Art Music: Remembering Mille Plateaux on the eve of its relaunch

Mille Plateaux, a multifaceted icon of the dot.com musical era and now in 2010 it’s coming back.

You have come here; you must think about minimalism… The digital routing of ideas based on sound, its flaws, delicacies, its enlightenment, and its value for the times to come. It’s clicks & cuts. And as you guessed, it clicks and cuts. Remember the days when all was easy? When a new sound created a sound generation every couple of months, and progression was not an internal quality of electronic music, but its driving force?…times when a new genre wasn’t just a sub-something of a sub-something, but fact? Well, stop remembering; these days have arrived once again, and they have changed.
Sascha Kösch, Liner notes to clicks + cuts (Mille Plateaux, 2000)

sharkIn popular music, the endless eulogies to sex, love and loneliness are reworked for each generation with whatever references mark something as contemporary. Outside of what appears in the mainstream lies music and musicians that want to explore other ideas and make other statements. In the 90s the internet connected people as never before allowing talented amateurs anywhere to create for each other everywhere. The scene moved from fixed locations to cyberspace and niche music was allowed to get more obscure as any individual could find likeminded audiences somewhere online. Old forms blurred with underground sub-genres of music splintering and realigning infinitely.

The sheer mass of information available made musicians academic and in some cases academics musicians. In 1993, a German philosopher and club goer founded a politically charged and fiercely literate electronic label that was inspired musicians and listeners alike for over a decade before succumbing to economic forces. That label was Mille Plateaux, a multifaceted icon of the dot.com musical era and now in 2010 it’s coming back. However, the question has to be asked is Mille Plateaux still relevant today and if so what part of it; the heart, the head, the pocket or the ideal?

History

A label with impressive history in electronic music, Mille Plateaux became renowned for releasing experimental music in the minimal techno and glitch genres. The pioneering and truly seminal sounds and techniques featured on those records have influenced every genre from folk to rap, soundtracks to rock and beyond.

Artists such as Alec Empire (Atari Teenage Riot), Kid 606, Akufen, Frank Bretschneider, Twerk, Thomas Köner, Vladislav Delay, Porter Ricks, Stewart Walker, Cristian Vogel, Wolfgang Voigt (Gas), Oval and Microstoria all had key releases on Mille Plateaux in the 90s and spearheaded a self-conscious aesthetic of radical intellectualism, breaking from the past and carving new spaces for musicians to exist. Philosophically they drew inspiration from a number of post-structuralist sources but the most essential distillation of this alignment came from the label head, Achim Szepanski.

Achim Szepanski, a writer and philosopher began the label in Frankfurt, Germany in 1993 and named the label after Mille Plateaux by theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980). Considered a landmark in post-structuralist theory Szepanski vocally brought the concepts of De-territorialization and the Rhizome to bear in the context of electronic music.

Musically, de-territorialisation can be widely meant to take sounds from their original contexts and reassemble the pieces, freed from their and the audience’s preconceptions of their original meanings and reprocess them into a new composition. More than simply sampling, with de-territorialisation there is an inference that the basic of structure of music, including the industry and melodic politics associated with it, should be freed and repurposed to suit the artist, event and the audience in rhizomatic fashion. Rhizomatic, or the rhizome as used by Deleuze and Guattari is taken to mean non-binary, non-hierarchial, multidisciplinary relationships that feed of and off each other in multiple ways to increase the inputs/outputs of and for each participant. These ideas manifested in a musical sensibility termed “Glitch” which used micro samples, noise, distortion and other sounds reminiscent of CD playing errors, broken machines, and industrial hum to create music that didn’t rely on traditional musical structures.

Unashamedly technological in both appeal and aesthetic, early artists were as much electrical and software engineers as musicians and particular music creation tools quickly developed from and for the community, for example MAX/MSP and Audiomulch. One of the Rhizomatic aspects of these tools was the ability to create interlocking sample and effect modules that triggered and affected each other, creating music that structured itself from the preconditions and relationships set up by the artist.

