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<nettime> Thater & Mason, "The future that almost wasn't"
Peter Lunenfeld on Mon, 15 Sep 1997 11:34:25 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Thater & Mason, "The future that almost wasn't"

I'm reposting this from Site Street, a Web Magazine from Santa Monica, CA's
Side Street Projects. Find it at:

T. Kelly Mason is a musician and artist whose work was recently shown in
Iwona Blazwick's section of the "NowHere" exhibition at the Louisiana
Museum for Modern Art in Denmark. Diana Thater is a video artist whose solo
show "Orchids in the Land of Technology" is currently on view at the Walker
Art Center in Minneapolis. They are currently collaborating on an
installation that combines video and audio in an attempt to examine cinema
and video history along with the history of electronic music and the places
where the two disciplines intersect. Both artists live and work in Los
Angeles, California.

"The future that almost wasn't:
a conversation between Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason"

Diana: Maybe we could begin this conversation with a discussion of the
history of electronic music.

Kelly: What I'd like to talk about is the electronic music scene that's
happening now, with popular music, with dance music that has extended to a
place outside of the rarefied academic situation, the classical music or
concert hall scene, but which still has a connection to those origins.

D: You, as a musician, should make a brief history so we know exactly what
our terms are. I mean, we are at a point in the popularization of
electronic music where everyone is making up their own histories. And I
don't object to that, I think it gives rise to all sorts of interesting new

K: The first generation of pure electronic music was nearly all developed
by seri al composers...leftist materialists. Basically the whole idea of
electronic tone generation comes out of compositional techniques. Pierre
Schaeffer or Pierre Henry in the early 50's, and a few years later,
Karlhienz Stockhausen, began to structure and manipulate tape recorded
sounds, music concrete and they began to focus these manipulations onto the
sound materials--the timbres that they were working with. The equipment
needed to realize these compositions was only available in laboratory
situations and the structures applied to the taped sounds led the engineers
to develop useful equipment. The commercial synthesizer and the sampler are
ultimately the result. In fact, I can apply the filters in the synthesizer
section of my sampler to a sampled sound, and set the parameters properly,
and make a work that is structurally the same as Stockhausen's Studie II
(1954)--only it takes about four hours. I heard that the Stockhausen piece
took 18 months of splicing and tape editing. The math that my synthesizer
filter uses is derived from Stockhausen's serial composition.

D: What you are telling me confirms my own ideas about the relationship of
those composers to the first generation of video artists. Their history
runs parallel and in fact links up and meshes for that brief time in the
'60's, with the work of Stockhausen in precisely a lab situation, at WDR in
Koeln. And early video artists also hooked up with engineers who developed
new equipment with them. I'm thinking specifically of that famous example,
you know, the Paik-Abe synthesizer, but also of the MIT Center for Advanced
Visual Studies and all those public TV stations that put artists together
with engineers who pushed the medium so far technically that the next round
of artists working in video reacted against them. I mean, they didn't want
to be like the people they perceived as tech heads like Thomas Tadlock or
Earl Reiback (who I really love by the way.)

K: Nearly all the electronic music developments after 1948 occurred in
government-sponsored radio and TV stations. You've got Pierre Schaeffer at
RTF in Paris or Milton Babbitt at Princeton in New Jersey. And later you
get their students, or people who played in the ensembles who wanted to
play rock and roll and they dropped serialization in favor of improvisation
within a blues or free jazz model. You can only stray so far from rock and
roll before it becomes something else. Stockhausen's students were
incorporating elements of the technology and the scoring into their
performance but it was still rock. Look at LaMonte Young's influence; John
Cale had been a player in Young's ensemble, which played drone
music--explorations in the material and harmonic properties of sound, the
pulsation of the overtones--before he decided to crank up the feedback with
the Velvet Underground.

D: So the early electronic music scene was the marriage of serious music
and technology, but the next generation is the marriage between electronic
music and pop.

K: With Can, the Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk, the harmonies and
melodic bits are derived from pop music theory, but the approach to the
sound or the organization comes from their exposure to anti-pop forms. In a
way it's no different from Stravinsky bringing Jazz elements into his
compositions only the tables are turned.

D: This is the lineage we are really interested in.

K: As you said before, there are certainly plenty of other histories which
take "serious music" and go somewhere else. There are people who are still
working in the same vein--computer musicians, hard serialists, people who
do things with their machines which allow them to generate program
material--as well as other variations on the music and technology theme.

D: But these people remain in the "serious music" context. I mean how many
people outside of that discipline ever get to hear them? And that is the
problem with later rock and roll musicians...

K: Well the history in Germany seems to be the one which connects "serious
music" with dance music. There you had students of Stockhausen; Conny
Plank, Holger Czukay working with Can and then Tangerine Dream also working
in Koeln at the same time. You can see their influence on early Kraftwerk,
the 30 minute soundscapes driven by repetitive beats. Later Kraftwerk
strips away the organicism of Can, changing it into something much harder.

