Transgendered electro-acoustic pioneer Terre Thaemlitz is a contrarian’s contrarian, though she’d probably take issue with that (and the above description) just to disagree with you. And, as evidenced by her abridged performance of her “Soulnessless – Canto V: Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album,” she possesses the perverse ability to mediate her anger through a delicate plaintiveness. By the end of the night’s 90+ minute performance—one imperfectly repeated chord, all white-keys—the question arose whether ambient music might have a political impact. Was Keith Jarrett actually Che Guevara? In a preceding interview with Electronic Beats’ Max Dax, the answer turned out, much to Dax’s bemusement, to be a qualified “maybe.”
The day at Hebbel-am-Ufer’s Hau 2 (under the auspices of the many-tentacled techno-fetishistic Transmediale Festival) was devoted to the entire Soulnessless project, which has mostly been reported on concerning its unwieldiness—3.99 gigabytes sold on a 16 gb microSD card, with “Canto V” on its own running a tad under thirty hours, arguably laying claim to the title of longest album of all time. And, thanks to the extra 12 gigs on the SD card, the most useful. But the irony behind the project (and that’s a phrase one can overwork concerning Thaemlitz) the project, as a recorded object, remains incomplete, a Sprinkle of sonic companionship to a multimedia manifesto.
The evening started with a performance of Cantos I-V during which Thaemlitz accompanied a 90 minute film in the vein of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, dense with text superimposed over documentary footage and collage (the clips from sexual reassignment surgery reminded me of my ’80s-daze following the Butthole Surfers). As Thaemlitz, under the misapprehension that the citizens of Berlin don’t primarily speak English, chose to show the German version of the film (the SD card holds the work in ten different languages) this reporter cannot speak to the thorny specifics of its contents, which might well be summed up in the title of chapter one: Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning, with a side trip to the rights of immigrants who, like the Missouri-raised Thaemlitz, live in Japan.
How Thaemlitz’s upbringing shaped her nihilistic worldview provided the centerpiece of her talk with Dax, though the process of creating “Canto V” provided the bones which hung the discussion. An audience soaked in bourgeois liberalism (sorry, friends) had a difficult time parsing the Midwestern geniality of Thaemlitz’s repudiation of most of the lite-left’s truisms, particularly how pleasure is ordered to reinforce ruling hegemonics. The concept behind Soulnessless itself was an interrogation of the qualities generally associated with the musical experience: authenticity, in particular. Holger Czukay once explained to me that music should not have feeling; it should elicit feeling. Thaemlitz does not approach even that generosity. “If music is universal, why does everyone have a genre that they hate?” she asked, saving kind words primarily for Jarrett’s massive 1978 Japanese-recorded Sun Bear Concerts, ten LPs of piano noodling. The comparison to “Canto V” was notable.
In mass, that is, not execution: Jarrett is a virtuoso, while the variation in “Canto V” was based primarily in Thaemlitz’s inability to consistently replicate her single chord. This did not seem unanticipated on her part. With many of Thaemlitz’s projects, the music would appear secondary to the concept, and as we listened to the repeated fading of Hau’s Bechstein Grand, a long essay delineating “Canto V”’s title subject, alternately lucid and self-pitying, took up the screen in front of us. We had little choice but to read it and this is when the brilliance of Thaemlitz’s approach became transparent: her performance a Trojan horse with which to smuggle her ideas.
There’s an irony (that word again) in an artist so determined to upend our assumptions of the way language operates on music and its culture that she writes an encyclopedia’s worth of words about it. “Canto V” has repeatedly been described as meditative and there it was, exposing us to an entirely different sort of meditation, one of the Walter Benjamin variety. “Everything I hate about society can be found in the music industry, smiled Thaemlitz toward Dax. “That’s why I focus on it.” Perhaps she should broaden her focus. The Hebbel website, for example, referred to Thaemlitz as “him.”
Photo: Luci Lux