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Discourse DJing: Mike Shannon & Mille Plateaux

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tobias c. van Veen discusses Mike Shannon's Slight of Hand.

Discourse DJing: Mike Shannon & Mille Plateaux

Mille Plateaux The Label™ is a strange attractor for press magnets. With terms like "clicks n' cuts," MP spins words into attention-spans & captive ears. Although some might say its audience has multiplied through the dynamic of the discourse alone, to claim as much would always be at the expense of the numerous tubers of the Szepanski Empire and its 10-plus year dedication to forms of techno through its founding label, Force Inc.. FI has charted the changes of techno over the years, with early releases banging out hardcore beats, mixing into hard and stripped techno in the mid '90s, and ending up where techno sounds off today—a sonic terrain defined by its edge boundaries rather than by its core.

"Contemporary" techno is barely recognizable as such. The Afro-Futurist essentialist narratives of alien techno have dispersed to the far reaches of Earth. Techno's mergence with house production techniques, computer music editing, and advanced programming has morphed its asignifying mission of interstellar sounds to forays of different natures. Whether one argues this has become a cold investigation of form or a noisey injection through other genres, techno has landed at the limits of listenability in its extreme forms and repeated the avenues of multisyncopated percussion at its most mundane. Unfortunately this often amounts to a lost ear for the dancefloor, whether it be Hawtin's forgotten virtues in pounding anthemic techno that more closely resembles trance or the barely cognisant mouse clicks of the laptop performer. Whereas Detroit purists have rigidly drawn their limits of engagement in terms of sound and style—which has also drastically curbed their overall originality in favour of discourses of "purity"—the internationalist pursuit of techno has at points abandoned the dancefloor altogether. Although sonically liberating, the genre's increasingly avant-garde direction (or lack thereof) has conveniently flushed its historical ghosts. As the sound of the future is written into academic texts in high-power Journals, the link to the sonically political through the medium of dance—of touch and gesture and body—is given only one button to press: MUTE.

In this far-flung aural experiment, the DJ as a weaver of memory narratives and source selector has all but been shelved for the stoic silence of the laptop performer. Academics are enthralled over post-digital music & microsound (witness the Parachute 107 journal) because it fulfills—finally—their idea of what avant-garde electronic music should sound like (something that is, not surprisingly, increasingly akin to acousmatic or electro-acoustic music). And of course witness the majority of laptop performances at MUTEK ... As Kim Cascone says, "a lack of gestural theatre." Cascone sees this lack as deficient only by simulacra and in false comparison to inauthentic pop spectacle. But this lack is perhaps not a lack of "aura" brought on by the false spectral demands of the spectacle insofar as this very discourse operates as a lack that negates political positivity. Contrast to the former role of the Disc Jockey as the sonic narrator of the body & memory selector; sonic fragmentor ... As Brian Massumi's new book suggests, Parables For the Virtual... Perhaps we can also say, it’s time to reinvent the body beyond the keyboarded fingers...

Which is all to say that producers such as Akufen might be shaking dancefloors and tilting fellow producer's heads with Holy Shit expressions of bewilderment at the slice n' dice production technique, but failing to break the same "authentic" circles of academic achievement as the overt experimentalists. This is not techno's downfall insofar as it is the blindness of a discourse perpetuated, in part, by the divisionary label tactics of the Mille Plateaux Empire itself and regurgitated in academic pick-ups. Force Inc. is "techno;" Mille Plateaux is the "truly experimental." This division is practical, but conjoined with MP's press release philosophies, it takes on a beast and momentum all its own when appropriated by the institution. It's a question of re-appropriation, of tactics. In interviews, Szepanski has noted a change of such tactics from the early hardcore days to today's more esoteric asignifying clicks n' cuts. But perhaps this needs to be reconsidered in light of the politics of touch.

... & landing us smack dab in the middle of Mike Shannon's first album for Force Inc., Slight of Hand. Shannon is no stranger to the decks. A thin, geeky looking and freckled boy from small-town Kitchener, Ontario, Shannon gained national attention through his adolescent techno DJ skills that were often praised on techno.ca's early technoList in the mid' to late '90s. Circa 1999 he came to Vancouver with Jeff Milligan, aka Algorithm, and proceeded to lay down a tighter 3-deck set at a Resistance Radio broadcast than the Milligan Man himself. Since then they have been touring together, setting up labels together (Milligan runs Revolver, Shannon runs Cynosure), and founding the now-defunct Remote Booking Agency—together. But this album is all Mike, although his debt to South American rhythmatics and specifically Ricardo Villalobos and Dandy Jack are heir apparent on the opening track. Whereas his past 12"s were steps in exploring Toronto's techno heritage, this album presents his first strides into speaking his position at the helm of the turntables as a music producer and internationally touring DJ. In other words, Shannon has both feet firmly on the dancefloor. Today, this might mean something akin to the direction Swayzak has taken—i.e., electrocash. But Shannon's subtle mix on this album—and one that will no doubt go all but unnoticed—is between Toronto's darker and harder-edged minimal techno sound, often with a tinge of Detroit and an honourary bow to the former apparition known as Richie Hawtin, and the newer software editing techniques and sounds that define clicks n' cuts. And this is not all. In there is a dark atmosphere of the tempestoral, a funk that weaves its way through the extension of each track to DJ lengths, in the repetition of bars reminiscent of the days of MIDI, samplers, and step-sequencing. There's an attempt, in other words, to remix and bridge all the sonic problematics above. Shannon's album is as much a practical political tool for the dancefloor, a bridge between MUTEK and DEMF, as it is a strong exploration of the 4/4 that borders the conceptual 12" as DJ tool and the CD album as a front-to-back listen. It's perhaps closer to a Deleuzian record—one removed from the proper name—than one might think.

So if you flip this disc, expect 4/4 beats with a click here and a cut there, but always with a driving movement of that undisputable sonic topography known as techno. Haunting vocoders, echoing moments of timeless synthesizer, a gallop of urgency and nervous beat blasphemy.... This is not another Akufen knock-off banging on the door of Giorgio Moroder or slowing down the tempo for the house. This is a techno tempo. And where Shannon explores experimental territory, it is with the abstract dance always in mind, a species of the solitary broken beat symphony, often demented in harsh repetitions, off-key jetties into the darker recesses of the body waxed cyborg...

Others might not hear all this argument coursing through the beats. But if you ask me, it's the same vein spliced in the Nortec Collective. And this shouldn't be a return to "pure" or "essential" elements of techno... it's a continued sonic exploration of not only the experimental—I don't want to sound like I am dissing the far reaches, for I'm not and I appreciate the boundary seekers—but of the body, in sound, and through sound. Mike Shannon, unlike many techno producers today, is an active and touring DJ, and whether he thinks this entire write-up is shit or not, he embodies these very principles sonically. The ears of a DJ are not the ears of a clinical laptrician or sound designer. And perhaps the role of the DJ in music needs to be re-evaluated—re-appreciated & remixed—less it becomes pegged simply as a jukebox due to the poor & lazy performances of the world's Mixmag stars. There's more to it than that, as anyone who has heard and seen Mike (or Algorithm) DJing can attest— & this will be the music he wants to spin, wants to hear on his decks, out to you, in through your ears, moved through your body. Believe it or not, this is a rarity.

By tobias c. van Veen

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