This year one of the most important, distinctive albums in electronic music history, Monoton‘s Monotonprodukt 07, receives its first ever vinyl reissue.
The album was created by Austrian artist Konrad Becker and released in 1982; it was the second studio album Becker had created under the Monoton name, following 1980’s stark Monotonprodukt 02. Its limited pressing – 500 copies, which really was a small number in those days – meant that it quickly became a highly collectible item, discussed in reverent tones by record collectors and electronic music aficionados, but heard by few outside these clandestine and inward-looking circles.
In recent years however, Monotonprodukt 07 has become firmly established as a classic: 1998 saw The Wire include it in its alternative canon-shaping 100 Records That Set The World On Fire list, with Biba Kopf observing how alive it is “with the pulses that triggered many Electronicas to come, from Techno through Trance to Mego’s creeping static…picking up on Suicide’s jittertronic urgency, if not their melodrama, and DAF’s throbbing sequencers, but with the sex threat removed.” Occasional FACT contributor Matt ‘Woebot’ Ingram counted the album among his own iconoclastic 100 Greatest Records Ever rundown, calling it “underground NDW…the square root of Basic Channel, Kompakt and Oval”. What’s more, CD reissues in 2003 and 2009, not to mention the murky world of “sharity” rips, means that more people than ever before are intimately acquainted with the music.
Konrad Becker is well aware of the role the internet has played in giving Monotoprodukt 07 a second lease of life – in fact the internet, and the way it disseminates information and disinformation, is one of his areas of expertise. Though he remains active in the field of sonic and visual art, Becker is perhaps now more widely known as a “hypermedia researcher and interdisciplinary content developer”, as Director of the Institute For New Culture Technologies and founder of Public Netbase and World-information.org. His work as a theorist has seen him publish a number of well-regarded books, take up academic posts and consultancies, and of course participate in numerous conferences and symposia around the world – indeed, if you’re looking for an interesting slant on the topic of man and his relationship to technology, Becker is your go-to egghead.
On the eve of the release of Desire Records’ long-awaited edition of Monotonprodukt 07 (available to pre-order here), FACT’s Kiran Sande spoke to Becker to find out more about the record’s origins, and those of the Monoton project at large. Almost inevitably, the conversation quickly turned to politics, cyber-ethics and the tricky business of navigating the contemporary “infosphere”.
“I was interested in the concept of cosmological machine music and a future that obliterates the composer.”
“Growing up with a 60s popular sci-fi imagination I was more than ready to embrace the future [laughs]. Probably I was overestimating the speed of development at the time…It started around some very basic electronic devices that I didn’t steal, but begged for and borrowed. With a friend we started to do little shows based on that. Very private, in homes and artist studios. Later I got hold of little computers and tinkered devices. However, the fascination of a ‘dehumanized’ musician as the producer of denaturalized sounds is an ever present factor from the origins of ritual music to the more contemporary shapes of popular sounds.”
Why did you adopt the alias ‘Monoton’?
“Even though I was also hanging out in arty scenes I was quite opposed to a cultural system that gives overwhelming importance to the supposed achievements and branding of individual personalities. So I was looking for vehicles to make my activities more anonymous. I took care not to make it too visible, like who is doing what under the names.
“Supposedly the name for African Juju music was adopted from the designation of white colonialists who summarised this musical cultural expression as ‘juju’. Similarly the pejorative label ‘Devil Dance’ was adopted by the shamanistic ritual practitioners in Sri Lanka. All the music I really liked was considered ‘monotonous’ by your average western music-lover. So that’s one explanation for the name.”
Monoton – ‘Tanzen & Singen’ (from Monotonprodukt 07, 1982)
But there’s more to it than that?
“Of course in my personal journey through music history I soon found that most music that sounds monotonous at first is just highly complex. When people seem to hear ‘always the same’ it mostly means they are missing out on something. Usually it’s a deficiency of perceiving the complexity of scales and microtonality, modulation or rhythm, etc. The passive consumer’s musical hell is heaven for the active listener. For me it is more about learning to listen than to make music and for instance to explore the sound of the city. After all, the human sensory capacity for experiencing sound and vibration is very extensive.
“At the same time repetition is the key to an active listener experience. Even if you play the same thing twice, it will never be the same. If you play it a hundred times it will be different a hundred times. Same with repeating a word many times: you start to hear ‘other’ words instead. A verbal transformation related to what is called ‘semantic satiation’. The language code loses its meaning and a new meaning emerges.”
