Farewell, David Mancuso

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Our friend and inspiration, David Mancuso, died this week.

Our debt to him is incalculable. David was the founder of the Loft, the New York dance party which inspired so many other parties, clubs. DJs producers and dancers over 4 decades – from the Gallery to our own Beauty and the Beat. We met and first danced together as a trio at Lucky Cloud parties in London that David hosted. He taught us the arts of audiophile sound and of egoless musical hosting. He got us the speakers that we still use at every party (you can read the full story on our website). He helped and motivated so many of our friends to develop the scene that today includes Classic Album Sundaysbrilliant corners, and so much more. 

David was a creative pioneer who brought the spirit of the counterculture onto the dancefloor, in the process developing the dance party as a whole new collective art-form. Everything we have done – everything – has been to try to follow his example and to bring his ideas to life in our own unique situation.

We will miss him terribly, and we will miss him always. But we bid him farewell in the knowledge that his ideas and his legacy remain stronger and more alive now than ever before, and that we will go on playing our small part to keep them so.

Some of our friends have already written moving tributes of their own (see Jem’s, Tim’s and Colleen’s , and there will be many more to come. Like so many others, we will go on paying tribute to him in our hearts and with our dancing bodies, every single time a needle touches vinyl.

Thank you for everything David.

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Reflections on Our First Decade

by Jem, with much help from Ced & Cyril

Thank you friends!

Before even beginning to tell the story of Beauty and the Beat, we want to list as many as possible of the friends without whom it would never have been possible, and never will be. These are the people who have helped us move speakers, decorate venues, prepare buffets, fill dancefloors and generally be what we are. We’re bound to have missed someone off – if we have we’re really sorry and please tell us so we can amend immediately. Thank you all so much!

Amit Patel

Aneesh Patel

Benoit  Nesme

Binch

Carlos Boix

Christine Suzuki

Claude Dousset

Darren Henson

David Solts

David Vickers

Emma Mulvey

Estelle du Boulay

Evren Kuzucuoglu

Fabien Lassonde

Fabrice Gonzen

Fong Ying Lam

Guillaume Chottin

Hannah Bain

James Hoggarth

Jo Littler

Joao Carvalho

Juliette Moisy

Kay Suzuki

Krishan Patel

Leo Stavropoulos

Miguel Echeverria

Pauline Moisy

Pol Valls

Polo

Reda Kechouri

Sara Leman

Scott Pelloux

Shannon Woo

Simon Halpin

Silvia Gin

Suzanne Stephenson

Now for the story…

Musical Routes

Beauty and the Beat has its roots in a long, broad tradition which includes the spiritual jazz of the Coltranes and Sun Ra; the trance-rhythms and rebel rock infusing so much African, Caribbean, Latin and Brazilian music; the countercultural matrix of acid rock, fusion and psychedelic funk; the underground river which flows through disco, house, techno and other electronica; the experimental cyberfunk of Kraftwerk, Can and their descendants. It’s an Afro-psychedelic tradition which values creative, intense, hypnotic and celebratory musics as means for bringing people together, while enabling them to enjoy their differences. It’s a tradition in which we experience togetherness as a mode of  true freedom as well as physical joy. Or in other words: free your mind, and your ass will follow ! (Or indeed vice-versa).  Oh yes!

BATB has taken inspiration from many sources, but two parties in particular stand out as crucial. The Loft -David Mancuso’s long-running underground disco party in New York City- has been a key source for almost all of dance music culture, indirectly or directly, since its inception in 1970. Cedric first met David and danced at the Loft on a visit to New York around 2001, shortly after he moved to London from his native France.  I had lived in London for years already, and although Ced and I didn’t meet till 2003, we were already hanging out at some of the same clubs, and were on the paths that would bring us together soon enough. In particular,  in 2002 I  became part of the group (including Tim Lawrence and Colleen Murphy) who would bring David to London for regular parties for several years starting in 2003. You can read all about how that started at: http://testpressing.org/2015/06/the-loft-colleen-murphy-in-conversation-with-tim-lawrence/.

At the same time, from around 2001, Cedric was attending the very important ‘Balance’ nights at Plastic People, of which I had, by chance, attended the the very first of, a couple of years earlier. Cyril, a friend of his from France, was visiting Ced regularly, hanging out at Balance and at Ced’s house parties, eventually moving in with him for a few crucial months in 2004, when he would really receive a kind of crash course in music and DJ-ing from Ced, and was also able to develop his own style and interests very quickly.  Ced was also running and DJ-ing the ‘Voices’ parties with his friends John and Alex, at Plastic People. Thinking about it,  I guess the example of Voices, and maybe also, more famously, Body & Soul (the legendary NYC deep house party run by Danny Krivit, Francois K and Joe Claussell), must eventually have influenced our assumption that a party which was organised by 3 main ‘musical hosts’ ( to use Mancuso’s expression), with very little input from guest DJs who didn’t know the party and the crowd, was an ideal format. It’s certainly worked for us.

