The surface-level irony of dance music is that, for music so overtly aligned with bodily pleasure, it can be really monotonous. Learning to listen to dance music for people who aren’t sure they know how to enjoy it involves, more than anything else, learning to listen to duration — an interplay between elements that is less scripted dialogue than carefully sculpted cut-up. The literary theory term polyphony might be useful here: even though most music consists of many voices (however that word may be defined), most popular music has some sort of graspable narrative, whether delivered through lyrics or melody. Dance music is polyphonic in the sense that the story the music is telling gets told by the way voices interpenetrate as much as by what the voices are actually saying. This is especially true of mixes, which occupy an in-between space in dance music. They act as promotional tools for clubs, the capstone of a DJ’s residency, a showcase of the mixer’s skills, and a chance to debut new material, yet they’re made for home listening. It’s a hard gap to bridge, and it’s not surprising that the mixes that get the most attention are often ones consisting all-original productions, like Omar-S’ or Ricardo Villalobos’ entries in the Fabric series.
Ellen Allien is prolific even by dance music standards. She has broad enough appeal to even have a pretty robust Allmusic entry. Her last album, SOOL, came out in 2008 and was a collaboration with AGF, who contributed microsonics and avant-garde whimsy to Allien’s more outgoing production style. Her creative energies are dispersed enough to allow her the freedom of working within the album-length mix format without anxiety, and this is what she does on Watergate 05, her contribution to the eponymous Berlin club’s series. Some mixes make overtures to a non-dance audience, like Ivan Smagghe’s Live at Robert Johnson while others sport a distinct authorial stamp, like Ada’s remix roundup Adaptations. Watergate 05 has elements of both, and is likewise more memorable than the former and less memorable than the latter.
Still, Allien makes sure Watergate 05 is somewhat idiosyncratic by converting it, in its last quarter, into a sort of mixtape. She induces it with the Apparat remix of Röyksopp track "This Must Be It," letting Karin Dreijer Andersson’s voice introduce some drama to her shuffle. The mix ends to the cracked strains of Brigitte Fontaine & Khan’s dada tango, "Fine Mouche." This sort of flame-out is a nice way of reminding us that Allien’s hand is guiding the experience, and aligning herself with Fontaine — whose career is nothing if not a dedicated pursuit of weirdness-for-weirdness’-sake — is clever.
The mix’s most transportive moment, aptly enough, comes when the angelic choir and piano of Luciano’s "Celestial" close out the three sleek bangers that preceded it. But the mix’s overall feel is somewhat conservative, even formal given Allien’s penchant for the unexpected. This is a good mix and little more, which falls just short of the mixer’s standards.