Deconstructed Dance Music, Part 1: Thoughts

In this article, Jon Lindblom discusses the cultural import of what has become known as ‘deconstructed dance music’.

‘Deconstructed dance music’ is a recent term that designates a wide group of artists who, in different ways, approach the club sounds of the ‘90s through novel experimental methodologies. It has, unsurprisingly, been a somewhat controversial term – partly because of its apparent vagueness. Yet it is the premise of this article that this vagueness does not necessarily have to be seen as a terminological shortcoming that neglects the sonic diversity of a variety of artists with various sonic profiles – but may in fact index the basics of a sonic experimentalism apt to the early 21st century.

Modernism and Formal Complexity

In a recent article on deconstructed dance music, entitled ‘This is the Future of Club Music’ (2018), Clea Herlöfsson suggests that deconstructed dance music may be understood as an extension of modernism beyond the tenets of postmodernism in a way that bears resemblances to deconstructivism in architecture. Herlöfsson does not elaborate further on this intriguing suggestion, but I believe that it pinpoints much of what is innovative in deconstructed dance music. In the following, I will therefore try to unpack this thesis, starting with deconstructivism.

Deconstructivism designates a style of architecture that emerged in the ‘80s and is oriented around the deformation, or fragmentation, of previous architectural forms by thoroughly altering established architectural premises. Characterised by a lack of harmony, symmetry and continuity, deconstructivist works instead utilise distorted architectural forms and components that have been disassembled and reassembled in various innovative ways in order to move beyond established structural premises of high modernist architecture and in that way induce both shock and confusion in the visitor through structures of extraordinary visual complexity. Drawing upon Russian constructivism, Cubism and Derridean deconstruction, among other things, it is thus an example of radical, formal complexity in architecture – what Arch Daily refers to as ‘the unleashing of infinite possibilities of playing around with forms and volumes’ in their online introduction to deconstructivism.

It is this commitment to formal complexity and experimentation that links deconstructivism in architecture to modernism – which, as is well known, may be understood as a formal revolution in architecture and the arts that manifested itself in various forms throughout the 20th century – but also to deconstructed dance music. Indeed, the defining characteristics of the latter are also often referred to as fragmented, chopped-up and distorted – in terms of it lacking the formal coherence and predominately rhythmic continuity of ‘90s and more recent club music that it draws upon. In this sense, deconstructed dance music may be understood as indexing similar tendencies in music to move beyond what at this point have become the formal conventions of previous kinds of dance music – which, needless to say, were immensely innovative when they first appeared, but, like any kind of modernist aesthetic, have become conventionalised and commodified according to the demands of late capitalist popular culture. Deconstructed dance music, on the contrary, may be understood precisely as a continuation of the formal innovations of ‘90s dance music in ways similar to the experiments with deformation and fragmentation of previous architectural forms in deconstructivism. Indeed, to me, this seems to be the central cultural import of the artists sometimes associated with deconstructed dance music – such as Amnesia Scanner, Aïsha Devi, Lotic, M.E.S.H., Rian Treanor, Autechre, Rainer Veil, The Sprawl, Holly Herndon, Logos, Lee Gamble, Arca, Mumdance, Errorsmith and Sophia Loizou. In the following section, I consequently want to sketch out what I take to be two complementary formal tendencies in deconstructed dance music, based on the distinction between deformation and fragmentation. More specifically, what I call ‘formal plasticity’ and ‘synthetic formalism’.

Formal Plasticity and Synthetic Formalism

Formal plasticity refers to the deformations of established sonic structures in club music – where familiar forms are twisted and warped sometimes almost beyond recognition – and which points to the fact that no aesthetic forms are ever finished once and for all, but, on the contrary, always are open to revision and transformation (hence, ‘plasticity’). It therefore recalls Walter Benjamin’s comparison of media technologies with surgical instruments. According to Benjamin, media technologies have provided novel instruments for artists to re-engineer reality by artificially augmenting it beyond the confines of phenomenal manifestation similar to how surgeons may reformat the body through various sub-personal, invasive technological interventions. Formal plasticity may thus be characterised as a surgical-like procedure that slices open familiar sonic specimens and reconfigures them into cognitively dissonant structures in the form of uncanny, deformed bodies – like those of the alien’s victims in Jonathan Glazer’s film Under the Skin (2013), or those in the visual work of the artist Jesse Kanda.

