Explaining electronic music
to others -- no matter how brilliant
you find it or how deeply it affects you -- is pretty much always difficult. Even approachable
, melodic genres like house
rarely have vocals, so it's difficult to comment on their theme
or deeper meaning, even when it's in plain sight upon listening. This rule goes double for real techno
(see Detroit techno
, etc.), with its focus on rhythm
and subtle variation over any Western convention of melody
. On the absolute cutting edge
of techno, such as this breathtaking September 2001 mix CD by Richie Hawtin
, words begin to fail completely, and any explanation seems awkward and peripheral. Still, because this CD is so amazing and potentially culturally important
, I'm going to try my hardest here.
The very soul of techno is in its ever-present rhythm, and that is virtually the only "standard" rule that Hawtin doesn't break at least once during this mix. Indeed, the four-on-the-floor heartbeat is infused into every track, from the footsteps leading in to the faint, distorted drum loop playing softly behind the beautiful ambient outro. Even when Hawtin, as would be expected of any self-respecting minimalist, drops the percussion out entirely for a few dozen bars, its absence is as compelling as its presence would be, and rhythmic integrity is maintained.
That integrity, which could be expressed as perfect rhythmic constancy without the need for super-high rhythmic intensity, is a large part of what makes this album so different from everything else on the shelves. Even Hawtin's last -- completely delicious, by the way -- album, Decks, EFX, and 909, tended to bludgeon the listener with constant, heavy-duty drum loops and basslines; other techno mixes tend to behave in roughly the same way. The fact that DE9 doesn't is probably its greatest strength. While standard techno mixes are perfect for dancing, driving, coding, and other high-intensity activities, DE9 can be enjoyed during massage, meditation, sleep, luxuriously relaxed sex, and so forth. In other words, this album somehow manages to be suitable for both motion and stillness, a property shared by very little other dance music (notable exceptions: Orbital's halcyon + on + on, some Moby, Juno Reactor, some IDM, etc.).
Technologically this album is very much ground breaking, as well. You may have noticed that on the above tracklist that many CD tracks have two or more records listed in them. Instead of manipulating live records at all, all of them were sampled into a computer and spliced, edited, FX'd, and remixed from there. Of primary importance to this process were Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge and ACiD software, probably a multitude of VST Plugins were involved too, and a few pieces of nice, pricey hardware. While some DJ's have been doing their mixes online rather than on deck for a while now, it's usually been to make up for a lack of mixing talent on their part. As far as I know this is the first instance of a internationally famous DJ putting together a truly creative work that would've been imposible without this cutting edge technology.
In preparation for this work, and for use in his live sets, Richie Hawtin was allowed to be one of the two beta testers (the other being long-time collaborator John Acquaviva) of a system known as Final Scratch being developed by a couple of hackers in Holland. This technology, like Sonic Foundry's ACID and many others, allows the DJ to sample individual noises or whole bars from a record and remix them at will. Unlike other systems, this one comes with a hardware interface in the form of special platters that can be used with all turntables. This hardware translates any movement the DJ makes on the tables into velocity information, which is used on the samples as they are played so they sound as though the tables were playing them. Use of this system also means that Hawtin can do construction from all of his enormous (40,000+ records, Jesus H. Christ) record collection during live performance. When I saw him perform at one of the many DE9 release parties, he spun an epic three hour long set, and as he was leaving I noticed he only had his laptop and a bag that could carry maybe 40 records. At least from what I've heard (that performance and another live mix), his live sets these days start off with rougher hard techno jams, and then move in the last 45 minutes or so to easier DE9-style material. This sounds opposite of what would be natural, but it's really very nice to have the end of the set cushioned by intelligent minimalism after wearing yourself out with hard groove.
Since the track breaks on this album are so arbitrary, and DJ mixes are meant to understood as a whole anyway, I'll refrain from citing individual track numbers. Instead, here are a few points in the CD that are especially interesting, given in absolute time from the beginning of the mix.
4:30 - Up to this point the music is all rhythm, with almost a minute of lead-up to right here, where a snippet of happy, major key melody steps in. Even though it's short lived, it provides a nice example of what is to come in the mix.
7:55 - Here's some funk for all the junkies out there, a grungy drum-and-bleep that goes nice until about 8:26. There, it changes completely except for the snare part into another funky minimal motif.
10:00 - Pretty echoes begin fade in slowly over the course of many bars, with percussion hiding some of the sound they're almost unnoticeable until they're dominating the track. Also a vocal "wa" sample plays over much of this, becoming progressively more manipulated and re-sampled until both sounds fade out at around 12:30.
16:49 - Another beautiful groove cycles in, two bars long and almost clean enough to fit in a trance track. Interestingly the groove and cymbal above it are both high pitched and the bassline is very low, there's almost no midrange at all in this section until a snare comes in much later.
22:26 - One of the only complete breakdowns on the song, the previous melody and rhythm disappear completely, replaced by a rhythm line with speech sample reminiscent of the "breakbeat" section at 13:39.
33:08 - Mmm, a really tight grove drops in here, one of the most rhythmically complex areas of the mix. Despite the complexity it's not hard or rough at all, but smooth as silk and head-noddingly catchy.
37:28 - This section sounds a lot like Post-era Björk, almost soft strings playing a four bar, half time hook over nice catchy beats.
44:57 - A long, anthemic build up begins here, as compelling as anything that hack Oakenfold has ever produced. At the end it segues instantly into another track entirely instead of keeping with the theme.
51:46 - This marks the beginning of the end portion of the 53 minute long mix. An airy synth line plays one of every four bars, a minimalist touch, then a constant note in the dominant key takes over and becomes quieter and quieter as the rhythm does the same.
A thousand thanks to mkb for putting me straight on some of the major details in this writeup.