A New Spin on Elevator Music

Curd Duca carefully swallows a forkful of his quiche lunch and begins speaking in his thickly Austrian-accented English. "I have never understood why being avant-garde equaled being tense and unhappy," he says with obvious frustration, the distinctive timbre of his voice capturing the full attention of the diners sitting behind him inside the Ice Box café, off Lincoln Road. "Why does being cutting edge mean you must use harsh sounds? This is an old belief from the Eighties and the industrial movement, and it goes on to people like Nine Inch Nails today. It doesn't have to be true."

If there's a note of defensiveness in Duca's remarks, it's well earned. Although his appearance (closely shaved dark hair and a touch of light stubble topping off the 44 year-old's lean build) screams European artiste, Duca's musical creations are a far cry from the tortured digital beats one would expect from such a figure. Instead Duca has spent the bulk of the past decade carving out his own niche within electronica, a position tongue-in-cheekly belied by some of his albums' titles: Easy Listening, Switched-On Wagner. The latter collection is particularly striking, transposing that German composer's militaristic roars on to the carnivalesque Moog synthesizer with a result that is sometimes dreamy, sometimes playful, and almost always pleasantly disorienting.

Duca arrived on South Beach for the winter of 1994, in what since has become an annual ritual (he regularly returns to Austria in late April). One of his first acquaintances was fellow aural experimentalist Andrew Yeomanson (a.k.a. DJ LeSpam), and the two soon were partners on record-hunting missions at thrift stores across the city. There was little squabbling over choice finds, however.

"Andrew is into soul stuff and grooves," Duca explains. "For me, as soon as there is a groove, I lose interest. I'm looking for atmospheres, little fleeting details. Sometimes I use one second, when the singer pauses to take a breath: That's where I come in and sample. Then I process it, altering the pitch and its overall sound."

Many of these finished pieces first appeared on 1998's Elevator and its sequel, last year's Elevator 2. They contained wisps of much of the vintage vinyl that inspired the "cocktail" craze: snatches of Henry Mancini, Dusty Springfield, Les Baxter, folkloric vodou recordings, and obscure Fifties exotica. Yet there's little of the kitsch or winking irony that drenched so many of the Nineties nouveau-cocktail endeavors. Instead Duca's work maintains a vibe of eeriness, as if those sampled musicians were struggling to speak from beyond the grave, their disembodied whisperings wafting past the pops and crackles, settling over Duca's rearranged stray drum licks and gently rolling piano chords.

Still, more than a few critics have had a hard time getting their heads around the notion that source materials seen as eminently cheesy could be meticulously transformed into something so soulful. It's an attitude that produces a pained response from Duca. "I don't relate to nostalgia or the camp aspect, or the taste that says if something is so bad, it's good," he says firmly. "So I never understood the cocktail craze, or the people who saw that music as banal. I grew up listening to this music; it was all around me as a child of eleven, twelve, thirteen. It was on the radio in Austria. There were not these formats you have in America. You would hear a Rolling Stones record, and then next would be Bert Kaempfert with a big orchestra. It felt very natural, so I don't see my approach as oddball or retro."

It's easy to imagine a remixer coming along and refashioning several of Elevator's tracks into dance-floor stompers. A song like "Latin" already seems to possess an infectious forward motion; all it needs is an up-tempo beat and perhaps some bass to become "Latin House." Such an idea, however, draws outright opposition from Duca.

"I'm fighting for the justification of music outside of rhythmic patterns," he says. "It seems like it's a law, a government decree, that music has to have a dominant rhythm. It's a straitjacket, and I don't want to reinforce that. Then, outside of this, I call it percussionitis, is weak, limp, boring ambient, which I don't like either. I want to work in the middle ground with rhythms that are not beats the way house is, rhythms that derive from glitches or that are cut from crescendos."

It's possible that Duca's disdain for clubland flows from his own experiences within the Vienna techno scene of the early Nineties, a time when both the music and its surrounding milieu were literally underground. "It would be one big basement room with a DJ, a fog machine, and one strobe," he recalls fondly of those days when parties were guerrilla affairs illegally staged in squats or vacant warehouses. "Someone would run downstairs and say, 'Shhh! The police are upstairs!' and we'd stop, shut the power off, and be quiet for ten minutes." He smiles and adds with a laugh: "Then the police would leave and the music would go on."

Flash ahead to the present day where techno -- and especially its bleached offspring trance -- has become the ubiquitous musical mainstream across Western Europe: aired on the radio, used in television commercials to hawk everything from automobiles to dishwashing soap, all building to the blaring soundtrack for Berlin's annual million-strong citywide rave, the Love Parade. "It got commercialized," snaps Duca, adding with a rare bluntness, "and the music sucks."

Achim Szepanski, owner of the influential German-based label Mille Plateaux, for which Duca records, has even harsher words for the electronic dance music's devolvement. Speaking with a British interviewer, he labeled the current rave scene a freizeitknast, a pleasure-prison, positing that "Fascism was mobilizing people for the war machines; rave is mobilizing people for the pleasure machines." In this context Duca's efforts for Mille Plateaux are nothing less than carefully principled political statements, and perhaps even a veiled elegy to the utopian possibilities raves once promised.

Later that afternoon Duca sits inside his high-rise Alton Road apartment. The long, spacious living room is dramatically sparse. A table. A computer and several keyboards on the floor across from a futon. Not a single picture adorns the gray walls to the left and right, which consequently seem to blur into the gray carpeted floor. The effect pulls one's eyes toward the far wall straight ahead, which consists entirely of floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors that reveal a breathtaking bay view -- a living still life as it were.

"Living in Miami hasn't changed me directly. I'm not making salsa or Miami bass," Duca says with a glance out at the gorgeous vista of Star Island's palm trees, slowly cruising yachts, and peaceful water lightly dappled by the sun. "But the lifestyle here is more relaxed [than in Vienna]. There is less angst in the air; it's less hectic. The intellectual Manhattan mindset isn't here, but I don't need to go to gigs or have much culture around me. I work best when I'm in a vacuum. What is most inspiring for me is a quiet environment, with as few distractions as possible."

Duca leans over his computer and summons forth a sample of his work in progress, explaining that with the just-finished Elevator 3 (set for release on Mille Plateaux later this year), he has refined his sample-based, thrift-shop-obtained aesthetic to a logical endpoint. Now he's returned to synthesizers. The evidence begins playing from his computer's speakers: thick harpsichordlike scales that oscillate like the tide, vaguely akin to Wendy Carlos Williams's early work. Although shorn of any overt beat or obvious melody (surely the first steps on the slippery slope to freizeitknast), it is immediately relaxing. While it is music that avoids the somnambular effects of new-age creations, it's also hard not to wonder if Duca's South Beach environment -- not least of all that meditative view that faces him as he sits down in front of his instruments -- isn't having some telling effects.

"A chef should be able to cook with whatever ingredients are in the refrigerator," Duca says philosophically in response. "You shouldn't be attached to a certain style. I'm open to whatever's out there."