INTERVIEW: RICHARD CHARTIER: BLOW UP (2003)
In 1970, a twenty-nine year-old sound conceptualist named Alvin Lucier walked into a room containing only a chair and a microphone. He sat down and, for the next forty minutes, proceeded to dictate a single paragraph into the microphone over and over, until he had repeated it 32 times. The paragraph in question dealt with sitting in a room and repeatedly reading the same paragraph into a microphone. As Lucier conducted these repetitions, his recorded voice was continuously played back into the room, feeding into the recording itself, until the room frequencies had been magnified to such a degree that they corrupted the copy of the copy of the copy. By the end, only a single tonal band remained. The piece was aptly titled "I'm Sitting In a Room" (available these days through Lovely Music).
This curious endeavor in the mechanics of sound production was described thirty years later in the liner notes to German producer Stephan Mathieu's Wurmloch Variationen (released on Ritornell and translated literally as Wormhole Variations). The extended description of Lucierís project, and his developmental process, in the sleeve of Mathieuís album points toward a kindred link between the world of sound installationists and a new wave of electronic composers, who have begun to incorporate the former groupís high concept principles into their own work ethos. In Mathieu's recording, which he arranged and played himself, an eleven-minute piano piece undergoes a total of twenty-six copies, until the generational hisses and crackles once buried in near-silence rise to a point where they threaten to overtake their original source.
I use these examples as two aspects of an approach to "music-making" that has remained chronically under-documented in a music industry that, for the most part, considers it too conceptual. Too conceptual, perhaps, because its participants deconstruct the definition of "music-making" down to its most necessary parts (sound, patterns, variances) before getting to work. Hence, the musical narrative that emerges becomes something that is about the process of "music-making." If you ask microsound composer Richard Chartier, this is because "no narrative is present in these patterns--except that implied by the compositions' existence in time and the levels and plateaus serving as events within that temporal space. A rhythm is created. Repetition takes over as the predominating compositional quality of the work. Knowable cycles slowly develop, but in that discernment of pattern comes variances in the perception of the listeners. In experiencing a stretched out and slowed down serial composition that requires auditory focus, expectation of the next sound's arrival dramatically increases the significance of the faintest change in rhythm or the introduction of alternate events, as well as the spaces in between."
Artistic self-reflexivity merits a keen interest in the exploration of microscopic sounds, as is the use of regenerational cycles as a means of construction and, conversely, deconstruction. These are the cornerstones of what has been referred to as unessentialism, a movement that has been experiencing a resurgence in recent years. In this latest wave, artists as diverse as Carsten Nicolai, SND, Thomas Brinkmann, Stephan Mathieu, Taylor Deupree, and Richard Chartier have come to revitalize unessentialist elements using contemporary means.
But what exactly is unessentialism?
The term ìunessentialismî has been used most often to describe a musical direction in which the undesirable output of machinery (clicks, glitches, atonalities, microscopic sounds)óusually eliminated from the finished productóis instead recycled back into the mix and made central. But if we were to define unessentialist output properly, a good place to start would be with the word itself.
Unessentialism is best viewed as an offshoot of the philosophical doctrine of modern essentialism, which is most commonly understood as a belief in the real and true essence of things, in other words, the invariable and fixed properties that define the ìwhatnessî of a given entity. The definition of this ìwhatnessî is a construction, a complex system of cultural, social, psychical, and historical differences that position and constitute the subject. Anti-essentialism questions the effect of this complex system on the ìwhatness.î Unessentialism, on the other hand, does not deny the effect of a system; rather, it questions what the properties of this central ìwhatnessî intend to hold in place.
This distinction is important, in that it affects the framework in two ways. Firstly, without a centralized essence to imbue meaning on a system, all that remains is a rhizomatic framework of mechanics. In other words, the system loses its identity and becomes another machine. Secondly, without its center the parameters of a system are invariably affected, and it is at this point that we can begin to redefine the utility of what was at first considered systematic excess.
Every system, just as every machine, invariably produces excess. This excess, this undesirable output, is a negation of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari would refer to as the necessary progression of any desiring machine.
