Talk about minimal techno: Nicolas Bougaïeff and Narciss made a selection of 60-second locked grooves. Here’s more on that project and their practice.
If you’re hungry for electronic music that still pushes boundaries and technique, Dr. Nicolas Bougaïeff is a good place to start. (Yes, he’s a real doctor – the Ph.D. is in music composition). And lately, he’s been on a tear. Apart from a fanciful EP for our own Establishment, his recent output has focused on aggressively distorted, dystopian timbres, expertly constructed machines that pound forward like giant robots. He’s gotten deserved attention for that, as well, including the 12″ release of Cognitive Resonance, which relaunched Daniel Miller’s seminal NovaMute label.
There’s no paint-by-number techno here: each rhythm, each sound is considered. (It’s little wonder that Nick is working in offering composition lessons on the side – in a field that has been largely short of expert training.)
But I thought we’d take the occasion to explore a unique set of etudes that came at the beginning of this year. It’s called Vocabulary C, and it takes the meticulous construction of techno to an extreme. The whole album is a set of locked grooves, each just one minute in length.
It’s not just a simple DJ “tools” release, though – think of it as tools that are also effective etudes. You can actually listen to each of these as a one-minute, standalone composition. There’s audio material drawn from Principles of Newspeak, but you almost don’t need to know that: these stand on their own. (Miniatures are a topic Nicolas has taken up before, not surprisingly – he’s got a release called 24 Miniatures coming out now, too.)
Nicolas teamed up with Berlin-born artist Narciss for this one – an artist who has literally grown up in the middle of Berlin techno, and has a DJ resume (and more releases upcoming on DRVMS LTD. and Seelen Records) to match.
With the fusion of composition and technology here, of course, we had plenty to talk about with these two.
There are two video documentaries as a starting point. First, there’s a short feature of Principles of Newspeak, visiting Nick in his studio:
From there, there’s a second video in which Nicolas and Narciss talk about the project and their collaboration:
CDM: Nick, from the release for Daniel Miller to your own follow-up on your label to this reusing materials … it feels like you’re making connective tissue now between releases. Is that about your own continuity? Is it about a narrative?
NB: Making a large scale musical work inspired by 1984 has been on my mind for over 20 years. Once I got started, I owed it to myself to explore every aspect of the topic. I’m happy I found an angle to the novel that hadn’t really been covered by other musicians, so I just kept on going. Vocabulary C gave me a feeling of closure.
And you’ve worked with miniatures before, too, yes?
I’ve done this sort of project before. Back in 2011, I recorded a new sketch every day for nearly the whole year, 20 minutes every day first thing in the morning no thinking allowed. That yielded hundreds of musical fragments. From those I eventually compiled an album by selecting the very best moments, no further whatsoever besides touching the mixdown and trimming the shortest edit possible. It kind of sat on my hard drive for seven years now, which is a nice contrast to how spontaneous the original process was. I feel it really aged well so I’m finally about to release the 24 Miniatures album via Denkfabrik.
All of these projects draw from the well of dystopia and dystopian imagination – what was that inspiration here? (What’s the Orwell connection?)
NB: Vocabulary C is the last release in a thematic series of three records, all of them inspired by the appendix to George Orwell’s 1984. The lead single “Cognitive Resonance” came out as a 12″ on NovaMute; the album Principles of Newspeak came out on my own label Denkfabrik, and finally, Vocabulary C as a collection of locked grooves inspired by the sounds from the album.
The 1984 appendix is focused on the particular way language is distorted in that fictional universe, a mashup of political slogans and the Whorf-Sapir linguistics theory. The idea is that if you destroy words, you destroy the ability to think of that concept. Fortunately, that’s not the way language works in reality. In the book, vocabulary C is a facet of the language that is used strictly to describe technical processes. In parallel, it seemed to me very fitting that a locked groove, historically, is a very technical musical tool.
6. Also to repeat the video a little bit, maybe you can elaborate on those vocabularies? How did you apply them to managing the material here?
NB: Best to directly quote Orwell here.