How it all began: from house parties to  BATB

Personally I had been on the rave scene since the early 90s and had even written a book about it (with Ewan Pearson )  which was published in 1999, but had always been frustrated by a number of aspects of that culture. In London in particular, there almost seemed to be an inverse relationship between a party having a strong countercultural identity and it having music that many people would actually want to dance to, and that was also formally interesting. I’d got tired of the machismo on the jungle scene and while the trance scene was full of nice people, the music was dreadful -super-white, funkless, sexless. At home I would listen to deep house stations like Pleasure FM but I couldn’t bear clubs like the Ministry of Sound where their music would actually get played – they were just yuppy meat-markets on the whole. Back in the early 90s some of the UK free party crews like DiY in Nottingham were playing deep house, but in London that music was usually seen as strictly for nice boys and girls in smart shirts and slinky dresses.

Around 2000, Lazy Dog at the Notting Hill Arts Club was a welcome exception, where deep house was mixed up for a committed party crowd that was socially mixed and always friendly, and would queue around the block for hours to get in on a Sunday afternoon! I wouldn’t know it till years later, but Ced and I must have been in those queues together more than once. But Lazy Dog still suffered from the problem which bedevilled every single British dance music event in any genre – a crappy sound system that always made me wish I was at home dancing to my hi-fi…which quite often, when not out raving or clubbing, and along with up to 100 mates at a time, I actually was. So hearing David Mancuso play, learning about the Loft (which started as a house party!) and its audiophile aesthetic, and occasionally going to Balance, with its mix of house, jazz and Afrobeat –  and where they deliberately strove for close-to-audiophile sound quality – felt like some kind of vindication of things I had always suspected: crap sound isn’t necessary, and interesting dance music is compatible with countercultural values, even outside the unique context of New York City. And house parties are normally better than clubs!

A shared dedication to the house party as a creative art form, quickly brought Cyril, Ced and I together, when we met on the dancefloor at the London Loft parties. By the time the crew around those parties had evolved into Lucky Cloud Sound System, the three of us were ready to put on a night of our own: the house parties were just getting too big for our houses. We were also learning enough from  David Mancuso about the fine art of hi-fi audio to try to put those lessons into practice.

Cedric, by 2005, was already a very experienced semi-pro DJ, and party organiser, going back to his university days, and was hosting all-night house parties literally every weekend, in a classic Mancuso style. I had been collecting dance records and preparing all-night mixtapes for my own house parties for many years, although I’d frankly become tired of the musical conservatism of most of the British white raver types who usually turned up to them. Personally one of my secret motivations for getting involved with the London loft parties was always the hope that I’d get a few more people round  to my place who wouldn’t leave the room when I started playing hi-life, or deep jazz, or the Tom Tom Club. What I wasn’t fully expecting was that this new crowd of Loft friends, and especially these cool French guys,  would go absolutely crazy when I played exactly those kind of tunes! And Cyril , as I mentioned, went from dabbling to having a very deep knowledge of music and its social use during his long sojourn with Ced in 2004.

So I guess, looking back now, we were clearly ready for putting on a night But it didn’t start to seem like a real possibility until we started to acquire some serious hardware. When Lucky Cloud bought its full sound system in 2005, we helped Cyril to purchase a pair of Klipschorn speakers like those used at the New York, London and Japanese loft parties. Cyril getting this pair of speakers really seemed to symbolise and concretise the possibility of us doing some kind of party of our own, as he was the first to realise clearly. And so Beauty and the Beat was born in June 2005. The name was borrowed from the title of an experimental hip-hop album by Edan, but personally I was happy enough to learn that it had also been the name of the debut album from the Go-Gos; a very occasional fondness for guitar rock, pop and inspirational gems from the punk continuum  has always been one of the hallmarks of the BATB mix.

June 2005…a very big month

For me personally that first BATB  party came at the end of possibly the toughest 6 months of my life. I had ended up with responsibility for putting together the sound system for Lucky Cloud. The Lucky Cloud / London Loft parties having started in 2003, in late 2004 we (Tim, Colleen and myself) decided that we would take the plunge, borrow a load of money, and buy our own sound system instead of hiring in commercial club systems as we had been doing. As I say, I had ended up with the job of putting together the system for Luck Cloud, having to go from knowing nothing to being something of an audio-expert in a very short space of time, with David trying to explain to me some difficult concepts which he understood intuitively and intimately , but wasn’t always able to get me to understand using mere language.

