PRINT February 1994


In his 1939 essay “Goal: New Music, New Dance,” John Cage prophesied an electronic music of the future made by and for dancers: What we can’t do ourselves will be done by machines and electrical instruments which we will invent." The modern European music called techno is based around such instruments (the sampler and the sequencer), machines that render post-Cage techniques like tape-looping and musique concrète as easy as pie. And the records are made by ravers who know how to soundtrack their own choreography, by djs who understand what’s needed to work a crowd’s bodily reflexes.

Cage even predicted the howling horror of the music establishment (in techno’s case, the rock gerontocracy): “The conscientious objectors to modern music will . . . attempt everything in the way of counter-revolution. Musicians will not admit that we are making music . . . New and original sounds will be labeled as ‘noise.’”

“Percussion music is revolution”: Cage’s opening fanfare has been answered by techno, which increasingly is purely percussive. Even its tuneful elements, like the keyboard oscillator riffs that flicker between octaves, have a rhythmic, strobelike function; either that or they’re pure timbre (another Cage keynote). Melodic motifs are trite in techno because their real function is to revel in the materiality of sound-in-itself. One sector of British rave music, the lumpen-prole subculture called hardcore or jungle, has stripped techno down to drum and bass. Sped-up break-beats are reverbed, treated, “time-stretched,” and overlaid with itchy-’n’-scratchy blips of sound that evoke the mandible-rustling telecommunication of the insect world. Polyrhythms are piled on, oblivious of the “correct” ways to organize rhythm: a spastic sound clash of incompatible meters (funky hip-hop breaks, dub reggae sway, Latin rolls). Bass lines have devolved into a “sub-bass” dronequake at the lower threshold of audibility, wobbling your intestines. Increasingly, jungle is just beats overlaid with sampled ectoplasm (shimmery and tantalizing or ghostly/ghastly). The sample works as an estrangement device, a deracination machine, producing sonorities whose physical origin is impossible to trace. Soul and pop vocals are sped up into elf-chatter or cartoon baby-talk; vocal particles of passion are looped into inhuman swoon-machines.

Jungle is the bastard son of the Cage-influenced avant-funk tradition that runs from ’70s groups like Can and Kraftwerk through Brian Eno’s and David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts to PiL, 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire, et al. Like avant-funk, jungle combines cut-up collage with the cut-’n’-mix esthetic of dj-dominated genres like disco, dub, and rap. Can talked of how machines have souls, how repetition functions as a machine; rave also operates as a gigantic musical/subcultural machine, in which the drug Ecstasy, or E, works as both fuel and lubricant. E has been described as the “flow” drug (in an echo of Can’s ethos of “flow motion”). It melts bodily and psychological rigidities, releasing oceanic feelings of connection and empathy (some say telepathy!), loosening bodily movement and enabling dancers to lock into the groove. Creatively, E can be like a capsule of Zen, promoting a state of open-minded receptivity like that advocated by Cage, a willingness to “let sounds be.” E is the electricity that powers the noise factory of a rave sound-system or pirate radio station.

Both as individual tracks and as total flow, techno is a rhythm engine constructing itself out of cannibalized components, a mad inventor’s contraption gone berserk. Rave music is where Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “principle of asignifying rupture” (cut ’n’ mix) meets up with an antipolitics of rapture (techno as euphoria generator without pretext or context). Rave culture is a “desiring-machine,” Deleuze and Guattari’s “acentered, nonhierarchical, non-signifying system . . . defined solely by a circulation of states,” with no external object or objective. The catchphrases chanted by mc’s or fans are striking for their intransitive nature: “Let’s go,” “Rush,” “Belief!,” “Buzzing,” “Work it up,” “Get busy,” “’Ardkore’s firing.” The almost Zen or Gnostic flavor of these buzzwords indicates that tautology is rave’s essence; it’s about the celebration of celebration. And as someone once said, tautology is bliss.

This freeflowing desire without referent suggests that rave music constructs Deleuze and Guattari’s famous “Body without Organs.” Neurologically plugged into the sound system, the raver’s body becomes “a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation towards a culmination.” From house to hardcore, rave music has always been structured around the delay of climax: mantra-as-Tantra. E is notorious for making orgasm difficult if not impossible. Instead of the tension/climax narrative of traditional pop, rave music creates a feeling of “arrested orgasm,” a plateau of bliss that can be neither exceeded nor released. The Body without Organs simply buzzes, bloated with luminous energy: a sensation of asphyxiating nirvana caught in a chorus like “I’m drowning in love,” or an mc chant like Oooooh gosh!

