SIGNATURE SOUND: Willner writes tracks the way one might sign checks: with an unmistakably individual, highly automatic personal mark that differs little from one iteration to the next.
"Above all, it needs to sound good."
Never underestimate the power of a purist impulse. Like many composers of electronic music, Axel Willner (known more commonly these days as the Field) maintains a deep allegiance to his instincts. And that leaves him, like many composers of electronic music with deep allegiances to their instincts, with no pressing desire to elaborate on what makes his music tick. It just — well — ticks.
Across the impossibly broad continuum of dance music(s), and even within the modest swath that's captioned "minimal techno," it's near impossible for one's particular hue to shine through — but Willner's does. By taking those very traits of house/techno/oonst-oonst-oonst music that turn wet blankets and stubborn rockist crumb bums against it —its reliable repetition, parasitic sampling, and often robotroid emotionality, for example — and pushing them to their extremes, Willner, who's coming to the Middle East next Thursday, hasn't just advanced minimal techno on its own terms, he's threatened to scrap the guest list and let the whole world in.
When I reach him by phone at his new home base of Berlin (via Stockholm), it's midafternoon there, and he sounds sleepy. We're talking about source material — or trying to: whatever conduit of wires our call is crackling through has caused two or three seconds of conversational delay, and that means fender benders between each question and answer. Untimely laughter, disproportionate pauses, etc. It's the sort of thing I imagine Willner's not enjoying at all, so neat are the little tessellations of his music.
"There's a feeling that comes from out of these little snippets that I enjoy," he says. "It's probably not the same feeling that you'd get listening to the original, but it's an atmosphere that I like."
"Snippets" kind of shortchanges the units that result from Willner's careful process of listening, cutting, clipping, and stitching together microseconds of popular songs into lush, amorphous, unknowable soundscapes. Like any delicacy, his source material seems richer the less there is to savor of it. For the majority of his work, he strings together the clipped tails of guitar tones, tiny hissy hi-hat aftermaths, and arbitrarily harvested pulses from FM radio hits. Even when stripped of their origins and pared down to fragments of pure sound, these microsamples still carry a bit of their emotional DNA with them — the way a fleck of gold is still gold. Imagine the relationship between the wild, unpredictable beauty of a cross-country road trip and the identical series of lines that dart past on the highway below. Or the way thousands of threads loop themselves into a silken sheet. That might give you a sense of how Willner's music works — or ticks.
On his 2007 debut album for German techno mainstay Kompakt, Here We Go Sublime, he provided the logical next nine steps for the crucial (if short-lived) mission of Kompakt co-founder Wolfgang Voigt's hugely influential, sadly aborted, and recently reissued Gas project. (But not a retread, mind you.) Willner wrote tracks the way one might sign checks: with an unmistakably individual, highly automatic personal mark that differed little from one iteration to the next. (And, somehow, he did this to his credit.) Most songs careered forward via sewn repetitions of sounds abducted from their original contexts, but as opposed to what DJ Shadow's Endtroducing did for sampling in 1996 (or what Girl Talk's Night Ripper did 10 years later), the point was not to get you shaking your ass down pop-culture memory lane. Here We Go Sublime was more like dreaming those other albums.
On now-classic tracks like "A Paw in My Face," the boomy breadth of the 4/4 kick is longer than the lead clip — except when the latter unfurls gloriously into its own source material (Lionel Richie's "Hello") in the song's final three seconds. It's as though the song had introduced itself only to leave you. Crystalline vowels from Kate Bush haunt "Over the Ice," the Flamingos' sha-bob's hover disembodied over the title track, lead vocals are routinely subbed out for lead sibilants, and the griddy demands of house music are thrown down its back stairwell in a knuckly rumble of stray kicks.
From its individual intervals to the structure of the songs to the progression of the album as a whole, Here We Go Sublime was a multi-tiered study of repetition and the limitless difference it can generate. On his newest, Yesterday and Today (a joint release from Kompakt and — oddly enough — Anti-), Willner could have stayed on task and doled out more of the same, but (and here he's like many electronic composers as well) the limitations of laptop performance and the restlessness that propels any good artist from one perfection to the next have him incorporating live instrumentation, even vocals, into the mix.