Nobody listens to techno: an open letter to Aquarius Records
Sayeth Aquarius Records, my neighborhood credit-card magnet (oh, would that it would actually demagnetize the sucker -- it'd save me a lot of money) and generally excellent purveyor of experimental music:
"None of us here really like 'techno' all that much. That's why we were always so attracted to the mutant strains of techno that manage to turn what often to us seems to be vapid, plastic dance music into cool and creepy, murky weirdness. Chain Reaction's brand of so-called 'heroin house' for one. And of course Kompakt's beloved minimal thump. That German label's output was however always really close to being just straight up four on the floor house music, but somehow they always found a way to be sonically creative enough to turn their techno into something new and exciting."
I've been brooding over Aquarius' head-in-the-ass approach to "dance music" for a long time, and I've been meaning to write something about it since last week, when they they decried Erlend Oye's descent into "faceless formulaic fodder," eg "dance music," on his DJ Kicks CD. At the risk of alienating some people whom I like very much -- and, possibly worse, being banned from from one of the best stores in town -- I must finally respond.
Now Aquarius, you know I love you: I've given you enough money in my six years in San Francisco that I hope this is evident. You're just about the only place I can reliably go to satisfy my occasional fix for Japanese noise, indie rock, microsound, books on sound art, the Metallica Drummer VHS tape, Jonathan Coleclaugh, Smalltown Supersound, African field recordings, Henry Flynt, Alvin Lucier, etc., and, yes, Kompakt 12"s.
And I, in turn, know that your mailer is no more than a reflection of your individual and occasionally collective opinions, and I realize that you couch your aesthetic judgments in phrases like "what often to us seems to be" -- properly subjective, non-authoritarian, etc. Ok.
But for crying out loud, listen to yourselves! "Vapid, plastic dance music"? You sound, well, a little like Nick Hornby.
You've built your business -- and indeed your reputation -- on excavating the nuances of every subgenre of a subgenre of a subgenre; you can take what, to unschooled ears, sounds like the most generic indie rock or black metal or inaudible hiss and elucidate the subtle distinctions that make it notable, exceptional, worthwhile. Your range is laudable: you rank Missy Elliot right up there with Sachiko M. Not many critics or retailers on either side of the spectrum can manage that.
And then you turn around, again and again, and define techno as some monolithic beast with no variation, no development, no digression from the norm. Except, of course, in the work of Kompakt and Chain Reaction, full stop. It does make me wonder: have you heard much techno lately?
With all due respect, it's a little baffling that a collective that can discern the subtlest shades of grey in a 60-minute drone piece, say, can't identify the rhythmic variations that characterize the most interesting techno today. And it seems strange to me that if you hold such respect for Kompakt, you remain unaware of the vast array of artists and labels being released under the umbrella of Kompakt's own distributorship -- much of it actually more sonically and rhythmically inventive than Kompakt's own releases.
It's also hard to ignore the irony that Oye's mix CD, so full of "faceless formulaic fodder" -- henceforth to be known as FFF, in the grand tradition of IDM -- actually includes not one but two tracks off the label you so lionize: both Justus Köhncke's "2 After 909" and Jürgen Paape's "So Weit Wie Noch Nie" are, of course, Kompakt tracks. As for the rest of the fodder, most of the tunes on Oye's disc are in fact made by acts oozing mediated personality: Cornelius, The Rapture, Royksopp, the execrable Avenue D. Of techno in its most generic state -- the "shicky-boom, shicky-boom, stab stab boom boom" template -- really, only Jackmate fits the bill. I don't mean to turn this into a defense of Oye's disc, but rather to ask what you mean when you say "techno," and what you've actually heard.
(As for the question of techno’s purported anonymity, once upon a time, techno's "facelessness" was actually regarded, in some circles, as something of a revolutionary, or at least radical, rejection of the music industry's star system, its currency of personality. The only person this seemed to bother was Michiko Kakutani, and her shocked, bougie vehemence was such that it almost certainly validated the practice. If you piss off Kakutani, you know you're going down the right path.
Today, I'd argue that techno's facelessness barely even exists. Ok, I don't know what Adam Beyer looks like, granted -- but what are Ricardo Villalobos, Michael Mayer, Superpitcher, et al if not attempts to re-infuse techno with a cult of personality? If you've ever seen the cover of a trance CD, in fact, or a poster advertising a progressive house DJ appearance, you'll know that it's all about the face nowadays. (That and the sunglasses.) Kenny Larkin is reputedly the first techno artist to have adorned an album cover with his own headshot; if you've seen his scarily glossy portrait on the cover of his new album, you'll realize that techno's infatuation with fame is so well-ingrained that now it may even be parodied from within the scene: Larkin's album is called The Narcissist.)
And since I’ve mentioned narcissism, I apologize for my aggrieved tone. I don’t mean to sound huffy. It’s just that techno – in its broadest definition – is something to which I feel particularly committed. I can even be a bit evangelistic about it: techno can be a wildly inventive form, precisely for the way it must weigh experimentation against formula, innovation against constraint. Techno will always be an exercise in genre -- just like indie rock, metal, soukous, salsa -- and part of its thrill, its musicality, is in hearing this tension played out, just as you hear it in Kompakt and Chain Reaction. But to suggest that these are the only two agents working in an otherwise debased and decadent form only reinforces conservative notions of what music can and should be -- whether in the defense of rock, pop, or "experimental" music.
Is techno the only worthwhile form? Hardly. But I also believe that there can be no “bad” forms, in and of themselves, and it’s frustrating, even painful, for me to hear an institution whose opinion I generally value and trust fall victim to such an intellectually lazy strain of received wisdom.
The cool kids have long delighted in reviling techno for its repetitive beats, its supposed plasticity and vapidity. One wonders if your almost apologetic recommendation of Kompakt is an attempt to save face and mollify the indie rockers who might begin doubting you if they suspected you'd gone rave on them. Aquarius, you’re smarter than that. It worries me that the cottonballs of cool seem to be stoppering your auditory organs. Your ears have always been in excellent condition. Perhaps it’s time for some ear candles.