Thursday, 28 March 2013

Theo Parrish: Automation and Automatism


My life continues to be one comical contradiction after another.  Earlier this week I bemoaned my geriatric ear's displeasure with the techno of today, then later that same afternoon I bought some techno.

I was contently on my way out the door at my local record spot with a short stack of latin jazz in my hands when I spied from the corner of my eye a reissue of Sound Sculptures Volume 1 by Theo Parrish

In my own defence, Parrish's techno is not of the "fatiguing nordic" variety. Instead, its lineage is more directly traced to the Detroit forefathers, as well as to Chicago house, New York disco, and jazz in all its manifestations.  As Parrish observes, "Jazz spawned house music, jazz spawned hip-hop, jazz spawned funk and they all reflect back into that."

Parrish sites influences ranging from the WBMX and underground Chicago disc jockeys Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Heard and Lil Louis to Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, George Gershwin, to his own uncle, jazz musician Dexter Sims.  He also holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Kansas City Art Institute, where he concentrated on composing sound sculptures - amalgams of found sound, sampled loops and live instrumentation - which are so fundamental to his contemporary dance tracks.

Parrish's gift is his ability to make precision drum machines commit all-to-human happy mistakes, to synthesize technological automation and artistic automatism - the pouring out of subconscious, divinely-inspired and/or non-rational expression.  In an age when computer sequencers breed formulaic purity, he subverts the whole game by building his ambitious, albeit paradoxically subtle and reserved, tracks with odd bar structures, loose sampling and quantization, and syncopated polyrhythm.  Yet it's all held together by beautiful analogue melodies and penetrating vocals. His brand of techno is both intellectually calculating and expressively spontaneous, not unlike free jazz.

His combinations of discordant elements never come across as the brash or poorly executed ideas of someone who hasn't yet learned to work his equipment.  Rather, they're the subtle strokes from a master artist.  Parrish knows what rules to break and when to break them, causing his audience to hear dance music again for the first time.  True art defamiliarizes the taken for granted and Parrish's music initiates reconsideration of the common techno and house music tropes, all while compelling crowds to sweat it out.  His signature sound is further epitomized by unremitting EQing and superior three-dimensional – one ought to say sculptural – sound staging that constantly dispatches listeners in and out of various aural planes. Consequentially, it really behoves one to play his tracks on vinyl through a good hi-fi system.

I'll leave you with some of his own comments to Crack Magazine, north-east England's equivalent to Toronto's The Grid:

"I’m ready to start hearing new sounds. I’m ready to hear an emotional investment in music – and that’s all musics. That’s the problem with dance music. It’s become so easy to make that it’s become cool to make something that has no soul in it. No soul. And I don’t mean a vocal. I don’t mean ‘soul’ in terms of the genrefied idea of what ‘soul’ is supposed to be; what I mean is someone caring about what they’re putting down. Be it instrumental, ambient, whatever – it should be an honest reflection of the human condition. But there’s a tendency to make everything slick and pristine and take our human part out of it. That’s because dance music has been put in places that it really didn’t start from.  This was rebel music to begin with. It’s gone from basements in the South Side [of Chicago], full of struggle, with gunshots outside, to…Starbucks!  That means that somewhere along the way the message got missed, it got co-opted."

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Theo Parrish - Sound Sculptures Volume One, Sound Signature, 2007

Discogs: Sound Sculptures Volume 1


"Soul Control"




"Galactic Ancestors"




"They Say"




"The Rink"




Theo Parrish Slices DVD Feature

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