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Jane Dowe & Terre Thaemlitz: Institutional Collaborative
Mille Plateaux 1998
- Sean Cooper

In Urban Sounds, October 1998.

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[ Terre Thaemlitz | institutional collaborative ]

For purposes of thematic continuity, Terre Thaemlitz's latest Mille Plateaux product couldn't have arrived at a better time. His first album-length collaboration since 1995's Web (recorded with Bill Laswell and released on the latter's Subharmonic label), Institutional Collaborative takes as its point of departure the peculiar problematic traversing analog and digital methods of electroacoustic music production (and particularly collaborative electroacoustic music production), locating both at the intersection of social, aesthetico-technological, and libidinal trajectories that determine that relationship as one of both profound ambivalence and inherent and ironic failure. This is common content in Thaemlitz's recent work, of course (see Couture Cosmetique and Means From An End, for example), but Institutional Collaborative distinguishes itself with a quite specific and exploratory engagement of the forces animating questions of signification, subjectivity, and process -- forces that in previous works were sidelined by the more immediate goals of (auto)critique. Thaemlitz has himself been criticized for those goals -- or, more precisely, for the extent to which their articulation has dominated the form and content of his work. Whatever the merit of those criticisms, however, Institutional Collaborative is less about critique and more about the direct interrogation and mapping of the forces of subjection and subjectification animated by the circumstances through which and by which it was conceived. And the result is some of the most compelling and original work of Thaemlitz's career.

Thaemlitz's partner (pun intended) for Institutional Collaborative is one Jane Dowe -- an assumed identity taken on by an experimental music composer whose position within the matrix of institutionalized academia has resulted in the need to remain anonymous. There couldn't be a tastier place to begin, as far as Thaemlitz is concerned; his work has constantly interrogated normative structures of identity and the ways in which they are both reinforced and undermined by larger social and cultural contexts. But again, with Institutional Collaborative these interrogations take a back seat to the sketching out and "rendering audible" of the various features in that "space between" of collaboration. Dowe's and Thaemlitz's attempt to navigate the confusing matrix of technology, social signification, and desire throughout the process of recording (a process confined strictly to the digital domain; the two have never met in person) becomes the occasion for an exploration of the forces circumscribing both the intersubjective discontinuities that attend collaboration in general, as well as the circuitries of social articulation through which music -- in this case ambient or electroacoustic music -- is imbued with certain suprasocial and political functions (that of liberation or aesthetic idealization, for instance). Remarks Thaemlitz in the liner notes (penned this time by Escape Tank's Molly Taylor), "In the quest to recoup the analog in order to overcome social alienations, one is actually seeking detachment from social processes, literally contributing to processes of cultural alienation."

Procedurally, this quest takes the form of a collaboration in situ; the pair passed back and forth sound files in various states of DSP decay such that composition could be said to have taken place somewhere on the wires between the two artists' machines. Each track is titled after different states of process and exchange -- "TD," "DTD," "DT" -- but the album as a whole works through a quite listenable dynamic of thin, slowly shifting soundscapes and sharp, granular distortions. Thaemlitz's work has tended increasingly toward the wholly digital, and the tracks on Institutional Collaborative are among his most desktop-derived to date. They're also among his most delicate, recalling the subtlest arcs of early recordings such as Tranquilizer and Soil, and maintain a coherent structure and a definite sense of movement. Bits of source file poke through at points -- brief passages of piano and woodwind, bits of voice cut off and processed almost beyond recognition -- but always just long enough to provide an index for comparison, a threadbare sense of what might be at stake. As Taylor notes, this is "audio which both privileges and disavows musicality through an intermixing of digital residue with carefully disclosed source materials." As usual, the devil's in the residue, and Thaemlitz and Dowe maintain a standard of source reduction throughout Institutional Collaborative that figures it among the most satisfying and accomplished moments in digital electronica. Rating: 8


[Terre Thaemlitz cover]