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Minimal techno is a form of electronic dance music (EDM) that is considered a minimalist sub-genre of techno. It is characterized by a stripped-down aesthetic that exploits the use of repetition, and understated development. This style of dance music production generally adheres to the motto less is more; a principle that has been previously utilized, to great effect, in architecture, design, visual art, and Western art music. The tradition of minimalist aesthetics in Western culture can be traced to the German Bauhaus movement (1919 to 1933). Minimal techno is thought to have been originally developed in the early 1990s by Detroit based producers Robert Hood and Daniel Bell.
In an essay published in the book Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (2004), music journalist and critic Philip Sherburne, asserts that minimal techno uses two specific stylistic approaches, one being skeletalism, and the other massification. According to Sherburne, in skeletal minimal techno, only the core elements are included with embellishments used only for the sake of variation within the song. In contrast, massification is a style of minimalism in which many sounds are layered over time, but with little variation in sonic elements. Today the influence of minimal styles of house music and techno are not only found in club music, but becoming more commonly heard in popular music. Regardless of the style, minimal Techno corkscrews into the very heart of repetition” so cerebrally as to often inspire descriptions like ’spartan’, ’clinical’, ’mathematical’, and ’scientific’.
In his essay Digital Discipline: Minimalism in House and Techno Philip Sherburne also proposes what the origins of Minimal techno might be. Sherburne states that, like most contemporary electronic dance music, minimal techno has its roots in the landmark works of pioneers such as Kraftwerk and detroit techno’s Derrick May and Juan Atkins. Minimal techno focuses on rhythm and repetition instead of melody and linear progression, much like classical minimalist music and the polyrhythmic African musical tradition that helped inspire it. By 1994, according to Sherburne, the term “minimal” was in use to describe any stripped-down, Acidic derivative of classic Detroit style.
Los Angeles based writer Daniel Chamberlin, attributes the origin of minimal techno to the German producers Basic Channel and in doing so fails to credit the contributions of Robert Hood or mention the influence of Hood, and other members of Underground Resistance, on the Berlin techno scene of the early 1990s (the scene out of which Basic Channel emerged). Chamberlin draws parallels between the compositional techniques used by producers such as Richie Hawtin, Wolfgang Voigt, and Surgeon and that of American minimalist composer Steve Reich, in particular the pattern phasing system Reich employs in many of his works; the earlist being ”Come Out”. Chamberlin also sees the use of sine tone drones by minimalist composer La Monte Young and the repetitive patterns of Terry Riley’s ”In C” as other major influences. Sherburne also points to the possible influence of American minimalist composers on EDM, particularly minimal techno, but Sherburne and Chamerlin largely ingore the possible influence of ethnic music, such as that of Africa (and its diaspora), India, and Indonesia, on minimal dance music.
The pioneering composers of American minimalism drew heavily upon World music. Steve Reichs’ work was significantly influenced by his time studying African percussion in Ghana during the late 1960s and both La Monte Young and Terry Riley trained with Hindustani classical music singer and teacher Pandit Pran Nath. Sherburne has suggested that the noted similarities between minimal forms of dance music and American minimalism could easily be accidental; he also notes that much of the music technology used in EDM has traditionally been designed to suit loop based compositional methods, which may explain why certain stylistic features of minimal techno sound similar to works of Reich’s that employ loops and pattern phasing techniques.
One group who clearly had an awareness of American minimalism is the British Ambient act The Orb. Their 1990 production Little Fluffy Clouds features a sample from Steve Reich’s work Electric Counterpoint (1987). Further acknowledgement of Steve Reich’s possible influence on EDM came with the release in 1999 of the Reich Remixed tribute album which featured reinterpretations by artists such as DJ Spooky, Mantronik, Ken Ishii, and Coldcut, among others. In listening to this album, and works by Reich, such as that sampled by The Orb, some may find it difficult to see a direct relationship with the minimal techno productions Robert Hood describes: a basic stripped down, raw sound. Just drums, basslines and funky grooves and only what’s essential. Only what is essential to make people move. I started to look at it as a science, the art of making people move their butts, speaking to their heart, mind and soul. It’s a heart-felt rhythmic techno sound.Daniel Bell has also commented that he had a dislike for minimalism in the artistic sense of the word, finding it too “arty”, so it is here that comparisons between the music that was being produced in Detroit and other forms of minimalism fail. Robert Hood describes the situation in the early 1990s as one where techno had become too “ravey”, with increasing tempos leading to the emergence of gabba. Such trends saw the demise of the soul infused techno that typified the original Detroit sound. Hood explains that I think Dan [Bell] and I both realized that something was missing - an element…in what we both know as techno. It sounded great from a production point of standpoint, but there was a ‘jack’ element in the [old] structure. People would complain that there’s no funk, no feeling in techno anymore, and the easy escape is to put a vocalist and some piano on top to fill the emotional gap. I thought it was time for a return to the original underground.
In recent years, the genre has taken great influence from, to the point of merging with the microhouse genre. It has also fragmented into a great number of difficult to categorize subgenres, equally claimed by the minimal techno and microhouse tags.Minimal techno has found mainstream club popularity since 2004 in such places as Germany, France, Belgium, South Africa, The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Ireland and the UK with DJs from a wide variety of genres incorporating differing elements of its tones, the famed after-hours club DC10 in Ibiza being one exponent of the genre.
By the second half of 2006, the term ‘minimal’ had in many ways become contradictory, as it serves as a denominator for the tech house sounds of the moment, many of which should rather be coined as ‘maximal’ in terms of their sonic content, in contrast to the original stripped down, i.e. minimalist electronic genre
Notable artists include Daniel Bell, Ben D, Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman), Ricardo Villalobos, Luca Bacchetti, Mika Vainio, Maurizio (Basic Channel), Jeff Mills, Paulo Nascimento, Steve Bug, Luciano (Lucien Nicolet), Robert Hood, Troy Pierce (a.k.a. Louderbach), Sleeparchive (Roger Semsroth), Sutekh (Seth Horvitz), Trentemøller (Denmark), Stephan Bodzin & Oliver Huntemann.
Some record labels specializing in minimal techno are Minus (M_nus), Cadenza, Sei Es Drum, Perlon, cocoon recordings, Poker Flat Recordings, Underline, PLUS8, 90wattsrecords, Foundsound, Sähkö Recordings, Force Inc, Kompakt, Trapez, Tenax Recordings, Wagon Repair, Revolver Canada, Kaliber, Rekorder.