Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Algorhythms


In between leaving Berlin and arriving in Colombia, I spent three very happy days at home with my parents in Oxford. These consisted of purhcasing an external hard drive, buying US Dollars, and, perhaps most pleasureably of all, meeting up with my old friend Tom White. I hadn't seen Tom in well over a year, maybe even two, as he had chosen to move to Beijing. Over a couple of pints, we got to talking, and he mentioned this idea he had about the dance track so perfect that one would fall down dead (quite literally dead) listening to it. It would be so perfect in its execution, so sensitive to the needs of the dance floor, so punishingly severe, that the body would surrender any pretence of putting up a fight, and dissolve there and then into nothingness. Cool idea I thought. So I asked Tom to write me a little piece on this ideal for the Wunderkind blog, and this is what he came back with:

I was converted to dance music in a cow shed. Previously something of an indie kid, I had drifted into the agricultural margins of a guitar band festival and found said shed, where drum n bass was being pumped into a grateful crowd. The music, 'characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats' (Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994), was a revelation to someone accustomed to keening vocals and emotive strumming. I also saw several groups of young men in the cow shed manually pleasuring their girlfriends, who looked a bit bored, but which only added to the sense of occasion.

I've since moved on from drum n bass to other kinds of repetitive beats, but I'm still toying with the question that struck me after my Road to Damascus moment that day in the shed: why do I like this? Bear with me while I grapple out loud with this weighty question.

I remember once hearing a rumour of a rogue Anglican clergyman somewhere in the north of England who would hold 'religious raves', involving dance music, ecstasy and Jesus. I could almost believe this; the similarity between dance music events and religious ceremonies is clear enough for music journalism to be awash with religious clich̩: the dj as 'high priest', for example. This of course brings to mind appalling images of a late 90s superstar DJ РPaul Van Dyk perhaps - decked out in the regalia of an archbishop, wielding a crozier and blessing an audience of gurning fools.

But I was recently listening to Frankie Knuckles' Motivation Too mix and wondering why I didn't find that the overtly religious vocals – 'he moves in mysterious ways' – grated on my deeply agnostic sensibilities. I realized it's because I'd been prepared for this religiosity by my previous dance music experiences. All that 'put your hands in the air' and MCs speaking in tongues that I'd heard first in the cow shed was just a bastardized Pentecostalist service.

Dance music as religious ritual is a bit old hat though, and it's not nice to think too much about Paul Van Dyk. While I'm sure the atavistic religious element is very important, there's something else which contributes to my enjoyment of dance music, something a bit more, well, post-Enlightenment. More than other kinds of music, dance music has a particular function: to make people dance. This means that dance music is more quantifiable: this particular track is good because it makes me want to dance; this track is better because it makes me want to dance even more.

Once I'd decided that certain tracks were good because they made me want to dance, I started to wonder how they made me dance. If I could say how certain tracks were better than others at making me dance, then I could perhaps say what would constitute the best track; I started to imagine that there existed an algorithm for my ideal dance music.

Dance music is wonderfully simple (IDM is awful). Made up of a few basic building blocks which are then repeated, it's very honest about how it works. Why does dance music keep going back to its roots? I don't think it's just a reflection of the nostalgia embedded in pop culture; I think it's because the most satisfying dance music is crudely cobbled together, the seams showing, as much of that great 80s house/techno is. Juan Atkins was, after all, no Phil Spector. Bits of vocals stuck on top of an 808 loop, samples laden with sci-fi doom, crisp hi-hats and a bassline that bounces; dance music works best when it's stripped down so we can see its mechanics. Once you've listened to enough of it, it's quite easy to say which elements work, which elements you want where, as you mentally assemble your ideal. Add that trampolining bass; move the antique siren. Perfection appears very much within reach.


Unfortunately I'm no mathematician, so I can't say what my algorithm might look like. And of course it would be different for everyone else. I know, however, that my appreciation of any particular track relates to my hazy perception of how much it diverges from my ideal track. The more I listen to dance music, the more this ideal track takes shape. I know now that it includes shifting minor 7th synth pads; a vocal sample which has been wrenched out of context – Civil Rights-era sermons, for example, or a German ethnomusicologist introducing his field recordings among the Congolese pygmies; and a four to the floor beat which cuts out ¾ of the way through, only to drop back in 23 seconds later. Very soon I will have worked out the entirety of this ideal track.

One day I will learn how to use Fruity Loops. Then I will retire and spend the rest of my life in the bath listening to this one tune, trying to dance while lying down.


Some crude choons (building blocks for an ideal):










Tom White

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