SPACE AND LANDSCAPE IN THE ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC
In the last thirty years, the popularisation of information technology and electronic instruments, so closely bound up with a progressive simplification of the use of both and a major fall in production costs, has created a state of affairs capable of rewriting the most basic premises of popular music, in both formal, and conceptual and commercial terms.
Today, the old premise of DIY (Do It Yourself) handed down by punk has made way for a democratisation of musical practice which is closer than ever to the basis for a new conception of the art, as established by the International Situationist Manifesto in 1957:
"... What would be the principle characteristics of the new culture and how would it compare with ancient art?
Against the spectacle, the realised situationist culture introduces total participation.
Against preserved art, it is the organisation of the directly lived moment.
Against particularised art, it will be a global practice with a bearing, each moment, on all the usable elements. Naturally this would tend to collective production which would be without doubt anonymous (at least to the extent where the works are no longer stocked as commodities, this culture will not be dominated by the need to leave traces). The minimum proposals of these experiences will be a revolution in behaviour and a dynamic unitary urbanism capable of extension to the entire planet, and of being further extensible to all habitable planets.
Against unilateral art, situationist culture will be an art of dialogue, an art of interaction. (...) This enclosed era of primitivism must be superseded by complete communication.
At a higher stage, everyone will become an artist, i.e., inseparably a producer-consumer of total culture creation, which will help the rapid dissolution of the linear criteria of novelty. Everyone will be a situationist so to speak, with a multidimensional inflation of tendencies, experiences, or radically different 'schools', not successively, but simultaneously. ..."
In fact, the phenomenon of electronic dance music takes its reference from a culture of "total participation"; in the ritual of dance, the benchmark is the artist's effectiveness on the dance floor. This does away with the mythical figure of the musician as an individual who goes up in front of an audience of spectators, as his or her art is produced interactively, in community; and it denies the legitimacy of "preserved art", as it is "an organisation of the directly lived moment" which, as such, rules out the subsequent validity of the sensation generated. It is, so to speak, an art which consumes itself even as it is created.
As a result, electronic dance music, its scene and everything that makes it the phenomenon that it is, tend towards an "anonymous", "collective production", given its transient and eminently functional nature. It is actually created as a music to make you dance, with no more transcendent pretensions; a first for Western artistic expression in the twentieth century in its conception, created by disc jockeys and anonymous producers whose discoveries - this is still the case at least in underground circles, thanks to the proliferation of white labels, limited edition pirate disks and the total absence of credits - are jealously protected from marketing thanks to this non-information.
The absence of time in the Club Culture. The space as identity
However, when Debord and his acolytes came down on the side of the "dissolution of the linear criteria of novelty", due to "a multidimensional inflation of tendencies, experiences, or radically different 'schools', not successively, but simultaneously", to some extent in keeping with the horizontal, rhizomatic structure of thought proposed by Gilles Deleuze, they overlooked the breakdown of time - and therefore uncertainty in the face of reality - that this state of simultaneity can provoke in the individual.
This uncertainty in the face of reality occurs in electronic dance music and its circles. The entire phenomenon not only points to simultaneity but also links up with the idea of non-preserved art, with no claims to posterity, with transience: from the ephemeral nature of narcotic ecstasy to the fleeting validity of the musical product, which, in the disc jockey's hands, rarely lasts more than six weeks. Everything consumes itself in a fluid continuum of fashion, genre and simultaneous uses which systematically denies the past and opts for a future which is always out of reach. This is an essential feature of the nature of a phenomenon with no classics and no reality beyond a succession of many simultaneous, scattered presents. A timeless phenomenon.
Having reached this point of continual regeneration - the hyperaccelerated imposition of change with no objective which the journalist Simon Reynolds called the "intransitive nature of rave" -, the subject with no points of reference, unprepared for the suppression of linear time, clings to the only possible element of identification, the only one that remains: space.
In this respect, it is significant to see how all the factors related to electronic dance music - drugs, music, social uses and aesthetic tendencies - are brought together under the umbrella term "club culture", with the clubber as its figurehead. Space, then, ceases to be a mere context for action to become a mark of identity for those involved in it and, above all, an active part of the phenomenon taking place there.
