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Sonic Montage
The Allegorical Compositions of Terre Thaemlitz
- Rachel Churner

Transcript of lecture given at Stanford University, June 10, 1998. Note: The songs which are discussed within this paper can be heard on the included CD. Track 1 on the disc is "inelegant implementations," from Means from an End. Track 3 is "Fragmentation/ Standardization (Love Now Angrily In Protest)" from Couture Cosmetique.


Use of sound in art has a largely uncharted history. Though the history of music is well-developed, exploration of sound as its own medium in art practices has not been consistent, and there has not been a group of sound artists so tightly related in medium and time as to warrant the name "Sound Art," such as given to Pop Art, Minimalism, and others. Instead, sound has often been employed as a tool of the visual, an aid for modern art, whether creating a background "atmosphere" or underscoring the methods of production. The advent of the radio in the early thirties placed sound in the artistic realm, and live sounds were experimented with, but recording technology was not widely available until the 1960's. The introduction of affordable editing equipment, recording devices, and magnetic tape, which could be sliced and taped together like film, made sound much easier to manipulate. Just as the introduction of the Portapak resulted in an explosion of video works, the availability of sound equipment opened new fields for artists exploring sound and its manipulations.

With these new possibilities, the division between artist and musician was blurred. A new type of music, sometimes called experimental music, sometimes called sound art, depending on where and how it is marketed, emerged as distinct from more traditional music concerned with tonalities, rhythm, and arrangement. By concerning itself with structures of "collage, montage, overdubbing, reconstitution, and juxtaposition with digital, chance, and repetitive structures," this new type focused on more than the creation of tunes or refrains.This new music also blurred the traditional space of music, for instead of the concert hall, performance spaces and galleries often provided the forum.

Layering of produced sounds and samples is employed with a certain regularity in the contemporary music world. With the ability to record and digitize sound, artists and musicians have used collage techniques to increase the complexity and depth of their songs. But for many, this technique has been a Means from an End, as the layering (a term more precise than collage) is used to create a more complete song, rather than a new type of music altogether. Speech, which is mixed with synthesized notes and then with sampled sounds, creates dense music; this music is then mixed further by DJ's as they combine, cut, and start songs as they choose. Though this layering has precedents, with German radio art's "sound landscapes" and Burroughs' sound poems of magnetic tape literally cut and pasted together, it has never been so popular as in today's electronic culture.

Some artists move beyond this basic layering with a shift to montage. Montage with all the violence and trauma of the Berlin dada, and none of the mainstream appropriations. Sonic montage speaks critically to the times, ripping its elements out of context and roughly juxtaposing them with other fragments. These artists aim to increase the listener's awareness, without teaching singular lessons; in fact, montage artists like Terre Thaemlitz specifically denounce the possibility for singular experiences. The range of sounds in the songs explores multiplicity, for the cultural processes it questions are not centralized and thus lack an origin.

Terre Thaemlitz is an artist associated with electronic music genres such as Contemporary Ambient, Electroacostique Computer Music, and Minimalism.Unlike many of these musicians, Thaemlitz activates the listener, pushing the music to the forefront through it is commonly thought to be background noise. He asks not to be called avant-garde, as he rejects the term "for its function since the late 1920's as a vehicle for dominant culture to recuperate reformist metaphors into high culture, ultimately becoming the spectacle of the wild beast within the confines of the gallery."Still his proposition of "subverting the spectacle of melody" places him within the general conception of avant-garde, existing as it does at the edges of practice, at the periphery of music. The compositions engage popular discourses, focusing on themes of abjection, alienation, fracture, and contradiction in his music, especially in relation to transgenderism.

Two of Thaemlitz's most recent CDs, Couture Cosmetique and Means from an End, montage sound and speech as a "complication of cultural processes" in the world around him. The works are allegorical compositions that employ not only disparate sounds but also a forced relationship between sound and text, for in Thaemlitz's work two elements, the actual sounds and their textual accompaniments, the liner notes to the CDs, must be considered in order to comprehend Thaemlitz's practice and intention. Designed by Thaemlitz himself, dense statements of up to ten pages are packaged with each compact disc.

