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Music & Film Thu Aug 27 2009

Speaking in Code: A Documentary on the Passion-fueled Lives of Contemporary Techno Creators

Being a maker, sharer (DJ), proponent and fangirl of electronic music, I gotta say, working in the electronic music world the past few years having Chicago as my home base has been an uphill struggle for most of the time... and yet I've kept at it because of a passion I've felt, irregardless of monetary gain, fame or status. My non-electronic music friends have rolled their eyes or smiled and nodded politely while I try to speak non-nerd and explain to them why I do what I do and how I do it.

Short story: it's not been an easy journey to stay on target. There's a few things the electronic music world has going against it in terms of popular appeal. First off, there's usually no vocals. How many number ones in North America have you heard in the past few years that had no vocals? I'm slowly clicking through Wikipedia and coming up blank. There was that weirdo period in the '90s featuring Moby and Fat Boy Slim and the like that only featured samples, but I don't think the majority of the public realized they were samples -- they just heard weird, staccato vocals. It seems like we North American folk need a spoken narrative to get into music on a mass level. Techno doesn't have a vocalized narrative, it has an abstract narrative that diverges from the mainstream in that very basic sense.

Techno enthusiasts, I would propose, operate on a generally more abstract level than just "having a beat you can dance to" along with a sung allegory of lost love or pursued-yet-unrequited love. Much along the lines of Western Classical enthusiasts, they giddily freak out about an unexpected bass-modulated, gated atonality, and derive blissful pleasure from well-placed syncopation and juxtaposing the minimal alongside the maximal. Even more modern architects have aimed for the same response with the physical environment. For instance, Frank Lloyd Wright's Unitarian Church in Oak Park creates a compressed-released feeling as one steps into the spacious nave from the sort of cramped '50s-ish dropped-ceiling lobby area.

In that sense, modern, innovative electronic music is the "new classical" for the electronic generation. Classical is a misnomer though, as modern electronic music only refers to established patterns, but sounds not at all like anything classic.

"While house was happily based on reheating black disco, techno strove consciously to reject tradition and avoid copying previous forms... where house rejoiced in funky, soulful disco, techno was transfixed by Giorgio Moroder's computerized version," says author Bill Brewster in Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey.

"Where house stole melodies and basslines wholesale, techno preferred to compose new ones from synthesized notes and layers of tiny, sampled sounds, supporting claims that it is a genre with greater musicianship. Techno is about going back first to principles, to notes and composition, to sounds and structure -- continuing the synthetic agenda laid down by artists like Depeche Mode, Gary Numan and Kraftwerk."

And this is why I think techno has been so maligned... its purveyors are not re-hashing established hooks and samples for the sake of being popular and accepted, they are pushing the boundaries of music and emotion -- place and space -- and creating something new and exciting. Yes, that can be scary. No, there is no safety net. But yes -- it's completely thrilling. Let's see if Speaking in Code can convey this quintessential idea sympathetically to a greater audience in order to open up the world to a new way of thinking about innovative sound, sound arrangement, its loyal culture, and what is possible for the future.

From the trailer:

Speaking in Code is an intimate account of people who are completely lost in music.A heartbreaking and lighthearted documentary, it's a vérité glimpse into the world of techno. Captivating and entertaining, the film takes you around the world, following the people who make electronic music ... their lives.

Starring: Modeselektor, Wighnomy Brothers, Monolake, Philip Sherburne, David Day & Amy Grill

Also featuring: Ellen Allien, Tobias Thomas, Marc LeClair AKA Akufen, Wolfgang Voigt, Michael Mayer, Reinhard Voigt, Sascha Ring AKA Apparat, Sascha Funke, Mario Willms AKA Douglas Greed, Miss Kittin, Dan Paluska AKA Six Million Dollar Dan, Mike Uzzi AKA Smartypants

Featuring music by: Modeselektor, Wighnomy Brothers, Robag Wruhme, Ellen Allien & Apparat, The Field, Monolake, Michael Mayer, Gas, Jonas Bering, SCSI-9, Gui Boratto, Superpitcher, Steadycam, Dettinger, The Rice Twins, Reinhard Voigt, Oxia

Although the artists featured are mostly based in Germany, the internet has spread this particular sound throughout the world through niche-oriented internet media. Germans aren't the only ones generating the energy of the new movement, but their scene is very visible. We do need educational vehicles like one this to explain to the world why we're so passionate about something so abstract, yet moving and emotional. Can't wait to see the final product.

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Scott / August 28, 2009 12:51 PM

A well-written (if slightly maudlin) analysis of the Chicago electronic music scene (and the same as a microcosm of the entire US electronic scene).

I do remember the heydey of Electronica/Big Beat in the mid- to late 90s, the last time I can recall non-vocal-based electronic music getting massive radio play...remember how huge the Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, et al, were? Was this just a case of right place, right time, of some admittedly talented artists getting lucky in getting noticed by the major labels, by radio, and, consequently, by everyone?

Has the much-lauded "democratiziation" of music production on personal computers and distribution via the internets so changed the nature of the music business that the nature of success therein has been permanently scaled down? Will all but the very biggest of the big, mega-club-packing, movie-soundtrack-making, vocal-based-pop-music-artist-remixing electronic musicians have to practice their art and make their names in the evening hours after their web-developer, IT, or marketing jobs?

