In the 1980s, black artists from Detroit explored futurism through a blend of electro, Chicago house, and funk. That was the birth of techno. At the end of the decade, the techno wave made its way to Berlin, fortuitously in the home country of one of Detroit techno’s main influences, Kraftwerk. As the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, this migration came at an opportune time. The resulting abundance of abandoned buildings made perfect spaces for illegal raves, and the youth was invigorated by the reunification of Germany. So, the origin of Berlin techno not only entails a certain sound but a great feeling of community and optimism.
Electronic producer and visual artist Tom Scholefield, aka Konx-om-Pax, recalls this optimism on his latest album Ways of Seeing. The 11-track album embodies his relocation from Glasgow to Berlin, inspiring a shift from dense ambient and rave to minimal electronica. Yet, while Scholefield adopts the minimal structures of Berlin techno, he rejects its recent tones that have become bleaker and more industrial. Rather, he revels in joyous melodic arpeggios, alluding to the roots of Berlin techno.
Scholefield explains that Ways of Seeing is “a panacea to the darkness and disorientation all around in 2019”. With titles such as “Optimism Over Despair”, this message is clear. And on this track, melodies move frenetically, from open to close. Each lush arpeggio thrusts into another without suspension, demanding an endless dance. Even throwing in the classic “Woo! Yeah!” drum break, vivid images of 1990s hedonists presume.
These allusions to the origins of Berlin techno are spread throughout Ways of Seeing. On “Paris 5am”, birds chirp atop hopping synths, as if the birdsongs signal the morning-close to an open-air rave. On “Earthly Delights”, the atmosphere is muffled while the kicks punch through as if we’re waiting outside the doors of an abandoned warehouse. These scenic moments capture the emergence of Berlin techno. It is an homage to the communal efforts of those youths, developing and celebrating their own subculture.
Of course, Ways of Seeing is not entirely a rip of an original sound. Scholefield twists the origins of Berlin techno to reflect his vision, sometimes guided by collaborations. For instance, the opener “LA Melody” came while staying at the Los Angeles home of Hudson Mohawke and also chilling with Lunice. The hip-hop influence is clearly found in its ad-lib sample and trilling beat, a combination that can also be heard on the cut “Rez”. Moreover, the closer “The Paleontologist”, with its brittle keys and melodramatic pads, sounds more like an intro to a 1970s TV program than a Berlin rave.
Coincidently, the album title adopts its name from the 1972 BBC program Ways of Seeing, Scholefield tells PopMatters. On this four-part series, John Berger urges his audience to reconsider Eurocentric perspectives and dominant theories of aesthetics. The first episode explores how the mass-mediation of art reproduces aesthetics and thereby transforms its meaning. Referencing Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Berger explains that once art is reframed, its meaning becomes politicized and consequently easily manipulated. Ways of Seeing, then, explains art not as a static object to gaze at, but rather as a dynamic, communal, discursive tool that entails great responsibility for artists, disseminators, and audiences.
The album’s connections to Berger’s series is unclear. On his interview with Psst, Scholefield descriptions of his music are inextricable from his visual work. Then, perhaps the album is only a part of the answer, and his live shows will entail better connections. Regardless, Scholefield is trying to disseminate a certain message in his reproductions. Ways of Seeing vividly develops a memory or perhaps reimagining of Berlin techno’s origins. While the current techno scenes reflect the dark and downtrodden times, Scholefield recalls the optimistic sounds of Berlin. Certainly, both approaches to music as discourse are necessary and can coexist.