An Interview with Terre Thaemlitz

By · Title Image © Comatonse Recordings · Date 2/22/2018

I first heard about Terre Thaemlitz a few years ago, under her DJ Sprinkles moniker, as my thing for electronic music became a thing, and friends shared her tracks with me, particularly the dubbed-out reworks of some of his sample-heavy deep house. As my dance music taste got progressively darker and harder, I heard less and less of Thaemlitz’s music, (or rather, didn’t take it upon myself to search it out, since her music requires active effort on the part of his audience to access and listen to), but had seen and read interviews in which she pursues a campaign of sharp social criticism that refuses to shy away from the institutional politics of the music industry. Her musical output, like her writing, has remained prolific over the course of her career, and includes, alongside essays in journals and books, video projects, albums, the Deeperama mix series, plenty of singles and remixes, as well as the longest album in the world. The Japanese producer is rarely seen in Europe, and will perform as both Terre Thaemlitz and DJ Sprinkles next month as part of the Berliner Festspiele’s Maerzmusik program, including a 30-hour piano performance. Given the opportunity for an email interview with Thaemlitz, I brushed up on some of his ideas via her challenging Comatonse.com website, and sent some questions over. The following was her response.

VAN: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you dislike performing; especially with regard to the macho or hierarchical baggage that comes with the stage. Your upcoming performances don’t seem like performances out of necessity or obligation. Has your attitude toward performance changed?

Terre Thaemlitz: What an odd presumption you’ve made. I’m not sure why, or what you think has changed. I only perform out of economic necessity.

I suppose my presumption was based on the work that’s put into these performances—the labor of Canto V of “Soulnessless” for example, or the added work involved when collaborating with live performers as opposed to a DJ set. It’s not an easy way of doing things.

Well, there is no one-to-one correlation between production time and income, and I—like most people in these fields—cannot live off album sales royalties or things like that. I only come to Europe three times per year now, for a span of two weekends per trip. Anything longer tends to fuck up my private and professional life at home. So I take whatever work I can get within those timespans. Actually, Berno has been trying to book me at Maerzmusik for the past three years, but the festival’s process of confirmation was always too slow, so my schedule got booked up with DJ sets before he could confirm anything. I think it was difficult for them to get a grasp on my scheduling process. I pretty much fill my tours on a first come, first serve basis. You’re right when you say DJ sets are easier, but I also need to keep the electroacoustic stuff going for when DJ bookings are down, or art stuff, or lecturing, etc. I never want to put all of my eggs in one basket—in part because there is not really enough financial stability in just one field to begin with, but also because the critical direction of my projects can be more self-directed when I am not enslaved to playing along with the social dynamics of one market out of fear of being “fired,” as it were. If one scene doesn’t want to hire me for a while, I can fall back on others.

Who do you see as your audience in settings such as the Martin-Gropius-Bau or the Haus der Berliner Festspiele? I feel like in a club setting, people are not necessarily there to be challenged, or rather those that are constitute the minority, and that clubs which want to facilitate discourse do so through separate talks and events. What’s gained from performing or communicating within a space that declares itself an “performing arts space” as opposed to a social club space?  

Generally speaking, nothing is gained. I am not an event organizer, and my fees are not contingent upon ticket sales, so I do not concern myself much with the audiences in social contexts where I have no direct social connection. I refuse to pretend I am part of whatever “scenes” I am being momentarily hired into. However, I am hired to play works that are generally heavy in thematics, so there is some modicum of content delivery going on. I don’t really know what more I can do, personally. Club audiences are generally more under the influence of different chemicals than artsy audiences, which makes them less likely to process certain information clearly. On the other hand, artsy audiences are always invoking their interest in “social issues,” yet doing so by confusing “political art” for actual social organizing—which it is not—so there’s no win. This is why I see no particular value in performing, and would avoid it if I could.

Photo © Comatonse Recordings
Photo © Comatonse Recordings

You’ve said before that your expectations for communicating explicit ideas on the dancefloor are low. Do your other modes of performance allow better communication of ideas? In the same vein, how do you go about ensuring a performance does not impact purely on the theoretical level of ideas, but enacts material challenges and stagings of these ideas?

My entire career is about accepting—and actively critiquing—the ways in which misunderstandings invariably arise out of the ways in which we are socially conditioned to “hear” as audience members. Our expectations around what a particular genre means always get in the way. For example, I have spent decades being totally clear that I am not only “non-spiritual” but “anti-spiritual,” and yet people always invariably “compliment” my DJ sets or releases in spiritual terms. Music industries really limit how audio is perceived, and keep it from developing as a real “sonic discourse.” This is because music and art industries still rely upon marketing audio through notions of feeling, soul, heart, authenticity, originality, etc. All that “creative” bullshit I despise.

As far as I understand, your preference for recorded audio is linked to a kind of precision by which you can control the listening experience almost up to the point of somebody pressing play. Does the upcoming performance of Canto V of “Soulnessless,” for 30 hours, risk losing this precision? Given that somebody listening to recorded audio can stop and start, how do you reconcile the digital version with a performance that most people will not be able to listen to in full?

