Laptop Terrorism:  Achim Szepanski and Force Inc/Mille Plateaux

By Heath K. Hignight for Cleveland Scene

Of all the countries with an active dance music scene, Germany is
arguably the most zealous.  Back in the 70s, a steely kind of funk
called electro emerged from West Germany under the leadership of
Kraftwerk, whose robotic grooves set the stage for a generation of
musicians intent on implementing keyboards and sequencers into live
music.  Twenty years later, Berlin is (now was) the home to the
million-plus attendees of Love Parade, a techno and dance music event
larger than any other on the planet in its later years.  Between the two
lies repeated world-wide infusions of teutonic musical innovation,
including electronic body music and industrial, and now a variety of
furiously dark musics that again bridge gaps between American trends and
British/European improvements on those trends.

One of these styles, a staticky melange of sound byproducts arranged
rhythmically, was recently chronicled by a German label manager whose
own musical heritage and pioneering spirit parallels his country's:
Achim Szepanski.  As director of the techno legend Force Inc.,
power-house outfit Forcetracks, drum'n'bass horrorhouse Position Chrome,
leftfield electronic label Mille Plateaux, and experimental Ritornell
imprint, Szepanski embodies the kind of fervor that's made Germany such
an influential power throughout the development of electronic music.
Now, with his double disc compilation Clicks_+_Cuts, Szepanski and his
stable of labels stand at a vantage point that renders visible the next
generation of electronic music innovation.

Beginning in 1991 with Force Inc., Szepanski saw a need for something to
fight off the degradation of dance and electronic music caused by lazy
creative practices and the increasingly fiscal approach to pumping out
consumer music.  Thus, Force Inc. became a sounding board for music that
couldn't readily be broken into commodifiable pieces, ripped to shreads
for soundbite material or to keep bubblegummers happy.  Throughout the
90s, Szepanski drew increasingly upon his admiration of philosophical
luminaries Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari  in order to found labels
that avoided the overgrounding of previously hidden musics like
breakbeat, techno, and experimental electronic.  Mille Plateaux, the
name taken directly from Deleuze and Guattari's herculean analysis of
culture in the wake of postmodernism, is Szepanski's crown jewel; since
1994 the label has repeatedly wiped the tablet clean by piercing through
pleasant musical conventions to reveal the at-once revolting innards of
cultural creative processes.

An excellent example of this is the 1996 tribute compilation In
Memoriam: Gilles Deleuze.  On this expansive release, Szepanski backed
up Alec Empire's antifascist terror aesthetics to Cristian Vogel's
stripped down techno experiments, Christophe Charles' sinewave tone
minimalism to Atom Heart's found sound pastiche, Scanner's voyeuristic
snippets of intercepted radio transmissions to DJ Spooky's unadulterated
urban field recordings.  In a similar manner, Clicks_+_Cuts wipes the
slate clean by foregrounding musical innovation of varied, often
clashing timbres and attitudes.

"I think it's, ah?very new, a new feeling?the context of Clicks_+_Cuts
is more in the modern aesthetics of sound design," begins Szepanski, "an
aesthetics which is conceptualized by the producing of music, and not so
much by the reception of it, anymore.  This was the first thing:  making
audible the process of the production of sound itself.  And I think it's
not like techno so much anymore, the loop, or like earlier minimalism
the repetition, it's really more the jumps, the clicks, the cutting edge
and its microtonal intervals?you hear more of the sources than how the
sources and sounds are sequenced?and it's something I think is really
beyond techno."

Clicks_+_Cuts is certainly beyond techno; to the uninitiated, it's at
first little more than sonic leftovers.  Fellow German Casten Nicolai's
"Prototype N" (under the Alva Noto moniker) begins with the sound of an
elevator ding followed by a skipping CD, that annoying, repeating click
that reminds you:  tell the kids the little silver discs are NOT
frisbees.  The elevator ding pelts you again followed by two new CD
skipping sounds, only these are pitched higher and lower, clicking at
different intervals.  This goes on for the better part of six minutes,
after which you're left wondering how what you've heard qualifies as

Asking Szepanski for a little direction doesn't help, either.  "Even if
it's working again with a beat, and how it effects the people,erm, I
really don't know it at the moment," he laughs.  "It's quite new, you
know?!  On the one hand we try to produce a kind of new digital click
techno, the effect of which is to spread energy in the clubs, and on the
other hand it's a kind of sound where you're in the moment and you don't
really know how the effect will be."

Instead, he suggests, this jarring new music escapes our preconceptions
about how sound should function in any sort of environment.  It's as
though the initially incongruous sounds of everyday electronic materials
like CD players and computers, through the creative perspective of a
techhead musicians, can be arranged to make sense in the automated
world, where 30-year-old notions of pop performance have fallen prey to
the beancounting corporate regime.  "It really works good in very
modern, hypermodern buildings, and the people are totally affected in a
different way than a normal rock concert?there's not this big stage with
people listening and looking.  The fragmentation of the music is a
representative of the fragmentation of the reception?some people are
listening, some are speaking,others are drinking, so there's a totally
different atmosphere from a normal concert or techno party."

One aspect to this emerging musical trend, an aspect that carries
substantial implications for Mille Plateaux as both a concept and as a
business entity, is the fact that much of the work on Clicks_+_Cuts is
by American-based artists.  And while only a minescule fraction of the
music-buying population in the U.S. is familiar with this artefact-based
form of electronic music, Szepanski remarks that America is perhaps the
most fertile ground in which to plant Mille Plateaux's new musical
seed.  The significant emphasis of late on the exploding digital
culture, he explains, will provide both the listenership that identifies
with this music and the technical talent necessary to create it.

"We (in Germany, Europe) like to imagine that the States are still
rock-orientated or hip-hop-orientated because of the music business, but
I think even moreso than in Europe, there is more progression in music,
especially in electronic music, when you compare the technology in
Europe and the States."

Szepanski admits that popular forms continue to roar through the highly
commercial levels of music production; however, differences in the
geography of the technology sector point clearly to the most receptive
audiences.  For Szepanski, the prevalence in one part of the world of
one technology element suggests a level of social preparedness for this
kind of purely digital music.  As such, he's planning a tour of North
America featuring Vladislav Delay and a rotating roster of American
artists like Kid 606, Jake Mandell and Stewart Walker to uncover the
growth potential Mille Plateaux wants.

Truth be known, certain parts of the world aren't living up to their
potential.  "I was wondering that it's not happening strong enough in
Japan, which is more hardware-based, like it is in America, which is
more software-based?and then Europe, which normally has the task to
produce the culture or theory to the software and hardware," he
chuckles.  "So maybe in Europe it happened in the beginning because
music is connected to art and special cultural processes, but when you
discuss the technology itself, these countries are for us more

American artists, he suggests, have applied the country's leadership in
software development to music making, which in his mind is penultimate
to the American market's welcoming of the new sound.  "What's
interesting for me about people like Kid 606 or Sutekh is this kind of
laptop terrorism," he says.

Following that statement, Szepanski pauses before pursuing a line of
discussion more in keeping with that of the positive, forward-thinking
visonary his past proves him to be.  However, for Mille Plateaux, and
Szepanski, a forthcoming North American tour will be the litmus test for
both his lively if not indulgent theories about geo-musical tendencies,
and for the more serious business of a musical style in its infancy.
Both American and German artists will hit select cities across the
country this summer, but Szepanski knowns America's reception of this
music in its live state could affect the future of Mille Plateaux, and
subsequently, the future of electronic music as we know it.

Reprinted with permission.