On Minimal Techno and Want

I really like minimal techno. I haven’t heard much of it, but since the moment I began cautiously to step into the sweeping expanse of dance music, simply the idea of minimal techno has held particular allure. The other night, on an early evening drive listening to the 2007 album From Here We Go Sublime from Swedish producer Axel Willner’s techno & house project The Field, I believe I began to isolate what that idea is — what’s at the core of the genre, its essential thrust.

Minimal techno is about want. In both senses of the word. A piece in the genre wants — lacks — much of what music typically gives us. The arrangements aren’t complex. Sometimes an 11 minute track will contain no more than four or five distinct sounds. So there’s more space in the sound left open, unoccupied — not a fully decorated sonic surface but a series of motifs against a clean background. There’s no continuous forward motion like in a pop song, from one melody to another or onward to a novel set of lyrics. A track’s development is instead often tethered to its instrumental variety. A lone drumbeat will carry you through a few minutes before a synth joins it to swivel around in the same motion for the next few. Usually, there won’t be much structure either. No sense of the steady predictability which a listener can grasp onto when she’s 12 bars into the first verse of a hip hop song, and can be assured that the chorus will come soon, to be followed by another verse. When you find yourself in the heat of a minimal techno track, you don’t know how long you’ve been there — how long this same three-part rhythm has gone on for or how much time you can expect to pass before another mounting shift — before it will be over.

These features combined produce the other sense of want — desire, longing, ache. Those words might not inspire you to dive into the genre. We listen to music for satisfaction, fulfillment, pleasure…right? Minimal techno seems to withhold these feelings. When I’m deep into the loop of “A Paw In My Face” that occupies nearly 70% of the track’s five-minute run time, I find in the back of my mind there’s an eager wish that Willner will offer me something more — a culmination to the perpetual build-up, a climax — but at the end of a measure when the same familiar elements renew themselves in formation, and I’m instead left on a continual plateau, it becomes apparent just how much is already there. The few sparse rhythms that form the body of the track offer more on each repetition and more in their simplicity than they’d reveal as one part of a broader, denser mix, or in one fleeting interval of a more dynamic composition. When there’s no change in sight, and no wide array of sounds to flit your attention to and fro, you’re forced to dwell in the space you’re left in, to get comfortable and wring from it all that it will yield. And when you realize that the introduction of another element is unfolding, tantalizingly slow, desire again comes to a boil. Listening to a good minimal techno track is the restless oscillation between contentment and yearning, and when it comes to an end — as when Willner abruptly puts the brakes on the propulsion of “A Paw” before letting us down easy with the consummation of the Lionel Richie riff sampled throughout — I find myself completely fulfilled by what little it gave me, and all that it withheld.