“Art Is Unavoidably Work”: Terre Thaemlitz Interviewed

Japan-based electroacoustic musician, DJ, lecturer and writer Terre Thaemlitz has just released Soulnessless, a vast audio/video/text project that announces itself as 'the world's first full length mp3 album'. She speaks to Ryan Diduck about the themes, ideas and realities behind such a huge and concept-driven project

There is quite simply too much stuff online. In regards to music, the ever-growing glut of free mixes and remixes, alternate takes and exclusive singles, collaborations, archives and streaming services, has likely long surpassed the number of “official” releases from artists operating in an already overcrowded ecosystem of cultural production. Musicians are under increasing pressure from record labels and points of sale (not to mention music publications) to contribute more and more of this material, mostly for free, in order to accompany and promote their work. So, how much is enough? Is enough ever enough? These are only some of myriad questions Terre Thaemlitz addresses with Soulnessless, a labyrinthine 32+ hour collection of audio, video, and text, out now on Comatonse recordings.

To call the album ‘out of time’ is at least a double entendre. In an era when digital downloads are considered the norm, Soulnessless is distributed on a decidedly material 16GB micro-SD card. Its centrepiece, entitled ‘Canto V: Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album,’ is a sprawling composition for solo piano, which clocks in at over 29 hours. To the best of my knowledge at the time of writing, it is the world’s first full-length mp3. But this piece is not just an academic exercise; Thaemlitz wants listeners to really meditate–and not in a transcendental, spiritual sense–on the labour of both making and consuming of art, and the demands that our less and less sustainable desires for it have placed upon a weakening planet. And ‘Canto V’ is truly the ideal soundtrack for such a slow and prolonged task.

In addition to this sweeping critique of value, the other four Cantos that compose the album each interrogate disparate yet overlapping tropes: gender transitioning, human trafficking, spirituality, and electronic audio devices, to name a few. Although Thaemlitz has said this project resists documentation, it contains over 150 pages of written material in ten different languages. But it’s not all heavy-handed theory at work here either; there are impish elements of playfulness to the release as well: a comparatively brief 13 minute disco remix of ”Canto V” (by Thaemlitz as DJ Sprinkles), for example, is included as a value-added bonus. When I received a review copy in the mail last month, it took a full work week to get through – and I still haven’t gotten through it all. I found both the works themselves and the ideas behind them extremely compelling, and difficult to wrap my head around. So, after spending some quality time with Soulnessless, I had a fair number of questions – and Thaemlitz graciously agreed to answer some of them, via an appropriately lengthy email exchange.

I find this record to be an inkling toward a more natural, less mediated sense of time. But at the same time, its time is fully mediated. It’s dependent not just upon technology, but digital technology. When I first started listening to ‘Canto V’, iTunes abruptly skipped itself ahead after about 2 hours. Did you conceive of the piece as an antagonism to technologically mediated temporality?

Terre Thaemlitz: When I first completed ‘Canto V’ (‘Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album’) in 2008 – which I guess we should clarify for people that it is a single 320k MP3 file nearly 4GB in size and 30 hours in length – playback was even more erratic. Many of the initial problems are documented in the ‘Canto V’ text under "Known Playback Issues" (p.20), which I tried to keep track of during the production process, all the while believing that most of these problems will get resolved over the years as computers become better equipped to handle large files. Several problems do appear to be resolved. But it also seems that one problem gets solved, only to have another appear. And the kind of problem you mention does not strike me as a surprise at all. 

The question then becomes whether to let the file keep playing uninterrupted, or to try and scroll back to play the part that was skipped over, which is always accompanied by a risk of causing other playback problems, etc. What is clear is that these kinds of large files create inconsistent and unique listening experiences – some troublesome and others trouble free – which is different from the conventional promise of media stability implied in most consumer transactions.

