CRITICAL BEATS in LONDON / RAVE AS MILITANT MODERNISM
On February 23, I’ll be joining Tony Herrington (The Wire) and Steve Goodman (Kode9/Hyperdub)for Critical Beats #3: Innovation and Tradition, third in a series of panel discussions co-hosted by The Wire and the University of East London and looking at aspects of electronic dance music and club culture as they manifest in East London and beyond. Mark Fisher was scheduled to participate but has had to withdraw owing to circumstances beyond his control.
Time: 7.30 pm
Location: Circus 1 at Stratford Circus, Theatre Square, Stratford, London E15
Information / tickets: 0844 357 2625 or here
As a taster for the discussion, here's an extract on the hardcore continuum as a form of street modernism, from Partly Political, #4 in my series of reflections on the Nuum Debate of 2009.
The power that anyone felt, anyone who was there--meaning 1992, or 1994, or 2002--any year where a new phase of the nuum kicked off.
The power in the music, at once purely sonic and yet emanating from outside it, passing through the music from the world of the Real and the Social, and going back out there, spilling the bounds of music as a segmented-off category.
I'm thinking of the electrifying sample that kicks off DJ Crystl's "Warp Drive"--"feel the power". (Apparently from the movie The Dark Crystal). The power is the breakbeat--which at the time "Warp Drive" was getting heavy play on the pirates seemed just about the most jagged and mashed slice of breakbeat science yet unleashed upon the world. It feels like a sculpted riot, a paroxysmic portent of social collapse. If I recall right, on "Warp Drive" Crystl was inspired by the ominous humming drone and beats-and-bass minimalism of Doc Scott's "Here Comes The Drumz," a track which samples Public Enemy, the original "fast rap" group so inspiring to the Brit B-boys who would build ardkore from the ground up.
There was a feeling this music gave off, not unlike the forcefield aura emitted by "Rebel Without A Pause" and "Bring the Noise" and "Welcome to the Terrordome", a feeling that this was both the ultimate dance music and much more than dance music. I think of Disco and the Halfway to Discontent, the album by Cornershop alter-ego Clinton (whose name--George or Bill?--further plays on the ambiguity of party-hard and party-political). I recall also the sleevenote on Rufige Kru's Ghosts of My Life EP, Goldie writing, "For those who don't quite understand, 'Ghosts' isn't about 'Disco'… It's about life and my experience, The memories, the haunts, the people, the places. All of us have ghosts in our lives." Both these inflections--the idea of a politicized party music, and of artcore, dance music that's both experimental and expressive--are claiming that there's more going on here that just celebration and letting off steam, the temporary utopia of weekenderism.
What was this power in the music, amorphous and yet real like a punch to your gut? It evoked forward-motion, violence given focus and discipline. The feeling of being in the vanguard, in both the artistic and military senses. In other words, the same "militant modernism" recently invoked by Owen Hatherley. Modernism, in its early 20th Century prime, almost always burst the enclosure of Art to take up one form or other of political commitment -- mostly (not always) left-wing, which in those days usually meant Communist.
I think of the hardcore continuum as a flashback to--or unscheduled recrudescence within popular culture of--modernism. But with a muffled or absent sense of the imperative felt by its High Art precursors that art had to escape the category of the purely aesthetic and spill out into the world if it was to truly realise itself. Or as Adorno put it, "in order for the work of art to be purely and fully a work of art, it must be more than a work of art."
You could see rave as a whole, and the nuum in particular, as modernism's last stand, or unexpected comeback, long after the ideals of modernism had been abandoned, eroded, questioned, everywhere else (including in pop music). Various factors enabled the nuum to evade the general drift towards postmodernism (factors perhaps shared by other black musics such as hip hop and dancehall). Amazingly it was able to evade the blight of postmodernity (irony, referentiality, citational aesthetics) even as it embraced and explored to the hilt the potential of what would on the surface seem to be the ultimate postmodern sound-machine, the sampler.
Miraculously holding pomo at bay, the nuum preserved within itself, within its own partially cordoned off space, the heightened temporality of peak-era modernism: a sensation of hurtling into the future. Like modernism before it, the nuum propelled itself headlong thanks to an internal temporal scheme of continual rupturing; it kept breaking with itself, a reactive dialectic that pushed it ever FWD. As a result it qualifies as one of those "steadily fewer" examples of "combative, collective movements of innovation" (Perry Anderson) that managed to withstand the onset of postmodernity and its culture-pervasive sensibility of eclectism, historicism, and cosmopolitanism.
"Pulp Modernism" is how Mark Fisher classes this renegade aesthetic. With my more Subcultural Studies bent, I prefer the term "Street Modernism". But we're basically talking about the same thing.
According to Fredric Jameson, what defines the modernist artwork is a relationship to time. It enacts the break with the past forms of art within itself. "The interiorization of the narrative [of modernity/modernism]…" becomes an integral element of the artwork's fundamental structure. "The act of restructuration is seized and arrested as in some filmic freeze-frame" such that the modernist work "encapsulates and eternalizes the process as a whole."
What could that mean in music? Precisely a genre that involved a kind of suspended clash of sampling/digital processing with the analogue/hand-played, such that the uncanny time-warping of digital technique coexists with and permeates the hands-on, real-time musicianship. Thus breakbeat science captures the moment of superhumanisation, the funk of flesh-and-blood drumming (just eight seconds of G. Coleman's life-force from "Amen, My Brother") mutating into something beyond itself. Likewise with vocal science. Jameson, again: "the older technique or content must somehow subsist within the work as what is cancelled or overwritten, modified, inverted or negated, in order for us to feel the force, in the present, of what is alleged to have once been an innovation." The shock of the new, eternalized.
People regularly refer to Plato's wary conception of music as inherently subversive, his idea that music in its very essence is a threat to social stability, and therefore something the state needs to control tightly. Actually what he wrote is slightly more complicated , and even more interesting, in the present context. In the imaginary philosophical dialogues of The Republic, speaking through the historically real but here fictionalized figure of Socrates, Plato warns that "the attention of our rulers should be directed so that music and gymnastics [dancing, presumably?] be preserved in their original form… any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited... For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions."
Could that be true? I don't know, it seems far-fetched, at this remote vantage point. It's almost a struggle to remember that this, precisely, was the affective sensation generated by this music, in its various heydays. The shockwaves of the beats and bass passing through your body seemed to herald equivalent tremors passing through the body politic.