Thursday, March 3, 2011

Terre Talks [I of III]: con|text, production

We love Terre. In fact, we love Terre so much, that he was the first choice for the ssgs' upcoming party in Tokyo. But aside from his wonderful productions and eclectic DJ sets, we also love Terre for her great mind. In a world where too many producers embody the philosophy that house music is controllable desire you can (and should) own... there is also Terre Thaemlitz.

We hate hard questions because we know the answers and don't like them. That's why it's uncomfortable talking frankly about the GWOT or the GFC: to some extent we are - and we know we are - the dependent beneficiaries of systems and processes that involve domination, exploitation, alienation and cruelty (here is a talk you can download discussing one example). It's also true that the Starbucks macha latte is delicious. These are the kinds of things that Terre is constantly making us think about through her words and music: of all those other places and sources we depend on - and depend on not thinking about - in order to be able to function and listen and own all this. But the message is also love. 'Between empathy and sympathy is time'.

So: I wanted to talk about 'music production', but not in that way. I wanted to ask about music production, music distribution, and music consumption. I wanted to generate some (hopefully) intelligent thoughts and some interesting comments from your ends. So... well, I had to ask Terre, didn't I? What follows then is the first part of a three part Q&A. I asked Terre some questions, and she responded with his first, best thoughts. I hope you enjoy reading and thinking about it, I certainly enjoyed receiving such interesting responses. Questions are in italics, topics in bold, responses written in red and pink ink (almost invisible through web 2.0 interfaces).

of text and context:

In Midtown 120 Blues you spend some time talking about the erasures of context involved in making house music 'controllable desire you can own'. I'm sort of obsessed with this phrase, which seems to me to get at the basic habitus of electronic music consumption these days... but the question: how is context constitutive or shaping? My gambit here is that it you're of the view that it lays the ground from which we create, as well as from which we hear, but that, like the ground, we only realise it's there when it falls away, when there's an earthquake ?housequake? etc... and: how would you describe the general 'context' in which the broader 'we' are relating to one another, through music, in 2011...

Just in case some youngsters didn't understand the sample's reference, it's a cut-up of Chuck Roberts' infamous monologue that defined house for a generation - only whereas he talked in typically overreaching terms about how "no one man owns house because house music is a universal language, spoken and understood by all," (tell that to my parents...), I did a Burroughs-esque cut-up to have him saying something that I feel reflects the reality of how house functions as a highly controlled, regulated, distributed product. Especially now when it's sold and controlled on a scale that was unimaginable 30 years ago, and which has made sampling so risky that this once sample-based genre of music has now become about conventional "musicianship." It used to be about unconventional musicianship, by which I mean it was not about sounding like a trained musician with a knowledge of keys, chords, studio session recordings, etc. For me, this shift toward studio musicianship indicates a conservative backlash - and that backlash is clearly the result of integration into larger distribution systems, becoming less specific and more accessible. I mean, in a tragic and ironic way, by becoming more homogenized and accessible, today's house is functioning more like Roberts was talking about 30 years ago. It is more likely to be "understood by all" because it's sonic signs have moved closer to pop sensibilities and become more familiar in public places. For example, I'm sure my mom can't tell the difference between disco and house, but she has been exposed to enough house via TV commercials or what-not that she can say house is a kind of disco. 30 years ago, she probably wouldn't have known how to describe house at all, or what to identify it with.

The chief context shaping all musics is economics. And I'd say that even if I wasn't a Marxist. Clearly we would not have Chicago Acid House if shitty gear like the Roland 303 was not utterly worthless in the realm of pop music, and could be bought for a few dollars at thrift and pawn shops, to be used in ways that were unintended. We also wouldn't have ballet if it wasn't for the feudal aristocracy's need to develop a culturally acceptable form of pornography. (In fact, the only interesting thing about ballet for me is its continued function as pornography for bourgeois women.) Every form of music, without exception, is formed by economic limitations or excesses. And of course, as musics develop and gain audiences in other cultural and economic spheres, those dynamics change. Nothing stays the same. For example, at the peak of the Acid craze, a 303 could sell for several thousands of dollars. Clearly that changed the types of people able to buy the equipment and produce Acid, both reflecting and calling into being an entirely new series of social and business relations around the music. This all seems very obvious, but for some reason there are a lot of people who still believe in concepts of "soul" and "artistry" that transcend the social, rather than seeing that they are actually defined by the social. Or, even if people acknowledge the impact of material contexts, they only do so through the lens of Americanization, in which all people with "real talent" have the ability to transcend economic limitations and get rich. The most "deserving" gangsta rapper is the one who managed to move from a jail cell to a mansion, right? This is the bullshit American dream that is applied to all aspects of life under globalization, and to answer your question, I would say this phenomenon of "Americanization" is the framework through which "we" currently relate to music and one another in the First World, as well as in the Third World countries we stand upon. By "Americanization" I am not talking about a US-controlled conspiracy, but a globally/locally proliferated ideological framework around commerce and cultural transactions that goes beyond the US.

