Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dance Music Manifestos

Philip Sherburne recently turned in a sobering edition of "The Month In Techno" that might serve as a major buzzkiller for anyone who truly believed in a "quasi-mystical faith in beats". Fortunately for me, I have been cynical about this sort of thing for as long as I have been even remotely interested in techno. It was axiomatically apparent to me, back in the early 90's, that raves were Just Another Way To Party, no more, no less. A few years later, once preppies in blue jeans started showing up to parties that were "supposed" to be underground events, I became even more convinced that no Fatima-like events of mass enlightenment could ever be possible in settings such as these. I certainly believe that individuals can experience self-conversion at any party on any given night, but this notion of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, where the right scene happening at the right time in the right city can instill a "we are changing the world right now" sense of optimism, enthusiasm, and entitlement among its denizens is something that does not exist now, and probably never has existed in the last twenty years of electronic music history.

I've always felt that these mini (or maxi) conversions are just as likely to happen (at least for me) at home, walking down the street with my iPod, or in a music shop as they are to happen in a club. Music can latch on and couple to virtually any setting, and anyone who needs to be in the coolest club in a happening city in order to absorb their dose or quasi-religious fervour is either taking too many drugs or is trying too hard to convince themselves or something that may not be there. Sherburne writes that "a party culture (and drug culture) predicated upon parties that never end can only result in a music that thumps dully away without surprise or meaningful variation." But this was always the case with minimal, whether he felt it to be true or not. The difference between this column and the ones he wrote a year or two ago (that were drenched with praise for the Berlin minimal scene) is nothing but a shift in the writer's own perception. The music and its context have stayed constant, but people eventually get bored with what they've been listening to for the past couple of years and clamour for something different. It's the natural course of events that unfolds as a scene peters out. Beats have always been just beats, but a red-hot scene in the right city can go a long way toward convincing a lot of people that it all means more than that.

Even if you don't agree with the sentiment of the first half of Sherburne's article, the second half contains a bit of something for everyone in the form of content from the personal "manifestos" of various DJ's and producers. Whether conservative or progressive, silly or serious, all the "rules" collated by Sherburne are worth noting and many of them brought a smile or seven to my face (except for Strategy's preachy contributions -- is "Strategy" a pseudonym for DJ Spooky? :0). I want to highlight a couple of my favourites:

Pheek: "Clubbers must make an effort to listen to music on the dancefloor, and if they need to talk, to leave it." Oh yes, yes, A THOUSAND times yes. Most of the time I feel that I'm the only one in the club who understands this seemingly trivial and obvious "rule". Dancefloor behaviour/etiquette is barely spoken about by anyone at any time, but luckily there are people like Pheek, who, like me, believe it's a subject worthy of discussion.

Peter van Hoesen: "Every DJ playing out should dance for at least one hour with the same crowd he/she has been DJing for. We need more dancing DJs." This is the futuristic fantasy utopian world that I want to live in.

Nobody asked me, but I thought I'd thrown in a couple of rules of my own.

1. If you fancy yourself a DJ and can't find a way to include at least two different genres of music into most your sets, then fancy yourself doing something else. I'm not the least bit impressed by, for example, someone who is able to mix nothing but trance or minimal for six hours straight. Most people agree that track selection is the #1 skill that a DJ can possess, and what better way to display that skill than by effortlessly skipping between genres without losing the flow of the set and jolting the crowd.

2. If there are buttons/knobs on your hardware/software that you have never used or even considered using, then you should either a) use them before you buy something else, or b) buy something with fewer buttons/knobs next time. These machines are as much of a musical instrument as a guitar or a violin, and nobody would claim that they know their way around a guitar if they'd never played the E string. Electronic toys (yes, and turntables) are meant to be mastered.

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