Abducted by Audio
My life narrowed into a dark tunnel sometime during last spring. As my despair deepened my nights out became longer and more frequent; I often spent them alone. I did not desire to meet people on the dance floor so much as be surrounded by others while I retreated into myself. I was enraptured by how different sounds activated my body in unexpected ways and over time my dancing grew more prolonged and physically taxing. When I returned home the next morning, I would force myself to shower and collapse into bed. The rest of the day was spent convalescing in various reclined positions on the couch, crushed by a fatigue so intense that I would not fully recover until two days later.
Other people danced reservedly, as though unfamiliar with the machinery of their bodies, but I raved ecstatic, paddling furiously through an agitated ocean of sound. I needed drugs not for the way they unspooled my psyche but to insulate myself physically from the pain that resulted from treating myself like a racehorse, spurring myself onwards and harder, unwilling to leave the dance floor for hours at a time. By moving continuously and rhythmically, I discovered that I could transmute my body. I was a vector of pure movement, an atom in a pulsing cell, a beam of light plumbing the bottom of the sea. I was reluctant to interrupt my own dream…
How does sound change the body? Something alchemizes me in the dark laboratory of the dance floor. I become looser; I become leaner. I am easily seized and animated by something invisible to me, and possessed by strange caprices. While music is the main catalyst for this metamorphosis, as I’ve learned, one needs immersive sound operating together with sociality and movement to achieve bodily transformation.
Although I go out less now, I listen to dance music regularly at home. The track I had on repeat this summer was “Workahol” by Minor Science, which, according to the accompanying blurb on its Bandcamp page, “is a cheap thrill ride through a world consumed by work,” a blend of “hardcore, bassline, electro and booty bass to offer (over)stimulation for crisis-era dance floors.” “Cheap thrill” sums it up–the track is a monster to dance to. It starts out with a tight passage of metallic notes that sound like rain falling out of a calculator. A vocal and a glitchy beat fade in, followed by a bassline—distant sirens go off, evoking spatiality in the track–and here the composition, as further layers accumulate, starts to pick up speed and power like an avalanche. Soon the drop happens and it’s pure bassline buttressed with a breakbeat, which is the part where everyone, if primed appropriately by the selector, goes nuts on the dance floor. Slowly the layers are added back in, punctuated by grunts and exclamations of “Break!,” and the track regains momentum, at one point turning rapturous and aerial with the addition of a synth harmony, and then plunging nasty and deep again as the bass dominates.
The track beats the shit out of you on a proper system, by which I mean not just the dangers of high volumes, but also the sense of being battered repeatedly by sound’s material properties, particularly that of bass, and the relentless compulsion to dance as feverishly as possible (“You’ve gotta work harder,” teases the vocal). Breakbeat is a playful and manic presence on the floor that wants me to bounce on the balls of my feet; compels me to shake my hips and twerk; to bob my head and smile big and brainless. Part of dance music’s appeal is that it doesn’t need to signify to operate–in fact, semiotics interfere with music’s primary function in dance settings, which is that of bodily sensation. It lets you turn your brain off, reducing you to a vessel of perception and affective response. Even the vocal elements of “Workahol” (i.e., “If you want to love me, you’ve gotta work harder”) are experienced as sound first and language second. And when perceived as language, they still function to reinforce the mood of the track as created by sound, namely its impulse towards bodily exertion and delirium.
Dance music is uniquely engineered to be experienced corporeally rather than cognitively because its purpose is to elicit movement. It’s geared towards the visceral, even animal experience of “losing it,” as Kodwo Eshun calls it–that moment “when you give in to toxic drives, when the thirst for mutation is strongest, when you’re drowning in peristaltic waves of toxic sensation, when the head’s no more than a stupid piece of gristle…when sound detaches itself from source and sense, when narrative dissolves into sensation.” Tellingly, a hallmark of so-called “intelligent” club music–a descriptor often applied to tracks which incorporate structural or sonic elements that feel unfamiliar, subversive, even unpleasant–is that it often makes dancing more challenging by intensifying thought. A dance music meme best summed up by The Onion headline “Avant-Garde DJ Really Gets The Dance Floor Thinking” suggests that certain tracks, by subverting expectations and disrupting pleasure, shake dancers loose from their bodily listening and prompt them to think about and interpret what they are hearing. (Eshun: “By frustrating the funk and impeding the groove, clever music amputates the distributed mind, locks you back in the prisonhouse of your head.”) But even interruptions to the listener’s sonic absorption are premised on music’s affective dimension, since dissonance and discomfort are registered first via bodily sensation before they are cognitively affirmed. Moreover, while cerebral tracks add texture and intrigue to a sonic sequence, the majority of a selector’s set will comprise tracks with a more populist, conventional sound–like “Workahol”–which are mainly designed for pleasure.
