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Interview with Ancient Methods: What makes a musical revolution?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

by Stina Isabel Gavrilin

For this year's ERKI Fashion Show, the afterparty held at HALL will see German industrial techno artist Ancient Methods, alias of Michael Wollenhaupt, perform with an extended DJ set. He'll be dragging obvious influences such as wave, EBM, industrial but also classical, liturgical, psychedelic and folk music into the techno frame to drop them on the dance floors and hereby delivering an intimate, rather introverted euphoria. Ahead of that, we had the chance to speak to him about DJing, concepts in music, as well as the history of techno.

When you first played in Estonia ten years ago, it was at a festival taking place in a 13th century manor. How big of a role does the surrounding environment play in the way you want to present your set?

Oh yes, I remember it very well. It was truly a magic, unique place and a very family vibe with a spectacular sunrise over the fields. Of course when preparing a set, I try to anticipate also the local environment, like if I play during sunrise on a beach - which happens hardly ever - or if I play in dark sweaty basement, which is the vast majority of gigs. A dark room might force people to focus on the music alone without any distractions. I remember the purest approach of this being Autechre concerts being played in absolute darkness. The meanwhile widespread ban of mobiles might follow this idea too. However I find the idea of playing in a rural, natural environment utterly fascinating too. You become kind of part of an natural orchestra and you have to pay attention to what’s happening around you and follow the natural dramaturgy, like dawn, sunset, morning mist, the sound of waves - and you have to embed your music to those dynamics, the musician or DJ is less the center of attention but creator of a soundtrack to a greater environment.

The project Ancient Methods was born out of a frustration with the early rough techno sound dying out. What is it that makes the minimalist approach completely disenchanting for you?

I was rather unimpressed by the anemic, plastic minimal-tech-house sound that was omnipresent at that time but I wouldn’t say that I dislike minimalist music in general. To listen to Robert Hood’s „Minus“ on 33rpm is still absolutely mind-blowing and I love the old Sähkö releases and some of the contemporary classical works, like Kali Malone. After all the vast majority of electronic dance music, including my own, follows a rather minimal approach.

How much did being involved mostly in the EBM & industrial scene during techno’s dry period influence the sound of Ancient Methods?

Techno, especially during the early years of its evolution was often pictured as „futuristic“. However I think for me this idea of „futurism“ is connected to a dystopia, the idea of machines controlling even the uttermost human realms such as music. And the equivalent musical transposition of this specific idea of „dystopic futurism“ I found for the most part rather in other fields of electronic music. So I guess this has significantly shaped the overall aesthetics of my musical works.

Is the concept equally as important as sound?

When it comes to music or art in general nothing is as important for me as the actual tangible, visual, or audible content. Some might argue it’s impossible to separate content from concept but I have a very simple, casual way to look at it. Art or music that doesn’t speak to me on its own terms but needs a „conceptual frame“ to take full effect mostly strikes me as a bit too „art-ificial“. In other words: Sound or a piece of art is the substance or the prerequisite that carries the concept and thus also a fine made-up concept can never replace or compensate a lack of craftsmanship or substance. But while I don’t find this kind of „weighting“ overly important in practice, I think that a substantial piece of art embedded in a great concept can elevate the sound and make the mind itinerate. Just that moment I’ve been listening to Asmus Tietchen’s new release „Diskretion. Fuinktionsmusik für Verrichtungsboxen.“ („Discretion. Functional music for sex drive-ins.“), which I believe is supposed to be quite a conceptual release. I think it’s a good example for how the mind is trying to put the music in the conceived, „designated“ place and the result is both bizarre, absurd and creepy even and for me it completely alters the perception of the music compared to what it would be when listening to it isolated from its conceptual frame.

Many of your records are numerically ordered. Do you try to keep a narrative throughout several releases or is each record a story of its own?

Not really. Each release tries to be coherent within but independent, autarchic from other releases.

You stated that in the early 90s, techno was a musical revolution. Do you see this kind of revolution happening in any other areas of music today?

It evokes the questions: What makes a „musical revolution“? Does it even exist? Or is everything rather evolution? In a somewhat generalizing way I think it’s justified to say that techno was the last musical revolution. Even though I don’t think that it is possible to claim that techno or any other genre miraculously fell down to earth at a specific time in a specific place but, like every other genre, techno was the result of a long process of melting together what’s been there before. Yet techno was maybe the final, most radical approach of repetitive machine music and that’s why I think it is justified to call it a musical revolution but there are many examples which used the same musical methods before the „techno“ label was called into existence. However I believe techno was definitely the beginning of a truly groundbreaking and substantial system change, seen from a socio-cultural angle. It offered accessibility to the means of creation and production not just for those who were privileged enough to acquire expensive studio gear and benefited from a good musical education. And this development continued over the years and throughout many different genres, when production tools became more similar. While I’m not claiming to have the required expertise I’d dare to say there hasn’t been any true musical revolution ever since though but I think musical evolution has been revolving around technological progress. New labels are created and celebrated for business aspects, but overall I think the musical evolution is just an ongoing re-discovering, modification, alteration or blending of what’s already been there. In this regard techno could almost in a Heideggerian way be seen as a way of revealing and its understanding could not just be limited to a certain aesthetic of one genre in electronic dance music anymore. Techno understood as means of music production in a wider sense does help to facilitate the access of all kind of music-related knowledge, this makes it easier and faster to discover, reveal and recycle the existing. But for this reason and with such a rich cultural history, I think for a long time the future will be borrowing from the past with the help of technology.

Having received education in classical music, does any of that knowledge come of use when you compose Ancient Methods tracks?

On a very poor level, but yes it does. Mostly the knowledge serves as a toolbox helping to carry out ideas I have in my head. Sometimes it happens though, that I draw specific ideas for a motive when practicing. Furthermore it provides a fundamental structure that is helping me to discover new territories without making things too random, or „experimental“.

Your DJ set in HALL will be a gloriously long one. How often do you get the opportunity to play these long sets and are there any aspects about them that you find better than just an hour long set?

The opportunities are rather rare. There is first and foremost my residency at Khidi, where I play for the most part 12hrs+++ closing sets. Nothing compares to it. And I played one or two closings at Berghain, some years ago. I definitely prefer longer sets, for various reasons. In general I feel I have so much different music to share, that the usual 2-3 hours sets can never be more than just an excerpt, or a short story. It takes space to curate, arrange and connect these different chapters which all have their dedicated place during the night. Trying to squeeze a bit of each into a 2-3 hours set would rather create a mess and bumpy dynamics. Furthermore I like the idea of the DJ being the conductor both of the micro dynamics within a „regular set“ and the „macro dynamics“ of an entire night.

Also sometimes it needs a „warm-up“, a „getting to know“, for example in situations where not everyone in the crowd is familiar with the music I play or if the music played before was very different from what I do. It can take some time to collect the people from where they were left off and take them to the place where your story begins.

Next to Ancient Methods, there will be DJ sets by BFTV residents 4-got-10 and Dirt Vessel, plus a b2b by Artur Lääts and Mihkel Maripuu. The night also features a performance by the ERKI Fashion Show team.

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