The two kinds of music that it’s okay to hate are country and techno. No one gets mad at a person who says, “I f*#$ing hate techno!” (an ex-boyfriend). Country is perhaps slightly more acceptable since even if you hate it, it may be listened to ironically. You can’t really listen to techno ironically and anyway techno knows you hate it and has no problem making fun of itself. If you do hate it, the music will sound like “someone banging garbage bin lids together” (my mother). But there’s more to techno than meets the ear, and in order to enjoy it, you have to go into it earnestly and just relax about what you think are its shortcomings—even though it is something so questionable musically, so like a bacteria of sound, one that multiplies into a disease and makes your heart race. Like this.
DK8, “Murder Was The Bass” (2003)
A track like Murder Was The Bass is really meant to be heard from large speakers in a dance venue as part of a long, continuous musical set that is blended by a skilled DJ who masterfully and intuitively guides the mood from his perch above the crowd. More than anything, techno is usually a communal experience.
This video is a pretty good depiction of what happens during a techno show. There’s a skinny guy twisting knobs, twitching with purpose between computer screens, looking so focused it’s like he’s performing surgery instead of just twisting knobs. The music sounds as if the skinny guy’s computer has just broken and got stuck. All those people with their hands in the air, looking like they’re at a political rally, asking the skinny guy with the broken computer to tell them what to do with their racing hearts, with the rest of their evening, with the rest of their lives.
On top of it, there are the trippy images on screens and lights that suggest hallucinatory sensations, drugs. See that eye at 5:15? That’s your eye on Ecstasy. I mean, if you were dumb enough to take the dirty pill — that may or may not cause a heart attack — and then stick yourself into a mass of sweaty bodies, so dense you get lifted off your feet. If someone falls here she will die, you think breezily, as everyone jumps with their eyes fixed on the skinny guy twisting knobs. It’s dangerous and insane — or it just seems dangerous and insane.
This is why I like it. Because somewhere in there, in this terrifying fun hell of sensory stimulation, there’s a feeling of abandon and freedom, a feeling that death doesn’t really matter — because you feel so incredibly close to it. People love rollercoasters, and they pay money to strap themselves to metal cages so they can hang upside-down at 140km/hour; I imagine they do this for similar reasons.
Recently, Richie Hawtin and other DJs went on tour and gave lectures about electronic music in university halls. In the evenings, the DJs put on shows. I went to the one in Toronto and it was fantastic: Sweaty, scary, stupid. The coat room bursting with parkas, girls looking at their blown-up pupils in the bathroom mirrors, guys grabbing asses, people as old as Richie Hawtin himself (born 1970) dancing themselves senseless. It was a terrifyingly joyous experience.
I’m not all that interested in the music’s history or geography or even its DJs. I understand that Richie Hawtin is considered a techno God. He’s been on the scene since the mid-90s deejaying at small clubs and big raves, in Detroit in the early analog days, and more recently in Berlin. The lecture tour is a natural extension for the electronic music veteran that is Hawtin — a man who’s also been involved in impressive mainstream events: He produced music for the 20th Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony or got invited by the artist Anish Kapoor to “face off” against the sculpture Kapoor created for the nave of the Grand Palais.
As for me, aside from going to the occasional show, these days I use techno differently. I listen to it at home. It provides a background to my solitary activities such as writing. When I write I like some kind of musical monotony in my ears to block the world, something that doesn’t demand my attention the way talk radio does, or intrude upon my daydreams the way catchy pop lyrics do.
I would prefer to write by the ocean with waves crashing against the seashell I’m sitting inside of with my laptop, typing words in the sand. That’s the ideal. But I write in the city, and the city is already loud, already banging its own garbage bin lids together. With techno, I have the perfect antidote to the unpredictable clamour of the city — a clean, distilled noise to feed into my ears.
Sometimes though, techno sounds so good I get lost in it and it moves past enjoyment and shoots straight to anxiety because it highlights the fact I am alone in my office sitting at a computer. Then I need something softer to soothe my pounding heart, a calmer dose, like this (that’s Richie Hawtin sitting at the table).
I wrote this essay while listening to a Richie Hawtin mix. This one below. Play it and do your work.
- Jowita Bydlowska