After economics, I would say sexuality is the next greatest influence on how we consume music. People congregate around various styles of music - it's often how they choose their bars or hang-outs - and within those scenes we seek sexual and social connections. Of course, we all step in and out of various scenes, sometimes openly and sometimes in secret. I think of the anti-disco movement in the US during the '70s, and how it primarily revolved around homophobia and queer bashing. If you liked disco and were male, you were a fag. (If you were a woman, it was different since disco was then considered as wiggling your ass for straight boys.) Like, it was okay for a male to be into Queen's "We Will Rock You," but if you were into "Another One Bites the Dust," suddenly everyone was concerned about Freddy Mercury being gay. Conversely, bluegrass is not so popular in most Gay bars. So the ways in which we publicly identify with certain genres while simultaneously having musical "closets" around other musics we like - even when they're by the same artist - also affects how music is consumed, shared, and congregated around.

Closets, hypocrisies, crossed borders - these have always been a part of how people move socially. So when we're talking about contexts, we also have to keep in mind that their borders are to be crossed. However, it's very important to see how these crossings occur through access to, and participation in, systems of power and domination - cultural, economic, etc. - and not through some American dream about the human capacity for upward mobility and liberal multiculturalism. That latter myth actually clouds our ability to identify and engage with the systems of domination we wish to see weakened. For example, I grew up in the Southern Midwest, and I can tell you a lot of racist rednecks love hip-hop - the more ghetto the better. So a like of music does not equate with a like of the people who make it, yet this is a huge presumption behind most music writing. The actual processes of identification are much more complex and problematic.

recording, production, inscription:

How does that broader context find itself onto disk (or tape, or whatever medium of inscription is used)? What traces remain, what tracks (like a fox's) are effaced or erased by the datasea (I think also here of the way data makes labour seem 'immaterial' a la that Hardt article I linked you to)? More specifically, as someone who is selling their music as recordings (either vinyl or data) - how does that process of transmission, transfer, exchange, decryption and re-encryption shape what you're doing (what's possible, what's necessary, what's redundant)?

Again, going back to economics, the quality of one's equipment determines the formats used, their sampling rates and bit depth, etc. True, there are plenty of lo-fi analogue instruments that cost a fortune, but in that case the term "quality" relates to some other aspect of their sound which, in the end, still has it's sound value equated with monetary value since whatever is culturally determined to be "better" - technically or aesthetically - costs more.

Simultaneously, on the consumer side, listeners are fixated with free MP3 files, free podcasts, free this and that... Record labels (including myself) usually only give away low quality soundfiles as a means of "protecting" the "real thing," but in fact these low-res files have unwittingly come to function as the "real thing." I was having a conversation with Dont Rhine of Ultra-red the other day, and he was talking about this. He said a lot of people he knows don't know anything about bit depths or compression rates, and don't really think about sound quality. Whatever finds its way into their MP3 player is accepted as-is. And I would agree, that seems to be the case with a lot of people I know, too. Taken to extremes, a lot of DJ's rip totally shit 96kbps MP3 audio from YouTube videos and DJ with them. Sad.

I guess this circulation of low-res files has replaced the function of used vinyl records, and buying promos. I mean, a lot of my vinyl records were bought used, and many even have the "Not For Resale" stamp on them - before the digital age I guess that was in some ways similar to tracking down a low-res MP3. Yet, even though they were bought for a dollar, they had full sound quality (barring scratches). But I guess today, people don't even spend that dollar. Besides, a lot of shops are not selling 320kbps MP3 or CD quality AIFF/WAV files, which also says something about how quality is not a concern for the industry. It's all about economics - smaller files take up less disk space on servers, take less bandwidth to transfer, all of which cuts costs for the major distributors who have enough content that those things add up. And all of those quality control issues affect how the materials we produce in the studio are distorted and re-presented to audiences. This is not new - vinyl records, cassettes, and even CD's all have serious quality limitations compared to most master recordings - but at least with physical formats there was a predictable, material baseline for how bad things got. With MP3s, people compress and recompress until the sound is in shards, and somehow people seem okay with it. The music continues to function somehow. Maybe this is because most people don't have big stereo speakers anymore. They either use tiny computer speakers, headphones, ringtone, bookshelf systems or 5.1 surround with subwoofers - none of which are appropriate for listening to music, in my opinion. Nice headphones would be the best option in that mix. Meanwhile, these same listeners are the great "judges" writing prolific comments on blogs, etc., arguing with one another as though they are actually invested in the music they haven't even heard properly...

stay tuned for part II of III next week...


