Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#4 Jules Marshall 1 Jan 1996

Return to the Source or the politics of Plur

first Born, the Grandfathers told,
had emerged from quivering mud to the rythmn of his own heart
and so man had known the true rythmn from the beginning.(1)
Soon afterwards man had learned to use this rythmn for making song
and then certain ones had discovered the true power in song
the power for making spiritual contact.

Not content with using the drums to convey coded messages ... often of a subversive nature, the beat and rythums that mesmerise the people and put them into a trance-like state, these drums are not merely musical instruments, they are the real language through which these people speak, a language alien and therefore threatening to us. It would be foolhardy of us to ignore this threat.(2)


Return to the source or the politics of plur -

1 Creation myth of the Dakota Indians. Sleeve note: Rythmn is Rythmn, The Beginning (Kool Kat Records, 1990)
2 Captain James Vaughan, assistant military attaché, Trinidad 1903. Sleeve note: The Drum Club, Drums are Dangerous (Butterfly Records, 1994)

How shall I live my life? is a question most of us ask sometime in our lives, typically in adolescence, as the relative safety and innocence of childhood is morphing into the independent social and political animal we call an adult, with its conflicting choices, responsibilities and desires.

For most of humanity's existence, the answer has involved balancing the bipoles of individual/community, internal voice and first-person experience/external culture and tradition. Out of this balancing act came 'faith'; faith that the sun would come up, that objects released in mid-air fall, that Shamans really were talking with your ancestors. Faith is essentially the operating system of the soul; the set of beliefs and commands that translate raw sensory data into operable experience.

For tens of thousands of years, to continue the metaphor, we all spoke source code. That is, we built our gods collaboratively, using the very first technology: fire, music and entheogenic/psychedelic pant preparations. For primitive or pagan societies, gods were here and now, living, evolving beings that could be experienced and communicated with by all.

With the advent of patriarchal religion came the arrival of the 'all models shipped with dos' model of faith. A powerful (if opaque to the outsider) layer of command was added in the chain between the Gaian godhead or whatever, and the individual. Consciousness-altering technologies were either banned or tamed and caged; all communication between the program (us) and the user (God) would be through the interface of the priesthood.

Of course, there's always been an underground determined to ask the big questions for themselves. In Drugs, Music and Ideology: A Social Pharmacological Interpretation of the Acid House Movement, authors Michael Montaigne (an associate professor of social pharmacy) and Thomas Lyttle (publisher of Psychedelic Monographs and Essays) point out that drug-based musical movements are nothing new. In medieval Europe we had the tarantellas, a musical cult that took tarantula venom and danced their tits off. Siberian Amanita muscara mushrooms were knocked back prior to marathon dance sessions; gypsies, dervishes and others combined herbs and frenzied dancing.

In this century, Chicago blues men (heroin), Jazz (cocaine, absinthe and speed), Beatnik bongos-and-guitars bands (coffee, marihuana, nicotine and speed) continued the trend, and the psychedelic 60s saw the first stirrings of techno influences. The seventies disco was accompanied by 'ludes and coke – and yet more techno.

If rock can be summed up by heroic individualism of the guitar solo, then dance can be distilled into the Mantra and the Man Machine, Kodwo Eshun pointed out in the Guardian newspaper (Feb. 3 95). Draw a line from Kraftwerk's 1978 lp, Die Mensch Maschine, right through to 90s era Cubase computer junglists... and you can see how Dance reverses the ground rules of Rock, a spectacle of sound and vision while Dance is sound/vision schizmatic. Unlike rock, what you hear isn't what you see. Dance's mantric principles - its loops and sequences - generate a huge repetition machine which ravers and dancers plug themselves into.

Citing Neher's metronome and strobe studies from the 50s that found bpm, drumming style, decibel levels and low-end frequencies can cause vivid hallucinations in test subjects, Montaigne and Lyttle note that with the addition of mdma and lsd, and moving to the location of the aircraft hangar, warehouse or squat, these machine effects are being used to blast huge crowds into psychedelic spaces.