Colleen – who would end up taking charge of the Lucky Cloud sound system once my own kids came along – had just had a baby (Arianna – who is such a big girl now!), and wasn’t in much of a position to help, so I had the responsibility of learning a completely new skill-set in 6 months, spending nearly 30 grand that we had borrowed with a business loan, all leading up to a party which would be DJ-ed by the notoriously exacting David Mancuso, and without the system being tested before the very day of that party. There were all kinds of absurdities to the process, which probably culminated on the day that a large truck turned up at my house with 8 Klipschorn speakers on it, the driver inquiring nonchalantly: ’you do have a forklift, don’t you?’. I didn’t.

Things wren’t made easier by the fact that we were trying to do something – put together a sound system for a 300-person dance party, using only true audiophile components – which had been done by David in NYC, and by his acolytes in Japan, but was virtually unheard of in the UK, as far as we could ascertain. So it was hard to find anyone from the hi-fi scene who could give us any meaningful advice. We would learn later that Andrew Pirie in Glasgow HAD been doing this at his night Melting Point for while already, but we hadn’t met him yet. Still I had a lot of love and support from the crew, from my friends, from David, and from my partner Jo. So somehow, after 6 months of turmoil and uncertainty, and with the luck of the Loft shining down on us… we did it! The June 2005 Loft party was a big success, David was very happy, and we never looked back.

This was a very busy and demanding time for all of us, really – Cyril had just moved in with his future wife,  Pauline, and Ced was developing his rep as a DJ. Looking back, it’s almost hard to see how we got the energy really to make BATB happen. Although there had been this growing sense of inevitability that Ced and I would put on some kind of night together born from our fusing house parties, I think to be honest that if Cyril hadn’t taken the initiative actually to make it happen, then probably it never would have done. Not for the last time, he and Ced were willing to put in most of the organisational work leading up to the first party, when I was too busy with other things – but over the years we’ve managed to distribute the work pretty evenly between us without having to think about it too much; somehow, without ever really articulating it explicitly, we all seem to have known from the start that BATB was something very important to all of us and something with the potential to grow steadily over time, rather than just being a one- or two- year venture. So, one way or another the first BATB happened just a couple of weeks after that first London Loft party with the new sound system. This was all in June 2005 – I guess one of the most momentous months of my life, in retrospect.

The continuing adventures of Beauty and the Beat

For the first year, BATB was a bi-monthly party in a basement gallery venue in Waterloo which couldn’t hold much more than 100 people, where sweat would routinely drip from the ceiling and walls onto the records while we were playing! Our friend Joao would drive us and our gear in his VW camper van. Shannon Woo would run the door and act as overall guardian of the vibe.

It’s hard to imagine now, but a night like BATB in those days was almost completely dependent on a sympathetic listing appearing in the listings magazine Time Out. BATB was always difficult to categorise, and consequently the listings that they would publish for us would veer between open sneering and enthusiastic sympathy (at one point they seemed to find our explicit rejection of corporate sponsorship to be somehow offensive in its earnestness…well, that was the culture of pre-recession, Nathan Barley-era Shoreditch, for you…but other times they were very nice to us). This was frankly frustrating much of the time, and  nothing has made me so glad to have entered the age of social media, which over the years really helped the party to grow slowly but surely. We had a bit of a lucky break with the short-lived, much-missed dance-oriented listings mag One Week to Live giving us and the Loft parties some support around this time, but it was MySpace and Facebook, as well as old-fashioned word-of-mouth, which really got our crowds growing.

Once the gallery closed in 2006, we looked for a venue closer to our East London home, moving to Bar 512 on Kingsland Road, becoming the first crew to put on a regular disco-based party in Dalston, despite receiving no credit at all for that once the Dalston disco scene started to be hyped up in the press a couple of years later (!). By the time that hype was happening, around 2007-8 we had moved up the road to a beautiful venue in an old boys club, which we had clearly outgrown by the time, at our farewell New Years Eve Party, the police turned up and threatened to shut the party down (they didn’t, in the end – we’re not a very dangerous-looking group of people). Since that time I would say that BATB has really been driven by the rapid gentrification of East London, moving steadily further east every few years as whatever neighbourhood we’ve landed in gets transformed from bohemian to bourgeois. Hopefully Hackney Wick, where we’re moving as of July 2015, will be able to retain its character for a few years! Or maybe, finally, even better  we can start to prevent the complete take-over of London by the bourgeois elite. Take Back the City! – http://www.takebackthecity.org.

