[22 August 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Richie Hawtin was encouraged to take up the Plastikman name again when Raf Simons of Dior fame invited him to perform at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum for a fundraising event. It’s a funny mental picture—Simons, a relative giant in the world of fashion, coaxing Hawtins, a legend in minimal electronic music, to make a public performance (fashion is a lot of things—‘minimal’ tends not to be one of them). Hawtins accepted the invitation, began experimenting with his old Detroit equipment, and soon found that he had enough new material to warrant a brand new album under the Plastikman moniker. Ex, or Eks as he should have called it, is a live recording of that performance at the Guggenheim. It’s also one of those fleeting moments that remind you why someone is considered a legend in their field in the first place. Ex: Performed Live at the Guggenheim NYC is barely there sometimes. It’s also high art.
All track names are derived from the Ex prefix: “Exposed”, “Extend”, “Expand”, “Extrude”, “Explore”, “Expire”, and “Exhale”. Given how the music comes from the most naked of beginnings and goes on to unfurl in the sneakiest of ways, the names feel slightly appropriate. Ex plays out as one big piece that just happens to be divided up into seven tracks and lasts 53 minutes. But instead of dropping minimal beats for a dance floor in Detroit, Hawtin is giving museum goers something to ponder as they stare at an LED obelisk (I think that’s what’s on the cover, though I can’t be sure). There is no background noise or crowd chatter. There is only the sparsest blips, glitches, and distant thumps to guide you along.
“Exposed” starts with a solitary sound, a note with a sound that mimics a rubber band. It quickly descends one whole step. The smooth descent is sharpened, causing the listener to hear all of the chromatics in between. That name note gets pushed and pulls into new timbres and effects. A low cloud of background ambient slowly rises and soon peripheral noises are bouncing into inner space. Just as it seems that this solitary descending note is going to be swallowed by the mix, it emerges unscathed and solitary. “Exposed” then settles into a feather weight rhythm, announcing that although the artist is lauded within minimal circles, he’s also a dance floor DJ.
The hand claps of “Extend” fool me nearly every time. They begin too intermittently alongside a heavily syncopated synthesizer line. Only when they are making a regular appearance does the groove begin to settle. And with “Expand”, Ex plunges back into the dark. The listener is left like an abandoned being in a long dark field with nothing to light the way but a dim flashlight. The moments of industrial squawks are a fragmented path at best, soon leading to another void. By “Explore”, the beats are getting thinner and the keyboards are growing more ghostly. The search for a coda never arrives. Ex fades away in the same way as if it were just about to begin another turn. All of the sudden, you realize: “Hey, it’s not playing anymore!”
But that’s Plastikman’s MO—he’s a thief in the night. And you don’t become a Mute label heavyweight by being boring. Listening to Ex: Performed Live at the Guggenheim NYC is very unusual. I found myself hanging onto every cycle as it came around, anxious to hear how it would develop—if it ever did. Some just faded off into a sonic Bermuda Triangle. And who doesn’t love a good mystery?