THE CRISIS OF POST SPETACLE "LIVE" CONTEMPORARY AMBIENT PERFORMANCE (OR...WHY I CAN'T GET PAID TO DJ

Terre Thaemlitz

The following text is a series of extracts from the essay “The Crisis of Post Spectacle “Live” Contemporary Ambient Performance (Or Why I Can’t Get Paid To Dj A-Structural Audio)” written by Terre Thamelitz in 1997 and published by us in 2006. The reason why we decided to publish it is clear: we considered it a great waste to leave unpublished an essay that dealt in such a sharp way with a world as complex as the one of contemporary music. What really struck us was his approach in dealing with issues without attempting abstractions or speculative theorizations, but simply focusing on the unsolved matters and on the obvious contradictions that were taking place. A few simple words, the kind that get straight to the point. (Nero)

It is largely assumed among producers and listeners that the performance of Contemporary Ambient music incorporates a strategic convolution of noise with composition, presenting listeners with experiential conditions that emphasize their own performance within a sonically active social theater, rather than suppressing their performance in favor of frontal spectacle. Similarly, it is well known that production methods for Contemporary Ambient music such as non-realtime computer synthesis typically involve processes which are not immediately reconcilable with conventional listener/virtuoso performance paradigms. However, when it comes to “live” Contemporary Ambient performance, there seems to be a great deal of regressive desire among producers, organizers and audiences for conventional stage-based performance.

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If we concede Attali’s assertion that “in music, as in the rest of economy, the logic of the succession of musical codes parallels the logic of the creation of value”. Then perhaps the failings and contradictions of an economy around Contemporary Ambient performance may be expressed in terms of an unconscious attempt to reconcile antithetical musical codes of repetition and representation, rather than a deliberate exploitation of their multiplicity - a multiplicity which is suggested by Ambient music’s historical claim to address a restructuring and multiplication of cultural relations between production, performance and listening.

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However, the deconstructive values I wish to infuse this multiplicious economy with are currently (perhaps hopelessly) circumvented by popular musical codes around performance as a consumer process, through which the performer is required to exist as a celebrity (including personnas of humility), and all sounds recorded and ambient are exhalted only for their production of exchange value.

It is in this latter spectacular manner that the economic viability of DJ performance as an instrumental medium has been established, both within Underground clubs and Dominant Culture (as exemplified by the global economic success of Rap, House and Techno). And as the majority of Contemporary Ambient events are organized by club promoters who deal with DJ’s on a regular basis, one would think that a stratification between DJ-ing and “live” performance of conventional theatrical instruments would no longer exist. But this is not the case, particularly within the price scales of Contemporary ambient performance. Speaking from personal experience, after hearing that my standard presentation techniques do not involve keyboards or other traditional theatrical instruments, I have had countless organizers reduce their initially proposed “live performance” fee by more than half.

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But in the absence of any large-scale understanding of how to stage events around a concept of decentralization, most organizers and producers grappled at the most familiar performance strategy associated with free-form and a-structural music: the Neo-Bohemian Progressive Rock festival, a thoroughly mainstream marketing strategy which, by the early ‘90s, was already consuming the Rave community. In this manner, Contemporary Ambient producers fell prey to all of the demands of other stage and personality-based performance strategies. Decentralization was overwritten by a concept of authorship, and any remnants of desire among producers for anonymity only resulted in confusion. Disoriented producers took darkened stages, beginning and ending their sets unannounced and intermixed with opening and closing DJ’s. Meanwhile, audiences now faced stage-forward, asking if the show had begun and complaining that they could not spot their favorite stars clearly on stage. By 1996, when the Orb took center stage at New York’s Roseland Theater with drummers and guitarists on hand, dominant Contemporary Ambient performance was no more than a musical staging of “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” 7. Frustrated and confused by the lack of populist satisfaction derived from such stagings, producers, organizers and audiences declared, “Ambient is dead.” Few seemed to realize that this disorientation was a byproduct of the functionality of Contemporary Ambient production. Few seemed to realize that Contemporary Ambient’s inapplicability to a Prog-rock metaphor involved a disclosure of Prog-rock and all music’s site specificity and non-universality, and suggested the development of new performance strategies.

Under the collapse of Prog-rock staging, a number of producers including Oval, Scanner, Dumb Type and myself increasingly turned toward production methods which attempted to address processes of deconstruction present in our own methodologies. For many of us, digital editing and computer synthesis emerged as the primary studio process capable of representing a decentralization of authorship through the sampling and resynthesis of other peoples’ recordings, as well as by exploiting a high prophile technophobia present in the popular media which identified computers and the internet as threats to the loss of personal identity. In this manner, the subjectivity of the creative process, as well as the listening process, was audibly connected to a social history of inputs and cultural variables.

Despite this newfound enthusiasm among producers, on a market level the retreat from Prog-rock aesthetics was accompanied by a new emphasis on the homogenizing power of quantized rhythms, and an increasing resistance to a-structural and beatless performances. As for myself, proposals to incorporate texts with releases so as to familiarize listeners with my own rationale behind particular processes, as well as to generate discourse around materialist listening practices, were discouraged by the record company I was signed to, resulting in semiotically burdened and textless covers such as Soil. Record labels began pressuring Contemporary Ambient producers to produce Neo-urban music: “Trip-Hop,” “Abstract Beats,” “Drum & Bass,” “Ambient Jungle” and “Acid Jazz”. Both in sales and performance, this new predominance of rhythm serves to synchronize and pace a production’s reception, using the restraints of simple mathematics to invoke a simplification of interpretive formulas. Only a few committed record labels which had developed steady followers continued to release a-structural Contemporary Ambient material, and they now found themselves flooded with submissions from producers rejected or abandoned by other labels.

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One intriguing result of the contemporary ambient record industry’s transition toward Neo-urban music is a renewed emphasis of the DJ as the ideal Contemporary Ambient performer. However, this return occurs in the most conventional of ways, engaging familiar images of DJ’s as the celebrities we have come to know through the Rap industry and nightclub followings. There is no secondary displacement of identity as was suggested (however unintentionally) by early “chill rooms”. The DJ is center stage, and fully reconcilable with dominant personality-driven performance structures. As a personality figure, the DJ’s sense of individuality is used to generate authenticity, thus distracting one from questions of authorship (as opposed to encouraging a direct deconstruction of such issues). The listener’s act of consumption no longer emphasizes the traditionally Modernist fetishization of a producer’s creative output. Rather, it reflects a tertiary commodification of the DJ’s selection and performance of other producers’ outputs as the ultimate in informed commodity fetishism. In a cultural atmosphere which conflates the consumption of music with the definition of self, what process of self-identification can a consumer more closely relate to than the very act of consumption? Thus, the popular elevation of the DJ as celebrity allows consumers to not only purchase music, but to vicariously engage in the DJ’s expert and near pathological process of consuming music.

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I am forced to accept the manners in which this circumstance conditions my own reception, as well as production. My own objectives for performance are hopelessly diffused in their actualization. Every composition’s abandonment of rhythm imparts an uninvited dissension from the incessant drums which accompany the march of cultural inertia; only to be resurrected through reappropriation by institutions of the Avant Garde. Each attempt for clarification on my part contributes to an air of arrogance and self-distinction which erodes my relationship to the cultural outlets I wish to nurture. I am compelled to tip a hat to the popular observation that “at least an Orb concert or Illbient event can get people together.” But then again, I remind myself, so does Sunday Mass, and the act of congregation can never be distilled from the politics of social organization.


All things considered, this is why I can’t get paid to DJ a-structural audio.