This past May, Jace Clayton, aka DJ/rupture, released his Sufi Plug Ins suite—a set of software tools for Ableton Live that promote non-Western notions of poetry and musical improvisation. Using Arabic scales and polyrhythms, the plug-ins not only expose Western cultural bias in music technology, but also larger assumptions about Western cultural dominance—“social software”, as Clayton calls it in conversation with A.J. Samuels. Currently only available for Ableton Live, the Sufi Plug In suite will soon be out as VSTs. Sufi mysticism as musical practice— and free download.
What are some of the Western musical assumptions in European and American- made plug-ins that you wanted to provide alternatives to?
There are two main ones. One is the default meter, which is 4/4. Every single piece of Western software you open up is set in 4/4, the standard pop rhythm. Often you can adjust the rhythms to 6/7 or 6/8 or whatever, but overall, the software doesn’t work well with polyrhythms, which are extremely common in so many different types of non-Western music. The same goes for the default tuning system, which is a major scale—like a C Major scale, as if your MIDI keyboard had 88 keys. With my group Nettle, we have all these songs we play that are in Arabic tuning, so the first thing we did was create four different software synthesizers, each one capable of selecting between four different Arabic “maqams” or scales. They only play these scales, so you wouldn’t be able to use them to play, say, a D Minor scale.
“Middle Eastern” editions of the Korg PA500 and VST plug-ins with non-Western drum modules and microtuned oud and baglama interfaces do exist. Did you check out Arab and Middle Eastern electronic music interfaces before you decided to design your own?
Actually, no, not at all. Part of the design process included research, but the other major part was brainstorming with Nettle about specific needs. Ever since working with Moroccan violinist Abdelhak Rahal in Barcelona seven or eight years ago, I’d always wanted the software to be able to do certain things—to work better with Moroccan musical ideas. But as the Sufi Plug Ins idea took shape, it increasingly existed in this space between art and tool. All of the terms of synthesis—oscillator, low pass filter, volume, pitch—are translated into the Berber language of Tamazight and written in the Berber script of neo-Tifinagh. Also, for the roll-over texts, we put in fragments of Sufi poetry chosen in conjunction with how the knobs or buttons work. When you open up the plug-ins you see very few Roman characters. The idea is to encourage people to think more with their ears. And with all the bits of poetry flying around, hopefully that will seep into the process, too. Certainly at the more conceptual end of the plug-in suite is Devotion, which only works with silence. Five times a day, during the call to prayer, it’ll lower the volume of your computer depending on the level of “devotion” you choose from the presets: agnostic, apostate, observant, fervent or devout. Atheism is not a choice.
That indeed sounds more like conceptual art.
Actually, I had been staying with a friend of mine in Morocco—an amazing composer and banjo player named Hassan Wargui—whose father, Abdellah Wargui is a muezzin and is against all forms of music for religious reasons. He actually won’t listen to his son’s music. It’s ironic because Abdellah actually has a really beautiful voice. I wanted to design something to respond to that situation. Also, I was interested in flipping the idea of aiming for the widest possible audience that’s designed into in a lot of software.
Is the everyday Islamic focus of Sufi Plug Ins and its reminder of Western musical chauvinism a critique of Western political chauvinism?
Definitely. I mean, how could it not? If so many Western cultural assumptions and limitations are built into music software, what about the broader software — the social software, or whatever you want to call it? Hopefully this will get people thinking about that. ~
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 31 (Fall 2012). Read the full issue on issuu.com:
Photo: Max Dax
Few bands cast a shadow as long (or wide) as electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. The influence of the band’s trail-blazing retro-futurism, conceptual precision and electronic minimalism is difficult to overestimate, extending beyond numerous genres of electronic music into the broader realm of art and popular culture. And the art world seems to have caught on. This past April, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art presented Kraftwerk Retrospective 12345678, a series of eight sold-out 3-D concerts, one for each Kraftwerk album, beginning with 1974’s Autobahn and ending with 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks. The result was an audiovisual tour de force that put the “werk” into Gesamtkunstwerk— with peerless kraft.
Klaus Biesenbach, Director of MoMA Ps1 & Chief Curator At Large at the Museum of Modern Art
Photo: Luci Lux
Honestly, I don’t really know anything about the music world—I just know a lot of musicians. So when I first contacted Kraftwerk in 1998 for the Berlin Biennale, while I was working with Christoph Schlingensief, I had no idea what to expect. I think at the time, Kraftwerk were at a point in their career when they had yet to decide if they really wanted to commit to the art world. The thing is, 1998 was also the height of the Love Parade in Berlin, and the organizers also asked them to take part, which they didn’t do. But I think maybe they were scared off because we both asked at the same time. It took a while, but they answered our call in 2007. That’s when we first started putting this in the works.
