Out of the Comfort Zone

Text: Stefan Goldmann
Originally published in Groove Magazine

Contemporary Classical and electronic music are starting to take interest in one another. About time, says the man who grew up with contemporary classical and now produces electronic music.

Atonal art music as developed in the 20th century is a learned pleasure. Like dark chocolate, cigarettes or hard alcohol: at first glance, unpalatable. Most only gain access slowly, enjoyment comes later, if at all. As the child of two activists of “new music”, I had to grow up with these strange sounds. Although I later grew more interested in techno than contemporary classical, this music has always remained a sort of mother tongue to me. Rarely spoken, but mostly understood. I wasn't given the settling-in-period that so many require to access it. Instead, I had to grin and bear it, right from the start. In contrast, techno is ever-present today and thus it has become the mother tongue of at least one generation. It's hard to believe now how much resistance music focussed on strict repetition once provoked. Steve Reich tells of his experiences in 1972: “We came to Europe, played Drumming and numerous concert critics used words such as 'fascist' and 'assembly line'.“ Adorno made similar reproaches against Stravinsky. It didn’t even need techno to make clear what the two antagonist movements of modernist music would become: expressive individualism and the pleasures of machine-structured time.

Those who put the most faith in cultural progress also often wear the biggest blinders. Contemporary classical music struggled against repetition while electronic club music developed the corresponding anti-dogma of dance floor functionality. Maybe that's necessary to find the essentials in the first place. Many similarities exist though: techno in essence is atonal, so is contemporary classical. Both turned their backs on tradition and dared to face the new. However a great chasm remained. Thus, separate parallel cultures developed and for the most part specifications were only questioned internally: from Autechre to Hudson Mohawke, from Reich's minimal music to Ligeti's rhythmical layerings – the exceptions prove the rule.

Both spheres could only begin to show interest in one another once they had been stretched to their own limits. The anthropologist Arnold Gehlen introduced the term “cultural crystallisation“ in 1961: that condition in any cultural area which sets in when the possibilities laid out therein are fully developed.  Changes of the basic sets of rules become increasingly improbable: “activity and movement reign, individual innovations and surprises occur“...“but only within the already marked-out boundaries and on the basis of already established rules“. The field itself is never left. It “crystallizes“. Changes affect ever smaller aspects and distinctions. Every wheel of the musical machine rotates, but the whole thing doesn’t move forward anymore. Both contemporary classical and electronic music appear to have reached this condition.

Contemporary classical used to strive for big ideas – the twelve-tone-row, serialism, conquest of the sphere of noise, silence. Since the 70s however, ideas have become markedly less impressive and a fragmentation of individual approaches without greater consequences dominates the picture. In contrast, electronic music always experienced bouts of creativity when new technology met upon a cultural need that was ready to express itself within it. Techno, house, hip hop, drum'n'bass and so on can all be explained by means of specific equipment, but also by a cultural 'breeding ground' that could find relevance in even the earliest stages of development.

This relevance to cultural practice is what has given electronic music a basis in society which is often missing in the field of contemporary classical. However technological developments are stagnating, too – instead of new algorithms, replenishment through better computer performance is the result. It is as if a painter simply works with larger and larger canvases instead of developing their content. If a truly new technology comes along, a leap in content would follow. Till then one slaves away at marginal details or revisits the past – that’s what brought us slowhouse and disco-edits. When this kind of activity begins to bore, external alternatives grow more attractive. The respective crystalline field can be overcome by merging it with other fields.

To avoid stagnation, techno and its relatives feed on new influences. Everywhere that electronic equipment is available, new fusions emerge – from Baile Funk to Kwaito, from Chalga to Thaitech – local developments that slowly trickle back into the techno mainstream. The cultural basis, however, is missing in order for something like Kwaito to truly become relevant in the centers of techno. Being based in Europe or North America, the nearest and most logical step is therefore the convergence of the two great, aesthetically opposing genres of the modern era: techno and contemporary classical.

The most radical thing that was left for us to do was to expose techno (its chief feature being the loop) to long-term developments of form, whilst at the same time breathing new life into rhythmically stunted contemporary classical, with the rhythmical possibilities which only become possible through a clear metric structure. Beyond overcoming dogma the central problem remains: one always has too little expertise in the opposing area. That is why the inclusion of classical musicians in electronic music yields results often just as embarrassing as that which composers deem to be “techno.“ A difficult one to resolve. And so, understandably, most attempts as yet haven't managed to be more than a flirtation with the other side. To fail according to the criteria of at least one side (if not both) is truly hard to avoid.

Smuggled into the clubs

This problem has caused me some worries, too. On the one hand I have always wanted to adapt the sound universe of contemporary classical to electronic music. On the other hand I only have partial competence in the former area. For example I lack the skills to competently write a string quartet – nevertheless if I hear one, I believe I can recognise its quality (or lack thereof). I managed to overcome this deficit by plundering the demo tapes piled on my father's desk, the composer and conductor Friedrich Goldmann. I was also fascinated by the exclusivity – a recording of an obscure composer from Minnesota was effectively “mine” for all time. Sampling shifts the focus from creation to selection. The stonemason doesn't create the stone, but the stone has meaning for the outcome of his work.
Later the samples became larger. It became a competition to see who could let them run the longest and still create something meaningful. That's how a lot of contradictory sounds, proliferated in parallel currents, have been smuggled into the world of clubs. From Ricardo Villalobos, Wolfgang Voigt, Raudive, Agoria or lately Robag Wruhme. I also allowed myself some excesses in this discipline, with “Lunatic Fringe“ or most recently with “The Grand Hemiola“ - here an orchestra pushes against the beat for five minutes – it is an exercise in taking the hands off the wheel and watching what happens. This method can be expanded – swap the sample for original composed material, bundle competencies. A composer writes for the ensemble, a producer creates the electronic scaffolding – and everyone dares to leave their comfort zone.

Academic composers haven’t been lazy altogether, too. With Paul Frick we see for the first time since Cristian Vogel someone who emerged from the conservatory to succeed in a club context: Brandt Brauer Frick perform techno with the means of a classically staffed ensemble. Elektro Guzzi also survived their conservatory studies “without visible damage“, as they once admitted.

Up till now we have seen mostly gentle approaches. It takes time to learn a new musical language from the other side of the fence. The need is there. The emptiness of the eternal stream of contemporary classical first performances increasingly loses attractiveness due to positive experiences with the opposite camp. The fact that non-academic electronic music with all its many facets is the true art music of the rhythmic domain is being increasingly recognised. No dogma has survived against the persuasiveness developed via qualitative evidence. Likewise alternatives to the endlessly repetitive, functional sound of the clubs is in demand as it never has been before. One doesn't have to set every ballet to Jeff Mills – however barriers can confidently be removed. Thereby one will hopefully find things of which we haven't yet dreamed.

Stefan Goldmann is a DJ, producer, and co-owner of the label Macro. He is currently working for the BASF Culture Program on a commission for a joint concert with the Casal Quartet at the Jetztmusikfestival 2012 in Ludwigshafen. The article above was originally published in Groove Magazine, Issue 8/9 2011.