Tag Archive: Minimal Techno


“I don’t like things that are too obvious…If you, as a listener, are always putting something in a certain cupboard, I’ve never liked that. If you say, this is jazz, this is pop, this is…experimental techno and all these kinds of things, I don’t like that. I want to make it that somebody can create his own language… That’s what I tried to do. I’ve always tried to do new tracks, sounds that you don’t know, that you can’t define.” Moritz von Oswald, The Wire, July 2009.

Berlin-based producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald established Basic Channel in 1993. Building on the techno dialogue between Detroit and Berlin in the early nineties and the duo developed a slender but adored catalogue of stripped, ultra-minimal releases that compacted together techno, dub and ambient. Besides Basic Channel, the pair also operated under the ambient-leaning label Chain Reaction and other numerous projects: Cyrus, Phylyps, Quadrant, Maurizio and Rhythm And Sound.

This month’s Classics Critiqued covers “BCD”, a collection of their seminal 12” vinyl records. I have picked “BCD” because, as well as been a personal favourite, its tracks have been incredibly influential on this current generation of techno DJs and producers and without Basic Channel’s existence the genre’s landscape would be very different yet they and their releases are seldom covered in mainstream music press.

Germany’s techno scene was conceived while the country began to redefine itself in 1990.  With Detroit techno serving as their main influence and Berlin as the natural capital, Germany’s youth built their first dance music scene. The no-man’s land that sandwiched the Wall still remained after its collapse, leaving many buildings uninhabited during the year-long reunification process; as such the unclaimed and derelict spaces served many with the opportunity for club locations. Dimitri Hegemann and his Interfisch label peers found a series of underground rooms in the redundant Wertheim Kaufhaus (once Europe’s largest department store), on the Potsdamer Platz artery. The group took on their newly discovered space and named it Tresor (vault or safe in German). Hegemann recalls in Dan Sicko’s expert book ‘Techno Rebels’: “We were the place where East and West kids came together, musically…” Tresor was vastly important in bringing together the once divided generation and became one of a number of clubs in Berlin that introduced thousands to techno and united people through it. Also at the heart of the capital’s techno scene is the Basic Channel-linked record shop and distributor Hard Wax. Co-owned by Ernestus, Hard Wax had and still retains a high regard for Detroit techno and its principles and was central to the explosion of the genre in Berlin.

Rather than being culturally significant in the way that Tresor was, for example, Basic Channel’s value is in their influence on techno’s sound, aesthetics and preference for anonymity; that “let the music do the talking” mantra. As with Drexciya and Detroit’s Underground Resistance, Basic Channel infused techno with the mythology that would become as fundamental to the genre as its steady bass drum. Rarely permitting press coverage and by choosing a purely functional and unyielding name, Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus divorced themselves from the outside world with a self-contained production and distribution house that included their studio, label, Dubplates & Mastering facility and Ernestus’ Hard Wax. As with some techno artists, Basic Channel can be an alienating experience for those uninitiated in the genre and near impossible for a casual listener to penetrate; record sleeves contained little information but for a Berlin fax number and a sticker instructing “buy vinyl”. The cryptically named tracks, murky and populated by machines churning and throbbing, have little humanness or apparent emotional content.

Throughout the first half of the nineties, Basic Channel were one of Europe’s first techno innovators. Ernestus and von Oswald defined dance minimalism early on, both through a love of repetition as a form of change and a desire to let the music speak for itself. The tracks, released on their eponymous label, were termed ‘dub-techno’, owing to the subtraction of all but the genre’s most essential ingredients, which were then reconstructed to merge Jamaican dub, 4/4 bass drum pulses and dissonant synthesisers swallowed by rippling delays and reverb. They restrained techno’s energy to untethered pulses and glancing synths that churn and wash below a surface of fog and crackle; ‘murky’ is a signature adjective. As respected electronic music journalist Philip Sherburne wrote, the pair were making “music of horizontal energies, sinking in and spreading out.”

