"When you play electronic music, you have control of the imagination of the people in the room, and it can get to an extent where it's almost physical." These words, spoken by Ralf Hütter of pioneering electronic outfit Kraftwerk, ring no truer than today. And although Dallas is far removed from the musical hotbed of '70s Germany, we too have a dream-weaver in our midst.
Born and raised in Dallas, electro producer Cygnus (birth name Phillip Washington) is one of only a handful of local electronic artists who've successfully broken through on the international scale. Having spent much of his childhood tinkering with his father's electronic music tools, including early digital audio workstation Cakewalk and a Roland JD-800 synthesizer, Washington discovered early on that he enjoyed making music. After attending his first techno set at Denton's Rubber Gloves (where techno DJ Rick Simpson performed), Washington was struck with a new sense of ambition. It was time to start taking this music thing more seriously.
It wasn't long before Washington's music found a home. Following two strong releases on experimental label Icasea, Cygnus jumped to the delightfully esoteric Sheffield-based label Central Processing Unit, which in 2012 released his excellent electro LP Newmark Phase. After two years of relative silence, Cygnus is back with news of a new full-length release for CPU: Tesseracter. If initial impressions can be trusted, Cygnus has returned as a more focused and sophisticated talent.
Tesseracter reveals a newfound zeal to Cygnus' approach. The new cuts are distinctly brisk compared to the artist's previous material and, whether it be in lieu of experience or a new source of inspiration, the music speaks of a more effortless and taut producer. Thankfully, Cygnus' appetite for retro-futuristic shadings and IDM playfulness has only increased, which, counter to expectation, blends well with Tesseracter's gripping linearity. Transitioning between the pristine and the organic, the pillowy and the globular, on Tesseracter Cygnus has unearthed an ideal common ground between his skill for cool, clean lines and his interest in the smoky textures of noir science fiction. In other words, Cygnus' chops have caught up to his immensely rich imagination.
While artists in the dance sector often lurk in the shadows, obfuscating their personalities behind reels of doublespeak and PR curtains, Washington is refreshingly easygoing and quick to discuss his craft. "For me, the medium is the message," Washington explains, quoting the famed philosopher Marshal McLuhan; "and I like the way the message comes out of the electro medium."
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While the electro style is evident across the whole of Tesseracter, the album is plump with enough offshoot appendages to suggest a strong inclination for experimentation outside the genre. In fact, if there's one defining characteristic in all of Cygnus' music, it's Washington's heady fingerprint -- an ever-present skill for arrangements that are both exceptionally visual and atypically cerebral.
"That's why I like electro, because you can use sounds with very strange textures -- sounds that are suited for both the dance floor and the bedroom," reasons Washington. "Electro does both. It's definitely a powerful medium." If electro is both Washington's medium and his message, what's the purpose behind his art? "It's all about people," Washington clarifies. "Music only means anything to me insofar as it brings me closer to people and makes them happy."
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Oddly (and remarkably) for an electronic artist, especially one on a label named Central Processing Unit, Washington makes his music without the use of a computer. For context, in this day and age, that's like having a rock band without a drummer and a guitarist. It's just not something that really happens anymore.
But Washington has his reasons: "I prefer the physical act of making music, where [in the end] I can actually touch the music I've made, hold it in my hand," he explains. "On a computer, there are too many abstract values, flat screens and two-dimensional planes; it's not very inspiring." Considering electro's futurist preoccupations and cybernetic subtext, Cygnus' ability to excel within the genre sans computer is nothing short of extraordinary, if not outright miraculous.
It might come across in the eccentrically innocent way he speaks, or perhaps just in virtue of his stark humility, but either way, it's clear that Washington is an artist refreshingly unencumbered by the commercial trappings of the music industry.
"If I never released another thing, or I live 50 more years and nothing ever gets released in that entire time, I'm still in the studio everyday seeing what I can come up with," Washington insists. "I make electro in the same way my heart beats; the machines are extensions of my body, so I can't really say what I do is with any sort of future purpose. It's just a natural extension of who I am." Tesseracter is due for release in September as both a four-track 12'' vinyl record, and an extended nine-track digital album (preorder here). You can catch Cygnus live later this month at City Tavern on July 25th