An ethnomusicological investigation of Techno/Rave

by Steve Mizrach


I came to this subject because of my earlier anthropological interest in the lives of computer hackers. Increasingly, in studying hackers, I came to be interested in their musical preferences as part of their subculture. Many hackers I "met" in cyberspace were enthusiastic propagandists for something they called "techno" music. Ironically, I had heard techno music in various dance clubs before, but had not known really what it was, and most of my friends had dimissed it as "Eurotrash." I went out and started listening to techno myself, and found that I liked it. But I found that techno music was not really meant to be listened to at home, or in clubs. People told me that "if you want to know the soul of techno, you have to go to a rave." After that, I became increasingly interested in the live events where techno is performed (namely, raves) and the kind of people who go to them. My somewhat preliminary (and perhaps less than wholly detached) 'fieldwork' has led me to conclude that raves are an interesting new musical process and that a distinctive ('raver') subculture has grown up around them.

Whether the rave subculture is in fact a counterculture - and so many people have concluded, without reflection, that techno is the rock n' roll of the 90s, at once the basis of its information-society youth-culture "GenX" rejectionists and their inevitable corporate hegemonic cooptation - and whether it is the music that 'drives' the nascent cyberpunk or "Zippy" movement - is perhaps debatable. Certainly, the pastiche-like nature of techno has drawn its share of postmodernist critics, who see in it either the nail in the coffin of late modernist capitalism and everything that must sink with it, or the means of delivery from the "iron prisons" of essentialism and egoity that are the basis of our combined oppression... and inevitably leads people to declare it to be the postmodern musical form par excellence. [1] I would say this much: techno/rave is a musical innovation that has been accompanied by a good deal of sociocultural innovation. Ethnomusicologists tired of the moribund discussions over rock n' roll and popular music and culture should take a fresh look at techno, for it is full of surprises that make it at once the child and antipath of rock.

The question of whether the musical innovation of techno is the cause or result of certain sociocultural changes remains an open one. For some people, the mechanical soullessness and obsessively repetitive rhythms of techno are simply byproducts of youth grown up in a society hyperaccelerated by the 'flexible accumulation' of late capitalism and raised on the fragmented, jumpcut reality of MTV television. It is a warning sign of a society whose technology is out of control, and whose humanity and individuality are "disappearing out of the skylight." It is also an imminent signpost of the end of music itself, and of some supposed vanishing authenticity that derived from earlier musics' lack of technological mediation, production, or distribution. For others, techno represents a vocal, political reaction to the power of the multinational music recording industry, and an effort to restrain the homogenization and aesthetic "yuppification" and normalization of music, and to replace it with a new mode of creativity and aesthetic control which escapes its clutches... its proponents see techno as the "new punk," a new blow of total outrage and resistance to the "popification" and "infotainization" and commodification of music[2].

Techno music is new and challenging, and for that reason is finally slowly starting to draw some degree of academic and musicological attention. Unfortunately, not enough... and mostly in Britain. I had a hard time finding primary source material on the subject written here in the U.S. For the most part, the only media reporting on raves has been "shock TV." ("Ohmigod! Our kids are going to these all-night parties and getting stoned under our very noses.") And even academics interested in popular music and popular culture have largely ignored it, either because they considered it to be a brief epiphenomenon or to be entirely a media creature, yet another image out there without substance. But the techno scene is real, and it involves more than just hackers. Indeed, it involves more than just youth. Certainly, plenty of converts from an earlier psychedelic generation have become propagandists for it (especially Timothy Leary, Terrence McKenna, and Ralph Abraham.) And there is a strange substance beneath the style - an amazing intellectual discourse going beyond clothes, music, and style, and exceeding by leaps and bounds some of the most utopian pronouncements of earlier counterculturalists[3].

The tendency for academia is for researchers to wait until their subject is "dead on the table" before they can begin their analysis. For some people, this explains why few ethnomusicologists really began to talk about rock n' roll until punk and disco (however briefly) 'killed' it. The Techno/Rave music scene is perhaps just beginning, and may move in new and surprising directions. In much of my discussion of the topic, I may refer to it in the past tense, but of course many of the phenomena being referred to are ongoing, perhaps rapidly changing, because techno is, for various reasons, an extremely fluid (some would say 'mutating') musical genre. This may make analyses of the subject somewhat provisional; but I have tried to make use of techno 'zines and the Internet (especially groups like alt.rave and to keep up with the "scene." As a participant observer on a few occasions, I feel able to comment on it, although perhaps I am lacking the musical or technological knowledge to fully comment on the musical creation process in excruciating detail. What I am interested in is the subculture organized around the music - where some of the critical concepts of ethnomusicology and the "musicality of man" come into play.

What is Techno? Features of the music

There are a number of features about techno music that make it highly distinctive. The primary one that most people point to is that it is electronically produced and reproduced. However, this is of course not unique to techno, because many forms of rock and pop have used electronic synthesizers or electric guitars and amplifiers. Often times the only thing "acoustically" produced in "acoustic" music is the human voice - but with lip syncing (as with Milli Vanilli) even this can be in doubt. Certainly, many opera composers (such as Todd Machover) have used electroacoustic techniques, and electronic music has long been a part of the art music avant-garde (such as John Cage.) And even the most 'natural' sounding New Age recording of birds, waves, or rainforest critters was of course electronically recorded, amplified, and reproduced. For most people in industrialized societies, their hearing of music would be quite restricted without the presence of electricity (required as much for vinyl LPs and eight-tracks as for CDs, as well as for their radios and stereo speakers) and their favorite genres (including "world musics" like Zouk) would sound quite impoverished without their (perhaps unnoticed) electronic embellishment[4]. For some purists, technological mediation is eating away at the very basis of music, but it is also the means by which many people are exposed to music they might otherwise not hear, if they had to physically travel to where it is played and performed.

