So what is it that's so different about "dance" music? In a
way it's irrelevant - you kind of know what it is when you hear it. And
yet although there's a vague feeling that it's something to do with being
repetitive and tribal or something, and it's kind of trippy, there isn't
much writing about it as such, and perhaps just a little verbal examination,
like this article, could help people hear "dance" more clearly
and appreciate it more. You see, to us a lot of dance music these days is
rather inefficient, or incomplete, or lazy and it would be nice to hear
more stuff that was more intensely focused or well-finished. If you're going
to put all that effort into making a record, you may as well do it properly.
Western music tends to be programmatic - it develops, tells a story, argues
amongst itself (more on this later) . However earlier this century it began
to fall to bits under the pressure of deeper and deeper psychological examination
with its attendant need to get the music to do more and more tonally, and
a general crisis of faith in the human organism. The supposed way out -
12-note serialism - was a neurotic, self-regulating pinning-down of the
musical impulse that led to complete determinism by the mid 50s with Boulez
loudly proclaiming that any musician who didn't understand the necessity
of total serialism (i.e. affecting all aspects of the music, not just the
notes) was "DEAD". This sort of serialism was a terrible overworking
of the sonoroties produced by the 12-note scale, which at the same time
made picking out musical interplay so difficult that the music actually
lost most of its impact. Meanwhile, John Cage had other ideas. Indeterminate
ones, funnily enough. Strongly influenced by Zen, which was finally making
it to the West in an unconfused form, Cage brought back not only randomness
to music, but something else the serialists had forgotten about - an unmediated,
woken-up quality. Raymond Smullyan characterised Taoism as an intense aesthetic
appreciation of the moment, and this could also apply to the sort of musicality
Cage liked to cultivate, whereby everything is music and can be appreciated
as such. We all know about Cage's 4'33", but he also did a 0'00"
which involved him putting some vegetables into a blender and drinking them.
The possibilities are endless. Nonetheless, Cage's brand of Zen could get
rather austere and/or bring on Zen-style boredom - Smullyan said that the
reason he got into Taoism was because Zen made his mouth water for enlightenment
then snatched it away, whereas Taoism lets you enjoy it. The sonorities
of tonal music still appeal deep down to many people and there's no reason
not to play with them. One of Cage's earlier piano pieces, 'In A Landscape'
(1947) is a very Taoist, entirely tonal outpouring of flowing, minimal,
delicately melancholic beauty that sounds more like Terry Riley's stuff
from 20 years later (The Harp of New Albion, eg). And this is where we now
start coming back to today - a lot of the ideas of "dance" are
in this music. Repetition, emotional ambiguity, a flowing quality not without
intensity. Zen was influenced by Taoism that came before it, and now things
are going in reverse - Taoism is coming back to music, but in a uniquely
late-20th-century way. Dance music is non-programmatic, essentially Taoist
music. The difference now is that whereas earlier Taoist stuff like Terry
Riley's music maintained the quietness and introspection of classical Taoism,
modern-day dance is an acknowledgement that the same principles can be found
in the midst of the cyclone too (something Taoism always acknowledged).
Noise is the void gnashing its teeth.
"NOISE IS THE VOID GNASHING ITS TEETH"
Programmatic music carries ideas that have to be listened out for, which
requires a standing back from the music, an ascertaining, a self-conscious
remembering. It is something constructed under the spell of inspiration
of course, but this interior motivation is used to create something external
that tells a story, that develops in a way that requires you to bear in
mind its overall form. Dance music was the discovery that you can have music
that actually sounds interior, that sounds like it grows from within. The
way (possibly the only way?) something can be interior itself and create
that inside-ness in the listener is by drawing the listener in, by seduction,
by repetition. Repetition is the key - the same thing is heard again, but
memory suggests it is also different at the same time. This ambiguity allows
moment-by-moment apperception to appear, as the more analytical circuits
of the brain are hearing something that simultaneously is and isn't the
same thing. This means they're engaged, but don't get to run the show. Repetition
has this dancing quality.
But the repetition is also for sheer pleasure, as this type of unblocked
awareness enables a relaxed view of life without psychological striving
and straining. For the truth in practice is different to what you might
think in theory - living in the moment does not blank your mind but frees
it up completely to function fully at all levels.
"MEDITATION IS NOT NECESSARILY
SOMETHING PASSIVE OR QUIET"
Too much dance, especially the stuff on major labels, is programmatic music
with a vague stylistic influence from this new sort of music (i.e. it's
got synth textures & tends to do the same thing over and again). The
rhythm programming tends to sound busy rather than necessary. One common
slip-up is that although it's repetitive, it tends to take a breath in and
then breathe out at the end of each repeat before starting again. This means
although there is a tape-loop kind of mantra-style buildup, it doesn't actually
flow continuously. This sort of music tends to engage the mind but not the
body. In fact the most deeply hypnotic stuff tends to loop in such a way
that the end of one loop inexorably leads on to the beginning of the loop
again - the loop is one breath in itself, so you keep naturally breathing
without stopping to take a breath between each breath.
