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Dropping the Lovebomb
An Interview with Terre Thaemlitz
- Yew-Sun

In Liquid Architecture (Australia), June 16 2004.


"Any act of episodic (autobiographical) remembering must include a representation of the self in the context of the remembered event"...

Japan-based Terre Thaemiltz – an award winning electroacoustic laptop musician, a queer activist, with roots as a house DJ in New York's notorious transgender clubs, and as an ambient music producer – has a firm stance on reconfiguring notions of performativity and trangenderism. In performance, he stigmatises the embodiment of the self as spectacle, without the need for additional theatrics. Furthermore, insight into the perceptual shifts of the listener's experience through his studies on processing techniques and ideas on digital composition are found in Thaemiltz's observations. This is manifold in his theoretical writings that accompany his audio compilations on his own Comatonse label and on various renowned labels including Mille Plateaux, Caipirinha and Instinct. Terre Thaemiltz brings the Lovebomb tour to Sydney @ Disorientation Lanfranchis Memorial Discoteque Thurs June 10, Fabrique, Brisbane Powerhouse Sat June 12, and Kaleide Theatre Melbourne, RMIT University, Fri June 18.

Lovebomb is prompted by socio-political threads verses the universal concept of love, but could you elaborate further on what is behind the Lovebomb project? Is love a euphemism for random acts of violence, and the instability of our geopolitical climate?

“Lovebomb” is about getting away from the notion of love as an act or emotion, and seeing it as part of social ideology – a mechanism through which we attempt to express and manifest certain desires and concerns. Rather than love being in opposition to violence, we can see that love relationships actually facilitate violence and other behaviours that are socially unacceptable outside of the context of a love relationship. For example, relations of family and lovers, which socially presume the presence of love, tend to contain types of emotional and physical abuse, which are clearly unacceptable and intolerable in other settings. Outside the framework of romance, we can see how a terrorist’s actions are an act of love conceived as protecting the people and/or ideals she holds dear. On the macro level, nationalism and the love of community becomes a means of justifying violence and aggression toward others, such as America’s love of freedom to justify bombing the shit out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Love is not in opposition to violence, nor a cure for hatred, but actually an integral part of the justification for violence and hatred. I would argue love does not bring people together, but rather divides. For every group united by love, that same group is setting itself apart from others. This can be seen in couples that turn increasingly inward and lose contact with friends, as well as nations whose nationalist ideologies separate them from non-nationals.

Does Lovebomb derive from the 18th-century classical period of the romanticists, where much of the attitude and artistic output was reactionary to the rationalism and conservatism of social hierarchies in order to be something more emotional, transcendental and visionary?

Hmmm, I’m not sure if this answers your question, but let me say that ideology is closely related to economics and justifies the powers that be. Modern Western romance, and models of love, are closely related to the emergence of the bourgeoisie, the development of ideas of independence, self-determination, and the ability to think for oneself. We believe we have rights. We believe we are creatures of choice, and our choice in lovers is the ultimate manifestation of our freedom of choice. This continues to be the root of the Lesbian and Gay movement, right? I think this vision is clouded.

For example, this is Pride Week (TM) in Australia. In my eyes, the globalisation of Pride activities has had a tyrannical impact upon sexualities in non-Western cultures. Pride is the ultimate commodification of Lesbian and Gay identity. It packages very specific models of what it is to be Lesbian and Gay, and rather invisibly markets those identities to other cultures via capitalist marketplace systems through easily digestible formulas of rainbow flags and Western parades. For example, in Japan where the history of same-sex partners has not been about an essentialist Lesbian or Gay model of “sexual determinism from birth” until the introduction of such ideas from the West, we now find that it is easier for people to consume the rhetoric of Pride (which conforms to the Capitalist social format), rather than to think through traditional sexual systems, which are more complex. I am not saying those ways were necessarily more “liberating,” but they had more variables. If Pride is about helping facilitate social openness, that is not the case. To the contrary, it regiments and restricts what is acceptable Lesbian and Gay behaviour.

And, for many transgendered people like myself, our relation to those behaviours are continually blurred, broken and stretched – often painfully. It is important for people to see the ways in which Liberalism and Western ideals of egalitarianism are ultimately entrenched in very restrictive, categorising ways of life. In that sense, romance and love does not set us free. It is an expression of our internalisation of social patterns, and the ultimate conformity of subjective emotion to social training. There are pleasures to be found within that – I do not believe in “Freedom” or an ideal transcendence of tradition – but I do believe there are those of us who are forced to question these relationships simply because they are too oppressive to our particular circumstances. And, in my experience, the social patterns which societies at large consider most universally “human” are the most insidiously inhumane.

