Soon after the advent of electronic composition -- commencing with the breech birth of electric instrumentation, which came kicking and squalling into the academic world in the mid-1920s through the form of the theremin -- Germany established an integral, indelible role in forwarding narrative minimalism. It was in the Fifties that the city of Cologne served as a base for electroacoustic experimentation through the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio and the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Though his methods now seem rudimentary, Stockhausen's experiments, which included the pioneering tape-loop composition Gesang der Jünglinge, laid the foundation for a long history of microtonal mélange. His naturally detuning trills dispersed through temporal brushes of silence were imbued with futurism. But in the 60 years since sound was first committed to tape, the technological advances the world has made have exhausted our imagination of what could happen, forcing us to reimagine what has happened.
"At the turn of 2000 we lost the future," says Michael Mayer, who co-founded the Cologne-based Kompakt label along with Wolfgang Voigt. His accented voice flickers ominously over an unstable cell phone connection as he nears Brussels by train. "The utopia no longer exists so it has to be reinvented. Now we're in a kind of vacuum, so maybe that is why music sounds like it sounds today."
Much of the output of Kompakt exemplifies a great deal of critically lauded contemporary German production. From the schaffel beat (the swaying rhythm a stepchild of glam stadium stomp) to filter-swept digital disco and melodic motorik, producers increasingly innovate atop the tinny ticks that constitute "microhouse," the designator for tech-house tracks pared down to the essentials. Producers are not eschewing microhouse's spatial, skeletal "conventions" (or lack thereof) so much as reevaluating their role as reductionists in techno's tradition.
"For Kompakt it was always obvious 'techno' is an open system," says Mayer, whose DJ style on his recent Fabric 13 mix CD shuffles through Teutonic frostiness and brooding New Romanticism. "As long as everyone puts something personal into it, we will still master the machines. Almost any element from your personal history works well with techno, as long as you don't use it as a direct quote."
Kompakt reflects this directive through a wide-ranging roster, releasing trim tracks injected with acidic Chicago influence. The label, approaching its ten-year anniversary in May (to be commemorated with a collection of its classic tracks remixed by various artists), has been responsible for, among other things, the austere abstraction of Voigt's Gas and the vocally charming, pop-informed Superpitcher.
"Nostalgia plays its part," says soft-spoken Aksel "Superpitcher" Schaufler of his upcoming May release, Here Comes Love. "I listen to Gary Glitter to Pet Shop Boys. The big thing with this album is nothing is clear. It is not about the love of one thing. It is an album made with a love of every aspect of creating. And to do that I think on all the things I feel, some of them melancholy."
A lot of DJs and producers boast that they are going to take the listener on a journey. Superpitcher's music is similar to the way one feels after returning from a long stint of travel, when you're "damaged but happy." He imagines the sounds interacting as if they were actual band members, rubbing physically against one another and changing each other's tones depending on the force with which they're rendered.
In a way, Schaufler's productions reflect his surroundings, a phenomenon shared by Mayer's music. "It's true Cologne has a special flair because it was bombed 80 percent [during World War II]," he says. "It's not ugly, but there are so many parts that were rebuilt quickly [without concern, so] it has many looks. It could be said that when Kompakt started we didn't see anything beautiful for the eyes so we made them for the ear. But mostly we wanted a good bass drum and to fill music with our own ideas. We wanted an alternative to other cities."
Indeed in German electronic dance culture, Cologne has long stood on its own, while in neighboring Berlin, the country's other primary bastion of electronic collectives, a more direct relationship with techno's Detroit origins was created.
"When the wall came down in 1989 a big club scene opened because we had so many cheap, free buildings to rent for less money," says DJ, producer, and Bpitch label head Ellen Allien. "There was no police to stop parties. Everything was so open and they couldn't figure out how to control it. The club scene got big because it was the only meeting point for the young people to meet each other. So with many clubs you have to invite many DJs from the outside."
Through clubs such as Tresor and E-werk, Berlin was introduced to the many international faces of house, techno, and electro. Then in the mid-Nineties trance began to exert a grip on the scene, and it became increasingly difficult for DJs to mix more subtle selections into such a bombastic sound. Thus minimalism became associated with places like Cologne, where clubs were smaller than Berlin's hollowed-out industrial spaces. A web of independent labels, among the most prominent Playhouse, Perlon, and Kompakt, formed a supporting network.
Allien, however, never relinquished her love of melancholy music. Her own recent Berlinette full-length is full of crinkly, crystalline percolation. Vocoder vocals are rhythmic elements that mesh seamlessly with the robo-funk precision, yet also serve to humanize the pointillist throb.
She cites other producers such as Ricardo Villalobos, a critical favorite thanks to last year's Alcachofa, as furthering the form. Drawing on his Chilean heritage, he injects what Allien calls "a sweetness" into his lightly churning yearning. He does not neglect hooks, which she cites as a mark of the new production aesthetic; good "minimal" music, she says, isn't afraid to include catchy melodies, as long as producers avoid unnecessary glamour, which equals pop. The right harmonic elements, however, allow the listener access to a range of moods.
"You have room when producing melancholic music for your own fantasies," says Allien. "You can close your eyes and dream about your last holiday, your last love; people and places that leave you lovesick. This is a powerful transportation of feelings. It is important in music to have room to dream. With commercial production the sound is very full and there is no room for a person, but with microbeats there is something very sexy because you decide how to relate."
Mayer agrees with this belief: "There is a lot of thoughtful music coming out, especially out of Cologne, because our generation, people around 30, had a gorgeous time in the Nineties -- very hedonistic -- but the party decayed. Now we are more aware of the realities, that we desire not just communal experience but a community when we go out; I don't want to be forced to be happy when I go to a club. I want music that is expressive, but I also want to be able to have quiet moments in a loud place."
Stockhausen would be proud.
Michael Mayer and Superpitcher perform on Tuesday, March 9, at Goddess. See listings for more info.
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