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15 Questions to Terre Thaemlitz

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Ah, a foreplay question… very sweet of you. I guess to help people contextualize my answers I should say I am a transgendered US ex-pat living in Japan and economically connected to the EU by performances.

What’s on your schedule right now?

I'm about to go to the Philippines where I hope to interview Catholic nuns about their usage of electronic audio devices – electric keyboards, organs, pulpit microphones, amplifiers, speakers – as part of a larger project I am doing that takes a critical look at the function of "soul" in the commercial audio marketplace (much as my album "Lovebomb" looked at love as a cultural signifier rather than an emotion). In the past few years I have been working with themes of "visibility" and "active invisibility", which are key to a lot of gender discourse. I am not interested in conventional identity politics that equate visibility with power. I am also skeptical of notions of active invisibility, although I believe in the strength of the undocumented/secret/lost. The applications of electronic audio equipment in third-world convents presents a collision of issues of gender, audio and "soul" – but happening in a way that is completely devoid of any conscious relationship to the dominant commercial audio industries that develop their equipment. Of course, my skepticism of religion and the act of constructing narratives around this otherwise unconsidered scenario will stir up a lot of problematic representational issues – problematic for all parties. It seems my projects are becoming more and more these "strategic disasters." [Laughs.]

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

Audio distribution is certainly in crisis. Several years ago I wrote an article about the transition to download culture called "iPod is Raping the Rapists Who Raped My Village: An Economic Overview of Contemporary Audio Production" ( My good friend Dont Rhine from Ultra-red summarizes the current situation by comparing it to what has done to the book publishing industry. Basically, Amazon set out with a plan to run in the minus for 10 or 15 years in order to undercut all competition and gain control of the book market. What they didn't anticipate was that they would be so successful at eliminating their competition (primarily book stores) that they would actually obliterate the market they wished to possess. As book stores closed down and people had less social contact with books, people began to read less. Now Amazon is considering buying Barnes & Nobel in order to have a material storefront to their business.

Here in the world of Japanese vinyl records, the distribution industry has all but vanished. This also means record manufacturers have vanished, and when I try to manufacture records I have fewer options. That affects quality, which is tough in a market for audiophile collectors. Record stores are desperate to get inventory, but there's not enough. I also just discovered that the specialty CD package manufacturer I like to use has increased their minimum order from 1000 units to 5000 units (when, in reality, most minor labels only need 300-500 and we have been forced to order 1000 anyway). Clearly, manufacturing and distribution are only geared toward major labels. Everyone else is going under. And I suspect in the next years we will be required to have pay subscriptions to audio archives or something…

When I look at my vinyl record collection and think of all the records that have still not been released on CD, and now we are entering another cut-off in media with the death of the CD, I can really feel the horrible process of historical selection in dominant culture at work. But this idea of lost histories is also vital to my own projects. It doesn't mean the information vanishes off the face of the earth. It means it becomes hyper-localized, only continuing to be circulated in those circles where the information has value. I much prefer this to the spew of mass media. And in the world of non-conventional music genres, this is helpful for us producers because it blows away the clouds of mass-marketing that simply don't apply to us. "Popularity" in the conventional sense has little value here.

Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?

Of course, the acts of identification and categorization that go along with distribution mean we are all framed in relation to traditions and movements (often multiple, contradictory ones). But your question is if I personally see myself as part of them. Absolutely. I would like my audio projects to be seen as an extension of constructivist (anti-)art from the turn of last century. Constructivist manifestos and art criticism had an enormous impact on me during my university studies in visual art in New York. In fact, they were so convincing that I left the visual arts, and to this day I despise museums and galleries (the other great dream-killer being New York itself, where gallery politics were so prejudiced and offensive that they snuffed the juvenile dreams of being an "artist" that I had clung to while growing up in Missouri). I'd like to be clear that my alliance is with constructivism, and not it's more visible contemporary futurism. Constructivism was aligned with socialism, whereas futurism was aligned with facism. The way in which references to futurism continue to thrive under global capitalism, whereas constructivism has all but disappeared, reveals something profound about contemporary contexts of production. All of this is why I refer to myself as an audio producer, or an audio consumer, and not as an "artist" or "musician."

What, would you say, are the factors of your creativity? What “inspires” you?

Creativity and inspiration are irrelevant to my projects, except as social constructs that I have parodied and emulated for critical effect – in specific, to show how "music" and "musicial talent" are simply signifiers. When I, as a  non-musician who cannot play any instruments, present an audience with the right series of sounds they interpret them in relation to concepts of "music" and proceed to project "talent" upon me. All of my "music" is intended as a deconstruction of this process.