Anyway, from the Boys Club, we moved to the New Empowering Church opposite London Fields in Hackney, which really became our natural home, and where the crowds grew from 200 to 400 on average, over the course of 5 years. For some reason we’ve never really figured out (although getting props from Giles Peterson on R6 didn’t hurt! – thanks Giles :)!), the party crossed a threshold of popularity in 2013/4, when we went from often struggling to fill the venue, to seeing queues around the block. During this time we finally went monthly, and I think we really achieved a new level of shared confidence and conviction in our sound, our vibe, and the whole project. This was the period when some friends of ours, Amit and Aneesh Patel, who’d been coming to the party since 2005, opened the Brilliant Corners venue / restaurant and Dalston, always citing BATB as a major inspiration, and really creating a social hub between parties for many of our friends and collaborators. We’re so proud of them and all that the Brilliant Corners crew have achieved.

What’s it all about?

We’ve talked about, and tried to define, the specificity of our aesthetic, but it isn’t easy to nail down. I tend to want to insist that our musical style is not merely ‘eclectic’ in the sense of picking tunes randomly or crossing genres for the sake of it – there’s always a deep aesthetic logic to our musical selections. I think that very often the music we play combines a sense of rhythmic density and relative complexity with a degree of accessibility and melody…but this isn’t a fixed rule. I think we always like records that are not formulaic, whatever their genre. We probably play a slightly different range of musics than you’ll hear at a Loft party, simply because of our different backgrounds, although I tend to think that we still don’t play much that David or Colleen wouldn’t like.

We share the traditional commitment of the Loft and other classic New York parties to the ideal of ‘programming’ – carefully selecting records in a sequence which makes a kind of emotional sense, and which suits the different stages of the evening, whether or not any beat-mixing is actually involved. On the other hand we’re not so committed to the ideal of the pure effortless flow which is normal on that scene – we’ll quite often change tempo, drop pace or move around generically in order to generate a bit of narrative drama for the dancers. It’s not a question of deliberately shaking people up or anything like that – we’re not into avant-gardism for its own sake. Thinking about it, I think it’s probably a tendency that we we picked up from other scenes we’ve had contact with over the years, such as reggae and jazz-dance. We were all long-standing fans of roots and dub before we ever met, plus there was a strong jazz-dance element to our crowd, as to the Balance crowd, from early on…and in fact Tim Lawrence and I used to go out to Giles Peterson’s night at Bar Rumba years before we started the Loft parties…so I think those are probably important influences on the style in which we present records.

People often ask about our commitment to audiophile sound. This is something which has many aspects. One is simply that once you’ve experienced it, you simply can’t go back. I had David staying at my house for several days at a time when the London Loft parties started, and he knew exactly what he was doing – he would get out his bits of audiophile kit and plug them into my home system and blow my mind with them, and very quickly he’d got me hooked. There’s just no going back once you’ve drunk the audiophile kool-aid. As David warned would happen, I find it very difficult to go out to ordinary venues at all these days – the sound is just so horrible.

I think there are some bigger issues at stake here too though. One reason people putting on parties and running venues generally don’t care at all about audio is that it’s expensive and time-consuming to do it well, but there’s arguably even something a little more sinister to it than that. As our friend David Vickers points out – in venues with crap sound (i.e. all commercial venues), people are subtly encouraged to drink more by the unconscious need to dull their senses to the horrible barrage of noise which is what comes out of most commercial PA systems. If there’s a really nice sound system, it encourages people to dance, to relax without the need for booze, and to open up to the beauty of a range of musics that would normally seem inaccessible. It’s probably the key reason why venues are almost always annoyed with us for how little our dancers tend to drink (and no, that isn’t just cos they’re all on drugs – it’s not at if drugs aren’t rife in those commercial spaces, is it?).

Beyond all this though, I think there’s also a profound sense in which attending to the material quality of sound is about acknowledging the ways in which music is a collaborative, social, mediated, collective experience, at all times. It’s part of the individualist mythology of our culture that people often seem to think music is just sort of beamed directly from the minds of the artists to those of the listeners, ignoring the absolute necessity for all of the other elements in the process – from sound engineers to people who make record-player needles. But that’s just not the reality of how music, or anything else works. In reality, everything and everyone is connected to, and dependent on, everything else.

