Protokols – Reflections on my Avant-Techno Album

Reflection 1: Drones… deconstructed

I composed most of my Protokols album between 2011 and 2016, experimenting with the parallels and contrasts between avant-garde classical music and (ambient-)techno. Both genres reveal a certain ambiguity between ancient and futuristic. One element that plays a role in evoking that universal feeling is the drone: a sustained, enchanting sound – often monotonously drifting more or less in the background – conveying a sense of trance or meditation.

But, especially in modern classical and electronic music, drones aren’t always used for trance or relaxation: drones can be subjected to fluctuations and frictions, to express conflict, instability, complexity, and so forth. On Protokols I wanted to play with this meditative-stressed (im)balance. A deconstruction of the drone, in search for catharsis.

Twentieth century “minimalist” composers strongly influenced me. Think of Erik Satie, Philip Glass and the likes, but mostly their “spectral” counterparts like Giacinto Scelsi, Krzysztof Penderecki, Morton Feldman, Györgi Ligeti.

What set this latter group of “minimalist” composers apart was their development of more mystic (dis)harmonies, their sense of spaciousness, and their use of fragile stillness (incl. silence) to stimulate our senses in exploring the micro-details of instrument timbres.

Cirkulae, a track from my album Protokols (glitch animation by me)

Music lesson by Kuljit Bhamra – Demystifying Indian Music

Klangforum Wien about Italian mystic composer Giacinto Scelsi

My growing interest in those musical characteristics also lead me to listen to various non-western genres like Japanese noh theatre.

Examples of 20th century drone/spectral music: Four pieces on a single note (1959, Rome) by Hindhuism and Buddhism inspired composer Giacinto Scelsi. And Gyorgi Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna (1966, Austria), a dense choral composition that gathered fame after appearing in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Then we arrive at techno. One of electronic dance music’s breeding grounds for drone innovation. Hear for example the “pad synths” repeating throughout Scan 7 – I Am From Detroit (2002), or the dark drones at the essence of Dadub – You Are Eternity (Berlin, 2013).

Noh performance “TOMOE” by Mikata Shizuka via Noh Society on Youtube

Scan 7 – I Am From Detroit (via 有種唱片Taiwan on Youtube)

Dadub at Boiler Room Berlin

An early electronic drone-based composition is Delia Derbyshire’s Falling (1964, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, UK). Modern examples are the entrancing drone metal of Sunn O))) and the free-improv ambient of FEAN (Netherlands, 2018).

Lytse Poel from FEAN album

Drones played a central role in ancient music of all sorts, expressed through for example throat singing (most famous for its Tuvan/Mongolian/Siberian style(s), but also developed by for example the Xhosa people in southern Africa and the Inuit people), gongs (in for example Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, and across all of Asia), Indian drone instruments like the tanpura/tambura……

Samulnori Jing Slow Speed via the National Gugak Center of South Korea

…… and certain wind instruments (e.g. the Egyptian double-clarinet, Armenian duduk, Australian digeridoo), European/middle-eastern hurdy-gurdys, the Scottish version of bagpipes, and most probably a plethora of spiritual chanting styles like this unique Bulgarian one. In western classical music, drones continued to play a role, see Baroque’s pedal-point (expressed by organ bass tones, among other methods).

Dissonant tone clusters: Bulgarian music from the Shopsko region

The list could go on and on and on… From all this, I conclude that the spiritual droney/minimal essence of music does not only transcend the duality of ancient-futuristic, but also that of for example east-west-north-south (ok that’s not a duality but a quadrality) and folk-classical. A universal language? Endlessly inspiring for sure.


Reflection 2: Recontextualized Traditions

Our idea of tradition contains an interesting paradox: no matter how strictly defined a tradition becomes, it can still inspire other cultures to reinterpret it, thereby indirectly revealing its flexibility. This shows how conservatism and experiment can work in a sort of symbiosis (traditions are conserved, but new variations branch out). To me this seems to relate to one of music’s greatest strengths: musicians of different cultural styles can often pick up their instruments and jam together.

Our differences, just like our similarities, can inspire us. While music keeps evolving and branching out, even genres from the the most distant branches can work in fusion, or at least parts of it can be exchanged. Music defines culture but also dissolves it. Folklore tales and recipes have been forever remixed cross-culturally, but can music evolve in similar ways?


Indian-Persian crossover by Julia Ohrmann & Mehdi Aminian (via Roots Revival)

Fusion Bagpipes & Chinese music at Sheung Wan Civic Centre, Hong Kong (link missing)


The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (via Berlinale)

Music of Central Asia Vol.10: Borderlands – Wu Man, Sanubar Tursun, & Abdulla Majnun
[Preview Video] (via Smithsonian Folkways)

Every form of creativity involves some kind of remixing: we observe, we get inspired, and we try to imitate. Folk music exists in many cross cultural variations. Troubadour-like musicians must have been one of the catalysts of this process: travelling musicians from various cultures covering each other’s song (or traditional songs of course, sometimes based on common poems).

