What I Thought Dance Music Meant After 3 Months of Thesis-Research

[this is an excerpt from my magazine, an excerpt which was itself adapted from my masters thesis]

The following quote comes from Pitchfork’s review of the new Maya Jane Coles lp, Take Flight: ‘What at first might seem agreeably moody becomes stultifying after a few tracks’ (Google says that stultify: to make something seem foolish or of unsound mind). Maya is criticised for not varying the album’s ‘breathy tone and vaguely downcast melodies’, to match her songs’ topics, which apparently vary from depression to sex. This argument is weird, partially because the supposed sexuality referenced in Weak is nowhere to be found in the lyrics, and partially because it implies a listener sat with furrowed brow trying to ‘get’ what Maya is writing about. The album works brilliantly as a space within which you can work out certain emotions because of its repetitive nature, provided you like Maya’s sound, which is exclusively produced / engineered – and, in the case of Trails, sonically sourced from voice – by her. Like a meditative deep house set, it explores and develops sounds at a gentle pace, and, just like a dancefloor, you’re welcome to skip a few tracks if something doesn’t suit you, there’s nothing wrong with hitting  the smoking area.

Pitchfork states that, despite an ‘admirable range’ of tempo, Take Flight‘s sonic and structural consistency is misguidedly dull ‘in an album geared at home listening’, completely ignoring the record’s title. Even if the music doesn’t excite you whilst listening when physically and mentally still, it can do wonders elsewhere. In 1993 Jon Savage described Techno as perfect driving music because ‘textural modulations are perfect for the constantly shifting perspectives offered by high-speed travel’, and I think this fits in a metaphorical sense too; dance music can provide cruise control when your thoughts are racing at 120mph.

Dance music doesn’t communicate individual meaning through objectively defined language, as other genres do. There is no dictionary that clarifies what an 808 means, only a general knowledge of associations and history, and even this has nowhere near the same reach as the music. In J.R.R.Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, he discussed elements of fairy tales, like stepmothers, which have been passed on over the years, as the tales change and morph, and argued that, though these elements’ contextual origins may be interesting, this tells us little about their purpose. Tolkien looked at their context-transcendent life, and considered that somehow, they are innately powerful. As interesting as it can be to stand in a nightclub or library and note the use of Chicagoan/Nordic elements, this is nothing compared to letting yourself go and feeling these elements affecting you, guiding your moves and imagination.

I think that dance music’s communication comes as it guides and directs a dancefloor. A DJ or Producer doesn’t simply tell a crowd about their own life, they show the crowd what they think is worth dancing to, here and now, what they think will help make the dancefloor into an expressive space. At a rock gig you see bands perform songs they wrote beforehand, reaccessing and intensifying these personal statements, to a crowd of fans facing forward. Afterwards you can go home, listen to their records and reexperience/reinterogate this meaning. At a nightclub the dj combines records and contributes towards something new in the moment, in collaboration with the dancers and the venue.

One of the most jarring musical experiences of my life was watching Bicep follow Denis Sulta’s DJ set at Edinburgh’s Fly festival. Sulta had reeled out a boisterous, joyous set, varying from Marquis Hawkes’ rolling piano house burner The Basement Is Burning to Sulta’s own bassy, euphoric Nein Fortiate, to Red Alert by Basement fucking Jaxx. It felt like a great house party. Despite the tracks’ various origins, the set was unmistakeably Scottish in character. I’ve seen Bicep play sets that would have made sense after this, powered by breakbeats, balaeric ambience and blaring Inception-noises, but instead they redirected the set towards the more minimal, cleanly synthetic area of their palette. It wasn’t bad music, but it was bad dance music programming, because people stopped dancing.

‘what counts is the overall experience of the event, not just your own little contribution… you have to define and keep your own musical colour, but that one has many gradients’ – Sonja Moonear interviewed on residentadvisor.net, 2016

The term I used in my dissertation to describe the communicative form of dance music was pheno-text, deriving from phenomena, as in your mental experience of something. You enter the club, and experience a unit of sound and images, and maybe some words over the top. Unlike going to the cinema, there’s no definitive, objective text that everyone experiences together; your pheno-text includes the music and venue, but it’s also formed and contributed to by your thoughts, the direction of your attention, and the other dancers. A DJ’s performance has to correspond to the crowd to succeed, or else it literally fails to be ‘dance music’.

To suggest how functional dance music may contain meaning, I introduced the term Rich Syncopation. In ‘Mad’ Mike Banks’ recent interview with Benji B, the Detroit innovator criticised ‘weak’ dance music made on software with a single ‘clock’, for lacking the ‘different levels of swing’ of classic techno made on varied hardware. These comments corresponded to a musicology research-article that tested what quality makes a track danceable. The answer was syncopation, a rhythmic complexity that catches dancers off guard, or ‘violates listeners’ metric expectations’; too much syncopation makes it undanceable, too little makes it boring. My caveat (sorry) was to clarify that the qualities which give rhythm its character needn’t be rhythmic, hence adding the word rich, inspired by Steve Reich’s description of the ‘richness’ of African percussion. Genres, eras and scenes of dance music are characterised by the variety of Rich Syncopation that made their crowds dance, which allowed them to capture their values.