May 1, 2003
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Set Fire to Flames
I've been having a lot of troubles writing reviews lately. Even several Kilkenneys today--drunk in the service of the muse--haven't helped. I don't have the mindset to give the time necessary to come to terms with what passes off as "experimental electronic music" at the moment.
Which is why Stewart S. Walker is so fucking brilliant.
Three years ago, or maybe four, when "minimalism" was the hype and journalists would name-drop Richie Hawtin and Mille Plateaux in the same article, Stewart S. Walker was a common name alongside others such as Sutekh, Twerk, and anyone else pegged with adding touches of thought and the avante-garde to their music. But things have changed. The experimental scene is all wrapped up in a queasy relationship with beats. No one is too sure where or how to understand rhythm, or specter of specters, minimal techno. Minimal techno is, for the most part, shunned and left to spin out its existence at underground techno parties rather than art-festivals. If you make clicks n' cuts, or make rhythmic material that has all the elements but none of the driving components of danceability--then you're alright, you're in. But forget it if you see your work, desire your work to be, a catalyst of rhythm and dancefloor experience with that dark twist of the mental that is minimal techno.
Perhaps I am overdoing it...but I don't think so. Techno DJs today are faced with two ominous choices. Either you spin for lounges, dropping minimal house cuts, or play the wickledly hard material at rave-clubs. The in-between is a very thin place right now. An in-between that perhaps chooses cuts from someone like Stewart Walker over the more accessible, warmer feel of Perlon and the current clicks-n-deep-house records. There is an underground techno scene that still thrives upon the dark and stark energy that gave birth to minimalism, but it is small, and rarely covered by even the "experimental" press. Why is this? The reasons are complex and varied. I make much of them elsewhere, and I think it is all tied up in a rather fascinating struggle between Euro-centric views on avante-garde music and art and the Afro-American roots which ground this music. It all comes down to the prevailing attitude that dance-music is not art. It's a puritan attitude, a conservative attitude, and it is this musical conservatism that has landed today's "avante-garde" back at the derriere.
On first listen, Stewart S. Walker produces uncompromising tracks for DJing. Most are danceable, and most make use of common elements--the sort of kickdrums and hi-hats we would expect to hear in a club. But the arrangement, the vitality, and the composition are novel and otherwordly. Take track 6, "Intonation," which makes use of the feared arpeggiator. Feared? Why yes, because of its associations with trance; but Walker does something completely different to it, muffling its swell behind a carefully constructed percussion set that drops in and out like a melancholy hip-hop. It's difficult to believe that it is at a techno tempo, somewhere around 130. Who is experimenting now, I ask? The only other person I have heard who has dared to use an arpeggiator was Dandy Jack at Mutek, who worked the arpeggiator-rhythms with incredible success, playing with the expectation of the crowd only to rework it competely.
Much the same can be said for Stewart Walker. At first, it seems like he builds simple grooves—deep, bass thumping grooves—that provide the bedrock for the other harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic elements to come into play. But such an assumption—one that would be valid, say, for much of Thomas Brinkman's work—falls apart upon careful listening to Walker's beats. "meer-mir," the opening track, samples noto's tones, and it is stark and deep and menacing with its on-off tones that play over the suction-beats. Beats that have a strange ring to them, a high-pitch hiss to their occurrence that infiltrates every other aspect of the track. It is true that repetition is the guiding factor in these tracks: long stretches pass where the loop moves along at its own pace. Indeed, it is this starkness which makes the placement of sound, and the sound placed altogether the more important. Right around the 3:30 mark on the second track, "amateur surrealism," one realises this complexity. The slow addition of percussion, at the height of the extension of a drone, peaks the track, leaving the percussion interweaving with its own force, beyond that of the drone's reach. It is at this moment when the next sound, a 2/4 echo, rises through the mix to dominate the piece:
//the drone was the path that led to the movement, the percussive gateway// now that the percussion has been established in its presence, and stripped, the echo begins to play the movements of the body and the imagination across the track// working the percussion [it] changes [its] constituent elements, --dropping in and out- // the two towers, gateways, dance lightning between their sharp turrets // ... /// ... // ...
It is this style which comes into its own with "its process not substance." A slow build-up of elements, objects passing by in flight, some blue, kicking around a small dust-storm, an isolated tornado-wash moves into the percussion, grey beasts skirt across dusty landscapes laid bare with fibre-optics--the process of the track is like looking out of a moving train. For what is the "substance" of a moving train? Nothing without a passing landscape. And that's the process.
For some, this is an old formula. This is gear-music, not algorithmic composition. It's often recorded live, although I have no real idea how Walker composes his own work save that he tours with an MPC 2000 and generally manages to drive most crowds into a frenzy (his last Seattle appearance was by all accounts stellar). Most artists I know set up their samples, their beats and their sequences, and affect the samples live, doing several takes on a track or simple jamming for a good 30 minutes, then cutting up the best bits, sticking them together, or simply choosing the best take.
Which ironically leaves us to consider that the most "live," and perhaps "experimental" music is that which slaves itself to rhythm. Or, perhaps we should say that those who choose to enter a relationship with rhythm also, in becoming its slave, dominates as its master. It can be a subtle and beautiful relationship. In the cut and off-the-4 beats of "white noise on the horizon," it is this element of beauty, exemplified in the stuttering chords, that overwhelms the track. The build up of elements is no longer necessary. This track has its own ground, and does not need to stake out the relation between elements. It simply is; but beyond moving, it also gestures, and the title says it well, For behind the main chords is a higher, wash-like sound, perhaps derived from white noise—I cannot quite hear—it is 'white noise on the horizon,' flirting on the edge of our true hearing ability and our conceptual ability to grasp this hear-ability. white / noise / on / the / horizon: microsound not only owes a debt to electro-acoustic and Xenaxis; it owes a debt to minimal techno.
For me, these tracks embody a sort of manic intensity--because I've seen what they can do, much to Adorno's despair. Rooms full of people, simply overwhelmed by the loud intensity of the scarcity of it all, forced to interpret their own thinking through bodily movement. It's a bodily-listening--whatever it is. And it's something entirely different from what Robert Stanton calls for in his article, "Music is for the Audience of One." When I listen to this cd alone, I imagine what others would be doing in the presence of this music. It's a communal sense of awe--which is not to say that there isn't "listening music" on this cd; "circular valley" and "proof of the long dark night" are melodic and off-the-4 excursions into harmonious and melancholic, as well as introspective, minimal spaces of thought and emotion more suited to headphones than a dancefloor. And yet, starkly present in each track is the possibility of its movement. Dropped at the right moment on a dancefloor by an adventurous and attentive DJ, such a track would guide the listener-dancer into new sonic spaces.
Moving from "proof of the long dark night" to "something for you," the last track, drives this message home. The kick drum is back, with a slow ping-drop in the background; a subtle off-beat comes into play, raising and rising--and before you know it, you are enjoying listening to a dancing track, just as moments before, you considered dancing to a listening track.
And that's the sheer audacity of minimal techno, when done correctly in the hands of its most dedicated slave, Stewart S. Walker.
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