Other musical cultures, such as church music, anchored themselves firmly in history through their legacy of strictly regulated (musical) rules. But even then, the rules were built to facilitate remixing: cantus firmus, for example, describes how older church melodies were slowed down and re-combined.


Animated explanation of cantus firmus, by Dave Smey

In music, the act of imitation has gone through a paradigm shift since SAMPLING has been made accessible. Artists and designers started to shape highly creative global subcultures that thrive on influences from various unrelated cultures. Jungle, Drum ‘n’ Bass and Hip-hop are the prime examples thereof.


Amen Break documentary (2004) by Nate Harrison (via Landon Proctor)

A different example of a “global subculture” is new age music (sometimes referred to as healing music). It can be difficult to find artistic gems in this genre, as great quantities of “spa music” have flooded its field. The search query “ethnic ambient” can yield better results. Below are some excellent pieces:


From “Australia: SOUND of the EARTH” (1990)
by Steve Roach & David Hudson & Sarah Hopkins (via musick2138)

This makes me ponder again about two recurring debates in the (electronic) music making realm:

– Copyright infringement: how can we use parts of each other’s works as building blocks and thus create a thriving creative culture?

– Cultural appropriation: how can we prevent stereotyping (oversimplified representations), the obfuscation of (minority) struggles, and other issues? And when does cultural borrowing simply produce bad art?

Luckily, music has such a strong abstract, spiritual, universal, cryptic, playful and aesthetics-focused character, that a confusion in (symbolic) meaning is less likely to occur than in other cultural artefacts. Or does it? In any case, it’s often easy to transform samples and inspirations enough to transform them into something “completely” new.

Yet I do think it’s important to approach sampling, remixing and other forms of reinterpretation with sensitivity and reasoning – for example by studying the (sub)culture of inspiration, or by reaching out to representatives of that (sub)culture. On the other hand, it is likely that complex cultures who claim ownership over a certain art form, have actually themselves inherited – or even appropriated – most of that art form.


“Protokols X Breathe” (2018) at NEVERNEVERLAND, Amsterdam
Experimental club environment made with Minhong YU (photo by her)

Protokols is a bit more disorienting than 4-to-the-floor techno, but I wanted the music to drive on techno’s minimalist drive/oscillations, its spectral energy (incl. heavy sub-basses), its craving for futurism, and its (in my opinion) “isolationist” ritual that gives people an opportunity for personal introspection even when dancing (or sitting…) in a crowd.

My experience of performing Protokols in venues such as concert hall Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ (with LED lights by NAIVI) and factory hall Maschinenhalle Pattberg Moers (with lasers by Vladimir Grafov); as well as my collaboration with installation/video artist Minhong Yu on experimental club installation Breathe X Protokols, have taught me that the challenge of spatial, architectural (and as a consequence thereof somewhat theatrical) recontextualisation breaks open new grounds. It’s exciting and I continue to wonder: what are the spiritual spaces of our time? Concert halls, (repurposed) churches, art galleries, nature, or forward-thinking clubs after all?

Reflection 2: Realism… questioned


With Protokols I intended to bring transformation to both classical and electronic music; I didn’t want to just add electronic elements to classical music, or vice versa. To develop a personal electroacoustic aesthetic and to find my own voice, I tried to remain aware of the sonic strengths of both sides. How did certain instruments or traditions develop? When does it make sense for me to contrast or combine them? When should I embrace technology or avoid it (as far as that is possible sitting behind a computer)? This boiled down to recurringly choosing between four main directions:

a. Realism: organic, acoustic, human-like. The use of recordings/samples of instrumentalists, or realistic software emulations.

b. Abstraction: sound design unrelatable to human/natural sound sources (for example very electronic sounds such as pure sine waves or glitches). 

c. Realism+abstraction fused: adding effects on top of a realistic sound, while keeping the original sound sufficiently intact.

d. The uncanny valley: the confusing/creepy realm of trying-to-be-realistic-but-not-quite-getting-there, which can sound like a parody on realism.

Techno-classical crossover pioneer Murcof was probably the artists who brought me to most of these realizations. Not only through his highly creative use of classical samples to build on classical traditions, but similarly by his innovative use drum samples to reshape minimal techno: in stead of using drum computer sounds that vaguely (uncannily) resemble a real drum kit (such as the commonly used Roland 909 hi-hats), he uses abstract (sci-fi like) glitches, and sine waves for bass drums. This approach stems from inventions by early glitch musicians such as Alva Noto.




‘Rios’, from Murcof’s album Remembranza (2005)

‘m01’ by Alva Noto from album ‘Transform’ (2001, Mille Plateaux)


Collaborating with classically trained instrumentalists Dianne Verdonk (before the album), Josephine Bode, Christian Tan and Wen Chin FU was a vital part of this journey as well.

Protokols sparked in me the need to experiment with ritual space. My ensemble and I took these ideas further in our subsequent project Processive, which features more spatially oriented music, and requires a per-show arrangement of speakers, performers, audience and lights.


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