In this essay, LWE/RA contributor Luis-Manuel Garcia examines how electronic dance music shapes how its fans experience time.
Time in Electronic Dance Music
This whole thing started with me thinking to myself, “I’m not paying €12 for just four hours of fun” — after which I nearly slapped myself. It was a Sunday evening in mid February, and I was at a dinner party with seven other friends. Everyone was excited about the fact that Gerd Janson was going to be spinning at Panorama Bar later that night (I know, I know: you’re probably sick to death of hearing about Berghain/Panorama Bar, but bear with me here). The plan was for all of us to finish dinner and head straight to the club, in order to catch all of Gerd Janson’s four-hour set. But it was already Sunday evening, so we had already missed about 18 hours of music. And Gerd was the only DJ on the remaining schedule about whom I was excited. And my budget was really tight that week. And so, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to “throw away” €12 to go see only four hours of music.
A little while later, as I was on a bus home while my friends excitedly headed off to see Gerd, I thought to myself: “What the !@#$ is wrong with you?! How is four hours of amazing music in a legendary venue with several of your friends not worth €12?” After I finished berating myself, it occurred to me that electronic music, as well as its fans, has an unusual relation to time. In comparison to most other music genres, electronic music operates on much longer timescales — and those of us who are into it also listen on longer time-scales. We regularly listen (and dance) to music for hours at a time without interruption, and it’s unexceptional; it’s just “a night out.” We go to raves or after-hours parties or all-night clubs and dance to this music until the sun rises (and sometimes sets again). We listen to one-and-a-half- to two-hour podcasts and complain that this format is artificially short and constraining. We treat seven- to 12-minute tracks as small building blocks for the multi-hour performance we expect from a headlining DJ. And yet, when you compare the cost of an average night out clubbing with that of a rock festival or even a very long concert, it’s hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that we actually pay relatively little money for the sheer duration of musical pleasure we get. (Note to clubs and event promoters: This is not a suggestion to raise prices, by the way. The economics of dance music culture are still rather far removed from pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, or what have you.)
I’ll admit that this story has something to do with living in Berlin: if Gerd Janson or any other high-profile DJ came to town to play a four-hour set for only €12/$15 when I was living in Chicago, Toronto, or Paris (all former homes of mine), there would’ve been no question about my attendance. And I probably would’ve paid even more money for the privilege of hearing one of my favorite DJs put in a four-hour performance. In Berlin, clubs run much longer, DJ sets are much longer, and an average weekend program reads like a “who’s who” of top-flight artists, mostly because so many of them already live in Berlin. So while part of this was me being spoiled by living in Berlin, that’s also partially why I was suddenly aghast at myself for taking such opportunities for granted.
But there was more to it than the fact that, especially in the past few years, Berlin is to electronic dance music what Nashville is to country music — a hub for production, distribution, networking, and performance. Electronic dance music, wherever it’s produced and heard, involves hours and hours of uninterrupted music, with each performer putting in hours of intense labor. When the dance-music-journalism heavyweight Philip Sherburne reviewed the rather awkward inclusion of dance music in this year’s Grammys, he complained that the award show’s format was far too short to provide anything approaching a decent representation of the genre: “a dance-music DJ needs hours, not minutes, to get across his or her ideas.”
“House Music All Night Long”
The multi-hour DJ set is nothing new, either. These days, a set lasting longer than four hours is usually described as an “extended DJ set,” but for disco pioneer David Mancuso, that was just a regular night at The Loft. From Mancuso’s Loft to Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage to the early-80s, members-only nightclub The Saint, writer and historian Tim Lawrence described how all-night DJ sets were integral to the development of disco (and garage) in New York City. Since then, numerous other legendary DJs have come to be associated with marathon sets, such as Danny Tenaglia, DJ Harvey, Laurent Garnier, Carl Craig, and Ricardo Villalobos. In recent years, event promoters in many cities have been experimenting with one-DJ-all-night formats (e.g., the “A Night With…” series in London). Back in Berlin, Berghain has become famous for closing the night/day/weekend with open-ended sets that can sometimes run well past ten hours — especially when residents such as Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock, or Boris are spinning.
