Against Mirrored Totems: Cognitive Mapping Strategies in Contemporary Dance Music

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In my year end essay for FACT published in December, I focused on 2019 releases that deal extensively with the quotidian. I’d like to expand on that piece and reframe the releases mentioned in the context of Fredric Jameson’s understanding of “cognitive mapping” and Rafael Lubner’s rejection of post-internet discourses. These are not definitive examples of this aesthetic mode, but a nod to the potential of a music for fighting alienation.

Music for walking the city — for building into and bracketing every facet of our urban existence — has been of increasing importance to me over the past several years. More often than not, that music tends to be about the everyday: not in a literal, descriptive sense, but in that it deals largely with the issues of ordinary people. I’ve wondered quite a bit about what separates the music that elicits a feeling of place-ness versus that which increases isolation, paranoia and a loss of agency. Neither can be reduced to a set of aesthetic principles, but I think there are distinctive qualities, outlined below, which begin to unravel the question. When referring to alienation, I won’t be using it in the strictly Marxist sense, although alienation from one’s labor is a key component.

In assessing matters of alienation and disalienation, Jameson lays out a loose structure with which to assess large scale cultural developments in the second half of the 20th century and follows with a potential strategy for moving through and transcending postmodern hegemony. Lubner’s analysis functions as a rejection of a segment of contemporary music and culture criticism, as well as a constructive framing of much of the music that we both adore. Later, I refer to both approaches in my further interpretation of releases from Amazondotcom, Loraine James and Oli XL. These releases have been particularly relevant to my attempts to fight personal alienation this year and provide a potential jumping off point for working towards what Jameson would refer to as a moment of truth.

In Jameson’s “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, initially published in New Left Review in 1984 and later adapted for the seminal Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the American Marxist theorist and cultural critic lays out an aesthetic strategy for fighting alienation in the capitalist city. Building on the work of urban planner Kevin Lynch, Jameson places spatial concerns as his central organizing principle, writing that “the alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves.” In this, the postmodern city is a reflection and a representation of the intentionally unfathomable dimensions of multinational capital, an “emptiness…here absolutely packed” with mirrored totems.

Disalienation, a process of spatial contextualization, begins with what Jameson refers to as the “practical reconquest” of the city. Linking Louis Althusser’s conception of ideology (“the representation of the subject’s Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence”) with Ware’s understanding of the alienated city, this strategy entails the reconnection of a “situational representation…to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality.” This adaption of ideological formation onto daily life prompts the melding of an aesthetic strategy with a pedagogical political culture that aims to provide the individual subject with a “heightened sense of its place in the global system.” More concretely, Jameson sees disalienation as a process by which the individual subject can construct a mappable (and remappable) “articulated ensemble” that can be retained in memory and utilized along “mobile, alternative trajectories.”

This articulation, which is not elaborated on at length in “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, comes off as purposefully vague, a call to action more than a finely detailed, step-by-step strategy. It’s almost certainly true that Jameson wasn’t imagining the angular rhythms and advanced sound design of dancefloor music as one of its clearest contemporary expressions. In his excellent end of decade “2010s: Against The Post-Internet” piece for Tiny Mix Tapes, Rafael Lubner picks up where Jameson starts to segue into ambiguity, pointing to an adjacent mode of music making as having a “commitment to unfolding” and a flexible provisionality.

Arguing against a totalizing post-internet discourse wherein history is “stripped of complexity, ossified and binarized” and the Internet’s hegemonic influence is seen as inevitable and unstoppable, Lubner points to artists like Elysia Crampton, Equiknoxx and Kelman Duran as imparting a refreshingly provisional approach. Working in an “aesthetic mode that dwells in the zone of the unresolved,” this is music that speaks in a language that “might not be understandable yet” and that understands history as a live and enlivening process that cannot be reduced to pre- and post- discourses.

Without explicitly nodding to the Jameson text, Lubner’s analysis feels startlingly in line with an understanding of cognitive mapping. By rejecting reductive post-internet discourses, Lubner is in accordance with Jameson’s understanding of postmodernism as a historical process that can not be addressed by positive or negative moralizing. Further, his attempts to outline a music and a culture that “might not be understandable yet” is a holistic amplification of Jameson’s attempt to pinpoint “moment[s] of truth” in the more evident “moment[s] of falsehood”. Those potential moments of truth can only be found in a dialectical cultural evolution that matches catastrophe and progress and returns us, in Lubner’s parlance, to a “different, roiling present.”

 

 

That dialectical method is most present in the rhythmic machinations of crews and labels like Kampala’s Hakuna Kulala, Lisbon’s Príncipe, Shanghai’s SVBKVLT and Montevideo’s Salviatek. Multitudinous in their approaches, these crews and artists make music that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the postmodern city outlined above. Grounded by its history, this is a music that can be taken and refigured along any number of trajectories. It moves through the present with a remarkable dexterity, embodied in the very dynamism of its rhythm makeup.

Rhythm in the sense that Lechuga Zafiro or Gabber Modus Operandi utilize it is the dialectical outcome of a synthesis between indigenous/folk traditions (Including, but not limited to candombe and gamelan respectively) and new production, communication and distribution technologies. It is music that revels in its sonic density, that challenges the listener and dancer with a barrage of digital noise that threatens to overcome. It is also music that has an immediate, almost unspeakable attraction, an ingrained, corporeal response seemingly built into its rhythmic makeup.

 

 

Take Zafiro’s “Tambor Espada (سكين)”, a standout from 2015’s Aequs Nyama EP. The track, which includes drum accompaniment from candombe ensemble Cuareim 1080, features an immediately recognizable groove, centered on intensely swung percussion and an inviting wood wind element. From there, the intensity and complexity ramp up as a cartoonishly spirited bassline, percolator-esque bubbling effect and layer-upon-layer of interlocking percussion enter the mix.

