- Jake Mandell: Part of the Mille Plateaux clique that plans to tour the U.S. this summer.
Of all the countries with an active dance music scene, Germany is arguably the most zealous. Back in the '70s, a steely kind of funk called electro emerged from West Germany under the leadership of Kraftwerk, whose robotic grooves set the stage for a generation of musicians intent on implementing keyboards and sequencers into live music. Twenty years later, Berlin is home to the million-plus attendees of Love Parade, a techno and dance music event larger than any other on the planet in its later years. Between Kraftwerk and Love Parade lie repeated worldwide infusions of Teutonic musical innovation, including electronic body music, industrial, and now a variety of furiously dark music that again bridges gaps between American trends and British/European improvements on those trends.
One of these styles, a staticky mélange of sound by-products arranged rhythmically, was recently chronicled by a German label manager whose own musical heritage and pioneering spirit parallels his country's: Achim Szepanski. As director of the techno legend Force Inc., powerhouse outfit Forcetracks, drum 'n' bass horrorhouse Position Chrome, left-field electronic label Mille Plateaux, and the experimental Ritornell imprint, Szepanski embodies the kind of fervor that's made Germany such an influential power throughout the development of electronic music. Now, with his double-disc compilation Clicks_+_Cuts, Szepanski and his stable of labels stand at a vantage point that renders visible the next generation of electronic music innovation.
Beginning in 1991 with Force Inc., Szepanski saw a need for something to fight off the degradation of dance and electronic music caused by lazy creative practices and the increasingly fiscal approach to pumping out consumer music. Thus, Force Inc. became a sounding board for music that couldn't readily be broken into commodifiable pieces, ripped to shreds for sound-bite material, or churned out to keep bubblegummers happy. Throughout the '90s, Szepanski drew increasingly upon his admiration of philosophical luminaries Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in order to found labels that avoided the overgrounding of previously hidden music such as breakbeat, techno, and experimental electronic. Mille Plateaux -- the name taken directly from Deleuze and Guattari's herculean analysis of culture in the wake of postmodernism -- is Szepanski's crown jewel; since 1994 the label has repeatedly wiped the tablet clean by piercing through pleasant musical conventions to reveal the at-once revolting innards of cultural creative processes.
An excellent example of this is the 1996 tribute compilation In Memoriam: Gilles Deleuze. On this expansive release, Szepanski backed up Alec Empire's antifascist terror aesthetics to Cristian Vogel's stripped-down techno experiments, Christophe Charles's sine-wave tone minimalism to Atom Heart's found sound pastiche, Scanner's voyeuristic snippets of intercepted radio transmissions to DJ Spooky's unadulterated urban field recordings. In a similar manner, Clicks_+_Cuts wipes the slate clean by foregrounding musical innovation of varied, often clashing timbres and attitudes.
"I think it's, ah . . . very new, a new feeling. The context of Clicks_+_Cuts is more in the modern aesthetics of sound design," says Szepanski. "[It's] an aesthetic which is conceptualized by the producing of music and not so much by the reception of it anymore. This was the first thing: making audible the process of the production of sound itself. And I think it's not like techno so much anymore, the loop, or like earlier minimalism, the repetition -- it's really more the jumps, the clicks, the cutting edge and its microtonal intervals. You hear more of the sources than how the sources and sounds are sequenced. And it's something I think is really beyond techno."
Clicks_+_Cuts is certainly beyond techno; to the uninitiated, it's at first little more than sonic leftovers. Fellow German Casten Nicolai's "Prototype N" (recorded under the Alva Noto moniker) begins with the sound of an elevator ding followed by a skipping CD: that annoying, repeating click that reminds you to tell the kids the little silver discs are NOT Frisbees. The elevator ding pelts you again, followed by two new CD skipping sounds, only these are pitched higher and lower, clicking at different intervals. This goes on for the better part of six minutes, after which you're left wondering how what you've heard qualifies as music.
Asking Szepanski for a little direction doesn't help, either.
"Even if [the music] is working again with a beat, and how it affects the people, I really don't know it at the moment," he laughs. "It's quite new, you know? On the one hand, we try to produce a kind of new digital click techno, the effect of which is to spread energy in the clubs; and on the other hand, it's a kind of sound where you're in the moment, and you don't really know how the effect will be."
Instead, he suggests, this jarring new music escapes our preconceptions about how sound should function in any sort of environment. It's as though the initially incongruous sounds of everyday electronic materials, like CD players and computers, through the creative perspective of techhead musicians, can be arranged to make sense in the automated world, where 30-year-old notions of pop performance have fallen prey to the bean-counting corporate regime. "It really works good in very modern, hypermodern buildings, and the people are totally affected in a different way than a normal rock concert," Szepanski explains. "There's not this big stage with people listening and looking. The fragmentation of the music is representative of the fragmentation of the reception . . . some people are listening, some are speaking, others are drinking, so there's a totally different atmosphere from a normal concert or techno party."
One aspect of this emerging musical trend -- an aspect that carries substantial implications for Mille Plateaux as both a concept and a business entity -- is the fact that much of the work on Clicks_+_Cuts is by U.S.-based artists. And while only a minuscule fraction of the music-buying population in the U.S. is familiar with this artifact-based form of electronic music, Szepanski says that America is perhaps the most fertile ground in which to plant Mille Plateaux's new musical seed. The significant emphasis of late on the exploding digital culture, he explains, will provide both the listenership that identifies with this music and the technical talent necessary to create it.
"We [in Germany] like to imagine that the States are still rock-oriented or hip-hop-oriented because of the music business," he says. "But I think, even more so than in Europe, there is more progression in music, especially in electronic music, when you compare the technology in Europe and the States."
Szepanski admits that popular forms continue to roar through the highly commercial levels of music production; however, differences in the geography of the technology sector point clearly to the most receptive audiences. For Szepanski, the prevalence in one part of the world of one technology suggests a level of social preparedness for this kind of purely digital music. He's planning a tour of North America featuring Vladislav Delay and a rotating roster of American artists, like Kid 606, Jake Mandell, and Stewart Walker, to uncover the growth potential Mille Plateaux wants.
Truth be known, certain parts of the world aren't living up to their potential. "I was wondering that it's not happening strong enough in Japan, which is more hardware-based, like it is in America, which is more software-based . . . and then Europe, which normally has the task to produce the culture or theory to the software and hardware," he chuckles. "So maybe in Europe it happened in the beginning because music is connected to art and special cultural processes, but when you discuss the technology itself, these countries are for us more interesting."
American artists, he suggests, have applied the country's leadership in software development to music making, which, in his mind, is penultimate to the American market's welcoming of the new sound. "What's interesting for me about people like Kid 606 or Sutekh is this kind of laptop terrorism," he says.
Following that statement, Szepanski pauses before pursuing a line of discussion more in keeping with that of the positive, forward-thinking visionary his past proves him to be. However, for Mille Plateaux and Szepanski, a forthcoming North American tour will be the litmus test for both his lively if not indulgent theories about geomusical tendencies and the more serious business of a musical style in its infancy. Both American and German artists will hit select cities across the country this summer, but Szepanski knows America's reception of this music in its live state could affect the future of Mille Plateaux, and subsequently, the future of electronic music as we know it.