“I was encouraged by the wave of independent labels and producers. Against the boredom of the majors this was so refreshing. Of course the quick appropriation was sobering.”
So the idea and practice of repetition was key to the music of Monoton?
“At the time I picked up the habit to arrest the pick-up of my record player so it would play the most interesting parts in a loop.
“Experimenting with resonance machines – what we call instruments – is one of the oldest cultural activities and the importance of ‘meta-mathematical’ structures in this context can be verified for most cultures. Pythagorean experiments with the monochord about the transformation of sound experience into numbers have not lost their fascination. As Leibnitz put it, “music is a secret arithmetic practice of the soul”.
“I sympathised with the energy of the early punk scene and its trope of ‘three chords are enough to start a band’, however I thought, three’s already much too much and one tone should be more than sufficient. Polyphonic synthesizers were far out of reach at the time anyway…”
“At the time I was encouraged by the wave of independent labels and producers. Against the boredom of the majors this was so refreshing. Of course the quick appropriation was a bit sobering.”
How would you say your work evolved between Monotonprodukt 02 and Monotonprodukt 07?
“Well, 02 was just superbasic – by any standards the equipment was laughable. Half of the record is just a drum machine run through a cheap echobox and some basic monophonic synth-bass and layers. Price and availability of the kind of stuff I wanted to use was an issue! This spartan set-up was augmented by an oil drum standing around in my studio and an old violin. 07 is much more elaborate in terms of equipment, but also in the breadth of experimentation with different approaches and interests of mine.”
What were the ideas, inspirations and motivations behind Monotoprodukt 07?
“I saw it more as a byproduct of a process, of exploring, experimenting and investigating, of trial and error. A basic motivation that nobody else seemed to be doing this kind of thing…As in many later projects, I was thinking, if no one else is doing this I’ve got to do it myself then. When there was lots of interesting music around I found that somewhat demotivating.
“07 was kind of a showcase of several elements that I had been using previously in installations, shows or videos, or simply emerged from my experimenting. Part of my work I saw as private experiments, but then I also developed an ambition to translate this into ‘products’.”
“I don’t believe in the myth that a work will surface over time thanks to its inherent qualities. History is not linear and a lot of achievements easily get lost.”
Why do you think Monotonprodukt 07 exerts such a hold over people’s imaginations so many years later? Do you still listen to it? Looking back, what do you feel its strengths and weaknesses are?
“I think part of the fascination is exactly that it was hardly visible at all; it was kind of an open secret. People like to share secrets. Personally I don’t believe in the myth that a work will surface over time thanks to its inherent qualities. History is not linear and a lot of achievements easily get lost. However, aren’t we all fascinated by Easter eggs and hidden doors in games?
“No, I haven’t listened to the record for a long time. It was just one thing of many that I’ve been doing. When I produced some 12″s in the early rave period and my colleague in Amsterdam urged me to re-sample some of the stuff for the club context of ’92 I kind of ‘rediscovered’ it. Meanwhile I’ve taken up the habit of doing live cameos, based on notebook, and have added little bits and pieces of this period into my sound repertoire.”
“The strengths are also somewhat related to the weaknesses. The whole technology and methodology of ‘bass music’ has really developed in the last decades – back then, I had problems getting the record pressed properly by the local plant due to the bass frequencies. If I looked back I would probably do quite a few things differently, but really I don’t look back, much.”
“‘Wissenschaftliche Sensations’ translates more or less to ‘scientific sensation” and plays on a tautological notion. I guess I was challenging the ontologigal categories and dividing lines of objective official science, pseudo-science and what I called ‘subjective science’. Under the name Wissenschaftliche Sensation I organised rhythm and noise-based, dub-style ‘big band’ stuff of 8-20 people, sometimes using sound objects and weird percussion instruments. It was long, mostly improvised ‘live’ sessions.
“In live music environments my interest was in building acoustic space: treating sound in an architectural way in the sense of creating standing waves and resonances also specifically for the room the music is played in. This literally means building walls or layers of sound (sometimes walls of noise, really), saturating the space with waves that start to interact within themselves.”
Did you think of yourself as a ‘subjective scientist’?
“‘Scientist’ is a designation sometimes used for witch doctors and for practitioners of Afro-Caribbean cults, including Santeria. This is a notion that I believe is reflected in the dub artist’s name, as in Scientist: Rids The World Of The Curse Of The Vampires. In our ‘Wissenschaftliche Sensation’ line-up-lists, which were sometimes quite large, we put a ‘Doctor’ in front of each name to make this point (some people who were struggling for their Phds were not amused.)