“The A vocabulary consisted of the words needed for the business of everyday life — for such things as eating, drinking, working, putting on one’s clothes, going up and down stairs, riding in vehicles, gardening, cooking, and the like”
“The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.”
See, both of those are interesting, but way too literal to be used for instrumental music. But when you get to Vocabulary C, it’s abstract and detached in a way that seemed to really fit with techno.
“The C vocabulary was supplementary to the others and consisted entirely of scientific and technical terms.”
Can you explain what a locked groove is?
NB: A vinyl groove is normally cut in a spiral. A locked groove is a circle, so the needle loops around over and over. You literally have to pick up the needle to choose another loop, you can have lots of different loops on a record. Pioneering techno artists — Jeff Mills, for example — produced and performed with locked groove records, sometimes making it a central part of their process.
Narciss: To me, it’s kind of the most stripped down techno tool in existence. It really is just an endless loop that can, for example, be used to mix two tracks that don’t perfectly mesh together, or to add some spice to your transitions. Instrumentation is pretty interesting, because using the sounds we had, meant, we mainly patched things through different effects.
There’s something a bit cheeky about embracing minimalism in this way, right? This isn’t phases like Steve Reich; it isn’t messing with time like Morton Feldman. You’re into full-on repetition – right into the heart of what many people claim to dislike about techno. What made you go that route? Is there a personal story to this embrace of rigid structure and repetition, intellectual curiosity aside?
NB: There’s a holy grail in techno: that magical moment when the groove is so good that you bliss out and don’t touch the machines anymore. We experience this all the time as music producers working in the studio, and also on the dance floor when everything is just spot on. You get the same thing in many improvised musics – searching until you lock in. That’s what I wanted to focus on with this project; I wanted to focus on finding self-standing moments where time stands still.
Timbre is significant here, too, I feel. There’s a real brutality to this, maybe something missing in a lot of drenched-out, effect-pedal, too-much-reverb music trending now. What was the source of those sounds; how did you arrive at them?
Narciss: This can mainly be accredited to the extremely raw-sounding base material that we were working with. Both of the albums that Nicolas made have a very violent, heavy structure to them, so naturally working with sounds from them, you would get something like that out too, although even on the loops where we didn’t use any of that material, it was a pretty natural adaption to what we made before, I guess.
NB: The sound palette was more of a consequence of where I had been with my other projects rather than a conscious conceptual choice. We used a a bunch of Narciss’ favorite drum loops as well as a big chunk of my personal sound library from the past couple years, that was all industrial and electroacoustic sounds derived from electric cello, modular synth and loads of distortion pedals. Looking back, I can now better appreciate the tension between the timeless locked groove format and the sounds that grab your attention.
I want to ask about the element of setting the timer. In order to be that immediate, did you find that there was practice necessary first – on your own, as a duo?
Narciss: I didn’t really see it as practice, we pretty much sat down and recorded everything from the first loop to the last. Obviously, quality improved – generally towards the end of the process, we hit it home more times than in the beginning. But I think a little less than half of the record was made during our first day.
NB: I’ve been an improvising musician for over 15 years – working fast feels very comfortable. Also, quantity was a very important part of this project. Our goal was to make 100 locked grooves, and then we would select the best 20 or 30. Many of them were really bad, silly or just boring, but that didn’t matter, because five minutes later, we had an opportunity to begin again.
Actually, I’m kind of interested now that this has been out in the world for a while … uh, not just to rationalize turning in these questions late. What’s happened in the interim; what has the response been?
NB: I’ve been notified from Bandcamp about who downloads the records. I’ve had some interesting surprises there!
Functionally speaking, how do you expect these tracks to live? Are people DJing with them – are you? How do they work as tools – are they intended as tools? Would these encourage people perhaps even to DJ in a different way
Narciss: I’m certainly playing them out live, yes. Not all of them, of course — “Loop C-02” is a particular favorite. Some are definitely meant more as an exploration of the medium than as an actual “locked groove” in its regular function. I think it does force people who only blend two tracks at a time to play differently, though, yeah – because in that environment, a locked groove doesn’t make much sense. But if you play with three decks or more, then I think the more dancefloor-oriented grooves won’t challenge you that much.