Synthetic formalism, on the other hand, refers to the subversive fusions of different kinds of club music (but others as well, from pop to noise) that also is common in deconstructed dance music. Another surgical metaphor is apt here: Simon Reynolds’ account of the use of samplers in hip-hop and dance music in the ‘90s – which he characterises as a Frankensteinian procedure of ‘quasi-organic seamlessness’ where sonic bodies were taken apart and reassembled into seemingly impossible formal configurations that explicate the synthetic unnaturalness that underlies naturalistic recording. Hence, if formal plasticity may be understood along the lines of uncanny, corporeal distortion, then synthetic formalism takes the forms of de- and reassembled, alien morphologies that pinpoint the crucial fact that to deconstruct does not just mean taking something apart – but also rearranging it in various novel ways.

Formal plasticity and synthetic formalism should thus be understood as two sides of the same coin, since the music that may be referred to as deconstructed dance music often incorporates both of these formal subversions to varying degrees (for instance, the music of the artists that I listed above). It is indeed the synthesis between formal plasticity and synthetic formalism that I think indexes the sonic landscapes characteristic of deconstructed dance music. At one extreme, this is somewhat restrained music where beats are scarce or even completely absent – and that sounds as much as ambient noise or even sound art as dance music – in the forms of distorted husks of ‘90s club music, with skeletal sonic structures that only bear uncanny relationships to their originals. At the other extreme, there are tracks that rather consist of more upbeat, maximalist fusions of various kinds of club music that instead go for overload rather than restraint. These tracks are characterised by complex, rhythmic irregularities that generally are quite dense and discontinuous.

From Collage to Montage

Hence synthetic formalism, which crucially alludes to the difference between postmodern collage and modernist montage. For whereas the former merely assembles pre-existing cultural material into aesthetic non-spaces that produce the bland pastiche of postmodernism, the latter generates novel forms from its individual components. It is in that regard indeed synthetic as opposed to referential. Compare, for instance, the cover of Macintosh Plus’ vaporwave-album Floral Shoppe (2011) with the cover of Holly Herndon’s album PROTO (2019). Whereas the former simply assembles random stuff within a non-space/non-time congruent with postmodern collage, the latter instead synthesises something new from its component parts. In other words, the cover of the Macintosh Plus album is purely referential, whereas the referential elements of the Holly Herndon cover are secondary (people who participated in the making of the album) – that is, we may recognise them on one level, but that is secondary to the novel entity, or form, that emerges through their synthesis.

But whereas that in-itself (i.e. montage) is nothing new in modernist aesthetics, what I think is significant in deconstructed dance music is the fact that the raw material that is being reworked is established cultural forms in a way that may seemingly look like collage although it clearly moves beyond it (so, in the example above, Holly Herndon and her collaborators would all be the equivalents of already existing musical genres). Indeed, in a culture where capitalism relentlessly has absorbed and accommodated previous modernist outsides, perhaps new such outsides must be unveiled within the media spheres of the postmodern culture industry itself – by once again cracking open the formal alienations of by now well-known cultural forms that it has done its best to defang.