Berghain/Panorama Bar, where you never know if it will be light or dark out when you leave
The stretched-out temporalities of electronic dance music become clearer when you compare them to other music genres. To begin with, the seven-minute dance track is more than twice as long as the archetypal three-minute pop song. But the more meaningful units of comparison are the DJ set, which usually runs a minimum of 2 hours, and the typical “night out” clubbing, which usually involves six to eight hours of music in most cities (and much more, if you’re willing to go looking for the after-party). A rock, pop, or hip-hop concert usually runs one and a half to two hours. At the level of smaller events in bars and lounges, you’re likely to hear anywhere from two to four hours of music for the whole night, shared by several performers in thirty- to forty-five-minute slots. Jazz nights usually feature two or three 45-minute sets. Moving further afield from popular music, a concert of “classical” music is usually programmed to run about the length of your average film: 90 to 120 minutes. Most 19th- and 20th-century operas run three hours, with Richard Wagner’s mammoth works running from four and a half to five hours long.
Mind you, music festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella, or Pitchfork provide days of music, but they’re infrequent, “special” events that cost a lot of money ($215, $285, and $110, respectively, for three days) and require a huge raft of performers to fill out the numerous, short time slots. Electronic music festivals have been increasingly following this example, but they still remain relatively cheap (Detroit Electronic Music Festival: $75; Exit Festival: €119/$156; Decibel: $125; Labyrinth: ¥16,000 / $197; Melt!: €110/$144; Nachtdigital: €76/$100), and they can fill days of music on multiple stages with a comparably small roster of performers — although they do tend to keep DJ sets very short in order to cram in more ticket-selling headliners.
In any case, a regular weekend outing in electronic music scenes still involves longer, more sustained engagement with music than nearly any other modern-day music scene. And then there are cities like Berlin, where clubs regularly run from midnight to 8:00 to 10:00am, and you can find electronic music to dance to anytime between Friday night and Monday night. Furthermore, the selection of DJs performing every weekend means that you can see famous legends, current favorites, and up-and-coming artists on any given weekend. It’s like having an electronic-music-only Coachella every weekend in Berlin, but scattered through dingy nightclubs instead of gathered in an open field. It’s actually exhausting if you live here.
There are some exceptions to this pattern in electronic dance music, however. I’ve already mentioned how dance music festivals have increasingly adopted the shorter, high-turnover format of rock and pop festivals. But also during the 90s, at the peak of the rave phenomenon in North America, DJ sets were often kept to one hour. The reason for this exceptionally short programming was actually pretty simple: most small- and mid-scale raves were organized by aspiring DJs who wanted to give themselves opportunities to perform. And so, they needed to fit all of the better-known headliner DJs into the program as well as nearly every member of the party crew. There were some other advantages to this, too: this was during the time before the complete genre-fragmentation of urban rave scenes, when a night of raving would likely involve house, techno, drum and bass, trance, breaks, and ambient. One-hour DJ sets meant that, no matter how much you disliked what the current DJ was playing, there would be someone new in an hour.
The chief disadvantage — and a common subject of complaint from DJs — was that such short set times produced poorly structured DJ sets. With only an hour to work with (i.e., 10 to 12 tracks), DJs simply couldn’t shape their sets into long arcs or undulating sine-waves of affect; instead, they felt pressured to deploy all of their most heavy-hitting, dance floor-filling, “killer” tracks all at once, without a break. Every DJ played as if it were peak-hour and, after a few of these in a row, the crowd was likely to get exhausted. The one-hour set hasn’t entirely disappeared, either. It remains a standard format for dance music podcasts (although podcasts exceeding two hours are becoming more common), and you’ll see a similar phenomenon whenever you have too many performers crammed into one event program — such as opening, closing, and anniversary parties. For example, the last Underground Quality party at Tape Club Berlin last month featured 11 DJs over approximately 12 hours.
There are nonetheless a few music genres out there with similar timescales to electronic dance music. Following in the footsteps of the improvisation-heavy psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead, many contemporary “jam bands” can extend their songs by 20 or 30 minutes through open-ended and extensive improvisation. More relevant to modern electronic dance music, however, is the musical minimalism that coalesced as a style in the NYC downtown scene of the 60s, nearly three decades before Plastikman/Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills. Mixing instruments from classical, jazz, and non-Western traditions (and, later, electronic instruments), composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, and John Adams composed long-format, slowly shifting performance pieces that frequently ran over an hour. Notably, both “classical” minimalist music and post-disco electronic dance music make use of strikingly similar structures: modular, repeating, expandable, process-oriented, and focused on the layering of textures.
