Techno: From Production to Performance

This article was written as a part of Northwestern University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Grant program during the summer of 2018. It is based on my personal experiences in the Berlin techno scene as well as interviews conducted with Berlin DJs and producers Danny Kotz, Foreign Guest, and DALIYAMA. An original experimental techno track I composed for this research project is located at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!

North by Northwestern featured a discussion of my research in this article.

In a darkly lit room, the audience grooves with the pulsing kick drum. Some dance excitedly while others close their eyes and nod their heads. But something is changing. It is a feeling the audience is familiar with, yet it still is as unsettling as ever. Eyes begin to open and watch the DJ. Some dancers begin swaying awkwardly, less sure while others stop dancing completely. The driving force, the energetic kick drum, has faded away with the twist of a knob, leaving behind strange rhythmic patterns and ambient noise. The driving kick drum was so certain and constant – and now without it, the audience is confused, uncertain, and eager for the return of energy and stability.

Techno from Production to Performance

As a part of Northwestern University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Grant program, I had the privilege of interviewing three Berlin-based DJs/producers/live-artists. From these interviews I hoped to better understand the unique relationship of a producer, DJ, and live audience within a techno performance setting. My primary research questions included the following:

  • How do DJs decide what track to perform and when, and how much is this decision related to the location and setting of their performances?

  • What are the primary influences that affect the specific musical alterations a DJ chooses to make within a performance setting?

  • Due to the current state and setting of Techno environments, how should we expect compositional traits of Techno to evolve in the upcoming years?

First I will address how a DJ sets the tone for an event and how their decisions relate to expectations of venues and audience members. The second section of this article will discuss considerations made by Techno producers in order create tracks that are to be performed in clubs. And the third section will talk about how the Techno scene and sound could change in the future.

DJs have many options to consider when cultivating the atmosphere for an event. First and foremost, a DJ is hired to deliver a service: to establish and maintain the energy of a party. Not every venue strives to create the same atmosphere, as some venues are located in former power plants, while others are strictly outdoor, part-time spaces. Therefore, the sounds at different types of venues have different stylistic expectations. For example, an “open air” event tends to be more casual and will cater to a different crowd than a warehouse party.  DJs are hired to cater to the connotations associated with these physical spaces in order to produce a sound that the crowd expects to hear (Foreign Guest).

There is a defined structure to an evening of techno that DJs are expected to follow. Venues will hire DJs to perform certain functions in the night: warm-up sets, headliner sets, and closing sets. A warm-up DJ is expected to build up the energy of the crowd and “always push a little” (Danny Kotz). Meanwhile, a headliner DJ begins their set with the foundation established by the warm-up set, starting with higher intensity music. A headliner DJ is often known for their particular sound, and they are expected to deliver that sound for the night. On the other hand, closing DJs are often expected to decrease the energy of the music as the night fades out. Warm-up DJs and closing set DJs may have to be more careful in their roles, focusing on increasing or decreasing the energy of the room (Danny Kotz).

Many DJs choose to engage with the audience while performing a set, and others avoid audience interaction entirely. One DJ/producer Danny Kotz uses a term he calls “marionetting.” He gives an example from one of his closing sets to describe how he manipulates the audience. Running a closing set, the DJ is often expected to bring down the intensity of the music. Usually at this point in the night, the audience is extremely physically and mentally engaged in the music and detached from everything else. He describes, “you will start to slow down… and then you know you have them on the tip of your fingers. You have this kind of marionette effect.” (Danny Kotz). A live producer such as Dennis from DALIYAMA talks about his methods of creating a live set. He likes to fully immerse himself in his set-up and avoid audience distractions. He grabs a jacket and remarks, “sometimes I put my hood over like this” to interact with his own equipment rather than the audience (DALIYAMA).

When designing a track, EP, or album, a producer has a lot to consider when making musical choices. The style a producer chooses to write in will greatly affect its performance in a live setting. The style of the track will affect which DJ will perform the track, in what type of venue, during what time within a DJ’s set, and what time in the entire evening of music as well. A good producer should consider all of these options when producing their track to ensure that it is optimal for the performance setting they wish it to belong in.

Techno tracks are to be performed and altered by DJs, so there are certain conventions that most producers follow in order to make their tracks “DJ-friendly.” It is standard for producers to give tracks a “basic intro… 16 or 32 measures” (Foreign Guest). Because DJs beat match, it is also important that the tempo should remain constant throughout a track.

When producing an album or EP, there is often a narrative structure in the track list as well. Foreign Guest describes his EP Rek / Fin as “Rek is the banger… it is the crowd pleaser. Fin is more chill. When you send an album to the label, it can’t just be banger after banger.” (Foreign Guest). Even within a recorded album, labels expect energy changes throughout the track list, the same expectation an audience has when watching a DJ perform.

To conclude, there is not a clear consensus on the future of Techno. When asked about his thoughts, Foreign Guest perceived the Techno scene as “getting worse… because anyone can download Ableton and make beats” (Foreign Guest). He suggests that the pool of high-quality producers is getting diluted with amateur producers because creating electronic music is more accessible than ever. Live producer Dennis from DALIYAMA had a different idea. “The Techno scene is really trying to conserve… to try to protect their image” (DALIYAMA). Similar to Dennis from DALIYAMA, Danny Kotz says, “It’s the same people since 20 years. It’s not really developing and evolving that much… I think it preserves itself, and I think it’s going to keep preserving itself” (Danny Kotz). Techno is in the business of preserving itself, DALIYAMA and Kotz believe. The strict door policy is meant to keep outsiders out. The venues choose to hire DJs who have been in the scene for decades (Danny Kotz). Clubs like Berghain and Tresor which used to be underground are now seen as institutions, striving to preserve the sound and culture from the early days of Techno (Danny Kotz). Although there is not a sure future for Techno, current trends suggest that Techno culture wants to stay the same. And with it, Techno music itself is unlikely to change much either.