August 12, 2010
Motion picture soundtracks have always fascinated me. In the Soundtracked series, composers and/or directors offer commentary on their film's soundtrack, and offer insights into the creative evolution that melds music into the final film.
Speaking in Code is a documentary film about techno music that delves into the lives of the people who make electronic music with rare insight and humor.
URB wrote of the documentary:
"Documentaries that involve electronic music are usually hit or miss; either the film misses the point of the original usage of the music or it goes on a different direction altogether. However, with Speaking In Code, there’s depth in each dimension of the film; from the characters of the artists featured, their bosses, their families, and the world around them. The filmmakers themselves also become centralized figures in the film, as a natural plot progresses that struggles passionately between the journey of pure techno love and love amongst themselves. A film worth watching more than once, Speaking In Code is nothing short of an extraordinary documentation of fandom, freedom and everything in between."
The genesis of Speaking in Code came on a dancefloor in Miami in 2005, when the director/producer/editor Amy Grill (then my wife), music journalist Philip Sherburne (Wire, Pitchfork) and I were talking about electronic music documentaries. We had seen the standard survey docs (Modulations, et al.), films there were about superstars (Tiësto) and a few genre films about Detroit or New York or Berlin, but nothing that captured the new underground that was springing up before our eyes. Sometimes minimal, sometimes macro, the explosion of producers and DJs of an independent variety was something that we felt needed to be covered in the cinema.
As we filmed, talking to an innumerable list of producers, DJs, promoters and the like, the camera fell in love with a few characters, but, in the end, they weren't necessarily random. Their personalities, despite being such dynamic characters on camera, are best expressed through their music.
Wighnomy Brothers – "Pele Bloss"
The song that became the music for the trailer, I first heard at my night in Boston—called "Make It New"—courtesy of NYC DJ Spinoza (aka Bryan Kasenic). He was one of the first guest DJs we had in Cambridge, and I explicitly remember this monster of a track crushing the crowd.
It is emblematic of the Wighnomies' signature marks. As Sascha Funke says in the moive, it is filled with "crispy sounds, and as Wolfgang Voigt says soon thereafter, it is known as the "Gabor style." Gabor Schablinksi, aka Robag Whrume, is the producer behind the Wighnomy Brothers. As they themselves explain in a DVD exclusive, it is informed by the "black music" of Germany.
The Wighnomy Brothers grew up in East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain. At the time, it was radically different from Berlin and the West, certainly in a cultural way, and their main access to hip-hop was via movies that were shown in the town square in tiny Jena, Germany. As you can see on the DVD, I specifically remember them hilariously mentioning Beat Street in our first interview with them, perhaps one of their first English-language interviews ever. In the interview, it is one of the few phrases they even say in English.
"Pele Bloss" is filled with dramatic shifts in rhythm, density and power. It is funky but straightforward. It is creative and very new, even to this day. It was music like this that the producers of Speaking in Code had never seen on screen. The fact that the Wighnomies play a huge role in Speaking in Code is not necessarily an accident. To me, their unique take on techno remains one of the singular electronic sounds of the naughties.
As it happens, we would later film Bryan and his tireless efforts promoting the minimal style in New York City. While his story did not make the final cut of the film, Amy was able to fashion it into a compelling outtake:
Modeselektor – "Hasir"
Modeselektor is another production duo from Germany, though very different in their own way, from the Wighnomy Brothers. Maybe most importantly, they grew up in the former West Germany, wholly exposed to American music and the like. And it shows in their endlessly varied music.
While we catalogued many interviews with so-called "minimal" producers (we have interviews with Superpitcher, James Holden, Luomo, Isolee and others still in the archive), Modeselektor might best be described as "maximal." They say it themselves in the movie.
Under the experienced, watchful eye of these two characters (who, as it happens, are favorites of Thom Yorke and Bjork), there is no sound unturned. In "Hasir" they take a technical approach to funk, a bounding, bumping swing that gets you moving. In the DVD, there is bonus footage of Modeselektor playing to the masses at Sonar. This song is a crucial element to their set.
One of the main reasons we made Speaking in Code was to bring this type of music to the surface. Electronic music is no longer machine music, it is informed and sculpted by humans—imbued with humanity, if you will.
There are only a very few producers who do it with such joy as Modeselektor. It has brought them to the forefront of the genre. By casking away cares of cool or genre or even the compartments of the past, Modeselektor remains a creative electronic music force nearly unsurpassed. It comes through with humor, desire and bright-eyed optimism in Speaking in Code.
Monolake – "Abundance"
Of all the music in the film, including producers like Michael Mayer or Gui Boratto or Ellen Allien, this is the music that speaks closest to my own heart. Being a co-producer and character is one thing, but to see the steady, delightful Monolake and his amazing machines in the film is a direct result of a man named Tim Haslett.
I worked with Tim Haslett in my years at Other Music, the indefatigable independent music source. Tim died, suddenly and much too early, before we released the film, and the movie is dedicated to him. If you knew him (and if you shopped Other Music in New York in the late '90s, or Other Music Cambridge in the early '00s, you undoubtedly did), you knew his thirst for new music was literally unquenchable. He taught me, and, well, pretty much all of America, about labels like Kompakt and BPitch Control (he also knew everything about every other kind of music, like DJ Screw, for example), but he absolutely loved Monolake.
This is easily the earliest music you'll hear in the movie (produced in 1999). It is from Interstate, an album that Tim probably sold at least 200 of him own damn self on the sales floor. It is deep ambient music and, quite assuredly, helped to sooth the always-rapid pulse of Tim's amazing mind. It is also astoundingly beautiful.
Robert Henke, aka Monolake, is the perfect center of Speaking in Code. As the humble co-creator of Ableton Live, undoubtedly the most popular software for the production of electronic music, you would expect him to be a cold, scientific man. In reality, he is very much the opposite. He is gregarious, he loves his plants, and exudes a love of life and experimentalism that might not always come through in music from Germany.
But, like Tim Haslett, he can turn entire lives onto the wonder and modernity that is electronic music: machine-made, devoted to rhythm but boundlessly human.
Ellen Allien & Apparat – "Way Out"
I'll end with this song because Ellen, who appears in the movie, represents the reunification of Germany. While the Wighnomies came from the east, Modeselektor the west and Monolake the center, Ellen Allien was born from the reunification of Germany.
It was never the intention of the producers to highlight Germany specifically, but in the end, it makes a lot of sense. The largest economy in Europe, Germany will always be the home of techno, and Allien personifies it in more ways than one. She sings on this song, something a bit unheard of in German electronic music, and her partner in production Apparat is tremendously talented. We would end up screening the movie at the Paradise Lounge in Boston, famously the first club that U2 played in America. Headlining the bill that night? Moderat, aka Apparat and Modeselektor.
Speaking in Code is available now at Amazon. For more music from Speaking in Code,you can digitally pick up the soundtrack from Beatport as two separate playlists: "Anthems" and "Ambiance."
For more information visit Speaking in Code on Facebook or Twitter. The website speakingincode.com has more on the music from the film and at MySpace you can find the first three podcasts from Speaking in Code.
Speaking in Code links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Soundtracked submissions (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtrack)
weekly CD & DVD release lists
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)