Our presiding system is, of course, that of the market economy; we populate a capitalist framework. But if we theoretically devalue this machine's essence, our sense of desireóour needs and wants, which fuel and perpetuate the marketóthen, in a way, we redefine what constitutes its waste.
Historically, this notion of excess has not only been associated with post-war capitalism, but also with its ideological opposite, the inherently self-conscious nature of post-war artistic creation. Creativity operates within a paradox; it must occur outside a framework, but must also reflect upon the structure that excludes it.
Musical unessentialism has, to an extent, always highlighted its self-consciousness and, in attempting to place itself outside a structure that necessarily includes its participants, has made a virtue of its paradoxical existence. It thereby constitutes a reactionary and indirectly politicized movement. Whereas the dominant structure of capitalism espouses progression, unessentialism values regeneration or, at its best, cyclical stasis. Furthermore, it present artists with aesthetic tools they can use to manipulate sound, but the definition of what constitutes an excessive or unessential sound transforms along with the dominant market-driven model. In a digital age, our cultural excess is the excess of our digitality--the microscopic sounds and white noise of our dominant machines.
Unessentialism shares common interests with minimalism, but what distinguish the former from the latter are precisely these politicized intentions regarding cultural waste. Even so, their common bonds cannot be ignored. It is by no means accidental that elements of John Cage's theories on musical silence bear influence on microsound proponents such as Taylor Deupree, Bernard Guenter, and Richard Chartier, or that the minimalist notion of repetition weighs heavily on the early works of SND and Thomas Brinkmann.
What is often referred to as the first wave of "industrial" music constitutes the second pertinent precursor to modern unessentialism. After all, early ìindustrial musicî relied heavily on the use of pipes, barrels, and other found objects, usually deemed as industrial waste, to create a rhythmic foundation. Just as, in the mid- to late-seventies, Einsturzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle used the excesses of an industrial age for creative ends, this generation of experimenters has found inspiration in the excess of a media-driven economic structure. As stated early on, we would also be amiss to ignore the profound influence of avant-garde sound installationists like Alvin Lucier and, to a lesser extent, the impact of William Burrough's cut-up tape experiments, which highlighted a lengthy series of tape loops, and voice and sample manipulations.
Yet for all these precursors, today's unessentialism seems to have evolved most directly out of the minimal techno and IDM (Intelligent Dance Music, as developed by artists like Autechre, the Black Dog, and labels like Warp) movements that took form in the early to mid-nineties. Whereas the former influenced the rhythmic inclinations of the regenerative process, the latter justified electronic music as a form that could exist outside the framework of DJ's, clubs, and twelve-inch records.
Most critics would agree that these precursors first synthesized into a sum larger than their originating parts in 1996, with the release of Oval's Systemisch album (released initially through Frankfurt-based label Mille Plateaux and consequently through Chicago's Thrill Jockey). On this recording, Markus Popp, Sebastian Oschatz, and Frank Metzger's use of the skips in defunct compact discs as the basis for musical composition succinctly mirrored the denouement of an age of cultural mass production in which the dominant technology used to sell music (the CD) fettered away after an average life expectancy of seven years. By magnifying these glitches and teasing syncopated rhythmic tendencies out from the repetitions, Oval spearheaded a new wave of electronic producers who saw opportunities in creating a form of music in which the end material product could, in some fashion or another, be incorporated back into the means of production.
Unessentialist criteria to date have worked best when integrated into already existing genres. This adaptability to and absorption of other types of music is what has rendered it a justifiable movement rather than just an intriguing, but ultimately dead-ended, endeavor.
The advent of a fully virtualized age, in which the white noise of computers, modems, cellular phones, and numerous other machines has superceded more industrial means of production, has also instigated a flurry of unessentialist creative activity. By 1999 Mille Plateaux, the label responsible for the release of the first two Oval albums, was consistently releasing similarly minded works. Raster-Noton, 12k/LINE, Fallt, and Ritornell were quick to follow suit.