While the use of software and synthesiser based music was in no way new and neither was the concept that music could be created in this way, in 1993 a global Glitch community with Mille Plateaux at its heart, connected and supported by the advent of the internet, began to flourish. In the following eleven years Mille Plateaux continued to release both minimal club focussed and experimental music, most notably with the Clicks and Cuts compilation releases. As per the introduction of this article, in the liner notes, Sascha Kösch articulated the aesthetics of Glitch defined literally by the sound of “clicks_+_cuts:”. However as William Ashline suggests by 2000 the conceptual nature of Mille Plateaux releases had been in part supplanted by the recognition and reproduction of the sound by a wider audience:

… the deterritorialization of the “glitch” quickly became reterritorialized in popular electronica. There was an effective detumescence of the hyper-intensity that accompanied its discovery. However, the boredom that finally greeted “glitch aesthetics” was a disapprobation that did not completely turn away from the pointillist, percussive advantages of clips and pops. In the early months of 2000, Mille Plateaux released the compilation “clicks_+_cuts,” which articulated the mutation of the “glitch” into a more onomatopoetic signifier, one far less aligned with “errors” of the machine than its benefits as a generator of minimal sound particles, or “microsounds,” used in an assemblage toward an abstraction having very little to do with conventional music.

Then in 2004 EFA-Medien (a prominent German music distributor) collapsed, causing both Mille Plateaux and its parent company Force Inc. Music Works to file for bankruptcy. Once in administration the rights for both labels were sold and eventually bought by Marcus Gabler who is now relaunching Mille Plateaux (as well as its sublabels) with another instalment in the clicks + cuts series (5).

After talking to both Gabler and Szepanski it became clear that the both parties have very different agendas on what they want to achieve with labels and within music. Achim Szepanski is very much the highly literate conceptual artist, well versed in irony and arch positions as much as theory and politics. Gabler is much more commercially focussed, stressing that he comes from a pop music background and that good music has definable structures and contexts. Online, news that Mille Plateaux is relaunching without the involvement of its figurehead Szepanski has been met with bile and vitriol. It is the internet after all. Mille Plateaux has a place in many people’s heart as the particular sound and ethos of a younger and brighter time. So much so that it is possible that expectations are too high to give any new releases a fair hearing.

Marcus Gabler

When asked about what he likes about music and therefore what he values as a worthy release for Mille Plateaux, Gabler stated:

When it’s catchy. I come from pop, especially the 80s when I grew up I always listened to stuff that caught my ears. I just had to sing this melody and the funny thing is even though there isn’t any melody in Mille Plateaux songs I get that same feeling.

For example it happened with the outro track on the Mille Plateaux compilation; every time I heard this demo I had these feeling. (On the demo) the intro and the outro had this feeling the rest of the tracks were simple IDM but this track had a certain character or recognisability. And that is what I’m looking for and that is what people are looking for. Something that sticks out, something they want to hear again for whatever reason. This is what I like about the songs I release and also for about almost everything I listen to.

This sense of unreflexive appeal is key to what Gabler wants to achieve with Mille Plateaux and when questioned about whether his emphasis on composition and structure is at odds with the experimental history of Mille Plateaux he clarified:

(I) mean composition and arrangement in the widest sense. It’s not necessary to have a ‘Song Structure’ but as with graphical art and sound art I’m always very suspicious when there is no structure. Of course the artist may say that he made the work with splashes of colour and it achieved the result that he wanted to achieve. I’m always suspicious of this and it just sounds random and random is not art and it’s been done anyway. So structure at least means ‘Idea’, that someone has to have an idea that can be called a musical idea. In sound art for example it’s hard to call it a composition but there is something there, and I can say ‘hey there is some idea here and it’s not purely random’. If I don’t have that I have to trash the demo.

And it is here that Gabler’s aim of wanting to bring artists like Ametsub (Japanese electronica artist) to a wider audience meet his opinions of what made Mille Plateaux influential in the first place.

Ten years ago or even 15 years ago Mille Plateaux was always the spearhead of experimental electronic music and so it was probably to a high degree good because it was new and to a certain degree not because it was (actually) good.

Of course if you do something that is very new like Glitch or Clicks and Cuts it is going to be recognised and it will probably be influential to people but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is actually good. If something is new there is a confusion with new and good. However I believe these times are over there is not going to be second glitch movement or whatever it is.

I can’t see what could be the next big thing here.

The next small thing might be some organic dance thing but then (I think that) it’ll just be a mix of things that are already going on. In the end you have to be good since there is nothing new. So consequently there has to be more musical value in whatever comes out from a label, since there is nothing new, or at least have good sounds or production values.

If I was aiming to convert people, then yes this might actually happen with me thinking that I can’t rely on just being new. So I just have to rely on albums being good in one or another way. They would have been good ten years ago and they will probably be good ten years from now… Because the music has more musical value than ‘innovational’ value and so it may well attract a wider audience. I’m not sure but I can imagine that.

Achim Szepanski

After speaking to Achim Szepanski one gets the sense of talking to a voracious intellect, someone who perhaps like Guy Debord could deride his inspirational pronouncements as drunken prattle if only to avoid becoming a public identity. While there is obviously a bitterness to how things went with Mille Plateaux, there is also a reflexivity to what Mille Plateaux was when it started to what it became. I asked what he thought of Gabler’s assertion that the releases of Mille Plateaux were good because they were new.