Having reached this point, the conjugation of a space (the dance floor), an ambience (darkness, deafening volumes, lighting effects) and a drug-induced sensorial state (mainly MDMA and amphetamine derivatives), the actual landscape, calls for a very specific discourse. Identification with the landscape-space is, then, extensible to the actual form of the musical discourse. So, house, a combination of disco, techno and soul, for instance, acquired its label as a genre, and along with it, a series of constants of identification, at The Warehouse, in Chicago, just as Garage or Tresor sound did in the clubs of the same names.
In this way, the discourse to some extent abandons its condition as entertainment to be mediatised by the landscape-space where it is carried out and danced. It acquires a functional connotation which is entirely subject to the landscape-space plan.
But the relation between electronic dance music and the landscape also has another interpretation: the landscape as artistic raw material.
In the globalising, hypertechnological environment in which we live - an environment which is also an essential part of dance imagery - distance and, by extension, the exotic factor are terms which call for urgent revision.
The existence of the Web, for example, besides an improvement of communications, meant an authentic revolution in the concept of distance: double click and you are in Burkina Fasso; double click and you land in Poland; double click and you just arrived to Texas. A tour around the world in less that a minute and a half.
As a result of this virtual suppression of physical distances, to which we should add the transcontinental mass-distribution of cultural products - music, in this case - and easy access to artefacts like the sampler, allowing us to copy and reproduce digital sound samples without altering the original model, an incalculable quantity of mixes have emerged which have not passed electronic dance music by.
It is, then, a recreational exercise of spaces and times which are often unknown outside the virtual universe. A pan-world movement based on myths and sensations which are acquired by indirect information channels, never by experience. Mental travel has replaced bodily travel. This is the culmination of synthetic emotion, of culture on loan.
The recreated landscape
This recreation of landscapes which are passed on, whether by literature (and here Jules Verne and Emilio Salgari, renowned static travellers, are precedents), television and cinema or the Internet, has fed a very broad-based substratum of electronic dance music imagery, just as, in the fifties and sixties, it fuelled the exotic chapter in the easy-listening style book, with Les Baxter as a clear exponent.
But unlike Baxter's easy-listening pieces, which merely aspired to awaken a touristic kind of fascination in the listener, the intention of exotic techno usually responds to a recurrent search for spirituality lost in this hypertechnified world. Just as the psychedelia of the sixties took certain liberties with Indian and North African music, techno ransacks the ethnic sound world, using the sampler, to incorporate primitive sounds - that is, physically, anthropo-analogically articulated sounds - into its discourse, which function by contrast and cast mysticism over pieces which would otherwise be just like any other cold, repetitive machine composition. Soulless. Yet, paradoxically, rooted in profoundly primitive rhythmic expressions.
This recovery of soul in the recreation of distant, mysterious landscapes for the average clubber, added to the socialising effects of substances such as MDMA (the love drug; brotherly love, however, never carnal), culminates in a sense of total collectivity, of communion of body and mind, which underlies the ritual of electronic dance music.
Goa-trance is particularly relevant here, a highly successful genre among working-class adolescents in countries like Germany, Belgium and Holland. This fusion of frenetic rhythms (the average is 200 bpm), psychedelic effects (use and abuse of low frequency oscillators) and oriental ornamentation (sitars, flutes, ritual chanting), along with spectacular light play and the ad hoc decoration of the clubs which cultivate this genre (carpets, incense, lanterns, miscellaneous mystic icons), is the most evident expression.
All the elements which surround it as a discourse, be they aesthetic or spiritual, combine to recreate an idealised landscape - in this case, India's Goan beaches, seen as an image of a modern Utopia - where communion with one's fellow man is possible. Hugging and kissing are the order of the day at Goan parties, physical contact which it would be hard to find outside this virtual landscape where everything, from the drugs to the lights, including the music of course, induces a kind of supreme - and transient - love. Day dawns to replace this idealised, artificially induced landscape by another, far less suggestive but rather more palpable one: the real world.
Yet in electronic dance music, the landscape is not always recreated as an exotic, desirable element. In ambiences which are less commercial than goa-trance (and, it must be said, socially and economically better off, both as regards the artists and the audience), close in some exploratory aspects to the avant-garde but always subject to the dictates of danceable rhythm, essentially present in the form of 4/4 and 3/4 time, the landscape recreated is marked by a critical spirit.
Illbient, a genre recently coined by contracting the words "ill" and "ambient", is one illustrative example. These two semantic premises come together in the musical recreation of the dark side which is clearly identifiable in the city which discovered the style, the only place where it is comprehensible in all its magnitude: New York. Once again, the physical space determines the musical discourse.
