MaerzMusik headliner Terre Thaemlitz on the power of boredom in music, deep house nostalgia and representing “women and other non-males”.
Over the past quarter century, the Minnesota-born, Japan-based producer, composer and activist has taken on a multitude of genres and political causes – from ambient to jazz to deep house, music industry critique to queer theory – as well as gender identities (she alternates between female and male pronouns in her writing, and performs in “male drag” as alter ego DJ Sprinkles). This year’s MaerzMusik provides an equally comprehensive spread of Thaemlitz’s work, with four performances at the Festspiele and Martin-Gropius-Bau. As she pretty much lives off the grid in Kawasaki, we talked to her via e-mail before her long-duration stint at the contemporary music festival.
Can you explain what it is you try to achieve with your work in one sentence?
One of my ongoing experiments is to test if it is possible to economically survive in media industries with a degree of open and strategic non-cooperation.
That “non-cooperation” includes releasing – and now performing – a 30-hour album, Soulnessless. What’s your interest in long duration formats?
I like using boredom as a means of refocussing attention. The audience expects it to end after 80 minutes. However, that is when the performance actually starts. We all become very aware that it is going on longer than necessary, and this brings out a lot of different ways of hearing, frustrations, impatience. All the stuff that relates to labour, not pleasure.
Why did you decide that regular music industry distribution and formats weren’t for you?
Unfortunately, that decision was thrust upon me back in 2004 as a result of my back catalogue from Mille Plateaux being illegally uploaded into major distributors like iTunes, Juno Download and eMusic. It took me six years to get them taken offline due to those distributors ignoring my requests. If I hadn’t had such a fiercely negative experience with “legitimate” online distribution, I am sure I would be using it like many others. But that was a real crisis, and my awakening to the abuses of the online distribution marketplace – YouTube, Soundcloud, all the other bullshit out there.
How has living in Japan affected your views on the music industry?
It used to be that 95 percent of my label’s vinyl sales were in Japan, but now it’s reversed. My Japanese distribution is pretty much down to two small shops in Osaka. I think this economic collapse around house music in Japan is part of a larger conservatism that has emerged over the past decade under Prime Minister Abe. All media has become very generic. Of course, Japan is like the US in that there is no federal cultural support. It’s not like Europe. There is a real absence of “underground” here.
Has the meaning of your Deeperama sets changed over time?
Of course. How can you compare DJing within the context of a New York transsexual sex worker bar in 1990 to DJing for the MaerzMusik crowd? For me, house was over in 1992. Every set I have spun since then has been a kind of eulogy. What I do is as over and as infected with nostalgia as attending a Sha Na Na concert. As the catch-copy to my old K-S.H.E album said, “Today’s dance floors are wakes in remembrance of a mythological era of openness that never was…”
Does playing for queer versus hetero-oriented audiences shape your set in any way?
Closets continue to be real for millions of us. They continue playing a role in my life despite my being “out” for decades now. You never know who is attending an event, or what they are doing in their sexual lives. However, in general, I am only performing in order to economically survive. So, these are just gigs for me. I am not part of a “scene” in the sense you are implying. Just an employee.
Have you ever been involuntarily made a spokesperson for a “scene”?
Sure. Why do you think I get invited to German festivals precisely when your culture industries are interested in opening the doors to women and other non-males? It happens every 10-15 years. The last time I did it for MaerzMusik was when I performed Trans-Sister Radio live with Saki-chan in 2006. I’ll be making the rounds at Darmstadt this summer, too. It’s not a coincidence.
Terre Thaemlitz, four performances at MaerzMusik | see our guide for dates and times