Madeline McCormack: Towards An Affective Rhythmanalysis

DOMINA c. craig's mind mix album art

In my research this summer I seek to theorize the ontology and affective aspects of Berlin’s techno and house music in regards to the music itself, the listener, as well as the environmental and phenomenological context of the clubs that play this music. With techno and house’s subgenres, such as minimal techno or microhouse, we can find estranging stratifications of musical elements — granulating synths with asymmetrical rhythms over an endless 4/4 kick drum beat; echoing vocal samples played repetitively for minutes over a texturally shifting hi-hat — such nuances stretch our sense of temporality, and in a live setting also our sense of space.

One of my hypotheses is that these compositional combinations — by evoking composite states such as excitement and introspection, ecstasy and meditation — create anomalous affective experiences for the listener/club-goer. Accordingly, part of my research not only involves observing individuals and crowds in the context of listening and dancing to this music, but it also involves myself as a subjective, embodied listener.

Some of my questions and postulations so far deal with theories of affect and sound — such as sound as being “felt as thought”; theories of difference and repetition; of rhythm, vibration and oscillation, and of relationality according to those facets — in order to move towards a conglomerate theory of how this music works not only on the listener but also as a non-anthropomorphically centered phenomenon, as actualized in a live, collective setting.

Delving into Steve Goodman’s book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, I came upon the idea of the repetitive beat as being “in tension with its potential, a potential that always exceeds its current actualization… characterized by rhythmic asymmetry more than balance.” (91) So far from my time spent in record stores, I have found this characterization in a lot of minimal techno, which was first developed in Detroit, though the subgenre travelled quickly to Germany. The track “Phylyps Trak” (1993) by minimal/dub techno pioneers Basic Channel is a particularly fitting example. The vacillating and delay-effected synth is both melodically ambiguous and rhythmically unbalanced. The kick drum enters after the synth, pulsating at a relatively fast tempo. Based on Goodman’s commentary of rhythm being “as spatial as it is temporal”, I also posit that the insertion of a 4/4 kick drum also acts as a point 0x0 of the X and Y-axis of space and time — never really “moving” — and I wonder if maybe instead the affective potential (based on its qualitative properties such as timbre or texture) can only be realized by extension to bodies (collectively) in this case.

Further questions: How does this music recalibrate our modes of listening? How do bodies interact with vibratory nexuses; and how do those nexuses recondition affective modalities? How does this music affect our sense of spatiality (including the context of certain club layouts such as Berghain’s multi-level, nearly labryinthine design)?

A couple more records I have purchased so far and which I will be citing are:

Answer Code Request – “Transit” (2014)

Maurizio – “Domina” (1993)

Ben Klock – “Viscoplastic” (2010)

Marcel Dettmann – “Lightworks” (2013)

3 thoughts on “Madeline McCormack: Towards An Affective Rhythmanalysis

  1. I want to preclude my comment with this: I know little about techno music. I have been an aspiring listener, and have huge respect for the history and culture around techno, particularly from conversations with a few friends that are involved in a New York techno community, but I myself have only cursory experiential knowledge of it.

    In any case, after reading your blog post, I am particularly interested in what you’ve written about “affective rhythmanalysis,” in relation to queerness. Again, there is probably much deeper theory on this that I am not in touch with but, what I read in your posting about “theories of difference and repetition; of rhythm, vibration and oscillation, and of relationality” and what you read in Goodman’s book, “the idea of the repetitive beat as being ‘in tension with its potential, a potential that always exceeds its current actualization…’” is a striking connection to queer temporality and queer utopian spaces for me.

    I thought of the intro to Jose Munoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, in which Munoz writes (and I had to look this one up,) “Queerness is an ideality,” and goes on to describe the power of queerness as a “rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality.” Goodman’s description of techno “as a space in tension with its potential” feels aligned with this idea of queerness being in conflict with dominator reality, but also that queerness (like techno, in this way) offer spaces for new relationalities, new socialities or social and somatic realities. Again. I am sure there scholars and people who will offer clearer perspectives than myself, but your position about music and rhythm in relation to bodies particularly draws a connection to me for techno’s queer potentiality.

    Looking forward to reading more!

    1. Wow, I love this comment (and of course, the original post) SO much! I am in the process of rereading Cruising Utopia right now for my colloquium and that introduction always makes my heart sing. I am endlessly fascinated by the messiness of time and temporality and I think both queerness and sound (and many other sensory experiences) have a lot to contribute to these thoughts.

      1. This is in part a belated reply, but I too so enjoyed your comment Kendra — thank you both for your comments! I also really enjoyed that book, and I’ve been desperately searching for my copy since your comment! I think there’s definitely so much going on with queerness and queer temporality (or queer futurity) in techno — it’s made me reconsider the scope of my project a bit, and now I plan on at least including either Munoz, or even Judith Butler in terms of relationality within the environment of the club (I would also like to connect this to a spatial theory developed by Foucault of which is termed “heterotopias”) — either way, I think this important topic can be argued in tandem with each angle. Again, I’m so glad both of you bring up Munoz — I agree that he’s such a relevant thinker when it comes to such radical spaces and sensory experiences.

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