Of course, pleasure is subjective. There is pleasure in listening; in novelty, when one hears new music, or old favorites contextualized in new ways; and in virtuosity, when the selector pulls off a risky or unexpected blend. There is also pleasure in the elements of dance music itself: its proclivity for speed; pulsating rhythms; voluptuous bass frequencies; and use of repetition. Repetition, perhaps the most polarizing quality of dance music, is also the source of its most idiosyncratic delights. By suspending my attention in each iteration, repetition compels me to experience every moment anew, and I find myself reveling in slight perceptual variances with each recursion, as though turning a cut gemstone to examine the way light refracts differently through each facet. Likewise, repetition in dance music is a type of return, an embrace of the familiar—what Julian Henriques calls “a ‘home’ that the crowd positively want to inhabit” rather than use as a channel for escape. Such predictability facilitates dance, where the purpose and joy of dance music is fully actualized, by enabling participants to anticipate a track’s trajectory, deciding whether to conform to the beat, cut against its grain, or elaborate upon it.
Yet as pleasurable and compelling as the music may be, its success in a dance setting depends on a number of external factors that enable total submersion and participation in sound. When the conditions are right, I completely abandon cognition for sensation, yielding my motor system to music and my sense of autonomy to those around me. The air becomes viscous, flush with sound and the mysterious, erotic energy of a moving crowd. At times, I can feel the fabric of this reality rippling as it collides into manifold others, while at other points in the night, I feel so intimately grounded and embodied in a particular place and time that an effusive feeling of love erupts, sealing me into a single moment.
The best and most obvious conditions under which to experience dance music are those of the rave, the environment for which it is designed. Constantly mutating and slippery to define, raves, in my experience, are more of a set of shared impressions or a sensibility (like Sontag’s Camp) than an event or an idea. For my present purposes, the term refers to dance events in immersive, fabricated environments, regardless of location (e.g., outdoors, disused building, house, club), that produce certain phenomenological outcomes–namely altered perceptions of time, space, and bodily awareness. These space-time contortions constitute an alternate, subjective yet shared reality (e.g., McKenzie’s Wark concept of “k-time”) that is experienced and created by dancers in several ways.
To begin with, one needs a collective. While in a club you may have the literal demarcation of the dance floor, or in a warehouse the building itself, both are secondary to the mass of moving bodies which comprise the dance event (in Jamaican vernacular, “the massive”). This group coheres to articulate its own space within any given built environment, a space which subsumes, and even supersedes the need for, the physical structure itself. Some dancers prefer to be enveloped in the middle of the crowd; others wind towards the front, where the selector and speaker stacks are situated; and some locate themselves in the back or along the edges, forming the massive’s extremities. In my mind, it is not only the presence of a crowd but its independent yet simultaneous and collaborative movement which creates the rave’s altered reality. If one moves away from the kinetic space of the massive, their awareness of time and its usual logic is restored. This may be because, distanced from time as distilled through the musical beat or the hypnotic bounce of the collective, one becomes conscious of time’s passage as registered by more banal scriveners such as the clock, human breath, or the pace of conversation.
The second but most important way that space-time is altered in the rave is through immersive sound. Sound orchestrates the movement of the massive (in what Henriques terms “sonic dominance”), manipulates time, and superimposes on the physical space a sonic landscape of its own. To illustrate this last point, which may feel less intuitive, lower frequencies seem to engulf and enlarge a space while higher notes–more immediate and ephemeral–often localize and sharpen it. Bass, a nightcrawler, a primordial creeper, suffuses the physical space and engorges it. Higher frequency sounds are embroidered throughout space and more precisely distributed, seemingly placed near to but not within the body. With enough sonic texture, one’s perception of space undulates throughout a track, potentially inducing vertigo, compression, expansion, weightlessness, or even the sense of infinity within the span of minutes.
