1. Rave is a subcultural youth phenomenon that combines music, dance, art, technology, and spirituality; as underground multi-media events, raves create a space for ritualistic behavior at the turn of the 21st century. Even a superficial exploration of the rave scene brings into relief subthemes of neo-primitivism (Gore 52-6), dance cultures and liminality, the construction and maintenance of collective identities, technoaesthetics, and technospiritualism—to name just a few. In this paper, I’d like to discuss rave as an expressive form arising as an artifact of technoculture. First, I’ll explore the concept of rave as a technologically mediated ritual process2 within which ecstatic "trance-dancing" to electronically produced repetitive musical structures is a highly valued, core experience. Following this, I will examine the processes by which an American version of a Balinese gamelan group based in Santa Cruz, California has recently been appropriated by the San Francisco rave scene. I find that this appropriation illuminates two important aspects of a possible "rave aesthetic": the value of a kind of musical structure commonly present in communal events leading to altered states of consciousness,3 and the juxtaposition of a nostalgia for the "primitive" and "exotic" with a reverence for high technology.

  2. Rave, generally defined, is a particular kind of urban underground all-night4 dance party, usually held in a secret location, characterized by an aesthetic based on ecstatic experience and a heightened feeling of communitas. This idealized state of being is accomplished primarily through sensory overload—extremely loud electronically-produced dance music, a proliferation of psychedelic and other technologically produced visual images, and use of chemical enhancers5 including Ecstasy, known to produce a feeling of profound empathy in its users.6 But beyond this general definition, rave culture is far from homogenous.7 Stylistically fragmented by numerous and constantly reformulating musical subgenres which fall under the catch-all term "techno," rave exhibits regional differences, and an event can range in size from fifty to tens of thousands of participants. However, the core values of communal ecstatic dancing, altered states of consciousness, and "the cult of the DJ"8 have been retained from rave’s early roots in New York’s gay disco culture of the 1970s.9

    Listen to excerpts from DJ sets

  3. My discussion here will be limited to what is considered a "true" rave in the hierarchy of rave authenticity—that is, an underground dance party with homegrown artistic elements, hosted by a regional rave collective with its own distinctive identity. The "authentic" rave is reportedly distinct from what is called a "massive,"10 and also from the club scene, both of which are "above ground" events that have appropriated aesthetic elements of the "true" rave into commercialized venues.11 Although the massive scene has become highly visible, my raver consultants for this project are quick to affirm that the underground rave scene is alive and of great personal importance to them.12

  4. My fieldwork has so far been limited to one regional expression of rave culture: the San Francisco rave scene13 between 1997 and 2000. Any generalizations implied extend only as far as that fieldwork has taken me. Although I use the generic terms "the rave" and "the raver" in this piece, I’m referring to individuals and events within a particular enclave of rave culture with which I’ve had personal experience. San Francisco ravers are typically white middle-class youths between the ages of 18 and 30, often college students, and are usually interested in alternative culture (Brown par. 4). Amongst rave scenes, San Francisco is known for its psychedelic, New Age-y, idealistic ethos. This is due to the "wishful anarchist/spiritualist agenda" of the scene’s British founders (Silcott 51-4) which catalyzed with San Francisco’s countercultural past in the late 1980s. These themes are expressed in the titling of rave events such as Warmth, Innercense, Expansion 2.0, and Unity.

    Watch video from Innercense

  5. Whether parties are held indoors or outdoors, the rave space is typically distinguished by a number of simultaneously active subspaces within which DJs spin sets of different styles of music for their respective dance followings. The boundaries of these subspaces within the larger rave space are blurred—particularly in outdoor venues where there are no walled rooms to individuate the space—as the musics are played at a very high volume. Party-goers may travel from room to room or space to space during the course of a night, experiencing different styles of music, dancing, and overall aesthetic. Warehouses with multiple floors and rooms provide ideal settings for indoor parties. Walls present wonderful opportunities for creative decoration including lighting effects, the hanging of artwork, the projection of video images, and general theme and ambiance development of particular spaces. One of the most intriguing indoor rave spaces I’ve seen involved the transformation of a laser tag arena in the North Bay into an elaborate raving playground. The outdoor venue is not necessarily more creatively limited, however. By far the most mind-boggling visual effects I’ve experienced at a party included the projection of laser animation on a 500-foot wooded mountainside in the Sierras. There is a special sense of freedom, expansion, and openness that naturally occurs at an outdoor rave. A party last summer near Chico, a woman set up her telescope between the mainstage and ambient space, sharing her view of the night sky with ravers passing by.

