Thumbnail Music Redux: Part Seven - Thomas Brinkmann
This interview, originally published on Urbansounds.com in October, 1999, is the final installment in a series of reprints intended as a look back at the rise and fall of minimalism over the past decade. Scroll further on this page for the accompanying interviews with Steve Reich, Richie Hawtin, Carsten Nicolai, Stewart Walker and Taylor Deupree, plus the original introduction and some retrospective thoughts.
Köln's Thomas Brinkmann first appeared on techno radar two years ago as the artist behind Variationen, a set of remixes of Wolfgang Voigt's Studio 1 project. Using a double-armed turntable of his own design, Brinkmann extracted hidden rhythms from Voigt's minimal techno in an exercise of fractal dub. Brinkmann used the same technique for his second release, Concept 1 96:VR, based on Richie Hawtin's "Concept" EPs. Lest anyone think him restricted to hi-fi gimmickry, Brinkmann went on to release a flood of original productions through his own Max and Ernst labels, two full-length albums for Suppose, and numerous one-off projects. His style is characterized by blunt, repetitive figures -- a kind of plodding, truncated dub-techno permeated with unexpected side-effects. Where his early releases worked with materials similar to those of his Köln colleagues, Brinkmann increasingly has incorporated unlikely elements of jazz and funk, expanding the tonal vocabulary of minimal techno with every release. I reached Brinkmann by phone, earlier this year, to talk to him about minimalism, repetition, and mimesis.
What is your background? How did you get involved in electronic music?
The most important reason for me was the connection to Mike [Ink]. I got bored with music in the '80s. Then, in the '90s, I heard more classical music, and jazz. And then [Ink's] Studio 1 and [Richie Hawtin's] "Concept" releases. This was a kind of positive culture shock. I was always working, a little, on sounds -- I don't say music, I say sounds. Also around this time, I studied art, so I was involved in other projects, more connected to art.
Visual art, different media, and also with acoustics, with sound, but more or less traditional surfaces -- 3D work, different kinds of things. The idea of using two tonearms was not really new. I had worked with two or three tonearms on turntables a few years earlier, before doing the work with the Studio 1 records and the "Concept" records. But that was based on other problems; it wasn't this kind of remix technique. I did a tape for Mike with the Studio 1 variations, and I went to his shop [Kompakt] -- I didn't have a strong contact to Mike, I was just a customer -- but I gave him the cassette with the remixes, and later he phoned me and said, "OK, I want to do a record." That was my first release.
When you say you were working on different kinds of problems, what do you mean? What were they?
It's difficult to explain. In the '70s, I was very connected to electronic music. Even then I was working on experimental music; a lot of the things I'm doing now we figured out back then. But there was no compatibility. People were laughing at us. The only possibility to do something [like that] was in theater. We worked with theater groups and we did these kinds of soundscapes. I was always thinking about the problem of making photography with acoustics. Just like other people were taking their snapshots in optical media, I wanted to take snapshots in acoustical media. But we didn't have the techniques; it was much too expensive. There was no digital recording, so if you wanted to record [environmental] sounds, you had to go with a big machine. The whole thing was too difficult to do, and I stopped working in that field.
Also at that time I started to experiment with cutting records with a knife. I would take a regular record, the last loop [the run-out groove], and I would cut formations with a sharp knife. I did a lot of loops at that time, loops that had been made with geometrical forms. You make a cross on the label, and at the end of each point from the cross you make a deep scratch. When you play the record at 33 rpm, you have a beat like a bass drum at 133 bpm. "Boom, boom, boom..." This is what I did on the "8+1" 12-inch [on Suppose]. And if you put, between those four points, four little scratches, you have exactly the grounds for a techno track. "Boom, tic, boom, tic, boom, tic..." So these ideas weren't really new, but there was no context for them then. And for me, the feedback from the Kompakt people, especially from Mike, was a big motivation to start again.
Tell me a little more about snapshots with sound. One of the tracks on "Totes Rennen" is called "Mimesis," which seemed strange to me. I think of minimalism as the opposite of mimesis, as something like pure abstraction, a reduction of musical elements to pure form.