NB: Of course they’re tools! They’re radically minimal not only in their form, but also in their sparseness. I’m always trying to figure out what is the least amount of instruments necessary to get a really banging sound. Now whether they’re played on their own or deep in the mix, that really depends on the musical context.
Does that change the meaning, if they are blended with other tracks?
NB: No, they don’t need to be played as stark naked loops on their own, unprocessed. As a central element, my challenge to DJs would be to try to figure out how long you can keep them going on with the least amount of transformation and mixing.
Narciss: It’s an interesting thought, to be sure. But since this project was more of an exploration of this “Locked Groove” concept, I think that if people play them out, it doesn’t as much change the meaning,as hammer home the functionality of it, even if you get analytical and deconstructive with it.
I know you’ve worked together before. This got you working more closely, though, yes?
Narciss: For sure, for me personally this project has furthered this “Sensei student mentality” with Nicolas just so much more, although I think he hates it when I say that, ha!
NB: Yeah, Narciss contributed a remix for my release on Establishment, and I just did a remix for his new record on DRVMS Ltd. We’ve been friends for a couple years, and with this project it was a really intense five or six sessions actually. The five minute non-stop sprints was pretty exhausting. And we’re still friends now!
Narciss, you’re obviously out there in the trenches, too, in the DJ scene. What was the connection like between this slightly experimental format and that clubland experience?
Narciss: There most definitely was a connection between the two. I mean originally, locked grooves themselves are something that only make sense in the context of a DJ-set. So it actually took me personally quite a while to get away from the “four-to-the-floor-mentality” of the medium.
Also, being born in this city, where do you look for inspiration – are you attracted to new things that are flowing into the city’s cultural life? Is the familiarity of growing up here something significant, or is it that turnover that drives you, or some combination? (I do notice different perspectives of natives and transplant.)
Narciss: I love this question – but there are so many aspects to this subject.
It definitely is a combination. Growing up here, the extremely hedonistic way in which Berlin is perceived from the outside was always very perplexing to me, because this was simply not the way that I saw it. Even when I started DJing, I didn’t actually go out that much because the way I got into it was actually just by discovering the genre in my record store, not by going to the parties. The problem with this is that Techno is, of course, a genre that is inspired by parties and clubs, from the way it sounds to just the overall existence of it. I only really understood this, though, when two British friends of mine moved here, because they had so much unbridled passion for techno, that only through them did I fully understand that these two things cannot exist without each other.
So for me, personally, I do actually like to get my inspiration from the memories that I have of Berlin before it got “un-dangerous” or the corners that people just do not explore enough (like Marzahn, for example). Ed.: Take note of Marzahn, architecture fans. Oh dear; I probably just sent someone down a linkhole. But to be honest, without the turnover of Berlin, and just absolute heaps of people moving here from all over the world, I probably would not be making the music I am making today. That being said, if someone who is thinking about renting an overpriced apartment just to go to Panorama Bar loads, is reading this : please don’t you’re making my rent go up. [laughs]
Will we see these animations live outside of the digital release? Audiovisual show?
NB: Itaru Yasuda — itaru.org — made the Vocabulary C animations, that was the beginning of a new live AV collaboration. Itaru and I just released a new video and that live AV project is moving forward fast.
And lastly, what’s next? I know you both have a bunch of upcoming projects and maybe at least one of you big bookings… will this particular project or collaboration also carry on somehow?
NB: I have a couple big bookings coming up, and I already have 3 solo EPs confirmed for release this year. Narciss and I took one of the locked grooves from Vocabulary C and fleshed it out into a full track, that should be coming out later this year as well.
Narciss: Well, there’s a track of ours on the next Seelen Records Release that was still part of the same sessions in which we made “Vocabulary C”. Other than that time will tell I think, I’d definitely be down to make more stuff together, but the magic about this project was that the process was so different to how we individually usually make our music, so I’m not sure how we would go about just making “normal techno” together.
Thanks! We’ll be listening!
If you haven’t heard it already, the album from the end of the year is must-listen material: