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Thomas Brinkmann
Harnessing Public Energy

By Richard di Santo
30 July 2000

I met with Thomas Brinkmann in Montréal during the MUTEK: music sound and new technologies festival. We were joined in our conversation by Riley Reinhold (aka Triple R), who had also performed a set on the same night. Both Thomas and Riley set the club on fire with their strong techno rhythms and infectious hooklines in what was probably the loudest evening and the most successful turnout of the entire festival.

Brinkmann's music is renowned for its mathematical precision and for its intoxicating blend of techno and 70s funk and soul music (see especially the 2 instalments in the Soul Center series). He also runs the label max.Ernst. Triple R also runs his own label, Traum in addition to being an active DJ and journalist. But Brinkmann wasn't always so active in the music community. For nearly 10 years in the 80s he had been almost completely out of the music circuit. So, what changed his ways? Brinkmann explains that "the important point for me was the Studio 1/Concept series in 1996, which was a big surprise for me. It was really minimal, really groovy, and it was at this point that I fell in love again with music." This love led to a sudden flood of solo projects and collaborations, all in a very minimal style of techno. "I have much respect for the Studio 1/Concept series," Brinkmann explained, " but it's not useful to copy this style, so I had to look for my own approach. Both Richie and Mike are more or less based on the 80s, and I think I'm more based on the 70s." Not a surprising statement in light of Brinkmann's recent Soul Center series.

Brinkmann's interests are by no means limited to music. He has studied visual arts, trained by members of minimal and avant-garde "schools" of thought. "I started with sculpture," he explained, "but after one year I started with more mathematically based things. I made computer programs, a basic series of Turing, along with other things, and as time went by I painted and sculpted less and less." I asked him how he thinks his training in the visual arts, and this later investigation into programmatical structures, has influenced his music. He gave the following by way of explanation:

The same structures can often be found behind different media - music, architecture, stone, paint, whatever. If you strip the surface, you'll often find the same underlying structures in different artistic fields. Take architecture from ancient Greece, for example. It reminds me of a good techno track. You have the columns - these are the hookline - then there's the roof, the stairway that leads you into a large room. A good track has a room as well, though much more virtual. The structure which is working on you is in a way not so different from this architecture. People like the simple structure of architecture, precise styles, and in this sense it's the same for both architecture and music.

Brinkmann seems very keen finding the underlying structures of things, which explains his interest in computer programming. For example, he traces all of the connections that were necessary for him to take in order to arrive in Montréal, an elaborate series of causal connections where one false move or missed connection could alter the results of things indefinitely. "Life is like a program," he explained, "in which you can open a bracket, solve one problem, close the bracket, then you have to open the next one... one at a time. There is a programmatical structure in many different aspects of life."

When Brinkmann started out with making music, he played percussion and drums, so the focus in his music has always been on rhythmic constructions. "I just try to make music that I like," he says, "and it turns out that it is also music that can be shared with others." For his appearance at MUTEK, Brinkmann had performed in a club setting, and I posed the same question to him as I did to Vladislav Delay and Taylor Deupree regarding where he thinks his music is best received, at a club or in a more private space. He responded by saying that he and Triple R usually play at clubs, constantly changing venues, parties and festivals. "My music is best received by the black box, and not the white cube," he explained; "In the white cube, things are always fixed and static. It's in the black box where things are changed. Things in museums all over the world are all the same, you see works by the same artists and from the same movements. They are dead, from one museum to another." This is the white cube, an established institution or accepted way of thinking. The black box is by contrast a more fluid environment, a public space, a haphazard gathering of individuals where people get together and share a common experience. Riley Reinhold suggests that "we create our own club. We choose where to play, we don't have a booking agency or anything like that." It is thus the experience of music in and of itself that defines the club, no rules, no expectations or set of standards to follow by the performers or by the members of the audience.

"One needs public space" Brinkmann says, "working every day with superficial relations, at a job for a company and with products and services that don't have any direct relation to you and your life. A public space is where people need to get together." Reinhold completes the thought by adding that "through music we transform this public energy and communicate with each other, we feel the need to share the experience of music. It's like a catharsis, so that you feel that there's no tomorrow."

Brinkmann acknowledges the need for privacy, and for enjoying things in private spaces, and he has observed that "as you get older, things get more and more private. You buy a house, a car, start a family, and settle down. But if you become too private you lose your energy. You have the need for privacy but you are also a human being living in a community of human beings. Too much privacy is like a grave." I think it's safe to say that both Brinkmann and Riley are making music to get us out of our graves, and contribute to an open dialogue with each other through the simple structures of minimal techno music. But maybe this is putting too much importance on the role this music plays in our lives. We cannot forget that this music is first and foremost to be enjoyed, and any gloss we put on it places it in a circle outside of itself, and when we get more and more used to discussing it in these terms, the black box becomes the white cube. And this is something that both Brinkmann and Triple R have consciously been avoiding during their careers in the arts. The need to keep things moving and fluid, developing and new is strong in both of these artists. "There always comes a time," says Brinkmann about working in the arts, "where there is a need to say 'no', even if it's good, to what the elder did. You have to find your own approach. It's not useful to take truth as a static term, you always have to think 'new' about what it means."

It was a real pleasure talking with both Thomas and Riley. Both are very inquisitive, intelligent and honest artists who have no illusions about what it is that they do, and approach their music with a freshness and honesty that is truly admirable. Keep your eyes and ears fixed on their home base in Cologne, where, even as you read this, the ground is undoubtedly shaking in time with their minimal grooves and driving rhythms.