If there is an antagonism here, I think it has less to do with "technologically mediated temporality," and more to do with a disruption of passive listening. Clearly, this album requires a lot of active engagement and activity from the listeners themselves, and this is deliberate. Many of my CD releases have also played with this, such as in having very quiet moments suddenly disrupted by a jarring blast of noise – things that make the listener jump up and turn down the volume on their stereo, only to have to turn it back up again a few moments later when things quiet down again… I don’t want to simply write about "active listening" while delivering a conventionally passive listening experience. I want the audio in my projects to interfere with conventional listening to some extent, as an actualisation – or at least a metaphorical extension – of the ideas I’m talking about. Otherwise it all becomes masturbatory philosophical dallying. It would just be "music" in the most banal and poetic sense.

Screen shot from Soulnessless film

In addition to this unconventionality, paradoxically, by setting out to make the world’s first full-length mp3 album, you also imposed strict limitations upon the project in a way. Is it important to work within a set of restrictions?

TT: I think of it more as seeking out limitations (as determined by industry format standards, production or performance standards, etc.), and then exposing them. I seem to always be in a race to catch up with the present – not only technologically, but socially and culturally. 

I think most people operate in terms of projecting from the present into the future. They plan and dream. But those projections are always symptomatic of today’s desires, and desires are always rooted in power and oppressions – particularly the desire to overcome oppressions. So I am interested in uncovering those invisible or unfelt power dynamics that shape our desires in the here and now. I am only interested in the construction of desires, rather than validating the desires in and of themselves. 

Most cultural manifestations of desire are typically boring, symptomatic, and even perpetuating of the dominations they claim a wish to alter. In this way, living with restrictions is inevitable. There is no greater self-delusion than believing one could ever be free of restrictions. Any sensation of transcendence is always traceable to an ambivalence toward one domination or other, and in that ambivalence also rests an act of perpetuation. If one acknowledges or takes responsibility for that act of perpetuation – no matter how unavoidable or undesirable – then there is no possibility for transcendence. It becomes moot. 

I feel that losing the language of transcendence and freedom – or making it no longer effective – is an enormous help when trying to identify the material nature of the various restrictions placed upon us. It forces you to really investigate the here and now in a way that is not otherwise possible when distracted by hopes and dreams for tomorrow. We are taught to believe that hopes and dreams are necessary for both personal and cultural momentum, but I actually find that they erode one’s sense of urgency, and create numbness to domination. 

You mentioned having auditory hallucinations while recording. What was the vibe like in the auditorium after a few hours?

TT: The recording experience was pretty intense because I was spending the days with a lot of people – Tony Myatt, Mark Fell and the rest of the York staff, plus Laurence Rassel and Dont Rhine both made special visits to see me, and we gave a group lecture to the students – so there was this big combination of social and work things going on during the days. Then at night I was recording alone after everyone went to sleep, trying my best to treat that experience as "work" by adapting common rules of recording studio etiquette (no talking, no flatulence, no eating, etc.). As a labor practice, there was a lot of overtime going on. I didn’t really get much sleep. To be honest, I think the York staff and I were all surprised that I managed to finish recording everything in the short time allowed. 

From the phenomenological side, there weren’t really any strange happenings, other than the occasional hearing of voices that weren’t there. The sound of the piano strings within that incredibly dry space had a weird vocal resonance at times. This was attributable to the space, and is obviously not captured in the recording. Even with the room’s heavy sound insulation, and despite the hall being physically detached from the rest of the building so as to minimize structural vibrations, one became aware of very small sounds seeping into the room from the outside. At the time I was sure they were loud enough to be recorded, but for the most part they were not.

There’s something laborious about the idea of a 29-hour solo piano piece. When you gave a performance in France, although it was obviously significantly shorter, you mentioned feeling compelled to stretch it out for an extra ten minutes to give the audience the feeling of working overtime. Should art be work?

TT: The question of whether it should or shouldn’t be work is superfluous to the unavoidable fact that it is work. That very question is also telling as to how we are conditioned not to perceive of it as work. It suggests work is a choice, and not a social mandate. This delusion is inseparable from a petit bourgeois belief in (and desire for) economic self-actualisation and the potential for post-labor luxury – the retired billionaire. Of course, entertainment industries sell the sensation of luxury, of relaxation – which is why they have an invested interest (literally) in people not perceiving entertainment, or art, or music, as labor.

