So what is it that's so different about "dance" music? In a way it's irrelevant - you kind of know what it is when you hear it. And yet although there's a vague feeling that it's something to do with being repetitive and tribal or something, and it's kind of trippy, there isn't much writing about it as such, and perhaps just a little verbal examination, like this article, could help people hear "dance" more clearly and appreciate it more. You see, to us a lot of dance music these days is rather inefficient, or incomplete, or lazy and it would be nice to hear more stuff that was more intensely focused or well-finished. If you're going to put all that effort into making a record, you may as well do it properly.

Western music tends to be programmatic - it develops, tells a story, argues amongst itself (more on this later) . However earlier this century it began to fall to bits under the pressure of deeper and deeper psychological examination with its attendant need to get the music to do more and more tonally, and a general crisis of faith in the human organism. The supposed way out - 12-note serialism - was a neurotic, self-regulating pinning-down of the musical impulse that led to complete determinism by the mid 50s with Boulez loudly proclaiming that any musician who didn't understand the necessity of total serialism (i.e. affecting all aspects of the music, not just the notes) was "DEAD". This sort of serialism was a terrible overworking of the sonoroties produced by the 12-note scale, which at the same time made picking out musical interplay so difficult that the music actually lost most of its impact. Meanwhile, John Cage had other ideas. Indeterminate ones, funnily enough. Strongly influenced by Zen, which was finally making it to the West in an unconfused form, Cage brought back not only randomness to music, but something else the serialists had forgotten about - an unmediated, woken-up quality. Raymond Smullyan characterised Taoism as an intense aesthetic appreciation of the moment, and this could also apply to the sort of musicality Cage liked to cultivate, whereby everything is music and can be appreciated as such. We all know about Cage's 4'33", but he also did a 0'00" which involved him putting some vegetables into a blender and drinking them. The possibilities are endless. Nonetheless, Cage's brand of Zen could get rather austere and/or bring on Zen-style boredom - Smullyan said that the reason he got into Taoism was because Zen made his mouth water for enlightenment then snatched it away, whereas Taoism lets you enjoy it. The sonorities of tonal music still appeal deep down to many people and there's no reason not to play with them. One of Cage's earlier piano pieces, 'In A Landscape' (1947) is a very Taoist, entirely tonal outpouring of flowing, minimal, delicately melancholic beauty that sounds more like Terry Riley's stuff from 20 years later (The Harp of New Albion, eg). And this is where we now start coming back to today - a lot of the ideas of "dance" are in this music. Repetition, emotional ambiguity, a flowing quality not without intensity. Zen was influenced by Taoism that came before it, and now things are going in reverse - Taoism is coming back to music, but in a uniquely late-20th-century way. Dance music is non-programmatic, essentially Taoist music. The difference now is that whereas earlier Taoist stuff like Terry Riley's music maintained the quietness and introspection of classical Taoism, modern-day dance is an acknowledgement that the same principles can be found in the midst of the cyclone too (something Taoism always acknowledged). Noise is the void gnashing its teeth.


Programmatic music carries ideas that have to be listened out for, which requires a standing back from the music, an ascertaining, a self-conscious remembering. It is something constructed under the spell of inspiration of course, but this interior motivation is used to create something external that tells a story, that develops in a way that requires you to bear in mind its overall form. Dance music was the discovery that you can have music that actually sounds interior, that sounds like it grows from within. The way (possibly the only way?) something can be interior itself and create that inside-ness in the listener is by drawing the listener in, by seduction, by repetition. Repetition is the key - the same thing is heard again, but memory suggests it is also different at the same time. This ambiguity allows moment-by-moment apperception to appear, as the more analytical circuits of the brain are hearing something that simultaneously is and isn't the same thing. This means they're engaged, but don't get to run the show. Repetition has this dancing quality.

But the repetition is also for sheer pleasure, as this type of unblocked awareness enables a relaxed view of life without psychological striving and straining. For the truth in practice is different to what you might think in theory - living in the moment does not blank your mind but frees it up completely to function fully at all levels.


Too much dance, especially the stuff on major labels, is programmatic music with a vague stylistic influence from this new sort of music (i.e. it's got synth textures & tends to do the same thing over and again). The rhythm programming tends to sound busy rather than necessary. One common slip-up is that although it's repetitive, it tends to take a breath in and then breathe out at the end of each repeat before starting again. This means although there is a tape-loop kind of mantra-style buildup, it doesn't actually flow continuously. This sort of music tends to engage the mind but not the body. In fact the most deeply hypnotic stuff tends to loop in such a way that the end of one loop inexorably leads on to the beginning of the loop again - the loop is one breath in itself, so you keep naturally breathing without stopping to take a breath between each breath.