At the Avanto Festival 2003 in Helsinki, you opened the festival with a narration on Lovebomb and your critique on self-representation as primordial to the live act. How did the audience respond to this?

It’s quite common for me to start a show by announcing my dislike for “live performance.” I really am not interested in improvisation, or the conventions of the stage. However, the economics of the music industry require that I perform. In order to try and make this a bit more interesting for me, I try to find ways to break the distance between stage and performer (such as talking with the audience, which is quite unusual for electroacoustique performers. The ambient movement of the early ’90s contained a good deal of rhetoric about the DJ as someone who decentralised the spectacle of the stage and rock performance. But, as we all know, ambient ended up in hypocrisy with the rise of superstar DJs like DJ Spooky and the Orb doing rock stage shows with drummers and guitarists. It was total bullshit. Out of this emerged the current laptop-orchestra scene typified by boys sitting on dark stages, illuminated by the glow of their laptop screens. Again, there was little to no questioning of the relationship between audience and stage. Academic and corporate sponsorship around high-tech events also contributed to this complacency.

So, I really think it is important to call all of this into question. While the language of my projects tend to focus on their role as commodities in the audio marketplace, several of them have performances that very specifically serve as “performances about deconstructing performance.” For example, the Rubato piano performances have always gone to great lengths to confuse the boundaries between real-time interaction, improvisation, and “faking it” to pre-recorded tape. “Interstices” also had a rather elaborate performance that combined video, lighting, props and theatrics (from macho laptop smashing to placid feminine modelling). As a transgendered person, it is also important for me to consider how my performances relate to the transgendered stage, and expectations around glamour and camp. I’d like to think my emphasis on “lecturing” and rather dry humour is a critique to the more overt gesticulations of camp culture.

I can hear some ’70s and ’80s popular music plunders in Lovebomb, and I’m wondering what kind of modes of auditory appropriation may be found in your music?

Sampling and appropriation have always been of interest to me as ways of making references, as well as identifying contexts of production and the tastes of the producer. If you consider music a form of discourse (which I do), samples are like a writer’s footnotes. They inform a work, and help the listener place it within a social framework. I find it very frustrating that the legalities around sample clearance are so prohibitive and censoring, but of course, that is part of the popular music industry’s ongoing agenda of perpetuating ideologies of “creativity” and “authorship” which are so important in a financial sense. It’s critical to the industry that people believe music comes from the “soul,” or something extra-social, since buying music is so closely tied to ideologies of consuming identity. It’s classic commodity fetishism, which wonderfully conceals the workings of the industry.

Unfortunately, most producers also buy into that ideology. They were raised on it, and it’s hard to break through. They regurgitate it, perpetuate it, and protect it. They believe music is “universal,” but if so, why are people so divided between genres they love and hate? That is the ultimate sign of non-universality! Ha, ha! I guess you could say my modes of auditory appropriation are based on a desire to debunk that way of thinking.

Have you found many gadgets and sound sampling devices since your move to Japan?

I am not a real gadget whore. I have no interest in competing with all of the software and hardware geeks who always have the latest and greatest of everything. I don’t think it’s so important – which is lucky, since I don’t have the money anyway! For me, it’s more important to find equipment you like, and explore it. Don’t worry about being technologically behind, because everyone is always behind in some way. I have found some nice things in the garbage in Japan: old effect units, drum machines, turntables. It’s a bit of a hobby of mine to clean them up and do minor repairs. Some of them have come in handy. In particular, people are always throwing away old microphone spring-reverbs for singing karaoke. Clean ’em up and you can run all kinds of sounds through them – much nicer than digital reverbs.

Are the Espanic vocoder speech sounds on your Lovebomb tracks an allegory of your preoccupation with issues of transgenderism and identity politics?

Actually, “Lovebomb” does not use vocoding, but a new process developed by Christopher Penrose called “Co-depend.” The difference is that vocoding has a “control sound source” which the second sound is pushed through. “Co-depend” runs an analysis of both sound sources, and like the name implies, has both files contribute equally to the output sound. This does not mean the output is always a “middling” of the two sounds – the results can be quite surprising. As you said, I think the act of processing sound sources is a form of recontextualisation that has parallels with transgenderism as a form of recontextualising gender signifiers. In specific relation to the Lovebomb theme, I thought the “Co-depend” process contained some nice metaphors related to love and co-dependency.

Given that there are a plethora of female vocalists in mainstream and music worlds, do your digitised ‘sound texts’ change the ‘authorial status’ of the feminine in the field of contemporary song and electro-acoustic composition?

