Madeline McCormack: Vibrational Temporalities and Generative Repetition

Marcel Dettman track cover

In my previous post I attempted to lay out some of the areas of theory that I would be delving into in order to apply them to Berlin’s techno music. My challenge as of late has been to synthesize these while creatively applying them to the experiential understanding of techno that I gained while in Berlin.

One of the most prevalent notions that came from spending time at clubs was that of a kind of rejection of normative temporalities which seemed to be generated by both the environment and the music. It often felt as though I was being absorbed into some sort of larger, overarching and endless process of becoming — time being abstracted in one way by the repetition of minimalistic beats, but also by the music’s arrhythmic spurts of noise or otherwise unidentifiable samples or sounds. I ended up finding similar sentiments in an article by Christoph Cox titled “How Do You Make Music a Body Without Organs? Gilles Deleuze and Experimental Electronica”. Cox writes: “the non-pulsed time of minimalist composition places composer, performer, and listener on a wave of becoming that flows, shifts, and changes, but extremely gradually so that one loses any clear sense of chronological time (what Deleuze calls “Chronos”) and instead is immersed in a floating, indefinite time, a pure stationary process (Deleuze’s “Aeon”).” (8)

There seems to be more underlying techno’s seemingly overt structuralism, though. Cox details Deleuze’s theory of a body without organs, or a “BwO”, as ““the unformed, unorganized, nonstratified, or destratified body and all its flows,” “that glacial reality where the alluvions, sedimentations, coagulations, foldings, and recoilings that compose an organism—and also a signification and a subject—occur.” … the virtual field of the body, the domain of the basic particles and forces (“singularities,” “affects,” “intensities,” “ideas,” “perceptions,” etc.) from which an actual organism composed.” (Cox 2) Cox notes that with experimental electronica, or minimal techno, “In place of narratives, melodies, and themes, we hear sounds themselves.” (12) The undulating bass synth, as well as the rhythmic, though also sometimes sporadic noise in the track I cite below is heard more for its qualitative facets (“intensities”, “affects”, etc.) than any sort of melody or narrative development. These are just some facets of Cox’s argument as well as Deleuze’s theorization which I will be exploring in my paper.

I take the track “White Flare” by Shifted (from one of the records I found and purchased in Berlin) as an object due its musical/sonic phenomena, in order to possibly better understand the way the track — particularly its utilization of noise — may be generative of further affective potentiality. From the beginning, I find that the 4/4 kick drum beat combined with the low frequency bass synth rhythm in the beginning of the track is a kind of performative enactment which involves teetering between balance and volatility (as well as coherency and incoherency), finitude (of each beat or phrase), and a kind of simulation of finding/coming to the “right” semantic limitations. Twisting white noise enters in at about thirty seconds into the track. Then a terse rhythm comprised of blocks of white noise replaces it. This element of noise is modulated throughout the track by different means of frequency filtration as well as tonality.

Although the employment of noise in techno is not an uncommon resulting component in broader compositional layering of acute strata, its sonic phenomenology nonetheless begets what author Dean Lockwood, in an essay titled “Spread the Virus: Affective prophecy in industrial music”, describes as an untimeliness. Lockwood writes: “Music, when it is noisy, rescues life from programme and preserves the potential of untimely affect.” (119) I will attempt to elaborate with the hypothesis that most noise, as not only being hegemonically outcasted in a general sense, acts a re-conditioner of the senses in one; and in another way, as being comprised of a wide range of multivarious frequencies, noise manages inevitably to perpendicularly penetrate this normative, “programmatic”, predisposed affective temporality via an axis of sonic vibration.

But then what are the conditions for “timely” affect? Repetition may be one. In this context though I turn specifically to a theory of the refrain as developed by Deleuze and Guattari.

“If, as we will suggest, affects are intensities, then refrains are affects “cycled back” (Massumi quoted in Deleuze and Guattari 1987, xv).” (Deleuze and Guattari 139)
“Refrains constitute what will always be fragile, no matter how benevolent or virulent, territories in time. These allow new forms of expression but render others inexpressible.” (139) In techno, a measure of a beat or an abstract phrase attached to that beat, or even their mutual inclusion can be heard also as fragments. I argue that techno uniquely employs a repetitive refrain which allows for retention of autonomy of singular sonic elements; and in another sense, it creates difference through repetition. Along with that, I also argue that a repetitive, minimalistic beat conditions its own abstraction (maybe a sort of denaturalization, or possibly a dissociation from any sort of materiality), to the subjective effect of a mode of listening which is unconcerned with any predictability, because resemblances are in fact constantly shifting, affects as intensities churning (due to the refrain). Musician, DJ and theorist Steve Goodman offers a related idea of the “rhythmachine”, which he describes as a “synthesizer that processes a chaotic datum in its self-generation, connecting, for Turetsky, following Deleuze, successive moments into a passing present, some of which constitute the past of this present and others that generally anticipate its future. In terms of invention, the essential part of this process of synthesis, however, faces futurity in order to break with memory, habit, and the repetition of the same.” (Sonic Warfare 111) This points back to the denaturalization of a normative temporality (which I will argue in my paper also involves a spatial dimension).