1. With the emergence of jungle to the level of mainstream consciousness, musicians and listeners responded to this music in various ways. While some ravers disenchanted with the moodiness of drum and bass returned to the hyperoptimism of hardcore acid house to fashion a movement known as “happy hardcore,” other artists, particularly LTJ Bukem and the duo known as 4Hero, introduced a gentrified version of jungle known as “intelligent drum and bass” (Reynolds 334–50). This problematic name is meant to signify a self-conscious foregrounding of the legitimately “musical” or “artistic” elements of the music. In many cases, producers smoothed over the nervous aspect of the breakbeat rhythms and situated them under harmonically rich ambient textures or sampled jazz sonorities. [Listen to LTJ Bukem, “Demon’s Theme”] In other words, the music celebrates a traditionally Eurocentric conception of what musical “intelligence” should be about: intelligent drum and bass producers stress the complexity of pitch material and the sensibility of acoustic craftsmanship over the intensity and chaotic nature of the breakbeat. In other instances, the location of “intelligence” is in the degree of intricacy with which producers parse out and manipulate the fragmented breakbeat rhythms that constitute the primary substance of drum and bass. These producers—such as Squarepusher, Luke Vibert, and others—pushed the density of syncopation and rhythmic complexity to a level of virtuosity that situated the music within a zone of abstraction, undermining its connection to the dance floor.

  2. Yet another group of artists—many of whom had been associated with the drum and bass genre since its early manifestation as a clandestine underground culture—reacted to the smoothness and pretentiousness of “intelligent” drum and bass by fashioning a music consisting of sparse textural accompaniment and lean, fierce polyrhythms. Music by artists such as Roni Size and DJ Die, Dillinja, or Lemon D renounces the preoccupation of some “intelligent” producers with conventional, “humanist” models of musicianship and accentuates the music’s brittle artificiality. This music frequently sounds brutally technological at the very same moment that it brings to the fore the metric ambiguities and rhythmic subtleties of Afrocentric music making (Reynolds 350–53). [Listen to Roni Size, “Timestretch”] At the same time, their music affirms a “hardcore” connection to the dance-floor audience: if “intelligent” artists tend to market their music towards home us—for headphone listening or private contemplation—these latter musicians maintain a sensibility in their music that very much lends itself to dance.

  3. Rupert Parkes, Photekknown to most listeners as Photek, has taken up a musical direction that mediates between elements of both of these strains of drum and bass that I have described here. The starkness of his tracks and the intricacy of his breakbeat manipulation are such that most of his work tends to center the listener’s awareness upon the percussive aspects of drum and bass, the sense of contingency and vicious uncertainty that breakbeats are capable of embodying. In the same manner as “intelligent” drum and bass, his work in large part circulates in the form of albums for home stereo consumption. Nevertheless, his tracks transmit a sense of immediacy that bears little in common with the more ethereal mood put across by an artist such as LTJ Bukem.

  4. The question of where this music is consumed is an important one for the purposes of music criticism. Someone who has largely come across drum and bass as a private listener has a different perspective from that of a clubgoer, not only in the sense that those attending clubs are permitted a more proactive, bodily reaction to the music, but also in the sense that the listening experience held by a clubber—hearing the DJ mix the track seamlessly into the continuous stream of music played throughout the night—differs significantly from that held by a listener who hears the track as a discrete entity unto itself. One problem that a contextually informed music criticism would, to my mind, consider is that of how to talk about a musical experience that does not have a carefully bounded beginning and end in the manner of most of the works of the Western classical tradition.5

  5. For example, Simon Reynolds notes with respect to drum and bass that the experience of dancing for six hours to this skittish, schizophrenic music is such that the dancer becomes wired into a situation where upheaval is the norm, where mind and body become locked into a kind of siege mentality (355). Even at the level of the individual track, the sense of immediacy brought on by the music’s constant succession of breaks and surprises completely messes with the listener’s sense of temporality. Over a longer period, the effect of this music upon the dancer or listener must be particularly acute, weirdly telescoping or truncating his or her sense of time. If we are to begin to understand how this and other genres of electronic dance music work, we must be aware, in considering individual tracks, of their potential insertion into a musical environment where the preceding and following elements in the mix will alter the meanings we discern in them. With this in mind, I would like to turn to Photek’s single entitled “Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu (Two Swords Technique)” with the intention of examining some of the forces that are at work in the genre of drum and bass.

