For a good stretch of the 1990s — let's estimate 1993 to 1998 — the techno times, they were-a-changin'. Bored with overwrought, hard-charging productions presented with increasingly banal theatricality (think Chemical Brothers, Propellerheads, Moby and Prodigy — oh, God, must we?), breeders of stripped-down dissent began to emerge.
In Berlin, it was the Basic Channel/Burial Mix/Chain Reaction gang, which seamlessly joined Jamaican roots inspiration with Chicago House perspiration and Detroit Afro-futurism, leading to a sound more dense, dirty and, oddly enough, even more danceable.
This new wave minimalism spread virally to Frankfurt, where the Mille Plateaux/Force Inc/Ritornell axis attracted experimentalists from Sweden, Finland, Germany, England and North America to its sub-pop philosophy of clicks, cuts, modulations and transformations.
In Detroit — or more specifically, in Windsor — Richie Hawtin was making his own philosophical shift. With 1996's Concept series (and also as Plastikman on Consumed in 1998), he reduced techno to raw essences: gray, syncopated noise riding atop faint beats powered below by occasional thunderstorms of subsonic bass. The Hawtin story, from crown prince of Midwest rave to global icon of what is now simply called minimal, has been well-documented here, there and everywhere.
But around the same time as the ambitious Hawtin was on his ascent, some fellow travelers were flying lower to the ground while remaining closer to home.
The Windsor and Detroit-based laptop collective known as Thinkbox began working on projects that were as suitable for gallery and museum spaces as they were club dance floors. Well, maybe just. The atmospheric tunes featured beats that were more like murmurs of the heart or electromagnetic static at low voltage — not exactly DJ friendly jams to make the boys howl and the girls to start stripping.
But the art music community took notice anyway. Thinkbox performed at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2003 and at Mutek in Montreal in 2004. As a collective, they released Settings and Guitar, exquisitely packaged, limited edition CDs. The latter consisted of 12 tracks (credited to individual members) filled with six-string distortion, feedback, fuzz, echo, delay and other digital studio manipulations that matched up nicely to the work of contemporary guitar-drone innovators Oren Ambarchi and Christian Fennesz.
The group — Christopher Bissonnette, Mark Laliberte, Chris McNamara, Steve Roy, Rob Theakston and Bill Van Loo — is hard to pigeonhole because it's made up of audio and visual artists, full-time scholars and academics. Dormant for too long, there are minor tremors of activity in the Thinkbox camp recently, with whispers of more collaborative efforts on the way.
Van Loo recently participated in the Sync Festival at the University of Michigan's Duderstadt Center's Video Studio Space as part of the Digital Musical Ensemble. The set was performed with A/V gear and projected on three screens.
Bissonnette — whose drifty, swirly, aquatic first solo CD, Periphery, was released by Kranky in 2005 — is one of the continent's best ambient producers. His new CD, In Between Words (Kranky), comes out April 15 in this country. Critic Bill Meyer reviewed it this month in the U.K. music mag The Wire, describing one of the tracks ("Offyreus Wheel") as "field recordings of rain on pavement, distant motors and metallic rasps of uncertain provenance fill(ing) the spaces between the low-end pulses ..." Perfect for dancing in your head, if nowhere else.
McNamara, meanwhile, has been busy with film and sound projects. He's been exhibiting work in Zurich, Berlin and Detroit; creating short films that have been screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival and Windsor's Media City; and playing his original works (audio and visual) live with another smarty-pants collective, Paris '68 (your scribe humbly submits in full disclosure that he's a founding member of that group). McNamara teaches at the University of Michigan's Screen Arts and Cultures department and will be an artist-in-residence at a gallery in Plymouth, England, this summer.
But he'll perform live this Friday, March 28, at Cranbrook Art Museum's deSalle Auditorium. It's a special event called "Sine of the Times," associated with the splendid Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future exhibit, which closes Sunday. Digital dub ambient DJ support by Paris '68 members Jennifer A. Paull and yours truly. Program runs 7-9 p.m. and is free with $10 admission ($5 for students) to the Saarinen show.
For your dancing pleasure, that is, there are several good options in the next 10 days to do the strand, the fandango, the tango or whatever you like when the DJ rings your bell ’round about midnight or so. C’mon kids, dance on moonbeams or slide down rainbows; you know what we’re talking about.
On Saturday, March 29, promotions group A.O.D. (that’s Arsenal of Democracy, not Always Out Drinking, for all you history buffs reading this) brings in banger Samuel L Session from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Oslo (1456 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Lending more bang for your ($10) bucks are local DJs Mike Sturgis, Steve Price, Vinny Grimaldo and others. 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
On Friday, April 4, Family comes together for its monthly party at — you guessed it,! — Oslo. Special guest is Todd Sines, the best ever techno geek to make it straight outta Columbus, Ohio (OK, it’s a toss-up between him and Titonton Duvante). Joining Sines are Family residents Brian Gillespie and Todd Osborn, who, if you’re nice, might play some tracks from his debut LP, due out this spring on Ghostly International. Happens 10 p.m.-4 a.m.; $7.
The next night, Proper|Modulation welcomes Lee Curtiss, who recently moved back to the states from Berlin, along with St. Louis-native Andrew Rasse (uh, that’s Butane to all you jetsetters). The two are playing — where else? — Oslo. Butane has a brand new full-length, Becoming, on his Alphahouse imprint; Curtiss has been busy remixing tracks and working on original productions since he’s been home. Party rolls from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.; $10 cover.
Moving toward Movement
We’re down to 60 days and counting until Movement, or the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (or DEMF, if you prefer), the ninth annual three-day Memorial Day weekend party at Hart Plaza. The Ferndale-based promotions and production group Paxahau is now offering pre-sales for weekend passes ($40) and limited VIP festival passes for $150. One official after-party has also been announced: Kenny Dixon Jr.’s "Soul Skate" at Northland Roller Skating Rink, on Saturday, May 24. Get ’em while they’re hot, folks; $12 for the party.