‘Exorcism’ – Only Through Control We Can Lose It (Exploring Extreme Rhythms)
This blog post explains the process of my ongoing Exorcism project, in which I explore dance/club music’s relationship with chaos and loss of control. How much space is there – in terms of music, ritual, social interaction and performance – for rhythms and structures that bend and break the stability of trance, groove, hypnotism, etc.?
For many years I’ve been inspired by breakcore music, for its sample-insanity and rhythms that should in theory not function on the dance floor. But it was a different genre – speedcore – that got me thinking about relationships that can exist between minimalism and chaos. Extremely fast music does not need to express chaos directly, it can instil chaos within the listener, which can be expressed through bodily expression, energetic dance. As an electro-acoustic composer, I am exploring that idea by fusing meditation sounds (bells, gongs, electro-acoustic soundscapes) with speedcore and noise.
I already composed 16 minutes of music for this project. Below you can listen to the latest version and an alternative version:
The Process Thus Far
Exorcism. Quite a loaded word, isn’t it? Or is it? Spiritual? Crazy? Funny? Mysterious? Western connotations relate to horror movies and “new age Christianity” (because “normal new age” shuns darkness?). And of course, many non-western rituals exist to (supposedly) cast out inner-demons – sometimes with the help of powerful, entrancing music (see an Indonesian exorcism).
While I don’t think music – or any other form of spirituality – offers all the solutions to psychological problems (that would make me spiritual bypass fundamentalist), I do believe that (club) music is a way to break certain negative feedback loops by disconnecting us from societal pressures, by re-connecting us in new (tribalistic?) ways, and of course to get our bodies (and minds) moving. And within the whole spiritual spectrum of club music (meditative, hypnotic, psychedelic, ecstatic, sensual, aggressive, etc.), I wondered where the idea of a modern exorcism could fit in, and how. This idea grew in me while I was experimenting with extremely fast rhythms and contrasts of tranquil ambiences and dissonant noises.
I’ve never been the person to believe in spirits or demons, unless they represent psychological frictions. And I’m particularly interested in frictions as a composer. All music has two core components: A) simple patterns (consonance), which we experience as stable, and B) complex patterns (dissonance), which we experience as somewhat unstable or fricative. I’m interested in shaping contemporary fusions between meditative (consonant) sounds and various kinds of frictions, creating a sense of mystic/eerie minimalism (as opposed to harmonic/meditative minimalism). This is also what often attracts me more to eastern instrument than to western ones. The Japanese shakuhachi flute, for example, carries a decent amount of fricative overtones within every note (see NHK documentary), making it feel a little bit more out of our earthly human control (at least, in my opinion).
Western classical music generally aims to plan out precisely when and where consonant and dissonant elements interact with one another during a composition, through chord structures, melodies, counterpoints, etc. To help achieve that, western instruments (especially post-Baroque ones) are designed to produce the most clearly discernible tones/notes. Looking at a spectrum analyser you’ll see that western instrument (with a few exceptions, like church bells) mostly produce simple, predictable patterns of harmonic overtones (which by the way relates closely to the human voice). Although there is of course logic to this design, it is also very much a cultural choice, aimed at exploring complex hierarchies through calculated control.
Some ancient (eastern) musical traditions take the opposite approach, they dissolve hierarchy by using more flat or unified structures (repetitions, drone, silence, minimalist abstractions, etc.), plus they favour loss of control over calculated composition. Dissonance does not need to be calculated precisely, it can also be explored it in music’s unquantifiable (and more subconscious) micro-details, for example by playing with tone-colour (timbre) and by using subtle (or unsubtle) bodily expressions. In western classical music, playing techniques to achieve these these (hyper)subtle fluctuations and experimental (sometimes noisy) timbres were introduced only in the 20th century, as “extended techniques” and “avant-garde”.
Improvisation too, is often neglected in western classical culture because of an (educational) focus on control and precision. Ironically though, a lot of western classical music isn’t executed precisely as it was written, because the idea of variable instrument tuning has gone out of fashion due to complete standardisation: most of the (western-influenced) world currently uses only one single tuning: 12TET-tuning. Not only has diversity of tuning become uncommon, 12-TET also removed the idea of “asymmetric tunings” from culture (classical to pop): whatever note you start your 12-TET melody on, higher or lower, the consonance-dissonance relationships between the notes of the melody will remain the same. Yes indeed, this might sound strange… but past tunings did not work like this, and we’ve become completely alienated of that concept.
