Sonic Rorschach: Dance Music as Collage and Its Dancing Subjectivities

Preface: I originally published this on the Hugo Ball Chicago website in January of 2015, when I was actively working in service of the Motherbeat with them, as the Resident Glue Sniffer and Hannah Hoch of Chicago Dance Music. It has been revised to reflect preferred gender pronouns which have evolved over time, as we all move closer to ourselves and each other on this giant ball of rock spinning in space and time! I worked very hard and mostly for free and out of enormous passion for the time I was involved, I believe this essay is the highest revelation of all the time I spent dancing and thinking and working in its orb, and it is my wish that it survive as an important document of this cultural work and a useful analysis of a significant phenomenon, even if the Ball has been laid to rest. I have chosen to keep this in basically the same exact form in which it appeared originally, including our statement about what our event was which lists the active crew at the time of publication. Hugo Ball may be dead, but Motherbeat is eternal.

Words and ink blots by EMD

The kind of music that keeps me on a dance floor for hours at a time—and which we primarily utilize in our crafting of sonic vortexes when we ball—is often abstract. Dilemmas and desires are conveyed more through the layering and juxtaposition of sounds, repetitious movement, and confrontational eruption than they are through lyrical content alone. Often there are not vocals, and when there are, the sound-shape the vocals impress on the listener’s subjectivity can carry much more emotional content than their mere signs and their most literal significations. It helps that vocals in dance music are often manipulated and difficult to discern. Like the experimental and absurd noise poems of our Dadaist predecessors in Zurich, these collages of sound-shapes are layered in novel formations whose signification is colored by the subjective perceptions, concerns, and prior knowledge of the person experiencing them. This is simultaneously psychic and deeply embodied in the sonic vortex of a potent dance floor with a proper sound system.

The Rorschach test—named after Swiss psychologist, Hermann Rorschach—is a series of inkblots used to analyze personality, emotional functioning, and thought processes by having a subject discuss what sense their mind makes of the inkblot abstraction presented to them. Dance music functions as sonic collage (a kind of abstract aural inkblot) because of how it is mixed in a live setting, but also due to the process of its production. Often the vocal elements are shortened samples from a larger text we have no knowledge of or just very brief vamps (a short, repetitious musical section common in blues and gospel music), so our interpretive faculties are limited by the cut-up technique used to collage the sound outside of the broader context it was originally housed within. Many times these are also second or third generation recordings which are being sampled and manipulated, so they become increasingly abstract before they are further affected by amplification and the meditative trance states dancers enter into.

Often on the dance floor, I find myself worked, over the course many hours of hard dancing, into an altered state of consciousness where I am deeply rooted in myself, and my own subjective reality seems to more actively shape my experience and what I derive from it. I feel strongly that my subjectivity is elevated and empowered through the music and my responsive movement…finding increasing “levels in the realm of the nerve” (Artaud). Through this intense rooting within myself, I locate myself again in the world outside of me and find myself grounded more firmly to grapple with all of its tensions; this is embodied powerfully in the moment by the dance floor I am on and the various people and problems which constitute it. The dance floor becomes a microcosm of the world in which I fearlessly hold all of the tensions of existence; investigate emotional, physical, and psychological material which surfaces within me; and move closer to myself, which is also a kind of movement toward everyone and everything else. Dancing to that point where inside and outside touch, where mind and body are married in the severing of the neck! (This is why I consider Hugo Ball more a school and a community and an incubator for the dancing revolution of Emma Goldman’s dreams, and our events as happenings, rather than a “party.”) It is a very strange space where I am deeply in my body moving physically, but also moving a lot emotionally and psychologically, and these subjective responses to sound and energy perform a sort of interpretive work which is unique to the dancing perceiver and which reveal dance music’s work as sonic and psychic revelation.