You know, the ideas around interconnected art (digital and analogue) aren’t in and of themselves very new. For example French philosopher Daniel Charles was thinking in 70s and the 80s about this relationship. Probably there was a time in the middle of the 90s, including the enthusiasm of new economy, when we concentrated a little too much on digitalism. But the relationship between analogue and digital is nothing new at all.

The problem is, when I look back (for example) to the differences between Mille Plateaux and Force Inc, then Mille Plateaux that was not in the same way connected to the art-market like Force Inc. Force Inc. reflected more the trends of this market, the new audio- and rave industries. Now the ideology and the functions of the market rules, and people like Gabler have taken over which is an interesting development. It’s now all about following the trend-industries.

The way companies operate today is to be a part of Unterhaltungsindustrie (Adorno), not at all to establishing concepts in Art as Deleuze said ‘to work against the time’ and to ‘work concepts against the time, against the capital and the dialectic of money and market’ (is not the same or even in opposition). I’m not against innovation but it has to be included into concepts. We always tried to go in between the dialectic of established concepts and innovation.

In past interviews and while at the helm of Mille Plateaux, he was more strident in his, what he saw as minimalist (and arguably Mille Plateaux’s and Force Inc.’s) position against the grain of market music made friendly by the media:

What is interesting about Minimalism? Music is no longer representation, it does not copy anything, is nothing but a freely circulating form, something real which presents itself. Its reality is production. And although music is a language, i.e. significant, it does not have a significate. Its expressive meaning is just the literature of music journalists. Especially for a writer it is indispensable to add something to the music, and many of the acts even support this by boring biographies which surround the sonore space.

Then, music also is a cynical sign because it occupies a place for reference which is brought on it but actually never existed. Then, music is a secret which has to be interpreted and suggests a meaning in content to force on the search for myths and fiction. Acts like to be embedded in a certain genre which then is filled up with references, values and strange stories and leaves behind most of the people as automates roaming around nostalgically.

Label policy less and less is about imaginary solutions like expressing a certain style symbolically. Label policy connects economy and biologistics and is embedded in virtuality and networks. Between this co-ordinates forms are generated; one can trust in the topology of networks, on superficial and fluctuating connections. Here, once again Deleuze could be quoted, because label policy is mob policy: limitation of numbers, distraction, Brownian variety of directions. To work as a condensation in weaves like that, as Deleuze says, to risk everything step by step, not to capitalise or to consolidate what has been achieved so far. A part of incident concatenations and crashes when the singular incidents a label policy is made of become dust.
(Achim Szepanski on music, mob policy and minimalism, de:bug 2001)

But, ever in search of new music through pushing areas of musical experience, he too started to find the po-faced aesthetic of the click house scene predictable.

Our offices were based in the red light district and obviously over the years we came in contact with owners of the bars. We even hold parties in table dancing clubs. It was kind of political provocation and a lot of people thought we were dealing now with sexism. But it was kind of provocation. The club scene was getting boring at that time, it was very established, and I was totally bored of it. So we went into that thing. We got some experiences, naughty experiences, but it was always connected to politics somehow.

…sometimes we had people from Japan coming over, they were expecting twenty nerds sitting around computers in the offices. But sometimes we had big parties in our offices and they didn’t understand the scene. It was sometimes quite confusing for them.

But yeah sometimes the aesthetic thing was part of the whole story but you know even techno had that man/masculine thing. It was never part of the Deleuze and Guattarian theory so for me it wasn’t a problem to go into this. It gave me a lot experiences and even research for what I was to write later.

(Szepanski is had written a number of novels akin to the works of David Foster Wallace and Will Self).

Currently, Szepanski is in the process of starting a small label called Rhizomatique for the purpose of releasing music with a few old conspirators, amongst them Thomas Köner. From our discussion it seems like the main purpose of this new label will be to document the events he’s planning.

I don’t think that I’ll concentrate fully on music from now on. The rhizomatique thing will be more select. I won’t do a record label as Mille Plateaux or Force inc. was years ago as I don’t think you need this anymore. It’s now more about bringing the activities together, to be more analogue.