Too much control of structure, too much control of timbre, too much control over personal interpretation…. THREE strikes, you’re out classical music. I’m just kidding, but I think cultural and personal diversity are essential if we want to create new things. Fortunately, more than enough composers and artists are working on that (do we give them enough space though?).
Large gongs (my favourite instruments) take musical non-hiearchy even one step further. They fuse consonance and dissonance into a single cosmic symphony that keeps evolving (like a fractal?). Consonance can be seen as the soil of a composition, and dissonance as the various plants that grow on (or in) it. One doesn’t exist without the other. Hence, consonance and dissonance are a non-dualism, the yin and yang of music. Gongs align most closely with those eastern principles, treating consonance and dissonance as equals. Listening to a gong, you’ll hear a deep grounded tone (like throat singing) with complex patterns on top of it (perhaps not unlike the fluctuations of water waves).
I use “cosmic” instruments like gongs and singing bowls in my contemporary compositions to explore the thresholds between ego and egoless, between control and loss of control. I don’t aim for purely meditative sound, neither for lyrical emotions, rather for that mystic zone in between. To achieve that I also translate gong-like spectrums to the sound design of ambient sounds (using granular synthesisers, etc.). This is my way to explore the idea of pre-emotional mind states. What went on in our brains before we evolved to be controlled by sadness, anger, frustration and so forth?
The exploration of “abstract emotion” is of course common in club music with its hypnotic, psychedelic, meditative and ecstatic qualities. Reflections on aggression have also always been around, from punk-influenced industrial music to hardcore techno. With this Exorcism project I want to take inspiration from both hypnotic and aggressive genres, to discover mystic spaces in between.
My fascination for (quasi) chaotic rhythms stems from my interest in the freedom of breakcore, noise, speedcore, early screamo and free jazz. And my interest in dissonant, mystic harmonies comes from for example black metal, Japanese gagaku music and spectral music (Ligeti). But one one of my main inspirations for this project is speedcore, with its ultra fast 300BPM+ rhythms (e.g. DJ Mutante, Catscan, Nekrosystem, Gabba Front Berlin, Gridbug.) To take mental and physical control of these overwhelming rhythms, one needs to dare to lose control and find their own movements.
Exploration of this paradox (losing control to take control) is of my driving forces in composing my Exorcism pieces, and in figuring out what kind of performance or ritual setting could fit to them. My core idea for a performance is to first create a well-defined ritual together with a performer / dancer, and then let the performer find ways to break and break free from the calculated patterns, through improvisation or otherwise.
I would also like to ask the question: why do we dance ‘to’ music and not ‘with’ it? How can we best balance music and movement? Oour brains treat dance and music quite equally, as they both trigger the same motor control region in our brains (see paper ‘From Motion to Emotion’).
Short description of Exorcism – main
Fluctuating between meditative gongs and overwhelming speedcore rhythms, the music and performance work Exorcism explores the possibility of an exorcistic ritual during an underground club night. While experimenting with fusions of extremely fast rhythms and meditative soundscapes, composer Rutger Muller started to question: can rhythms evoke a sense of exorcism by surpassing the threshold of rational understanding; can rhythm (paradoxically) demand us to let go of our sense of rhythm to be able to dance? Can we uncover the spiritual essence of an exorcism, free from our preconceived (religious) ideas? Can we dive deep into chaos and discover our own bodily expressions and rituals? Exorcism challenges dancers and performance artists to engage in those questions through the paradox of using control (ritual) to find ways to improvise (lose control). Gongs play a role in the performance as they fuse stability (one meditative ground tone) with chaos (endless cosmic overtones).
Short description of Exorcism – extra
Rhythmic trance comes in many forms: hypnotic, psychedelic, sensual, aggressive, etc. But all these examples rely on ‘groove’, on predictability. The Ecstatic dance concept offers a contrast to this predictability, it aims to let people discover spontaneous movements within themselves. This way, the predictability of groovy rhythms translates into unpredictable free flow. A punk-minded industrial band can have have a similar effect: its sharp and robotic grooves invite the audience to express their inner chaos through the physical contact of a mosh pit. While ecstatic dance avoids disturbances through mindful group behaviour (leaving space in between the dancers), punk does the opposite and balances it out through continuous collisions (no space in between the dancers).
But what if we let go of the groove (nearly) completely? What if the rhythms become so fast and chaotic that we can’t make sense of them in any rational way? What could we then channel from the depths of our spirits? This idea was inspired by the overwhelmingly fast (300BPM+), rhythms of speedcore music (see for example DJ Mutante, Catscan, Nekrosystem, Gabba Front Berlin, Gridbug, Bart Hard). To mentally and physically take control of these rhythms, one has to lose control.