  1. i'm always excited to read new stuff from terre, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

    i've been thinking a lot about these issues lately, and jacques attali's noise and evan eisenberg's the recording angel have been two informative books for me.

  2. right on! Looking forward to the next two parts!

  3. Damn insightful. Music as materialism....I wonder if he left out a pretty critical material factor though? i.e. a chemical factor....

  4. interesting thoughts. house is the ultimate form of materialism, able to fill and satisfy every possible aspect of consumers needs. from drugged elation to sober introspection. house is a spectrum of edible sound.

  5. he... she... his... her ...
    most bizaree individual. was confused so checked his/her profile. nothing is ever simple...

  6. Am I the only person who sees a direct contradiction between his negative opinion of the economics of music? On one hand he's implying that it's a bad thing that the music industry demands that audiences pay top dollar for high quality equipment and hi-def media, but on the other hand she seems to be denigrating the kids who rock out to tunes on their phones or laptop speakers. What exactly is Terre trying to say?

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  8. I always preferred "house music is UNcontrollable desire", which is how I hEARd, believe and still think the original lyric goes.

  9. Looking forward to 2 and 3! :)

  10. > I always preferred "house music is UNcontrollable desire", which is how I hEARd, believe and still think the original lyric goes.

    i think terre is saying she cut up the original to twist the meaning, so "house music is an uncontrollable desire" and "no one man owns house" got chopped into "house is controllable desire you can own" as a critical commentary on today's biz and house culture.

  11. > Am I the only person who sees a direct contradiction between his negative opinion of the economics of music? On one hand he's implying that it's a bad thing that the music industry demands that audiences pay top dollar for high quality equipment and hi-def media, but on the other hand she seems to be denigrating the kids who rock out to tunes on their phones or laptop speakers. What exactly is Terre trying to say?

    i think having a "negative opinion of the economics of music" is totally different from it being "a bad thing that the music industry demands people pay top dollar" - i reads to me like terre is talking about the larger privileges of wealth, and how price affects access, or changes things (like who can afford a 303). but she also clearly complains about the industry NOT providing high quality downloads most of the time, and audio quality NOT being a concern of the industry. it sounds like in your formula higher price always equates with top quality, and i think that is not how terre is seeing things...

  12. @ bonk & countzero:

    surely these are the contradictions we all actually face, right?

    It's not either/or, but a relation between two and more points in tension with one another. I don't think it has a resolution... do you?

  13. >surely these are the contradictions we all actually face, right?

    completely. although the scale of those contradictions, and the ways we feel and respond to them, seem contextual and related to experience (subjectively and in terms of conditioning, class experience, etc.)

    >It's not either/or, but a relation between two and more points in tension with one another. I don't think it has a resolution... do you?


    i like that terre doesn't talk about resolution, either. i think a big part of her writing is about getting away from "solutions" or looking to the future, but rather trying to "stop the unacceptable" (her words somewhere). she's always going on about the value of marx's historical materialism (interpreting how the present is affected by the material contexts of the past), and the self-deceptiveness of utopian ideals (rejecting the "communist utopia" fantasy, etc., because any dreams are tainted by the desires of our oppressions today). i think most people have a knee-jerk reaction to this kind of thinking as just "bitching and moaning," but terre is very active and seems to be saying this kind of "dreamlessness" can lead to new kinds of activity - not just sitting on your ass complaining. that is a kind of propagandistic image of dominant society, that the only way to change things is to "improve" them. i think terre talks about the need for change regardless of improvement, since paradise never comes... or somethin' :P

  14. @ bonk: paradise indefinitely postponed? And/or maybe paradise is in the garage, under a whole bunch of junk. Maybe we need to clean out our garage. Maybe if we did we wouldn't find paradise, but a bunch of other things we could use as props and instruments?

    "And, just when they appear to be engaged in the revolutionary transformation of themselves and their material surroundings, in the creation of something which does not yet exist, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past so as to stage the new world-historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language”

    ...yeah, critique is often mistaken for bitching these days. It's a problem. I think one thing ssgs haven't said enough about - but that we will try to - is how dominated by promo 'dance music' has become, and what weird and mostly negative effects that's having. But that is for a post of its own.

    For Chris and I, though no solution, something we take seriously is how we relate through music, and try to make relating through music about passion, rather than just commodity chains. Yes yes, even though we are fetishists...

  15. What up ssgs: I haven't commented on here for a long, long time but I felt compelled to thank Terre (and you) for this wonderful exchange.

  16. Wow. Thanks for share this all fantastic information about recording, production, and inscription. Its very useful explanation for every people who like music.
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