Master Organism: A.J. Samuels interviews Gerald Donald

Words by A.J. Samuels

In this interview taken from our Winter, 2012 print issue, magazine editor A.J. Samuels makes contact with the original Drexciyan and the missing link between Detroit techno and particle physics. Photograph by Frank Bauer in the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Munich.

 

There isn’t a lot of information on Gerald Donald. And that’s how one of the most important figures in Detroit techno would like to keep it. As one half of the aquatic afro-futurist duo Drexciya (together with the late James Stinson), Donald’s paradigm shifting musical vision and fantastical liner notes on sci-fi waterworld mythology spoke for itself. More recently, under the guises of Dopplereffekt, Arpanet or Heinrich Mueller (amongst others), the mysterious producer has moved away from science fiction towards science fact, recording a series of albums inspired by cosmology and stellar evolution. A.J. Samuels emailed and spoke on the phone with Donald to find out more about his thoughts on sonic efficiency and techno as a form of upward social mobility.

 

Gerald, anonymity has always been an important aspect of your image, as well as for electronic musicians in general. Paradoxically, it’s also had the effect of making your person even more intriguing. Did you know from the very beginning of your career that you wanted to avoid drawing attention away from the music, or did this develop together with Drexciya’s identity?

Well, I will not directly indicate my involvement in any project. I will leave this question open to observer interpretation. The most important thing has always been the music and concept itself. I adhere to this philosophy. People spend way too much time engaging personalities rather than the music that’s accompanying that personality. Thus, a proportionally inverse relationship is established and in most cases the personality acquires the larger value.

Just out of curiosity: Do you have any special connection to a specific body of water?

No.

Have your albums’ powerful graphic designs been a way of letting images speak for you without having to further stoke people’s obsessions with personality?

There has to be a conceptual one-to-one correspondence between the visual and sonic. The graphical component has to manifest the concept musically and thematically. This is very critical in conveying a concept comprehensively.

The ambiguous and somewhat mystifying cover of Dopplereffekt’s Gesamtkunstwerk from 1999 features a white hammer and sickle on a black background. Also, one of the few well-known pictures of Dopplereffekt feature yourself and partner To Nhan Le Thi in front of Soviet and Chinese flags. What is your relationship to communism and socialism?

Socialism is an ideal political concept in theory. However, in practice, no one followed Marx’s or Engel’s instructions and visions to the letter. Therefore it became corrupted. We’ve seen the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, which had lasted nearly a century. This political theory was designed to place all men in an egalitarian position, and hence create a utopia for the working classes. The purpose of the connection on the album cover was to pay homage to the ideal of this political idea. Music is a communicative medium to represent concepts of any kind, political or otherwise. Dopplereffekt have music data planned for publication soon with the imprint Leisure Systems which will continue in the line of conceptual representation.

How can instrumental music be political?

Mainly in the structure of the data, it’s level of aggression and so forth. Usually we associate a particular set of tones, rhythmic patterns and timbres with certain emotions, conditions, ideas or environments. For example, a very rigid pattern and rapid percussion sequence can give the aura of a totalitarian state, as can industrial music. All music structure is reflective of its surroundings.

Underground Resistance is known for preaching a gospel of technology as a savior for the black American underclass. Do you also see technology as an important rung in the ladder of upward social mobility?

Yes. Technical devices allow the rank and file to express their ideas and to move forward in the socio-economic continuum more effectively. There are many demonstrations of this, including mobile communication, social media sites, the Internet in general and especially the production and publication of one’s own musical data. These advances have allowed many common men to be free of brokers and corporate monopolies on certain industrial processes and services.

But do you think there are any negative aspects to technical advances in music technology—say, cheap digital production and MP3s? What about an over-saturated music market fuelled by the Internet?

This has connections to upward mobility. Yes, the Internet has allowed an infinite number of non-specialists without years of the needed skill development to instantaneously become film producers, music specialists, authors and so forth. But I have no condemnation of people without training, because actually many are quite gifted. My opposition is against those who want to appear profound without proving their value beforehand. Such individuals must first pass through initial steps and gain the required proficiency prior to pronouncement.

With his bailout plans, Barack Obama saved Chrysler and General Motors, but Detroit still has one of the highest crime rates in the US and extremely high unemployment. What kind of effect has electronic music had on the city’s economy and cultural landscape?

To be candid in response, the electronic music scene there in particular is a response to urban decadence and the entire spectrum of the socio-economic condition. It’s an expression of a dystopian condition. This is why music that emerged there carries a certain atmosphere and depth.

Are there other cities in the world that you feel have a special kinship with Detroit, both musically and industrially speaking? Berlin, or perhaps Rotterdam?

Berlin more so, as there are many similarities between the two metropolises. If you compare and contrast them you will discover this immediately.