  6. A succession of three distantly and unevenly spaced sounds reverberate in the opening seconds of this track, marking out temporal space in a manner that renders us acutely aware of the silence "No-Ten-Ichi-Ryu" album coverbetween each event. Time seems to take on a quality of presence, as opposed to a succession of discrete moments. [Listen to Photek, “Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu,” excerpt 1] If we have taken the first drumstroke that we hear as the strong downbeat, however, a new pattern of deeper drum notes emerges to undermine this temporal orientation. Until the rapid breakbeats make their entrance, we do not get a sense of how these lower beats fit into the metric conception of the work. Even the release of tension produced by the entry of the breakbeats catches the listener unawares, bursting forth from a syncopation on the second beat of the seventeenth bar, rather than its strong downbeat. Parkes’ drum programming for the breakbeats is unbelievably intricate, with the pattern almost never remaining the same for each succesive measure. He uses the relative profundities and durations of each of the drum sounds to create microcosmic cycles of tension and release that are in themselves set off against the clashing of the duelling samurai. [Listen to Photek, “Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu,” excerpt 2] This is music that keeps the listener on edge; even in the resounding silences, the potential for upheaval is too palpable to let us be at ease.

  7. The upheaval of the breakbeats, however, takes place within broader spans of time, set up by the lower-pitched drum samples. This produces a hierarchical tension between the moment-to-moment immediacy of the breakbeats and the ominous, elongated silence between the sounds made by the lower-pitched drums. This rhythmic construction, combining quadruple-tempo snare beats with half-tempo bass, is fairly common in Photek’s work, and in drum and bass more generally. The more deliberate plodding of the bass notes gives the sense that higher-order machinations lie behind the rhythmic assault of the breaks. This sense of rational “form” deliberately underwriting the irrational, chaotic “content” of the breaks works to reinforce the conception of drum and bass as a synechdoche for the urban experience, articulating the unseen connection between the random violence of the street and the ordered aggressiveness of larger structures of power.

  8. Parkes’ breakbeat constructions draw attention to a peculiar tension in drum and bass music between the human as organism and the human extension through technology. While the rhythms give the semblance of having been improvised, being radically non-redundant unlike any other genre of electronic dance music , the actual process through which these beats are matched together entails a painstaking method of pre-programming that flies in the face of the music’s seeming spontaneity. This is music that requires immense patience: Parkes has noted that with the track entitled “UFO,” for example, the breakbeat itelf took four days to construct, even before he began the process of breaking this pattern down even further and manipulating it to create the diversity of the final track’s rhythmic construction. [Listen to Photek, “UFO”] Parkes very much wants to hang on to the label of jazz musician; he sees his own music as deriving from an abstraction of the process of improvisation (Parkes). The listener or dancer, in the end, will likely respond to the music in that spirit, constantly listening for new permutations of the groove to come forward. However, the hyperkinetic rhythms of the end product can only derive from a process of alienation between the programming musician and the machine that ultimately realizes his or her conception in real time: In the same moment that the computer empowers the producer, allowing unparalleled control over the final product, the producer is wholly reliant on the computer’s power to manifest his or her musical decisions. In the moment of performance, the sequencer and sampler take over and relentlessly execute a procedure that now unfolds completely beyond the musician’s control. The rule of the machine alone comes to supplant the uneasy partnership of biology and circuitry that lends the music its cyborg complexion.

