The anonymous electronic artist Rrose has risen to prominence this decade as a producer of ecstatic yet violent techno, with their gender-bending DJ persona and exquisitely brutal dance music introduced to the world by the late Sandwell District. Following last year's dizzying Pentagons on Rrose's own Eaux imprint, the artist has now taken on avant-minimalist composer James Tenney's classic piece "Having Never Written a Note for Percussion" for a release on Further Records a spate of gong performances, including one at the West Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan this Thursday alongside Demdike Stare, who will perform a score to the classic occult film Haxan. Consisting of a single note, marked "very long," with gradual dynamic markings on either side, Tenney's composition has startling similarities to Rrose's monolithic productions. In advance of the Manhattan performance we sent Daniel Martin-McCormick—better known to many as Ital, another New York-based techno explorer with connections to the avant garde—to investigate Rrose's background in contemporary classical music and thoughts on the intersection of composition and electronic music craft.
DMM: First of all I’m curious how you picked "Having Never Written a Note for Percussion."
R: Well the kind of pieces that I choose to perform myself, like composed pieces, are these ones that involve endurance and lot of repetition, [that] lend themselves to this deep concentration and gradual process. I performed Charlemagne Palestine’s "Strumming Music" for piano and studied with him to do that. But you know I’m not a virtuoso player of any instrument, so the kinds of things I choose to do are not about that.
I discovered the Tenney piece a long time ago but the idea to play it came up when I went on a tour of these tunnels under downtown DC when I was living there. There's an organization called the Dupont Underground that is trying to revive the space for public use. And so they were giving small private tours to people. And when I went down there I immediately had the idea to do some kind of sound performance down there, just because the acoustics, they were so amazing. And that piece just came to mind because it was one that I knew I could do, and it just seemed like… Well, one thing is that piece is generally performed in concert halls and it’s usually a fairly short duration. So I thought this is a really unique space to perform this in and I would want to do a really long performance of it.
DMM: I am curious about your relationship with modern classical music and modern composition: how you got into it, how long you’ve been doing double duty between that and techno, if you even see any difference.
R: There’s definitely a difference. I guess I’ve been doing the double duty for a long time. I’m interested in a pretty broad spectrum of avant garde music, but the pieces that I would choose to expose to the Rrose audience are more specific. Originally I didn’t perform [this piece] as Rrose or even think that it was going to be an Rrose release, but I had the recordings [from the DC tunnel performance and a home recording] for a while and I knew I wanted to release them. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good way to connect the music I make as Rrose to the other stuff that I’m influenced by and that I listen to. Because it does feel really pertinent.
DMM: Especially with “Waterfall” and “Surgeon General” or “Envy”—these really minimal, tunneling, slowly-building-dynamic tracks of yours—you can see these obvious parallels, so I thought it was cool you released it Rrose and not under your own name.
R: I considered doing it under my own name, or coming up with a new composer name or something, but I settled on this because I thought it would make a nice connection. And I see that a lot of people already are interested in it, and that’s encouraging, that gives me courage to step out of the techno zone if I want to.
DMM: It’s something that's so interesting to me, because I feel like there is a lot of ambient techno or what’s referred to as ambient but might not be ambient at all, just beatless music that’s rooted in techno that overlaps a lot in sonic ways with modern composition or 20th century music. But the social atmosphere or the way it’s released and the expectations lead people to hear it in different ways. As a techno artist, do you feel bound to one set of rules and is this a big step outside of that? Or do you feel like, behind the scenes, it’s all one giant thing?
R: I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s one giant thing because when I sit down to make techno it’s a different process but it’s informed by some of the same ideas. Sitting down to play a gong for an hour feels very different than sitting down in front of a computer and drawing hundreds of automation curves. I think maybe the process of listening and reflecting on both types of music is kind of similar but the process of making it and performing it is very different.
The gong is such a complex instrument… I mean, it’s simple and complex. It’s this round disc, but the behavior that comes out of it when you just try and play it in a simple, repetitive way is very complex and unpredictable frequency-wise. There are so many different harmonics and overtones and they’ll just come out and surprise you. And when I’m making electronic music I try to create that kind of situation where there are several processes that influence each other and lead to some kind of unpredictable result that I can follow as I’m creating it. And I use that interaction between elements as the inspiration for developing it further, and where to go next with it. I don’t have a conception of “I’m going to make a track that sounds like” and then I make the track, I have a palette of sounds and they’re interacting in certain ways. The way they interact informs my next decision, if I can get something that leads to somewhat unpredictable results that’s a good sign, so it’s similar to the way the gong can lead to all these sonic results.