Music culture is a very good illustration of this truth I think. I mean, just recently we’ve been preparing to release our first record. It’s a remix of a track by a band that we’re friends with, done by a producer in Germany whose work we like. But the whole process has been entirely collaborative and consultative involving us all in back-and-forth-dialogue with the producer as the ideas evolved, as well as attending the mastering sessions.There’s really no ‘author’ of this record. That’s a good example of how these things work – nothing is ever really produced by just one person or even by a handful of individuals – it’s the relationships between us all which are productive, relationships which are material and physical as well as just social. And attending to the crucial importance of the cables, the amps, the precise calibration of the cartridges – it’s part of acknowledging that truth. And it works! How do you get a crowd full of disco dancers to dance for 20 minutes to Sun Ra? 😉 By playing it to them on a beautiful audiophile sound system, so they can really appreciate the dense layering of the sound – that’s how!

This social nature of the endeavour is crucial to what BATB is all about. We have always, along the way, relied on the love, help and support of a core group of friends and family, and on the rare occasions when we let someone else behind the turntables, it’s always someone from this crew rather than some celebrity DJ that we turn to. We’ve continued to improve the sound system, in collaboration with Lucky Cloud and brilliant audio experts like Andrew Pirie, Justin Greenslade and Iain Mackie, and I guess we always will. I do sometimes feel that the people who’ve helped us haven’t always got the public props that they’ve deserve. We love you all so much!

And this really gets to the heart of what the party is all about for us. BATB is a collective creation which involves, us, the dancers, the people who make the records, the engineers who designed our amps, the people serving drinks in the venue, everyone who contributes to Lucky Cloud, without which there would be no BATB, really everyone…it’s not reducible to us as individuals, and we are all very clear that individual ego plays no part in the creativity, the cultivation and care which the development of this collective organism requires. For  sure it creeps in – it’s hard not to feel big-headed when you’ve just finished a long set and people are calling you a genius  – but we’re always conscious of the need not to succumb to any such narcissism – which I guess is really something we learned from David Mancuso. BATB  doesn’t belong to anyone and it belongs to all of us – it’s an ‘assemblage’, a kind of living machine, which aims to produce an experience of collective joy, and joy in collectivity, which is real, not just escapism, which is a safe public space (especially for women), which is not hierarchical, which is not there to make money for anyone. To us, that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s worth all the late nights and all the back-breaking labour which carrying Klipschorns all over London entails. People sometimes ask when we’re going to give it up. I always answer ‘ when our kids can carry on the party without us’.

Notes on three tracks from the October 2013 party

Jem
 
A couple of people asked me about the Grateful Dead track I played. It was ‘Franklin’s Tower’ played at a concert in Florida on May 22nd 1977, from the album ‘Dick’s Picks Volume Three’
The thing with the Dead is that their studio albums are mostly nothing like the live shows for which they were famous. Apart from a couple, the studio albums mostly sound like decent rock or country rock albums and even the few live albums they released never really foregrounded the long jams that they were famous for as much as they could have done.But in practice they were never interested in recording much and they treated the songs from the albums the way John Coltrane treated the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook.
 

The band always actively encouraged their fans to tape the shows, even when people like Dylan were trying to prosecute bootleggers, and Deadhead culture was all about trading tapes for years. But they did keep a huge archive of their own recordings of shows, and in the 1990s they started releasing them. The selections for the series were initially made by their archivist Dick Latvala, so they called the series ‘Dicks Picks’. The series is still releasing new stuff  I think (not sure though – I believe Dick died) and it’s reached about 36 releases now I think. But they only ever came out on CD. So about 3 years ago Brookvale Records in NYC started releasing them on 180g vinyl. They only press 2000 copies of each one and they’re pretty expensive. Still I was really excited for obvious reasons.

 
So far of the 4 volumes that’s definitely the best track for a party tune, I think, although I might turn on to some others later down the road. I’d been carrying that around in my bag for months and could never quite find the right moment to play it, and wasn’t entirely sure if it would work until a couple of days before the party I saw Jo dancing around the kitchen while I was listening to it at home ;). I’m pretty sure ours is the only copy on the planet that’s been played at a sweaty underground disco party!
 
The Dead are a massively important band partly for their unique take on rock-as-jazz-as-psychedelic-dance-music and partly for the way they built a community around themselves and always partially eschewed the rock star life (a huge amount of the money they made from touring went into their charitable foundation). Jerry was simply the most lyrical and fluid of all the great rock guitarists in my opinion – the one who came closest to the skill of the Indian musicians that people like he and Coltrane so admired.  It always kind of bothers me that the west coast acid-rock psychedelic formation – which is still going strong in the US amongst people who follow the ‘jam bands’ and go to festivals in the Pacific North-West, seems never to connect at all with the East Coast deep jazz -deep disco -deep house tradition that we really come out of (it’s extraordinary when you think about it that Joe Claussell has never done a Dead remix…come on Joe!). It’s cool for me if we can bridge that gap for 10 minutes from time to time.
 
