Houston Music

Pfaff Pfaffenberg Makes Live Techno Exciting

Unlike sausage, it is better to witness techno's creation in person. To casual listeners, the thundering bass rumbles and electronic bleeps happen because of the machine. The machine does all of the work; the user does nothing more than submits his or her will to machine's demands. When Kraftwerk first appeared on the scene, bystanders dismissed the band's spectacle, claiming that machines, not people, were making the music. That low-brow, reductive attitude remains, but with EDM's influence permeating throughout popular music, and the infinite number of Pro Tools plug-ins being used to record the large bulk of recorded music, that argument no longer holds water.

"First things first, there really is no 'analog v. digital' conversation," says Pfaffenberg. "I say this because, truly, electronically generated sound is really all analog. Furthermore, really, all voltage, all sound is electricity. You begin to really discover that, through working with any modular format, sound is electricity and frequency. All of this is physics and visceral biology."

How listeners respond to sound is at the heart of Pfaffenberg's argument, which in large part shapes our taste in sound. The difference between him and music's most enthusiastic fans is curiosity. Now matter how bloody and revolting the process, knowing every nuance of music's creation piques his interest in it. 

"I'm far more interested in how many CV inputs a module has than whether it is analog and DSP programmed," Pfaffenberg remarks. "I believe synthesists should evolve past and get over this trivial debate, really. If it sounds cool, then it sounds cool." 

When did this self-described "old rave kid" decide to construct the machines making the otherworldly sounds he covets? Like most electronic-music enthusiasts, Pfaffenberg began with Krautrock legends Can, Neu and Tangerine Dream. Their groundbreaking work introduced the world to Moog keyboards, which required their users to maneuver patch cables in order to manipulate sounds, like snake charmers. Earliest variations of techno and industrial music are indebted to Krautrock's pioneers, from Cabaret Voltaire and Depeche Mode to Front 242 and early Ministry. Long-winded instrumentals replaced traditional rock compositions without prog-rock's pompous histrionics. 

His indebtedness to music history is only part of Pfaffenberg's evolution. Those who have seen him perform at Notsuoh or Civic T.V. often stand and gawk at the Eurorack modular systems, with surgical precision moving one patch over other intertwined patch cables — a circulatory system of sound — to accent the pulsating sounds already in progress. As visually engaging as it is winsomely appealing audio-wise, Pfaffenberg humbly admits isn't all that new. 

"Many producers [such as Surgeon, Jimmy Edgar and Simian Mobile Disco] have been building and utilizing Eurorack modular systems to astoundingly beautiful ends for a few years now," he says. "It's just 'new' to Houston — a guy locally playing techno out live with his Eurorack rig," he comments. "The majority of dudes with this stuff — and there are loads of guys in garages with far larger rigs [than mine] — do not load up and stumble around downtown playing sets with [all this equipment]."

Friends in Houston's growing electronic community continues to push Pfaffenberg. Collectives, like Defunkt, encourage his commitment in showcasing his brand of techno-inspired compositions.

"I love playing for my friends, though, so it is what it is," Pfaffenberg remarks. "I love rhythm, and I love people moving to the rhythm. I'm 'fickle passionate'— that's what I think sets me apart."

One person who propels Pfaffenberg, spurning him to make retro-fueled yet innovative music is FLCON FCKER, the Houston musician and visual glitch artist. Their mutual interest not only helped to thrust Pfaffenberg into Houston's music scene, but established a strong friendship.

"I had by and large not performed out live in several years — not since quitting DJ'ing house parties in my early twenties," Pfaffenberg recalls. "I was at Nostuoh watching Bloody Knives, FLCON FCKER, and others perform when I happened to notice that part of FLCON FCKER's setup was a Mutable Instruments Shruthi.

"Now, this was exciting to me for a few reasons," he adds. "First, I had built two of the same synths and not run across anyone who'd played out live with these things, much less built one too. I was like, 'Man, I have to talk with this guy.' Since then, we've been hanging and influencing each other's work ever since. He's a local, self-made legend, and honest-to-goodness legendary human as well."

In spite of Pfaffenberg's mystique, his improvised performances improve in part due to his strong sense of self-awareness. He refers to his periods of activity as "sheer laziness," which is far from the truth. His mind churns endlessly. Thoughts race all of the time; the difficulty is learning to compartmentalize his countless interests. With so many interests and only one life to live, something is bound to give.

"I have honestly not collaborated with as many people as I have intended," he says. "I will say that I do the circuit of bringing the modular around to folks' spots, and we do indeed often jam, so there is clearly no good excuse."

Pfaff Pfaffenberg's imaginarium is no sleight of hand; his machines evoke feelings and aim to reach for places within each one of us. He shares with his audience music that strives to move both body and mind. Plus, his dedication to the process can be summed up in one imperative statement.

"Long live techno!"

Check out Pfaffenberg performs tonight at Nox Eterna's "secret warehouse" New Year's Eve party. More details are available on Facebook.
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Stephan Wyatt