Stefan Goldmann is just extraordinary. His skills as an electronic music producer transcend the loop-based emotionality of a regular house DJ and discourse-driven mind of a philharmonic composer.
Macro label owner, polyrhythmic techno producer (check his locked-groove experiments on The Great Hemiola), remixing such diverse composers like Sergey Rodionov and Christian Fennesz, at the same time publishing his work on straight-forward club music labels like Coccoon or Innervisions. He just issued 17:50 – a new album, coming after cassete-tape experimental LP and a daring remix of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
If you ever thought that being a club musician requires you to abandon your reason to rhythm at some point, just read his words. We asked 8 questions, got an extended essay on the importance of being a musician free from any kind of generical cliché, yet really conscious of its existence. Here it comes.
Jacek Plewicki: Generally, what’s your view upon combining club music with excursions towards classical music?
Stefan Goldmann: It might seem surprising, since I’ve done some projects that seem to be ‘in this direction’, but usually I’m not a big fan of merging classical and techno or other rhythmic music. In most cases you get something like Mozart with beats or Breakdancing Bach’s Goldberg Variations – awful, or tragically funny stuff in the best case. Also, having an orchestra playing techno classics brings out the same kind of boredom. A direct, unaltered translation always misses the point of what’s really interesting about each kind of music. Then again, you get stuff like Moritz von Oswald / Carl Craig’s remixes of Mussorgsky and Ravel, which are only using it as sample material, but don’t interact with the compositional level at all. The result is great, but it’s clearly only meant to be techno.
Personally, I’m not much interested in classical music – that is, basically anything pre-1880. Although I can appreciate it to some degree, most classical music has lost its appeal and is outdated to me. I can’t even listen to a lot of Mozart or Beethoven – it’s plain kitsch to me. I’m clearly more interested in 20th century music. With “New Music” or contemporary classical, there’s more room for interesting work, since both combined could ultimately overcome their individual weaknesses: club music’s functionality dogma and contemporary classical’s dysfunctionality dogma – i.e. the latter’s failure in understanding that classical’s quarter-note meters were not an exhaustive use of grid-rhythm or repetitive rhythm. The biggest development in 20th century western music clearly was in the rhythmic domain, in the microrhythmic, quantized beat details and micro-dynamics happening in between a 4/4 pulse. Contemporary classical totally missed out on this (safe for a few contributions from minimalism to Ligeti’s ‘lattice’ structures) and left it largely to Afro-American music from jazz to techno to fill the gap.
As for myself, everything I do is related to techno and its characteristics and formats: track, edit, remix, sequential beat, sample, vinyl culture… from time to time I see parallels elsewhere and that’s where I get involved with material or performance formats with a very different background. I’m not really interested in any crossover – like classical with a house beat underneath. But sometimes you put two things together and get a third one that’s beyond the range of the two on their own – not a reduction, but an expansion. Sometimes a ‚classical’ setting allows aspects of techno that are lost in a club to come out. That’s interesting.
And what about questions like tuning/metrum in the context of club music? Taking it seriously seems like a good way to change a few things here and there…
Back in the 90s people like Photek or Source Direct would call what they do beat science. I really liked that attitude. It’s always been there, but currently we have this functionality dogma, that overshadows a lot of it. Jeff Mills used to do incredible multi-metric, polyrhythmically layered stuff on Axis and it sounded totally straight up – not like IDM. I think beat science will come back at some point because ‘the next thing’ is always kind of the opposite of the current thing. If you hear too much functionality, the desire to break it grows.
Same as with tuning. Around 2004 to 2006 in house and techno we experienced that huge wave of tracks with very strong melodies. At some point it seemed like all combinations have been done and it started to be a tired concept. That’s when everything shifted to tooly, looped house beats. Now you have all those DJs playing sets of looped up tool beats and the only melodic fragment you’ll ever hear is some oldschool-like synth preset. Now I felt that’s a tired concept and that’s where I tried to get melodies back, knowing the ‚traditional’ way won’t work. That’s where scale science and pitch bend came in.
A lot of techno is about simplicity, breaking things down to their core. Retuning everything to tunings that actually work, that have developed empirically over centuries – that’s strong stuff. All the simplest melodies make sense again and there’s so much potential in this.
What’s your musical background and where does your (quite unique) method of composing music come from?
My first love was Heavy Metal, then I came through jazz phase – playing bass guitar and being under the spell of Miles Davis’ electric period (1969-1975) ever since – eventually I discovered electronic music through drum’n’bass. All of that music has left its mark. I grew up between Sofia and Berlin and was exposed to the music here and there too. I spent a huge deal of my childhood at rehearsals of orchestras and ensembles, being dragged along by my parents. In Bulgaria, mostly through television, I listened to the ‘artificial’ neo-traditional Bulgarian music as composed by Philip Koutev, Nikola Kaufmann and others. You know, the Mystère des voix Bulgares kind of stuff. Although it was commercially very successful in the West, it has never been much analyzed in terms of contemporary composition. The polyphony of it is quite a construct, I believe a century ago choir-singing there never exceeded two voices or lines, although sometimes sung by a huge group. Then Koutev came along and constructed that totally mind-blowing polyphony and it never got quite noticed, since people assumed that’s traditional stuff.