“It was a common visual trope for dub artists to portray themselves in this setting of an advanced spaceship controls console. And yes, that’s how it felt, even though there were just a few blinking lights and some knobs to fiddle.
“Some of the early concerts were promoted under the label ‘Gesellschaft für Wissenschaft und Volkstanz’ (literally Association for Science and folk-dance), with Volkstanz carrying some very conservative connotations. Later I re-used the label ‘Volkstanz’ when I helped organise cultural activities against the extreme right-wing party in our government around the year 2000 – for instance street parades with what we called ‘soundpolitisierung’ or ‘sound politicization’.”
“I was particularly fascinated by the Lee ‘Scratch Perry’ and King Tubby studios, and loved African Starship when it came out.”
How aware of and interested were you in the surrounding climate of electronic music in Germany and beyond in the late 70s and early 80s?
“It was a field of information scarcity – even if you were interested or even if you were an obscurity hunter. Most of the stuff I knew I found too hippy, I was too cyber-punkish for that…but I loved Can, and of course Kraftwerk – even though they were pretty popular by then, their operation was quite outlandish in the overall scheme of things. I was particularly fascinated by the Lee ‘Scratch Perry’ and King Tubby studios, and loved African Starship when it came out.”
Tell me about the cover artwork on Monotonprodukt 07, which depicts the staff lines of formal musical notation, but empty: no notes.
“I guess it was the closest to being a ‘white label’ [laughs].
“As is indicated by the name of the project I was deeply sceptical of ‘creativity’; I always thought this is for people working in advertisement or financial products. I was more interested in being an ‘explorer’. One of my interests in experimenting with machine music was to teach them to play all by themselves by looking into amplifying natural rhythms, cosmological structures, biological and self-referential feedback loops. I was interested in the concept of cosmological machine music and a future that obliterates the composer. Automatonic, bionic generative music – hence the cover designs based on empty stave lines.
“In my dreams I imagined a fully automated musical orchestra based on the vibrational patterns of the universe that would interact with the listener. Later I got more interested in the aspect of social commentary. Intelligent cultural production does not just lead you along but opens up a space of intellectual adventure and allows you to fire up some neurons on your own.
“The importance of musical systems is not only in their stabilising, but rather in their transforming and de-limiting effects.”
“There was also some irony involved. The tonality of classical Western music as it is represented by the staff sheet is directly related to the spread of nationalistic and centralistic hierarchies and the established political economic and cultural framework. I actually got some training in classical music but today I couldn’t play from a sheet if you put a gun to my head.
“There are far more than a thousand discernible pitches available to melodic consciousness, yet only a very small fraction of them are allowed. The loss of rhythmic intelligence after the Middle Ages is evidence of increased domestication. In The Republic, Plato asserts that ‘Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited […] When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them’. Jacques Attali, in Noise, the Political Economy of Music, quotes Moliére’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, ‘Without music no state could survive’, and adds: ‘It was no longer necessary to carry out ritual murder to dominate. The enactment of order in noise was enough’.
“Music offered itself as a bourgeois substitute for religion since music as an organisation of controlled panic transforms dissonance into harmony and provides reassurance of stability. An idealised humanity mirrored in a hierarchical harmonious musical system based on exclusion of conflict. And opposed to dissonances, where the blurring of differentiation is perceived as violence. The importance of musical systems, though, is not only in their stabilising, but rather in their transforming and de-limiting effects.”
What, if anything, is the common thread running through your work – what is that your links your work as Monoton to your work as, say, a critical theorist or as digital communication expert? Is it fair to say that the interactions between man and technology are what interest you the most?
“Yes indeed, the relation of human and technology, of subject and object, the individual and the collective experience. As a broader overarching theme, I am interested how immaterial, symbolic regimes interact with the material reality (through technology, for instance). Hence my series of books: Tactical Reality Dictionary, Strategic Reality Dictionary and, coming up next, Dictionary of Operations. The power of media over matter, to put it another way. It applies to control society, knowledge organization and information management (as in search engines) or ‘Intellectual Property’ issues. This is also true for my later artist/activist symbolic interventions in public space.