Within the notes, pretention often clouds the written message, floating as it does between feminist discourse, Queer theory, commodity critique, and art history. One reviewer wrote, "when he's not cracking cynical snaps like a downtown drag queen, Thaemlitz sounds like a college professor."In both his cynical retorts and his academic speeches, Thaemlitz speaks out about his processes and methods, creating an entire discourse around his works.Underneath the buzzwords and catch phrases, there is substance that demands and deserves to be challenged without separating the words from the sounds. As Benjamin pronounced, the allegorical composition requires the allegorist, and Thaemlitz fills both roles.

Quoting Jacques Attali's book Noise: A Political Economy of Music , Thaemlitz heads his liner notes for the CD Couture Cosmetique , "[Music's] order simulates the social order, and its dissonances express marginalities." In these compositions, only the dissonant marginalities survive, for Thaemlitz is determined to dispel the myth of music as universal. Sound is often assigned a truth value, with the implication that what is heard must have actually existed in order to be recorded. Even those devoted to the critical abilities of sound art assume that sound provides the artist with the ability to recreate an original experience, infusing the work with an "integrity with regard to the moment of recording and the subsequent hearing." Discussing sound, Audio Arts' editorial continues, "the distancing process and 'filters' associated with other media are absent." But this truth of time and originality in music in an illusion, just like the truth of the photographic image. In Thaemlitz's works, done on his computer, the sounds are not even played in real-time; that is, the sounds are not created, played, and recorded by an external machine, rather sounds are generated mathematically as waveforms and then manipulated in "non-real-time."

These digital techniques allow the "residual noises" to be emphasized in Couture Cosmetique, a CD released in 1997. The track "Fragmentation/ Standardization (Love Now Angrily In Protest)" introduces the allegorical method of Thaemlitz. In the song the steely twittering of the machine is pierced by a sonic rush, like a plane taking off. Then voices jump in, with flutters of almost identifiable speech rising in the crescendo, phrases fleeting as soon as they are noticed. Then "calm" comes, distortions of sound like wind hitting a microphone, which are immediately jarred by swells of sound, the airplane again. As quickly as it was destroyed, calm returns, but disruptions underneath create a distorted layer, reminding one of inability of the ears to register all the chaos. Exactly 10.53 minutes long, Fragmentation/ Standardization breaks, swells, jumps, and gashes incessantly. The individual sounds are so elusive they can't be captured in one listening; yet just as the listener focuses hard enough, a sound bursts in, out of nowhere, stinging the eardrums and shocking the senses.

Thaemlitz takes from the world around him, gathering bits of debris and pasting them together on his Macintosh, molding their sounds into one computer-generated mass that proclaims its fragmentary status, rather than simulating a new totality. In method, allegory is like montage, for it juxtaposes disparate elements and arranges them so that a posited meaning results. Benjamin says: "The allegorist reaches now here, now there, into the chaotic depths that his knowledge places at his disposal, grabs an item out, holds it next to another, and sees whether they fit: that meaning to this image, and that image to this meaning."

Though allegory is common literary trope, seventy years ago Benjamin separated it from symbolism, studying it in his book Trauerspiel (German Baroque Tragic Drama) and in his notes on Baudelaire's poetry, and then employing the method his work, One-Way Street and throughout his notes for Passage-Werk (The Arcades Project.). Allegory is not a one-to-one interpretation; rather it is a microscopic exploration of fragments, repeated again and again until two meanings emerge, both a broader meaning that can be related to the times of the allegorist and parts of the original meaning.In this way it can look both forward and backward, giving meaning to the present while retaining the past.

Multiple meanings are a pre-condition for allegory. Rather than unifying these meanings, allegory "heaps" them on top of one another with the result that "nature, far from an organic whole, appears in arbitrary arrangement, as a lifeless, fragmentary, untidy clutter of emblems."In Thaemlitz's words, the work seems to "embody simultaneity."Coherence is shattered, for "allegorists, like alchemists, hold diminution over an infinite transformation of meanings, in contrast to the one, true word."

Like montage, allegory has a implicit violence. For Benjamin the "allegorical intention" is to "smash" things to pieces, to "disfigure and maul the material world." Thaemlitz's work is meant to break the world apart, but it is a self-reflective gesture, recognizing that there is no unity to begin with, that everything has already been smashed. By dragging fragments out of contexts, pasting them together, and even using them to cut other fragments, Thaemlitz calls attention to this disfigurement. Benjamin describes this violence as the destruction of illusion, saying:

    The course of history as it is represented has in fact no more claim on the thinking man than the kaleidoscope in the hand of a child which collapses everything ordered into new order with every turn. The justness of this image is well-founded. The concepts of the rulers have always been the mirror thanks to which the image of an 'order' was established. -- The kaleidoscope must be smashed.

