Lately I have been listening to the mixings of Richie Hawtin, who brilliantly shapes dance songs into an extremely minuscule format, bringing the experience of electronic music to a higher level.
This style of mixing is called minimalism. I love this sound. Driven by a 4/4 beat,it is derived from house music and has a standard dance rhythm. But because minimal techno tracks are so stripped down, the subtle introduction of one or two new sounds can have a tremendous impact.
This is how Richie Hawtin mixes his sets, as he explains on a DVD documentary about his work: once an optimal beat-per-minute is found, all the tracks are matched and he is free to experiment with incredible spatial freedom. In the early days of techno, as the story goes, there were no rules and DJs experimented immensely. With new technologies even more possibilities broke through. The spatial transition, he calls it, is the moving away from the traditional stereo field of music and into the 5.1 channels of surround sound. This has totally changed the dynamic effect of music. Richie Hawtin and others use this to their advantage, creating extremely organic and danceable sound environments, or non-mechanical “downmixes” as some people on DJ forums are calling it.
Last week I listened to Elise Richman, a professor of art at my school, explain a bit about minimalism in sculpture and painting. From her perspective, Donald Judd and others developed this austere and very “American” form of art that was supposed to be geometrically “perfect” and immediately recognizable in its construction. Just look at Judd’s art. It is extremely noticeable for what it is: minimal. He uses industrial manufacturing to create perfect, solid-colored block shapes and other angular dimensions.
Detroit, home of the American automobile industry, is also in fact home of house music too. Yet unlike Donald Judd’s minimalism, the sound of minimal techno does not invoke the feeling of “industry”. Richie Hawtin’s style is often also called IDM, or “intelligent dance music” for its static effects and slow sound movement built on top of multiple “bed” layers of drums and kicks. When one thinks of “industrial” techno music, loud sounds that are jarring come to mind like electric synths and the high resonated kick drum of nRgY rave or happy hardcore. Hawtin’s minimalism is not jarring at all. It sounds incredibly smooth and well-rounded. Very non-Euclidean.
But the scene, I gather, can be a bit pretentious depending on where you are. Preferring to take everything in small bits in order to capture the full experience, minimalists are the wine and cheese connoisseurs of the party/festival/EDM scene. Those who haven’t developed an appreciation for minimal will listen to twenty seconds of it and not understand what is so attractive about it. “All I can hear is ‘boink boink boink,’ and just a bunch of pops and squeaks.” someone told me.
I think minimal is appealing to the 23 – 30 crowd, not the under 18 ravers. The reason is that minimal is not “emotional” like the trance and happy hardcore sets that all the candy raver children want to hear. There are no hugely amplified synth buildups. There are no strings. All you get is the omnipresence of “boink boink boink”. Not to say minimal can only be understood by those who have spent time listening to techno away from parties, but there is a bit of elitism or a “been there, done that” aspect to minimalism.
My appreciation of a minimal set builds over time. After listening to twenty minutes of something the logic of the rhythm surrounds your brain and becomes an ambiance. I’m like a snake slowly being charmed out of the box with a flute.
Minimal painting and sculpture can nearly always be spotted through its austere repetitions and iterations. Yet all electronic dance music makes use of repetition and iteration. The development of minimal house music, which is kind of redundant, now takes this to a greater extreme. And since there has been a post-minimalist movement in the arts, then maybe minimal is actually the post-minimalism of techno. In which case the Detroit techno scene of the mid-1980s is simply the critical reference point for all techno music thereafter.
You can listen and download Richie Hawtin’s latest album DE9: Transitions for free here. (And being able to listen to the album did in fact convince me to purchase it even though I already had some of the music. I particularly like the track “Where is Mayday?”)