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Minimal Techno: a discussion of the most criticised genre in electronic music

When house and techno grew in exposure in the mid 1980s productions were minimal out of necessity. As sampling and programming technology developed, the music grew increasingly layered and clean. Evolution to some, unnecessary commercial crossover moves to others. Reacting against these increasingly dense productions, minimal techno artists subtracted from their productions almost everything except sharp drum rhythms and stark sequencer or synthesizer patterns and yet of all the electronic music genres, none are more maligned and misunderstood than minimal techno. It is criticised for a lack of depth and lacklustre, monotonous repetition, a disparagement that has been levelled at electronic music in its entirety, with fans of other electronic music genres quick to invalidate it, viewing it as calculated affectation. Fans of minimal (an adjective so powerful it seems to negate the need for a noun) can get it wrong too, valuing it as being thoroughly innovative and progressively new above other, busier genres, forgetting that minimalism, in its original sense, played a key role in the invention of electronic music.

Without the repetition and phrasing of minimal music and the rejection of traditional compositional, notational and tonal language by its leaders Steve Reich and Philip Glass et al techno and house as we know it would not exist. Neither would electro and hip-hop – spinning the same two records to infinitely extend a loop is as minimal as it gets and yet the minimal tag is a misrepresentation. Vacant they are not; the tracks brim with colour, shade and moods, neither are artists lazy; they sculpt sounds: moulding tone, pitch and timbre. With fewer elements each is more exposed and thus must justify its existence. Sparseness permits emotions to move to the foreground, absorption of the atmospheres and textures is encouraged by repetition, rejecting traditional song structure allow the listener to enter a trance-like state, purging late night excesses. After years as the black sheep and enduring a creative slump, minimal techno found its way into the hands of a generation of artists like Ricardo Villalobos, Gui Boratto and Click Box who have reinvigorated it with incorporations of Southern American instruments and rhythms and a new generation of listeners, who were children when many seminal albums were delivered, are discovering exciting records past and present.

As for the genre’s supposed lack of depth, Plastikman’s influential, and greatest, album ‘Closer’ is the sound of someone in the pit of depression; disconnected, exhausted and unemotional. The music is distant, as if approaching from outside, a place the voice is crawling to reach. Crunches, snaps and rips creep up on the listener, encasing them inside the protagonist’s oppressed mind; the microscopic variations amplify the tension. Dystopia: techno stripped to its inner core. Not exactly limp.

A key text in the genre’s history is Basic Channel’s ‘BCD’ from 1996. Redefining the standard of stripped music further than their peers, the duo of Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus subtracted percussive elements, leaving only reverb to swirl and decay in the vacuum created. Journalist Simon Reynolds noted that listening to Basic Channel was akin to hearing a pounding nightclub from miles away. Most of the tracks on ‘BCD’, which is a compilation of single edits rather than a true album, are without drums, aside from the occasionally-occurring propelling bass drum and melodies are replaced by weightless chords. Synthesisers replicate the codes a listener would expect to hear in techno. The intricacies are the focus rather than pumping drum patterns yet Basic Channel songs sound like techno tracks. Closely related to Basic Channel is Pole, whose trio of albums, ‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’, demonstrate a detached austerity, even in full-colour covers.  Compositionally, Pole’s albums are kept bare; tracks are tethered by dub-specked held bass lines and an effervescence of high end. By reducing the elements so severely Pole reveals the similarities of dub and techno. Both share repetitious loops and the smallest of modifying steps – filter cutoff sweeps, hissing tapes, bouncing delay – are to be zoned in on and the clicks, pops and squeals present are now the foundation of minimal techno. The Cologne label and distributor Kompakt is considered synonymous with the genre and founder Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS pseudonym can be thought of as worship to Basic Channel. Purportedly a contemplation of German identity, GAS mutates samples of German classical music into dark arrangements held down by a simple bass drum. Sections morph and counterpoints dissolve, building an oppressive atmosphere where pops and clicks resemble stepped-on fallen branches while lost in the black forest. Although GAS’ sound isn’t overtly techno and is much bigger in size than Basic Channel, the stripped production and its rejection of structural norms is evidence of how malleable minimal techno is, which can therefore lead to misunderstandings of what it is.

The genre is also maligned because perhaps its philosophy is not understood due in part to the traditional reluctance of many electronic music artists to permit press meetings though these can often be enlightening. In an interview for Resident Advisor, Hawtin responded to a question about the aesthetics of his record label Minus, which has minimal techno artists such as Magda, False and himself on its roster, with: ‘I think the Minus aesthetic has always been about finding a balance between music and technology and art… when it’s in sound, whether it’s a Gaiser record or a Plastikman record, you’re fighting to get your point across with just the bare essentials of timbres, of sounds, of effects…all of that goes into the whole Minus aesthetic. It’s minimalistic, but it’s also futuristic and progressive at the same time.’

This ethos coupled with Minus’ nine date, nine country AV tour Making Contakt, which set out to explore themes of security, privacy and communication, blurred the lines between performer and audience by actively encouraging audience participation and interaction via technology summarizes what minimal techno is; an evolving and engaging form that is true to the founding ideology of electronic music: to push musical and technological boundaries and defy audience expectations. To progress, to challenge, to be the vanguard.

Vier

Minimal techno playlist

Minimal techno playlist

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