Thaemlitz smashes the kaleidoscope of sampled music. Other artists use fragments to create a new order, but Thaemlitz does not pretend to unify or categorize. In fact, his compositions tarnish the ability for others to create new orders by pasting sounds, images, and words, and by this process, Thaemlitz attempts to push entire cultures into question.

Thaemlitz's latest CD, Means from an End deals with the impossibility of totalized view by subverting the processes of recontextualizaiton. "Associations between sound sources can be made more or less obvious depending on one's technique and desire for explicit referentiality. This process bears similarities with general processes of social recontextualization, wherein previously constructed histories (end points) are filtered and reconstituted to advocate a particular cultural agenda (means, or middling of past events with transformative desire)."

From the section entitled "inelegant implementations," track 3 (Untitled) is constructed upon a jazz tune, in which the bass marking out time is distorted and filtered, more syncopated than the jazz could be alone. Portions become over-saturated and inaudible as static seems to crush the speakers. The filter that this jazz passes through has been generated by a waveform analysis of dialogue, in this case the words "Our task is to make government impossible." In other songs, Thaemlitz uses dialogue from "leftist political actions and popular media" with phrases like "Give her what she really wants" and "Abortion on demand and without apology." The more agitated and loud the proclaimer of these phrases, the more distorted the tune. As the listener struggles to keep the jazz tidy and complete, she is continually frustrated by the static, the computer beeps, and R2D2-like bursts, and shocking jumps in volume. Not only are music and dialogue splintered in this work, but space is also fragmented, as Thaemlitz's sounds shift from speaker to speaker, marking a literal movement, step-like, rather then the usual single wave of sound.

The notes to this CD are comprised of "Statistical" sections which "outline the processes involved in a track" and "Rationale" sections which explain "how [he] associate[s] these process with metaphorical contents." In these sections Thaemlitz explains the use of these political statements and outlines why he chose jazz as the underlining reference saying, "the use of jazz edits references mediums historically used to promote both subversive and bourgeois contents." By generating a filter before the sounds were actually played, Thaemlitz accepts the preconditions of distortions, attempting to question the way society contextualizes contradictory information in its attempt to present a whole.

In Means from an End, the allegorical relationship between text and sounds is overwhelmingly apparent, for without his writings, the importance of the filters, and even there use, would be overlooked. Thaemlitz's posits meaning of technique and intention in the liner notes, that it would be difficult to gather from the disjointed sounds. Sound is a difficult medium to propagate concepts because of its abstract quality and the differences between active and passive listening, and what he creates has no self-evident meaning. The notes are necessary to the reading of the works as critical, and though he calls them "addendums" and "footnotes," the discourses are as crucial as the sounds themselves. Without the discourses he provides the ideas and practices behind the music would be lost.

Not all listeners agree that meaning should be placed like this. For some, "the point that people like Thaemlitz seem to chronically miss is that no matter how long you puke up so called meanings, there is no way you can guarantee they'll transliterate (sic) to the minds of those who ingest what you do."The allegorical practice which posits meanings into disparate elements is often "puked-up," and the listener has hit upon a crucial part of the works in that the relationship between the image and text for the allegorist (and sound and text here) is an arbitrary one.

By deconstructing music and sound samples, Thaemlitz points to the broader issue that totalization of understanding is never complete, that full interpretation cannot be reached and is not the goal, but that the conventions, distortions, and constructions of society should be recognized. Thaemlitz involves himself in "cultural processes which actively engage a multiplicity of constructed contents" rather than in linear descriptions of historical processes that "conceal the construction of its contents."Benjamin's method of allegory is contingent on specific moments in time. In Trauerspiel, Benjamin argues that Baroque allegory was a "mode of perception particular to a time of social disruption and protracted war, when human suffering and material ruins were the stuff and substance of historical experience."Thus the return of allegory in his own time, in the aftermath of World War I. All around Benjamin were literal ruins, trashed objects which became emblems in the capitalistic world. "The devaluation of the world of objects within allegory is outdone within the world of objects itself by the commodity."Living much later, Thaemlitz struggles in a world in which the material objects of Benjamin have been fully "outdone" by the commodity; now it seems even material commodities have been decentralized and destroyed by information. Instead of real objects, Thaemlitz gathers the debris of information and reworks the "ruins" into digital soundbytes. The sonic ruins of today's world: Billy Joel songs like "I Love You Just the Way You Are,", political speeches and popular slogans, jazz clips and electronic beats, Kraftwerk compositions, are turned into a sequence of numbers representing waveforms. These waveforms are not physically tangible and don't even have to be played in "real-time." Blurted out of the machine 44.1 thousand times per second, these distinct sounds hit the ear so fast, the brain joins them and reads them as continuous. Thus even Thaemlitz's equipment is based on fragmentation.

