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Thomas Brinkmann
by Andrew Duke

Thomas Brinkmann operates and records what could best be described as minimal techno—skeletal rhythms, looping blips and bloops--for the Max, Ernst, and Max Ernst labels, but his greatest acclaim thus far has been what he has done to the music of others. And we’re not talking about remixing here. Brinkmann has gained notoriety through his use of multiple tonearms on his turntables and through his process of remodelling records in his collection by cutting their runoff grooves with a razor blade. Best known in North America for his reworking of Richie Hawtin’s Concept series, it all began for Brinkmann with his variations on Mike Ink’s Studio One recordings. In basic terms, where the traditional remixer rebuilds the source material to form a new version in much the same way as a musician would create the original piece, Brinkmann is remodelling the original by replaying it on a Technics 1200 turntable. The catch is, he’s playing the record with two tonearms, instead of the usual one.

The question begs asking, why did he choose to rework the Mike Ink and Richie Hawtin series in the first place? “For me, the two very important projects in music in the ‘90s have been the Concept and the Studio One series,” Brinkmann explains from his home in Cologne, Germany. “There are other very good things, like the Maurizio records and the Dan Bell records from ’93/’94, so they are not the only ones, but especially those two series of records, they impressed me very much. With these two series, I found a way back to the music because before I was really getting bored of the things happening in music. These series were so clear and precise and conceptual, but also really good music to move your body to.”

Brinkmann decided to listen to Ink’s music in a new way and record the results. “I divided this essentially mono project from Mike [Ink] into two channels: the left tonearm playing the left channel and the right tonearm playing the right channel. I made a number of DATs with this technique with different distances between the two arms.” Brinkmann didn’t expect things to go any farther than his at-home experimentation, but he wanted Ink to hear what he had done. “I went to his record shop and left the DATs with a person who worked there,” Brinkmann remembers, “and a few hours later Mike phoned me and said, ‘It’s brilliant. We have to put it out because it’s very good.’ In one way it’s far away from Studio 1, but it’s a real techno feeling without a straight bass drum. Immediately we started with variations on Profan 18 and 19 and CD 2.”

The use of more than one tonearm on a turntable is not a new concept that Brinkmann is trying to lay claim to, though. “It’s an old idea,” he explains. “The audiophilists, they knew about this idea. In the ‘70s there was a Japanese turntable, the DQX 1000, that had the possibility to put three tonearms on. They used this for different kinds of records and for different kinds of music. They used a special cartridge for jazz music, another cartridge for classical music, they used it this way, but never two or three tonearms at the same time.” The urge to experiment lead to his trying the extra tonearm. “My records had started to bore me, so I tried to play them in different ways. So the first thing I tried was I built a turntable with the tonearm on the left side [instead of the right], so I tried to play my records from the middle to the outside. I also started to make scratches in my records with knives.”

Taking razorblades to his records was something he got into over a decade ago. “My friend had a record player that didn’t stop automatically, so when the needle entered the last groove [on one side of the record], it would go around and around and I heard the noise of it looping. I had this idea to take a knife and cut scratches into the last groove and immediately I understood that there’s a geometrical relation between the scratches and the groove. I learned that when you go deeper into the vinyl, there’s more bass, and when you put only very fine scratches, it’s a little like a hi hat. You can also do melodies, it’s not easy, but it’s possible. So, I started to scratch a lot of records, but at this time [back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s] people laughed at this idea. Nobody took it seriously, I think I was the only one, so I had to wait a while to really start working with this idea in a different situation. This idea didn’t work with the punk and disco music, but now it’s not a problem because everybody’s now working with strange noises on record.”

He’s scratched up 80 or so records in his collection in this way, so he’s quick to offer up a how-to lesson. “It’s very easy because the record’s going around, and if you make four deep scratches like a cross, it’s something like a straight bass drum,” he says. “If you put four fine scratches between these deeper scratches, then that’s like a hi hat.” Brinkmann’s Ernst records are visual masterpieces. Take the record out of the sleeve and you can see the patterns the rhythms make in the vinyl because of this scratching process. “The Ernst records have very strong lines inside of them. The reason for this is that I recorded them at 133.3 beats per minute which is in relation to the cutting machine speed which you use to produce the vinyl, the 33.3 rpm. You can actually see the music because the instrument makes a line on the surface of the record. Because my Ernst records all play at 133.3 beats per minute, you can see all the scratches, it makes the music visible.” He’s eager to discuss this because it’s not just a recording fluke made available to the masses, it’s something he’s spent years working on. “I think there is a relation between visuality and listening. There is a strong relation between mathematics and music and geometrical problems, and I think a record is much more visible than a CD, for example. Sometimes it’s very useful to look at things and then maybe you understand something about them which you can’t understand when you don’t have this possibility to look at them.” Andrew Duke

Brinkmann’s Weibe Nachte album, recorded under the name Esther Brinkmann (as a tribute to his sister who died in her youth), is out now on Suppose.