It is relevant to communicate here that dancing is a deeply personal as well as political act for me. Music and dancing have historically functioned to root people culturally, and the utility of collective movement and noise making to raise spirits for various purposes is certainly documented. Our culture has also largely distanced itself from these more primitive rituals which directed human existence and activity for most of human history. Embodiment is radical in a culture of alienation, fear, and psychic death. This—embodiment—is what I seek on the dance floor, and it is informed by a collective experience of alienation and division we all experience, as well as a deeply personal one: my own history of trauma, these memories stored in my body, and these ways I was conditioned to relinquish it. To quote Adrienne Rich, the dance floor is “rigged with terrors,” because this experience of embodiment is a collective experience for me, and I have to put myself in public spaces where much of the culture I combat is acting through and exemplified in other energies on the floor with me—it is what makes it hard, but also what makes it visceral, healing, and transformative. I make myself very vulnerable, but in leaning into this vulnerability, I locate a greater power.

For these reasons, I believe music and dancing hold very radical possibilities. I believe through properly transformative dance experiences even the most anxious among us can realize ourselves as warriors. This is what dancing is for me…a deeply personal and always political engagement, a space of dialogue which begets psychic awakening and bestows physical and mental conditioning for the insurgency. When I dance, then, something I have noticed is that the impressions of sounds I perceive result in sometimes deeply surreal renderings of our culture turned upside down and messages of sonic insurrection.  When dance music works on me, its sonic and psychic revelation is absolutely of the marvelous! Below I have selected a few of the prime examples of this phenomenon as I have experienced it.

Exhibit 1: “Let Lawyers Dance!” (Addis Posse – Let the Warriors Dance)

Anyone who is aware of the hardcore rave space I carve out knows it is fueled primarily by the acid bass squelch! An essay devoted solely to the power of the acid sound is something I have it in mind to write, but it suffices to state here that I believe acid possesses the power to level individual egos as well as oppressive governments, and any designation of a sound which is considered threatening enough to be banned by Radio One from the air waves is something any sonic insurgent should have a plethora of in their arsenal. The 303 is the sound of commercial failure and street ingenuity; it is totally revolutionary! So, it is hands down the acid sound that activates my revolutionary imagination more than anything else…though drum breaks really get me going, too, so you can see why this track is like a fire set under my feet on the floor.

That definitely happened the first time I heard this track! While not on a dance floor—I originally heard this track in the Hugo Ball Anniversary Mix in September of 2013—when I initially encountered it, I did not look at the track list provided, so I did not have the prior knowledge of the song title to guide me in understanding what they were saying. What I heard was “LET LAWYERS DANCE,” and what I envisioned was all the lawyers leaving their offices in the Loop and going balls out rave style in the streets. It is a particularly psychic Sonic Rorschach response, since it is our own Eris Drew (now finally and rightfully considered to be one of the greatest DJs and producers in the world) who was bringing it to my ears, and she was working a very oppressive job as a lawyer in the Loop at the time…something I also had no prior knowledge of, as we were just starting to get to know one another. So, in this case, not only was the marvelous revealed, it was revealed perceptively and energetically, demonstrating an emotional connection between the dancing perceiver and the actual energy or intention of the selector…and most likely cementing an important and revolutionary friendship. ❤

Now, your homework is to listen to this track and send me an email about what you hear in the vocal at 2:53…

Exhibit 2: “Fight the powers that be; fight the powers that be…” (Motorbass- Ezio)

The first time I encountered this song was during my favorite Justin Long set I have ever experienced. It was a three hour set at the Continental a little over a year ago, and J dropped this track at a very, very crucial moment in which I was absolutely zoned in, and after this track did its work on me, I only left the floor two times: once to quickly pee and come back, and another time to attempt to smoke a cigarette, only to realize it was the stupidest idea ever when being with music inside was so incredible and I just wanted to be closer to the music and dancing as long as I could. To this day, I have no idea what the vocal actually is in this song, but they are definitely NOT saying “fight the powers that be,” which is what I heard when I was on my way into my dance trance, and what I still hear and connect with when I listen to it now. It sounded like someone sort of singing the famous Public Enemy line in a reflective and repetitive way, that when layered over percussion which sounds like it is actively working at a task (in this case, “fighting the power,” or drumming up the strength to) leading up to this ecstatic moment where the work of the percussion clears away and the horns rise, lifting us out of the struggle, and the dreamy quality of the harp sounds come in.  The horns call us to lift our attention away from what is to what is possible, and the harp seems to function as a reminder of magic and beauty and the marvelous, and we are held in that inspiring space just long enough to keep believing. I don’t actually know where these harp sounds come from, but I immediately was reminded of Alice Coltrane when these plucking sounds first hit me, and I was absolutely elevated by the same energy of cosmic struggle and transcendent consciousness which sings to me in her music. Then the percussion comes back in, as though our work continues, but we have seen the revelation of the marvelous through our work; we have a dream and a mission and the drums keep us moving toward it, battering over the sort of monotonous and repetitious quality of what else is happening to communicate a resistance and resilience, as the horns and harp return to remind us of the possible, of what we fight for.

