TERRE THAEMLITZ by Francesco Tenaglia

"meditation on wage labor and the death of the album" album cover

A self defined non essentialist transgender, Terre Thaemlitz has been one of the most prominent figures in the electronic music scene (for the want of a better term) of the last 15 years: running his label Comatonse from Kawasaki, Japan, he has released records in styles ranging from  electroacoustic to deep house. Although I use the word “music” it would be more accurate to characterize it as “a critical response to music” as he has described his audio projects in an interview he gave me ten years ago: which is to say that all the work is born from reflections on identity politics and on commercial media production. As In the case of  Lovebomb on the ideological implications of the use of the concept of love in pop culture and political propaganda and Midtown 120 Blues, in which he pits the dance floor as a terrain of a metaphorical clash between saccharine claims to universality and inclusiveness of house music, against the cancellation of its specific queer nature.

Soulnessless is the project Terre Thaemlitz is currently working on. It’s destined to comprise an epic length of 30 hours of sound material, itself contained in a small digital memory device – a MicroSD card, of the kind employed to operate digital cameras or mobile telephones – disrupting the correlation between music and its classic, recognizable containers, such as vinyl LPs or CDs. And yet, in a era when younger generations consider music as freely downloadable, and, more recently and more tellingly, something that can be indefinitely “streamed”, Thaemlitz elects to present his work via a currently ubiquitous, non music-specific industry standard. The long sequence of formats invented and launched to the market in the meeting of the entertainment and IT industries, far from being neutral or “empty,” have been key protagonists of the aesthetic evolution of pop music. For example, the three minute catchy pop song that went along with the 7” and easily accessible and affordable portable players; the complex articulations of rock into suites and progressive concept albums that arrived with commercial success of LPs or the inebriating continuous flow of DJ mixes held by cassettes and then by CDs. Soulnessless, in this fashion, takes into account and works within the boundaries of the MicroSD as a structuring force. Terre Thaemlitz took the time to have a conversation with us on this project that will be released within 2011.

Terre Thaemlitz

FT: Could you please introduce the readers to your “Soulnessless” project? is there a release date yet?

TT: I came up with the term “soulnessless” in order to complicate the binarism of “soul/soulless.” In particular, I wanted to get away from the manner in which the term “soulless” presumes the absence of a soul, and in acknowledging that absence reinforces the concept of the existence of a soul itself. I am coming from a completely anti-spiritual, anti-religious, atheist perspective in which there is no soul – notions of soul are simply cultural constructs. So although we can speak of “soul,” I only do so in relation to cultural belief systems, and not in relation to any possibility that there is such a thing as “soul” in any material or spiritual or other sense. I thought the term “soulness” could reflect this state of belief in possessing soul, whereas “soulnessless” becomes the state of existing outside those beliefs. So the core subject of the term “soulnessless” is not about a “lack of soul,” but about attempting to divest of material and ideological systems that rely upon and exploit notions of “soul.”

The project itself could be described as a follow-up to my 2003 electroacoustic project “Lovebomb,” in that “Soulnessless” attempts to investigate social constructions of “soul” (including spirituality, meditation, religion, etc.) in the same way  “Lovebomb” was about deconstructing the social production of “love.” Particularly within the often a-political framework of music, these two concepts of “soul” and “love” strike me as the key ideological mechanisms promoting anti-material, anti-social, a-political apathy. They are also key means through which audio is marketed and consumed. So I am interested in deconstructing these processes and beliefs which are so deeply internalized within us as consumers. And of course, the conclusions of these investigations are almost always grim.

I call “Soulnessless” an album, although it is over 30 hours long, and consists of audio, video and texts. The format is a tiny 8GB MicroSD card, which creates a physical contrast to the enormity of the data itself. The album consists of five parts, the largest being a nearly thirty hour piano solo entitled, “Mediation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album.” It was recorded in sessions of 6 to 8 hours at York University, and unlike my previous “Rubato” piano solos Replicas Rubato and Oh No! It’s Rubato)  , this is a recording of a completely acoustic performance. The length of the piece was determined by the length of a single 4GB MP3 file at 320kbps (4GB being the largest openable file under FAT32 system requirements). Since album duration has always followed the limitations of the media on which it was recorded (20 minutes per side of vinyl, cd’s at 74 and then 81 minutes…) by being a full-length MP3 file it will be the world’s first full-length MP3 album. I applied to the Guinness Book of Records, but they declined to create the category of “World’s Longest Album.” Still, Guinness or not, I am confident it will be the world’s longest non-compilation, original album. The theme of “Mediation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album” is about how album durations have increased exponentially over the past few decades – from vinyl to cd to cd plus digital exclusive downloads – causing us to produce more and more content while recording artist advances and royalties have gone down. To me, this constitutes a labor crisis. It ties back into the theme of anti-spirituality by focusing on processes of “meditation,” and what it means to use music for meditation upon material social processes (such as labor issues), in contrast to spiritual meditation. The accompanying essay is particularly critical of the ways in which so much “Leftist” and materialist criticism is still bound by the language and cultural models of thought that are dominated by spiritualisms, which I believe complicates – if not undermines – our attempts at analyzing, understanding and strategizing responses to our oppressions from materialist perspectives.

