Sunday, December 03, 2000
Some more thoughts on "Pluto" for Josh. Josh, you talk about how "Pluto" sounds really excellent in the context of the rest of Homogenic: "It's hard to separate how I think the music fits in as kind of an emotional high on the album, dance as a mood as it were, from how I think it works on its own." Which I think hits the nail on the head - a lot of the appeal of "Pluto", as with "Alarm Call" immediately before it, is how oppositional it is to the cool formalism of much of the album (as a side-note, I think you can tell a lot about a person dependent on whether the "out of place" track they gravitate toward is "Alarm Call" or "Pluto").

Another question I might ask is, "Would you happily listen to an hour's worth of "Pluto" remixes?" In other words, Josh seems to believe that the music very well in context, and also quite well in isolation, but I wonder whether he'd find the music appealing in a substantial mass. I wonder because Josh also says that he likes how it seems as if "the beat wasn't just an afterthought, or the first thing they laid down," a quality he doesn't seem to find in much house. I'll take that to mean that he thinks the 4/4 beat in "Pluto" sounds purposeful and not ubiquitous. Now this is compositional assessment that I agree with - I like how "Pluto" sounds spastic and jerky despite its steady 4/4 beat, which seems a deliberate juxtaposition.

However in many ways it's an unfair comparison to make, because of course house is built on 4/4 beats, but Bjork rarely uses them, so how could the former's beats not seem ubiquitous and the latter's not seem purposeful? I guess part of it comes down to rock's preference for dynamics and dance music's preference for repetition. Generally with rock music a controlled use of dynamics is seen as "purposeful", while "lapsing" into repetition is considered lazy. There are exceptions - the krautrock of Can and Neu, and on a broader non-rock level there's all the minimalist composers.

However generally the more repetitive strains of rock are musical relaxants, or are at least designed to be listened to in a state of stillness (I'm deliberately ignoring some punk and especially a lot of post-punk because they ruin my argument). Repetitive dance music confounds this by being at once hypnotically repetitive and relentlessly energetic. Now, since the classic expression of energy in rock is through the use of dynamics (classic example: the soft/loud bit in "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), dance music sits uncomfortably with a lot of rock fans: either oppressively repetitive or overwhelmingly energetic. Intelligent techno escapes this by sacrificing either the repetition or the energy (or both), which is probably why so many non-dance fans take to it.

But when you're dancing, the hypnotic energy of the music doesn't seem antithetical at all. The repetitiveness of any given track, and also the repetitiveness of listening to a number of very similar tracks mixed together, seem in fact to be utterly purposeful. On Friday night I went to a bar playing straight techno for a friend's birthday. I don't dance to techno terribly often because I find its subtlety makes it difficult to get into quickly (hence I usually dance to more obvious stuff like house, jungle and UK garage), but after fifteen minutes of dancing half-heartedly I really started getting into it. It's like with music that repetitive, you get to a stage where your mind just voids and your body is the only thing functioning - a trance, but a very energetic one obviously (for the record, I wasn't on any drugs). It didn't hurt of course that I was dancing directly beneath an air vent on a hot summer night, which felt marvelous.

Similarly, I disliked a lot of house for a long time because I found the constant 4/4 beat so repetitive. What changed my mind was actually falling in love with the beat, and realising how essential it is to house music's appeal. To me when I listen to a house track the beat sounds thoroughly purposeful (the purpose being to get you to dance), and ubiquitous only insofar as a guitar riff is a ubiquitous aspect of rock music - it's the near-essential building block upon which a sense of individuality, personality, experimentation etc. is then imposed.

I think it is possible to arrive at that state of mind without dancing, but it's rare. Of course realising it for one type of dance music is not some sort of "get on the dancefloor free" card for all styles. I still find stuff like Belgian techno and gabba, which "Pluto" seems inspired by if not actually identical to, difficult to listen to in long stretches. This is because I can only approximate what their dancefloor appeal would be 'cause I've never been anywhere that plays them. I much prefer to listen to them in isolated doses, or in the context of other stuff, where I can focus on their qualities and not become bored by their appeals which are still beyond me.

Funnily enough, I remember Ned once said that a collection of Bjork's remixes could near-enough constitute a history of nineties dance music, which Tom thought was totally untrue, arguing that Bjork would consider it beneath her to commission a gabba remix. Tom's right - I can't very well see a "Pluto (Sperminator Mix)" in the works - but I wonder if he'd heard "Pluto" at the time.


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