I am not so much for precision as I am uninterested in poetic vagary and traditional improvisation. I much prefer studio work to live shows, in the same way I prefer reading social analyses more than free verse poems. I get a lot more out of it. Like, I would never want to see Kraftwerk live. (Sorry, Kraftwerk!) I am not so worried about people listening to the piano performance in full. In fact, even with the recorded album version, I suggest that people just turn it on and let it continue playing for 30 hours straight, whether they are awake or asleep, eating, shitting, fucking, reading, watching TV, going out—I suggest they just leave it on and let it be part of the background in a particular space for that period of time. If one has read the accompanying text, it can become a kind of Pavlovian trigger to consider the theme of the piece. I don’t know if there will be one or two hard-core people who try to stay for the entire piece, but that is clearly not integral to the labor of the performers. Clearly this is not the kind of composition that is about “the notes,” or some random moment of “gestural brilliance” at hour 21. It is about time and labor. The score—the rules of performance—are precise, but not to manifest some great moment. Rather, they are precise in ways that refuse “entertainment value,” as well as take into consideration the physical toll upon the players. The original recording was played entirely by myself, so I had to come up with a score that I could play for long periods of time, with some variance, but not stepping into the realm of melodic gesture.

Photo © Bart Nagel
Photo © Bart Nagel

You write a lot. Is there something music can communicate better than writing? Do you take a risk when using a less discursive form of communication such as music or film?

For most people language is first and foremost audible, but non-verbal audio is still a means of communication. It quickly digresses into affect and emotional manipulation, but then that is precisely where its communicative power lies. It is easy for that power to be culturally abused—which I believe all cultures do through the ways popular and high-culture “classical” or “traditional” musics are deployed. They tend to uphold particular cultural standards which are, for the most part, politically regressive and invested in upholding established power relations.

Do you see affective non-verbal modes of communication as more at risk of being culturally abused than language? Or does their freedom from the structural politics of language make them worth that risk?

I kinda ignored that word “risk” when you mentioned it in the previous question, but you used it again here, so I’ll say that I think it’s a bit too dramatic. I can’t really imagine many true “risks” in this line of work. Vanguardism has pretty much ensured that the crazier or more extreme our critical gestures get, the more open and gracious art and music institutions appear—in a totally patronizing way, like, “Look at how open we are that we will support people who tear us apart so thoroughly.” Risk is strategically diffused by our employers. It can never really be anything other than critique affirming its object. That word “freedom” bugs me, too, but I’ll ignore it for now. You still have dreams, I can tell. Let’s just say the deployment of affect through media is never separable from structural politics. How affect is deployed is always entwined with power relations.

In your essay Viva McGlam? you write that “the spotlight on MTFs may look warm and bright from the audience, but from the stage it burns, scrutinizes, and most of all blinds.” Do you feel that for transgendered people on stage, that the “stage is set” to some degree? I’m thinking here about socially “sanctioned” forms of transgendering on stage, (you write about Rupaul for example), which in many cases have been taken into the fold of a consumable entertainment product.

Well, the traditional Western transgendered stage has always been one of cabaret for a straight or mixed audience. And most of the musical and theatrical references are also drawn from pop culture. So, yes, there are very established conventions around that particular stage, as well as its presumed audience. This is not to say there are not lots of us playing with those conventions. I see my rather “non-performative” electroacoustic performances, which basically involve me sitting still for an hour or more while a tape plays, as a critical rejection of that traditional trans stage.

Photo © Wak Hideaki
Photo © Wak Hideaki

What made you choose to live in Japan?

I always hate this question because of its total lack of understanding of what is involved in processes of immigration. Like most people who emigrate, I was not operating out of free will with infinite options of where to go. Back in 2000 I had a chance to leave the U.S. and I took it. To be blunt, my partner at the time had a vagina, and I have a penis, which qualified one of us for a heterosexual spousal visa, and neither of us wanted to live in the U.S. We were a “real couple,” but clearly emigrating through that particular visa involved a lot of political compromise. Still, it was the only immigration path allowable, given my being self-employed, not coming from money, etc. The situation was pretty well documented in the electroacoustic radio drama I produced years ago for Hessischer Rundfunk, “Trans-Sister Radio.”

With “Deproduction,” you address the unseen institutional violence of the family structure, which has very real, physically violent consequences. I haven’t seen its video element yet, and am waiting to see the performance next month with zeitkratzer, but the musical element isn’t sonically “violent,” for want of a better word, especially the DJ Sprinkles reworks. I’d say there’s rather an underlying unease through the sampling you use though. A lot of artists who take up issues of violence in their work go on to produce work that is visually or sonically very close to the subject. Why do you resist that?

Come on, it’s not that unclear! I mean, the first track “Names Have Been Changed” is basically 45 minutes of hearing family shouting matches and domestic violence through apartment walls, set to melancholic strings. I think it’s still pretty heavy handed. But even if the way you describe it is accurate, I disagree, and feel my approach is very “close to the subject” precisely because the tracks are (hopefully) not one-dimensional arguments, and actually incorporate the ways in which domestic violence is so often tolerated because of “positive” notions of family, love, home, comfort, etc. I was trying to represent that contradiction. By the way, there will be no video with the zeitkratzer performance, so don’t expect to see it there. ¶