  9. In order to more clearly illustrate why the notion of the sublime might intersect with our consideration of processes of music-making in drum and bass, it might be helpful to look at Mark Johnson’s ideas concerning what he calls image schemata. Pi HeadJohnson argues that the separation between mind and body that has been articulated in various ways in the Western philosophical canon is a construction that does not bear up against evidence from our experience as human beings.Rather than making a brute distinction between “concepts” or “Ideas” located in the mind and a brute, unintelligent body, Johnson argues that all of our most fundamental conceptions of the world derive from our bodily experience. As our body learns to orient itself in the world, it begins to understand other, less immediately physical notions in terms of its experiences as a body; these understandings become consolidated as bodily metaphors that Johnson refers to as “image schemata.” In locating the “metaphors we live by” as residing as much in our muscle memory as in our cerebral cortex, Johnson articulates a world-view that provides a powerful explanation for the power of music: the rhythms and melodies we hear take on so much meaning as a result of the ways that they map out against other ways that we experience time as bodies.

  10. In this light, it becomes all the more important that we understand the ethical implications of a music that is largely disembodied in its execution and yet deeply embodied in the dancers that respond to it. The dancer—whose role it is to embody the intricate rhythms pounding forth from the speakers—has to attempt to take up a kinesthetics of the superhuman, has to bring his or her body up to the threshold of realizing the bodily implications of these radically disembodied rhythms. This, otherwise stated, comprises the sublime: the fractal-like complexity of the rhythms that the producer conceives of in the abstract have to be met by the imagination of the dancer, “imagination” in this context consisting of the dancer’s fundamentally embodied “envisioning” of the music. Insofar as rhythmic patterns form analogies of manipulating the body in time, the mechanistic virtuosity of the sequenced rhythms of drum and bass frequently results in a situation where the body is at a loss to respond to all of the music’s intricacies. In this moment of failure, the dancer’s body becomes enraptured through the ways that it has extended its capacities, and yet much of this rapture derives from the terror that it experiences in not being able to live up to the metaphors that the computer is generating.

  11. It is important to note that there is a racial dimension to this notion of an embodied sublime. One of N. Katherine Hayles’s principal concerns in How We Became Posthuman is the question of “how information lost its body,” the complex process through which the Cartesian mind/body split has become radically reinforced in discourses about information technology and cyberculture (2). In doing so, she sets up a dichotomy between the contemporary posthuman and an earlier notion of the “human” that is based upon the hegemonic liberal humanist conception of subjecthood. However, Alexander Weheliye has taken Hayles to task for her failure to confront the specific ways in which subject positions outside of this Westernized humanism might complicate her historical narrative. For Weheliye, black subjectivity has always stood in problematic relation to that of liberal humanism, owing to the particular historical profile of a people that has often been systematically reduced to bodies, each one denied the status of personhood (21–6).

  12. The challenge that black subjectivity poses for the posthuman manifests itself with particular intensity in the sphere of black popular music. Weheliye foregrounds the inescapable remainder of the body that resides in even the most radically synthetic forms of contemporary hip-hop and R&B, with technologies such as the vocoder or the digital sampler being used to smuggle the traces of embodied experience into the realm of the artificial (30–40). Against this backdrop, the context of the dancefloor in drum and bass magnifies this racialized dimension of an embodied posthuman in a powerful way. This music harnesses a specific tension between the suppleness of its appropriated Afrodiasporic stylistic gestures and the mechanistic coldness of its cyborg complexion. This tension carries an especially frightening expressive force, because the dance floor is a site that dramatizes the radical split between cerebral producer and embodied dancer.

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5. This issue has been taken up elsewhere in musical and non-musical contexts alike. Christopher Small, for example, presents analyses of performance situations as social situations, stepping outside of the reifying confines of atomized musical “works.” Raymond Williams’s analysis of television takes a similar approach, as he foregrounds the element of flow that holds compartmentalized TV programs together over the course of a viewing.





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