There’s always a certain snobbery towards the Dead from almost anyone whose been influenced by the punk / post-punk orthodoxy which the vast majority of anglophone intellectuals still seem to buy into, but as I remarked at a recent UEL seminar – Jerry Garcia never advertised car insurance…
 
Ced
For every party there are always 2 or 3 records I know I will play at some point in my set, with the rest being more or less improvised on the spot. These crucial records usually depend on my mood(s) in the preceding weeks, influenced by change of seasons, real life events, personal or not, etc. I’d have a bit of a revival with the Noir Désir song “Le Vent Nous Portera” (as it always seems to happen at this time of the year) recently and so kinda built my set around it. This was the first time the record was played at the party and it was a bliss seeing the reaction of the crowd, not only from the French gang. The original is a beauty, the edit is perfect, and this went down a storm. Goosebumps every time.
 
Cyril
I pretty much prepare my set in a similar way. I know I want to incorporate 2-3 specific records for sure and get inspiration from real life events and mood(s) of the preceding weeks.

This time was a bit special though because I hadn’t seen the room beforehand, so I was ready to go in a few possible different directions. When I saw the venue, with its kind of “homy” feel, I had the feeling that it was possible to go wide and deep in the selection.
One for the jazz heads 🙂 My pick is John Klemmer, Free soul. Since a night in Plastic People, a couple of weeks before the party, with Abdul Forsyth playing for the first time in a while, I felt like listening to this track during the night. It is really an intense piece of music with such a bad groove coming from drum and bass duo! I also felt it was the right tune to play alongside Carlos Garnett, “lil dear”: top track as well!

Music is Power

This is the text of an article Jem wrote for the magazine ‘Art Press 2’. It was published in there in 2010, in both French and English. If we can find a copy of the French version we’ll post that later.

If you want to download it then here is a link to a pdf

The text of the article is below.

Music is Power

Jeremy Gilbert

The oldest song….

Not only may music be the oldest art form; it has some claims to be the primal cultural practice. Some anthropologists and philosophers, including Rousseau, have speculated that the distinction between speech and song may have been non-existent at some point in our evolutionary history, arguing that the modulation of sound for expressive purposes may be the common matrix from which both music and language have emerged. If, as is generally assumed, the oldest cultures have been at once oral and musical, then from the earliest times music has surely played a constitutive role in the organisation of common memories. After Derrida, we might speculate that it was music which lent speech the qualities of writing long before physical scripts were invented: the metre, melody and rhythm of song making it possible for large chunks of ‘text’ to be remembered, repeated and passed on (or, perhaps, misremembered, corrupted and transformed) long before they could be written down. If it is our technological relationship to the world which makes us human  – a thesis which, most recently, Bernard Stiegler has played with – then the ancient prehistoric flutes recently discovered in Germany, probably pre-dating the earliest cave-art, stand as some testament to the intimate connection between musicality and humanity itself.

Yet it is perhaps only when we consider the very difference between music and language, and the ways in which the experience of music is not limited necessarily to the experience of being human, that we begin to open up the most productive avenues for thinking about music and its peculiar powers. No tendency in 20th century thought did more to elevate language to the central status it acquired in the study of culture than structuralism; yet we can cite two of structuralism’s most influential thinkers in identifying something in music which is not of the order of signification. In The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss wrote that ‘Below the level of sounds and rhythms, music acts upon a primitive terrain, which is the physiological time of the listener…The inner, or natural grid, which is a function of the brain, is reinforced symmetrically by a second and, one might say, still more wholly natural grid: that constituted by the visceral rhythms.’ That other great mythologist, Roland Barthes, wrote of the centrality to musical experience of timbre, sonic texture, which Barthes called (in the title of his famous essay) ‘the grain of the voice’: “the grain is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs”.

The Politics of the Body

It is observations such as these which have led some critics – such as the influential feminist musicologist Susan McClary – to suggest that in trying to understand the politics of sound, we do well to look past the most obvious indicators of political significance which a piece of music may have. From this perspective, we should not look for the politics of music in the lyrics of songs, the slogans on album-sleeves or in the tribal affiliations which particular artists claim or engender, but in the formal properties of musics as they are experienced within interlocking sets of cultural contexts, and in particular in the experiences of the body which they either make possible or foreclose to their potential listeners.

