trance, calling into being the very signification of "trance" itself -- trances -- dreaming lucid dream charges is the commencement of an erasure of history insofar as history flattens the polytopogeographies of the symbolic-semiotic relation...

-->A certain technique, the arpeggiator, often used as the basis for cheesy trance lines, can be used in radical ways that de-stabilize the over-determination of cheesy music. Cheesy music is the over-determination, the fascism, of a certain element of sound. Cheesy music is fascist. Experimental music can take any element normally considered cheesy and destabilise it through inverting and displacing its normal rules and sets of representation. This moves it to a different place that creates new interpretations and meanings, new affects and structures.

an event can puncture these codifications, rotate, spin, open onto chaos :

"& sometime after 3am they closed the big black curtains, shut the front door, and moved the single and friendly security guard inside... the front seats outside the curtain were kept empty, and a slow stream of people trickled in as word got around that a real techno showdown was taking place deep in the bowels of Montreal-- Dandy Jack, Ricardo Villalobos, and Atom Heart had hit the cranberry juice w/ vodka, and out of throbbing quad sound came the cleansing pestilence of stripped Latin techno... driving itself through highs of percussion and long stretches of pounding minimalism -- to my right ear: "these guys are relentless" -- oh yes, children, the German-Chileans know exactly the score -- > after a long abstract stretch arose the promised topos, deep out of the madness of electro, driving into a terrain that pounds as one name: techno"

Beyond house and dub. Enter the drums... nothing like this, if the CDN. Collective Unconscious serves me correct, since Plastikman Live so many years ago...

moments of memory and flashes of recognition that distinguishes neither between fact nor fiction, this right then became duree -- there is an entrance but at no time can you tell when it happens --

-->Time was inconsequential; it ceased to exist in the manner it had been known. Re-interpretation of sound elements had led to duree. All that follows as judgement--fact/fiction--was irrelevant through the movement of sound-music. There is no stop nor end to this moment, only its immediacy when one suddenly represents its occurrence. The breakdown between fact/fiction was beyond history and yet was that which speaks a history of the unspeakable-- a history operating through erasure.

past that which is understandable...
past past
"why not?"
past future
that prochain is foreign to a past and its immediacy becomes future --

---> which leaves us here.

[1] The Hinge of Space

Mutek is hinged, right now, on a divide, about to split. The massive 2000 person venue of Metropolis was a new development this year. It is the price of success, and with success comes enforcement. The presence of panopticon security at every corner, surveying and watching, butting out smokers and quietly escorting out potheads, added a wholly different aspect to the experimental tradition and freedom of the environ that has been Mutek. It was a foray into club culture that had managed to keep itself to the art-hall of the SAT up until this point. Metropolis was the beginning of the end. The Friday night was rammed; and yet, it was all but impossible to approach "the stage." One could not hear what was going on unless you squished into the sardine confines of the centre of the dance floor. The performers were up on that Stage, above you, rock-world, show-star.

The Saturday was less-rammed. I remain unconvinced that this was because of the lineup; it was almost a mass collective disapproval of the venue, and the Saturday crowd proved this, as drugged out dancefloor patrons moved from happy to violently spastic, resulting in the intervention of Security on several occasions. The performers, as if by some unanimous agreement, were all behind the cordoned-off area of the VIP room, the back-stage.

The Societe des Arts Technologiques [SAT] is an open space. Converted from an old bank, it hosts gallery work and the best of underground dance music in Montreal, from experimental to beat-driven, Mutek to Tiga. It's a configurable space, a 360 degree arena, where there can be no spectators. The SAT often goes until 5am in the morning--past the offical 3am deadline of the city. Metropolis closes down at 3am sharp.

The space of Mutek this year hinted at further divisions being made along a musical divide.

[2] The Movement of Music that Moves

The relationship between Mutek and dance music has been an uncomfortable one. Opinions are mixed from the critics. Some, preferring to see Mutek maintain an almost Puritan sense of experimental purity, dislike anything with rhythm or crowd appeal. Others avoid Mutek like the plague because they cannot see the point of paying money to listen--in various uncomfortable positions--to someone wank away on their laptop. For them, there is no entertainment value. Both camps have a very different idea of entertainment.

