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Friday, January 31, 2003

++ Rediscovering Techno

++ Call it the curse of the digital generation, but there's no separating ourselves from our tools, despite the ever-proliferating range of options designed to allow us to express ourselves in ways that are ostensibly pure, immediate, and untrammeled by technology. I'm reminded of this every time I forsake the keyboard for pen and paper. My handwriting has never been any great shakes, as any of my grade school teachers could readily attest. But the atrophied scrawl that slides across the page suggests a strange and troubling devolution that stands in stark contrast to whatever evolutionary gains I may have made by linking my thought processes with the "higher levels of abstraction" offered by digital cut-and-paste methodologies.

This is hardly an idle observation. If anything, it's an excuse for the lateness and comparative brevity of this week's column. You see, I've spent a good part of the week switching computers. Sometime around the end of 2002 I seem to have entered into a technological black hole: my DSL went out, my mobile started misbehaving, the mouse button on my laptop's trackpad came unsprung, one of my turntables broke. You name it: if it had an LED or an A/C adapter, it revolted. The final straw was returning home from Chile with a hard drive full of MUTEK photos and no way to get them out of my laptop, given that pesky "Operating System Not Found" message that flashed across the screen every time I tried to reboot. (In retrospect, that may have something to do with the somewhat forceful manner in which I attempted to coax the mouse button back to life, but let's not split hairs — it was nobody's fault, OK?) And so, with the restless finickiness with which I swap favorite genres every six months or so, I decided to sever a decade-long relationship with a certain monopolistic operating system in favor of the peppy (albeit cultish) appeal of its spunky competitor.

++ "Switching is easy," I read on a promotional Web site, and for the most part it has been, despite wrenching my fingers into strange contortions as I unlearn my habitual keystrokes, and figuring out how to make the delete key erase in either direction. Transferring files from the old box has proven a trickier issue: I've gone through about a Volkswagen's worth of aluminum — well, a Cooper Mini, at least — as I've burned CD-R after CD-R of backup data that magically fails to appear on my new, blue desktop. All of this effort, though, has its unexpected payoff: it reminds us that these machines around which we wrap so much of our waking time are far from transparent, and anything but natural, despite the best efforts of the interface designers. A minor epiphany, perhaps, but worth noting all the same: the more intuitive the interface, the more insidiously it structures our interactions not only with it, but with our content and ourselves. That was the takeaway from a half-hour of wrangling with my new email program in the attempt to get it to insert quoted text below, and not above, my own reply. (I failed.)

It would, of course, be a truism from beyond the banal to note that electronic music is a product of its tools. To note the two bookends of the current history of techno, we've heard again and again how the farty misfiring of the Roland TB-303 gave birth to acid house, and how glitch electronica is a response to the hidden failures in software and hardware. But the dialectic is worth bearing in mind, if only because techno seems to be mutating again, this time in response to new applications that allow musicians to mutate loops on the fly, lending software-based performers an unprecedented degree of spontaneity. Ricardo Villalobos, Dandy Jack and Atom Heart used Ableton Live, an application designed around this functionality, as the basis of their blistering trio set at last May's MUTEK; with Luciano added to the lineup, they pulled out a similar improv session in Chile last month. And while I'm not an expert in the software, I suspect you can hear it at work behind recent releases from Villalobos, Dandy Jack, and others in the Perlon camp: their tracky, minimalist workouts seem to mutate more than ever, corkscrewing through a field of flux, turning beats into blank space and back, the way Escher's birds collide in a checkerboard of flight.

++ While we're on the topic of switching, I seem to have switched back to techno, after a brief hiatus away from all things four-to-the-floor. I've always been a bit restless about genres, and I seem to rotate my favorites every six months or so. But I'd drifted away from techno for a while; I hadn't heard anything new in the boom-tick template, and I wondered if minimal techno was burning out.

Maybe it's the MUTEK effect — hanging out with a bunch of Montrealers, Germans, and Chileans will do this to you — but since returning from Chile, all I've wanted to listen to is techno, the jitterier the better. (Of course, there's no better music to lift you out of a high-tech funk, if only because no genre feels more mechanically, machinically deterministic than techno.) In part I've been going back to my own roots in the genre — the dark, overdriven acid from the Netherlands' RA-X (released on former EBM label Kk), experimental tweakery from Vibert & Simmonds' Weirs LP (Rephlex), Dan Bell's seminal DBX tracks. I played three of Bell's tracks out the other night, all in a row, and something about his haywire hardwiring struck a nerve, because three people mentioned it after the show. San Francisco's dance music community hasn't had a solid techno scene in years, caught up as it's been in deep house, drum 'n' bass, and the bouncement offshoots of garage and broken beat. But perhaps people are ready to strip down to kick drums and sine grind again?

I hope so, because techno is far from dead, despite my willingness to write it off a few months back. It might sound obvious, even painfully so, but how much you take away from music like this depends on how much you put into it. Not so long ago, I was convinced that minimal techno had finally hit its last cul-de-sac, tricked onto a merry-go-round of endless, whooshing oom-pahs. But I'm finding records that were right under my nose, all along. Andy Vaz's fourth Sounds Variation 12-inch is far beyond anything he's done before, lacing dense, confused polyrhythms and squiggles with tight, floor-ready rhythms. Far from the abstractedness of the initial Sounds Variation experiments, one track is so housey, at least underneath the surface, as to suggest a more fraught Luomo.

Also on Background (parent label to Sounds Variation), I've discovered the not-very-memorably-named Dave Miller, whose two recent singles sat unnoticed next to my turntables for far too long. He's got Akufen's Todd Edwards cutup thing down pat, and in places he uses it more effectively than his mentor. He reminds me a bit of Dettinger in the way that all his sounds seem run through a sieve, bottled, frozen, and sprayed through an atomizer. His rhythms, too — from the Kompakt triplets to the headstrong, skipping garage touches — are as squirrelly and inventive as anything out there, from Soft Pink Truth to Perlon.

++ I'll admit to being a bit puzzled as to my conversion back to techno; I'm not sure why I'm ready to hear the grain and the detail now that I wasn't before. Two months ago, I put on Dave Miller and all I could hear was theme; now there's nothing but variation upon variation upon variation, as he folds motif after motif from classic techno and house into an origami flipbook. Who's to say why I was ready to come back to the fold. Maybe it took a bad tech-luck month to make me appreciate the sound of machines again. Maybe I was just ready to switch.


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