One way of understanding what is at stake in these arguments is to refer to Richard Dyer’s classic 1979 essay ‘In Defence of Disco’. Dyer, a pioneer of politicised film studies in the UK, wrote this classic exposition from his perspective as a gay man active on the socialist left, tired of the dismissive attitude to disco which was typical of that milieu. Dyer argued that the politics of disco were to be understood in terms of the ‘all-body’ eroticism which it made available to dancers, an eroticism which escaped the strictures of the overly-gendered modes of bodily experience afforded by other genres of music (the feminised self-consciousness of pop, the overt phallicism of rock). Subsequent writers have tended to follow this logic either by celebrating the power of dance musics to liberate the masculinised or feminised body from its habitual routines, or in terms of a rather crude understanding of musical forms (in particular rock and classical forms) as formally ‘gendered’. Closely mirroring the analytic approach of the early Luce Irigaray, McClary’s Feminine Endings (1991) identified the emergence of the classical symphony at the end of the 18th century with the subjection of musical form to ‘phallomorphic’ tendencies, as the linear and climactic forms pioneered by Beethoven displaced the more cyclical and polyvocal tendencies of the baroque. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’ The Sex Revolts (1995) mapped the field of rock music in terms of a psychoanalytic understanding of different modes of masculinity expressing themselves in different musical styles, drawing loosely on the early writing of Julia Kristeva.

Not long after this, writing in the wake of the emergence of rave culture at the end of the 1980s, young British commentators such as myself (writing with Ewan Pearson in our 1999 book, Discographies) and Maria Pini (Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity, 2001) came to see in rave the potential realisation of Dyer’s utopian vision of disco, as a space in which the destabilisation of ordinary masculinity and femininity might make possible an imaginative reconfiguration of wider gender relations. I hope readers will forgive me for drawing on this rather parochial example – about which I have written in detail elsewhere – but the fate of British music culture in the 1990s remains an ideal study in some of the issue which concern us here. There was a widespread perception around the middle of the decade that a cohort of young British men were being ‘feminised’ within the intense matrix of ecstasy, techno, house and rave culture in the early 1990s: socialised into a more tactile, emotive and sexually egalitarian mode of sociality than previous generations. This perception provoked a significant cultural backlash in the second half of the 1990s, during which time a range of media outlets rushed to celebrate the return to popularity of more traditionally masculine leisure pursuits – football, beer, soft porn and rock’n’roll – as the funkless football-chant swagger of Oasis, heroes of the ‘Britpop’ movement, came to define the sonic landscape of Blair’s Britain.

This wasn’t only an assertion of conventional masculinity. The mid-1990s was the moment of the UK’s most intensely cosmopolitan period of musical experimentation, as the mutant sound of drum’n’bass synthesised house, techno, ragga, dub and hip-hop into a wholly new musical form, emerging from some of the poorest and most multicultural urban districts of London and Bristol. The resurgent popularity of white rock which followed – and which saw Oasis’ banal nationalism feted by supposedly liberal journalists and broadcasting executives – was as much about the British middle-class’s fear of a black planet as it was about their anxieties over the feminising impact of rave and the wider threats to normative masculinity posed by the long sexual revolution of the previous decades.

This historical example echoes another. McClary’s ground-breaking essay ‘Same as it Ever Was’ (In Rose & Ross eds. Microphone Fiends, 1994), explores the proposition that Afro-American dance music offered young white Americans in the 1950s and 1960s an experience of the body which was not limited by the constraints of ‘white’ culture. We might take this a little further and suggest that the emergence of the syncretic musical genre of rock’n’roll in the 1950 created for the first time a common corporeal experience for white and black youth which could make it possible for the former to imagine a de-segregated culture and polity without fear, delineating a common experiential terrain upon which the gains of the Civil Rights era would be built.

Refrains  and Affects

These examples are easy enough to comprehend, but how do we really understand the mechanisms by which they operated? How can we conceptualise the fit between musical forms and the actual experiences of particular social groups? Let’s start by recalling that the experience of the self is always also an experience of a social context, and that what mediates between the inner world and the social sphere is always a particular way of inhabiting one’s body. Even as determinedly prosaic a thinker as Pierre Bourdieu can lend us some help here: for Bourdieu, the individual’s habitus, their set of socially-inherited predispositions, is primarily a matter of their physical postures, their aesthetic tastes and sensitivities, their dress, gestures and deportment. Let’s reflect also that our experience of the body in space and time is – much more than we often realise – from the very outset a sonic one. We orient ourselves in space as much through sound as through vision. Children in every known culture learn to move, to organise and direct their physical relationship to the world, by means of songs, rhymes and little dances. It follows then, that although we may not realise it (in part because we inhabit a culture which has mistrusted both sound and the body for millennia, drawing on the apparent incorporeality of vision and light to provide its favourite metaphors for truth and divinity), we become who we are – personally, but also as men, women, Europeans, metropolitans, white, black, old or young – through mechanisms which are as much sonic and kinetic as they are visual or intellectual. The tiny habits which enable us to sit, stand, walk, run, speak, sing and dance are the material from which the fabric of our selves is woven, and they are intimately connected with ways of hearing and making sounds.

