Sunday, March 7, 2010

thoughts on 'speaking in code'

i watched a preview copy of the new techno documentary, 'speaking in code', last night. there has been quite a lot of hype about this, and it has been a long time coming, so i was very interested to see it. and, well, to be honest, i was disappointed with it. i have mixed feelings commenting about it. through the dvd it is clear that the people that made it put a huge amount of effort and money into it. but, from the point of a view of a reviewer, effort is not always sufficient. and in this case, despite the fact they clearly care about it a great deal, the documentary just doesn't really work.

'speaking in code' attempts to show more of the human face of techno music by tracking one of the film makers - a dj and promoter in boston, as well as sherbs and some artists like the wighnomy bros and modeselektor. and while there are some worthwhile moments - like monolake geeking out on gear and robag in a much more pensive frame of mind - none of the people are really examined in enough detail to fully convey the human side of machine music. also the way europe is presented as this kind of techno oasis in contrast to a barren desert in the US is overly stylised. indeed, one of the main feelings i had about my berlin trip last week was that there is a massive case of over abundance there, and i am not sure this is a good thing (but more on that in a later post). and these are not the only problems. partly because it has taken so long for it to finally see the light of day, the film is already out of date. the sounds and artists they are focusing on are much less fresh than they were a couple of years ago - between when filming started and when it gets released this month, electronic music has hurtled forward at its usual speed.

on a more fundamental level, there just isn't enough of a coherent message/narrative throughout 'speaking in code'. simply showing artists in different contexts, removed from the club or whatever, is not sufficient to properly show the human side of techno. and when i compare it to two electronic music documentaries i recently watched - 'synth britannia' or 'we call it techno' - i really didn't feel like i learned much from this. what made these documentaries so interesting is that they contextualised developments in electronic music in the political and social contexts within which they were forming. this provided a really interesting perspective that allowed a different way of viewing and understanding the way electronic music operates and develops. you just don't find that in 'speaking in code', which instead offers a slightly superficial portrayal of the techno scene. and the key message of the movie - 'everything changes when you get lost in music' - is, to be frank, not that insightful. hell, if you are interested enough in techno to watch a documentary about it, then you are already fully aware of how powerful music can be. i am guessing basically everyone who has read this blog appreciates exactly how important music can be in influencing and shaping one's life. i don't need a documentary to tell me this. i experienced it last week in berlin. i am experiencing it right now writing this from tokyo, a place i would most definitely not be if it was not for techno.

so if you want to read a more positive review, head over to LWE, but in the end, i was left underwhelmed and frustrated after watching 'speaking in code'. techno music has been around long enough that is it documented through mediums like film, but after watching this, i feel like we still have a long way to go.


  1. Modulations

    had some excellent moments...

    ...haven't seen it since though, so I'm sure the way it's dated would be just as interesting...

  2. Also, on a slightly different tip... ...why does DJ Spooky still get work?

    Dude was back here again. Seems to bounce from plum arts grant to plum arts grant to European Graduate School...

    ...reminded me of the late 90s... what ever happened to the future? And how come people listen to Spooky, and people don't read Eshun anymore (as far as I know...)

    Everything seems either dated, pastiche, or retro...

    ...isn't it time we excavated a better future from our past?

  3. i couldn't agree more. it was embarrassing. a self-indulgent film about the filmmakers failed relationship with her husband.

  4. I can't comment on execution, but a film "... about the film-maker's failed relationship with her husband." in the context of techno actually sounds pretty interesting. Documentaries about music are always about people; otherwise you might as well just listen to the music. And a DJ Mix if it's any good is actually about the DJ to some extent.

  5. I don't think it's a problem that the material in the film is a little out of date now. If anything, they were shooting at just the right time to catch minimal at its height. I also think the film has a nostalgic tone that helps it age better.

  6. "also think the film has a nostalgic tone that helps it age better."

    ...this is really interesting to me, Owen, could you elaborate on that a bit?

    'specially in light of the present conjuncture, and its obsession with nostalgia, retro, failed futures (guess I was trying to get at this in comment #2, too)

  7. it does feel like anytime techno pokes into the mainstream, when it comes into radar enough for a sizable number of people to experience it, that in order to do this it must be out of date. the general music listening public can't handle the immediate trends in techno, and latch onto old conventions and sounds instead.

    i think this has to do with the means of distribution, as your average music listener buys from iTunes and maybe an occasional cd, but not vinyl, and not from beatport or juno. neither iTunes or 99% of techno labels market their music for these people. they market for dj's, and as a trade off they resign to be "underground" to an extent.

  8. so controversial Chris!! he he ...
    enjoy Saturday you lucky so and so!!!

  9. @ kent: i agree, i think framing it in terms of a personal relationship could work, but they just don't pull it off. it is kind of in between focusing on that, and other artists.

    as for the out of date thing, i guess my problem is this: it is presented as a contemporary account. and it just isn't. it is even kind of silly having them geek out when they visit kompakt and talk about it as one of the very best/leading labels. it stopped being that well over 5 years. by the time they were shooting it was already well and truly done in terms of releasing consistently great stuff.

    ultimately my key problem with the film is that i just dont think it executes well.

  10. Hi ssgs! As a co-producer of the movie, there is a lot here that other people have said before, and I'll comment on that in another forum.

    But I'd like someone to elaborate on this, because to me, it seems contradictory.

    "the way europe is presented as this kind of techno oasis in contrast to a barren desert in the US is overly stylised. indeed, one of the main feelings i had about my berlin trip last week was that there is a massive case of over abundance there"

    Isn't that exactly the contrast? As an American techno fan, I have to say that the last thing I would called our US scene is over-abundant. :)

  11. I think the over-abundance refers to Berlin. i've read a couple of reviews and will see it when the dvd comes. let's see...

  12. I had a good musical friend tell me it was the same as what BASIC said a bunch of comments ago. Sometimes I think these people need to find other ways to put out their documentaries. It's not too hard to put it out digitally these days, and putting out extras before the film is done is a good way to help pay for the cost of the film.


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