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, who would’ve loved a long night out, we’re sure
In any case, this isn’t some dick-measuring contest about what music genre has the longest running times. This is about the way that electronic dance music has shaped an audience of listeners — and dancing listeners, which is important, I think — to listen to music on temporal scales that are multiples of pop, rock, classical, jazz, or nearly any other genre. Much like the audiences of “classical” minimal music, the audiences of electronic dance music have developed the capacity to listen across long time intervals and to hear musical processes that occur over 16, 32, 64, 128 cycles rather than two, four, or eight (the standard bar length for melodic phrases in classical music). Considering the constant drum beat of cultural critics bemoaning the disappearance of our attention spans, it should come as a surprise that electronic dance music is still very much a popular genre that attracts millions of fans worldwide and drives a substantial part of the nightlife sector. My own theory is that it shapes listeners: listening to dance music teaches you how to listen to dance music, and repeated listening shapes your expectations, your attentiveness, and your musical perceptions. This is probably true of all musical traditions, but electronic dance music shapes listeners in ways that diverge rather widely from other popular music traditions.
There has actually been some research into the way that electronic dance music shapes the experience of listening, but still only a small sliver of this literature takes it seriously and gets down to the nuts-and-bolts specifics of how the music works. It’s also sometimes hard to extract the concrete musical analysis from layers of romantic, neo-hippie wish fulfillment.
Probably the most common and widespread explanation portrays electronic dance music as “hypnotic,” assigning mind-altering power to its repetitive rhythms and gradually-changing textures. Chances are that, if you’re reading this essay, you’ve already read or heard this hypothesis in a few different forms; it’s sort of the pop-psychology/pop-philosophy explanation of electronic music, which conveniently dovetails with the psychedelic aspects of the genre’s history (especially since Chicago house met Ibizan “Balearic Beat” at the dawn of the UK’s rave scene), including the concomitant associations with altered states of consciousness.
Early scholarly literature on the rave movement in the 90s often described the music’s rhythms and structures as hypnotic, too, sometimes making reference to music-anthropological research on music and trance. There would often be comparisons to other music-induced trance traditions — especially Indian, Southeast-Asian, and African trance rituals — which invited broader comparisons to non-western cultures among scholars, journalists, and in the rave scene itself. But this was also freighted with a lot of post-colonial (and neo-colonial) romanticism, and you didn’t have to look too far to find accounts of dance music’s hypnotic effects that would make any modern-day anthropologist cringe. Such accounts often involved a blend of neo-colonial romanticism, cultural tourism, Orientalism, less-than-respectful cultural borrowing, and condescending attitudes towards participants of non-western trance rituals (and sometimes to ravers, too).
In any case, some of the music-theoretical explanations behind the trance model remain useful, particularly the emphasis on repetition and gradual change. Many trance traditions involve music that has repeating, modular, expandable structures that gradually change over time, all of which are also significant characteristics of electronic dance music. Essentially, the trancers supposedly synchronize their minds and bodies to the repeating rhythmic patterns (a process called “entrainment” in the field of music cognition), at which point they are pulled along by the gradual changes and shifting patterns in the music and thus driven into a state of trance. While I’m skeptical that there are all that many ravers and clubbers falling into full-on trance states, the underlying notion of entrainment is useful, especially in conjunction with dancing, which coordinates your body’s movements with the music’s repeating and shifting patterns. This helps explain how, even when you’re not paying close attention to the music, you’ll sometimes feel a sub-conscious “tug” when a rhythmic cycle comes to an end or some change in the texture is going to occur.
Luis-Manuel Garcia’s recommended listening: Egal 3, “Time Train”
How do you know when a shift is coming in electronic dance music? If you’ve been listening to this kind of music for a while, you’re probably able to anticipate when the next musical element will appear, or when the texture will change. Mark J. Butler, one of the first scholars to apply a music-analytic lens to the structure and composition of electronic dance music, goes a long way towards explaining this awareness in his 2006 book, Unlocking the Groove. Placing an emphasis on rhythmic patterns, Butler describes how dance music producers build their tracks (and DJs build their sets) out of metric cycles that are powers of two: eight beats, 16 beats, 32 beats, 64 beats and sometimes more. If you listen to an electronic dance music track and count 32 beats, you’ll almost certainly hear a noticeable change in the music somewhere within those 32 beats: maybe an added hi-hat, maybe a new vocal sample, maybe a shift of harmonies, maybe the drop of the bass kick drum. And, more importantly, if you start counting from one of these structural changes, you’ll be able to guess that the next change will probably happen on the 8th, 16th, or (usually) 32nd beat.