Thus, electronic production or mediation is nothing unique to techno. It is part and parcel of just about every music with which the modern Western music listener is familiar. (And which, say some ethnomusicologists, is leading to his continuing musical alienation.) But what is unique about techno is that it is self-consciously technological. The "bleeps" and "whirrs" and video game sounds are a reminder to the listener - "this was created technologically. We're not going to hide that from you." Techno is in some ways anything but alienating because it is a (supposedly) DIY music - get your "street tech" and go... techno is about using technology in unanticipated ways, like the rapper taking the accidental motorized-turntable record scratch and turning that into a deliberate feature. Instead of having to learn to play an instrument, to read standard Western musical notation, or to train one's voice, to create techno you have to master computers, MIDI boards, and sequencers. Depending on the "interface" for the equipment (an engineering decision that often leaves out the "human factors"), this can either be the hardest or easiest thing in the world. The technology does allow certain things to "go automatic," but a good techno artist is expected to be constantly tweaking his equipment so as to produce the best, most original output at each performance. And different "house" artists employ varying degrees of live accompaniment to what the machines are "kicking" out to the audience - usually live accompaniment from audience members invited to "jam" along to the tune.

For insiders, the signal feature of techno, what makes it recognizable to them right away, is the beat. Techno is usually played at 115 to 160 bpm (beats per minute) - which is almost two to three times faster than other musical styles. Since most human drummers would quickly become exhausted at that pace, drum machines are essential to creating techno. This steady, unfaltering beat provides the "groove" into which dancing, visuals, and accompaniment are supposed to fall. Some of these rates become canonical for various subgenres - for example, Chicago House is thought to be "perfect" at 120 bpm exactly. Another element that is key in techno is "sampling," which is the appropriation (some might say 'stealing') and modification of existing sounds and music. This is also not unique to techno - rap and hiphop sample other artists' music and short bursts of speech, and New Age often samples electroacoustic effects from "nature" - but what is particular about techno is the sampling of such unusual things as industrial factory noise, "sound bites" from pop culture (esp. science fiction TV), and electronic noises (from Speak N' Spell machines, talking clocks, video games, raygun toys, and other consumer kitsch); and the total transformation of other 'light' tunes (such as the Sesame Street TV song or commercial jingles) by radically accelerating and "bassifying" them.

Techno music, as some people point out, is basically not made by musicians. Instead, it is performed by "DJs" (disc jockeys.) In some ways, the music has transformed the role of the DJ. In disco or other clubs, the DJ is often anonymous and is basically expected to maintain the continual playing of uninterrupted music, without making any individual contribution, except for his choices (the "playlist"); which is basically the same role that the DJ used to play on the radio, except that he is often expected to also add loud, obnoxious, or inane commentary and voice-over. The role of the DJ started to change with rap and the motorized turntable: now they were expected to be makers of music, by adding record scratch, slowing or speeding LPs down, and mixing two records together[5]. They became an "MC" (Master of Ceremonies) and were expected to be the force that made the pre-recorded music come to life. Virtuousity was now not just a property of musicians - DJs and MCs became the heart of club music, and they banked on their reputations and name recognition. The techno "groups" which release the music are not "bands" anymore - rather than a division of labor based on who plays what instrument and who contributes what vocals, a techno group (like the Shamen) is often made up of DJs with varying technical abilities.

At a techno performance, the DJ is expected to make , not just reproduce , the music. His 'baseline' is the pre-existing music he may have recorded on CD, but through various kinds of digital wizardry he is expected to "remix" it, by changing the tempo, pitch, reverb rate, or whatever else can be technologically modified. There is no "authoritative" recording of a techno music song that can be played once and for all - it is often released in multiple "mixes" which relect differing venues or audiences or desired effects (e.g. club mix, radio mix, rave mix, studio mix, space mix, etc.) The best DJs are expected to leave enough of the song 'intact' to recognize it (usually the vocal line, if it exists, is enough) but are also expected to enhance it enough to 'make their mark' of distinction. The 'stars' (if there are any) of techno music are the DJs, and they bank on their reputations. The DJs are often not seen during the rave performance, and rarely do anything (like speak, except for perhaps at the beginning) to identify themselves except through their recognizable 'style'; and people may not even know when DJs are switching during the night. But they do know that a particular DJ (say 'Adam X') gives "good mix" and if he is going to be at a rave that night, that is the one they want to go to[6].

In fact, people pay much more attention to the performance of techno than "where it comes from." Unlike a rock concert, people do not go to a techno performance to hear songs they've heard before on the radio. The song is enjoyed purely in itself rather than because of who wrote it. (Usually, people don't know who did.) Sticking to the techno releases of only one group at a rave is strictly forbidden - good DJs are supposed to play a wide variety of subgenres and styles. Techno music released for home listening on CD or for playing on the radio is usually a specially designed "mix" for that audience, but many people consider it inferior to techno music played "live" because it is not modified. At a rave or club performance, techno songs may be played that will never be released on home-listening recordings or played on the radio, to the constant frustration of people trying to "TOP 40" techno music. This is not to say that some techno groups don't have their cult followings - there are always people who insist that any song released by the ORB or the Shamen or whoever is better than "all the rest" - but one never expects their favorite groups' songs at a rave, because they never know in advance what will be played. Techno could be recorded in a state-of-the-art studio or done on somebody's Macintosh SE with a MIDI board. What matters is how it's played , not how it was originally created and recorded, and often, not who recorded it originally either.

Obviously, techno is primarily a dance music. People either go to dance to it, or are expected to play it for their own "house" dance parties. Techno can be enjoyed just for private listening - but it is such a kinetic music that one feels the need for movement while listening to it. (In this, I speak from experience. It's impossible for me to listen to good techno without feeling the need to - at a minimum - drum along, let alone get up and dance in my underwear.) Whereas metal may cause would-be garage banders to feel the need to "air guitar" or "lip sync" along, techno inspires the need to dance. This is (like metal) perhaps more the result of 'cultural programming' than anything intrinsic to the music itself... but is an important part of the scene. Because it's a dance music, techno is extremely stylized and generally features few vocals. Techno takes the basic repetitiveness and redundancy of much pop music and hyperamplifies it. Whereas most pop rock songs at least feature a few verses of lyrics plus a chorus, in a techno song, there may be only one verse, or perhaps even only one utterance that repeats throughout the entire song. Some rave tunes reduce the vocal contribution to a single female 'diva' saying nothing intelligible throughout the entire melody, just "oohing" and "aahing."

