Folk dancing about architecture
Georgia-raised electronic composer Stewart Walker sculpts the max out of minimal techno
Taking a break from preparing the live show that'll bring him to Midtown's Nomenclature Museum for this week's Freeform event (organized by local experimental DJ crew Kula Productions), Stewart Walker sits in his Boston studio with the windows flung open. A well-respected techno composer whose work is discussed in the same breath as luminaries Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills or Cristian Vogel, Walker spent last summer in the genre's European epicenter, Berlin, so this is his first Boston summer. But Walker, who grew up in Atlanta, remembers well the humidity he'll face on his approaching return to town.
For now, though, the only things hanging heavy in the air are hot ideas on the traditionally cold, mechanical world of techno.
"I've been working on this theory lately," says Walker, "that techno music is most equitable to folk music, because basically it's a product of one artist and oftentimes that artist is releasing their own record and creating the design for that record. So I'm starting to see the potential for techno and electronic music to become much more centered in the internal life."
It's an intriguing thought, the idea that the sounds that make up techno music — a collection of beeps, bleats, squeals and pulses frequently described by words such as otherworldly — could represent recognizable emotions and deliver more than just the promise of sounding good in a banging club. While the earliest electronic music — from 1920s phonograph experiments through Kraftwerk — certainly elicited its fair share of attention in academia, the last decade or so of electronic music (the rave era, if you will) has obscured some of the legacy of techno's original composers, a legacy Walker would like to take a part in bringing back.
"Some could say that electronic music or rave or techno came from the street," Walker says, "but I think few people realize that the original techno creators [Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May — the Belleville Three] were not from the street, they were suburban black kids going to a suburban high school. ... I came from the suburbs myself, and I guess I've always been up front about that and I've never tried to come across as street, because that style never appealed to me. I never got so involved with raver culture that I wore candy necklaces. Because, at that time, I was so amazed by the music that the lifestyle was unnecessary."
The suburbs Walker admits coming from are actually only as far as Dunwoody. But while Walker grew up in the Atlanta area, he lived — in his mind, at least — overseas. "When I was 16, I would either go to the club Plastic or I would go to Oxford Books and read British pop magazines like Select, NME and Melody Maker," Walker says. "That was my fantasy world. I never really got much involved with the Atlanta music scene unless a European band came over. I don't know why but I was never very into American indie music. I guess it just wasn't polished enough for my tastes."
After graduating high school, Walker headed to the University of Georgia for a mix of technical classes and liberal arts. However, not before a summer trip to Great Britain indulged his latest musical tastes — specifically, London 'ardkore, the (somewhat cheesy in retrospect) breakbeat proto-jungle sound of the early '90s. Early Warp Records in hand, Walker landed in Athens hoping to find a fertile, accepting music scene.
But after quickly growing dissatisfied by his inability to find anyone with which to explore his ideas, Walker traded his guitar for his first analog synthesizer and started down the solo path toward becoming one of those millennial folk musicians. And while he didn't find musical compatriots at UGA, he did find a university library with every issue of Keyboard magazine, going back to the mid-'70s. Reading voraciously while working in a computer lab and bagging groceries, Walker began to build his studio.
Dropping out of college in 1995 to follow his girlfriend to grad school in Madison, Wis., Walker worked in software tech support to make money for gear and living expenses. Soon, though, he'd quit his job and began making music full time, producing early 12-inch singles released on labels such as Matrix (Detroit), Belief Systems (San Francisco), Tektite (Austin) and Cristian Vogel's Mosquito.
Walker's early work was minimal by necessity, as finances sometimes required him to sell off gear. Streamlined, trance-inducing works of intermingling bass and precise percussion influenced by raves, early IDM and composers such as Steve Reich, the Wisconsin output was all the more impressive considering Walker never had the extensive studio set-up superstar producers brag about today.
By 1999, when he recorded his first album and best-known work, Stabiles (Force Inc./Mille Plateaux), Walker had moved to Washington, D.C. A collection of sonic seasoning — minimalist ticking and looping techno that explores soothing ambience without killing rhythm — Stabiles was inspired by Brian Eno and a series of large outdoor sheet metal sculptures by Alexander Calder, best known for his kinetic mobiles (one of which sits in front of the High Museum of Art).
Walker and Calder's works share the ability to occupy either the foreground or the background, and the repetition of Walker's subtlety shifting sounds gives Stabiles' stark yet complex tracks a rooted feel similar to the effect of seeing a towering piece of sheet metal embedded in the ground, with the sound of wind, traffic and voices wrapping around and bouncing off. Like Calder's statues, Walker's songs provide a calming focal point around which life buzzes. But Walker's approach is also informed by Calder in less esoteric ways.
"What inspired me the most about Calder," says Walker, "was that when he died, they collected all of his works and they found he had made at least one work for every day of his life, and that type of productivity was rare. I loved that amount of productivity."
A desire to accommodate his prolific output, along with a dissatisfaction with the current record-company system, helped inspire Walker to set up his own label this year. Now working in Boston on a hard disk-based Logic Audio system — a huge step up from those early 909 trigger experiments — Walker plans to use his Persona label (hosted at www.stew artwalker.com) to control all aspects of his upcoming, more up-front works (one, the new Pleasure Island EP, is already online as MP3s). Persona Records is the structure around which Walker focuses his belief in techno as the latest form of personal musical expression, presenting electronic music as analogous to both sculpture and Bob Dylan songs: direct yet open to interpretation.
Live, though, Walker doesn't present himself as some introspective singer/songwriter meekly triggering samples from behind a Powerbook. He does perform his original music on stage with samplers and sequencers (rather than simply spinning as a DJ), the kind of continuous set he plays is far removed from Stabiles' soothing nature. On album, Walker concentrates on tracks based on his life and artistic ideas, but he realizes that clubs have a social context all their own that can overpower music. With that in mind, Walker simply aims to guide that communal experience with his performance.
"Making techno records reminds me of the old style of making rock 'n' roll 45s," says Walker, "trying to make them as loud as possible to make them stand out above the other ones in the jukebox. If I'm just sitting in the studio and I'm relaxed, it often comes out more like Stabiles. But I enjoy the visceral nature of making and especially performing good dance music. It has awakened me to an aspect of my personality that I didn't know existed before — that's the leader of the party. I like cheering, people shouting for encores, and I think you only get that with a more energetic music."
So maybe Walker's right about techno's direction. After all, from Joan Baez to Juan Atkins to Stewart Walker, one thing has stayed constant: fist-pumping solidarity.
Stewart Walker performs at Nomenclature Museum Thurs., June 28. Tickets are $7. Doors open at 10 p.m.??