Minimalism is very old. It's not just Steve Reich. I think the first minimal "tracks" were made by church bells in the 14th century, 13th century, maybe earlier. Every ding and dong from a church bell is information -- digital information, really. Bells are very special. They have always informed people. I lived for two years in Italy, in a church, and they had a lot of different codes, just to inform the people if a new child is born, if somebody dies, if it's Christmas, Easter, and so forth. So they have maybe 30 or 40 programs. It's funny, because in this church they had a completely computerized bell system. They could program a whole week, a whole month, a whole year. When a child was born, they would change the program and ring the bells, just to inform the 200 people that lived there that a new child was born. So this is a very early form of information. Mimesis means to copy. I think the idea of a loop is not far from mimesis. The loop is going on, and on, and on, and it's always the same.
It works both ways -- I think of mimesis in terms of copying the external world. In terms of music, I think of Debussy, or something that's trying to create a picture of the external world. So tell me a little more about acoustic snapshots.
In the '70s, Mobile Fidelity Soundlabs released some records. For example, they did a record with trains. One side was trains, and the other side was bad weather or something. Very ambient. I was always thinking of what you hear about people in New York City -- when they go on holidays, they can't sleep, because they miss the noise of the city. So they made recordings for them to take on holidays, of the noises in New York, so they could sleep. And I thought about how places change. For example, if you take a place like Times Square, and you make a kind of "snapshot" of this place, say from 1970 to 1990, the place will change completely. If you take a certain date, like Christmas Eve, and each year you go there and make a recording at a certain time -- 6 p.m., for instance -- it would be very interesting to have, over 30 years, the acoustical changes of the place. Like a series of snapshots. Not using them for anything, not making music from them. Just leaving it like it is.
Are you concerned with the accessibility of your music? The fact that most people won't "get it." For instance, I just got the "x100" record...
That's a very special record, a very special project. It's an art project, absolutely. I didn't care about the music so much. The main idea was the drawing on the record [the image formed by the grooves]. I programmed the sounds just to make the circles. So the first idea was a visual idea. I was always thinking about the connection. I think that you can see with your ears. Your orientation in rooms has to do with your ears, not only with your eyes. There's an interaction between your eyes and your ears and your sense of smell, and for me this border between the senses is very important. When you look at very old music, from Greece, for example, this music is very connected to mathematical problems. Also, the music of Bach. For example, at the time when they invented frets. To figure this out, where you put the metal on the neck of the instrument, you need mathematics. And I think the visual nature of things is very important. For instance, with a record, it's visual -- it's much more visual than a CD. And tactile as well. So the solutions you find with records are completely different from the solutions you find with CDs. And I think with CDs, this whole DJ culture is impossible. So there's always this relation between the material, the surfaces with which you are working, and your work. And this connection, this border, was very important for me in "x100." The visual problem, the rings, the spirals. One is going the left way, the other is going the right way, and then they come together. The spirals are made by the bass drums. Each "boom" makes an interference in the cutting of the record. Where there is a bass drum, the interference is a little stronger, and you can see a line. And if you vary the tempo a little, the lines become curved. If you look at Ernst 1, for example, or Ester Brinkmann "8+1," they are very straight lines, and you can see each bass drum. You can see everything, even the scratch loops. The scratch loops are not as straight as the other sounds, because the turntable was going at a slightly different speed. So there's a little curve for the scratch loops, and you can see that curve on the record. "x100" was the first time I've tried to work consciously with this mathematical/geometrical problem, and I said to myself, "OK, I want to have a very simple, geometrical form on the surface of the record. How is it possible to program the sounds to create this?" So the music was following the visual imperative.
I've been trying to figure out how you did it. Because it sounds -- and looks, if you look at the surface of the record -- as if you began at both ends of the composition and worked backwards, so to speak. How did you program it to get two loops that are so perfectly out of phase that they re-sync? Was it a mathematical problem?
A lot of the work was just thinking about the problem. When I went to Dubplates and Mastering in Berlin and we cut the record, I didn't know if I'd made mistakes, so I wasn't sure if the things I had figured out theoretically would work in the studio. The first time I saw the record, it was surprising. We made a lot of mistakes, just to get the one record. My mathematics were so bad that it wasn't possible to see the patterns. They sounded correct, but they didn't translate into optical information.
You mentioned how your orientation in rooms is guided by your ears. When I brought home "x100" I put it on, turned off all the lights, and just sat there in the dark, listening, over and over. And somehow, it gradually came to define the space of the room.