This is what is often called a “structural downbeat” in music studies. If you’ve been involved in any music-making, you’re probably already familiar with the notion of the downbeat: it’s (usually) the first beat of a metric cycle. In performance, the downbeat tends to receive more emphasis than the other beats, and it’s usually treated as a point of arrival (think of a military officer calling a march: “ONE, two, three, four; ONE, two, three, four”). But when most people talk about downbeats, they’re usually speaking in terms of a three- or four-beat measure (or “bar”), not 32-beat cycles. A structural downbeat is a bit different, however. It’s the beat at the beginning of a new musical structure (like a cycle, but also maybe a musical section, a new verse, a change of musical key, etc.), which listeners also tend to feel as a point of arrival. Like most kinds of music, electronic dance music also has these structural downbeats, but what’s interesting is that their regularity makes it possible for listeners to hear and anticipate large, widely-spaced structural downbeats. The “powers of two” structuring of this music encourages us to listen for longer arcs and gestures in our music. It builds structures of expectation that give experienced listeners a way to mentally keep track of how the track develops. This, I think, is a crucial factor in how dance music fans can not only hear but follow these long, repeating, gradually-changing musical shapes. Indeed, dance music becomes a lot more interesting when it stops being an undifferentiated stream of beats and instead becomes a set of meaningful patterns that shift and emerge.
There’s something to be said about the ways in which the timescales of electronic dance music provide a sonic framework for an experience of “flow.” Originally conceptualized by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow has been an admittedly trendy concept in research that studies performance (music and sports especially) and user experiences. It describes a kind of “optimal experience,” characterized by effortless attention, increased performance, diminished self-consciousness, and a distorted sense of time. Sound familiar? In everyday English, this sort of experience is often described as being “in the zone,” “in the groove,” or “in the moment.” Being in a state of flow involves a sort of perceptual zooming-in on a continuous and ever-changing “now,” which can distort your perception of time passing. It’s probably happened to you before: you get engrossed in a task that is challenging but rewarding, and when you pause for a break it’s suddenly two or three hours later. Flow is usually associated with work and performance (like DJing, for example), but I don’t see why listening and dancing aren’t also concerted activities that can send you into a state of flow, especially when they’re responding to perceptual streams (i.e., sound, touch, vision) in real time.
Another effect of flow is a rather pleasurable one, the sense that the activity itself is rewarding. Of course, if you like listening to and dancing to electronic music, it’s hardly a surprise that engaging in these activities will be rewarding, but it’s interesting to think that your absorption into the activities of dancing and listening can also generate a kind of pleasure. Actually, my very first academic publication was an article on repetition and pleasure in electronic dance music, which drew from a much earlier psychological model similar to “flow” (i.e., Karl Bühler’s Funktionslust, or “function pleasure”) to argue that the repeating structures of electronic dance music produce a form of “process pleasure” for the listener. So if listening to long, repeating musical processes can be pleasurable — at least for those of us who are into those sorts of temporal perversions — then maybe this pleasure is part of the reason that fans of electronic dance music can keep listening and dancing for so long. It’s kind of like sex: it would be pretty boring and repetitive if it didn’t feel so good.
Immersion and Partial Attention
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the archetypal context for hearing electronic dance music is in a nightclub/rave/party setting, usually accompanied by dancing, socializing, people-watching, talking about the music, intoxication, resting, and so on. So, we should also acknowledge that part of what makes this music a long-distance endeavor is that it accompanies all the other activities that make up “a night out” partying.
But neither is it background music — at least not for those music fans who flock to dance music events and immerse themselves in the music. Immersion is actually a really helpful term here: you can be immersed in something without paying direct attention to it all the time, but that doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring it. It’s not quite full attention, but neither is it distraction. To be immersed in music is to be entangled with it in some way, even if sometimes it’s just a subtle, subconscious tug that you feel while you’re talking to your friends or writing an essay (ahem). The music is too loud to ignore, people verbally and physically respond to the music, and many of them have paid enough attention to it to have strong opinions and memories about it later. How many times have you interrupted your conversation to freak out to a sick bass line, a massive bass drop, or the distinctive sample of your favorite track?
Putting aside questions of attention and focus, it’s still significant that — for its fans at least — electronic dance music can remain compelling over such long periods. Indeed, one of my main arguments here is that part of “getting into” this music is learning to listen to it and having your approach to listening shaped by it. You could compare this to how jazz fans learn to listen for “standards,” improvised variations, and quotations. Similarly, both rock and pop fans learn to listen for strophic song structure (verses and chorus), opening and closing melodic pairs (“antecedent” and “consequent” phrases, as they’re termed in Western music theory), and certain stock chord progressions. The same goes for Indonesian gamelan audiences listening for gong cycles, or listeners of Hindustani classical music recognizing familiar rhythmic and melodic modes (talas and ragas, respectively).
But perhaps what’s most startling about the stretched-out temporalities of electronic dance music is the way that it correspondingly shrinks our notion of musical value. In what other contexts would you think: “I’m not going to pay the price of a cheap dinner to hear my favorite artist(s) perform for four hours”? At these rates, we should all go out more.