Do you see yourself and your work with Drexciya as part of the lineage of American afro-futurism in America—next to artists like Sun Ra, Parliament, electric-era Miles Davis or Afrika Bambaataa?

I do not wish to specify any particular ethnicity. I would state that all variations of humanity have contributed to the evolution of electronic music. Electronic music is the only music type that is global in scope and not specific to any particular culture. Granted, if a variety stems from a particular culture, then it will apply its own idiosyncrasies to the form. But in general it’s a universal sonic medium with endless contributions. However, as an external observer, I can safely say that what we did was not the same. Our concepts took more stimulation from the world’s oceans and its marine life than any musical entity. This is the fact of the matter. The marine domain was the central axis upon which all other elements hinged. Of course all musical techniques influence one another, but in this case it was mostly nature itself.

Aside from the ocean and marine life being a reoccurring theme in almost all of your projects, science has also come to play a central conceptual role in your work—from theoretical physics to computer science. How do you understand the relationship between science and electronic music? Does it go beyond the utilization of new technology to also influence composition and an aesthetic sensibility?

Well, keep in mind that the apparatus used in the production process are the results of many technological breakthroughs in computer science, electronics and physics. It’s only natural that the sound created is of a technical kind. So yes, you can accurately state that the world of natural philosophy plays a role in the conceptual development of the sonic and visual aspects. For example, a certain sound or arrangement attempts to emulate nuclear fission or the Schrödinger wave function. It’s imperative that the soundscapes faithfully represent the natural phenomenon in question as much as possible. But the observer can also form his own interpretation.

Speaking of interpretation, what about interpreting the future of science in science fiction? Do you read science fiction?

Well, I like to study science in general, and there is no certain author that captures my attention more than another. If I am getting solid knowledge about various concepts, then it’s all acceptable. One has to be careful when bifurcating fact from fiction because the fiction is a projection of what may one day become fact. The only reason it is fiction is because certain technologies have not come to pass and matured. That is, critical understandings of nature remain open. Keep in mind that many technologies and discoveries that were once in the realm of fantasy, such as lasers, nuclear fusion and nanotechnology, are now commonplace in our society. We also have a new project entitled Neutrino Programme, which is a synthesis of cosmology, stellar physics and electronic music data—essentially a manifestation of this relationship in the four dimensions of space-time. We plan to further extend this concept.

Looking back, is there an earliest memory of science or technology that sparked your interest?

You could say it was the beauty of the scientific method and the wonder of discovering a new law or natural principle. When observation has a one-to-one correspondence with theory, it’s quite mind bending. The entire scientific process is fascinating indeed.

What about formative musical experiences growing up? What was your introduction into the world of electronic music?

Going back to environmental stimuli: If you are enveloped by a large diversity of sounds and ideas, this will most likely have an effect on your psychology and future course of musical actions.

Did you grow up playing an instrument? Were your parents at all an influence on your musical development?

My musical development was an evolutionary progression from a primitive state to a more advanced state, sonically. It was more or less an interest independent of environmental stimuli.

One fascinating aspect of your live performance is the way you move when you play your Korg Triton. For almost the entire Arpanet set I recently saw at ://aboutblank in Berlin, one hand was frenetically tapping the air double-time, as if you were conducting an orchestra of interweaving syncopation and arpeggios. How would you describe the relationship between your body and the rhythm when performing live?

The brain and body are synchronized by motor neurons and our multitude of senses— visual, hearing and so forth. When one controls apparatus for musical interaction, he or she must align mind and matter to ensure that all forces—intellectual and anatomical—are synched or programed for one objective: to operate efficiently in a musical context. This is the binary system and anthropomorphic system in symbiosis.

What about adapting your sound and set-up to a live environment?

A live environment is certainly more perilous than a controlled environment. There are many things that can and will experience the law of Murphy.

Holger Czukay of Can famously proclaimed that restriction is the mother of invention. Certainly there’s a minimalist aesthetic that runs through much of your music. What kinds of restrictions do you place on yourself when you compose?

I wouldn’t say “restrictions”. It’s more of a philosophy of sonic efficiency. One should include only what is musically essential—that is, that only “x” amount of elements are required to express a musical idea fully. Anything beyond is excess.

In a previous interview with Red Bull Music Academy you mentioned the importance of ergonomics in hardware and software design—ensuring that the musical set-up allows for an immediate ability to produce the sounds you want. How customized is your musical set-up for the effortless control of parameters? Do you manipulate or tailor your equipment to your musical needs?

Yes, and I think efficiency in production processes is key to successful sonic exploration and expression. If one has to do extensive, non-essential computer programming and program navigating in the midst of a creative process in sound, it will definitely retard the sonic exploration process and absorb creative energy. This is because you are doing two distinct technical procedures simultaneously: programming the machine and sculpting a sound. Software as well as hardware should have all the basic system errors fully removed or dramatically reduced before the technology is put to market. Beta and Gamma tested comprehensively. ~