Instead of lyrics, the vocal part of a techno song may be nothing written by a vocalist but instead the sample of someone else speaking (such as George Bush, Bill Gates, or a TV character) repeated over and over again. This is most often used for parody, but it can occasionally be eulogy, as with the rave songs that sample public addresses by Timothy Leary. Specific samples may either open or close the melody. Occasionally, the vocals are deliberately diaological, as with the example of one techno song where a woman 'diva' keeps wailing about the sadness of her life, and another voice sample of a male saying "That's OK, baby, I know how it really feels" continually being repeated as a response to it. The mechanical production of techno guarantees its redundancy - rhythms may shift but they of course tend to stay constant on the drum machine until they are shifted again; techno songs rarely feature any continuous variation of their bass line, as might be found in funk or rap. The basic complexity of the song may depend on the mode of electronic production, but most computer programs and syth settings impose a certain synchronization on the output, guaranteeing a level of repetitiveness which, due to elaboration, is usually not perceived as obsessively monotonous (except, perhaps, to 'outsiders'...?)

Techno music also varies in its mode of distribution as well as performance and production. Techno music is generally released in compilations ("Rave Till Dawn," etc.), although well-known groups may try and take a stab at releasing "one name" albums. The recording labels which control these releases are often small "indie" (independent) publishing and distribution houses - some of which are set up by the DJs themselves. The techno artists try and avoid the multinational music industry, bypassing it in whatever way they can. For their part, the big record companies are confused by the absence of "stars" in techno and the lack of "hooks" to sell records by, and the Top 40 commercial radio stations tear their hair out trying to play techno for the radio because people are never listening to the same thing 2 weeks in a row[7]. One venue in which techno artists are increasingly turning to is "cyberspace" or the Internet - using sites such as IUMA (the Independent and Underground Music Archive) and other WorldWideWeb pages for distribution. However, as "the Information Superhighway" continues to be increasingly corporatized and privatized, the use of "the Net" to escape commercialism and the music business' tentacles may increasingly be compromised. Undoubtedly, most techno artists will strive to find alternative methods and find new technologies that will deliver music to their fans outside of corporate control, but it is inevitable as with any "alternative" or "independent" music that some will eventually "sell out."

The Subgenres of the Scene

There are numerous subgenres within the techno scene. However, as stressed before, this "scene" is highly fluid and these terms frequently overlap and replace each other. Some techno DJs stick to mostly one subgenre, but this is rare, and the different substyles often come to be more regional (or historical) markers than musical ones. Many people find it hard to tell the difference between the subgenres, but to 'insiders' (from an 'emic' perspective), the difference is as meaningful as any rocker might find between soft rock, glam rock, pop rock, hard rock, heavy metal, or rockabilly... to them, it is a difference "that makes a difference."[8]

Raving to the Max: Style of the Raver subculture

What exactly is a rave? For some people, it's simply any occasion where techno music is played. But for true ravers, there are specific things that constitute the real thing. Raves are usually held in isolated (and often desolate) places such as abandoned warehouses, condemned buildings, or old subway tunnels; occasionally, weather permitting (which is rare in England), they are held outdoors, often in forest clearings. News about upcoming raves is usually spread through flyers, word of mouth, or the "oral culture" of the Internet, bypassing standard means of advertising music performance or dance occasions (e.g. commercial broadcasting.) Usually people find about raves by discovering a flyer with a 1-800 number on it, and when they call that number it tells them the exact place and time (almost always 11 PM or later - everybody knows nothing starts before then.) At a rave, people can expect usually to dance all night to the latest techno by the hottest new DJs (usually for $5 to $20 a person), quaff some XTC or smart drinks, see all their fellow ravers, perhaps see "guests" like Terrence McKenna, and be visually dazzled by technological multimedia wizardry of some kind - oil screens, lasers, strobes, computer-generated graphics, perhaps even battling robots (at Survival Research Laboratories events.)

Raves are supposed to be "outlaw" events, although of course there basically is nothing illegal about the event-in-itself. Police (at least in the U.S.) have started closing down raves only for all the basic reasons they "bust" any party - too much noise disturbing the neighbors, or suspicions of illegal drug use. Only in the U.K. has law enforcement "targeted" raves, mainly by passing some incredibly restrictive curfew and social-gathering laws, and sharply restricting "the right to party," mainly through selective enforcement of obscure laws, such as the Private Entertainments Act of 1967, which suggested that people required a license to provide such entertainment[9]. While the word "rave" does connote a certain state of frenziedness, there are almost no incidences of the type of mob violence found at, say, Altamont-style concerts or English football games. Raves are supposed to be spontaneous and self-organizing, but the reality of the matter is that the high-tech equipment used to pull them off doesn't come cheap; so they are largely organized by "party entrepeneurs" who travel between the major U.S. cities, holding raves wherever they know they can make a profit. Ravers are ambivalent about this; they'd like to think that raves just "come together," but most of them know better.

Their "taste culture"/preference for techno music marks off the Raver subculture, but it's not the only trait. In an inclusive sense, ravers are anybody who goes to raves, but most ravers feel there is a style, mindset, and code that goes with it. Thus, people at raves know who the real Ravers are, and who are the "posers" and "wannabes." Ravers may come from various backgrounds, and occupy other "cultures" (football fanatics, computer hackers, skin artists, etc.) in their "day life," where they are often not distinct from their peers. But at night they become part of "Generation E," and they "make themselves up" for the occasion. Some parts of rave culture are not distinctive from "club culture" as a whole (this generally being used for people who spend all week in the night clubs, rather than just weekends.) Some things ravers do - such as wearing pacifiers, tiny backpacks, or tattoos - are not particularly distinct from the generic club culture, but others are. Ravers do try and cultivate a distinctive sense of identity, perhaps even superiority over other simple "clubbers."

Especially in England, ravers are seen as simply yet another musically-identified youth subculture, following on the heels of such 'deviant' groups as the teds, mods, greasers, hippies, skins, goths, and punks of the post-WW II period[10]. The "Haight-Ashbury" of ravers from 1988 on became Manchester ("Madchester," as it became known in the popular media) and the Manchester Institute of Popular Culture quickly began utilizing "informants" to study the situation. The costumery of ravers and "acid housers" was pretty much a good deal of recycled day-glo and hippy wear, with a particular fondness for stocking caps and (for "earth girls") earth shoes. Ravers also were known for a particular fondness for all kinds of "body art" - piercing of fleshy body parts, tattoos, scarification, and 'branding.' Fractal illustrations and psychedelic Peter Max-style prints turned up on mock ties and shirts. Many began wearing the baggy 'scally wear' and heavy sweaters of 'Seattle grunge,' the mirrorshades of 'cyberpunk,' and the braids of ska. Cast-off technology became part of their garb - old circuit boards, transistors, and other electronic detritus becoming part of standard "rave wear."