Dancers are primed to experience heightened corporeal and relational awareness by the impact of music on the body, particularly that of bass, the point at which sound enters the physical realm. Bass, Jeremy Gilbert writes, “brings home the materiality of the space shared by an audience.” On a complete sound system, where full-body audio immersion can occur, dance tracks become oceanic and visceral as bass vibrations cause matter to shift. Listening to music in these settings, one becomes attuned to where different sounds and vibrations land in the body and compel it to move. Responding to music uninhibitedly and, at a certain point, involuntarily (being “locked in”), dancers enter a state of heightened haptic sensitivity that envelops not only their own body but those moving around them as well. This is bass’s power, Paul Jasen explains, to “[bind] bodies together (putting them literally on the same wavelength),” reminiscent of swimming in a crowded pool where every movement reverberates as a ripple. The altered reality of the rave is, then, also created relationally–by the intimacy spawned by the proximity of others’ bodies, the friction generated when one person shifts to accommodate the presence of another, and the sonic vibrations and kinetic energy passing through the multiplying movements of many. Deep in the night, when the crowd is winnowed to its most dedicated members, my awareness becomes diffuse as exhaustion takes over and individual perception narrows. My own personhood becomes indistinct, eclipsed by the pulse of the collective, and I feel myself morph into mere flesh, totally bodied and braindead. Me, a single shivering skin, amongst the crowd, a field of limbs.
When I’m on the floor, sonic vibrations are registered immediately in my body, pleasurable in an instinctive way that negates thought in favor of feeling. Rhythm textures the atmosphere with the sensation of speed, a technological wickedness, a desolate and posturing cool, liquid euphoria, or the coked-up volubility of percussion played at post-human velocity, flooding me with images and emotions that never quite feel as though they are my own. I move, and for hours I do not stop. In fact, I crave submitting to my body in this way. Inside of the music, my body is a brilliant computer, a gifted diviner, processing audio information in an instant and responding to sonic changes with sensitivity and ease.
It’s crucial that musical experience is registered through the body before the mind. For Kodwo Eshun, along with the ears, muscles, and joints, the skin is the body’s chief plane of reception, a “dermal ear” where beats (here, namely breakbeats) “cross a threshold and become tactile sensations that sussurate the body.” The simultaneous activation and scrambling of multiple senses (auditory, tactile, kinetic, proprioceptive), he writes, triggers “unknown kinds of bodily intelligence,” in which concepts are arrested by the body rather than the brain. Under this fleshy ontology, music’s embodied nature allows it to transmit ideas about rhythm and movement directly, a form of knowledge that circumvents the intellect.
Put in more concrete terms, the formal elements of a track produce physical sensations–vibrations, jolts of adrenaline, dermal irritation, frisson, shifts in body temperature, the urge to move–that are metabolized as emotion and, when processed cognitively, inform the way one describes music. In “Workahol,” the track’s precise layering of textures–old-school siren FX, post-human vocals, breakbeat, synth melodies, and bassline–inundate and thrill the body, overwhelming it with sensory information, while their methodical addition and balanced distribution in time maintain the track’s aura of control. The prickly dermal dance of breakbeats, reticulated and lethal, runs through the body like spears, and confuses the senses in its erratic, swirling polyrhythm (see Eshun’s “rhythmic psychedelia”). Fluttering, surging synths impact the body with equanimity, streaming through your torso. In the drops, the track’s agitated surf retracts into deathly clarity, reduced to wicked bassline and muted breakbeat. Here, bass takes the body by sheer force, collapsing it into a vibrating singularity. A mood of controlled cool disintegrates into spasmodic urgency and hollow desire. You feel simultaneously dangerous and in-danger dancing to it.
Tugged by the breakbeats, I feel every joint operate, my skin crawling with polyrhythmic sensation, my organs quaking with bass. I am cyborg-like, machinic and mutated, “abducted by audio,” dancing on the assembly line of immanence. As it oscillates between delirium and control, “Workahol” palpably builds expectations for cheap-won pleasure and delivers quickly. Yet euphoria is intermingled with an unsettling awareness of the apparatus behind the track. Its judicious use of tropes translates into the dancer’s sense of being manipulated by a beat-and-bass structure that punishes them and then rewards their endurance. Similarly, the chopped and pitched-up vocals negate any of the lyrics’ vestigial eroticism. Instead of a lover’s assurance, the words (“If you wanna love me, you’ve gotta work harder”) intone desire without an object, labor without an outcome. The track is a teasing, Sisyphean command for the subject to devote and deplete themselves on the dubious promise of gratification. It transmutes the dance floor into a dark factory where dancers toil to keep up with the track’s demands.