Mutek has admirably attempted to satisfy both camps. And yet, in doing so, it has also almost split itself into two different festivals. Every attempt at a mix draws flak from opposing quarters. To mix the two, however, is the most risky and perhaps rewarding possibility that Mutek can attempt, and it is that which will create its difference, and change its course from becoming a North American Sonar.

The attempt this year was to simply divide the two aspects of the festival: "experimental" music at Ex-Centris; "dance music" at Metropolis; and the weird underground mix of the two at the SAT. With these venue divisions came cultural divisions. Clubbers at Metropolis; art-types at Ex-Centris. It was only at the SAT did the two attempt to mix in a crowd that was able to interact and participate in any meaningful fashion.

It would be difficult to critique these venue decisions. They are probably necessary for many practical concerns. But these venue divisions, for the most, part, point to a musical classification system that is beginning to take shape at Mutek. Ex-Centris is where the "real" experimental music is; Metropolis is just for the clubbers... In the minds of the two separate camps, the worst fears of the other are satisfied, and the twain shall never meet.

There are some people who like and enjoy both forms, the rhythmic and the experimental, and indeed, question their separation in the first place. Often, but not always, these tend to be people who come from a background of electronic music and not post-rock or "new music" experimentalism, and have some idea of the role of the DJ in all of this.

[3] The Absence of the Medium that Binds

Mutek is notable for its absence of DJs. This is part of founder Alain Mongeau's vision to give credit where credit is due-- to the producers, the musicians, the creators. And yet, the relegation of the DJ to the filler spot--as happened many times this year--begged a deeper question as to what such a hierarchy of value between the DJ and the Producer means.

In the experimental scene, the DJ is seen as nothing more than a glorified jukebox. There is a connection here between this attitude and a lack of knowledge of electronic music and its history, as well as a valid critique born of the over-popularity of various jukebox-DJs modelling themselves as international superstars. There are very few dance turntablists. However, the very same experimental scenesters who would revere a hip-hop turntablist would never consider that the same level of skill can exist in djing dance music. And yet it can. The three turntable DJ, the scratcher and the cutter, master of the EQ, with the nubile hands of a conductor, dancing over the effects and the lines, conjuring more from the mix of records than the records themselves contain -- this is an art. Not a sideshow or a fill-in.

By excluding the dance turrntablist from Mutek, we are excluding one possible way of listening and experiencing the music. A good DJ will not only select sections of recordings for emphasis, but also blend them together to achieve different and new sounds. A good DJ will play with silence and volume, tension and release. A good DJ is a conductor. Every conductor has a different style, and will bring to the forefront different elements from the next conductor if they possess an ounce of originality and talent. A talented dance turntablist will achieve a different effect than a live set. This effect is one of a journey and a story, a diverse experience of different forms of music, which more often than not results in the physical interaction with the music. Dancing. Dancing is something which the art-crowd, snobbish and ignorant at Mutek, could do do with a good dose of.

A live set often lacks these elements unless the producer also happens to be a DJ.

What have we done with the conductors, what roles do they now play at Mutek? Well, none-- they are fillers, playing records at half-volume between gear changes.

We are also excluding a certain history-- the history of the DJ as the selector, the chooser of music that guides the sound experience; the DJ as memory spinner, the sonic orator of music's history and the teller of narrative. We are excluding the history of the DJ as the one who communicates and supports the producer, who also participates in the necessary economy of vinyl consumerism.

At Mutek, there is an absence of the medium that binds: vinyl.

The DJ also produces, from the speakers, a certain continuity of sound. A continuity that was only witnessed this year on the final Sunday evening of techno from Ricardo Villalobos, Dandy Jack, and Atom Heart when the three producers essentially remixed each other's tracks and blended them together.