Ravers claim that their style, unlike that of punk, is not meant to shock and offend. They tended to eschew the S & M adornments, spiked, died, or shaved hair, or antihygiene of the punks, preferring only to "make themselves up" for raves and clubgoing. At raves, they might dress garishly or outrageously, but they often chose methods of adornment (preferring to pierce areas normally covered by clothing, rather than, say, the nose or chin) which were less apparent in day-to-day life. Rave dress, like punk, is meant to question gender stereotypes, and deemphasize race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but it's also meant to be "more fun" and is usually a lot looser.... pretty important when "moshing" or collision dancing starts happening on the dance floor. Most importantly, many ravers generally do not "mark themselves" through dress or body adornment except when they go to raves, and for this reason "full-time" subcultures like the skins or the punks often despise them. Ravers tend to avoid the spikes and other metal implements of punk, mainly because the rave ethos is explicitly nonviolent and much more impression-oriented: ravers want to look good to other people, not piss them off. Feeling good about yourself is the goal.

While there are "specialty shops" that often proclaim themselves to be exclusive dealers in "rave wear," and even department stores that now offer young clubgoers their own section (such as "MainFrame" in Sears), most ravers claim they get their outfits from secondhand stores. Part of the rave ethos is non-egoism, and people are expected not to overdress or show off their wealth, like they often do at more 'exclusive' clubs. Ravers do try and be outrageous - indeed, some techno clubs hire "party girls" to show up wearing huge two-story hats, painted with gold paint, wearing huge masks, or standing on huge platform shoes, feeling that these are "strange attractors" (sic) that will bring people into the club. The main point of the scene, say ravers, is primarily to be yourself , tell people who you really are, and to dress comfortably and leisurely. Most ravers would say that people are "not getting" the Raver style if they focus specifically on outward appearance. More important is the 'attitude' and worldview of the raver, which emerges only after first glance.

House History: The Roots of Techno

In the early 1980s, a particular style of hiphop and funk began to emerge in Chicago clubs. It largely grew out of the "Electro" funk of African-American groups like George Clinton's Parliament Funkadelic, and the "Glam" disco popular among gay 'queens' and 'flamers.' This sort of nameless style came to be known as "house" music because, like salad dressing, it was supposed to be a distinctive concoction mixed uniquely in each 'house.' Because it featured an aggressive resampling of other records, it was often called "acid house" because the process of sampling another LP was often known in the music business as an "acid bite."[11] The legend has it that Acid House was discovered in England in 1987 by 'industrial' music artist Genesis P. Orridge, who was interested in it because he thought it had something to do with LSD. Supposedly Genesis and other artists began giving Acid House its particular 'psychedelic' tinge, and it became the music du jour of the clubs of Ibiza and some of the other Balearic islands where Britishers vacationing for the summer went. The first 'raves' were supposedly held in the British "Summer of Love" of 1988, and rave-house quickly took hold in Manchester and othe English urban areas.

By 1989, it spread back across the Atlantic in yet another "British invasion," bringing with it the English influence of "Northern Soul," (another popular music style of the late 70s) and clubs in Detroit starting playing it, dubbing it "techno," and proclaiming it as a "hot European import." Techno also spread from England to the Continent around the same time, and by that time DJs in Berlin and Brussels were turning it into "trance." By 1992, techno had become the hot musical underground, a massive alternative/indie scene in the U.S. that started attracting the major labels' attention. Techno emerged as an amalgam of a huge number of previous styles, and their influences are apparent. One of the most important ones was 'industrial' music (created by bands like Ministry and SPK), a sort of post-punk sonic assault which featured the incorporation of factory noise, roaring engines, and clanking machinery into musical performance[12]. Industrial music was anti-Muzak, like punk, meant to anger the audience and disturb them sonically. But industrial, needless to say, had only a real small 'niche' market -- and so industrial bands like Kraftwerk quickly turned from the grating, industrial sound of noisy heavy machinery to the clean, smooth, postindustrial digital sound of electronics and computers.

Part of the history of techno lies in the way in which electronic music came of interest first to the art music avant-garde, and then only later to pop artists. The Musique Concrete of the 1950s featured use of electroacoustically generated sounds such as ship horns and bicycle bells. Other avant-gardists like John Cage and Todd Machover became interested in sounds that were purely electronically generated, and used electronic devices to create spontaneous and unpredictable performances. Yet others experimented with tape mixing, a process of altering tape recordings once they are already "pressed" to vary the tempo or pitch. As the technology matured, people began modifying the waveform of sound at a fundamental structural level, and seeing the ways in which music could move beyond what they felt were "moribund" classical traditions[13]. Only later did electronic music become of interest to pop artists, most of whom saw it as a way to "spice up" otherwise acoustically generated performances. With the electric guitar and the amplifier, and later the synthesizer, MIDI sequencer, and drum machine, electronic music began to enter pop/rock. However, these basic items remained fairly expensive for most 'garage' bands.

Primarily due to the fact that this equipment dropped in price in the early 1980s, largely due to the same processes that finally made the personal computer an affordable reality, African-American musicians began to make the technology (esp. digital resamplers) a key part of hiphop and the "Electro" Funk that eventually would lead to Techno. But many of them came into the scene using the technological cast-offs of richer artists, and the roots of techno in "street tech" (as William Gibson says, "the street has its own uses for technology") and cobbling together spare parts because you couldn't afford "hi tech" can still be seen. House came out of the "guerilla media" revolution of the 80s. Like desktop publishing, and the use of personal camcorders to make do-it-yourself (DIY) video, the technology of house took media (in this case, music) out of corporate control and into the hands of the street. Everybody could make music - and everybody could be "in the house" to listen to it, because you could crank it out anywhere. House spat in the face of corporate rock, because the recording industry couldn't silence thousands of digital resamplers "remixing" all their smash songs[14].

Nonetheless, the roots of techno in a somewhat more rarefied, elite, avant-garde art-musical tradition can also be seen too. Cage and Stockhausen wanted to use electronic techniques to make every performance unique, and perhaps fundamentally random and out of the control of its creator. (In one performance, Cage used randomly generated hexagram sequences from the I Ching as the basis for generating musical chords.) This influence filtered into 80s synth bands like Human League, Alan Parsons Project, and ABBA, and from there into techno, especially the ambient style (Brian Eno is one of the important links here.) As the synthesizer technology advanced, the capability to alter its instrumental performance for each show did also. The avant-gardists also wanted to challenge the Western musical notation system, mainly by "getting to" an electronic music that manipulated the fundamental basis of sound. Like its avant-gardist antecedents, techno is also anti-technique: it does not rely on the musical score and often each performance of a techno song is entirely performance, the "remix" of it being dependent on how much "tweaking" the DJ wants to do (and what he thinks he can get away with.)