This way you enter into a meditative state that is extrovert, which is more
what meditation should be about. Meditation in the West has been appropriated
by New Age Pensioner groups and made a matter of nicey softness, quietness
and preciousness. But in proper Zen the enlightened one returns to the everyday
world of clutter, noise and work because the mystery, It, is in fact identical
with that clutter. Because of the New Agers, people don't seem to realise
that awareness, quietness of mind, is something that lets your mind (It)
work better, but in everyday life, all the time, not just when you're actually
self-consciously being quiet, or meditating ("the pot's usefulness
lies in its emptiness", although we'd say that as far as cannabis is
concerned pot's uselessness lies in it's emptiness, but we're getting out
of hand here). Dance-induced meditation is a reminder that meditation is
not necessarily something passive and quiet and this is terribly important
because people do tend to confuse spirituality, especially Eastern spirituality,
with something a bit airy-fairy and wishy-washy, and they therefore ignore
it. The best way to hear dance is at mind-saturating, physically detectable
volume, volume you can feel in your bones, possibly because those of us
living in the modern world have such exhaustively overactive, stressed minds
that's the only way to engage them successfully. There are various heaps
(skandhas) of painful self-consciousness arising from modern-day life that
weren't found in earlier times, and these therefore call for peculiarly
modern means of healing. If you doubt this, take note of the shocking escalation
in all forms of mental illness over the last 30 years. Dance music with
its overwhelming intensity is surely a more appropriate way to meditate
these days. Apart from anything else we don't think it's that appropriate
for younger people to try to deny their energy, either physical or psychic.
It's not good to shackle yourself with philosophies that were specifically
designed for those in mid-life or later when you're barely into your 20s.
Apart from anything else, just like with born-again Christianity, the drop-out
rate for young followers of these ideas is very high, and then you reach
middle age and there's nothing and you're just burnt out. Dance meditation,
however, seems to be suitable for all ages, even if the verbally expressed
philosophies of those involved in the dance scene often seem half-baked.
We should also point out that when you are listening in this timeless way,
all the "programmatic" aspects of your mind (remembering, weighing
up the components of the music and its feel, etc) are still there but now
functioning in an unblocked way. This is why dance music doesn't consist
of "the same thing over and over again" as its detractors say.
Wonderful contrapuntal interplay characterises the best dance music. When
listening in an unblocked Way, you still notice structural features of the
music, sudden changes are still sudden changes, buildups are buildups, but
you are in the midst of them, not observing from afar. The music is no longer
a structure, but a process caught by your mind, which is itself a process.
This is perhaps one reason why this music is dance music - you are so in
the middle that your body joins with your mind. The best dance music is
at once infectiously danceable and intellectually involved - in fact there's
hardly any around like that but you know it when you hear it. Because it
isn't self-consciously intellectual it is passionate, and because it's so
intense it has to be crafted subtly to bring out the nuances of emotion.
The central image of the Tao is the yin/yang. The intensity comes from
a dynamic interplay of the ying and yang, dark and light. Dance music that
is too yang tends to sound cheesy, whereas when it's too ying it just sounds
too adolescently moody. The best stuff has this kind of interplay, where
the effect is uplifting but intense - there's a kind of ambiguity in there
that gives the music terrific dynamic power.
We need to watch the word "observing". Here we mean the sort that
seeks to pin down or to measure. In music this results in the squeaky jiggery-pokery
and empty histrionics of the classical (cutlery juggling) avant-garde, because
it relies far too much on a need to keep exercising the Apollonian intellect,
the intellect of reason, at all costs. Even when the music makes a racket
it's been fed through an analytical processor first so that it fits the
overall picture. It's a tidy, determined racket. But exercising the body
in this compulsive, relentless way results in the grotesqueries of body-building,
and this sort of music suggests that something analogous can happen to the
mind. Proponents of the serial avant-garde are fond of saying it's just
another language that can be learnt like any other, but the process of learning
it properly will turn you into a musical crossword-puzzle solver or mathematician
if you're up to it, and if you're not then you'll use the same instinctive
aesthetic apparatus to do with "feels" and textures that you would
for any other sort of music. All that 12-note effort is wasted.
The other sort of "observing", which is utterly different, is
an inclusive quietness of mind, an awareness that doesn't shudder and isn't
distracted and isn't detached.
Paul the Pillpopping Priest for The Out of Order Order
0,001,997 and a bit
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