E disperses the focus of desire from penetration to a polymorphous perverse sensuality. E androgynizes (it’s a real dick-shriveler). Male ravers’ relationship to the hyperorgasmic soul-diva vocals on jungle tracks is one not of lust but of identification and aspiration. Rave is a culture of clitoris envy, a lowbrow version of Lacan’s green-eyed feelings about the mystic Saint Teresa. In his book Lacan, Malcolm Bowie, paraphrasing the psychoanalyst, describes women as “perpetual motion machines programmed to produce their own rapture”; it is as if “an uncaused, unlocalisable and ineffable pleasure-spasm” inspired Teresa’s enraptured contortions. Pure rave! Rave’s epileptic bombardment of stimuli (staccato beats and strobes) reflects the subculture’s essence: “nympholepsy,” “an ecstasy or frenzy caused by desire of the unattainable.”

Jungle, as an enclosed ghetto within rave culture, comes closest to the perfect model of the desiring machine. Club and rave promoters, pirate radio stations, the dj’s/producers who make the tracks, indie labels, specialist record stores, and, not least, drug dealers together form a self-sufficient fiscal and musical ecosystem that doesn’t need commercial crossover to sustain itself. The self-reflexive, tautology-is-bliss side of rave reaches its zenith during pirate stations’ phone-in sessions. MCs and callers hype each other up in a spiraling feedback loop of fervor and exultation, relaying “big shouts” and “respect” back and forth: “Come alive, London!” “Coming on strong!” It is a self-induced hypergasm, a shared hallucination of in-the-place-to-be grandiosity inflamed by stations who boast of “running t’ings” and by gangs of youths “locked” in at home who call themselves “massives.” Massification and excitation are the raison d’être of the pirates (degraded descendants of Radio Alice, the unlicensed Italian broadcasters who so excited Guattari in the late ’70s): a power trip for the powerless, a goalless, apolitical unity.

Jungle’s financial autarky is the economic base for a culture that is really a form of collective autism, a mass refusal of the Oedipus complex, a regressive secession from reality. In her book Nobody Nowhere, an autobiography, Donna Williams describes how the autistic withdraw from a threatening reality into a private utopia of kaleidoscopic colors. This utopia or no-place suggests Julia Kristeva’s chora, the prelinguistic, pre-Oedipal realm of primary drives, which resurfaces in poetry and art through non-sense, through musication of language and color. Just as the rave experience is all rhythm, timbre, and chromatic chaos, the patois patter of the mc’s is drenched in what Kristeva calls the semantic fuzziness of slang: their free-style rap drivel is all assonance and echolalia, the voluptuousness and viciousness of primary oral/aggressive drives. Rave culture is a vast collective womb-space (a pirate mc, stoned and delirious, giggles that they’re “in a bubble”), or a kindergarten (hence the vogue for tracks that sample children’s TV themes, the trend for ravers to suck pacifiers, or, most sinister, the naming of some brands of E after ’70s sweets).

Too much unrepression and you plunge into the “dark side”: prolonged abuse of E, marijuana, LSD, and speed, which are all mix-’n’-matched by hardcore ravers, results in paranoia. Hence the current vogue for “dark” tunes, with horror-movie sound effects and black-humorous samples: “Boy, that stuff can give you a brain damage”; a girl muttering, “Felt that I was in a long dark tunnel”; panicky shrieks of “We’re not gonna die”; a father, told his son has od’d, whimpers an aghast “HOW??!!??” As all this hints, ravers may be aware that E culture is a massive, uncontrolled psychosocial experiment whose long-term costs are only now becoming clear.

The machine is demanding, exacting a heavy toll on its human software: postrush comedown and midweek veg-out; illness (hot and sweaty, raves are viral incubators); burnout’s diminishing returns. As the beats-per-minute rise according to an implacable, inhuman logic (140, 160, 180 b.p.m. and rising), lightweights drop off like flies, leaving the hardest-core survivors. While the burned-out seek soothing solace with ambient techno and cannabis, the hard-core stoke the furnace with bigger doses of amphetamine-addled E. Just like the hardcore tracks, ravers turn into man-machine contraptions gone haywire, teeth-grinding, twitching, gurning (face-pulling). Speed mechanizes the human body. With its tics and jerks, its robotic/autistic rocking movements, rave-dancing resembles “punding,” the compulsive repetitive gestures and tasks that absorb the dedicated speed-freak. A kind of Zen grace can be attained through becoming a slave to the rhythm, but this regime of bliss wreaks a terrible attrition on the flesh-and-blood components of rave’s orgasmotron. Deleuze and Guattari warn that the Body without Organs can become a “black hole,” voided and en-tropic; that drug use can become fascist or suicidal. Escaping one kind of slavery (the workaday grind), ravers subordinate themselves to another: oppressed at work, en-thrall-ed in leisure, their anti-Oedipal triumph over reality is also their tragedy. This is a lost generation, lost in music.

Simon Reynolds