The Ideology of the House: Post-Pop Politics?

Rave/house ideology is, to some people, somewhat strangely apolitical. It is definitely not as expressly oppositional to basic social morays as rock n' roll was perceived to be in the 1960s. Rave is political in the U.K. only insofar as their civil liberties tradition there is a good deal weaker than that of the U.S., and ravers can claim to be striking blows for the right to freely assemble, speak, and, of course, party. Ravers basically want the right to rave and to use the substances that they want to use at raves, so they tend to go to rallies for drug legalization and such, but are often politically uncommitted in other ways[15]. Unlike the punk movement, which was clearly to some degree a manifestation of working-class youth and their discontent with unemployment and bourgeouis society as a whole, (although it then led to a wave of art-school imitators), ravers are (like the hippies before them) mostly middle-class, and they may share some of the basic disaffectations of pessimistic "Generation Xers," but they are hardly alienated in the way that some of the diehard punks were (and flaunted about.)

The Zippies (Zany Inwardly Progessive Pagans), who are the most political wing of the Ravers, still basically practice an essentially countercultural politics. They don't challenge the State or its policies, but instead claim to be part of an international "movement" which transcends the nation-state and makes it illegitimate. They are usually interested in peace, ecology, and civil liberties, as well as democratizing and humanizing technology, which they feel is necessary for human spiritual growth and maturity. They tend to feel that raving is political-in-itself, in that it brings together people of all classes, races, and national origins to put aside their differences and unify around music. Like the way that 60s agitation slowly mellowed into 70s New Age, Zippy politics seems to be organized around the idea of "evolution not revolution" - the utopian ideal that if people changed their mindset (and not just their material conditions) then the problems of materialism, war, and oppression would fade away; and that the key to peace is a totally harmonious, conflict-free society - united around techno music of course.

Part of rave ideology is that "techno has no stars." This is part of the anti-egoistic ethos of rave. Unlike a rock concert, there are no "guitar heroes" for ravers to focus their attention on; the DJs are central to the scene but at a rave they often go unseen and basically unnoticed[16]. They are also essentially anonymous in that most are only known by pseudonyms. People don't dance with partners or try to show off for others - everybody is united in dancing to the beat and dancing with "everybody else at the same time." Rave is supposed to break down the basic duality of the rock concert between the performer, and the audience whose rapt attention is supposedly glued on him (or her - but usually him.) At raves, the performers are essentially invisible, and the only presence is the beat, and everybody participates; dancing for as long as they can until they get tired and need to "chill out" for a while. Gender roles are broken down, as people arrive usually in large (unpaired) groups of mixed genders, and don't feel the need, like some disco lounge lizard, to stalk out a partner of the opposite gender and ask them to dance; they just jump in and join the groove. This collapse of performer/audience also occurs in that ravers are encouraged to use acoustic instruments to accompany the techno sound - i.e. "join the jam."

Another part of house ideology is that "everything is music." (A corollary of this might be, for Blacking-ists, that "everyone is a musician.") For this reason, house artists explore the experimental creation of music from all kinds of unusual sources. Computers are used to generate "DNA music" (by assigning musical sequences to the base-pairs), "galactic music" (by transforming celestial radiation into sound), "biomusic" (by translating the electrical pulses of the peripheral nervous system into sound), and "hypermusic" (created by hyperinstruments which are basically acoustic but whose sound qualities are shifted by the motion of the performer and the instrument.) Ravers feel, almost animistically, that there is music in everything, and that the key to releasing it for people to hear is simply using the right technology. Part of raving is supposed to be "getting in touch with your groove" - like in New Age, the idea is that each person has a fundamental musical 'self' (a harmony that is rooted in their being) which they need to get in touch with.

The goal of house, say the ravers, is "phase locking" - to get the group of people assembled at the rave into a synchronized, synergetic, collective mental 'space' or vibe. The rave is supposed to be a self-similar, unbroken, self-organizing fractal: thus no divisions are permitted, and likewise no egos, leaders, or partners. Ravers and Zippies are big into chaos theory, and they believe that when the right number of people are all in one place, dancing to the right groove, a new emergent order around spontaneous "strange attractors" can appear, and people present are supposedly changed for the better, "evolving" into "mutants" that will lead the human race into the chaotic, turbulent world of the 21st century[17]. Rave is supposed to deconstruct dualities, especially collapsing the past and the future into a singular "modern primitive." The oppositions between technology and spirituality, the primal body and the higher mind, and neo-tribalism and global humanism, are all supposed to "implode" at the rave, resulting in a "technoshamanism" where the DJ serves as the initiator of the people into a sort of participation mystique where they tune into the "vibe" of Gaia.

Techno is an accelerated music, and ravers believe history is accelerating. Unlike simple Christian millenialists, many ravers buy into Terrence McKenna's dictum that we are approaching a "singularity" in time in the year 2012, and that after that point, time will fold into "hyperspace." This "strange attractor at the end of time" is supposed to be dragging us all into it, creating (as the date approaches) newer and more powerful emergent forms of novelty. McKenna supposedly derived this date from interpretation of the I Ching and the Mayan codices, and it's also pretty momentous for New Agers, who celebrated their "Harmonic Convergence" in 1987 because their 'prophet' Jose Arguelles proclaimed this marked the 25-year period where the Earth would be moving into "a new galactic beam." At once apocalyptic and transtemporal ("it's the end of history and I don't care") rave ideology suggests a radical transformation of the world, and human consciousness, is imminent, and that techno music may in fact be the new sound of the coming millenium. None of this may be political in an express sense, but it's reflective of much of the Aquarian millenial utopianism of the 1960s, only this time with a technoscientific (some would say "pseudoscientific") edge.