Within this network of labels, artists are exchanged and artists are free to release with whoever suits them. Unlike the traditional label/artist relationship, the defining characteristic behind the labels that propagate unessentialism is the conspicuous absence of propriety, which otherwise formulates the central ìwhatnessî of the music business. Also conspicuous is the subversion of artistic individuality, a characteristic highlighted by the homogenous, standardized packaging many of these independent labels endorse for their releases. Still, several artists have emerged to establish names of their own.
With the release of 1999's makesnd cassette
(Mille Plateaux), SND signaled a shift in unessentialist aesthetics toward the incorporation of more genre-specific rhythmic templates. Using contact mics to access microscopic sounds and then delineating this source material through a rigidly linear structure distantly reminiscent of hip hop and R&B, SND provoked many critics to credit them with opening up new possibilities for both electronic music and the then sagging state of "urban" music production.
By building a second arm into his turntable, Thomas Brinkmann was able to access sounds from vinyl that were never intended for the listener. Innovating on ideas about the creative process first put forth by Oval, the incorporation of these previously hidden sounds into Brinkmann's severely regenerative brand of minimal techno was considered a major innovation at a time when the sound of minimal techno was slightly changing with what seemed to be every fifth release. His technique works best when reconstructing the vinyl pressings of other producers' music. More so than others in the field, his manipulation of vinyl sets the most pertinent question posed by unessentialism squarely before us. What is a finished product exactly? His reworkings of Richie Hawtin's Concept 1 series (Minus 8) and Mike Ink's Studio 1 album (Profan) are still considered requisite releases within the genre.
Taylor Deupree and Richard Chartier are perhaps unessentialism's most notable contributors to the developments of the microscopic sound movement, and they are also North America's most prevalent participants in this otherwise European phenomenon. Notable for the advent of late-nineties ultra-minimalism, their releases on 12k and LINE are characterized by high-pitched frequencies, atonalities, and a very subdued assortment of mechanical interruptions and reconfigurations. As curator of the album Microscopic Sound (Caipirinha), released in 1999, Deupree is responsible for establishing a communal entity for a number of otherwise anonymous micro-sound producers.
Also of importance is Carsten Nicolai, whose work as a conceptual artist and as a producer has earned him a following in both galleries and record stores. As co-owner of Germany's Raster-Noton label, he has been responsible for creating a sound that incorporates SND's deconstructed genre templates with the atonal bursts and frequencies of the microsound movement.
But most would agree that the greatest propagation of unessentialism, as a verifiable artistic movement, came in the form of Clicks + Cuts, a comprehensive, almost encyclopedic, compilation series released by Mille Plateaux. This series not only introduced the larger electronic music community to the proliferation of unessentialism, but also established the movement's presence as a fully-fledged, mature community, capable of producing, manufacturing, and promoting artistic inventiveness.
There are too many notable contributors to mention here. Certainly, the work of Ryoji Ikeda, Ekkehard Ehlers, Janek Schaefer, Stillupsteypa, and numerous others warrants closer scrutiny. As does the trajectory of more recent unessentialist output, for it is not without its criticisms. Some have noted that the sheer proliferation of participants, coupled with their exponential proliferation of individual releases, has led to a cultivated level of pedantry and predictability within the genre. That unessentialism's resurgence in electronic music is finite, but its aesthetic principles will most likely evolve elsewhere, perhaps in other musical contexts, perhaps in other artistic ventures. After all, the discerning eye can see unessential elements at work in, for example, the experimental films of Stan Brakhage, or Jeff Noon's novel, Cobralingus, in which source passages from numerous literary works, rendered public property by their age, are pulled from their traditional structures, regenerated, and assembled into new contexts. And then there is unessentialism's presence in the conceptual world of sound installation.
In the end, unessentialist principles have arguably gained momentum recently because of two factors: the increasingly stringent transitions in technology and the emphasis this places on the materials it uses, and a momentary lapse of creative evolution in the music scene at large. The advent of technology as a driving force behind not only the making of music but also the way in which we listen to the end result has changed the dynamic of how we, as a critical audience, approach the act of listening.