DMM: Yeah it’s amazing because you’re listening to the recording Tenney's piece and at the beginning there’s this long quiet intro and it builds so gradually and goes through so many zones of kind of dulled and into the more shimmering roar. You were playing with mallets?
R: Yeah, just two mallets.
DMM: What was it like? Was it physically hard, or did you find yourself going into specific headspaces while you were playing it?
R: Well, as you reach the crescendo it gets pretty hard on the arms, and it also becomes so loud and the white noise becomes so powerful, it definitely leads you from this very meditative state into this kind of frenzy, almost panic state. It almost feels like in the middle of it that I’ve lost control of my arms and they’re just moving on their own. And then you have to transition from that as gradually as you can back to the more meditative, and that aspect of it is another thing that I think is a big crossover with my music, is trying to find this weird space where something that’s mediative actually becomes really violent, but to do it in such a way where you don’t know where that transition exactly happened but suddenly it’s really intense.
DMM: So you’re playing in a pretty special venue with Demdike Stare...
R: It’s West Park Presbyterian Church, I’ve never been inside but it looks like it’s pretty nice.
DMM: Did you notice a lot of difference in the spaces when you played in the tunnels versus the studio?
R: Well yeah, I haven’t played it in many spaces [laughs], I played at the CMKY festival in Boulder and I did it in the tunnels and I did it at home for the recording, so I’ve only really done it in three spaces. But for an audience it’s definitely best to have an interesting space or a space with a long decay of some sort. The studio recording, the difference with that is that the mics are really close so what it’s picking up is not what someone in the room would really hear unless that person had their ear next to the gong.
DMM: Other than this and the Charlemagne Palestine, what other pieces have you played by other composers?
R: [pauses] Hmm… Not many, but I can think of one piece that is similar in some ways to what we've been talking about. It's a piano piece by Satie called "Vexations." I performed it at [the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art], do you know about this piece?
DMM: Is this the incredibly long one?
R: Well it’s only a few lines of music but it’s supposed to be repeated 840 times, so that would take normally 18 to 24 hours because it’s supposed to be performed very slowly. I did a five hour version of it at the SF MoMA, and that was a part of an event so I was in the space playing and I wasn’t on a stage. I was the sort of the background music, but for five hours I was just repeating these few lines.
DMM: What was that like?
R: That was a really intense experience. I was hyper aware of the sound in the room, so the room got really crowded for a while and drowned me out, but over the course of five hours it got slowly emptier and emptier again. I played until the room was pretty much empty, so I was really aware of the room and the density of sound in the room, conversations and things like that.
DMM: So, we’re talking about other composers. Do you consider yourself to be a composer? It’s something I think about a lot, where is the line, is there a line, is it just a name? You’re talking about sitting in front of your computer and mapping out the whole song and working out the tracks with this huge amount attention to detail, and is there a difference between that and a score?
R: I think there is a difference but it’s hard for me to say what that difference is [laughs]. Because, especially when you look at late 20th century avant garde music, scores started to become their own sort of art form.
DMM: The score for this one was on a postcard, right?
R: Yeah, well it was written with traditional notation but it's just one held note with dynamic markings. But it’s a tough thing, I think it’s really hard to define what the difference is in the process of composing music with written notation.
DMM: I think it’s fascinating though, because there’s so many generations of electronic artists who are solo, and they write music, and it’s not for themselves to play, relatively, physically, and obviously the rules of engagement and expectations and the way it’s received by people and the way it ends up sounding are so different. Is this word something actually objective or is it just more how you’re perceived or how you perceive yourself? Or how refined? Or, I don’t know, [how] classical, your music is perceived to be?
R: When you talk about the difference between composed versus not composed, whether to be called a composer or not with electronic music it’s a similar gray area to speaking about composition and improvisation, what’s a composition and what’s an improvisation, and how do you delineate those because they inform each other, for sure.
DMM: Speaking of: when you play live, when you do an Rrose set, do you improvise a lot, or how do you approach a live set?
R: I do a lot planning of details with each set and I’m constantly tweaking my set from show to show and incorporating the new material I’m working on and testing out new things. But, no it doesn’t really lend itself to much improvisation on stage. I give myself control over certain parameters and certain elements and I have the ability to make things really dense or really sparse or do things with effects but the set itself is very much planned in detail.
DMM: Will you be incorporating any of these Tenney recordings into it?
DMM: Is that because you don’t think it would work, or you think it would be disrespectful to present it like that?
R: I just think that this recording and this piece stands on its own, it doesn’t need to be incorporated into anything else. I don’t think I could come up with a better result using it in the techno context. It exists best on its own.