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.”