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Beyond the groove

Deutsche Grammaphon and ECM have opened their catalogues to the techno DJ - to bewitchingly beautiful and psychedelically absurd effect. By Alexis Waltz

The bouncer's gaze scans your body. He opens the heavy door and you submerge yourself into the party crowd. Or it falls closed, muffling the promisingly grooving pulsations, the longing for mesmerisingly loud music, intoxication, sweat and sounds of the party unfulfilled. Over 25 years ago, a special kind of music was developed for this ritual: club music. It is the most functional form of pop. It implies dancing. Without any real, celebrating listeners, its repetitive rhythms are meaningless. Although having extremely simple and immediately comprehensible rules, it leaves a lot of room for variation, which has resulted in the production of more than a hundred thousand different records over this quarter of a century.

For a few years now, the club music cosmos has seemed to be running low on ideas. It is hungry for original sounds that take the party to whole new highs. The Berlin DJ, producer and label owner Stefan Goldmann explains: "The dogmatic phase was necessary to get to the core of the music. But now everything has been said. Now we have arrived at a point, where people are amazed that there is a world beyond their own field."

Producers are constantly on the lookout for new sounds that confound, surprise and entrance dancers. A few years ago, folk music from a wide range of cultures garnered a certain amount of attention. Marimbas, accordions and African choirs sounded across the dance floor. But the encounter with these foreign sounds only offered a brief moment of arresting innovation. The sound bite then solidified into a trend and was copied hundreds of times. This is why prominent musicians in the scene are searching for a different frame of reference that can withstand the exhaustion of the novelty effect.

Classical music and new music have recently attracted a number of musicians. Jeff Mills is recording interpretations of his techno milestones with a symphony orchestra, and Wolfgang Voigt is sampling Bruckner. Deutsche Grammophon has launched its "Recomposed" series, in which electronic musicians are invited to use works from its catalogue. The aim is no longer to break taboos, to "roll over Beethoven" with a raw youth culture that blasts the sublime forms of classical music away. It's not about a kind of "switched-on Bach" that negates the nuances of human piano playing with airy synthesizers. Instead the club sounds are detached from the dance floor's groove imperative, in order to test their validity beyond their original context.

The first two installments of "Recomposed" spotlighted the apparent contrast between classical and electronic music: here rumbling bass lines, there sublime strings. In the third installment, released in 2008, Moritz von Oswald and Carl Craig worked with Ravel's "Bolero" and his "Rapsodie espagnole" as well as Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" from the Karajan recording of 1987. Like Jeff Mills, Carl Craig is one of the outstanding producers of formative Detroit techno. Moritz von Oswald played in orchestras as a classically trained percussionist and was the drummer of the Neue Deutsche Welle band Palais Schaumburg. With his unique sound, he made a name for himself with techno tracks released under the Basic Channel alias.

As electronic musicians, Craig & Oswald approach classical music by experimenting with the tone quality of acoustic instruments. On individual tracks of the recording they single out brief patterns, ambient sounds and even the sounds of the musicians. In the loops these sounds almost seem to be filtered through a magnifying glass. The eight pieces occupy the full range between rough and graceful, abstraction and groove. Added elements run the gamut of all the different phases of night club escalation - the Karajan material providing a source of contrast.

Particularly because the harmonic structure of the originals is completely destroyed, a contrast develops between Mussorgsky's late romantic hyper-emotionalism and the drama of Craig's Detroit soul. Von Oswald chose the "Bolero", because this piece had been influential to his sense of sound, even in terms of electronic music. "Through the world of classical music I gained an understanding for the dimension of sound and its depth. It showed me that it is difficult to create three-dimensionality with electronic instruments."

The most complex project of this kind is the recent "Re:ECM" album by Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer. In the 1990s Loderbauer was part of the ambient duo Sun Electric; Villalobos is one of the most influential musicians of the current club scene. The gangly figure of the German-Chilean musician wearing dark glasses and towering above the DJ console is an iconic image. In the small world of Berlin's night scene, his incredible energy has earned him the admiration of his audiences.