What we’ve done in the MoMA atrium is pretty much recreate Kraftwerk’s Dusseldorf-based Kling Klang studio, down to very minute details. Attending every show and being so caught up in the process, I’ve experienced the retrospective in a very specific way: The first night I was completely exhilarated; the second night I was irritated by the rhythm and duration; the third night I was completely addicted. It was like being on a bicycle, cruising along, eventually having to go uphill, and then coasting back down again and hitting your rhythm. Then it’s in your body. When I did the interview with Jon Pareles for The New York Times together with Ralf [Hütter] the word “tangible” kept coming up. Ralf said that when he speaks during concerts, he does so from inside the music. For the Trans-Europe Express show, they performed ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ which is all about Echo and Narcissus. These are the audio and visual reflections that are both sent and received, like a radio station transmitting and receiving, an artist looking and being looked at. It’s an excellent metaphor of what’s been done here at the MoMA, which has cost a considerable amount of money to produce and involved an incredible amount of building and restructuring. My colleague from the Whitney thought that the exhibition space had already existed. No, this was created to bring people into the image, into the cube. And within the cube, people are inside the cone of 3-D projection, which extends from the screen onstage to the projector in the back. Both the band and the viewers are literally inside the art. You can’t stand on the side. I told people when they watch, they have to be in the cone.
During the first dress rehearsal, when the sub-bass came on during ‘Kometenmelodie 1’, several light fixtures started rattling. We took the frequency out, because I thought the building would collapse—I thought the paintings would fall off the walls. We ended up solving the problem of course, but it gave us a scare. The fact of the matter is that when you’re curating, especially doing a retrospective, you give up your own personality. It’s the strangest thing. When I was doing Marina Abramovic, I had to completely dive into her world and live her speed and velocity. Or better: stillness and duration. It’s an intimate experience with a work of art. It means you have to be completely available. So I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk straight for the past four months. You know, with every artist, there’s a first work where the nucleus of all future ideas is contained. And that’s extremely important to know when creating a retrospective. Here it’s Autobahn, for me. That’s subjective, of course.
I think Kraftwerk have been artists from the very beginning, but they were kidnapped by their mainstream success. Of course, everybody is happy to be kidnapped by success, but it makes it more difficult to recognize who and what they are. Still, in the sixties and seventies their studio was right next door to Gerhard Richter’s. They could have drilled a hole in the wall and been right there. But honestly, not a lot of people have understood the extent to which Kraftwerk are and were artists, in Germany especially. Of course, I assume that people like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke got it. Joseph Beuys got it. Werner Herzog and Fassbinder got it. Katharina Sieverding got it. But not many others.
For me, Kraftwerk are very much children of the BRD, the Federal Republic of Germany. I am like a grandchild of the country, and Kraftwerk are father figures. The BRD, like the GDR, dissolved—it doesn’t exist anymore, but artistically speaking, it was all about Kraftwerk, Heinrich Böll and Joseph Beuys. It used to be that Germany had the first truly active Green Party, and culturally—in art and music—this played an important role. Beuys sang ‘Sonne statt Reagan’, and there were massive anti-nuclear protests, especially against the stationing of Pershing missiles. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz featured Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’, of course. I see all this in a very specific historical context, but also in an artistic one. The incredible thing is how Kraftwerk have been capable of not just updating but upgrading their material over the course of their careers.
Somehow it seems like people haven’t understood that the retrospective is an exhibition and not just a concert. People just don’t get that, and it’s been very hard to get people into a different mindset. It’s like with movies—film was the leading art form of the twentieth century, and it still hasn’t really made it into art museums. Museums can be so slow. With a time delay, art arrives with cinema, which is something I’m trying to push. I did Doug Aitken at MoMA which was big, cinematic images with no sound, then I did Pipilotti Rist, which was cinematic images with sound, then came Marina Abramovic, which was cinematic image with sound and live performance. And now it’s gone one step further. Kraftwerk is the fourth step. But there’s a fifth step, and I’m not sure what it is yet. A few months ago I went to the Cologne Cathedral to check out Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass works. And all I could think is what it must have been like a few hundred years ago to come from some mud-hut, some tiny town with no electricity, no heating, and see this incredible thing with image and sound. That’s what I imagined seeing and listening to Kraftwerk to be.
Juan Atkins, electronic musician and founding father of Detroit techno
Photo: Luci Lux
The first time I heard Kraftwerk was on The Electrifying Mojo’s radio show in Detroit in the late seventies. This is when FM radio was still young, and there were only, like, three stations. There really was no specific format for FM radio at the time—DJs were allowed to do what they wanted. You heard them play entire albums when they felt like it, which couldn’t be more different from today’s radio format. Mojo used to play ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘We Are The Robots’ pretty regularly, but the first time I heard ‘Robots’ I just froze. My jaw dropped. It just sounded so new and fresh. I mean, I had already been doing electronic music at the time, but the results weren’t so pristine—the sound of computers talking to each other. This sounded like the future, and it was fascinating, because I had just started learning about sequencers and drum programs. In my mind, Kraftwerk were, like, consultants to Roland and Korg and stuff because they had these sounds before any of the machines even appeared on the market.