Another question: other than relying on benevolent third parties publicizing said scene through works like Speaking Speaking in Code, what steps are said electronic musicians (yourself included) taking to expose a wider audience to your very worthy music?

Liz / August 28, 2009 1:20 PM

There is an interesting debate on the subject of sampling and its implied plagiarism here at Create Digital Music:

Why plagiarism is a moral no-no is something that's been debated in philosophy circles, but the gist of it seems to be that it is "inauthentic," to which I would agree. I still stand by Brewster's assertion that techno is a purer form of musicianship. When you sample, you get lost in that original creator's world. When you tweat synths and effects for an hour you create something out of waveforms that is purely your own. The process of pushing and pulling apart sound on your terms with your personal system of taste makes it yours.

Sampling disco riffs and making them into a house track to me seems more based on capturing an emotional feeling via nostalgic reference rather than creating the experience from the ground up. And that, I feel, is far more authentic.

From the video: "[it's about] Rearraging simple elements to create something extrodinary"

"Somebody's investing in that moment in where they're really feeling the passion"

"in that moment" is the key. Sampling is pulling something out of the past. When you live in the moment you can focus on the future instead of being sucked into the backwards-looking world of nostalgia.

In terms of what I'm doing personally to expose more people to the music, I have been creating nights here in Chicago that rely less on artist names that are a draw to a small niche of people, but creating fun and interesting parties that appeal to everyone..and then you just happen to drop the weird music.

And writing about this stuff on blogs that aren't specifically about electronic music should add to the goal. (*cough* writing on Gaper's Block)

Scott / August 28, 2009 1:28 PM

Ever have your use of a word challenged, a word you've been using for years, confident that you actually know its proper meaning, only to find you've been wrong all along?

Just had one of those. Very embarrassing.

When I said "maudlin," I actually meant "morose." I didn't mean to imply that the author was drunk or silly in her sentimentality. (at least not in this particular article. Heh.)

Scott / August 28, 2009 2:06 PM

Well, the sampling debate is another whole can of (ear)worms...

Just to play devil's advocate, can the success of a house/techno track be looked down upon as reliant upon nostalgia if the sampled hook is from a track so obscure that almost none in the current audience are aware of the original's existence? If it's a ghost-sampled phrase from, say, a lesser known classical piece? If it's sampled from the electronic musician himself (or one of his friends) noodling on a guitar in the studio?

I remember having heated debates with my college roommates in the late 80s wherein they were decrying the synth-based music I was into (your Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Skinny Puppy, etc.) as "not music" because the notes weren't created by plucking strings on a guitar, the tracks were recorded from sequences rather than "live" performances (they were really into classic rock and metal). It seems to me that your exaltation of waveform manipulation over track sampling is just my roommates' same argument in another decade...One that turntablism, for instance, really throws into question. (Listen to a Kid Koala album, for instance, and try to tell me that nostalgia is the primary appeal).

Ultimately, though, all of this is beside the original point I was trying to make: that techno and IDM comprise some of my favorite music, and I, like you, would love to see its popularity return to the levels of those 90s glory days. Certainly, we could wait for the nostalgia loop to finally get over the 80s, get through the grunge and golden-age-of-hip-hop revivals that will inevitably follow, and wait for big-beat/electronica to take its place as the Renaissance du jour...

Or, and I think you'll agree, we can take a more proactive stance: aggressively promote the art that you love to the masses. Parties and blogging are fun, but can often just end up as more preaching to the choir. If vocals hook the people, is it an artistic compromise to give the people vocal hooks? Is it a crime to get the people to pay attention to something new by giving them something they already know and love? If so, perhaps the electronic purist should simply make their music for the love of it and the appreciation of the small but devoted fan base.

But I gotta think there's another way...

David Powers / September 4, 2009 12:33 PM

I call "Bull$h!t"!

First of all, half of those artists make what is really "techno-pop". I'm not sure how putting a few synthetic sounds over what is essentially a stripped down pop song structure really constitutes "avoiding tradition".

Furthermore, it sounds to me like Europeans are engaging in a form of subtle racism in their positioning of the relative value of techno vs. house, in their choice of European artists as opposed to American (often black) artists, and in stating that techno artists are inherently more likely to "push the boundaries of music" and innovate, while house music just "rehashes" things for the sake of being popular. Especially problematic is the idea that techno is a genre with greater musicianship. Furthermore, techno is clearly in a phase of rehashing as opposed to innovation, and very little of it could really be said to be innovative in any sense. Putting together a few clickety-clack sounds in Ableton to make a track is not exactly rocket science, and this is the year 2009, not 1989.

If anything, techno is unable to innovate because it is limited by its inherently self-referential musical vision, with roots that really only extend back to Kraftwerk, synthpop, and industrial music. Rather than exploring new sounds horizons, techno tends to exist within a really narrow spectrum of sound, in the same way that the sound horizon of death metal is pretty much defined by loud guitar riffs and fast drum fills. I think techno needs to get over its sci-fi 1980's vision of reality and integrate more of the rich legacy of human music making. For me, that means techno should not be afraid to use sounds and ideas coming from free-form improvised music, jazz, classical, and world music.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
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Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
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Elbo Room
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Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
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Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
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Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
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Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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