How would you describe your method of composing?

Very slow, often lazy, but quite deliberate.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

I usually approach sound development and composition (structure/sequencing) separately. In my electroacoustic projects I process sounds first with stand-alone applicatons, and assemble them second in a sequencer. I don't usually use plug-in or realtime effects. I process sounds for use in a specific track – I do not process a million sounds and then try to make a few tracks from them. This is because the samples I use are selected for their relevance to the socio-political theme of the track being composed, so I only consider them to make sense in relation to the track currently in production.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

There are mistakes and accidents that get preserved, but they are recorded and in that sense no longer improvisational prior to the final mixdown. I am not interested in gesture as a process – particularly improvisational gestures. However, clearly much of my music relies on gesture and improvisation (especially piano) as a recognizable audio construct capable of emulation/manipulation.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
In Terre-speak, "new" would be an adjective indicating ignorance of historical precedent.

Do you personally enjoy multimedia as an enrichment or do you feel that it is leading away from the essence of what you want to achieve?

Since childhood I loved album covers, liner notes, etc… all of these elements – graphics, text - combined with audio to create a multi-media experience for me. And I definitely enjoy that overlap of media, although I know many people take it for granted. My partner actually throws out CD cases and only keeps the discs, which horrifies me. [Laughs.] Some download distributors, such as BeatPort, do not provide graphic downloads. Considering I still haven't recovered from the loss of the 12-inch vinyl jacket to the CD booklet, this is really disappointing.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

Constructive boredom is the greatest mind-opener at a concert. Getting in touch with one's expectations around live performances is most easily achieved through disappointment. (I remember one US comedian who complained about opera, saying "Look at all the work it takes to bore me.") I strive to incorporate both boredom and disappointment in everything I do. Both offer a critical response to the demand for non-stop entertainment forced upon us daily by all media industries. Clearly, contemporary children's educational programming is a non-stop, high-energy onslaught of information that utterly fails to teach kids how to pause and reflect on the information being thrown at them – and of course, the ways a society educates children is symptomatic of larger cultural processes. Childhood programming is indoctrination into what we as adults are numb to. I think deliberately imposed boredom is a way to help people feel and be conscious of that numbness.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
I usually answer this type of question by talking about masturbation, which is really at the heart of what you are asking. If one is only engaged in a self-gratifying masturbatory process, there is no social need for audience. No need for documentation. No need for the record. However, if one masturbates in public things change - it becomes either a deliberate act, or a compulsive act. Most producers are operating out of egocentric compulsion. The fact that the audio industry emphasizes the promotion of such people does not tell me the producer is an amazing masturbator. It tells me their pornographic scene (deliberate or compulsive) is being commercially exploited by dominant industry. Most musicians are like people caught on amateur sex tapes who mistakenly think that qualifies them as porn stars. Committed porn stars and sex workers assume a specific duty toward themselves, their industry, and their audience. When a porn star uses a condom before an audience it conveys something political - something distinct from whether they use condoms in their own bedroom. When we open the doors of our bedroom studios to an audience, I think it's better to have a plan in mind.