Rhythm is transformative in this context, both in the obvious corporeal sense, but also in the sense that it creates active linkages through various Afro-diasporic musics. This is made literal in the EP’s remix package, which includes excellent contributions from South African gqom producer DJ Lag and Portuguese batida trio Blacksea Não Maya. Instead of the collapsing of time and space, a process Jameson notes is inextricable from the integration of aesthetic production into commodity production, these rhythmic linkages prioritize the materiality of history.

The percussive modes outlined above serve as potential guide through alienation, a cognitive mapping strategy made literal. Rhythmic couplets lock, mutate and decouple, inextricably tied to the whole while retaining a recognizable material-historical truth in their individual makeup. This relationship is taken further as individual songs are mixed with other material on radio and in live settings, bracketing this meta, song-level recursive process with a larger and constantly changing mappable ensemble.

Returning to 2019, Mirror River is Amazondotcom’s first release on the Subreal label she co-runs Siete Catorce. Built on a maze of driving basslines, psychedelic arrangements and an array of tactile percussion, Mirror River exhibits a remarkable sense of space, weight and dimensionality. Throughout the EP, the Los Angeles artist juxtaposes immediately familiar drum sounds with a range of impossible-to-place samples, nodding at the “truth to materials” tenet of modernist architecture before coyly pulling the rug out on the listener’s understanding of each track’s respective sonic makeup. This provisional approach to rhythmic materiality offers a path along the “mobile, alternative trajectories” described by Jameson, asserting its grounding in historical forms without succumbing to fossilization.

 

 

“Priestess”, a personal favorite from Mirror River, is hard to map out initially, but in its joyous mania, a bizarre logic unfolds that isn’t intended to be grasped, but can be diligently followed. In an interview with TRUANTS, the Los Angeles artist points to the “functional music and rhythms” of Korean shamanism and how it is used to “heal sickness, to exorcise spirits, [and] to intervene in agriculture.” This is rhythm in the holistic sense, built into the everyday rituals of healing and age old practices of disalienation.

Loraine James’ Hyperdub debut For You And I follows as a more literal take on alienation and disalienation in the modern city. An ode to the housing estate she grew up on in Enfield, London, the album functions as a montage of personal history and collaborative psychogeography, flitting between moments of trauma and collective elation at a breakneck pace. Instead of collage’s mutilation of time, For You And I’s clipped narrative structure allows for memory and its geographic context to take hold, simultaneously transmitting pride, anger and an elegiac sense of place.

In Dan Hancox’s Inner City Pressure, the British writer’s recently published history of grime, London’s center (the City of London and Canary Wharf’s skyscraper monuments to multinational capitalism) and the periphery (the council housing nearby many grime MCs grew up on) are narratively contrasted, accentuating an almost unfathomable class division while pointing to a fundamental interconnectivity. For You And I points to a similar representational dialectic, at once a celebration of London music (garage, grime, jungle, drill, etc.) and a scathing repudiation of its underlying class, race and gender inequities.

 

 

Reminiscent of a video game load screen or overworld function, Oli XL songs like “Flower Circuit” and “Orchid Itch” lay out seemingly predetermined aural coordinates, adaptable, but only within limits set by the creator. On Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer, the Swedish producer utilizes a patchwork of samples to create an intensely map-like environment. The album’s stifling energy is embodied in its compositional makeup, an uncomfortable contraposition of muted melodic elements and blocky percussion. More than any other release mentioned here, Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer struggles with its relationship to an exit or a moment of truth. Is it an opaque roadmap through self-doubt? A depressive lash out? Or an attempt to locate one’s own position within the urban totality?

On a granular level, Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer’s make-up recalls the term “slip infinity”, a line in Elysia Crampton’s “American Drift” that refers to a refusal of individuality and ownership over sound. Referencing the concept, Lubner points to the carnivalesque laugh that repeatedly pops up in Crampton’s works, a “multivocal sonic object” that ensures that “ownership of…sound is less important than its persistence.” Oli XL’s voice and blocks of rhythm seem similarly divorced from the language of producer auteurism and in an interview with Crack Magazine, he explicitly states the desire to “make the kind of music where you have no idea how it was made, what it was made with, and if it’s even electronic.” Well known for performances where his role as performer is obfuscated, perhaps the moment of truth here is the dissolution of the artificial barrier between subject and object.

 

 

These three releases have insinuated themselves into my daily routine over the past year. They offer familiar touchstones for my commute; little worlds to dive into when exhaustion, isolation and dissociation arise. I treat music like this as a literal mechanism for rendering place-ness. It’s a sonic map for the present; for placing oneself in a social and historical context and moving through the urban totality. In the schema of contemporary dance music, these artists embrace an aesthetic that “dwells in the zone of the unresolved” and doesn’t shy away from a critical materiality. Dance music has a dual obsession with a calcified past and an idealized, flattened future. It also has the potential to transcend both and step confidently into an uneven, catastrophic now.

5 comments
  1. D said:

    the issue isn’t what they do. it’s where they are played. and what that environment does to benefit the hearer. so for instance. it is necessary to change the space before changing the music. that’s an overreliance on music as innovation and a romantic contextualization of its effects. the thought and the system comes before in order for it to be effective. disruption is not innovation. So I think a more interesting article would not be about whats being produced but rather how its being presented and how that presentation is really the most important part of its efficacy as a whole.

    • D said:

      a great example being jungle. a club and and a rave/ warehouse/ bfs council flat after-party are not the same functionally.

    • Sounds like an interesting essay, you should write it

  2. D said:

    ps. could this article drip anymore with the language of white academics and the professionalization that is in accessible to the lower classes?

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