[8 July 2009]
I don’t want to be that guy, but Wolfgang Voigt’s Studio 1 project is at times simply fucking boring. Having been stripped to the core, beyond the marrow, the shell is barely noticeable any more, the photograph too obscured to tell its dots from dust.
The 1995 recordings featured here have seen a previous CD release on the self-titled Studio 1 imprint, but have been out of print since 2000. Now, with Voigt’s back catalogue being retroactively studied by every student of the Cologne school of music, he has begun making this work available again on his new label, Kompakt, which has a bit of a reputation. Following the magnificent Nah Und Fern, a repackaging of the whole of the Gas discography which won well-deserved acclaim, Studio 1 by Studio 1 is next in the series of reissues.
Like Gas, Studio 1 came about during a period obsessing over building a music with a distinct German identity. For Voigt, this meant constructing his sounds from the embers of classical German nationalist composition. Studio 1 apparently bears the genetic makeup of big brass band music within its exoskeleton, applied through precise and pristine sampling. The pieces at first seem to defy this ancestry with a kind of looseness, but the persistently narrow path they often take winds them so tight as to make Wagner feel like Funkadelic, and Villalobos seem like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
Post postmodernism, the avant-garde often teeters on the very brink of even being defined as art at all, be it through Dan Flavin’s light installations, Warhol’s mass reproductions, or Duchamp’s moustache on the Mona Lisa. Those who choose to invest a good deal of time and intellectual contract on these subtle exchanges with the actual are often haunted by the ghastly possibility that the artists in question are not actually challenging us at all. We often defend the arbitrary and the unexplained at the expense of our credibility, with no guarantee that the artist in question has even sought this kind of validation. In fact, perhaps they’re just fucking with us, creating anarchic dialogues to expel classifications, limitations, and expectations for anything anywhere. Voigt’s sonic reducers are close to the edge, with several tracks on Studio 1 baring little more than the utility of a beat.
The possibilities arising from spaces within in the mundane are what seem to be the focal drive of Voigt’s Studio 1. Yet, there remains the sneaking suspicion that these are just leftover Mike Ink beats that Voigt lacked the time or patience to fill in. A few subtle tweaks later and they’re the stepping stones of minimalist techno, a genre still millimetering ahead 14 years later. It’d be easy enough to pull off such a carnival barker scam by simply using the high-class watermark of German techno to make us listeners feel useful and dedicated. After all, who would question the motives of Mr. Kompakt himself, the head of a label whose logo is practically a guarantee of quality?
The rest of Voigt’s output reassures me that he is indeed not electronic music’s Bernie Madoff, but what to make of this collection of nameless colored vinyl, for which language and melody seem insufficient? On “Red”, named for the color of the dots on the original’s cover, you can hear a great song carved down to a wicked bassline and some dynamic beats, but it’s unclear if the track is still a living organism or just a zombie shell. If your mind is trained by pop music, you will automatically use Voigt’s sparse rhythm as an impetus for your own creations as you listen and sing new songs atop them. Yet when this happens, one is forced to ask: is this the wrong way of listening to the album? If yes, should there really be a wrong way of listening? Should we really be concerned with only what is physically burned on to the disc? If no, why not, rather than buy this disc, just hold a concert in your own imagination a la Yoko Ono’s infamous conceptual piece for Fluxus?
Defenders of minimalism (of which I’d generally consider myself one) often make the case that abandoning layers and structure makes for an instructive listen, helping you focus deeply on the sounds and catch the subtlety of the change-ups. Yet you can just as easily listen closely for the variations in pop music, but they rarely require this, since the entire work tends to be dynamic. Minimalist music forces the listener to ask why a change was important enough to happen at all, and why it happened at the moment it did, when it could have happened at any given point. These questions, not the alterations themselves, get more poignant when a track doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
The best of Studio 1 happens when the surface and the undercurrent are colliding to form a third layer, usually unheard by human ears, that exists in the spaces between bone and flesh, a circulatory system with scarce enough nutrition flowing through to keep it alive for the seven minutes or so it has left. “Orange” and “Light Blue” fit the bill, standing on the precipice of dub as they do. Overall, though, the spaces on the album present more pauses to question what we’re missing rather than what we’re part of, or why so little is just enough.