Exhibit 3: “Jack the music in the master’s palace!” (Tuff Little Unit – Master Plan)

It is perhaps my obligation as an educator to make you understand how critically prior knowledge factors in the phenomenon of sonic Rorschach. If I knew this track was called “Master Plan,” for example, or that the artist was Tuff Little Unit, then maybe I would hear what Justin Long hears when he listens to this track: “Tuff Little Unit with the master plan!” But I haven’t been spinning dance music and digging through crates of dance music records for multiple decades. Most of this music is novel to me, and so the Rorschach works especially well to gauge my thought patterns and overarching desires.

I first heard this track in Mike Servito’s Rare Form mix. It is one I consistently go back to and which reliably will have me dancing tits out rave style whether I am in my bedroom, on the street corner, or at the laminator of one of the schools I substitute teach at presently. I originally heard the vocal as a command to “jack the music in the master’s palace!” I was so into it that this continues to be how I hear this song as well. When I asked Justin and Eris what this track was, I inquired about the track about jacking the music in the master’s palace, and they were both really confused, but intrigued. I played J the track from Servito’s mix when we were at Gramaphone a month or so ago, and he knew what it was right away once he heard it. Then he also played it early on in his set at the November ball, a move which made me run to the floor from the conversation I was having near the bar and signaled the beginning of a night in which I would absolutely be dancing for many hours beyond the point at which it really hurt to do so! (How do Justin and Eris do such incredible things when they command the altar together? Why is Jason Kendig such a beast? Did I really order like three different plates of food for breakfast afterwards?)

This is not an isolated phenomenon; we acknowledge that many others have reported similar experiences over the years. Only now it has a name and a theoretical basis and a clearly defined relationship to the Dada of proper underground dance music.  Because we are interested in how your mind works in combination with the abstract sonic collages we spin for you, please share any Sonic Rorschach experiences you’ve had with me at ecstaticmd@hugoball.com. (Link will send you to my current email.)


Citations

  1. Addis Posse. Let the Warriors Dance. 1990. Vinyl recording.
  2. Artaud, Antonin. “Manifesto in a Clear Language.” Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. Trans. Helen Weaver. Ed. Susan Sontag. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1976. 50-51. Print.
  3. Motorbass. Ezio. 1996. Vinyl recording.
  4. Public Enemy. Fight the Power. Carl Ryder, 1989. Vinyl recording.
  5. Rich, Adrienne. “Hunger.” The Dream of a Common Language. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978. Print.
  6. Tuff Little Unit. Master Plan. 1991. Vinyl recording.

Hugo Ball is a polysexual oppositional surrealist monthly dance party which launched at Chicago’s Smart Bar in September 2012. Hugo Ball is a member of Smart Bar’s residency program for 2014-2015. The Hugo Ball “Troupe” is Eireann Mairead O’Deaghaidh, Eris Drew, Sevron, Wesley Groves, and Justin Long. Hugo Ball is organized around a musical philosophy that transcends genre and time—one might hear Severed Heads mixed with Terry “Housemaster” Baldwin, Section 25 and Gesloten Cirkel. All selectors play vinyl and all live shows are performed on hardware. Hard-dancing and democratized space are the politics of the dance floor.

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EMD @ Hugo Ball, Smart Bar Chicago, January 2014. The only bitch up in the club in a Queer Zine Archive Project shirt.

© FUCK SAUCE MEDIA 2020

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