There's been much ballyhoo about how mtv and video games are 're-wiring a generation's brains'. I'd contend that this is equalled if not exceeded by the significance of the re-wiring that is occurring among the house/techno/rave generation.

Manfred Clynes, in his 1978 theory of Sentics, claims certain temporal sensory patterns (sentics) are associated with common emotional states. For example, in his experiments he found that two particular patterns (that gently rise and fall) suggest states of love and reverence; two others (more abrupt) signify anger and hate. These sentics, he claims, arouse the same effects through different senses, and are cross cultural.

Calling for more research, Marvin Minsky agreed with Clynes that music can engage emotions through sentic signals, perhaps to serve in the early development of children (Minsky, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 5.3 Fall 1981).

All learning theories require brains to somehow impose 'values' implicit or explicit in the choice of what to learn to do. Most theories suggest some sort of reinforcer signals. Minsky speculates that for certain goals, simple 'primary' physiological stimuli, like eating, drinking and relief of discomfort suffice. But to learn social signals, he assumes certain sounds (e.g. of approval) work.

But external reinforcement can only be a part of learning; the growing child must at some stage learn to learn from within. So, we need a self-model even for making plans to solve the most basic problem, and we need models of our own behavior to test future scenarios. How could a baby be smart enough to do all this?

Perhaps innate sentic detectors could help teach infants about their own affective states. If certain sounds arouse certain states just knowing that such states exist, that is, having symbols for them, is half the battle. If those rules are universal, then from social discourse we can learn rules about the behaviour caused by those states.

It is possible that we conceal in the innocent songs and settings of our children's musical cultures some lessons about successions of our own affective states. These sentically encrypted ballads may encode instructions about conciliation and affection, aggression and retreat; precisely the knowledge of signals and states we need to get on with others, speculates Minsky. In later life, more complex music might illustrate more intricate kinds of compromise and conflict, ways to fit goals together to achieve more than one thing at a time.

Far-fetched maybe – Minsky certainly thought so. And yet, maybe we could continue the proposal into Techno music, a more complex and self-referential, sampladelica that has evolved from the meiosis of Chicago House and Detroit Techno into (Goa) Trance, Handbag, Hardbag, Ambient, Garage, Gabber, Ethnodelic, Happy Hardcore, Drum 'n' Bass, Acid, Italo and Jungle, that are even now spawning new cyborganic genres in a new Cambrian explosion of rhythmic form. Are new sentic patterns are being generated, beyond the 'music for grown ups' suggested by Minsky?

The commonalties of music structure shared by techno provide some clues. Invariants (the beat), growth curves and cyclic waves introduce local pockets of predictability, extracted as patterns of prediction and unity - invisible patterns of order seen during moments of heightened awareness. Techno exhibits persistence of rhythm, where the mind maintains a beat through ambiguity. In more ambient styles, monotony is employed, which allows the mind to amplify minutiae and find structure in noise.

In addition to the re-discovery of basic tribal sentics, there are contemporary millennial/Utopian ideas more or less inherent in much electronic dance music, despite its lack of lyrics. In addition to the more obvious neo-hippieisms, one distinctly 90s trend is the fascination with aliens and ufos. From the hard-driving trance of bands like Eat Static (lp's include Implant and Abduction) to the more ethereal seti-influenced ambiance of Biosphere, to the ubiquitous schwa - surely the smiley face of the 90s - aliens and all things alien are in.

The plasticity of digital sound also lends itself to the creation of utterly novel rhythmic and sonic structures, such as time stretching and perfect beat, that crowbar open whole new wings of the Borgesian library of possible music.

The mass experience of these effects, with or without drugs, seem to act as sentics for a new secular spirituality, dubbed in the us 'plur' - Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. These values, and the empowering feeling of community that accompany them, are dragging the dance underground - for long a self-congratulatory euphemism for hedonistic exclusivity -- back to its historical congruence with the political underground.