So is that it? Has the role of the record label as an inspirational force become irrelevant? As much as some might like to demonise Gabler, he is releasing records that would appear in the electronic sections of music stores and helping support the founders or musical children of those early seminal Mille Plateaux records. But it is undeniable that there is something missing; the irresistible tracts of feverish music theory, the honeymoon of digitalism and rise of normalcy and regularity in electronic. Arguably though this isn’t Gabler’s problem but one that Szepanski and others recognised ten years ago, that the peripheries are drawn back into the centre, style and genres become less irregular, more commodified and, to outsiders, less interesting as a result. It comes down to perspective; are we looking in or looking out? For a time it appeared you could be on the fringes of music possibility with the old Mille Plateaux buoyed by a new economy, looking out into the beyond simply by purchasing a record. However, if there was a purity in the music’s excitement and constant revolution it would be nostalgia to the point of ignorance to still look for it in the same sort of records. So where to next?

Seemingly the understanding behind Gabler’s conception of where music is and can go is that it is only through material innovation that new concepts can develop i.e. Mille Plateaux was good because no one had heard computer music before, or new technologies = new musical possibilities = new concepts. While this is certainly true it doesn’t take into account that concepts at the limits of possibility in turn create new technologies.

The desire for innovation, or at least interest, that drives Szepanski and for which Mille Plateaux became famous can’t solely be put down to the rise of the internet and its possibilities. A willingness to embrace effecting new experiences musically, whatever the impetus, was the core of Mille Plateaux. Moreover with the rise of microlabels catering for specific sub-genres, twinned with the rise and rise of social media, there are many more communities for musicians than ever before. However, as Gabler says there has to be a convincing core to music and the empty nature of the minimal sound that Szepanski championed can seem dull and hackneyed now when stripped of its historical relevance.

In contrast to music that is empty and disengaged and because of the hyper-political ‘hard times’ we live in, it seems we’re due for music that is vocal in what it’s trying to achieve. Not least because it is more fun for writers like myself to write about the mythologizing of artists lives as a product coating for easily consumable music.

Arguably music can be divided, as per Roland Barthes, in terms of being either ‘writerly’ or ‘readerly’. Readerly works being those that require nothing from the consumer but passive consumption; by hearing the record you’re given strict ideas of the meaning, the demographic and their pin-up ideals, the emotional response and in many cases even a specialised language to describe it. Writerly texts (which are usually less mainstream) on the other hand are those where the listener finds their own way through the sound, makes their own path and constructs their own narrative. While writerly music sounds exciting and free, there is a potential in minimal music to become very anodyne and very boring. Moreover, there comes a point when minimal writerly music becomes completely redundant to silence. In consideration of a progressive musical form outside of the binary of writerly vs. readerly Szepanski points to the French philosopher Michel Foucault who thought of his books as dynamic and in drawing parallels to his own efforts explained:

Foucault (thought) his books should function as little tool kits. The thinking of powers and knowledge is also thinking as strategy and subversion, which escapes even the writer’s intentions. Foucault himself said that the more unplanned uses that his books take on the more it would please him.

There have always been forms of music that set-up its own rules and then changed, allowing space for writerly interpretations (from Jazz to jam rock to Krautrock and beyond). But as a setting becomes the norm, much of these developments become in themselves formulaic i.e. trad jazz extrapolations of standards. More than simplistic passive listening, technology is increasingly allowing us to interact with how the music and event is produced and it is interesting to see musicians writing musical events rather than just music per se. More than this, as we learn more about how music effects us biologically, musicians are gaining more insight into how to create new tools for their outward looking listeners/participants. However the particular ‘toolkit’ based concept for music is expressed, the exact role of a record label in promoting and selling it is currently undefined. The truly progressive music of the future might require a truly progressive outward looking approach from its label. So far the idea of rhizomatic musical reproduction doesn’t appear to be on primary agenda for the new Mille Plateaux. Gabler is more of traditionalist than Szepanski and for a label renowned for being idealistic it’ll be interesting to see how Gabler’s vision manifests itself. In talking to him you get the sense that he has the utmost determination to make it work. The danger I see is that ‘it’ might turn out to be inward rather than outward looking releases.

One Reply to “Art Music: Remembering Mille Plateaux on the eve of its relaunch”

  1. Avatar Andreas says:

    The music has to stand for itself. All the heavy intellectual writing doesnt make for good music. Reading the mp liner notes sometimes gave me a headache and reading this brings back those memories. Listening to the old CDs now, only certain titles stood the test of time. And i am w this Gabler guy on this, it is because the music was good. Packaging mediocre stuff in heavy intellectuAl talk and theories is a smoke screen. It is in a way more misleading in my opinion than the commercialism that is being criticized. People should go
    By their gut instinct and listen to the music. Not listen to fancy essays and over complicated sentence structures. Why not saying things in plain and simple terms?

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