Their pioneering catalogue has informed the work of Monolake (Robert Henke is an alumnus of Dubplates & Mastering), Drexciya, (another duo who until recently have been unfairly ignored by music press) Hard Wax and D&M associate Pole and Plastikman, who, alongside Basic Channel, form an important family from which minimal techno was born. Later Vladislav Delay, Thomas Brinkmann, Beat Pharmacy, Echospace and DeepChord incorporated the moist grooves of their music into different templates. Their aesthetics can be traced in labels such as Ostgut, Delsin, Stroboscopic Artefacts, CRS Recordings and Perc Trax, while contemporary DJs and producers Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock, Voices From The Lake, Skudge, Morphosis, and the mammoth Berlin techno club Berghain are closely related to this renaissance in the duo’s catalogue.

Basic Channel have become a synonym for vaporous dub-techno and their legacy is such that they are consistently referenced in press releases and artist descriptions within electronic music magazines yet journalists rarely explore their career or catalogue. A search through the archives of FACT, xlr8r, Resident Advisor, Pitchfork and The Wire will reveal hundreds of references to Basic Channel though disappointingly only a couple of articles written about them. Ernestus and von Oswald built a body of work that needs to be investigated. They were instrumental in the creation of a new culture in techno and theirs is a 20 year heritage whose influence can be heard in hundreds of artists. They are widely acknowledged to have perfected the dub-techno sound and without them techno would be a markedly different genre.

Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald have grown into the genre’s figureheads and “BCD” is an essential synopsis of one of the most important names in all of techno. As von Oswald stated in his interview for The Wire, “It’s not about status, It’s not about legacy; it’s about listening.”

Vier

Spotify playlist:

Various Artists – BCD

or if you don’t have Spotify listen to three minute previews at Hard Wax’s website.

Continuing from the opening section of Three Decades of Techno, the second will focus on techno’s development in Detroit and Germany during the 1990s and cover a selection of the artists and labels that made it happen. This was the decade when techno was both consolidated and fractured. As a musical form its identity and popularity strengthened, spreading to Europe and developing in the hands of the second generation of Detroit producers yet techno, the idea, became increasingly difficult to classify. Its precarious nature and dispersal across countries evaded definition. Its accidental formation resulting from an infrequent overlap of geography, technology, time and individuals, the division into subgenres and reactions to reactions can make the genre’s pinpointing its history challenging. This piece should provide a compact timeline of techno, clarify how new artists expanded the music and idea of the genre and why this matured so neatly in Germany.

Germany’s techno scene was conceived while the country began to redefine itself in 1990. With Detroit techno serving as their main influence and Berlin as the natural capital, Germany’s youth built their first dance music scene. The no-man’s land that sandwiched the Wall still existed after its collapse leaving many buildings uninhabited during the year-long reunification process; as such the unclaimed and derelict spaces served many with the opportunity for club locations. Dimitri Hegemann and his Interfisch label peers found a series of underground rooms punctuated with iron bars in the redundant Wertheim Kaufhaus (once the largest in Europe), next to the Potsdamer Platz artery. The group took on their newly discovered space and named it Tresor (meaning vault or safe in German). Hegemann recalls in Dan Sicko’s expert book ‘Techno Rebels’: “We were the place where East and West kids came together, musically. We found our style – it was definitely orientated towards minimal Detroit sounds, and then after a year and a half we had our own crowd.” Hegemann also felt a need to strengthen the connection between Berlin and Detroit. Tresor released several works by Detroit artists, starting with Underground Resistance’s project X-101 and the 1993 compilation ‘Tresor II: Berlin-Detroit: A Techno Alliance’, distributed in the US by Nova-Mute (a sub-division of Mute) was the catalyst for plans to open a sister venue in Detroit, which eventually died out.

The genre’s etymological origin and its sound distilled from factories, intellect and subtly expressed emotions naturally found a home in Germany. The country’s decades-long utilisation and innovation of technology and industry, its rich artistic history and, importantly, its predilection for looking to the future, made Berlin Detroit’s European counterpart. By the mid-1990s, the city was getting closer to strongly defining its own techno identity as the Detroit-Berlin sound bled into each other. The controversy, however, over techno’s heritage – whether it stemmed from tekno (its spelling with a k being a joke illustrating the hard, industrial style popular in the Netherlands and Belgium: ‘That record is tekno with four ks!’) or Detroit’s techno – occasionally kicked up though its Detroit origins won out eventually, with people accepting the ‘techno’ spelling and soft pronunciation.