It is political only in that ideologically it is probably "way out there" for most people, who are undoubtedly somewhat scared of the rhetoric of global mind change. To some in England, rave ideology was just rewarmed Thatcherism - individual entrepeneurship, decentralization, "be healthy and look good." In many ways, raving is closer to the religious revitalization movements of the Native Americans - an attempt to challenge the powers that be musically, culturally, and spiritually, rather than through direct political force or action. The one way in which rave is a direct political challenge is to the policies of the multinational music industry and their efforts to commoditize and control music. And how much of a real challenge it is remains to be seen. In the face of techno, many major recording labels have already succeeded either through bypassing (ignoring) techno (and providing the "same old same old" Houston/Bolton/Kenny G) or, inevitably, coopting it, by getting techno artists to "sell out" and even make techno songs 'softer' so that they can be used as jingles on commercial TV.

How is Techno Made?

The key musical 'instruments' for techno are the drum machine and the synthesizer. Important for the creation of techno music are equipment such as the following: the 101 and Yamaha Sy99 Synthesizer; the 303 Bass Line Sequencer; the 505, 727, 808, and 909 Drum Machine; the Roland MC-202 Microcomposer/sequencer; the Korg WaveStation; the Emu Procussion Machine; the Alchemy Pitch-Time Shifter; and various voice changers, digital resamplers, MIDI sequencers, and electroacoustic generators. Many of these devices were already starting to come into use by pop bands in the late 1970s, but mostly for additional effects[18]. Some modulation is done in the recording studio, but a lot of it is carried out "live" on site. A computer is critical for coordinating and synchronizing all this equipment, as is a modified keyboard to allow the DJ some "hands-on" control of the computer's activities. (The most popular computers for techno artists are generally Macintoshes, NeXT machines, Amigas, and Atari Falcons.) Amplification and basic mediation (speakers), as would be found at any large-scale musical event, are also key. Many raves do have some acoustic accompaniment to all this electronic sound, some by performers hired for his purpose, but more often provided by audience members.

As important as the audio at a rave are, of course, the visuals. Providing the visual accompaniment at many raves are usually computer-generated fractal images and 3D rendered animations. But raves have also featured laser light, colored-wheel lighting, holography, liquid oil projection screens, video projection, strobes, robotic characters, or other high-tech displays. Very common is the use of the Video Toaster to combine images from kitsch TV and movies, Japanese 'anime' cartoons, MTV music videos, advertising, and science fiction into a rapid-fire display which switches images at an almost subliminal "mindfuck" rate, close to the 135 bpm of the music. Rave is supposed to be a multimedia, multisensual experience, and thus there will even be attempts to stimulate the sense of smell and touch of the ravers, with incense and scented oils, dry ice, and fans. Ravers feel that this "sensory overload" serves a purpose - to overwhelm the senses and create a transcendent, synaesthetic experience.

Techno is, like almost any modern musical genre, 'made' in part by the fanzines ('zines) which cover the "movement." In the U.S., 'zines like Dataflow, DJ Times, Alternative Press, Matrix, MixMag, StreetSound, URB, and U.S. Rave cover the rave scene. People learn about where raves are happening through the 'zines and what DJs and songs are "hot" at the moment. The 'zines try and educate ravers, admonishing them to bring water to drink, practice safe sex, and be wary of punks and other party crashers[19]. The technology that makes rave 'zines possible is, of course, desktop publishing, allowing them to be put out cheaply without having to rely on large amounts of advertising or subscription revenue. The techno 'zines try and bring 'converts' to the rave scene, 'hooking' them in with flashy covers and lurid visuals. In many cases, they are put out by the very 'promoters' whose raves they are supposed to cover and review, but few people see an intrinsic sense of conflict of interest in that.

"Generation E": Ecstasy, Smart Bars, and Drugs in the Rave Scene

As with previous music subcultures, an important issue seized upon by the media in its coverage of the House "musical movement," especially in England from 1989 on, was the usage of drugs by the participants. The media specifically focused on the use of MDMA (usually known as Ecstasy or XTC - chemical formula name being metheylenedimethoxymethamphetamine) by the ravers, much as earlier moralists had pointed to the "insidious associations" between marijuana and jazz, crack cocaine and gangsta rap, or LSD and psychedelic pop rock. After a decade of various rock n' roll artists "going clean" and telling their young audience not to do drugs, various powers that be were outraged that techno music figures were encouraging young people to use MDMA, and also older drugs like LSD, DMT, and katamine ('Vitamin K'). In truth, MDMA had been around for a long time - it was originally formulated by Parke-Davis as an appetite supressant in 1917, but had made little penetration into the market. It was used for psychotherapy in the mid-60s, and from there did enter the street drug scene in California, but really was not a "drug of choice" until it made its dynamic burst into the 90s psyche with the coming of the Rave Scene[20].

There was a rash of unscientific 'findings' released about MDMA shortly after it rocketed into the recreational drug use scene: based on very shoddy studies, some researchers claimed that the "neurotoxic" drug caused a drop in GABA levels (spinal fluid), destroyed serotoninergic receptors, or created brain lesions which might lead to eventual Parkinson's Syndrome. Many of these findings paralleled unsubstantiated claims about LSD causing chromosomal fracturing or post-usage psychotic episodes. There were a few people who disputed these findings, but their voice was quickly crushed by a new wave of outrage over some tragic events in England that were thought to be "MDMA-related." In one case, a young 15 year-old raver died from dehydration, largely because the Rave party he was at had no water to drink and he had been dancing in 90 degree summer heat for eight hours, and this was touted as an "MDMA death" (partially true, in that, like any amphetamine, MDMA does cause excessive perspiration and body fluid loss, which is why ravers are admonished to drink lots of water.) In another case, a young girl was sexually assaulted by two boys said to be "sexually crazed from XTC" (again, partially true only, in that MDMA is not an aphrodisiac, but it is a stimulant and does create sensual feelings in users which are not always specifically sexual.)

Not surprisingly, a wave of moral panic exploded in the U.S. and U.K. against raves, and tabloid television and news filled peoples' minds with tales of drug-addled young maniacs going out and raping innocent, helpless young girls. As with rock and roll and drug use, the music itself was accused of fostering and promoting the taking of drugs, and thus there were efforts to ban raves and techno music altogether. The people who were urging Americans to "Just Say No" to drugs in the 80s went after raves with a passion. In many cases, they simply collapsed the condensed (and television-edited) version of 60s drug use with the present, and failed to see how the ravers attitudes toward drugs and drug usage was qualitatively different. The ravers rejected the organicist, naturalistic mentality associated with 60s drug use ("smoke it - it's organic."), and instead embraced new synthetic composites which emerged from "rogue" pharmaceutical operations (famous for tinkering with one molecule at a time in order to keep their preparations always one step away from the Drug Scheduling Acts.) They embraced drugs which they thought made them smarter or more "in touch," rather than ones that made them "get high," "space out," or "drop out."