Deep knowledge of dance music is unnecessary to experience these impressions, but in analyzing how they are produced by the track, history can be useful. “Workahol” owes much to hardcore and electro, and recalls what Simon Reynolds calls the former genre’s “anti-culture of instantaneity”–semantically broken extremes of pitched-up samples, synth riffs, and breakbeats discharged at warp-speed–ostensibly in reaction to the UK’s 1990s economic stagnation. But in a knowing manner suggested by its Bandcamp page description, “Workahol” retrofits the mood of the older style with the synthetic exhilaration, dereliction, and alienation of a digitally-accelerated capitalist world. The track ingests the system’s dread and empty joys–the scramble to survive, its seeming inescapability, its short-lived pleasures and bruising speeds–and turns it into ecstatic sound.
Speculative realities such as these are one mode of transformation that may be experienced on the dance floor. They spring from music’s potential for fabulation, transporting listeners to off-planet frontiers whose imagery disturbs and delights (Eshun: “a landscape extending out into possibility space”). Yet even if the world of a track like “Workahol” is bleak, there is still, as in the thrills of the cinema, pleasure in the experience of escape. Undergirding sonic escapism is the grounding force of bodily pleasure, a mode of transformation conducted through musical sensuality and dance. Material elements such as bass unlock music’s carnal dimension, gyrating against the body’s core and encouraging a delectation in one’s own form, while pleasure routed through the ear–enigmatic harmonies, rapturous tonal shifts, phantasmagoric motifs–provokes surges of emotion and tactile thrills. There is also the mutation of self through ego death, as one loses themselves to the single, beating organism of the massive; and finally, there is transformation through sheer fun: the joy of dance, of letting go, of feeling your body, of expressing yourself unreservedly among others.
If one permits themselves to move freely (“lose it”), dance becomes a channel for release, a surrender to an external force, and a mode of oblique dialogue with strangers. Lately I’ve been drawn to the diverse sound and receptive personality of UK bass music, which attracts friendlier crowds in my city and, for me, generates more imaginative and relational movement. The way I and many others dance to techno tends to match the mechanical uniformity of its rhythms, involving an unvaried two-step, an alternating bending of the knees, or a side-to-side bounce to the beat that, although certainly not mandatory, feels musically appropriate. Conversely, to me, jungle, dubstep, garage, grime, footwork, and various left-field stuff inspire more spontaneous dance: I go deep; I go slow; I pick up the pace; I twist and bend; I shake my ass; I do weird things with my arms; I catch the glance of a friend or stranger, we might smile and for an instant my movements lock in to their own. At that moment, I feel whole.
When the bass comes in on “Workahol” you feel it in your entire body. Your soul shudders. (The breakbeat kicks in.) You are complete, immaculate, fluid, fluorescent, effervescent, turning solid, evanescing. (Here is the synth.) Things fall into place. Everything is just as it should be. (All together now.) I am a vector of pure movement, an atom in a pulsing cell, a beam of light plumbing the bottom of the sea. I am reluctant to interrupt my own dream…
Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books, 1998.
Gilbert, Jeremy. “Signifying Nothing: ‘Culture,’ ‘Discourse’ and the Sociality of Affect.” Culture Machine (2004). https://culturemachine.net/deconstruction-is-in-cultural-studies/signifying-nothing/
Henriques, Julian. Sonic Bodies. Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques and Ways of Knowing. London and New York: Continuum, 2011.
Minor Science. “Workahol from 064 by Minor Science.” Bandcamp, May 5, 2023. Accessed May 7, 2023. https://minorscience.bandcamp.com/track/workahol
Reynolds, Simon. “The Wire 300: Simon Reynolds on the Hardcore Continuum #1: Hardcore Rave (1992.)” The Wire, February 2013. Accessed July 3, 2023. https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/the-wire-300_simon-reynolds-on-the-hardcore-continuum_1_hardcore-rave_1992_
Saccomano, Mark S. “Musical Sound and Spatial Perception: How Music Structures Our Sense of Space.” PhD diss. Columbia University, 2020.
Wark, McKenzie. Raving. Durham: Duke University Press, 2023.
T.A Shiroma (she/her) is a museum worker and writer who lives in Brooklyn.