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You Can Dance If You Want To 

Local artist Sutekh defies the rules of techno by ignoring them

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
Many people associate techno music with the beat-heavy, dance-oriented electronic sounds that emerged from Detroit in the late '80s. Since that time, however, the genre has exploded into a hundred subgenres, some of them danceable and some quite difficult to listen to. While many techno acts prefer to stick to one of these strict subcategories, some artists work across styles, blending and mixing them to create something unique.

Over the past half decade, local techno artist Sutekh has crafted a head-spinningly wide range of tracks -- some with bassy ambient soundscapes and starkly beautiful layers of noise, others with throbbing beats and danceable rhythms. As musician Drew Daniel, half of local experimental techno outfit Matmos, puts it, "[Sutekh] has always managed to occupy a pretty unique position. Sutekh records have always balanced genuine dance floor functionality and a more free-form, texture-based approach." In Sutekh's work, there are no boundaries to the techno sound.

Back when Sutekh attended UC Berkeley in 1991, he was known as Seth Horvitz. One day during his second semester, Horvitz had a musical epiphany in the form of a Violent Unknown Event (VUE). A VUE is a strange occurrence that results in bizarre obsessions, a term taken from Peter Greenaway's 1980 faux documentary, The Falls. Horvitz hypothesizes that his current interest in electronic music and the breakneck pace he sets for himself originated in such an experience, which he claims occurred in his dorm room. While he declines to go into further details, Horvitz remembers, "There was definitely a radical change in my musical perspective my first year at Cal."

Whether he was a victim of some mysterious happening or just bad cafeteria food, Horvitz eventually decided to volunteer at KALX, the campus radio station. There he became exposed to many different kinds of music, including punk, jazz, and hip hop, as well as to early techno artists Aphex Twin and Maurizio. Soon he grew fascinated with the idea of blending all the different genres into one continuous mix. (He also adopted Sutekh as his airname, basing it on the Egyptian god Set, a variant of his own name.)

The early '90s rave scene also influenced Horvitz's growing obsession with musical cross-pollination. Besides enjoying the music, Horvitz admired the spirit of the raves, where everyone from punks to hippies to hip hoppers grooved together.

By the mid-'90s, Horvitz had transitioned into club DJing. He was one of the dozen people involved in a now defunct weekly club called Static -- an ironic name given that his music is anything but stationary. The legendary event was quite successful, attracting world-renowned techno artists and local DJs who were adept at playing unconventional music and keeping the dance floor full.

During the same period, Horvitz started making his own tracks. Inspired by his DJ experiences and the cross-cultural exchanges of the raves, he composed pieces of all shapes and sizes: Some included syncopated rhythms and pounding house beats, others contained no beats at all and focused purely on samples, near silence, and rolling layers of sound. Often he put an emphasis on "sound design," wherein he would manipulate and process recorded samples and field recordings. Tomas Palermo, editor of San Francisco-based electronica magazine XLR8R, describes Horvitz's music this way: "Microsound or minimal techno is most revelatory when it can illicit multiple layers of sound in one track, when there's a sense, like the best of '70s dub tracks, that you're hearing many strata of frequencies at once. Sutekh achieves this on both his quieter and more dance-floor tracks."

Horvitz's recent double LP, Periods Make Sense, features so much variation that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what to call it. Elements of soul, jazz, and R&B ebb and flow within the more modern sounds of house, dub reggae, and noise. This difficulty in placing Horvitz's work doesn't bother him. "I try not to have an MO," he says. "If I have a rule to impose when I'm making music, it's not to have any rules."

After several releases on other labels, Horvitz started his own record label in 1999. By forming Context Records, he increased his control over the look of his records, designing each himself, and shortened the time between the end of his recording and the music's release. The new label also enabled him to put out music by some of his local compatriots, fellow genre-jumpers like Kit Clayton, Safety Scissors, and Twerk.

From Context's beginnings, Horvitz and his labelmates were lumped into a new subgenre called "laptop techno." As it turns out, Horvitz states, "When that term was first coined, we didn't all have laptops. [But now] laptops are the basis of our live performances ... and the computer is a very important part of the composing process." In the studio, Horvitz composes with a Macintosh, digital mixer, sampler, several synthesizers, and analog-based effects boxes and compressors. Often he uses his mixing board as another instrument, layering multiple copies of the same noise or loop, creating music that sounds minimal and full at the same time.

In many of Horvitz's early releases, he wasn't concerned with making traditional dance music. "I don't like to make music that's too obvious," he says. But a recent three-song EP called Everyday Solutions to Common Problems consists of beat heavy, dance-floor-friendly techno, a trend that Horvitz expects to continue. "The next Context release is going to be more house music-influenced than anything I've ever done." But what does this mean for an artist who claims "I don't want to make my music easy to digest?"

"When I was younger, I was into music that was ... harsh and rebellious," Horvitz admits. "I think I have learned to appreciate more subtlety in music, which includes soul and funk. To see that feeling come out in dance music is more important to me now."

Currently, Horvitz is a very busy man. There's his label's releases, multiple globe-spanning DJ and performance gigs, production work, and graphic design. But he claims he wouldn't want it any other way. "Usually I am the most creative at the least convenient times. It's the random element that helps, I suppose. I usually make the music I'm most happy with when I don't have time to make it and I should be doing other things." Besides, he couldn't decide which undertaking to give up -- even if he wanted to. "They're all totally different experiences. I wouldn't want to sacrifice one of them."

About The Author

Vanessa Bee


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