You know that tight, painful feeling you get in the back of the throat when you are about to cry? That pain has a sound. I was listening to Kosmas Epsilon & Zorz Northern People Mix of The Beloved’s “Sweet Harmony” the other day, and it’s in there.
If you aren’t familiar with that sound, go back and listen to “La Boheme,” that sound is found throughout. See how it’s used in Che gelida manina, to foreshadow the sorrow to
come. When I mention “complex thematic content” in music, I’m talking about a mixture of emotional themes, with ambivalence. Not something you encounter is popular music very often.
The Northern People Mix to which I refer is electronic dance music, or EDM. You might call it “techno” and that’s meh right-ish.
EDM can be pretty darn serious music. Which seems odd; it rose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of Italo-disco, because apparently the Italians didn’t get the memo that disco was dead. It was also influenced by New Wave, Synth-Pop, Kraftwerk (remember them?), Detroit techno, others. What sets this particular style of EDM apart was the influence of the minimalist movement, which gave rise to a period of very, very serious composition in the early 90’s, which was buried in a context of the European popular music scene, in much the same way Brian Eno snuck really serious music into the American Top 40, behind bands like The Talking Heads and David Bowie. This style of EDM was called “Trance” back in the day, because the whole point was to make dancing contemplative, meditational, ecstatic.
The wikipedia article suggests Paul van Dyk’s remix of “Love Stimulation” as the first real trance track. That’s kind of an unusual choice, not the consensus. But there’s something to it; because the essence of the thing is not precisely the musical convention, but the complex thematic content. In particular, themes of longing intermixed with themes of joy or contentment.
I recall watching “The Legend of Disco Donnie” (yes–) which was about how a fellow made a bunch of money in the New Orleans rave scene back in the day. He recalls when PVD first showed up. Donny’s back in his office counting money when he hears the crowd go bonkers. He walks out to the dance floor and is astonished to find the crowd gathered around the stage in worshipful awe, their little minds just blown completely away. There’s this gorgeous sound coming out of the amps, it’s like angels singing. Some people are actually crying. You can tell that kind of shook Donny up a little. Something was happening; and yeah, I guess PVD was right out there on the bleeding edge.
“Love Stimulation” may well be one of the earliest tracks to define that emotionality. I also agree the Visions of Shiva tracks are all over it. Cue em up on on YouTube, play them in the background, and see if they don’t start sneaking up on your consciousness. It’ll take a while; for a long time all you hear is “boots-and-pants-and-boots-and-pants…” Understand also the first couple of minutes of each track is a tag-end that the DJ uses for mixing. Be patient; the music is in there. Think about the first time you listened to Phillip Glass or, I dunno, Brian Eno; and thought, what the heck is this. It takes time to be able to hear what the artist is saying.
I last heard “Sweet Harmony” live in a South Beach club, the night before the AAN convention. The next day, I was attending a breakfast session on the neurology of music, so hitting the clubs seemed like the thing to do.
The DJ was pretty good. Note, EDM DJ’s don’t “spin records.” They construct symphonies out of segments of music that someone else wrote, with the intention of creating an emotional experience. The intent of this DJ, evidently, was to fill that room with love. And little by little, he did.
Dancing these days isn’t like what it was back in the day. You don’t stand there and get up the nerve to ask some girl to dance, and then engage in what Churchill called “the vertical expression of the horizontal desire.” Dancing to EDM is a communal act. Partially it’s you and the music, and partially it’s you dancing with everybody. It’s fellowship.
So we all got out there and danced. About four in the morning on that rainy, humid night, when we were tired, and sore, and sweaty, the DJ cued up “Sweet Harmony.” The piece has several voices that intertwine and interact, like a Bach fugue. It’s written in a major key, so it’s generally an upbeat piece. But there are elements of sorrow contained within. The weeping sound is in it.
Everybody is up, dancing and having fun. And then the music quiets, the boom-boom-boom went away and it really did turn into sort of an Eno-ambient thing. We rested. Some sat down. Some drank water. At this point, the weeping sound comes to the forefront,and it has a subliminal effect. You feel that feeling in your throat, your eyes start to water. And you indulge in the moment. You stand there in that room filled with love, and think, “How beautiful!” As the rhythm track builds, you prepare to dance in this beauty.
But there is a sudden instant of complete silence. It has a priming effect, as if someone said, “Shhh! Listen!” Then there are spoken words: “Let’s get it together!!” and a wall of music hits on the last syllable.
Everyone jumps up. Everyone is dancing. The bartender, the DJ, the bouncer, the bathroom attendant. Even the cop on the sidewalk starts to wiggle a bit. The people in the room are dancing like children dance. They are jumping up and down, and spinning around. Like children. And they are weeping. I’m not talking about dabbing at the corner of your eye. I mean, getting your face wet. I mean, some were bawling, snot and tears dripping on the floor.
I’m not trying to paint a visual image, although what you see is remarkable. All these gorgeous people dancing and crying. Hugging total strangers. It is truly something to see. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the emotional picture. I am asking you to stand with me in a room that has been filled with love, and feel what is swirling around us and through us.
It is the emotion of absolute, pure joy. Now, it’s one thing to feel joy. It’s another thing to feel someone else’s joy. It is another thing altogether, with no words to describe what it is to feel the combined joy of some 250 people, all at once. People who came to this club feeling lonely and disconnected, who now feel a sense of unity with those around them, and who are sharing their joy with each other. And it is so sweet, and selfless, and gentle, and hopeful — and so real — and so beautiful — they are crying.
When was the last time you wept for joy?
The next morning, meaning at 6am immediately after leaving the club, I went to my seminar. They were up there talking about music as an affectation of prosody, meaning the inflections in tone that are found in speech. I’m sitting there in my blue jeans, reeking of smoke, the music still ringing in my ears, thinking, no. No.
Music means something, and that meaning runs deep. For all we know, it might go all the way to the river.