May 29, 2007

Various Artists - Shut Up And Dance! Updated

All too often when I admit my passion for techno music to someone, the image that they conjure up is far from my own perception of it. To them, the word seems to imply a sound of hard and infinitely spiralling industrial loops; in short, music for drugged up idiots with their shirts off. This stigma that seems to stem from the more aggressive side of 90’s techno has proved hard to shake from the everyman’s psyche, and is one of the main reasons why ‘minimal’ has proved such a popular term for DJs, producers, and fans alike as they desperately try to distance themselves from the boorish connotations that many people draw with the genre.

The minimal techno (no matter how “minimal” a lot of these so called tracks are) scene seems to have manufactured an image for itself that suggests an intelligence behind the music and its creation, whilst simultaneously being extremely danceable and able to assert transcendental experiences on the dancefloor through innovative sound design. Some of the more rockist critics may scoff at this supposed ideology, writing it off as yet another excuse for hedonists in their twenties to go out and take as many drugs as they can get hold of, but the same criticism could be levelled to almost any other style of music. Would they say, for example, that punk meant nothing because a high proportion of the audiences were high on speed? Another argument aimed towards techno as a mindless, pedestrian form of art focuses on its simplistic rigidity of structure. Whilst its true that 99 per cent of tracks share uniformity through their 4/4 time signature, it is this theoretical canvas that allows producers to concentrate on the finer details and layers within the music, in addition to maximising the benefits that stem from using patterns and repetition to absorb the listener into the sound.

Electronic evangelists such as myself may even stick their necks out on the line to say that modern techno music is high art at its peak of visceral effectivity; marrying artistry and craftsmanship with sheer functionality to create an end product that is capable of stirring the minds, hearts, and feet of even the most casual observers. Obviously there are exceptions to this sweeping statement, but there are many stables of artists that almost certainly subscribe to this way of thinking. The prime example of this would be Berlin’s Ostgut Ton label; an anomaly in today’s scene as its owners are also the proprietors of the infamous Berghain club. The club itself can even be seen in an artistic light; the unused power station being the perfect structural homestead for the machine music that inhabits its interior, whilst the Panoramabar upstairs hosts a painting by Turner prize winning German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans.

The label’s latest venture, Shut Up And Dance! Updated, sees them consciously attempt to bring techno music closer to being accepted as a form of high art by creating a project that merges the music with a form of dance that has been part of the high art status quo for centuries – ballet. The highly regarded Berlin Staatsballet are the chosen collaborators, and Ostgut have roped in an equally elite cast of producers to provide their soundtrack. Âme, Luciano, NSI (aka Tobias Freund and Max Loderbauer), Sleeparchive, and Luke Slater (as The 7th Plain) are the chosen few that were cherry picked to submit compositions, and all of the artists were given no instructions as to how the music should sound.

NSI open up the body of work with their effort, entitled “Bridge and Tunnel People”, which is possibly a comment on the suburban ballet fans travelling to the industrial locale of Berghain to sample the delights of the city’s vibrant techno scene (read more about the phrase here). The track begins with a section of typical orchestral instruments; a delayed harp, looped string section and a cascading piano, slowly building in intensity until the sounds are enveloped by rumbling bass and chaotic synth stabs that usher in the beat. The fourteen and a half minute piece continues to develop throughout, delicately segueing between and merging the sounds generally associated with both the techno and ballet worlds, and as such, is a perfect opening gambit for what is to come.

After the turbulent synergy of the opener, Sleeparchive contributes what is (as you’d expect from him) the most resoundingly minimalist track of the five; conjuring up a slowed down techno track that works its way from low frequency throbs and buzzes to wonky high frequency synth loops, removing them a minute from the end to give the music a sense of spaciousness that is only amplified by the low tempo. Sleeparchive’s sparse ending provides the perfect ending to flow into the compilation’s centrepiece, Âme’s seventeen minute long cosmic micro-houser “Fiori” (Italian for “flowers”). Foreboding arpeggios and subtle whooshing percussion set the tone, before other elements are slowly introduced to the mix. The rhythmic bassline gives some bounce to the delicate beats, and warm yet melancholic synths are washed over intermittently to provide some relief to the intensity that is only increased by the strengthening of the percussion just before the halfway point. As proved with Carl Craig’s ubiquitous remix of Delia & Gavin on DFA, the 4×4 kick is a a very powerful tool when it’s employed midway through a track, but “Fiori” also demonstrates the efficacy of its removal; reintroducing the introduction’s ingredients now provide respite to the toughened middle section.

Luciano’s contribution, “Drunken Ballet”, injects some much needed humour and light-hearted quirkiness to the aphotic productions that precede it. The usual organic swing that underpins his work is accompanied by an intertwining vocal (simply consisting of a male and female oohing and aahing) that gives it a childlike, yet strangely sexual feel. Things are neatly rounded off with Luke Slater’s “Symphony for the Surrealists”, unconsciously continuing Luciano’s theme of infancy with a lush, ambient introduction accompanied with bleeps and xylophones that bring a child’s music box to mind. As the title suggests, it’s this track that has the most in common with traditional classical music in both structure and aesthetics, the typical orchestra being replaced with ebbing and flowing synthetic sounds. Slater’s use of intermittent percussion, radio static, detached voices, and eerie electronics throughout the thirteen minute epic is astounding, and even though only the most adventurous after-hours DJs will be playing it, it definitely marks itself out as one of the best electronic tracks of the year so far.

At a time of the year where everyone’s looking to individual artists for 2007’s top electronic album, this release definitely shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. It’s certainly very ironic that by collaborating with an organisation that’s as exclusionary as the Staatsballet, Ostgut Ton have created a body of work that will appeal to a much wider range of people than the usual club-based techno album. Whilst it almost certainly won’t be enough to make Berlin’s older ballet crowd journey back to Berghain for one of their usual debauched parties, if it makes a few of the more open minded classicist and rockist listeners think differently about techno, then it’s done its job. One thing’s for sure, it’ll make a lot of electronic music fans very happy indeed.

Ostgut Tonträger / ostgut CD03
[Listen]
[Richard Carnes]


1 Comment »

  1. I always wear a tutu when listening to Techno, who doesnt?

    -- Basic

Logged in as .