Column: The Techno Odyssey

A slightly discombobulated personal essay and open letter to Techno music, written by East to West’s Holly Friedlander.

techno odyssey feature art

A slightly discombobulated personal essay and open letter to Techno music, written by East to West.


Hurtling down the road at 3 a.m., snuggled in the front seat of the car, we sped through the silent countryside. Blackness encroached on us in this former East German haven, devoid of streetlights. Flat and wide on each side were frost-covered fields, white and icy under the mechanical glare of our high beams. We were the pilgrims of this tainted-white bubble that was leading us home. There was a bite in the wind that cut through us like caffeine as the open windows trailed cigarette smoke behind us. All the while, all the while the music filled the endless space around us.

Nestled in a bar at around 3 a.m. exactly four years later, I told this story for the very first time. It had been a night of glitter and extravagance that had led our weary bodies to the weary watering hole for rejuvenation and peace. New-found friends and comrades huddled around as I told them how, four years earlier, my 15-year-old self had hurtled through snowy German streets listening to techno music for the very first time. Isolation and fascination had landed me bang-smack in the Golden Lands of minimalism, and as a result, I had been justly rewarded. Paul Kalkbrenner‘s “Sky and Sand” had just been released and was being pumped into the veins of the German mainstream. I had just stumbled into my very first fix.

The subtle melodies and almost introspective cinematic flourishes of Berlin Calling were enough to satisfy my uncultured, youthful palette on return to Australia. My whimsical teenage self had no idea where to go next and reeled back from techno just as awkwardly as I had stumbled into it. While many a techno fan and electronic genius has berated me for my love of Kalkbrenner—whether because of his perversion of the genre’s purity through the proliferation of his mainstream centric sound, or because of the apparently unskilled way in which Kalkbrenner creates his soundscapes, I still stand unwavering. As with any music that is tied to a life-altering experience, it cannot be untied. Just as much as Berlin Calling was the soundtrack to the present, it had also become my soundtrack for escape—its darker elements and 4-4 beat teasing scenes of nightclubs, rave parties and silent people falling fast and hard into the depths of unwavering sound and unwavering energy. It was peaceful energy. And so I let it sit.

Techno is a very introspective medium—while the tempo imparts a certain vigor, it is very easy to let it wash over you, and as such, there is an energy that enables your mind to expand. There are rarely lyrics that can take you to another’s mind, another’s thoughts. No fragmented sentences to be analyzed or adopted as your own—just the beat that allows for self-reflection, self-indulgence if you will. It’s very easy to create your own world within it.

“Just drums, basslines and funky grooves and only what’s essential. Only what is essential to make people move.” —Robert Hood

Driving 80 or so kilometers less down a much uglier and more crowded highway in Sydney last year, the conversation once again turned to techno. A new-found friend and self-proclaimed tech-head expressed the merits of the genre that I had often experienced but could not myself articulate. Tim and I had fallen into many a club and rave that year, and through the scene and our group of friends the solitary dream had become a collaborative transcendence. While I’m sure the cogs of the Sydney tech scene had been winding over in perfect ordnance long before I fell into it, there had seemed to be a rejuvenation—a new-found understanding in the movement and from those looking on. Techno was no longer the scary child of electronic music associated with abandoned, industrial raves with a hardcore edge. Proliferated genres like minimal and dub-techno had brought in quieter souls—quieter souls who put the music first and foremost, who reveled in its purity.

“The thing about techno,” he said, speckled orange lights dotting the sky, “is the fact that it transcends all bounds. The beat, the drums, and the continuous repetition are all things that anyone, anywhere in the world can relate to—it becomes an animalistic movement. People often ask me how that can transcend the power and beauty of the voice as an instrument. But the voice utilizes language, and language does not transcend all bounds.”

He’d hit the nail on the head—the way the beat had swiveled and snaked its way through the people I had met that year was enough to prove it. It is contagious in its melody—it invites you, through untamed physical movement, and rejuvenates your psyche. And rejuvenated psyches connect eternally.

There’s been a bit of academic discussion about the power of techno in just that—the bringing together of us and them, you and me, East and West. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the mass de-industrialisation of the East and new-found freedom of the youth from both sides of the city, meant the techno subculture was building bridges where there had previously been walls. Bader and Scharenberg best surmise some of the attributes of this subcultural connection: “How the [German] urban youth of the 1990s saw itself is reflected in the new centrality of the audience: people were no longer just passive consumers, but—as dancers—constitutive elements of raves.” The youth of Berlin were finally active in their own futures. This meant that the proliferation of freedom through the spirit of techno gave way for a combined identity. Culturally, like-minded souls divided by politics were finally coming home. It was time for “die neue kulturelle Identität in der Wendezeit” (Robb 2002, p.134).