How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences without sacrificing their soul?
I have often said, if electroacoustic tape music or any of the other genres I work in became "popular" (ie. equivocal to pop music, rock, smooth jazz, etc.) it would cease to function as a critical device. In that case it would no longer be of interest to me as someone whose attraction to such genres is partly reliant upon my personal identification with their lack of popularity. As a cultural "outsider" (in the US, in Japan, in the EU, each in various convoluted ways) I feel alienated by popular music. I think people working in our esoteric fields who aspire toward making what they do "popular," or who still hold on to conventional notions of music as "universal" (ie., extra-social, beyond contextualization) and therefore potentially likeable to anyone, are in denial about their own relations to the status quo. They are like the geeky nerds at school who are completely unaware they are unusual – which represents a loss of power, in my mind. Like the issue of romance-based gay marriage, it shows how a lack of imagination and inability to think outside convention permeates all social strata, and how well we are indoctrinated to crave that which oppresses us. Forget about popularity, please. It's a destroyer. Even in pop electronic music, look at what happened to Depeche Mode, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, the Eurythmics, the Human League, YMO, etc… they were all pushed by the music industry to try and be fucking rock bands, and they sucked as rock bands. (Then we have people like George Michael who actually  become more interesting thematically and in terms of digital production as a result of declining popularity… not exactly an opposite, but interesting to note.) Please, people, go rent the movie "Revenge of the Nerds" and feel pride in who you are. Me? I'm a nerd.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I would never, ever, want to be involved in event organizing – let alone have an official "position" in it (by which I infer financial dependency and/or liability). I have never had a sense for what pleases a crowd. In fact, I hate crowds. Masses of people tend to scare me. Of course, as a producer/performer I have an ongoing relationship with festival culture, but that is more about economic necessity than any real appreciation for festival structures. I'm sure my view is also affected by the fact that I was born and raised in the US, and now live in Japan, neither of which have EU-style festival cultures/funding/etc. I never feel like, "Hey, I'd like to go to a concert this weekend." The thought never crossed my mind. Even as a child I always preferred the deliberateness of a studio recording over the esoteric misses and nonsense that I guess make live performance appealing to others.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Funny you should ask this. I'm not sure if you would call it my magnum opus or my magnum dope-us, but… I recently did a piece about how in the era of MP3 downloads the link between performance duration and media format duration has been severed. The 'album' as a format is dead in the wake of single-track downloads. Simultaneously, record labels demand that audio producers produce albums that fill the longer media formats while paying lower advances and royalties. From thirty-six minute albums in the age of vinyl, to sixty-plus minutes becoming standard in the age of CD's, and onward... Between June 6-16, 2008, I recorded what I believe to be the first full-length MP3 album (4GB, FAT32 compliant, approx. 30 hours at 320kbps) in England at York University's Sir Jack Lyons Music Research Centre. That album is an edit of a slightly longer 31 hour piano solo recorded in sittings averaging 4 to 6 hours in length (after all, what is an album without a fadeout of the longer studio sessions?). The title is "Meditation on Wage Labour and the Death of the Album," and it will be released in data DVD-ROM format along with a second video DVD of different materials including the interviews with nuns I mentioned above (record label undetermined, Comatonse Recordings if no other good offers come). When I was recording it for hours on end alone at nights in a studio with only a bottle of water, a box of crackers and peanut butter, Mark Fell (from SND, who was key to my invitation at York) was calling it "Piece for Self Loathing and Crackers." [Laughs,] I actually performed it live in Tokyo once already – for performances I require a minimum of 81 minutes so as to preclude a recording from fitting onto a conventional audio CD. As for what this magnum opus sounds like: very slow, melancholy, ambient, maybe some would say Cagean. The recording is quite listenable, despite it's length making it unlistenable all the way through in one sitting.

I also just issued the "Dead Stock Archive" which is my complete collected works in MP3 on DVD-ROM (8.54GB, 711 titles, 69:29:40). Although it is a compilation, it is also playing with this idea of scale brought about by MP3's. Like "Meditation on Wage Labor..." it is deliberately too cumbersome for download, playing with notions of convenience and downscaling associated with MP3 files – when, in fact, such file formats are developed to facilitate enormous database industries that collect teraquads of digital diarrhea. As a consumer/collector, what is enough today? What is the boundary of our own compositions? How have our compositions been affected by media formats until now? Most radio pop songs are still conditioned by the time restrictions of 7-inch vinyl. It seems we can now either produce for the individual MP3 download, or we can produce for the capacity of the disk holding that file. At the moment I'm looking at the latter, simply because I haven't heard it investigated, and I tend to find the most content in that which we somehow fail to consider at first pass. It's not particularly a new theme for me. I have done many pieces playing with CD limitations, such as their four second track minimums or maximum of 99 track IDs. But as they would say here in Japan, these MP3 projects come from a different vector. 

As Terre Thaemlitz:
Raw Through A Straw / Tranquilizer (Comatonse Recordings) 1993
Soil (Instinct Ambient) 1995
Web (Subharmonic) 1995
Couture Cosmetique (Caipirinha Productions) 1997
Die Roboter Rubato (Mille Plateaux) 1997
Institutional Collaborative (Mille Plateaux) 1998
Means From An End (Mille Plateaux) 1998
Still Life With Numerical Analysis (Mille Plateaux) 1998
A-Musik Presents A Program Of... A-Muzak (A-Musik) 1999
Love For Sale (Mille Plateaux) 1999
Replicas Rubato (Mille Plateaux) 1999
Interstices (Mille Plateaux)     2000
Oh, No! It's Rubato (Mille Plateaux)    2001
Lovebomb (Mille Plateaux) 2003
The Opposite Of Genius Or Chance (En/Of)     2003
Trans-Sister Radio (Grain Of Sound, Base Recordings) 2005
You? Again? (Mule Electronic) 2006
The Laurence Rassel Show (Public Record)    2007
You? Again? Remixed (Mule Electronic) 2007
Electronics (Zeitkratzer Records) 2008

As DJ Sprinkles:
LWE Podcast 14 (Little White Earbuds) 2009
Midtown 120 Blues (Mule Musiq) 2009

Terre Thaemlitz

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