The importance of these habits is evoked in the weight which Deleuze & Guattari give to their concept of the refrain . In A Thousand Plateaus refrains (later described by Guattari as ‘existential refrains’) are identified as those repeatable fragments of experience with which not just songs, but ‘territories’ are delineated and given substance: ‘territory’ being a concept which here covers not just geographical spaces, but social identities, stable cultural milieux and even political institutions. A bird using its refrains to delineate its territory is not only mapping a space, but organising a whole set of relationships to the world.

It is no surprise, perhaps, that of all the great philosophical works of recent decades, it is A Thousand Plateaus which makes the most explicit and frequent references to music, as concerned as it is to elaborate a politics of the body and of the aesthetic which is not limited by any of the preconceptions either of structuralism or of the entire Western tradition. Despite the conservatism of their own musical tastes, music seems for Deleuze & Guattari to manifest both the power of culture to organise experience, and the power of experimentation (or ‘art’, if we prefer that term) to displace previously-organised experiential patterns. Music’s power to seize us, to transform us, to intensify our sense of difference from ourselves and our sense of what we might become – and what we might yet go beyond – is here conceptualised in terms of music as a site of multifarious ‘becomings’ (becoming-child, becoming-animal, becoming-woman, etc. etc.) which are always necessarily modulations of our experience of the body in the world.

In recent years, Anglophone cultural theory has looked to Deleuze & Guattari as key theorists of ‘affect’ – that dimension of experience which links corporeal sensation to emotion and cognition. To understand the specificity and importance of this notion, just consider how much is conveyed by the tone of a voice, irrespective of the semantic content that it carries. The precise corporeal-emotional charge conveyed from one body to another by the relative tension of mouth and vocal chords is exactly what the term ‘affect’ best designates, and this is also exactly what the ‘grain of the voices’ confers. It is clear enough that affect is precisely music’s domain, while music is the cultural practice which deals most directly in the production, orchestration, repetition and interruption of affects.

This usage of the term ‘affect’ derives from Spinoza, and it is perhaps still Spinoza who can offer us the best understanding what is at stake in an art of affect. For Spinoza, what is always at stake in the question of affect is a question of power , of “an augmentation or diminution of that body’s capacity to act” in Brian Massumi’s classic phrase (from his English translator’s introduction to A Thousand Plateaus). To translate this concept for our purposes here, we can say that music makes us able – individually, collectively – simultaneously to do and to feel certain things and not others. It is here that it’s force  and its power  reside.

Possible Worlds

So music has – indeed, music arguably is – the capacity to create a set of common affects, enabling otherwise disparate bodies to resonate in harmony, with political consequences that can be either progressive or reactionary depending on circumstances. The white and black youth of late 1950s America found those few elements of their everyday experience which they shared intensified and brought into a certain harmony in the process of becoming-rock’n’roll, as the pleasures of dancing, lovemaking and being-young converged upon a momentary point of common intensity, delineating a shared existential territory. On the other hand, other forces – capital, racism, patriarchy – would quickly segregate, striate and re-map this space, to the point where several decades later, rock in the form of ‘Britpop’ could become the point of common resonance for a generation of white British men wishing to shore up their hegemonic status against a range of threats.

The point to understand here is not that particular musical forms are inherently reactionary or inherently progressive, because clearly that is not true. The point is that music plays an active role in the creation of these affective events, which respectively reveal or foreclose certain new possibilities. Music, perhaps better than any other form, works at the level of the ‘virtual’, as conceptualised by Deleuze, after Bergson and Liebniz: in the realm of those infinite ‘possible worlds’ which collective creativity engenders and which capitalism, as Maurizio Lazzarato has convincingly argued (see Les Revolutions du Capitalisme, 2005) must at once enable and curtail if it is to thrive. It is therefore not in its capacity to express our existing situation, or to give voice to our pre-established identities (social or personal) that music’s power resides: it rather in its capacity quite literally to make us feel differently while also feeling the same as certain others whom we did not share feelings with before. Music simply is this force , this potential, this power, to experience new possible worlds.