Techno is the journey.

I woke up on New Year’s Day 2013 with the above line written down. We’d drunk red wine at 8 a.m., picking at food at a table in Kreuzberg as our bodies rested from seven hours of musical and spiritual assault. The sun was almost setting as we stirred our limbs. I couldn’t remember if I had written it myself or if it was someone else’s wisdom, but it had me thinking. I’d spent the week with Germans, Norwegians, Canadians and other pilgrims from all over the world, and while from all very differing musical and cultural backgrounds the techno beat had again snaked its way through us all, tying us together. Our Berlin base had been this apartment, and within it, the beat had never stopped.

While there, I met a Canadian girl and it was amazing to see the unyielding trill of techno music seep into her limbs. It wasn’t as if she was previously opposed to the sound, that was not it at all, rather she just hadn’t been presented with it in an all-encompassing state. We all know (either first or second hand) that Berlin is an integral experience if you want to harbour a new-found passion for techno, and it’s pretty obvious why—besides the labyrinths of GDR underground clubs that suck you in, paint you in light, and dazzle you in skill, you are more often than not surrounded by like-minded souls who have the ability to throw off the shackles of their normal lives—whether that be dormant on the other side of the world or at-bay pending Monday morning. And while these fantastic elements—freedom, searching souls, more than accommodating environments—seem to be the cornerstone of the techno scene, they are only the mere accompaniments.

For the true essence of techno, as my Canadian friend visually made me aware over the week, was how the four-to-the-floor beat gets into your system like a drug, like an itch that you cannot shake, can’t release. No matter the circumstance—around the dinner table, the apartment floor, a nearby shop or just on the street—you cannot help but tap your feet, nod your head, move your hands, your shoulders… Whatever it is, techno enlivens your primordial instinct—the instinct of spiritual and physical awakening. Like any addiction, any foreign body in your system, the symptoms only worsen until you just don’t care who sees you swinging your limbs, your body. Each hit becomes more familiar, until you are not even aware that you are moving.

A few nights later we wandered into legendary Berlin club, Tresor, for the very first time. Shocked by the cold in the concrete tunnels, we headed deep underground into the bottom of the abandoned department store. After a while in the midst of the crowd, we found a partially elevated platform that allowed us to dance in liberation. In complete sobriety, my body moved without thought, my eyes scanned occasionally over the crowd, blinded by light, but seeing the complete emancipation of the masses. There on the concrete block, senses and physicality literally heightened, I was completely conscious of my surroundings—not just my movements, but also the movements of those close to me. I was present. More present than I’d ever been, and awake, excited, and alive. My friends and I were close together, but we did not speak, nor look at each other. All eyes were on the front of the room, thoughts fluid to the point of non-existence. Here with friends and strangers in a dark room under the ground, I had been brought closer to myself.

Any genre of music can have the same effect on a person that techno can have–it’s the connections that you forge with it that will challenge you, alter you. Techno is not the answer for everyone, but I guess what I’m trying to do is emphasize the sincerity in the audience. There is an earnestness in all human beings, no matter their environment, to strive for a better experience–a better human experience that can aid them in finding answers and in finding peace. Answers and peace that will pave the way for a better human experience.

What started as a lonely, introspective journey had now made full circle. I left Germany again, headphones on, sunshine cutting through the cold. I sat on a plane that rose slowly above the skyline with a bunch of blank postcards, absentmindedly tapping my feet.

  • http://twitter.com/musicfansmic Jamie Milton

    wow. so much to discover. and so wonderfully written.

  • Djem Barree

    THIS EXPLAINS IT BETTER THAN I EVER COULD!!! BEAUTIFUL!

  • roy ayers teevee

    this is… yes. yes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ananemone Sam Campbell

    Man. You NAILED IT! These are all such perfect tracks. Great work, great piece.

  • http://twitter.com/__VIDAL__ Vidal

    “I had been away from Iceland for over a year and when I returned for New Year I stayed on top a mountain. I went for a walk on my own and I saw the ice was thawing in the lava fields. All I could hear was the crackle of the ice, echoing over hundreds of square miles. It was pitch black, the Northern Lights were swirling around and just below them was a layer of thick cloud. I could see the lights from all the towns of my childhood mirrored in the reflection of these clouds, with the lava fields crackling below. It was really techno….”
    - Bjork Gudmundsdottir

  • marcusrimondini.com

    Sooo good!