Villalobos has put an end to club music's diffuse attitude towards melodies and has developed a radical groove-oriented aesthetic. With house sounds that are completely carried by rhythm, he creates a space for the freest, most absurd sound experiments. More than hardly any other DJ, he confounds dancers' expectations, allowing the silly to shift into the beautiful, the formless into the sublime.

With "Re:ECM" both musicians are departing from the stylistic spectrum of electronic music for the first time. Villalobos: "You learn your whole life from ECM and its sound quality. When you do something for them, the entire information from all ECM albums you have ever heard up until that point flows into the production." Founded in 1969, ECM made musicians such as Chick Corea, Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett famous. No other label has made such a strong mark on its releases beyond the work of its artists, has developed such a unique sound aesthetic and has explored such a specific spectrum ranging from modern jazz, to new music, world music and classical music. ECM producer Manfred Eicher visited the two in Villalobo's imposing studio. "He was definitely taken. But he was also unsure what to expect. In terms of our sound, we went in the same direction as ECM. He liked this, and he said: OK, keep going. You can use anything you want."

Loderbauer and Villalobos are so enthusiastic about ECM's sound because of its broad frequency spectrum, three-dimensional depth, and tonal dynamic. Most club and pop productions forgo this kind of all-encompassing, heterogeneous audio experience; they concentrate on what guarantees to make the music universally playable. Through compression, quiet passages in the music are made to conform to loud ones. This audiophile approach also entails a certain ethic: for Villalobos only such acoustic attention to detail can ensure openness to the sounds of foreign cultures.

Although this acoustic philosophy may seem cold and technological, the music that comes out of it is anything but: Villalobos and Loderbauer insert unsettling electronic tones into the loops of ECM sounds. The bewitchingly beautiful harps of Christian Wallumrod Ensemble are mirrored in sequences that play out in strange ellipses. Sometimes the swirling bass lines seem to take over the entire range of tone. Like in free jazz, Villalobos and Loderbauer break down individual patterns into sounds. Grooves only come through here and there. And still the psychedelic absurdity of this music is only comprehensible as a product of nightlife.

And in fact not only are musicians from the club scene taking cues from classical music and new music, but interest is also flowing from the opposite direction. The academically trained Luxemburg pianist Francesco Tristano gained attention in the scene through an orchestral cover version - as charming as it is harmless - of the techno classic "Strings of Life".

In addition to Bach and new music, Tristano also plays and loves techno, to the extent that this is possible on the grand piano. His blond locks, frilly shirt, boyish expression, and perfect piano playing appeal to all those who find DJs and their laptops banal, who yearn for diversity, skill and virtuosity. When he sets up his grand piano in the Space disco on the party island of Ibiza, the stone floor of the club begins to creak like the parquet of the philharmonic. The fact that his compositions have more in common with the rambling jazz rock of Weather Report than club music, new music or classical ultimately does not matter.

What is the next step for the club beyond the continuous search for the next spectacle? The club remains the frame of reference, because it forces music out of the private sphere and provides a space for a type of listening with social consequences. Many musicians simply lack the knowledge to discover new musical connections. According to Villalobos: "Due to the Marshall Plan, folk music is considered something that should be condemned. People are left to themselves to discover music. After having hated everything, suddenly at thirteen they buy a Kraftwerk album and become DJs. This is something uniquely German."

This limitedness is equally reflected in the smugness of the classical music scene and the ignorance of the club. At 23 you often feel too old for a techno party, and at 50 too young for a classical concert. Lifestyle determines the kind of music people listen to in public among strangers. But music resists being pigeonholed. Music venues have to be cracked open. Maybe the nose-wrinkling new music nerd could then discover the raver within, and the raver could develop an ear for the gentle sounds of the cembalo. And then we finally wouldn't need the bouncer.

Many thanks to Moritz von Oswald, Stefan Goldmann & Finn Johannsen/ Macro, Kristian Beyer/ Ame and Max Loderbauer & Ricardo Villalobos.


Alexis Waltz is a freelance film and music critic.

Translation: ls - let's talk european