PRINT May/June 2020



View of “Carl Craig: Party/After-Party,” 2020, Dia:Beacon, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio.

TECHNO WAS BORN BLACK in the American Midwest, although we have the twin engines of European connoisseurship and commercial interest to thank for the detailed hagiographies given to innovators like Carl Craig. Craig’s enormous influence is due as much to his label, Planet E Communications, as to his prolific output as a producer and DJ. In the early 1990s, his adventuresome yet accessible style formed an integral part of what fans call Detroit techno’s “second wave.” The most distinctive feature of Craig’s music may be its lack of distinctiveness. Always tasteful, his most idiosyncratic and compellingly expansive productions tend to crop up at the edges of his oeuvre, camouflaged under pseudonyms (such as Paperclip People) and circulated via remixes. The large-scale installation Party/After-Party, 2020, at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York marks Craig’s first commission for an art institution.

The work outfits Dia’s cavernous basement with a powerful sound system and atmospheric flourishes. A slowly evolving techno song, stripped down to basic beats and minimal synths and shorn of almost all melody, subtly morphs in tandem with the shifts in lighting; window slats are automated to open and let in natural light every few minutes, simulating daybreak at a warehouse party. A few visitors briefly broke into spontaneous dance, as if out of respect for the techno godfather, although the overall feel of Party/After-Party is one of introspection.

View of “Carl Craig: Party/After-Party,” 2020, Dia:Beacon, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio.

Craig makes masterful use of the customized sound system, having tuned his composition to the room through the use of equalizers, filters, and spatialization. A near-invisible array of ceiling-mounted speakers adds reverb trails onto many of the sounds coming from the four main ones. Ingeniously, this move thwarts the natural acoustics of the room by providing an overhead “bed” of artificial space. Whereas Rineke Dijkstra gave her video The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/Mystery World, Zaandam, NL, 1996–97, its uncanny magic by separating young dancers from the dance floor and filming them alone in an adjacent room where the music could still be heard, Craig does the inverse with Party/After-Party, putting club sonics in a clublike space and subtracting the party people.

The sweaty social contract invoked by the art of the DJ—according to which the relationship between performer and crowd is a self-modulating loop wherein the kinetic energy of the latter informs the aesthetic choices of the former and vice versa, resulting in a communal momentum powerful enough to shape the subsequent creation of more music—is underwritten by a sonic axiom: Amplified music sounds terrible in empty rooms. The less stuff there is in any given space, the more sound waves will bounce around the walls and ceiling and glass, losing definition as they both interrupt and double themselves. The resulting audio is smeary, muffled, and diffuse. However, when the same space fills with bodies moving around, those waves are absorbed, dampening those irksome reflections and allowing us to hear the sound more powerfully and in far greater detail. Which is to say: Party/After-Party sounds good. The only thing that could make it sound better is people.

View of “Carl Craig: Party/After-Party,” 2020, Dia:Beacon, New York. Photo: Don Stahl.

GLOBALIZED FOLK MUSIC invented by middle-class suburbanites who conjured Rust Belt futures out of Japanese consumer electronics in the ’80s; the drab untz-untz that soundtracks mindless weekender hedonism; a polymorphously perverse challenge to Western musical propriety, whose African American roots are simultaneously underacknowledged and overmythologized: Techno is all this and more. Structurally, the genre is defined by the steady pulse known as “four-on-the-floor,” a metronomic 4/4 that cruises along at two beats per second (120 bpm) on up, forming a rhythmic ground atop which all manner of sound can be placed.

The moment in a song when the drums go quiet is called a breakdown. During the beatless breakdown of Party/After-Party, spotlights shine on a white X affixed to the center of the floor. Only a few feet away, the main speakers hang from the ceiling, all pointed toward the X to create a tiny acoustic sweet spot. Clubs take great pains to achieve even sound across the widest area possible, but Craig’s installation highlights the experience of a single, fixed listener. According to Craig, “In contrast to the glamorous perception of the touring musician, I wanted to reflect the isolation of the many hours spent alone in hotel rooms and the tinnitus that I, and many other artists, have to contend with as a result of our work.”Designing and optimizing Dia’s basement for a rave of one is an interesting way to get at that loneliness.