still frame from "rosary novena for gender transitioning"

The other four parts are around 20 minutes each (around 80 minutes in total), and are included as both MP3 audio and QuickTime MOV video files. Stylistically, these four parts are more within the realm of ambient and computer music. The first part, “Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning,” combines a critique of religious spirituality with a critique of the “male/female gender cult” that I feel the medical industry has created around Transsexuality and gender reassignment procedures. Part two is called “Traffic with the Devil,” and looks into the ways in which superstitions and spirituality can reflect material life conditions. More specifically, it investigates illegal workers from the Philippines living in Japan who complain of apartment hauntings. For me, their stories of home hauntings reflect the stress of living undocumented, the ghosts haunting their homes being inversions of the world outside their apartment doors where they themselves must live as “ghosts” among Japanese people, hiding and remaining invisible. Part three, entitled “Pink Sisters,” is about seeking unconsidered “alternative” spaces where issues of gender, spirituality and electronic audio collide. By “alternative,” I mean spaces not considered within the marketing strategies of the industries that develop electronic audio equipment. As a pinnacle example, I chose to document the sound systems used by nuns in Philippine monasteries, which clearly incorporate all of the desired issues, but with results that are completely uninteresting from my political stance. A big part of this piece is about debunking trends in cultural criticism which attempt to romanticize any “alternative” space as inherently “empowering” or having “potential.” I disagree with this point of view, since there are many “minor” spaces in every culture that are just as problematic as “major” spaces. We must always remain critical, no matter what our position. And the fourth and final section is entitled “Two Letters,” which follows the story of two letters which affected my father’s decision to live as a celibate Catholic Brother for nearly 20 years before leaving the order to get married and have a family. Most Europeans are unaware that Catholic schools in the US are often military training academies. This started at the beginning of World War I, during a time when US Catholics – who were already suspected as possible traitors for their allegiance to the Vatican – became doubly suspect if they were of German decent. In a display of nationalism, the US Catholic War Council was formed, and the militarization of Catholic schools had begun. This last segment investigates the hypocrisies of the Catholic military system, including its never discussed secret function of protecting Catholics from going to war, and concludes by drawing parallels between those hypocrisies and the problematics of my own analytical methods. …So it’s been a really large undertaking – certainly my largest project to date – and incorporates a wide range of approaches and media.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a specific release date yet. “Two Letters” and “Pink Sisters” are still in production. I also have some people assisting me with Japanese translations for the videos, which cannot be finalized until after the English versions are done. And of course this is all being done independently with no funding, so I’m distracted with paying projects, remixes, etc., to cover the bills – all of which takes away time from “Soulnessless.” But I do believe it will be completed this year. This is not official, but I would love to do it as a late autumn or winter release. Hopefully sooner. Hopefully not later!

film still from "traffic with the devil"

FT: I’d like to ask you if you are willing to expand the portion where you say “these two concepts of ‘soul’ and ‘love’ strike me as the key ideological mechanisms promoting anti-material, anti-social, a-political apathy.” I’m curious to understand if this is coming also from reflections and interest on the history of recorded music and how it is been modulated by the ideas of soul?

