Minimal techno master Wolfgang Voigt returns to his ‘imaginary, misty forest’ | Artist on Artist | Chicago Reader

Minimal techno master Wolfgang Voigt returns to his ‘imaginary, misty forest’ 

On the eve of the first Chicago concert in nine years by his most beloved project, Gas, he answers questions from Whitney Johnson of Matchess.

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Wolfgang Voigt - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Wolfgang Voigt
  • Courtesy the artist

Few people have had as profound an impact on experimental techno as German producer Wolfgang Voigt. Since debuting as Mike Ink in 1991, he's released hundreds of records under more than 30 names—Studio 1, Popacid, M:I:5, Sog, Wasserman—and in 1998 he cofounded the influential Kompakt label, whose operations also include a music shop and record distributor. The most important of Voigt's many projects is undoubtedly Gas, whose lovely, unsettling ambient electronica he says was inspired by dropping LSD as a kid and walking through the dense woods in Königsforst park near his hometown of Cologne.

Voigt released four Gas records between 1995 and 2000, wedding insistent, overlapping pulses to atmospheres that alternate between ethereal and magisterial—they tied together new age hypnotism and Wagnerian grandeur. In contrast to the clean, sterile electronic music that dominated the mid-90s, the Gas records are foggy swamps: when writer and recording engineer Steve Silverstein mentioned them in the Reader in 2005, he called them "murky," "dirty," and "cheap sounding." But after two or three listens, he wrote, their "claustrophobic, assaultive noise begins to feel warm, even beautiful."

For most of the past decade, Voigt has focused on a project under his own name called Rückverzauberung ("Reverse Enchantment"), a series of ambient recordings and installations whose abstraction and atonality he considers an evolution of the Gas aesthetic. By placing Gas on hiatus, he seemed to magnify its reputation, so that when he brought it back in 2017 with the album Narkopop, he benefited from the combination of elated old fans and an Internet attention engine that didn't exist in 2000. Narkopop largely picks up where Gas left off, while amplifying its sense of filmic grandeur—and yet another new Gas album, Rausch, will arrive on May 18. "Rausch" means "frenzy" or "intoxication" in German, while "rauschen" is sometimes used to describe soughing, rustling, or whooshing sounds.

Voigt is headed to the U.S. for six dates, among them his first Chicago performance since 2009. For this interview he answered e-mailed questions from Chicago musician Whitney Johnson, whose multifarious talents have served her in Verma, E+, and Simulation, among other groups, but who's best known for performing on electronics and viola in the solo project Matchess. She also recently submitted her doctoral dissertation to the University of Chicago. "It's a comparative sociology of sound art and art music, though focused more on the former," she says. "Probably only ten people in the world actually care about the sociological splitting of hairs, but the research was so much fun—interviews in New York, Berlin, and here, lots of museum visits, volunteering at Lampo and at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House."

As Matchess, Johnson opens for U.S. Girls on April 17 at the Empty Bottle. She also accompanies electroacoustic composer and performer Sarah Davachi at a Lampo concert on April 21, after which she leaves on a European tour with Circuit des Yeux—she'll be playing in the band and opening the shows. This summer, Trouble in Mind Records will release the final installment of her superb Matchess trilogy, entitled Sacracorpa.


Wolfgang Voigt performs as Gas
Thu 3/29, 7:30 PM, Rubloff Auditorium, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, sold out, all-ages

U.S. Girls, Matchess
Tue 4/17, 8:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, sold out, 21+

Sarah Davachi with Whitney Johnson and Phillip Serna
Sat 4/21, 8 PM, Graham Foundation, Madlener House, 4 W. Burton, free with RSVP, all-ages


Whitney Johnson - EVAN P. JENKINS
  • Whitney Johnson
  • Evan P. Jenkins

Whitney Johnson: What is your strongest sense memory from the Königsforst?

Wolfgang Voigt: Losing my way when I was young and getting on a psychedelic trip—something that still goes on.

