Tuesday, July 22, 2008
We Were Never Mnml (Inpress Column, July ’08) [Techno: it's just not cricket...]
Melbourne is a very rockist city, in case you haven’t noticed. Oftentimes, my fretting fellow acquaintances of the ‘3000s’ will ask me, at a complete loss, ‘Just what is it about techno that you like?’ Okay, sure. I can understand why rock kids are puzzled by techno. After all, rock has a force and immediacy that has seen it become hugely popular the world over. Without a doubt, a big part of its strength and appeal is its ability to generate powerful recognitions and identifications: listeners know the words, they can sing along, and not only that, the singer is crooning or yowling about something (usually love or lust) that makes fans feel better about themselves. The rhythms are strong and simple, the melodies big and memorable, and if the musicians are any good, then the timbres they generate can be quite interesting. It’s just a shame that, for the most part, there’s been very little stylistic or technological innovation in rock in the past ten years. Don’t believe me? Tune in to JJJ or MMM – it’s still 1995.
It’s also true that, to a person whose ears are finely tuned into all the things that make rock ‘tick’, techno is… arid, to say the least. This is music (if indeed it is music), that has been shorn of almost everything that’s considered ‘musical’ by most traditions. Au revoir my sweet chord progression; farewell my cherished verse/chorus/verse; goodbye my lovely lead singer (and your hairdo and abusive personal life); so long my sweet, phallic props.
There’s nothing of that in techno. Even among other forms of electronic music, there’s not much to cling on to. Trance, at least, has huge melodies, harmonic progressions and roller coaster breakdowns; house, meanwhile, has funky basslines and vocals – when we surrender all this, what are we left with? No human voice, no songs, no hooks, very little melodic development, and almost no audible ‘human’ musicianship. Just endless sets of incessant machine-generated drum patterns cycling for hours at allegro-ish tempos between 125-140 BPM, almost none of which stray far from the basic pattern of four crotchet kicks to the bar interspersed with snares and hats every second or fourth beat. Yes, you’re right, it really is mostly just ‘doof doof doof’. So yeah – just what is it about techno that I like?
Well, I like it for all the features just described: the inhumanity, the aridity, and yes, the repetitiveness. Techno is repetitive, but all rhythm is repetition. And by getting rid of almost everything else, we can get deeper into the deep, incessant joy of the groove – the very same thing that made James Brown squeal and call for his cape. As Berghain’s resident DJ Marcel Dettmann said, all a good techno track has to have is ‘character, soul and a kind of hypnotic, industrial feeling.’ You surrender almost everything else, and in return, you get ‘clarity, deepness and simplicity.’ It’s simple, no mistake. But that’s what’s good about tracks – what’s good about sets, sequences of tracks that go on for hours and hours and hours. Isn’t it repetitive? Doesn’t it get boring? Well, yes and no – maybe to you… what’s good about it is actually very similar to what’s good about test cricket.
A lot of people in Australia – mostly the kind who find techno deadly boring – spend their summers giving their passionate enthusiasm to watching the tests… events which, like techno sets, are considered baffling, boring or even downright stupid by many. Let’s just say you’re a pole-vaulter from Bratislava on holiday in Melbourne over January and you turned on the telly of an afternoon – I’m sure you would wonder what the hell was going on. Why is everyone standing around? Why do they perform the same action over and over and over, where are their poles… and when is ‘it’ going to happen?
What the Slovak with the penchant for bendy staves would be missing is the fundamental enjoyment of test cricket, a pleasure that it shares with techno. A test match, like a good set of techno, is an epic, one that unfolds on a grand scale. On this kind of massive canvas, you have to surrender your desire for instant gratification, in exchange for the thorough and complete ‘testing’ that comes out in the slow unfolding of strengths, movements, flows and impacts. Be patient, keep watching, have a beer, talk to your friend, and slowly but surely, the accumulation of numbers slowly turns into results: things shape up, and gradually this determines the outcome of the match or set. Your enjoyment is only limited by your lack of knowledge of each of the elements, your lack of awareness of the skills with which the person delivers them, and your ignorance of what came before. As when you enter a nightclub at 2am (no mean feat in the 3000s of ’08), turning on the cricket at 2pm every day with the ignorance of a Slovakian pole-vaulter would reveal a spectacle that appears to be always the same – unlike a marriage or an assassination, there’s never one decisive, irreversible moment that changes everything. In a way, ‘it’ never happens. But in another way, this is just because it’s always happening: it’s not about the moment, it’s about the movement. Techno sets, like cricket matches, are a sustained, gradual, accumulative and almost inexhaustible polyrhythmic revelation of a group of enthusiastic, skilled people’s most continued and attuned engagement with their instruments. If you know the rules, the skills, the state of play and the personalities playing it, there are few things more rewarding or entertaining.