Experiencing Party/After-Party in the column-filled room, without a crowd and within the aggressively centralized listening space, one starts to feel that techno’s 4/4 is like a sonic version of Erwin Panofsky’s 1924 essay “Perspective as Symbolic Form.” In it, the art historian argued that Renaissance perspective and its many modern manifestations enforce a pseudo-objective visual logic that represents space as infinite, homogeneous, and universal. Panofsky believed that, in fact, we see space as “psychophysiological,” characterized by our complex, shifting, subjective experience; perspective organizes this into “mathematical space,” dominated by a single, central viewpoint—as if merely by looking, one could order the world.

The isolation that Craig wished to communicate now has a monstrous, radical mirror image: Much of the world is on lockdown at home, and it’s likely that there’s not a single club open in many places on the planet.

Just as perspective shapes the Western visual imagination, the 4/4 pulse at techno’s structural core also creates a grid—infinite, homogeneous, and universal—that regulates our sense of musical time. The even kick drum doesn’t propel the song; it defines it. All other elements—be they alien squelches, a gospel sample, arrhythmic percussion, an actual orchestra, anything, really—exist primarily in relation to the beat’s temporal framework. Indeed, one of the reasons why techno can generate such thrilling, boundary-pushing music is the fact that all manner of sonic weirdness gains power and palatability when deployed in contrast with the regularity of the kick.

Theo Parrish, a Craig associate and another second-wave Detroit artist, is known for his inventive techno “edits,” in which a looped sample forms the rhythmic core, the song’s sense of time based on a hyperspecific fragment of music instead of the abstract pulse described above. For example, in his track “JB’s Edit,” two snippets from James Brown’s “Body Heat” (including one of Brown saying “Wait a minute!”) are superimposed, and the resulting one-second loop blossoms into a five-minute song. Parrish’s edits often feel repetitive precisely because, unlike 4/4, with its seemingly neutral pattern, his quirky sample selections are proudly foregrounded, drawing attention to themselves as metronomes. These edits revel in a sense of time as a contingent, nonidealized, quasi-communitarian thing—which is exactly what dancing bodies do.

Although 2,733 bodies were under quarantine in New York City the day “Party/After-Party” opened, Covid-19 still felt far away. A week later, Dia:Beacon had closed, along with all major cultural institutions in the state of New York. The isolation that Craig wished to communicate now has a monstrous, radical mirror image: As of this writing, much of the world is on lockdown at home, and there’s not a single club open in many places on the planet. Craig’s work was poised to speak so powerfully to this moment because dance music is powered by the heat, promise, and unpredictability of bodies.

We enter crowds to become communicable. Shared vulnerability is the only thing that makes a “we” exist. The enforced dispersal of crowds reminds us that an immune system is built collectively. “Identity is equivalent to immunity,” writes philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in his 2000 essay “L’intrus” (The Intruder), “the one identifying itself with the other. To reduce the one is to reduce the other.” At its best, music in a club guides us to experience these reductions of self and its defenses as pleasureuntil the night ends. The most poignant sound in Party/After-Party is a high-pitched sine-wave drone that mimics tinnitus: the constant, incurable ringing in the ears that Craig and many other DJs, myself included, suffer from as a result of long-term exposure to loud music. Tinnitus is the unshareable sound of permanent (hearing) loss, one that becomes more piercing when we are alone, after the afterparty, when the world has quieted down. Quarantine amplifies this condition, but it doesn’t drown out the essential question: What can we learn from sound—which we ideally experience together, or apart when necessary—about how to voice collective grief and organize our minutes and hours into more sustaining forms? 

Jace Clayton is an artist and writer based in Manhattan. His book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2016.