Tag Archive: Pole


“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.

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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