One of the dominant themes behind the album is the idea of free labour. The whole constellation of music production and consumption nowadays seems to rely increasingly on the online, digital "gift economy." This economy has been alternately described positively as a democratizing force, or rather negatively as simply speeding up the rhythms of capital. Do you think of the internet as a social factory? Is there any radical potential to be found in free labour, online or off?

TT: Radicality, subversion, obstruction – these things are always contextual. The internet is a tool like any other form of media. This also means that, like other forms of media, people can become seduced by promises of connectivity and communion. As someone who still does not have a cell phone, and who hopes to never have one, the world looks increasingly creepy to me with everyone staring at their little smart phones, filling some psychological need for attention while ignoring the living beings around them. As if large urban environments didn’t have enough ignoring of others going on already. Crowded Japanese train platforms are the pinnacle of this. 

There were studies done that proved people will easily overspend their budgets if using credit and debit cards simply because of the simple act of the store clerk giving the card back to us. When a person pays with cash there is a psychological recognition of trade, no matter how abstract money is to begin with. We physically give up one thing in exchange for another, and simultaneously register the loss of that thing (money) with whatever new thing we’ve obtained. But when paying with a card, whereby no immediate physical loss occurs, that awareness of loss is subverted, and as consumers we are more likely to overspend because we sense we still have money until the bill arrives. This is the deliberate subtext to "debit card" and electronic cash campaigns – not to mention cell phones. I can’t think of a single person with a cell phone who does not have at least one story about getting a surprisingly large bill. 

What I’m saying is not conspiracy theory – this is public information that market researchers are proud of discovering, and love to mention when soliciting investors. And I think the internet does something similar. In the absence of a physical social exchange, it diminishes the perception of social alienation. You can either stand on the train platform exchanging (or avoiding) awkward glances and smiles with strangers, or stare at your smart phone and feel socially connected and validated by your lonesome self. And like with electronic cash, I cannot help but feel there is a social debt accumulating. There is a hidden or delayed social cost for non-stop online behavior. 

I believe the feeling that everything online should be "free" is a part of this abstraction. And, again, these free "gifts" can only be perceived as free through the denied/diverted expenses of our net connections, the equipment we use to access it, our electricity bills, etc… Like with electronic cash, our financial connections to the internet generally happen through scheduled billings rather than realtime acts of trade and barter. Click and download your app now, pay at the end of the month… I am sure this has played a large role in the development of cultural myths around online liberation, etc.

It’s like this vague yet undeniable feeling of offense when asked to pay for a public net connection at an airport or hotel, as though the internet services we privately subscribe to and pay for are "free." I mean, these myths are so powerful that they fooled Jacques Attali into claiming that digital information brought in a new era of economics that is no longer rooted in exchanges of material goods – which is a claim that can only be made if one is culturally desensitised to those undeniably material technological means through which information is exchanged. That seems to be where we are at, socially and culturally. Our fundamental relationships to the internet are deeply steeped in the ideological and economic swindles of Americanisation and globalisation. The freedom at hand is the fake of American freedom.

Speaking of freedom, while your album is formatted and distributed digitally, it’s not something that would be easy to share over the internet.

TT: You say it is "distributed digitally," but I think we should clarify that it is a collection of digital files distributed physically on a 16GB microSD card sent to people by post. It is not available for download, and the listeners are explicitly asked not to upload it because that would defeat a specificity of audience that can only happen through "offline" exchanges of data. Given the anti-religious themes of the project, there is also a desire to protect some of the people involved by not having details of every piece in this project retrievable through search engines, or downloadable through online archives, etc. Once something is online and theoretically accessible by anyone, there is no chance to recover a specificity of audience. In the case of this project, that "radical potential" you asked about in the last question would become absolutely unrecoverable, and non-performable. The difficulty with getting people to understand this idea is that most people are conditioned to believe any objection to uploading must be rooted in a desire to control authorship. Especially with younger listeners, there is a knee-jerk reaction to upload things simply because they can – a punkish middle finger to "The Man," which also certainly has its time and place.

