Dance music today is turning into cyber-sound. Songs are getting further removed from anything outside of the artificial world of computer generation. EDM (Electronic DanceMusic) is increasingly digital rather than actual because artificial music turns us on.
The reasons for multiple computerized eargasms on the dance floor are simple: digital audio creates new options for sound, and it makes people dance. We still love our vocalists, but we now prefer their voices set within computer-calibrated rhythms, loops and the latest synthetic noises.
In the world of EDM, song outweighs artist every time. Dancers are like crack whores – they want their fix and they want it now – and Circuiteers are the worst of the lot. Go to any Circuit party: the crowd is all about the DJ who can bring it, and not so much the singer who can sing it. We crave the new, the latest, the hottest, and there is not enough juice in live music alone to keep our whore-selves satisfied.
Music is fuel for dancing, and the fuel does not have a long shelf life - a song has only so much punch before it loses energy. The same is true for musical genres: we can only groove to the same sound for a limited time. Ultimately, the Circuit (and EDM in general) is all about innovation in sonic energy in order to feed our addiction.
But obsession with the new is nothing new. The origins of recorded music started with innovation in sound production. It all began when humanity discovered that some materials could store and replicate sound, allowing music to exist independently from music-makers. And once dancers could detach themselves from live musicians, everything changed.
Starting from Scratch: Analog
In the late 1800s, scientists discovered that wax could preserve acoustic patterns. When tiny grooves are scratched into the wax, any noise during the carving causes the wax to change. Run a small pointed piece of metal in the grooves so that it rubs the wax, and the resulting sound is similar to the sound that occurred at the time the wax was scratched. It is analogous (that is, similar) to the original, thus the technology is called analog.
The first recordings were engraved in continuous spirals winding around the surface of wax cylinders. A big hollow horn was set in place to amplify the scratching noise made by the needle as it surfed the waxy wave. Everything was hand-driven, even when shellac discs replaced cylinders after 1900. Although range and quality were not yet very good, enough of the original sound came through to inspire people to dance to a band that was no longer there, a brand new experience for humanity. Inventors experimented with materials, and analog sound became truer to the original.
Earliest EDM Ancestor: PuttingElectricity in Dance Music
“Electrical recording” was the name given to the next phase of technological advancement. Electricity amplified and improved analog in the 1920s, first for live microphones for radio and recording, then later for machines that played the discs. Initially, those electrical record players were roughly the price of a new car. Electricity amplified and enriched the sound so that the big, cumbersome horns were no longer necessary. But the length of a commercial recording on a disc was limited by affordable technology to only 2-4 minutes, and songs for the radio were tailored to a three-and-a-half-minute format that still exists today.
Sapphire, then diamond, replaced metal in the needles and vinyl replaced shellac. By 1960, rotation speeds for vinyl records were standardized at 33.3 RPM (Rotations Per Minute) for long-playing 12-inch albums (collections of multiple songs for twenty minutes or so on one side) and 45 RPM for smaller, single-song discs.
Magnetic technologies further revolutionized recording and sound production. Vinyl was rivaled and even surpassed by recordings made on a thin plastic ribbon with a metal coating imprinted with fluctuations in magnetic field strength. The technology was called “reel to reel” as the ribbon moved from one container or reel and wound around another. This would eventually become two currently obsolete forms that came out in the 1970s: cassettes and eight-tracks. Since recording tapes could be cut and reassembled, reel-to-reel allowed DJs to reformat songs differently from the original. This was the beginning of remixing.
Original Circuit Ancestor: Jazz Records and the Birth of the DJ
The four big elements for the Circuit (dancing, inebriation, resistance and celebration) began in the 1930s and ‘40s. The first big dance parties with a DJ rather than a band was in 1943 and the music that kept people hopping was jazz.