In M:I:5 you were using ratios, not unlike just intonation. Do integral structures continue to figure in your music? You've also mentioned Stockhausen as an influence—and that the Sog project, over ten years later, is related to M:I:5. How has your relationship with serialism developed over the years?

Many questions in one. My whole artistic work has been, apart from some obvious exceptions, embossed by contradictions, respectively a certain synchrony of antithetical aspects. I was always fascinated by very atonal, experimental abstract art and music, while at the same time I love very linear, minimal, monotone, and straight grooving beats and loops. Since ages I have tried to merge these things in many different ways. M:I:5 for instance is a project in which sample-based rhythmical music, played in certain intervals or clusters over a four-to-the-floor bass drum, leads to results you cannot really control.

What sound from everyday life gets stuck in your head?

Rauschen.

Ian Murray at the University of North Carolina has said the following of Gas. Care to comment? "Gas utilizes these patterned, uncompromising repetitions to tap into an ambience that provokes movement from its listeners, just as it dissolves the focal points common to communal musical experiences: the charismatic frontman, the genius composer, the laser-light show."

Couldn't have said it better.

Though each performance is different, do you tend to prefer clubs, venues, or galleries/museums?

My goal is to make Gas live happen in as many different locations/situations as possible.

But so far experience shows that playing it nonstop for a sitting and concentrated listening audience in front of a very big screen with a big sound system is still the best way of presentation.

I love Rückverzauberung! It reminds me of Gas but as a vast, structureless sensorium; the meanings I associate are dissociated. Can you talk about the different thoughts that might come to mind from beatless as opposed to four-on-the-floor music?

The four-to-the-floor bass drum is the final beat in my life since 30 years now. Apart from that, I like beatless music. In Germany they say the bass drum only goes away to come back.

With Gas I was driven by the idea to combine abstract classical soundscapes with the techno bass drum in my very own way. Rückverzauberung was the offical follow-up project, without a bass drum, for around ten years. Now the bass drum is back again. There is a certain philsophy that says: things can come back if they know why they have been away.

What sound do you remember best from your childhood? Does it appear in your adult music?

The guitar riff of Marc "T. Rex" Bolan's song "Get It On" and the sound of a French horn.

Both will appear in my music forever. Even if you can't hear it.

You've mentioned some theoretical and mythological influences in your work. What kind of theory—musical, critical, social, aesthetic—matters most to you right now, and how does it work its way into your compositional approach?

In the 80s and 90s, I was very much driven by the idea to make certain kinds of references and interconnections from art and music history very recognizable in my work.

In the early years with Gas, for example, I used to experiment with stuff like Wagner, Schönberg, or the myths of the romantic German fairy tales like Brothers Grimm. Today I don't use any particular references anymore, because it leads to the wrong results. Gas is Gas.

How do you differently listen while preparing for a performance or a recording? What sounds matter more in these aspects of your practice?

I usually know exactly what I'm looking for. When I then go to the studio, I have to forget about it to find it.

Your projects have used so many instruments over the years: live, sampled, acoustic, and electronic. What have been some of the best and worst to work with?

All and nothing is possible. At the end of the day, the sampler is my guitar.

In the music you're making today, are you most interested in frequency, tonality, or timbre?

None of them. My only interest is maximum (artistic) freedom.

Gas is inspired by forest imagery in German mythology, which tends to have a mystical, even magical quality. What do you make of the paranormal associations we've had with the forest through history?

Let me quote the original Gas text from 1996. "Gas fantasizes about a sound body ranging somewhere between Schönberg and Kraftwerk, between bugle and bass drum. Gas is Wagner in the guise of glam rock, Hansel and Gretel on acid. An endless march through the undergrowth—into the disco—of an imaginary, misty forest."

Tell us a story of a time when sound had a profound impact on your psychology.

The sound of the Roland TB-303 bass line and the epiphany by Chicago acid house in 1988.  v

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