Needless to say, Kraftwerk definitely influenced my sound, because when I heard their music I automatically knew I had to tighten up what I was doing; I had to make it cleaner and better—though not necessarily more minimal, because what I was doing was pretty minimal for the time. A lot of people think that I was copying Kraftwerk directly, but that’s absolutely not the case. For me, they weren’t any more of an influence than, say, funk—P-Funk especially. I actually had a chance to talk to Florian [Schneider] when we played Tribal Gathering together a few years back. We met up behind the Detroit stage and chatted a bit and I was really surprised to learn that Kraftwerk were hugely influenced by James Brown. Of course, P-Funk was made up of at least half the JB’s first line-up, so somehow Detroit techno was a very natural, even “fated” progression. I mean, there were other funky electronic bands around—Tangerine Dream and Gary Numan and all that—but none were as funky as Kraftwerk. I mean, you could actually play the stuff on black radio, and that wasn’t a small feat. You could go to an all black club in Detroit and when they put on ‘Pocket Calculator’, everybody just went totally crazy.
Kraftwerk’s minimal lyrics were part of their overall concept, and definitely contributed to their special blend. I can say for sure that they put Germany on the map for me. When I was a kid in school in America, the only thing we learned about Germany was World War II. Also, I always had this impression—independently of the war—that Germany was very logical, very machine-oriented. And without a doubt, when I went to the Man Machine show at the MoMA retrospective, I could definitely hear the way they combined the machine-driven syncopations with a more human take on improvisation. And the visuals were phenomenal. I had only heard after the fact that Ralf Hütter had played an important role in choosing both Francois K and I to do our DJ sets for the Kraftwerk exhibit at the geodesic dome at PS1. I’m proud to have been a part of it.
Brown shoes and jumpsuits and caffeine – these are a few of Modeselektor‘s favorite things! The two German boys may be famed worldwide for their music, but they’re just people like you and I, and they like all kinds of stuff! Here six of those things; let’s find out a bit about them together!
1. Klettis Tramper
This vintage-style East German hitchhiker shoe is durable and comfortable, a timeless soft brown suede that’s perfect for any casual occasion….or performing live on stage as the internationally renowned Modeselektor?? HECK yes. You’re gonna FREAK OUT when you cram this shoe on your feet and jam out; go nuts in this brown shoe. Just wear it.
2. Adidas Torsion
Combining classic Adidas style with feet-based technology, the Adidas Torsion features just that: a torsion bar in the center designed to maximize comfort, and a mesh top to allow breathability. It’s probably the best-looking mesh top you’ll ever wear, unless you’ve got a cut gut, buff bro- which you just might after a sick workout in these bad boys.
The perfect uniform for being onstage? When you’re a sound mechanic, only one thing suits for a suit – mechanics’ overalls, natch! You can slip right into them, look super suave + productive, like a real working guy. Hey girls, where the heck are you gonna find a guy who probably knows how to fix your car? This dude right here, maybe. No need for undies in these bad boys; who even knows what’s going on underneath?? Just you, man. Just you. Mechanics overalls are the secretive, sexy couture for the man who knows what he wants: comfort, pizazz, and looking like a mechanic.
4. Korg Monotribe
Long considered the first and last name in sythesizers, Korg‘s latest gem is the Monotribe. A hybrid between the Monotron and Electribe, the Monotribe is an easily portable groovebox with a built-in sequencer and an analog drum section. Add a sturdy composition to the mix and you have a versatile tool that’s sure to become a personal favorite….especially if you’re Modeselektor!
5. Roland TR-909
The Japanese-made Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer is a part analogue, part sample-based drum machine, produced in a limited quantity of 10,000. Despite (or perhaps because of) its notably synthetic-sounding drum samples, it’s been used by many promininent and varied musicians including RZA, Daft Punk, Skinny Puppy…and of course Modeselektor?!? AAA!
6. Freshly ground coffee
Well…yeah! Who doesn’t love a nice cup of fresh-ground coffee in the morning? The aroma of beans filling the air, beany one-two punch right to the brain that gets your body ready for the grody pluge into the world outside. It decreases the risk of heart and liver disease, increases memory and physical performance, cures headaches, and restores appetite. You will literally be immortal if you drink coffee. Stick some ice in it and it’s the perfect summer drink. All this AND it’s a natural diaretic? Truly coffee is nature’s perfect medicine. Chug a mug, coffee compadre. It’s beantime.