Friday, April 11, 2008

The First Attack of the Rising Sun (1040 words about Philly all-night techno parties)

There were no good youtube clips available that were applicable to this blog. Kate Simko's music was the inspirational force behind my writing this. Her set of minimal techy housey goodness was the highlight of the March 8th party. But all I could find of her online were poor-quality 30-sec bass-distorted cellphone video clips. So instead, while reading this, listen to this mix. It's Kate Simko spinning a great 3 1/2 hour set in Philly at Inciting HQ from this past summer:

"The First Attack of the Rising Sun"--- this is the name of a bootleg of Led Zeppelin's first ever concert in Japan (Sept 23, 1971 in Tokyo.) "Rising Sun" refers to Japan's "Japanese" name ("Nippon.") Nippon translates to the "Land of the Rising Sun," acknowledging Japan's extreme position in the far east. By itself, taken apart from the wonderful recording of a classic Zep show, that title, "The First Attack of the Rising Sun" is poetic yet ambiguously sinister. Sunrises are a universally accepted example of natural beauty and a sign of hope, yet "attack" brings with it is a violent negative destructive image. And I like this contrast of images.
That "first attack" could reference the deadly 1941 strike on Pearl Harbor. Or the "first attack" could refer to an unwanted dawn--- something dreaded by vampires and attendees of all-night dance parties.

Last month, I was an all-night dancer. It was 5 or 6AM depending on whether one factors in the daylight "spring ahead." I came home just as dawn was breaking. It was so quiet after the warehoused bass receded. I could hear the creaking of my bike's little imperfections as I pedaled home. The passing buses were empty except for what looked like some brutally early morning commuters working the Lord's day of rest.

Minimal techno was the musical menu for the party I'd just left. MNML isn't very sexy music. I think that's part of why I like it. It's not sexy, but it moves the shoulders, arms and legs. It's played usually when people are gathered--at parties--but its minimal nature creates a spacious atmosphere. People dance to it together, but there's an introspection to it. Each person lost in his/her world. There's dancing in close proximity to one another, but the beats are generally too fast and clipped for bump and grind.

"Minimal" means no more than necessary; no full kit sound when a simple snare click will do. The rhythms are still strong and at times there are even little looping melodies. But the music is less dense than the kind of techno you might remember from bad high school parties in echoing gymnasiums and Jock Jams CDs.

The minimal nature gives the music a consistently propulsive yet often floating nature. There's none of the slap-in-the-face snares and punch-in-the-gut 4/4 bass kicks. That more heavy-handed techno has a tendency to make me feel pummeled into the ground. It was that sort of aggressive techno that turned me off to the idea of electronic dance music for so long.

In MNML the bass often cuts out, giving it more emphasis when it drops back in. In MNML there are peaks and valleys. There's a continual tension between repetition and change. The music will start repeating a phrase, one begins to think "is the vinyl/CD/mp3 skipping?" And then at the last moment, as one is just resolving to go to the DJ booth and say "WTF?!"---bam!---the music changes. The click is filled out with funky bass rolls, briefs pockets of density, vocal fragments, fists in the air.

And in MNML there aren't any "songs." There's just a continuous evolving rhythm lasting for hours on end. In the crowd there's no anxiety of "Oh they better play THIS song, THAT song, etc." Michael Jackson doesn't exist in a MNML set. There's are no lovers of Billie Jean here. There are no requests. Even techno tracks that one might have at home are cross-faded, combined, and re-EQed. Tracks are remastered in real time, looped, sped up, and slowed down so they are often virtual unrecognizable.

The police showed up 3 or 4 times at the LAVA party in March. They were polite from what I witnessed. They're probably aware of fire code violations, illicit substances, and under age drinking going on in the laser-lit darkness just past the metal door. But they also seemed to realize that the people were well-behaved. There was no shouting on the streets, or curbside vomiting. The party was self-contained except for the bass which oozed through the loose mortar for a block around.

The cops said they were there because neighbors complained. They'd show up and the volume would be cut accordingly. Then as soon as they left the floor shaking-bass would be dropped back in again with a rebellious cheer from the crowd. The cops had gone but the neighbors hadn't. They still had to suffer as 3 o'clock became 4 became 5.

Ironically the venue, LAVA, is subtitled "a radical community center." But here we were with our techno, primarily sweaty white kids dancing in the dark in the middle of a primarily black low-income neighborhood fucking over whatever community is at 42nd and Lancaster Avenue. The image of poor black folks with paint-peeling walls and cotton balls in their ears compromised my enjoyment of the music.