D: What I'm really after is getting all the way back to the Italian
Futurists. I mean everyone talks about Kraftwerk, but I feel strongly about
pointing to something further back.

K: Well I think Kraftwerk is key. At early hip hop clubs like Radio in LA,
DJs always dropped Kraftwerk tracks. You get electro-hip hop people like
Afrika Bambaattaa and later Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May
(who pretty much invented Detroit Techno,) who are all admittedly huge fans
of Kraftwerk. And I'd like to know where the Chicago House scene would have
been without Giorgio Moroder, who produced I Feel Love. Moroder's core
production team are a bunch of people from Munich, Harold Faltermeyer and
Juergen Koppers. The sleeve of Moroder's Munich Machine album has two
robots doing the bump, one on roller skates, and the other with jet feet.
They have lasers shooting out of their heads.

D: That's great...it reminds me of Charlotte Moorman and the TV Bra and
Paik and his TV robots. I know he would give anything to have lasers shoot
out of his head. This is what I'm working toward here--now that we have
this history thing settled as we see it--the relationship between the
visual arts and the electronic music scene in the early 60's. I mean this
art-music parallel is really a modernist history which could be described
as performative. Artists and musicians both tried to intervene with their
machines: Intonarumori, Schwitters Merz score or prepared pianos, and there
was a lot of cross over. And then with Fluxus (which takes us into video
art) we have a musician who studied with Cage and Stockhausen becoming an
artist and drawing out the parameters for the new medium.

K: There is a definite relationship. When you look at what happens in John
Cage's work in the early 40's and later Stockhausen, the pieces are geared
up to be more performative because the technology can't keep up with the
ideas. Who wants to sit around for 18 months splicing and editing tape when
you can write some performance instructions which can be realized almost
immediately? Most of the early electronic stuff is confined to the studio.
You can't take it on the road. In Cage's Imaginary Landscape I, the two
performers spin test tone records on turntables and they vary the pitch,
you not only get a simple and easy to realize version of something which
was essentially repeated later in the electronic music studio, but the
piece also looks interesting. The whole process is visually spelled out.
The structure is made visible, which is important.

D: It's interesting to talk about this because it's a history that we
seldom read. We can find the story of electronic music and modernist
composers or we can find the separate story of media artists. I want these
to merge and to perhaps become a history of art and music technology. After
all, video synthesizers and effects boxes were made in much the same way as
music synthesizers and boxes. Nam June called his first prepared TV show
"Exposition of Music-Electronic Television."

K: They are both time and tape-based media. So it makes sense that
engineers and artists would apply the same developments to both types of

D: Unfortunately, after artists stopped being invited into working TV
studios and public television stations, their overt connection to their
technology disappears (with the exception of the Vasulkas.) I mean video
artists turn away from the machine and turn toward narrative--it's so much
more user-friendly. I guess we could trace this techno-phobia partly to the
great failed works of Experiments in Art and Technology like "Nine
Evenings: Theater and Engineering." I mean these things didn't fail, they
were like big labs where new things, which often went awry, were being
fleshed out in public. What Billy Kluever, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cage
didn't count on was that the audience, when confronted with it, slowly
realized that they didn't want to entertain the possibilities of a

K: It's too decentered and anti-authoritarian. Those projects are also too
difficult to historicize and understand because they are so based in
process, what happens when you participate in some way. It's so

D: The current state of video is all about the romantic hero and that is
completely uninteresting from my point of view.

K: It's the same with the live electronic music scene, there are always a
bunch of spotlights trained on the stage. Everyone is supposed to stare at
that. I find it kind of funny, it obviously isn't as pathetic as the rock
and roll scene--guitar heroes and heartfelt vocalists on stage emoting. The
way electronic music is constructed, sampled materials, simple riffs, is
anti-romantic. There is an implicit historical consciousness that
unfortunately often degenerates into mimicry and drum box fetishization.

D: I'm interested in taking apart romantic notions of the art form. Video
was not born with any romantic end in mind because it was born as a pop
form, it was always television or more precisely "not television." There
was never a notion of the video artist as art hero, which was really
liberating. You had Nam June and Wolf Vostell making completely nutty and
interesting art using the video tools, and now the tools are used to mask
video in the interest of promoting the artist's vision as transcendent. To
do that you have to hide the tools and the machinery, because if you
didn't, everyone would see that it was just TV which is exactly what Paik
and Vostell were making meaning out of.

K: Everyone wants to feel the artist's pain. It's easier to lose yourself
in the music when you've got your eyes closed. It becomes something
happening inside your head.

