Thomas Brinkmann: Studio 1 – Variationen / Concept 1:96:VR
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Today, Thomas Brinkmann is seen as one of the leaders of the German minimal electronic music scene. But back in 1996, Brinkmann was simply another high-minded artistic type with no pedigree, playing around with material in his home studio.
Brinkmann studied art at the Düsseldorf Academy and was (allegedly) expelled because of his “radical” theories and philosophies. Whether the story of the expulsion (or the reason behind it) is factual or not, it is confirmed fact that Brinkmann had been experimenting with a number of techniques to change and mutate the recorded sounds he heard on vinyl into something altogether different. Brinkmann would carve his own grooves into the vinyl with a razor, resulting in endless, jittering loops, cracks, and pops, which he would then run through various filters to achieve sounds totally different from what was actually encoded on the record. More relevant to this essay, however, was the invention of his famous dual-armed turntable, which when played on long, dubbed-out techno pieces from the likes of Germany’s Basic Channel crew and Wolfgang Voigt (aka Mike Ink) would result in whole new levels of musical hypnosis.
Brinkmann was quoted as saying, “I don't believe in creativity, but in sensibility. We have to invent the things to make them visible or audible, even though they had been there before, only invisible and inaudible.” This vision and drive to want to hear what is hidden may not exactly be what Brinkmann considers to be “creativity,” but his need to bring to the foreground what is hidden in the background and glorify it as its own creation, and to change the way we perceive the notion of recorded sounds was the driving force behind Brinkmann’s first two full-length projects, 1996’s Studio 1 – Variationen and 1998’s Concept 1:96:VR.
As legend has it, it was Voigt’s groundbreaking Studio 1 series of dub-inspired techno that finally got Brinkmann inspired enough to get out of the basement and onto store shelves. Brinkmann applied Voigt’s color-coded series to his dual-armed turntable, slowed the material down considerably, and simply hit the record button. Ink loved what he heard, eventually releasing two different four-track vinyl EPs of these “variations” and later the 13-track Studio 1 – Variationen CD, all released on Voigt’s Profan label.
The results are quite different than you might expect, given that Brinkmann is essentially just playing someone else’s records, but the dual-arms and left-right separation of the mutated turntable create whole new rhythms and riffs even more dubbed-out than the originals, with a built-in phase thanks to the delay between the arms. Even the surface noises and pressing variations from the records themselves are taken in, adding a gritty edge to the proceedings. They wouldn’t work on a dancefloor in a million years, but in chill-out rooms and basements around the techno community, the shot was fired and the influence was felt, just as it had been on Brinkmann himself just a year or so earlier.
As Brinkmann's Studio 1 variations were hitting the world’s ears in 1996, Richie Hawtin released a series of monthly, limited edition 12-inches called Concept 1. The “concept” in question is still a bit fuzzy (something having to do with music and time and the calendar or the clock or some such), but the grooves contained some pioneering electronic minimalism, even further stripped down than the percussion-as-weapon attacks of Hawtin’s Plastikman material. Brinkmann ran Hawtin’s series through his sound system as well, resulting in the February 1998 release of a four-track double-12” of “variations” and an eight-track CD titled Concept 1:96:VR.
In the liner notes to the release, Brinkmann explains his system (which one can assume he used on both releases) in detail: "I used a self-made turntable with 30 kilo plate, and two SME 309 Tone Arms utilizing both Ortofon and Van den Hul moving-coil pickups. The interventions with the actual vinyl are few: I slowed down the speed of the record and used the left pickup (arm) for the left channel, and the right pickup (arm) for the right channel. I found out that the use of different pickup systems for both channels is important for the sound. It's possible to hear a melodic displacement between the channels. With a little intervention and displacement of elements, the Concepts are sounding different. The same information they had before, but two times present. Like the idea of cloning and twins: still Richie's DNA with a little mutation. A different groove."
Brinkmann’s process may have been the same between Studio 1 – Variationen and Concept 1:96:VR, and the original records are both, at least by broad definition, “minimal techno.” But while the two albums may be of a set, that isn’t to say that they don’t each hold their own very distinctive rewards. Thanks to the extended bass hums and generally smoother grooves present on the Concept releases, there’s fewer jagged edges on Concept 1:96:VR, and a more tranquil vibe. There’s also a lot more space between the grooves, and the entire piece is a bit more immersive, really swallowing you up with the layers of bass and ping-ponged percussive bits. If anything, the Concept CD sounds a bit more intentionally composed (in both senses of the word) and far cleaner than its predecessor, even though it was achieved through the exact same process.
In the Concept 1:96:VR liner notes, Hawtin describes Brinkmann’s work as “a scientific yet natural way of revealing the complexity of what was originally deemed minimal.” This was just as much about process as it was about sound or even results, really. To refer to Studio 1 – Variationen and Concept 1:96:VR as mere “remix” albums may be a bit of a stretch, as these “variations” are not really remixes at all, at least not in the traditional sense. But to refer to them as key works of modern art by one of the pioneering visionaries of electronic music is no stretch at all.