Hugely important in the timeline of the genre is Hard Wax, a record shop at the core of Berlin’s techno scene. With a high regard for Detroit techno and its principles, Hard Wax is known for being central to one of the most important happenings, not just in Berlin but for the entire genre. Mark Ernestus, the shop’s owner, and Moritz von Oswald formed the seminal Basic Channel whose slim but revered catalogue subtracted all but techno’s most essential ingredients then reconstructed them to merge Jamaican dub, 4/4 bass drum pulses and dissonant synthesisers buried by rippling delays, even the releases’ distressed artwork mirrored the murky, tense tracks. Their pioneering work would go on to inform the work of Monolake and Hard Wax associate Pole, who, alongside Basic Channel, both form an important family from which minimal techno was born. In this article I explore these artists and minimal techno further.

In 1993 Wolfgang Viogt, his brother Reinhard, Jörg Burger and Jürgen Paape, who were later joined by Michael Mayer, opened Delirium, a techno record shop in Cologne. Combining the shop and distributor with a few existing labels and event organisers, Delirium became Kompakt 5 years later. Though their dominance took hold fully in the 2000s and will be discussed further in the last chapter of Three Decades of Techno the label’s importance for German techno in the 1990s needed to form part of the second chapter. In opposition to the typical cold precision of Berlin techno, Kompakt’s musical signature of blending texture and techno’s rhythmic intensity with rich ambience has been consistently heralded. Similar to Hard Wax, Kompakt provided a community by releasing and distributing German artists’ material into the 2000s aiding the genre’s  evolution and giving artists an identity on home soil.

Meanwhile in Detroit, DJs such as Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig (a student of Derrick May) were introducing the next wave of techno to fresh audiences. Mirroring the move from DJing to production made 10 years previously, Hawtin established the record label Plus 8 with John Acquaviva, after being unable to break into Derrick May’s Transmat label. Their third white label release was stamped with the phrase ‘The Future Sound of Detroit’, which projected the idea of Detroit having a regional sound character. This backfired however as established artists and the African-American community saw Plus 8, run by two Caucasian men, cashing in on a status others had built. The indignation and suspicions surrounding the now-renamed white label release ‘Technarchy’ ironically made it one the label’s best-selling, shifting around twenty thousand copies. By mid-’91, Plus 8 had matured considerably and released its first compilation ‘From Our Minds To Yours, Vol. 1’ and their ability to deal with the early faux pas and erudite business acumen would be integral for the label’s success.

American independents pursued Cybersonik (who produced Technarchy), a collaboration between Hawtin and his friend Daniel Bell, seeing them as a compliment to the noise and industrial acts on their rosters. Hawtin and Bell declined offers after realising their intense and drum-machine driven sound was unintentionally being perceived as aggressive. Stunned by the discovery, which was reinforced by news that their tracks were being played at a notorious anti-Semitic dance/football club in Rotterdam, the two the two dissolved the project and Hawtin explored his interests in the studio further, resulting in Plastikman, who ventured out with the four-album arc released on Plus 8 between 1993 and 1998, with a resurrection in 2003. He used the pseudonym to describe the pliable, bouncy noises emanating from his TB-303s and celebrated Kraftwerk’s influence with his use of the Germanic k in his song titles (‘Helikopter’, ‘Spastik’, ‘Kriket’ etc.). As a reaction against hardcore techno, Plastikman’s ‘sound’, which arguably ran parallel to Basic Channel’s, was more atmospheric and distinctly slower and deliberate yet thrillingly intense and emotive.

Through continuing the techno characteristics of employment and abuse of technology, stark aesthetics and unrestricted emotions etc., Hawtin, one of Plus 8’s most successful artists, has built a dedicated fan base with continent-spanning acclaim and his influence on techno in the 1990s and 2000s as Plastikman and the leader of loved/loathed M_nus label is incalculable.

Germany’s newly established sound/s and continuing confidence marked the start of techno’s decentralization. As pioneers existed in Detroit, figureheads like Hard Wax, Tresor and Kompakt and their associated DJs and acts emerged to push the genre forward and add their own interpretations and each sound. Predictions of where techno would go next as it spread from nation to nation, how the genre and the Detroit sound could evolve and where the next artists and labels would emerge from were impossible to make.

Sonic Fiction is proud to introduce the new bi-monthly column Music Is Improper, which will focus on electronic music brought to you by our columnist Vier.

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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