Here it is also worth recalling a fascinating passage in Fredric Jameson’s essay on postmodernism (1984) – which on the one hand turned out to be remarkably prophetic of where culture would be heading since it was published in the ‘80s, and on the other hand also importantly points to potential ways of overcoming the aesthetic lacunae that it, once again correctly, predicted would be congruent with the cultural landscape that it diagnoses. On the one hand, Jameson argues that postmodern pastiche and waning of historicity will lead to ‘discontinuities of work of art, no longer unified or organic, but now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjointed subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds’. That this became a common aesthetic phenomenon since then is a well-known fact today. Yet, on the other hand, Jameson also references Nam June Paik’s TV Garden (1974) installation – as well as the scene in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) where David Bowie’s alien character watches fifty-seven TV screens simultaneously – as indexes of an aesthetic regime that arises out of, but importantly moves beyond, the confines of postmodernism. Here, the viewer who choses to focus on a single screen out of frustration with the information overload of postmodernism is hopelessly hanging on to an older aesthetic era – as opposed to ‘follow[ing] the evolutionary mutation of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth’, as Jameson puts it, into a novel aesthetic regime nurtured rather than stymied by discontinuity and information overload.

While Jameson’s diagnosis may be (and has been) utilised in order to theorise how by now well-known phenomena such as cognitive oversaturation and techno-socially induced attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have stymied aesthetic innovation, I believe that it also is important to emphasise the latter in order to think about what a genuinely subversive formal aesthetic might look like today – through, but ultimately beyond, the techno-cultural constraints of the present. In that regard, it seems to me that the plastic transformations and synthetic re-assemblies of existing genre tropes into novel sonic forms in deconstructed dance music are very much apt methodologies for artistically utilising the current techno-cultural regime of infinite availability and cognitive oversaturation – where all kinds of previous and present sounds are decontextualized and mashed together through the spatialising logic of the web – according to creative ends. (Indeed, it is interesting how the Jameson quotation about discontinuities of the work of art in postmodernism may as well be read as a description of deconstructed dance music.) Hence, its often quite frenetic, synthetic mashups of more or less distorted familiar sonic forms may be approached as indexes of a postmodern aesthetic technologically repurposed beyond the confines of the present state of things – wherein the utilisation of previous modernist forms on the basis of discontinuity, spatiality and information overload provides a continuation, as opposed to cancellation, of formal innovation.

At its most radical – such as in the work of Lotic and Arca – deconstruction also becomes extended beyond sonic formalism to gender identity, in the form of what we may think of as gender deconstruction. Indeed, experiments with identity beyond the white, cis-male canon may also be understood as a kind of formal experimentation – where the raw material is neither sound nor image, but the body itself. Hence, from this perspective, following the evolutionary mutation of David Bowie (an apt avatar in this context, given his many own identity experimentations) as theorised by Jameson also means moving beyond white, cis-male hegemony into a world where bodily identity is as deconstructed as sonic form in deconstructed dance music.

Another way to characterise sonic deconstruction is in terms of the link between formal and genre subversion in deconstructed dance music (given that form is intimately tied to genre in music in particular). Indeed, its formal transformations of existing genre tropes may be understood as occupying what the philosopher Ray Brassier, in his essay ‘Genre is Obsolete’ (2007), refers to as the ‘anomalous zones of interference between genres’ that the musicians associated with deconstructed dance music – rather than retreating back into the familiar territories of established genres – turn into an enabling condition for experimentation and innovation. Here, what Brassier calls ‘generic anomaly’ is utilised as a means for overcoming the formal conventions that inevitably will accumulate within the confines of any given genre through their abstract negations (i.e. through formal plasticity and synthetic formalism) that defy easy categorisation into existing genres (indeed, it is not a coincidence that deconstructed dance music sometimes also is referred to as ‘post-genre’ – which, importantly, must be distinguished from the common tendency of dance music to differentiate into various micro-genres). In that regard, deconstructed dance music is not so much a genre as what the theorist Alex Williams, in a different context (see below), has referred to as a ‘trans-generic mutational agent’. Or, we can also say that it is the abstract, revisionary vector of modernism that retroactively revises itself through the transformations of existing genres – and in that regard reverses the aesthetic restriction that is built into any given genre in terms of its formal innovations eventually reversing into pastiche, and thus, as Brassier puts it, ‘retroactively negat[ing their] own novelty’. For what characterises deconstructed dance music is not a distinct sonic profile, or rhythmic signature congruent with established club genres (e.g. the 4/4 rhythms of techno or the intense breakbeats of drum and bass), but rather the abstract transformations of existing genres by formal plasticity and synthetic formalism that are inaudible in-themselves and thus need to be implemented in existing sonic forms in order to do their work.