The roots of illbient, despite the danceable stamp which partially defines it, are to be found in pieces of a formal and conceptual approach similar to concrete music. Pieces like "In The Valley of The Shadows... (DJ Spooky Takes a Walk Through New York City)", released in 1995 by the ever polemic Paul D. Miller, alias DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. This composition, a dark collage of sounds found on the New York streets combined with a minimalist, obsessive synthesiser melody, laid the foundations for what DJ Spooky later developed less solipsistically under the name of illbient: the recreation of an urban landscape-space on the basis of the sensations it produces, a recreation based on sounds taken from this landscape-space, conveniently - for commercial reasons - concatenated with synthetic rhythms related, though more tangentially, with the physical and emotional context.
Several conclusions can be drawn from the illbient discourse, taking as our model the seminal compilation "Incursions in Illbient" (Asphodel, 1996) and pieces by artists such as Sub Dub, Byzar, We or DJ Spooky himself. Firstly, the use of downbeat rhythms and very low frequencies as a sonic translation of urban anguish. Then, sampledelic baroque as a reflection of confusion and depersonalisation in the city: the sounds overlap, collide, cancel each other out as entities of individual meaning to become a mass of noise. Lastly, the combination of various eminently Afro-American styles - dub, reggae, drum'n'bass, hip-hop - as an identifiable base for the uninitiated listener. This is no gratuitous concession: these genres also form a legitimate part of the physical environment of the illbient sound - Brooklyn - and are therefore an integral part of the recreated landscape. However, they all appear as though shrouded in thick fog, seen through a halo of distortion. Once again, the city takes an active part in its own recreation, filtering the invention of its inhabitants through its intrinsic chaos.
Paradoxically, and still diametrically opposed to goa-trance in terms of form, even at the opposite end of the auditory range, if we measure the usual frequencies of the two genres, illbient, like goa-trance, recreates a metaphorical landscape with the ultimate intention of escape.
Illbient wants to escape from New York. Goa-trance wants to escape to Goa. A single desire, the desperate search for soul in hypertechnified society, heads and tails of the same coin. The landscape-space is, once again, a point of reference for identity.
The evoked landscape
This all-round desire for escape and, at the same time, for identification which underlies the relationship between landscape-space and electronic dance music is sometimes established on the basis of abstract links. Whereas before we referred to a free recreation of landscape-spaces accessed via secondary information channels - considering the empirical channel of our own experience to be primary - we are now looking at an apparently contradictory gesture: the evocation of entirely unknown landscapes, constituted solely on the basis of imaginative licence which is legitimised only by its own subjectivity. That is to say, the evocation of mysteries with no possible solution.
In this respect, it is the more constant, investigative side of electronic dance music, particularly in its points of convergence with ambient and electro-acoustic sounds, which has monopolised the formal discoveries of the phenomenon.
In 1994, what we could call the evocation of unknown space reached one of its most important peaks with the work of British musician and producer Kevin Martin. Martin, a member of groups like God, Techno Animal and Sidewinder, coined the term "isolationism" to give conceptual coherence to the double compilation CD of the same name which he presented to Virgin, including exclusive pieces by artists like Jim O'Rourke, Scorn, :zoviet*france:, Seefeel, Max Eastley and Thomas Köner, among others. Despite the variety of the selection and the questionable enumeration of supposed eminencies of the genre which Martin included in the confused notes of "Ambient 4: Isolationism" (Virgin, 94) - from Ligeti to The Future Sound Of London, including Varese, Brian Eno and Lee "Scratch" Perry - the disk helped to define a new sensibility based on the evocation of dark, abyssal, mental landscapes.
In a kind of conceptual acrobatics, the recreation of the landscape-space external to the artist gave way to the emulation of the internal landscape; something we could label as psycho-ambient, the evocation of landscapes of the subconscious - a subconscious, of course, connected by a network to its time, part of the neurotechnological information highway - as the culmination of the introspective process.
Isolationism, as a label, rapidly fell into oblivion, and is barely remembered today. However, its conceptual wake lives on in continual mutation. It adopts the form of the icy techno of its stable mate Chain reaction, which is, right now, dance music's most interesting label, of the silent rhythmics of Francisco López and his minimal concrete music, of Tricky's cryptic hip-hop. More than a form, it is feeling of withdrawal in the face of the environment. The evocation of an impossible landscape, a mystery with no apparent solution. Life itself, perhaps?