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Terre Thaemlitz - Comp x Comp Music Album Reviews

As the Tokyo experimental musician’s work is finally made available digitally, this compilation offers an introduction to the artist’s critical perspective on capitalism, gender norms, trans identity, and more.

A commitment to non-essentialism is at the core of Terre Thaemlitz’s music and writing. Her work, positioned at the fringes of a cultural economy that trades in simplified forms and stable meanings, is imbued with a slippery oppositional quality. Even the sumptuous house music he makes as DJ Sprinkles doubles as a critique of dance music’s fraught history and corporate scaffolding. (Thaemlitz, who identifies as transgender, prefers alternating pronouns, in the argument that “gender is never neutral under patriarchy.”)

Thaemlitz is outspoken about the ways that capitalism structures cultural forms (particularly as both link back to gender and sexual politics). This interest has manifested in reflections on digital media and shifting methods of distribution—see the 32-hour 2012 release Soulnessless, the “world’s longest album in history & world’s first full-length mp3 album”—as well as in personal business practices. Since 1993, Thaemlitz has released the bulk of her music on his own label, Comatonse, and keeps tight control over how it circulates online. With the exception of remixes, her music has not been available for streaming or digital download. “Terre wishes to keep ‘queer’ audio and media functioning queerly, contextually, and with smallness,” reads a disclaimer on the artist’s website. “Populist social media engines that blast media ‘globally’ to as many people as possible may be appropriate for corporate pop music, but they function contrary to everything Terre believes about cultivating and protecting the hyper-specificities of 'underground' and minor situations. Indiscriminate file sharing, YouTube and SoundCloud grant too much exposure with too little precision.”


So it’s of some interest that, at the beginning of this year, Thaemlitz made a Bandcamp page for the first time, uploading a selection of releases dating back to the mid-19990s for streaming and digital download. Among these is Comp x Comp, which collects his contributions to assorted compilations from the ’90s and 2000s, most of which were released on CD and are now out of circulation. This rangy collection stretches into to the outer limits of what we might today call “ambient music,” encompassing electroacoustic pieces, sample-driven tracks that variously incorporate pop music and spoken language, installation soundtracks, and conceptual experiments. While album-length releases under Thaemlitz’s own name tend to take shape around a particular (if rarely stable) thematic or formal inquiry, this compilation—briefly annotated on the Bandcamp page—gives an introduction to a handful of the threads that have carried her ideas over the last several decades.

Those threads are presented in no particular order, and it’s the conceptual outliers, very much of their early-aughts time, that first jump out. Of the 76-song tracklist, 45 of those tracks are silent and just a second long. (The 46th track in the same series, three seconds long, contains a barely perceptible wisp of melody). Those are a sequence taken from a 2001 compilation paying tribute to the inventor of the CD, James T. Russell; they originally filled in the extra data space left on the compact disc, one second being the shortest length possible for a track on a CD. The ten tracks that make up “Mille Glaces.000”–“.009,” from 2003, involve first a digital mix of one thousand layers of audio from the catalogue of the iconic German label Mille Plateaux, and then subsequent recordings of Thaemlitz’s computer going haywire while he plays the files all at once.

Richer, though, are the ambient collages of sound and vocal samples that best characterize Thaemlitz’s output. Here the in-betweenness she espouses in his writings is embodied in sound in various ways, sometimes difficult and often beautiful. On “Genrecide (I Wish Tricky’d Die Any Way I Hope),” we are given an intimate set of slow melodies, set in a dim fuzz. But the stitching is always audible, a feature of Thaemlitz’s music that keeps the listener on edge: The lull of a synthesizer melody seems to take place far away, while the less inviting dry, machinic crackle is foregrounded and a conversational voice repeats: “I wish Tricky’d die…” Tracks like “Schizophonalysis,” originally released under the alias Aunty Eddie’s Pussy, and “What Is Between Is Missing,” which includes a recording of a debate over the “social problem” of being transgendered, follow a similarly indeterminate, glitchy aesthetic that provides a landscape for their respective meditations on transness.

The sound can also be much crisper and harmonious, developing into full soundscapes: “Sex on a Real Train,” or a dropped cut from Thaemlitz’s 1995 album Soil, “Get in and Drive,” which the artist refers to as “a failed attempt” to sound like late ambient producer Pete Namlook. And it can be screwball in its citations (“genrecide,” indeed): “Untitled (AV/M 8)” pastes James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” in full over a cold, tense computer-sound loop. Thaemlitz constructs her own worlds, but also reaches into the void that is the already-extant world of pop, of corporate populism.

I want to say that the unevenness of the compilation is beside the point, but maybe it is the point—at least, it’s a fitting quality for a partial document of the output of a challenging artist whose contributions have been underthought, especially in developing conversations around algorithmic listening practices and artists’ agency in a streaming-dominated music industry. Mark Richardson’s 2003 review of Thaemlitz’s Lovebomb—one of the releases, alongside projects like Soil and Interstices, that interested listeners might be compelled to visit after a listen to Comp x Comp—noted that the essays contained in that album’s liner notes “bring more questions than answers.” But aren’t the questions more interesting? This collection poses many; as a listener, I’m grateful for all Thaemlitz refuses to resolve.


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