Screenshot from Soulnessless film

In addition to being extremely long, ‘Canto V’ also unfolds extremely slowly, and your album comes at a time when various other slow social movements are gaining momentum. Do you feel an affinity with any of them?

TT: As you know, I read your recent article on slow music, but I don’t really know much about that as a contemporary scene. In making this album I was thinking more about certain types of music I grew up with that could be classified as Modernist – John Cage, Terry Riley, Eno’s Discreet Music, etc. Keith Jarrett’s Sun Bear Concerts was definitely on my mind while recording ‘Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album.’ It’s a piano solo album from the ’70s spanning ten vinyl records, packaged in a thick box that also came with one of those amazing ECM books – their packaging was always amazing. Stylistically and in terms of content there is not much similarity between Jarrett’s album and mine beyond the fact they are both piano solos, but I somehow fantasized my 30-hour MP3 album was a kind of contemporary attempt to update Jarrett’s 6-hour vinyl album. Again, all of these affiliations are quite loose. Clearly the content of my project is coming from a very different place. A place that is often critical of the things I assume those musicians valued.

You’ve said that all of your albums have a concept, and I think this one has several that intertwine. It seems to me a large part of it is very much about your reaction to this specific moment in time when we’re awash in file sharing and an excess of online cultural production. What if someone 500 years from now comes across Soulnessless completely out of its social and historical context? Would that alter their experience of it?

TT: Given how media formats change, that’s something we don’t have to bother pondering about. I mean, how many people have turntables that can play 78RPM records anymore, let alone 16RPM records? Or tone arms long enough to play those massive 16-inch and 20-inch records? These were once commonplace formats, but now that media is largely unretrievable. So it’s only logical to assume 500 years from now nobody would ever be able to access information on a microSD card, and even if they had copies of the original digital files on some other drive format they would not have software to open them. 

Could you imagine people converting and re-saving these files with each major shift in data formats to preserve them over the next five centuries? And even if they did, what kind of audio and visual artifacts would be introduced into the files through those layers and layers of conversion processes? So on a technical level, the question is absurd – which I am sure you are also aware… but to address your point about context – certainly the things that were important to me, and which I wished to convey, would likely be difficult for a person in the future to grasp. Given my album’s theme of criticizing religion, and seeing how religious texts on scrolls and tablets have been so brutally interpreted over the centuries to serve all kinds of crazy ends, I can only hope my album is quickly lost to time! Even today, during the album’s translation process, it made a tremendous difference whether or not a translator was familiar with Catholic and Christian traditions. So this album is absolutely concerned with exposing the limitations of context, and demonstrating music’s non-universality. That non-universality spans both space and time. 

What is it to be complete? Is this album finished?

TT: Like all projects, Soulnessless has its errors, typos, mastering problems… hopefully they are mostly things nobody other than myself would notice, but they are there nonetheless. This is the standard kind of "completenessless" that permeates all projects, and all commercial objects. I definitely could have gone on to make other video segments. I had some ideas that never got realized, simply because the parts I did make were already so lengthy and involved. But yes, absolutely, the released album is "finished."

I’m hoping to do a tenth or twentieth anniversary edition that will include the complete 32 hours of ‘Canto V’ in full-resolution 96k 24bit sound (about two and a half hours longer than the 4GB MP3 in this version), along with higher resolution video, but that will require industry changes in file size management. The full-resolution piano solo would be over 70GB, so it will take a while before anyone can open and play a single file that large. 

What are your upcoming plans? Any future performances or recordings in the works?

TT: Nope, I’m completely done now. [Laughs.]

For more on Terre Thaemlitz and Soulnessless, head to the Comatonse website here.

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