TT: Yes, the reason this project – and all of my projects – tend to focus on audio is precisely because of the way I see music insistently functioning a-politically, in hyper-personal and spiritual terms, to the exclusion of almost all critical analyses and deconstructions that have taken place in the visual arts and other media. Of course, I must also point out the reason I consciously decided long ago not to focus on working in the Fine Arts was that the gallery and museum systems never change, despite the very intricate critiques that have justified their total destruction for over a century now. To the contrary, the benevolence of art institutions which allow these critiques to occur within their walls serves to reinforce the power of those institutions. It is a no-win situation. Change is impossible, and all critical content within the Fine Arts simply serves to affirm its object of institutional critique, rather than divest it of power in any way. This is my firm belief. So I turned to music, but not as an improvement on the arts. Rather, as something worse. Worse in that the critiques of art had yet to penetrate music in any way. The dominant discourse around music was, and remains, completely mind-numbing drivel focusing on artistic ego, soul, creative genius, etc… all things that, as I said, have been thoroughly deconstructed in other media – although generally to no effect. But this general absence of critical thinking around music, and the consumption of music, also means music is a media in which those critiques have not yet failed – if only due to the fact that they have yet to be developed. Of course, I have no doubt they will fail. I see everything I produce as a strategic failure. I must. And of course, this is an inversion of process and strategy that is at times difficult for record labels, distributors and consumers to follow. Still, that is the foundation of all my activities around sound. I am drawn to music because it exemplifies all I detest.
Clearly, the music industry’s perpetuation and exploitation of archaic concepts of artistry, genius, creativity, soul, intrinsic talent, etc., has repercussions in other aspects of society, as well as reflects larger cultural dynamics in which the industry has developed. It is very important to note the distinction between how most music functions in relation to enterprise, whereas art relies on subsidy (at least in the EU), which also fosters a different level of discourse – the arts tend to pander to well-read conservatives who like to think of themselves as liberal, whereas music is marketed for “the masses,” meaning its discourse is utterly dumbed down by marketers to appeal to their patronizing image of “everyone” – and in that way they create our stupidity, since we ingest it so willingly. Like most things, music is both corrupt and a corruptor.
I’m afraid I can’t recall the title right now, but there was actually a philosophical book published in the US recently (within the past 2 or 3 years) which theorized how the music industry alone was responsible for the continued spread of religion and spirituality in the post-industrial, “analytical” era. The ironic twist is that the book was written by a Christian who sees all of this continued spirituality as a blessing. So there you go, if the religious cultural critics are in agreement with me – albeit to very different ends – it seems the function of music’s connection to anti-materialist, spiritualist ideologies is not conjecture, but established fact. And whether we are talking about those ideologies being exploited for the growth of a religious organization or capitalist enterprise, in the end they are both about commerce, economics and consumerism.

film still from "traffic with the devil"

FT: Are there people who, according to you, have points in commons with the work you are doing with Soulnessless or whose production has been interesting for you to conceive this project? Within music production or in other fields…

TT: The immediate answer, as always, is Ultra-red, and their obsession with archives. Clearly they are involved in an entirely different level of community participation and construction, but I do feel there are some similarities between their recent analyses of the arts and my analyses of the audio marketplace, as well as academia (which specifically comes under fire in this project). Or at least I would like to think so… In any case, there is certainly a sense of solidarity with their work. And Dont Rhine’s feedback when writing the text for “Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album” was invaluable, as always.
The other big influence was the “New Aesthetics in Computer Music” project at York University, through which Tony Myatt and  Mark Fell (of SND) invited me to work with them at their facility, and with their amazing Fazioli piano. Although primarily an academic project, the staff crossed between academia, sound art, computer music, full-time employees, freelancers, students, etc. – all of which influenced the accompanying analytical text.
I knew I wanted to do something with their piano, despite “New Aesthetics…” usually being about non-academic computer musicians using York’s digital studio facilities and staff to develop synthesis tools or things like that. So it was in my typical culture-jamming way of doing the opposite of what people want me to do that I conceived of this project in which the help of their programmers was not spent on things related to sound synthesis, but on figuring out how to compress all the hours of high resolution 96K WAV master recordings into a nice sounding 4GB MP3. It was a bit trickier than expected, since we initially forgot about the FAT32 4GB file limitation and thought we were dealing with a more arbitrary file length dependent on disc size rather than file size. I hear they enjoyed the change of pace and doing something a little different on their side as well.
I have performed “Meditation…” live a few times in conjunction with the touring of an exhibition on Cornelius Cardew, organized by Pierre Bal-Blanc and Dean Inkster. Although the materials in the exhibition are really interesting to see first-hand, I’m not personally a fan of Cardew. I especially find his later “populist” works to be entirely unlistenable, and failures in what they set out to do – you know, these completely didactic SWP/Maoist-inspired operas starring the heroic factory worker, with Cardew somehow asking us to believe he’s producing an accessible form of “folk music.” Well, I have a bad impression of the SWP because in the ’80s in New York they were always showing up at demos organized by ACT-UP and other groups, trying to take over – all these straight guys with long beards pushing everyone to buy their newspaper to make the revolution happen… Frustrating.
With “Soulnessless,” or more specifically with the piano solo, I wasn’t thinking of it at the time of recording the piano solo, but as an entire “album” I secretly imagine it as a contemporary version of Keith Jarrett’s 1970’s “Sun Bear Concerts” release on ECM. His album is a series of live recordings of piano improvisations spanning ten records, in a totally fetishistic ECM box package with a lovely photo book. It’s one of the highlights of my record collection. Although the “Sun Bear Concerts” album is just over six hours in length, taking the vinyl format into consideration I think as an album-object it’s the ’70s equivalent of my project. Clearly I’m not talking about a similarity in thematic content, but in terms of the commodity itself.

film still from "traffic with the devil"

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