This way you enter into a meditative state that is extrovert, which is more what meditation should be about. Meditation in the West has been appropriated by New Age Pensioner groups and made a matter of nicey softness, quietness and preciousness. But in proper Zen the enlightened one returns to the everyday world of clutter, noise and work because the mystery, It, is in fact identical with that clutter. Because of the New Agers, people don't seem to realise that awareness, quietness of mind, is something that lets your mind (It) work better, but in everyday life, all the time, not just when you're actually self-consciously being quiet, or meditating ("the pot's usefulness lies in its emptiness", although we'd say that as far as cannabis is concerned pot's uselessness lies in it's emptiness, but we're getting out of hand here). Dance-induced meditation is a reminder that meditation is not necessarily something passive and quiet and this is terribly important because people do tend to confuse spirituality, especially Eastern spirituality, with something a bit airy-fairy and wishy-washy, and they therefore ignore it. The best way to hear dance is at mind-saturating, physically detectable volume, volume you can feel in your bones, possibly because those of us living in the modern world have such exhaustively overactive, stressed minds that's the only way to engage them successfully. There are various heaps (skandhas) of painful self-consciousness arising from modern-day life that weren't found in earlier times, and these therefore call for peculiarly modern means of healing. If you doubt this, take note of the shocking escalation in all forms of mental illness over the last 30 years. Dance music with its overwhelming intensity is surely a more appropriate way to meditate these days. Apart from anything else we don't think it's that appropriate for younger people to try to deny their energy, either physical or psychic. It's not good to shackle yourself with philosophies that were specifically designed for those in mid-life or later when you're barely into your 20s. Apart from anything else, just like with born-again Christianity, the drop-out rate for young followers of these ideas is very high, and then you reach middle age and there's nothing and you're just burnt out. Dance meditation, however, seems to be suitable for all ages, even if the verbally expressed philosophies of those involved in the dance scene often seem half-baked.

We should also point out that when you are listening in this timeless way, all the "programmatic" aspects of your mind (remembering, weighing up the components of the music and its feel, etc) are still there but now functioning in an unblocked way. This is why dance music doesn't consist of "the same thing over and over again" as its detractors say. Wonderful contrapuntal interplay characterises the best dance music. When listening in an unblocked Way, you still notice structural features of the music, sudden changes are still sudden changes, buildups are buildups, but you are in the midst of them, not observing from afar. The music is no longer a structure, but a process caught by your mind, which is itself a process.

This is perhaps one reason why this music is dance music - you are so in the middle that your body joins with your mind. The best dance music is at once infectiously danceable and intellectually involved - in fact there's hardly any around like that but you know it when you hear it. Because it isn't self-consciously intellectual it is passionate, and because it's so intense it has to be crafted subtly to bring out the nuances of emotion. The central image of the Tao is the yin/yang. The intensity comes from a dynamic interplay of the ying and yang, dark and light. Dance music that is too yang tends to sound cheesy, whereas when it's too ying it just sounds too adolescently moody. The best stuff has this kind of interplay, where the effect is uplifting but intense - there's a kind of ambiguity in there that gives the music terrific dynamic power.

We need to watch the word "observing". Here we mean the sort that seeks to pin down or to measure. In music this results in the squeaky jiggery-pokery and empty histrionics of the classical (cutlery juggling) avant-garde, because it relies far too much on a need to keep exercising the Apollonian intellect, the intellect of reason, at all costs. Even when the music makes a racket it's been fed through an analytical processor first so that it fits the overall picture. It's a tidy, determined racket. But exercising the body in this compulsive, relentless way results in the grotesqueries of body-building, and this sort of music suggests that something analogous can happen to the mind. Proponents of the serial avant-garde are fond of saying it's just another language that can be learnt like any other, but the process of learning it properly will turn you into a musical crossword-puzzle solver or mathematician if you're up to it, and if you're not then you'll use the same instinctive aesthetic apparatus to do with "feels" and textures that you would for any other sort of music. All that 12-note effort is wasted.

The other sort of "observing", which is utterly different, is an inclusive quietness of mind, an awareness that doesn't shudder and isn't distracted and isn't detached.

Paul the Pillpopping Priest for The Out of Order Order

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