    Watch set up for Innercense party

  6. Lysloff emphasizes how music serves to delineate—and even sacralize—space and time in the context of ritual performance (Wong and Lysloff). In the case of outdoor raves, in which there are no physical boundaries, this is particularly true. The perimeters of both the rave space as a whole (marked by one cacophonous, sonic utterance, comprising all musics and activities in simultaneity that can be heard for miles), as well as the subspaces (the soft borders of which extend as far as the sound of a particular music will go until it blends into the soft borders of another subspace) are musically defined.

  7. It is evident from the relatively small but growing body of literature concerning rave culture that so-called "tribal," "primitive," or "pagan" elements of the rave aesthetic are decidedly self-conscious.
    In logging onto one of the many rave collective web pages, for example, the self-identification of ravers with "pure," "unadulterated," pre-industrial society, and the romantic notion of collectively returning to tribal roots through the rave "process" is strongly apparent. The Guerillas of Harmony web page includes links to essays with titles such as "Roots of Trance Dance," "Children of the Evolution," "Cybertribe Rising Revisited," and "Rave and the Rebirth of Celebration." A raver friend of mine states in a personal interview, "I think it’s a return to innocence."14 Quoting him further:

    It has roots in prehistory. It’s like one of these big dance sessions where they would chant all night long until the sun comes up or something. That’s my personal feeling…I really think they’re tapping into something really deep in the psyche. (Personal interview, 21 May 1998)
  8. As ravers often draw analogies between themselves and tribal or primitive societies, rave culture has been referred to as "neo-tribal" (Gore 54) or "neo-primitive." With this self-characterization of the scene in mind, I’ll begin this exploration of rave’s relationship to ritual by hanging it, for the moment, on the classical anthropological model of "rites of passage" in "tribal" society proposed by Arnold van Gennep in 1909 and the later "modernization" of this model by Victor Turner to accommodate "cultural performances" in post-industrial societies.

  9. Van Gennep establishes three theoretical stages which constitute a rite of passage, or life crises ritual in so-called "primitive" or "tribal" cultures: separation (indicating a physical separation from "everyday" space or location of activity); transition (an in-between liminal state of being where the subject is in transit from one identity to another, properly belonging to neither); and incorporation (where the subject returns to the mundane state of being and place from which s/he came, and is reintegrated into society bearing his or her changed status) (Turner, Ritual 24). Retaining van Gennep’s basic tri-partite processual model, and modifying it to account for significant contextual differences between ritual in tribal and post-industrial communities, Victor Turner proposes that it may be applied to cultural performances in technologically complex societies (Anthropology 9). For Turner, cultural performances are ritualistic by their very nature. Is it possible to successfully apply this model to rave, construing its identity as a ritual performance (pre-industrial) within the aesthetics and dynamics of technoculture (post-industrial)?

  10. Note Turner’s characterization of ritual in "tribal" society:

    …an immense orchestration of genres in available sensory codes: speech, music, singing; the presentation of elaborately worked objects, such as masks; wall-paintings; body-paintings; sculptured forms; complex many tiered shrines; costumes; dance forms with complex grammars and vocabularies of bodily movements, gestures, and facial expressions. (Anthropology 106)
    I’ve personally seen every one of these elements enumerated above by Turner—save for the singing—in the context of a rave.The adjectives "magical," "festive," and "sacred"—all terms used by Turner to describe the "alternative worlds" created by cultural performance genres—are used to describe the rave by both participants and observers. However, to what degree an actual relationship between rave and "classic" ritual process may be contrived is another question.


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