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,
name just a few.
In this paper, Id like to discuss rave as an expressive
form arising as an artifact of technoculture.
First, Ill 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.
- 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 overloadextremely
loud electronically-produced dance music, a proliferation of
psychedelic and other technologically produced visual images,
and use of chemical enhancers5
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
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 raves early roots in New Yorks
gay disco culture of the 1970s.9
to excerpts from DJ sets
- My discussion
here will be limited to what is considered
a "true" rave in the hierarchy of rave authenticitythat
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
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
- 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, Im referring to individuals and events within a
particular enclave of rave culture with which Ive 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 scenes British founders (Silcott 51-4) which catalyzed
with San Franciscos 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.
video from Innercense
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 blurredparticularly in
outdoor venues where there are no walled rooms to individuate
the spaceas 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 Ive 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 Ive 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.
set up for Innercense party
emphasizes how music serves to delineateand even sacralizespace
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.
- 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
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
its a return to innocence."14
Quoting him further:
It has roots in prehistory. Its like one of these
big dance sessions where they would chant all night long
until the sun comes up or something. Thats my personal
I really think theyre tapping into something
really deep in the psyche. (Personal interview, 21 May 1998)
- 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, Ill begin this exploration of raves
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.
- 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 Genneps 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)?
- Note Turners
characterization of ritual in "tribal" society:
personally seen every one of these elements enumerated above
by Turnersave for the singingin 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
genresare 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.
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