D: But the meaning is not inside your head--it's not hidden--it's in the
room and it's in the relationship between the artist and the machines and
between the viewer and the machines and what is being created through the
individuals in the equation and through their relationship in actual space
and time. I'm interested in turning one eye back to the machines.

K: Towards historical consciousness.

D: The audience that you and I are interested in engaging has the potential
to be an interesting one. The desire of both the listener and the viewer is
shifted towards the art or musical object itself and not toward the artist
alone. But as you have said, you still have two thousand people standing
and staring at a stage with nothing happening on it because the lights are
going on and off. The viewer's eyes are trained on the performers and I
think that's a function of the visual design of contemporary music events.

K: Or lack of it. I saw Orbital place themselves in the center of the hall,
a good idea I thought, but the lighting was still focused onto their stage.
They tried to make the hall disappear.

D: The visuals are designed that way because no one has an imagistic vision
comparable to the musical vision. People haven't changed the performative
model even though the way the music works has changed--the way it is
presented is still the same -- like a rock show.

K: At best, a Mark Boyle/Soft Machine-style psychedelic light show.

D: See, that's my point, they give the public hard new music but along with
that, they attach a visual that looks like nostalgic futuristicness. The
word "futuristic" is now just another kind of adjective that refers to a
style from the past. It doesn't refer to an active vision about the future,
but to a style. Critics refer to works that look really "futuristic." By
that they don't mean that the work posits some idea about the future, like
Experiments in Art and Technology or 2001 did, but that it attaches itself
to a traditional tin-foil vision and Gort and Kla-tu barada nikto. It's
kitsch futurism not ideological futurism.

K: Marcuse talks about how art is supposed to have this function where it
transcends the everyday model by somehow blowing it up, negating it,
rupturing the continuum of repression and making you realize something
through a combination of: the phenomenological, the experience of what's
happening; and the emotional and physical pleasure you get from that. At
the same time you are in it and are aware of what the model is that you are
transcending, that you are moving beyond. In that awareness is an elevation
of your consciousness or of the social. You transcend the social dead-end
that you wallow around in all the time because we are all pretty much stuck
in social modes. That's what rock and roll was supposed to be and once was
but isn't anymore. There was a glimmer of hope for that in the late '80's
rave scene. I think most scenes aspire to that.

D: In early video, the artists were interested in the community, in
bringing people together via technologically-based art experiences. They
believed in something. The E.A.T pavilion at Expo '70 was a total
video-musical-engineering-based experience and was also the exposition of
ideals. Paik's satellite festival where things were being performed all
over the planet and beamed to the different venues so everyone could
communicate was about bringing about a Global Groove. We want to
acknowledge those ideas and see current electronic music and
technologically-based work admit what they are and where they come from. We
could see it get back...

K: ...back to a happening, back to a communal situation where everyone
isn't just focused on the performer but also you see yourself in it and you
see yourself in relation to the world while this is going on. And that you
are experiencing this thing with all these other people and whenever
there's three thousand people grooving it gives you some sense of being
part of a community that wants to go somewhere else--to change the way the
world is.

D: Well that's why Deleuze and Guattari are the philosophical poster boys
for those interested in engaging in the discourse that this scene has
generated...and sampling is being posited as the musical equivalent to
their practice. And this is interesting, but perhaps not that simple. I
mean it's going in the right direction but on the other hand...just because
you nail together two things that have never been nailed together before,
it doesn't necessarily make it mean something and it doesn't necessarily
make it Deleuzian either.

K: Deleuze and Guattari should be looked at as a community, a corporation
of sorts. Two people in a small room or on a small page. Philosophical
discourse (by Deleuze) becomes the analysand of a radical (post-Freudian)
psychoanalytic process (by Guattari). The analysis is, in turn, exposed to
the history of philosophy, and so it goes. The references may be
tangential, but they are drawn from the same pool of subject matter. So the
subject may be radicalized, de-centered or liberated, but that doesn't mean
that the subject is forsaken. The object isn't to make chaos but to make
sense. It's not so dissimilar to the way one's thoughts might be working
when confronted with multiple stimuli. Sure, you could repress multiple
connections and focus purely on a single thing....

D: That's the romantic mode we were talking about and it's no longer
relevant. In fact it hasn't been for a long time.

K: It's a mode that refuses to acknowledge the world for what it is.

D: Well, the vast majority of people are always going to remain in that
mode because that's what they need. Yet there are people who want to engage
in this conversation about the future that was discarded in the early '70's
but is coming about now because of all the reasons we've discussed. It is
the counterpoint to the really revolting '80's leftover "young artist as
rock star with some kind of shtick and no ideals" that's the albatross
around the neck of the art world. And if one day this century will be known
as Deleuzian it'll only be because there came about, at the end of the
century, some intention toward discourse by the both artist and the
audience and that that discourse arose amid and neither in fear nor in awe
of the technology.

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