VA: Opensource.code
Source Records

The release of the compilation Opensource.code presents an enticing opportunity to ponder related issues beyond the mere assessment of the music itself. In keeping with the stylistic template of the Berlin electronica genre, the packaging is minimalistic, offering little more than artist names and track titles. One's attention is caught, however, by the Ableton logo displayed on the back. No clarification is offered on the packaging as to why such product identification is present, although the Source Records web site reports that the label has cooperated with software developers Ableton in presenting the release. Yet this too remains ambiguous, as such cooperation might simply mean a monetary contribution towards the commissioning of the recording's music, or it could mean—and presumably does—that, in addition to financial remuneration, each artist has used the music software to generate the tracks. Perhaps Opensource.code should therefore be construed less as a label compilation and more as a showcase for the Ableton software and company. A further note at the Source Records web site accurately describes today's electronic artist as equal parts software developer, musician, and producer—Monolake's Robert Henke springs to mind as a quintessential example—but this characterization is incomplete, for it gives short shrift to the role of the software that, in the case of this release, assumes a critical presence beyond the norm. A cyborgian aura permeates Opensource.code, as the artist as laptop musician and especially programmer merges more completely with the software. Of course all instruments, be they acoustic or digital, become extensions of the musician but in this case the imbalance shifts dramatically with a more pronounced degree of the persona residing in the machinery.

The Monolake web site description of Ableton Live states that it allows for real-time manipulation of loops and sound files, offers numerous effects, provides MIDI links, and can run on Mac and PC platforms. Gerhard Behles and Robert Henke have been involved significantly with Ableton, with Behles a company founder and Henke involved in conception and development. The web site includes the following clarification: “Live is based on ideas which came up during music production and performance over the last years. If you are looking for the spirit of Monolake you should play with the effects section, especially with Grain Delay, Filter Delay, Vinyl Distortion, and other more exotic plug-ins. They have been developed by Robert Henke and have been used widely on Gravity and Cinemascope.” Apparently, then, anyone running the software should be able to conjure the ‘spirit' of Monolake with relative ease. Is there something disquieting about the essence of Monolake's music residing in the software rather than within their recordings? Would it be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that Monolake plug-ins could be equated with the essence of Monolake music? Or is the unease propagated by this line of questioning indicative of an outmodedly quaint and obsolete aesthetic notion of artistic and compositional authenticity? At what point do we surrender authorship exclusively to the machine? Critics of laptop electronica—already deriding it for its static live presentation—now have the opportunity to argue that the composer has been too greatly subjugated to the software. (Of course, talk of authorship invariably calls to mind Roland Barthes' and Michel Foucault's writings on the so-called 'Death of the Author.' But the meaning is different in that post-structuralist context as the focus is upon redressing the imbalance between writer and reader with the latter assuming a greater role in establishing textual meanings. In the present case, however, the notion of ‘authorship' is concerned with confronting the degree to which the artist surrenders authorship to technology as opposed to the listener.) Does such pontificating naively exaggerate the degree to which software submerges the signature of the composer using it? After all, software hardly delimits the range of permutations available, and perhaps the possibility of generating personal music is exponentially enhanced as opposed to constricted by such software. Ultimately the truest test lies in an exclusive focus on the music, since even a single listen should clarify the extent to which artists can personalize their music in spite of the presence of presets. If that is the case, it argues against the idea that software excludes to too great an extent the idiosyncratic signatures of the individual artists.

The impressive collection of artists includes Robert Lippock, Thomas Brinkmann, Move D, Smyglyssna, Alex Cortex, and Studio Pankow, all of whom make legitimate if not ground-breaking contributions. Certain tracks distinguish themselves slightly more and merit further comment. Akufen's “Syntaxis 2” is an incredible effort from Montreal's Marc Leclair. Maintaining the quality level of My Way, his masterful track begins with a furious skipping pace. Syncopated staccato accents gradually drop into place on top of an extended droning chord. Leclair deploys hocketing—alternation of short phrases that cumulatively define an overall melody—with astonishing skill. Jan Jelinek's “Music to Interrogate By,” included prior to its appearance on the imminent ~scape release La Nouvelle Pauvreté, bodes well for the full-length. Jelinek's work on Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records and Textstar inhabits a remarkably advanced realm and this track is no exception to that rule. Curiously enhanced by intermittent crowd noises and applause, the moody, cymbal-laden piece motors along with the sprinkling of an electronic piano hovering on top. “Nocturne” by Bton (Jonas Grossmann) is a bluesy workout driven by moaning wah-wah treatments, Sutekh's “Asscr” bounces along in Seth Horvitz's inimitable style, and Monolake's “White II” envelops the listener in its sleek, austere sheen. Certainly the diversity of the tracks argues against the idea that Ableton Live lessens the degree of authorship available to its contributors. Perhaps Opensource.code is more interesting for the issues it raises than for the music itself, which is fine overall but doesn't represent any marked advancement in compositional approach or sound design, although it very well might constitute a significant advance in the technological tools used in its creation. With its increased focus upon the role of software, one can easily contemplate future compositions that are entirely the result of random and programmed permutations of software effects and codes. Whether that is cause for celebration or concern perhaps overrides in importance the relative merits of this latest electronica compilation.

February 2003