“I’d also say that a determined curiosity is a connecting factor…My approach was always universalist, as opposed to specialist, but often there is a strange gap where many who have more of an intellectual background seem not to be able to relate to transgressive powers of sound, while some in the music scene seem to have never read a book in their life. Theory needs to be coupled with practice. A lot of people get a little depressed when they hear my techno-civilization analysis…For me it is important to keep a balance where the tools of repression can be turned into tools of liberation.”
“I am not so much annoyed by some of the vulgar commercial renderings of electronic dance music but rather of the snobbish hype and pale faddishness of self-styled aesthetic elites.”
Do you feel the advance of electronic music has been halted? Do you feel as excited about the possibilities available to electronic musicians now as you did in the late 70s ad early 80s? Do you feel that the spread of technology has made artistic practice across the world more or less interesting?
Yes, I have been invited to talks where there was this anxious question of whether we’ve reached the end of (electronic music) history. Part of the renewed interest in my early work is based on this feeling that there are no unifying revolutionary trends emerging and so there is a tendency to look back. Genres are splitting up into sub-genres the moment they appear; the infosphere gets ever more complex. This looking back shows a need for orientation.
“I have lived through a few boom and bust cycles of experimental independent music but I keep meeting people who experienced the rush of the early ’90s and are deeply frustrated that this revolutionary moment has passed so quickly. A lot has to do with the psychological momentum. When sometimes the dancefloor seemed to levitate and curve space-time it wasn’t necessarily because the tracks that were spinning were so extraordinarily good, but rather the mindset was extraordinary.
“Recently a producer of electronic music in the US mentioned that it is still seen as ‘un-American’ while European alternative mainstream radio has just barely picked up on what was happening 20 years ago. Personally I am not so much annoyed by some of the vulgar commercial renderings of electronic dance music but rather of the snobbish hype and pale faddishness of self-styled aesthetic elites…but seriously, I think there has never been so much interesting contemporary music around as now, thanks to this ‘revolution of machines’. Significantly, new developments are coming from the streets not the academies. Most of the ‘highly educated’ art music crowd simply doesn’t get it…
“The statistics of access to computers for producing sound speaks for itself. People romanticise the times when unusual albums were priceless treasures and you had to physically travel all over to get interesting stuff. In the early 90s DJs were still competing by monopolising 12″ vinyl copies. Better access to interesting music has widened and expanded musical understanding.
Hanging out in clubs or places where there are hardly any intellectuals, or even grown-ups for that matter, I hear anonymous little masterpieces that will probably never surface anywhere, especially not in any art history canon, but they show that the musical intelligence and spirit is still there. OK, I can’t exclude the possibility that some of them become cultural icons, but that’s not the point…”
“An information age is just as much a disinformation age.”
Given your interests in cultural intelligence and social control, where do you place Monotonprodukt 07 in the scheme of things? Is it interesting to you that the album has gained a new audience via the dissemination of information through the internet?
“It is pretty clear that 07 owes its second life to the net. However it would be naïve to see the net as a tool of ultimate transparency. An information age is just as much a disinformation age. And the fog of trivial exhibitionism, the self-fulfilling silliness of crowds and other dumbing-down phenomena are in full effect. After the end of the bipolar world of the cold war, there seemed to be an uncanny integration and homogenization into a controlled environment of standardised technologies. However clearly there are also possibilities opening up in the cracks and interspaces of the current regime.
“One of the positive side effects is that the world has opened up a bit…in the good old days there were stronger localised gatekeepers, like ‘London’. Things from outside were often viewed in a very condescending way… Now it is clearer that some of the most interesting stuff is actually happening on the peripheries…”
Desire Records are releasing the album on vinyl. How do you feel about the vinyl LP in the digital age? Do you still retain an affection for the LP as a cultural artifact or does it seem irrevocably outmoded and redundant to you?
“Anyone who has carried record boxes around the world or even just from one place to another knows how impractical records are. However, with its technological obsolescence, a vinyl record attains a new aura. It is a fascinating and beautiful object in itself. It is like writing some documents on parchment. And even with my fascination with all things electronic I still love old-fashioned books more than text files. Usually I have a less than very romantic attitude to these things though…
“It’s funny when the ‘old guard’ of DJs that are proud of their vinyl skills complain that nowadays just ‘anybody’ can play files from his PC. When I was dealing with clunky and unwieldy analogue gear I was dreaming of a small discreet box that I could carry under my arm. Now of course I’m also moved by
analogue music machines – they’re like exotic animals of a mysterious, fickle nature.”