Thaemlitz's allegorical compositions hint at specific meaning and consequence, begging the question, can this music, which exists at the periphery of the music world, be a critical practice? Can any music, with its abstract qualities, do this? And do the sounds push the listener to any end? The necessity of his notes for the songs has already been established, yet the questions remain. Thaemlitz's songs are shocking and fragmented, but they cannot be interpreted as more without the words. For Thaemlitz, this does not invalidate the works, but reminds the listener that music is not about revolution, but about discussion; it is "only music, and it can only create a discourse." Thaemlitz seems to dismiss the need to discuss critical practice and the ability of music to function critically with this statement, adding that he only contributes to an ever-increasing discourse. But the immediacy and importance of the personal statements hint that Thaemlitz is not content with just discourse. The melancholic is involved in "politics of contemplation rather than intervention," and unlike Benjamin, Thaemlitz does not seem content with inaction. The statements and sounds work to persuade the listener that Thaemlitz is attempt to changing the listening process, in that the jarring songs might effect the subjectivity of the audience.At times, what Thaemlitz proposes seems forced; the over-processed sounds are hard to identify and the writings about them seem too grand. For some, the sounds mean nothing, "No unrecognizable sound will 'exemplify' anything. As if we, the audience sits here, listens, and come collectively to the realization: 'Hey! There's the end of Sly and the Family Stone! Dang, have I been overly heterosexist lately."

Benjamin's method of allegory doesn't allow much room for critical practice, but through Thaemlitz's method of shock, a pinhole is opened. Thaemlitz uses these sound compilations to engage in debates about Queer theory, specifically his position of "non-essentialist transgenderism." A non-essentialist outlook refers to the "conceptualization of identities as a strategy for self-mediation within a politicized social context."It stands against the essentialist view which believes identities, heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise, are reflective of a "human essence." Non-essentialism is not nurture over nature, he says, for non-essentialism rejects the dichotomy of Society vs. Nature, stating instead that they are intertwined. His allegorical songs attempt to break down the idea of a heterogeneous whole, and they also attempt to tear down the one-to-one division between Heterosexual and the Other. Thaemlitz says, "I am skeptical of binarisms."He seeks to "complicate social processes" by recognizing the social and political influences behind constructions of identity, gender, and sexuality. This is most actively pursued in Couture Cosmetique, with songs like Trans Am (Transgendered American) which brings notions of sexuality and consumerism into play. Fragmentation/ Standardization (Love Now Angrily In Protest) also functions as both a demand for listeners to love angrily, now aware of fragmentation, and a description of a protesting love, unable to standardize what it contacts.

Thaemlitz does not share the melancholy of Benjamin. He describes his work as "admittedly nihilistic, skeptically optimistic, and sardonically humorous," but it does not have an overwhelmingly modernist melancholy. What it does have is reflection, in particular to personal knowledge, as that idea of the allegorist sifting through the "depths of his own knowledge" is particularly emphasized by Thaemlitz, as he questions his personal actions interacting in a larger sphere, interpreted "in relation to a largely socially-interactive concept of history."In this manner, perhaps contrary to teleological concepts of historical progression, 'new meanings' may arise more out of the hyper-specialization of our own ignorance's and limitations rather than being born of an understanding of the past."This allegorical reflection is no longer personal, as it was for Benjamin, but has become technological and engendered. He writes, "Donning lace and make-up, I sit before my computer and contemplate." But Thaemlitz does not just contemplate; he shocks and jolts the listener, raising the possibility for critical practice, but not committing himself to changes.