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"T" Time
The Tranquilizing Technology of Terre Thaemlitz
- LG Concannon

In Retina, Issue No. 3, November/December 1994.


America is quickly becoming a leader in the "ambient" movement. Where Germany, Belgium, and the U.K. have ruled the techno scene, it seems American labels have decided to focus more on releasing ambient material. Silent and Reflective in San Francisco, Moonshine in L.A., Waveform in Arizona, and Smile, Astralwerks, and Instinct in New York; labels which have helped make ambient more accessible than most "dj-oriented" house and techno. As a result, more homegrown talent has emerged.

Among the new school of American ambient artists is New York's TERRE THAEMLITZ. Thaemlitz has gotten international attention since his early Comatonse releases started showing up on MIXMASTER MORRIS' playlist. His new album Tranquilizer (Instinct) is an exercise in electronic wizardry, and should secure Thaemlitz's place as an innovator and creative force.

Calling Tranquilizer and ambient album is not entirely correct. The record is far more challenging than your run of the mill ambient release. Often confrontational, Terre's sound borders on the avant-garde and the experimental.

For example, listen to the controlled chaos of "Raw Through a Straw." The track slowly and quietly builds to a subtle break-beat, but it is complicated with the sound of a clanging piano and a complex underlining melody. Then there is "A City On Springs," a track haunted by a steady creaking noise, as if Terre had recorded the song while rocking back and forth in an old metal chair. As the listener is transfixed on the creaking, lush orchestration emanates, guided by natural sounds and punctuated with metallic dew drops. This is essential Thaemlitz, minimal yet complex - beautiful yet difficult. To listen is to challenge yourself, freeing your mind of borders and limitations.

In talking with Terre Thaemlitz, you will find him quite similar to his musical expression. He is quietly down to earth, but very dedicated, caring deeply about societies [sic.] ills. He does not play New York club politics. Instead he lets the quality of his music speak for itself.

Thaemlitz came to the big city to study art at Cooper Union School of Art, but quickly he lost interest in painting (finding the art world just as political as the club scene). He decided to take up social causes, channeling his energy into women's health issues and HIV/AIDS. While working with ACT UP! as a graphic designer, Terre began djing at benefit parties.

Finding his way into the deep house scene, he became a favorite in the clubs. In 1991 he won "DJ of the Year" honors from the House of Magic. As his popularity grew Terre grew weary of having to play commercial house, and decided it was time to make his own music on his own record label (COMATONSE).

He started producing spacey-house tracks, or as he calls them, "atmospheric house," which later evolved into a more ambient sound. Since releasing his first single on Comatonse in 1993, Thaemlitz has appeared on five major compilations and has his first full length with Tranquilizer. He has become one of New York's premier ambient djs, and is now being sought out for remix work.

Recently Terre worked with the legendary BILL LASWELL to remix MATERIAL'S "Eternal Drift" (Axiom/Island). While working with Laswell at Greenpoint Studios, ANTON FIER heard Terre's remix and asked if he'd retouch two tracks from the new GOLDEN PALOMINO'S album Pure. Those two singles, "Gun/Little Suicides" and "No Skin," can be found on Restless Records.

I was lucky enough to chat with Terre Thaemlitz, as he took time out from his hectic recording schedule and his steady day job.

What is a typical day in the life of Terre Thaemlitz?
"Shit, I didn't get any time to work on music again!" I'm an administrator for the computer services department of a major medical college, so at this time the typical day consists of everything but working on music. It would be great to spend my days producing tracks, but it's not feasible at this time.

How do you approach song writing or composing?
I generally sit down and start fooling around with my gear. Most tracks incorporate improvisational elements and more structured elements. Whenever I can, I try to let my computer and synths generate random patterns, or establish a range of parameters within which my equipment can do what it likes.

Have you been influenced by 70's electronic and/or experimental industrial?
As a little kid I listened to a lot of early 70's jazz funk - KOOL AND THE GANG, TIMMY THOMAS, etc. I got into electronic music at the age of ten when GARY NUMAN came out with "THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE," and from there my record buying strategy was to buy anything with synthesizers and no guitar. Of course this primarily meant KRAFTWERK, and HARUOMI HOSONO and YMO.

Who buys your records?
Well, I know my Comatonse release was mostly picked up by djs, but the Instinct release is reaching a much larger audience. My impression is that it's still primarily people who are seriously into music, which I take as a tremendous compliment.

What is the source of your vocal samples?
I usually use audio clips from newsreels or movies that I consider politically or thematically important, although the manipulation of those sounds may obscure their literacy to other ends.

Who is playing guitar on "Fat Chair"?
My computer. Actually, it's a synth triggered by an improvisational MIDI sequence I played on keyboard. All of TRANQUILIZER was done with only two synths. In the future I hope to de-emphasize the use of synths and MIDI gear, and focus more on computer generated sounds.

Your use of breaks is very unique, are you a fan of break beat and hip hop?
Not particularly (although I love old-school SUGAR HILL, etc.). My use of breaks is more influenced by the use of drum machines in early 70's disco, as well as the musical repetition of funk tracks.

Are there any plans to tour?
I'm currently dj-ing, and will be spinning at the Electronic Cafe in October, which is a multi-media event linking various clubs around the world via video, audio and digital link. The NY location of the EC is at the Kitchen.
As far as a "live" performance goes, it is not practical for me to do such a set. I would rather just dj.

What does the term "ambient" mean to you?
For me, "ambient" music asks the producer and the listener to position themselves in relation to chaos and systemization within society and the subjective. It's not so much about relaxation and transcendence as it is awareness awareness of simultaneity and diversity.

Are you comfortable with being mentioned in the same breath as Mixmaster Morris, Dr. Alex, and Peter Namlook?
If you were here I'd give you a sloppy kiss!

Have you come to terms with the fact that you are a leader in the US ambient scene?
Did the promotion folks at Instinct put you up to these questions?

How do you feel about ambient djs, like myself, using your music in chillout rooms?
Grateful and flattered! I'm glad that it is being used in a social environment. I guess I have some idealism about things being functional rather than being left as just some mastrubatory exercise on my part.

What are people, in the privacy of their homes, doing while listening to Tranquilizer?
Well, if they live an exciting life like mine, they're slouching on a couch staring at the wall. But I'd like to think there are more creative people than myself out there! Whatever they're doing, I hope they're doing it safely!