I don't listen to much techno off the dancefloor. I used to think that techno not making good music for kicking-back with the high-fi and a cup of tea back at the homestead made it intrinsically bad music. Insubstantial, not durable. But I now like that techno is so linked to the dance floor and body movement. The fact that it only works with one's body in motion is actually a testament to its strength as what it sets out to be-- DANCE music. Even off the floor, it's difficult to listen without at least twitching or head-bopping a bit.

People (mostly) come to Philly techno parties to dance, or at least enjoy the full body experience of standing around and soaking in the deep clitter/clatter/pow of a surround sound sub woofer PA. As I previously stated, the music isn't sexy. And it doesn't seem that people come to hit on or be hit. It seems people tend to leave with the same people they came with.

I take comfort in this. Sexually-repressed me doesn't have to deal with grinding. If I make physical contact it's with my friends. I come alone and just before dawn I leave, alone. Just as I expected. [Deep even breaths]

People don't dress up much for Philly techno. There's a come as you are, let it all hang out mentality. There are some tight dresses , shiny shirts, and sharp outfits to be sure. But one is more likely to see a Black Flag t shirt than a dress shirt at these parties. A good warehouse party will bring out 100, 200, 300 kids max. The scene is too small to be elitist. Philly is not Berlin. It's not London. It's not even NYC.

There are a few people I accept but don't quite understand at these parties-- the DJ watchers. These are the people, always men, who stand inches away from the DJ booth/table almost still as statues watching every knob turn, fader slide, and cue. Maybe they themselves are aspiring DJs, hoping to learn something about mixing from watching the DJ. Maybe they're crushing on the DJ. Or maybe these DJ watchers just feel awkward, drawn to the music but too self-conscious to dance.

But techno DJs rarely do anything showy. There's none of the scratching behind the back of hip-hop turntablists. The DJ is there to keep the dance floor going, not to be a focal point. Though sometimes the DJ has a pleasing and contagious time-keeping wiggle going on and sometimes there's a bit of an engaging micro-drama when the DJ uses both hands, quickly turning two knobs in unison, to dramatically and immediately change the sound.

These little motions are an added visual bonus for the dancer, but they never seem like enough to hold attention by themselves and stop someone dead in their tracks.
But at every party there's always a contingent of these statue-standing floor-blocks, reducing space for the dancers.

I DO like to keep looking over at the DJ every few minutes, trying to catch their eye when they're not too concentrated on the mix, hoping they see me dancing and know that whatever they're doing on the decks is working for me and keeping me moving.
I try to make eye contact because I want the DJ to feel connected to the crowd he's spinning for. From my own amateur DJing experiences I know how motivational, inspirational and satisfying it can be to have eye contact with happy dancers in motion.

I feel like I dance like a lead-footed handicapped person on every other dance floor in clubs and bars. But in the MNML tchno wrhse I feel a tad graceful. I feel I'm holding my own. And best of all, I often don't even think about how I feel. I'm just in the moment, dancing. At the best parties I lose my self-consciousness. I slide in and out of the beats and ascending and descending notes as if I were part of the sound, as if I were birthed from the speakers. And with all my anxieties, I most value things that kill my self-consciousness, even if for only a little while.

The phrase, "The First Attack of the Rising Sun" looped in my head riding my bike home from two all-night techno parties in the last month. Despite my oft-nocturnal ways I'm no vampire, but I am certainly a frequent all-night dancer. Seeing the sunrise, alone after no sleep at all, is both beautiful and sad. The solar "attack" is the punctuation on a unrelenting night of beats. The period. The final shimmering cymbal crash that fades to light. As daylight creeps through gaps in thick curtains, the empty bottles, cigarette butts, and baggies are revealed on the now empty dance floor.

Meanwhile I'm half across the city and exhausted. I'm at the limits of my unnatural extension of conscious through caffeine and sheer willpower. I'm very susceptible to strong emotional responses. My guard is down. The happiness feels happier and the sadness sadder. Things stop making sense. I'm filled with frightening confusion. And then I collapse and lose all consciousness as the sun, now risen, continues its attack.


iku iku said...
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iku iku said...

well said my friend, well said.
i actually just this morning watched an old chn4 bbc doc on 'rave culture'
a study was done that found the people who went to all nighters on the reg felt a serious increase of all good feelings while at the party[this was done on 45 er so people- half normally took e at parties and half did not(the drugs made no difference- which made me think of you)] in teh same social study occasional 'ravers' were included.. the people who only went occasionally were not nearly in such a positive state[drugs or no drugs].
though i understand what you are saying.. i do find alot of minimal sexy[look to south america] and it makes me move my hips, but like i said i know what you are saying. i feel that the focal mentality for most is a sort of symbolic group-hug though dance. everyone is moving by themselves, but in mass connected by the rhythm. if you think about.. nothing new to humans- wwe've been dancing all night to beats since we figured out how to make drums:]