The argument here is not that there is something inherently problematic with genre as such (i.e. that it should be abandoned completely – which the more recent emergences of novel, great genres of dance music like gqom and footwork clearly falsify – but also since the outcome of abstract genre negation may in fact be the production of new genres), but rather that aesthetic experiments oriented around generic anomaly – that is, where collage flips over into montage – should not be underestimated as an aesthetic methodology in a culture where the mere quoting and collaging of established aesthetic forms have become the unacknowledged norm. And in that regard, perhaps the work of the artists associated with deconstructed dance music may offer us a much-needed way out of the straightjackets of current formal and genre conventions.

Epilogue: Predecessors

There are predecessors to deconstructed dance music: IDM (intelligent dance music), what Simon Reynolds has referred to as ‘art tekno’ or the ‘post-rave experimental fringe’ (in his book Energy Flash, a.k.a. Generation Ecstasy), as well as wonky (which was theorised in very similar ways as I have written on deconstructed dance music in this article about a decade ago). Indeed, critics of deconstructed dance music usually say that it is too much of an extension (or perhaps even pastiche) of the music associated with these labels (which they generally view as inferior to proper dance music). I agree with this connection – yet for me this is the strength of the music, rather than its weakness. For what I think is interesting with deconstructed dance music is precisely that it has taken the genre-mutational elements of IDM, art tekno and wonky and pushed them further in interesting ways – which also is why I think that writing about it in this way is not simply a kind of pastiche in-itself insofar as what I want to argue here is that genre-mutation remains an aesthetic methodology worthwhile exploring further (again, particularly in this era of postmodern collaging) for the purpose of producing novel aesthetic forms. In that regard, I am not suggesting that deconstructed dance music in its current forms constitutes some kind of perfected modern aesthetic. On the contrary, what I would want to see more of is indeed intensified genre negation – particularly through rhythmic experimentation and synthethic, sonic maximalisms that push beyond our information-processing capacities, since that is when I think it is most formally inventive. The aesthetic outcomes of such potential future experiments we can only speculate on at the present. They could lead to nothing of interest. But perhaps they will take the forms of what Brassier, in ‘Genre is Obsolete’, refers to as ‘monstrous but exhilarating hybrid[s]’ – or perhaps they will usher in ‘the production of hitherto unknown genres [through] perpetual invention which strives to ward off pastiche by forging previously unimaginable links between currently inexistent genres’ (Brassier again).

Additionally, the critique of deconstructed dance music in relation to predecessors such as IDM often focuses on its withdrawal from dancefloor functionalism as a regrettable return to ‘braindance’. While not denying the sometimes conservative and elitist elements of some previous forms of club music not tailored to dancefloor functionalism – particularly the uncomfortable use of the word ‘intelligence’ to refer to white males who appropriated the black dancefloor sounds of rave culture for home listening (although it was obviously not the artists themselves who introduced it) – or the sociocultural significance of collective freak-out facilitated by music, I am unconvinced of why dancefloor functionalism has to be a primary criteria when assessing all kinds of music associated with clubs (at least, of course, ‘deviant’ kinds like deconstructed dance music). For whereas it obviously makes sense that dance music should be danceable, it seems to me that the tendency to see club-inspired music that diverges from this norm as somehow inferior runs the risk of bypassing formal innovation in favour of a particular kind of communal immediacy. Indeed, this is also a question worth raising in a cultural environment that has changed significantly over the past few decades, and that I think also requires experiments with different kinds of media- and sociocultural ecologies (but that is the topic for another article).

Thanks to Lendl Barcelos for illuminating discussions on the thoughts brought up in this article, and to Adam Harper for input on the gender perspective on deconstructed dance music.

Image Credit: Kris Temmerman