Then in the 90s across all the Balkans chalga happened, or turbo folk, laiko, manele, arabesk, tallava – depending on where you encounter it. Most middle-class people didn’t even think about it – it was just trash to them. But it developed, as a side product, a quite ground-breaking electronic music, widely independent from western styles. It often gets blurred because performers would also sing Schlager-type bullshit. But the pitch bending stuff in Arabian tunings – that’s just awesome and I absorbed it for quite some time. Now all the hipsters in Sofia fall for that stuff too. You know, they used to hate it. But local hip-hop or rock or any western style have been so disappointing that the opposite thing is just gaining massive momentum in crossing over into an avant-garde now. There’s this unreleased ultra-advanced remix of a chalga track called Kamanite Padat by KiNK and Stefak, (the latter being another Bulgarian DJ). It’s been around for some years, but they never released it properly. I was hoping for more to happen along these lines right in Bulgaria, but it didn’t so far. There was this kind of limit that no one really dared to cross. So I just moved in on it. With a whole album. I think there’s legitimate relevance in this concept for electronic music.
How important for you is a critical, in-depth attitude towards techno and house in general?
Well, important to whom? Usually it’s all shut up and dance. But we’ve had that for a few decades and there’s not one attitude valid or satisfying all the time. For instance, just the issue of overabundance is so complex, and it’s just horrid to be an artist, being pushed around in it and not knowing what’s going on. That’s where people start asking questions, where stuff couldn’t be sorted intuitively anymore. I found it good to get a discussion going that really addresses empirical phenomena – not some pseudo-‘discourse’, as we have seen it in the past around Mille Plateaux for instance.
What’s your music aimed at, keeping in mind your experiments with locked grooves, commissioned works and combining traditional/ethnic instruments with electronics, as well as strict house productions? Isn’t this diversity a kind of policy?
When you do music long enough, the danger is that you develop a routine and start repeating yourself. You think that’s alright since that’s what people tell you – like, develop your own style, stand for something, blah blah. The problem is that you lose the excitement and you don’t even recognize why. I know so many producers who only keep doing tracks because they need to keep their bookings going in order to pay their rent – new record, new tour. There are more 30-year old DJs who hate their ‘job’ than you can imagine. Others just stopped bothering about production, like Richie Hawtin or Sven Väth.
Eventually, excitement – for you and for your audience – comes from stuff that is beyond our current level of experience. There is no excitement in been there, done that. So I try to constantly impose new challenges on my work. To develop new ideas that force me to leave my comfort zone and deal with stuff that is not all clear and explored already. I don’t want to get bored of producing. Identifying the gap and closing it is the most exciting thing to do in an environment where everybody goes retro since everything seems done.
The astonishing thing to me is if you look long enough at one point, you start to see multiple possibilities stemming out of it. So everything can stay very hermetic, yet diverse and interconnected. I’ve only ever dealt with aspects of techno, which is a matter of competence – but then they open gates to other stuff. Like ‘sample’ can mean anything really, but there are some limits to the concept, and those limits really reveal what the whole thing is about. Or there’s a structure and instantly you see an analogy in some totally different field and there’s a point one can work with.
As for my commissioned works, I was asking myself the question how to resist the de facto worthlessness of music, imposed by its total digital availability? I know people downloading something like 2GB of music a day and certainly they can never listen to all that stuff, it’s of no worth to them because they never spend time with one single piece of music. Catering to this online world also means neglecting the people who actually bother coming to see you, which is the real audience I guess. Too many artists just focus on getting a hype online and then just repeat things in the club. Doing something that is limited to a certain time and place was a method for me to put the real audience first, to create a more intimate exchange and to create a more valuable experience. It’s not just going offline, but it’s some post-digital thing where the work ‘bleeds’ back into the net, like descriptions or photos or short videos showing up, being discussed and tickling the imagination, but you never get the whole thing. That’s offline, in the real world. Eventually one part of it gets woven into the digital domain and there’s this feedback going back and forth which is a quite interesting phenomenon. Nobody wants to go back to the time before Edison, so that is some awkward way to move on.
Lastly, how did you manage to use so many different samples on your new album – 17:50, and yet kept the music danceable?
There are not many samples in the album, it’s mostly synthetic. In the melodies, there are no samples at all. What I did is ‚sampling’ the tunings, i.e. the center frequencies of the notes used. And then actually learning that pitch bend styles of how to make notes move around their center frequency. It is reducing the process of sampling to just one parameter: pitch. Sampling just one layer out of a source.
Then, because these tuning allow very simple melodies to sound different and interesting, things can stay danceable, or just very direct or focused.