[4] Spinning History. Continuity
The history of the DJ is a history born from various Afro-American and Jamaican cultures. The DJ, according to Paul D. Miller, is the memory selector, and it is the role of the DJ to select, interpret, and represent a history of music. Music is tied to the social. Directly. In XLR8R 58, in an interview by Philip Sherburne, Thomas Brinkmann says of Afro-American music

They are telling history. It's more than music, it's a kind of communication. And in a way it's possible to read this book. These lines teach a lot more than 'a nice evening at the dance,' even if it's that simple, even if they only say 'let's go down to the party.' There's something in between, in this stratification, which is really deep. (43)

Philip Sherburne goes on to note how Brinkmann got a "first-hand introduction to soul music's multilayered history" when he heard "techno legend Anthony 'Shake' Shakir playing records."

The irony, as Sherburne immediately notes, is that Brinkmann is a German white guy appropriating this history. The question is posed at the end of the article, and only approached slightly. It is a difficult question, for although we would like to say, indeed we would like to lay this down as an impeccable imperative that Race must be transvalued by ethics, by empathy, by art-- and yet the musical narrative, indeed coming from an art and a history all rolled into one, from this past is one full of injustice; it raises the question that eradicating difference in the name of cultural fluidity is a possible form of appropriation and oppression. We are stuck in a double-bind. A delicate situation. Brinkmann is conscious of this. And yet what do we make of sampling another's history for one's own gain?

Is not Mutek also in this awkward position?

Mutek is predominantly white. The producers are predominantly white males. "White" is of course a totalising term as worse as "black." Mutek brings people from all over the globe, producers from many different cultures. And throughout the history of electronic music there have been wonderful cross-cultural axises of exchange. Berlin-Detroit; Berlin-Chile; Kraftwerk-Afrika Bambaata; Underground Resistance-Maurizio; Jeff Mills-Japan; Montreal-?


What connection is Montreal making? Several are being forged: the obligatory connection to Berlin; and a solid exchange with Chile-- which is, perhaps, also to a degree a German connection. And yet, a connection to Detroit? To Chicago?

It's only a few hours drive.

Where are the DJ selectors at Mutek, the dance turntablists in both skill and musical heritage?

Conspicuous from their absence, the lack of the DJ further points out the colour divide between Mutek and that other festival, that little festival in Detroit that occurs a week previous-- DEMF, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival.

[5] Sunday at the SAT

Sunday. The gear doesn't stop and neither do the rhythms. The intermixing of live performance takes on a wholly different quality that moves people to dance for extended periods. It comes, ironically, from the South Americans and Germans-cum-Chileans. And the music takes on a new role. It is no longer simply a live performance from Villalobos and Dandy Jack and Atom Heart. It has become a heritage. It is forming history, and repeating it. Driving it home. The music is beginning to speak things to us that we cannot fully understand. We must listen to it, we are driven to, over and over and perhaps lost in the repetitions, before digging out of the sonic loop and the singularity, the irreducible difference, of each explosive repetition and the unspeakable moment of sound it forces through us.

Such Music forces reaction. Physical. Mental. Writing. Dancing.

What is Mutek afraid of with the DJ?
Why the lines drawn in the sand?

There is fear on the Sunday. And joy.

[6] Rhythm and Experiment

Become truly experimental. Musical heritage and the oppression it speaks of cannot be broken into divides such as these, class divisions, snobberies, spatial quantification, a division which says that "experimental music" is non-rhythmic, that it cannot be interpreted by another, spoken as a powerful history of affects...

Rhythm does not need to be stuttered nor difficult to understand its experimental edge. It's about history. Experimentalism marks the singularity of the repetition and the strength of a single lone moment speaking sonic signification.

The division Mutek is enacting between the "dance music" and the "experimental" crosses the other divisions: "producer" / "DJ" - "white" / "black" - "Ex-Centris" / "Metropolis" - "techno/experimental" - and the gender roles and their associations -- very few female producers, performers --

Stratification. Thomas Brinkmann said it in the context of a layered history open to fluid cultural interpretation. And yet the same stratification can set in and solidify, cause rot. It sets in and at Mutek, tells a history not of musical narrative, but a forming-history that is attempting to exclude other methods of semiotic representation.

This has to change.


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