Sunday, October 01, 2006

Peeking In on Techno and DJ's

Philip Sherburne's latest "Month In Techno" column for Pitchfork is more of his typical brilliance -- new trends and contextual techno history, profoundly readable for both novices and experts, all in less than 2000 words. Reading his columns and blog posts actually makes me a bit sad because I come to realize how far I've receded from the contemporary techno scene. The producers fled Toronto for friendlier environments (Montreal, Berlin), the availability of good vinyl naturally started decreasing (as did my disposable income, although I can't claim that these two things are related) (I never bought enough vinyl for any correlation to exist), good parties and tolerable crowds became ever more scarce. There is absolutely no replacement for flipping through vinyl in shops, it's the musical equivalent of learning a new language by immersing yourself among speakers of that language. It's also the best possible way to keep up to speed with new releases and new trends.

I can comfort myself with the notion that even though I am spiralling out of date, it's mitigated by how far ahead of my time I used to be. For the most part, my vinyl purchases were centred on the hardest, densest tracks (e.g. Cari Lekebusch, Petar Dundov, Kai Randy Michel), and stripped-down, plinky tracks (e.g. Richie Hawtin's m_nus-era stuff, the label, Thomas Brinkmann). The latter group now encompass the world-beating "minimal" tag, but I always thought of the former group as minimal as well. Minimal, to me, didn't mean "quiet" or "not banging", it meant "very little variation".

However, when practicing my spinning, I easily became restless. I didn't like to play any one track for too long, after a couple of minutes I started itching to hear something else. I favoured long mixes between tracks, beatmatching them for two or three minutes if possible, and playing around with filters and effects to combine elements of the tracks in real time. I quickly discovered the problem with my style of choice -- it was damn hard work. I'd race through 15-20 tracks each hour. The continuing need to cue up and segue into the next track meant there was very little time for standing back and admiring whatever song I was playing at that moment. In my head, I wanted to hear all twenty minutes of Starfish Pool's "Offday", but my hands wouldn't listen. Considering I cut my electronic music teeth on epic ambient music, "mixing" tracks together using tape recorders, you'd think I'd have calmed down and let the music stretch out a bit more.

I remember watching Mutek founder Alain Mongeau DJ in the opening slot on the festival's final night (I think it was in 2002), he was playing every record from groove to groove, with tight (but simple) segues between them. Granted, this was a 9PM set and hardly anybody had showed up yet, so it's not like he needed to pull out all the stops and impress people. But was his style indicative of a lack of skill, i.e. is that how he played because that's all he was capable of doing? Or was he a little bit ahead of his time? Michael Mayer plays tracks nearly from start to finish, and his Immer and Fabric mixes are considered classics. Mayer has helped bring the club DJ closer in style to the radio DJ, playing songs you actually know rather than being an obsessive trainspotter whose cred is based around digging up the most obscure records that nobody could possibly recognize. This attitude (I hesitate to call it a "problem" because I'm not sure that it actually was one) was very common in techno during the 1990s, and it was perfectly suited to Jeff Mills' "techno gangbang" sets (dozens of tracks per hour, no time to think about song recognition) and Richie Hawtin's banging, percussive marathons (stuffed full of white labels). As Sherburne points out, the "stretched out" style leaves more room for the tracks and clubgoers to breathe, but it also conserves the DJ's energies. So which is the chicken and which is the egg? Were DJ's becoming less skilled, thus leading to longer and longer parties featuring fewer and fewer tracks, or are knowledgeable partygoers demanding epic sets with more proper hits and forcing the DJ's to adapt to these wants?

Too many issues here ... "hard techno" isn't dead, at least not in Berlin. Otherwise, one could simplistically dismiss all this as a matter of fans' tastes changing -- people are tired of hard stuff, they want less banging "minimal" tracks, along with the DJ styles, drugs, hours, etc. that are conducive to them. I think there's more to it than that. Also, the notion of "DJ's becoming less skilled" is a bit too harsh, it smacks of virtuoso snobbery. You know the kind -- if you can't play 20-minute guitar solos in 15/8 time, then you aren't playing anything worth listening to. Spinning records can be sweaty, backbreaking work (as I discovered) and there's no reason why this absolutely must be the case (which I should have realized back then).

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