Indeed, the ravers eschewed all drugs that they considered to be addictive, depressant, or likely to suppress intelligence or sensuality - which meant an avoidance of alcohol as well as "hard drugs" such as cocaine, heroin, or PCP. They embraced MDMA for its supposed ability to heighten the feeling of emotional connectedness, sensuality, energy, and being in touch with one's "core" self or personality[21]. MDMA did not increase sexual appetite - in fact, many commentators noted that it suited the post-AIDs attitude of the 90s era by causing the whole body to feel erogenous (what some Freudians would call erotic regression) rather than focusing people on genitality. But it was the perfect rave drug (from the ravers' point of view) because it made people want to "bond" with others and it loosened up egoism and self-consciousness, preventing people from feeling the shyness or shame associated with "dancing right." Rave dancing was the exact opposite of the "dance culture" of the early 80s - unlike break dancing, the idea in rave dancing is not to show off fancy moves or attract attention to oneself or try and impress people with your footwork. It's about movement for the sake of the music, not for what people think of you, said the ravers.

Ravers also embraced many of the older psychedelics of the 60s counterculture, especially LSD, because of their synaesthetic effects and anti-egoistic influence. But due to their technologically oriented mindset, they eschewed natural plant hallucinogens in their 'raw' state, and preferred to take their derivatives (such as psilocybin and ibogaine) in a processed form, with possible side chemicals (like unrelated alkaloids or other compounds) being removed, along with the common effects of nausea, vomiting, or temporary immunosuppression that went along with them... psychedelics were supposed to synergistically combine with the consciousness-altering properties of the music (and accompanying lightshows) itself. Rave music lyrics frequently spoke positively of psychedelic drugs, or parodied and mocked the moral crusaders who campaigned against them. Taking their cue from old/new counterculturalists such as Terrence McKenna, the ravers asserted the right to modify their consciousness as they saw fit, and painted the people who blocked their access to their newer, higher consciousness as reactionaries, or worse, "anti-evolutionaries."

However, another key area in which "Generation E" was sharply different from the Boomer generation and its drug-experimentation was in its rejection of anti-intellectualism and escapism. Ravers also quickly embraced the new "smart drugs" of the 90s, claiming that they made people able to think more quickly (effectively increasing intelligence), slowed down the aging of the brain and the loss of memory, and even increased neural interhemispheric connectivity. These drugs (often referred to as 'nootropics'), such as hydergine, piracetam, and vasopressin, were often analogues of pituitary hormones in the brain, neurotransmitters, or naturally occurring amino acids. It became a common feature of the rave scene to have "smart bars" where various nootropics were combined with fruit juices and vitamin mixtures in such tantalizing combinations as Memory Fuel or Energy Potion. The rave ethos was to "tune in" rather than "drop out." While medical professionals have debated about the efficacy of nootropics, there has been little effort to ban them, largely because there are no known negative side effects, and the FDA's hesitance in approving them has largely due to the inability of their creators to justify the claims for their products.

For ravers, taking MDMA and drinking smart drinks is part and parcel of the techno experience. They've taken the mystical, antirationalist mentality of the earlier pioneers of psychedelia, and given it an intellectual veneer of scientific mind/brain research. Like the strange stereoscopic personal light/vibration/sound devices often found at raves ("mind machines" or "consciousness modulators,") or the carefully pulsed drum machines and strobic light generators, or the "trippy" fractal computer graphics and animations, or the VR (virtual reality) rooms often cropping up in the scene, pharmeceuticals like MDMA, LSD, and Memory Fuel are embraced for their ability to precisely, technologically, 'scientifically' take the consciousness into an altered state. Ravers do not see drugs as antisocial or anti-intellectual: instead they assert their rights to their brains as personal property, and to modify themselves as they see fit, all as part of their "evolutionary" quest to transcend existing human limitations.

Indeed, the next step is of course the complete technological colonization of the brain. Though the technology does not exist yet, there is much talk in the rave subculture of neural implants, becoming a "wirehead," of mixing "hardware" and "wetware," and "jacking in" to computers and cyberspace. (Also, of genetic modification and life extension.) Ravers claim that when such technologies become available (such as 'biochips' which may offer 'implantable' new skills like language comprehension or 'matrix jacks' which will allow direct neural communication between the brain and remote interfaces), they will embrace them wholeheartedly, all as part of their quest for the technological perfectibility of the human being. The ravers react with excitement to the technological reworking ("cyborgification") of the human body (prosthetics, hormonal implants, artificial organs, exoskeletons, synthetic blood or other bodily compounds, etc.) and, while often not able to act on that excitement, symbolize it through such 'low-tech' means as body piercing, tattooing and scarification, wearing microchips and circuitry, or using cables and 'hardware' for personal adornment[22].

While the remaking of the body is nothing new - some commentators see no interruption between the rave ethos and the 'Schwarzenegger' ethos of not settling for your own body when steroids, pumping iron, 'cybergenics' and hi-protein shakes, etc, can make it better and healthier - the ravers are unique in their interest of methodically remaking the brain. The music is seen as part of this - it is not a backdrop to the utilization of drugs, like Led Zeppelin for the dropping of Acid, but instead part and parcel of it. The pounding techno beat is thought to be "sonic driving," much like the ancient Vodun drum, pushing people into ecstatic states. For the ravers, the music and the use of XTC are inseparable, twin boosts toward the 'evolutionary' energy of the rave. They see drugs as a tool in this process - a tool they will not allow moralists on the other side to deprive them of. For this reason, anti-MDMA "concerned citizens" misunderstand the rave scene and the place of drugs like Ecstasy in it, and will likely continue to fail in their efforts to supress the drug or the events in which it is utilized.

