A handful of recent DJ mixes and online experiments point the way to a more communal form of listening
In the music video for ‘Leipzig’ (2010), directed by artist Margaret Salmon, Matthew Herbert skulks around a dark nightclub by himself. He looks sad and a bit ungainly – a balding man with half a bushy beard, his face flushed and covered in sparkles. He sports a glittery oversized bowtie made of cardboard, reminiscent of the one that Klaus Nomi used to wear in the late 1970s. In a series of quick edits, glimpses of good-looking club kids appear under the lights, dancing in a state of apparent bliss. But each one of them dances alone, and it’s impossible to locate them within a physical space. The dancefloor is empty. ‘Share a little pill with me tonight,’ Herbert pleads, wide-eyed, to the empty room. ‘We’re gonna be just fine.’ The slinking beat grows more mournful, more haunting. ‘Who knows where this journey will be taking us?’ Herbert sings. ‘Who cares?’
After many years of engaging actively with dance music – tracking every notable 12-inch release, digging for vinyl in crates, writing reviews – I felt a bit like Herbert in ‘Leipzig’, a lone wanderer in an empty club. I was downloading more music than ever – bleeding-edge dubstep mixes, obscure German techno podcasts – while becoming numb to the experience of listening. It was almost impossible to keep up with the avalanche of DJ mixes posted to Facebook, Twitter and various blogs. Despite all this social media, I felt less connected to a larger experience than ever before. In some cases, social media seemed to have backfired completely; some DJ friends recently lamented that fewer people were attending their nights; instead they are waiting until after the event to look up the photos on Facebook and download the recordings.
On this new online dancefloor, I was more in control than ever – constantly pointing, clicking, downloading and hearing new tracks practically instantly. But I had forgotten how to surrender to the music I loved so much, to an experience more expansive than myself. In an April interview in the Guardian, Brian Eno offered some interesting thoughts about control versus surrender: ‘In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically,’ he argued. ‘We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part. I want to rethink surrender as an active verb.’ Dance music and surrender may seem a bit cheesy, a 1990s notion, bringing to mind a litany of rave slogans: ‘Let the music take control’; ‘This is a journey into sound’. But surrender is the missing variable in the equation: it’s a mental state that has little to do with drugs and everything to do with a shared experience.
So much of dance music is, for lack of a better term, site-specific – it thrives in a particular physical location, in time and space. It relies on clubs with decent sound systems, on the physical experience of dancing with others and immersing oneself in the music. Immersion doesn’t just mean overpowering decibel levels, strobing lights and bone-rattling speaker pressure – it’s something more subtle. For years, I had a theory that the reason why so many people I knew in the US favoured rock music was because sound systems in venues tend to privilege mid-range and treble; the Velvet Underground, for instance, sounds great on a system like that, while the techno producer Ricardo Villalobos does not. Many sound systems simply spit out bass, rather than probing the low frequencies to the level of depth and detail required by most electronic music. DJ sets in the US tend to be much shorter than their equivalent sets in Berlin, too, which make full-on sonic immersion more difficult. (There are exceptions, of course, particularly in big cities like New York, where long-running underground techno nights such as The Bunker thrive.) In a good DJ set, one that’s allowed to grow and develop for hours, each track coming in is like one crashing wave after the next. One becomes acutely aware of small subtleties and differences, attuned to a larger picture. The music demands an immersive environment; most minimal techno is boring, quite frankly, when listened to at home. Imagine listening to recordings from a sound installation on headphones in your room, instead of seeing the piece in its original context.
The recent techno albums which resonated most strongly were ones that worked outside of a traditional club context. Chicago (2010), a new album by the Berlin techno producer Efdemin (Phillip Sollmann), works on a dancefloor, but even better as music for quiet reflection and late-night contemplation. Sollmann, who has a formal background in computer music, cites the Minimalist composer La Monte Young as a major influence and routinely performs in music events, such as the Elektroakustischer Salon at the legendary Berlin techno club Berghain.
On the other side of the coin is the Detroit techno producer Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir’s three-disc retrospective, Frictionalism 1994–2009 (2009) – a series of 35 exuberant tracks that are impossible to not respond to physically, regardless of whether the setting is a crowded club or an empty apartment. For years, Shakir stayed under the radar – due in part to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – while his peers, such as Carl Craig and Jeff Mills, built globe-trotting DJ careers. Shakir’s take on techno is immediately appealing; it’s fleshy and vital, intriguingly complex without being subtle. The 1999 track ‘Plugged In’ sounds like a bouncier, more colourful version of Giorgio Moroder’s hammy disco classic ‘Utopia Me Giorgio’ (1977); in ‘Spectre’ (2002), bright synth stabs and stuttering beats lend a shimmering, prismatic effect, the soundtrack to a brilliant sunrise.
A handful of recent DJ mixes and Internet experiments point the way to a more communal form of listening. Some recent tribute mixes released online, their spread accelerated rapidly by Twitter, helped promote a feeling of connectedness. The hip-hop icon DJ Premier created several high-profile mixes in memory of recently departed musical figures, including Guru of Gang Starr and the late punk impresario Malcolm McLaren. At turns poignant and hilarious, these tribute mixes worked better than any obituary, allowing large groups of people to grieve and reminisce together. Web-only mixes memorialized individuals, but also the demise of institutions; take, for instance, the long-running Optimo night at the Sub Club in Glasgow, which celebrated its final night in April after 12 years of popular weekly parties. Less than 24 hours later, hundreds of people who did not attend the event – many of them thousands of miles from Glasgow – began downloading a five-part recording of the final DJ set via links on Twitter, and collaborating on a mammoth tracklisting.
In early March, Autechre broadcast an epic 12-hour live DJ mix on their website. News of the mix spread virally on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks during the broadcast. Thousands of people across the world tuned in simultaneously, sharing an experience that seemed more immediate and intimate than a radio show or a pre-recorded podcast. Listeners called out the names of tracks on their Twitter feeds – they conveyed their excitement to their friends in real time. For Autechre, the live DJ mix proved to be an invaluable publicity tool, drawing attention to the group’s recently released album, Oversteps (2010). The concept of thousands of people losing their minds to a live DJ set simultaneously, while plugged into their respective laptops in their respective homes, may seem like a sad notion. But the mix was a document of an actual, fleeting moment in time, a way to promote a shared experience with a temporal dimension. Perhaps, in the future, there will be a plethora of these global Twitter dancefloors – everyone caught up in the moment, all of them dancing alone, but together.
Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World, a recent book on Brian Eno (Continuum, 2009).
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.