As World War II raged through Europe, recorded jazz music was an important form of resistance against fascist oppression in the late 1930s and ‘40s, just as Circuit events in the 1980s were means of life-affirmation in the face of homophobia and the AIDS epidemic. One reason for the massive slaughter of lives during WWII was racial, that one group was better than another based on genetics. Jazz was condemned by Nazi Germany since it came out of the African American community. In Nazi-controlled Paris, recorded jazz music became popular as means of resistance as well as being eminently danceable. Bars that played only recorded music (especially the forbidden jazz) rather than live bands popped up around the city.
After the war, clubs playing recorded jazz continued to be popular in Paris. Since non-live music jazz bars had ever-growing collections of vinyl albums, they were call discotheques, a play off the word “bibliotheque” or “library”, with records instead of books.
Those jazz bars gained a huge following, and after the war was over, the first big-scale dance parties with strictly recorded music (once again jazz music) became the avant-garde thing to do. Jazz parties continued to be popular with social nonconformists in1950s America. Throwing a big jazz party for upper-class guests was cause enough for the US government to suspect the host of being pro-negro and potentially un-American.
Trance/Progressive Roots: Rock and Roll and Psychedelia
Music come and goes. Jazz bars went out of vogue, but were replaced by a newer recorded sound: rock‘n’ roll. In the mid-to late 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll took on a more cosmic sound, reflecting the drugs used by hipsters at the time. The old favorites of weed and cocaine were still around from the jazz bar days, but were accompanied by uppers (including the precursor for today’s meth), downers (Quaaludes being a big hit) and acid. With chemicals in dancers’ systems that took away the urgency of sleep, dance parties in London made their way to NYC where the discotheque was repackaged in psychedelic bell-bottom pants and mini-skirts.
The not-so-virgin birth of the DJ-shaman occurred just before rock-based discotheques fell out of fashion with the jet set. A Gay go-go dancer named Terry Noel got behind the turntables and took people on a trip with the music, but the discotheque of the1960s was just a fad for the Straight community. Not so the Gay - even though the new DJ baby was born in a quasi-Straight scene, it was raised in the Gayborhood, first finding shelter in a loft apartment belonging to David Mancuso in Manhattan and growing into testosterone-fueled adolescence in Gay male clubs that flourished after Stonewall in 1969.
The discotheque cameback in the 1970s with disco music that was even more synthesized and artificial than before. And once again, discotheques (called discos) were abandoned by the Straight community in 1979, but not so the Gay male world. Clubs such as the Flamingo, Saint and Paradise Garage took the disco and made it grander than ever. The scary years of the AIDS epidemic dampened the scene until our beloved Circuit arose nationally from the Manhattan-Fire Island seasonal pilgrimage.
From Analog to Digital
Computerized technology led to even more improvements, and sound was no longer dependent upon a physical matrix such as vinyl or tape, or musicians for that matter. Numeric code could be imprinted on compact discs (CDs), a technology that is dying as we speak, as we exchange digitally encoded music directly online.
Dance music is now nomadic, able to flow from computer to computer, nation to nation. For technology-savvy DJs, any song can be modified in nearly infinite ways. A new kind of dance floor sophistication arose in which an artist can modify songs on the spot solely from material kept in a library of sounds on file, and from modifiers on stage for what are live-yet-virtual shows.
No telling what’s next.
Back to Basics
But the bottom line remains the same: can the music inspire people to dance? When we move to music, our body-minds are resonating the songs we hear, transforming sonic energy into kinetic energy in a shared pulse. We are like the original wax cylinders: music causes grooves to form in our psyches, and those grooves affect us physically. The difference is that dance is tied to the moment and can never be replicated after the moment passes. The act of dancing only exists in the body for the duration of the tune because it is an intimately personal experience that we share with every other dancer around us.
There is nothing to fear from the dramatic shifts we see in the scene. The basics remain the same. However timeless and detached from live music EDM becomes, and however DJ skills may modify in bringing us sounds to which we move, we still connect to the universe and to each other in the moment we resonate the music and work itout on the dance floor.
Everything else is secondary.