"Sample THIS!": Issues in Techno

One of the big issues that comes up with techno music is, not surprisingly, sampling. Techno "plays" a lot of "hype" about being non-commercial and anti-corporate. But for many musicians, it is simply "one big ripoff" because the fact of the matter is that they steal other peoples' music (without royalties, let alone credit or attribution) and make money off of it. Sampling is controversial, and long before techno, the use of it in rap and hiphop led to many a lawsuit. But house musicians operate under a different norm of intellectual property. Just like hackers, who feel you can "borrow" someone else's computer code under the condition that you improve on it and make it better, house artists think it's OK to sample as long as you improve on the music you've borrowed and change it in a way which makes it new and distinctive. House is postmodern music, assembled by appropriation, which (like the pastiches and collages of Robert Rauschning) almost seems to question the idea of total originality and authenticity and uniqueness[23]. House artists seem to accept that the art of creation is really taking a lot of things from other people and combining them in new and different ways. It's all supposed to be part of the non-egoism of house; house musicians are not supposed to mind when they are in turn sampled by other house artists, since fair is fair, and music is no one's property .

But just as giving away software for free would mean a lot of programmers would starve, most techno artists realize that without royalties and some rights over their music, they might too. So there's often a large contradiction between rhetoric and reality within techno. There are many arguments as to whether techno is the critique or handmaiden of the emerging information (postindustrial, service-sector) society. Some critical studies types see techno as part of the continuing "domestication" of leisure, a sugar-coated pill to convince people to allow technological domination by the multinational corporations and a new form of commodity fetishism to get them to buy the latest technotopian gadgets. Yet others see techno as part of the "cyberpunk challenge" to the emerging information economy - a radical questioning of the norm that suggests that information (including sonic information, e.g. music) is property; a sharp challenge to corporatized, advertising-dominated, and mass-consumed broadcast media, especially by 'media hoax' groups like NegativLand; and a reaction to the threats to privacy, identity, security, and liberty that the "Information Society" represents.

Another debate for many academics is over what techno signifies about our society. To many people, convinced that music already went to hell in a handbasket with the coming of jazz, rock, or rap, it's simply the end of the world made manifest. Academics are rarely that pessimistic, but for some the accelerating rhythms of techno show that even in our leisure, people are unable to break free of the monotonous, inflexible, robotic, hyperaccelerated pace of life under late industrial capitalism, where people are working more hours with less breaks for less money. For people used to the "human touch" of jazz, blues, folk, and "acoustic" music (whatever that is), techno seems harshly dehumanizing, perhaps even antihuman, soullessly celebrating the transformation of people into machines. Musicologists often find techno to be extremely alienating, or perhaps fascistic, in that it tries to mechanically make everybody all "fall into line." Deep ecologists, neo-hippies, and back-to-nature types just hate techno, period, because for them it represents the epitome of human arrogance and separation from the original source of music - the sounds of nature (babbling brooks, hooting owls, etc.) Left academics find only puzzlement in the postmodern, post-pop, communitarian yet anti-materialist politics of techno.

To propagandists for the rave, techno is of course liberation, the tool for saving us from ourselves, and unlocking the music in all of us. Technology is not the enemy, but we have to be able to use it appropriately and at the proper scale, so that Big Business doesn't misuse it against us. Neo-organic romanticism is not the appropriate response for our time, they say, and hearkening back to mythic, folk, acoustic roots for Western music seems ridiculously reactionary. The threat to music is not its technologization or mediation but instead its commodification -- and these things, say techno artists, don't have to go hand in hand. We are not in danger of losing our musicality because we will never forget how to play acoustic instruments; but we are learning a new, more elemental musicality in being able to work with sonic waveforms at their most fundamental level. To the pro-techno music side, techno is a planetary positive force, part of the creation of a global electronic "noosphere" of united minds, and nothing less.

Since techno remains a genre which primarily draws in youth (Generation Xers usually aged 18-29), it's also revived all the old debates about whether it is a "youth culture," and whether in fact there is such a thing as "youth culture" at this point in (post)industrialized societies like the U.S. and U.K.[24] And also whether "youth culture" originates out of "generation gaps" (especially generational differences over the appreciation of music) or is simply a marketing ploy for corporations seeking to find people with disposable income through coopted counterculturalism... and whether youth are in some way predisposed toward deviancy and idealism by the hormonal surges of adolescene... etc etc. Perhaps youth are the ones needed to unify the planet, because especially in Third World nations the most exploding demographic group are people aged 15-29. Many of these academic debates about techno will continue for a long time... perhaps even well past the point where its musical-generational successor has stolen the scene.

Conclusion and Reflections: Music, Mediation, Culture

Can ethnomusicologically benefit from more closely examining techno/rave? I suspect that ethnomusicologists need to start getting their head out of the sand over this idea that there are still "pure," untainted, unmediated, "truly authentic" musical formations out there unsullied by contamination or Western capitalism. (Or played loud enough for a whole village to hear without the benefits of amplification, recording, or broadcast.) This is as indefensible a notion as the old anthropological idea that we were studying 'primitive' cultures in order to capture a record of them before they were "erased" by modernity, industrialization, and Westernization. All of our musics today are hybrid musics - 'cyborg musics,' to borrow from Donna Harraway - and they are all the products of technological processes. The ethnos of rave music may not be wholly distinct, and often seems to be trans-ethnic, but for some ravers it is redefining their very ideas of tribe, family, and nation. Most importantly, the ethos of rave music is there, and it provides a laboratory for some of ethnomusicology's ideas about the relationship of music performance to culture and "culture brokering." It's not just a white, Western musical genre, and is spilling out all over the globe. Ethnomusicologists should consider themselves lucky to have the opportunity to study a new musical revolution while it's in progress. They might not get the chance next time.




  1. Swinzler, 1991, p. 16
  2. Tagg, 1994, p. 211
  3. Rushkoff, 1994, p. 135
  4. Mackay, 1981, p. 5
  5. Langlois, 1993, p. 233
  6. Borel, 1994, p. 25
  7. Ailey, 1992, p.1
  8. Deacon, 1994, p. 12
  9. Redhead, 1993, p. 62
  10. Redhead, 1990, p. 204
  11. Ibid., p. 59
  12. Griffiths, 1979, p. 113
  13. Holmes, 1985, p. 29
  14. Rushkoff, 1994, p. 185
  15. Redhead, 1990, p. 78
  16. Langlois, 1993, p. 237
  17. Rushkoff, 1994, p. 179
  18. Griffiths, 1979, p. 42
  19. Borel, 1994, p. 25
  20. Redhead, 1993, p. 108
  21. Swinzler, 1991, p. 18
  22. Rushkoff, 1994, p. 33
  23. Tagg, 1994, p. 212
  24. Redhead, 1990, p. 81
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