I think that distortion and audible processing helps “de-soul” the voice. Perhaps it makes the voice function a bit more as a representational device, rather than the typical way of hearing vocals as a direct expression of emotion. In the case of spoken narrative, it’s even harder to get people to listen beyond the surface storytelling. While I try to select vocals and spoken word passages that relate to the project’s content, their real contribution is not so much in what they say as how we hear them. For example, the track “Between Empathy and Sympathy is Time (Apartheid)” features an early ANC/People’s Army radio broadcast in which the announcer is encouraging terrorism – quite different from the agenda of today’s ANC.

The real point of this piece is not so much a commentary on changes in the ANC or apartheid. Rather, it’s about placing extreme alienation within a moment of loving affiliation – that moment in a relationship where you look at your lover and say, “I don’t even know who you are anymore”. Ha, ha! When listening to this track, most people have a clear anti-apartheid stance, and in the beginning of this piece they presume a level of agreement with the ANC announcer. However, as the speech goes on and takes violent turns, most people end up calling their initial agreement into question. Love and political alliance is the theme.

In the early ’90s you had a reputation as a house DJ in New York. Could you tell us about your transition from house to electro-acoustic audio collage?

My taste in music was quite eclectic since childhood, but of course this was difficult to reflect as a house DJ in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was frustrated with the limitations of the house scene, and kept losing DJ jobs because I refused to play major-label shit, or couldn’t find clubs that played the tracks I liked. But there were nice records being produced...occasionally! After losing my regular gig at Sally’s II, I gave up on DJing. I decided to try making music instead of DJing it, but I guess I was a bit jaded and pissed at the house scene, so I had no energy to make music that conformed to the house formula. That’s how the first Comatonse release came about, which was really a crossover of ambient, deep house, jazz improv, breaks.

I never honestly expected any sort of response. Producing in a lot of genres from house to electroacoustique to neo-expressionist piano solos is my way of not getting caught up in the hype of any one particular music movement. In part, this is modelled after my idol Haruomi Hosono, whose catalogue spans the gamut from rock to technopop to ambient to electroacoustique to acid house to trance. There’s a lot he does that falls into genres I don’t like, and his approach is totally spiritually loaded, but despite these turn-offs I find this diversity of musical identities interesting.

What were your major influences while you were growing up?

I guess the things that pushed me away from formalist music were over exposure to Catholic church music and being forced to take violin lessons as a child, which I fervently resisted year after year by never practicing or learning to read music. The things that pushed me toward electronic music were roller-disco in my pre-teen years (I was pretty damn good!) and an appeal for music without guitars, since I associated rock’n’roll with the people who harassed me. The irony was that there were a lot of classic synth solos working their way into rock, like “Come Sail Away” by Styx and the intro and outro to “Fly Like An Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band. I used to make myself mix tapes off the radio with just these short little solos. So there was a lot of
crossover in influences.

Where did the name of your label, Comatonse, come from, and what is the future for Comatonse?

The name “Comatonse Recordings” (pronounced “coma-tones”) is a bit of a bad joke gotten out of hand. I issued my first record, Comatonse.000 (featuring “Raw Through a Straw” and “Tranquilizer”), in 1993, when there was a rather strong crossover between certain types of house music and ambient. Of course, both of these musics are drenched in flaky spiritualism and “tripping out,” which is of no interest to me as a very non-spiritual socio-materialist. I found (and still find) it oppressive. You’d be surprised how hard it is for people to accept that you can relax, be at peace etc without engaging in anything “spiritual”! To express my dislike for the spiritual rhetoric being forced upon my audio, as a kind of dark joke I latched on to the image of a person in a coma as someone who had an incredibly aggressive and disempowering state of relaxation forced upon them.

Comatonse releases tend to be vinyl, semi-DJ oriented records. This is because it is the only type of distribution I have been able to secure – and it’s not even formal distribution at that. I don’t have a release schedule, just one-off projects which I like. It keeps things small and the quality up (at least I’d like to think so). In July, there will be a 10th-anniversary reissue of the first release, called Comatonse.000.R2. The A-side combines the original A- and B-side tracks. The B-side combines recordings of the only live performances I have ever done of these tracks, which happened in Japan in 2003, ten years after their release.

And when I say “live,” I mean that in the conventional sense of real keyboard playing and improvisation. It was the first time I had ever “played live” in that way, so they are really rare recordings in that sense. This record will be distributed through Cisco Music in Japan, and eventually made available through the Comatonse website. Meanwhile, I will continue using Comatonse Recordings as the umbrella production organization through which I will license and release other projects, such as Lovebomb...