© t thaemlitz/comatonse recordings
turn on background audio player
In Wire, September 1997, Issue 163.
"Donning lace and makeup, I sit before my computer and contemplate," wrote Terre Thaemlitz in his sleevenotes to Die Roboter Rubato, released last year on the German Mille Plateaux label. This is not the kind of quote one is accustomed to reading from an experimental electronic composer, but then, Thaemlitz refuses to fit into an formulaic role. A former New York City DJ with a longstanding interest in electronic music, he produces audio works that exploit the contrasting functions of music as a potent socialising force and a point for subjective release. Though he has been working at the margins of sound manipulation for several years, he's arguably better known for his controversial solo piano adaptations of Kraftwerk compositions (collected on Die Roboter Rubato), which deconstructed over-familiar melodies and opened up a discourse on the fetishism of the Mensch Machine. And way before chill out rooms opened in New York, Thaemlitz became notorious for his unique intermixing of musical genres and moods.
"I used to DJ New York and North Jersey Deep House in the late 80s and early 90s," Thaemlitz tells me during a lengthy e-mail exchange, "at benefits for groups like ACT-UP/NY and in transgendered sex worker clubs. This was when HIV/AIDS activism was at its peak - when all these diverse and disenfranchised people were coming together to build autonomous and visible communities. Whereas music was previously an experience of isolation, I was determined with House music to find and participate in a real community with similar interests and be happy ever after. The reality, of course, was that I was fired from every job I landed because I refused to play major-label records. Ambient clubs started emerging, so that was my entry into this whole Ambient Electronica music industry. By this time I was a lot more skeptical of the homogenizing tendencies of 'communities' - especially since Ambient rooms are often tied to the Techno community which Touts melting-pot inclusiveness under the guise of universal humanism, with little allowance for real diversity. Any cultural attempt for 'openness' becomes empty liberal bullshit when it fails to address the implicit hypocrisy between the simultaneous ideals of defiance (creating something outside of the 'mainstream') and unity. It's a contradiction most people overlook or deny because they see it as an error in their logic, and it means that a solidified concept of community is inherently denied by its continual state of flux. 'Openness' is not a logical concept. 'Unity' is the imposition of group identity - impositions of identity involve exclusion as much as they do inclusion."
His first full-length release, Tranqulizer, is one of those rare Ambient records whose vaporous drift of elegant harmony goes way beyond the genre's restrictive definitions, to explore the imperceptible and the intangible. Unlike many contemporary Ambient producers who depend heavily on the fetishistic sound of analogue synthesizers, Thaemlitz's interest in technology has resulted in a strictly digital computer studio set-up. His utilization of alternative technologies reflects his interest in shifting the boundaries of musical genres and challenging conventional notions of 'artistic expression'.
Like Oval, Microstoria and Elph (Worship the Glitch), he exploits the limitations of his software and hardware, processing a lot of the distortions and glitches which arise from digital synthesis.
"In this way, production occurs through processes which seek to recognise and interact with their own limitations - contingencies of circumstance on macro and micro levels (market development versus my own access to such technologies due to economics, education, etc.). The intent is not to say, 'Music is a political force which can change the world' (promoters do that), but to develop audio which can serve as a metaphor for, and accompaniment to, certain materialist and queer strategies of social interaction, which attempt to accommodate for cultural diversity and social contradictions. And as a strategic metaphor it never purports to universality or any transcendence of the political implications of its conditions of production, distribution and performance."
Though at ease with the limitations of computers, our e-mail exchange was protracted due to a phlegmatic computer that underwent a minor heart attack.
"Computers, operating systems, software, interfaces - they are all developed through very complex socio-economic relationships which are anything but liberating. 'Virtual' worlds are the most controlled and illusory - hence politicised - spaces of all. And any artist which confuses a wide range of parameters for production with increased expressive capability is most likely putting the horse before the cart. Media such as computers do not allow for expressivity. They are the vehicles through which people communicate - and when an artist is ambivalent about their own communicative intentions, throwing them up as universal or humanist contents which can only be exposed through the mediation of computers or other post-industrial devices, then it is the contents of the social conditions which generated their media which dominates and contextualizes their actions."
Thaemlitz's work consistently questions conventional applications of music toward transcendental escapism. With recent remixes of Seven Souls (Material's legendary collaboration with William Burroughs), The Golden Palominos and Haruomi Hosono, plus a new solo computer project Means from an End, and his first all rhythmic project G.R.R.L. (a speed-dial through a decade of musical styles), Thaemlitz looks set to remain a key figure in the advancement of electronic composition.
"With all this talk of 'Ambient' music's subversion of melody for noise, we're supposed to be anti-spectacle, right? But I will confess that it was a rather cynical reaction to the sudden commercial viability of 'Ambient' music as a spectacle of the anti-spectacle in the early 90s which made me release under my own name rather than something more anonymous."