Before 1988 - the uk's Summer of Love - a whole generation of British youth had grown up and reached political maturity under a Conservative rule so secure and unyielding, so intolerant of dissent or alternative opinions, so swift to use the full power of the state to destroy its opponents, whether women at Greenham Common or mining communities, as to be elective dictatorship.

For ten years, from the punks' Never Trust a Hippie to the City's Greed is Good, we had grown up in nasty, mean-spirited, grasping times in which the ancient unwritten constitutional rights and responsibilities of governors and governed had been torn up.

We were reminded daily of the environmental catastrophe that we were going to have to grow old in, to choose whether to bring kids into. It was a rapid lesson in globalism: Scandinavian lakes ruined by British power stations, cancerous eels dumped on the steps of the Bundestag, Chernobyl fallout poisoning Welsh lambs.

From football thugs to the smug, rural bourgeoisie dubbed Sloanes, and oleaginous yuppies, racist cops and scumbag newspapers reducing all of human life to cash and celebrity, we had few clues or encouragement to find, let alone survive, a life congruent with ethical integrity.

The fact that a thousand, 5,000, 10,000 people could come together in a field somewhere without recourse to tribalism or aggression - who actually hug, grin, smile at each other, dance all night and then some, to be aware that there were others out there who shared these feelings, the fact that love, peace and unity could be talked about without irony for the first time in years, was a revelation and a political event in its own right.

Estimates range from 2-4 million ecstasy tablets used a month in the uk. What the long term implications for individuals and society are of this kind of usage is anyone's guess. Psychiatrists believe that the use of noötropics such as Prozac continue to have a positive effect even after the patient has ceased using them because new, 'positive' neural loops replace the old 'negative ones'. The brain is in effect re-wired. mdma may work in a similar fashion; governments have by-and-large been too incurious, uncaring – or scared – to find out.

By 1990, following an intense newspaper campaign, parliament introduced the Pay Parties (increased Penalties) Act to curb these 'acid house' parties. It's now recognized that this introduced an element of defiance to what had previously been primarily hedonistic impulses, projecting the dance and political undergrounds on a path to convergence.

In 1994, the government took another blind step against forces they inadequately understood, the Criminal Justice Act, with its ridiculous banning of gatherings of more than 10 people listening to music characterized by repetitive beats.

The complete absence of any international complaint about this quasi-fascistic legislation, I believe, should be taken as evidence that other countries are adopting a wait-and-see attitude to the Act, with a view to introducing similar bills at home, presumably under the guise of anti-noise measures or as part of the War Against Drugs Users. This criminalisation of huge proportions of the population is going to have major consequences for the idea of democracy as we currently use it.

Anti-rave actions, often of excessive brutality, have become a new feature of the civil liberties landscape in Australia, Holland, Germany, Ireland and the usa – and these are just some examples picked up on ukDance listserv on the Internet recently. Or rather, they haven't haven't become issues. Taking place in houses of hedonism or industrial wastelands, and by definition in the middle of the night, mainstream media have still, nearly a decade since the advent of the Ecstasy-techno revolution, to comprehend what is going on.

Before applauding the uk's criminalising hard line, they should be aware of the consequences of mass-alienation. The left-wing think tank Demos found more than a third of uk 18-34 year olds derived a sense of pride from being outside the political system.

The bottom line is that the corporeal-ecstasy of the raver is a direct challenge to the body-loathing drone sucking on the technosphere through a terminal that the New Industrialism would have us be. The Object-Oriented Programming (oop) approach to faith and morality that enables people today to pick and mix their own operating system, fuelled by the techno-trinity of fire (strobes/video screens), drums (sound systems) and drugs (man-made) is a secular spiritualism worthy of the end of the millennium. Just Say Know, or as the .sig said: For those who've had the experience, none is necessary. For those who haven't, none is possible. Welcome to the politics of plur.