We did a lot of funny things making this record. A friend of mine and I sat in front of the speakers -- my friend at the left speaker, and me at the right speaker -- and we just noted the beats on paper. For every beat, each of us would make a mark, so we could count the beats. I wanted to know if I'd made a mistake, because the number of beats was very precise. The track had to be exactly 20 minutes long, and in that 20 minutes, each channel had to have a particular number of beats. I don't remember exactly, but one channel had to have two beats more than the other. A very slight difference. It's very interesting to listen to those things, and also at the same time to be making a kind of introspection. It's very hard to figure it out, when you just listen to the sounds, that there will be two circles running [on the surface of the record]. Even if you know about it, it's not possible to see the circles in your mind. It's not possible to figure out the movement that is going on. And it is a movement, in an optical way and in an acoustical way. One is going a little bit slower, the other a little bit faster. The bass drums are moving [in relation to one another], on your screen, if you close your eyes. It's funny, we had some really good moments, working out this very theoretical problem. And yet this record has nothing to do with dancefloors. The dancefloor is also a theoretical problem. People don't want to know this. It's a little bit like Greek architecture: the columns are very strong, they're like a hook line. And on this hook line, there are the other sounds -- these buildings are not profane buildings, they're important buildings, like churches or something, spiritual buildings. And I think techno is a very spiritual thing, but the surface is completely different. You don't need columns anymore, you are doing parties. And the straight bass drum is like a virtual column. And people, when they go there, it's really like they are going to a spiritual place. You see the people, the masses, they're dancing, and they are losing their individuality. You are treating your body -- your corpse -- very rough, and in a way it's a complete negation of the body. I think it's a very, very spiritual thing. The surface is completely different from the surface 2000 years ago, but the structure behind it is very similar.
Let me ask you about series. Given the alphabetical naming of the Max and Ernst records, it looks like there will be 13 of each…
Yeah, probably. But "Q" is very difficult [laughs].
To me they don't stand alone as much as they work in a series. I understand more by listening to them in relation to each other than by themselves. It seems like context is everything. How does the idea of the series inform your work? Are you working through a specific set of problems?
Ernst for me is about learning. There's always a constant element, like a straight bass drum, and I'm trying to do new things with it, to see how far I can go. For example, the new release on Ernst has a big sample from Norman Whitfield's Undisputed Truth. Ernst is really just a fun project for me, I'm trying to do something with very simple equipment. Most of the sounds are made with preset patterns. It's very simple, and I'm just trying to work with this simple technology, and simple sounds, in different ways. The music changes a lot [throughout the series]. For example, the first one is completely different from the third one.
And then you throw in that "pump up the volume" sample!
This is a problem here in Germany. You know, people say, "Ah, you are working with theoretical stuff on Ester Brinkmann. What, do you want to have a theoretical discussion about techno?" So this was my response.
Why did you choose the name Ester Brinkmann?
She's my sister. She's not living, though, she died. Most of the Ester Brinkmann projects are playing with death, with people who are not living anymore, but still living in spirit. They are still powerful today. Like when I used those philosophers' voices [on the "Totes Rennen" 12-inch] -- most of them are dead. On the new Ester Brinkmann release, I use the words from a Romanian who lived in France, who's also dead. There is always the question, who is doing this work? And it's difficult for me to say that I did this work. Because there's a kind of catalytic process, something is going through you, the history behind you. And your family. My sister died when I was three. And my first memories are connected to her. I never had any real contact with her -- in a way she didn't exist for me, but in another way, she has always existed, in a virtual way. For me she is very important. I have another sister, who is still living, but the most important sister for me is the sister I've never known, that I never had the possibility to speak to. She had "glass bones," you know that disease? It's when your bones are always cracking -- when you move around, they crack. So the first sound I remember is the sound of cracking bones. I told this to Rob Young from The Wire, who wrote a very sentimental story about this, but it isn't sentimental at all -- it's only a metaphorical picture. I don't actually remember the sound of cracking bones, but in a way she's part of me. But it's not only she that's a part of me. In a way she's standing for a lot of things. I don't know, I'm always thinking about this. And the name, the way I write it, is wrong. It's written with an "h," Esther. But I write it without: Ester. Ester is also a kind of eteric alcohol: ether. A kind of gas. And she's also like a kind of gas for me, she's not real, she's only a projection surface. I project my movies onto my sister. But I don't know anything about her. She's like the screen of my private cinema.