Spatial Sound

4DSOUND: A New Technology?
On the ontology of techno in space (2020)

Sydney Schelvis

Research Thesis

July 2020

Sydney Arvid Michel Schelvis

published by:
University of Amsterdam 
Spatial Sound Institute

This research assesses the potential of today’s sound-spatialising technologies for an embodied engagement with techno music. Central to this research is the moving subject, the physically engaged human, rather than the listening subject. 

The paper is a Research Master’s thesis and has been submitted by the author as part of rMA Art Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and realized with a residency project at the Spatial Sound Institute.

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1 Regardless of the current COVID-19 pandemic, which halted all nightlife worldwide, this also held true when I first checked on 17 September 2019 and last checked on 20 February 2020.

2 Technoing includes any activity that involves techno; from DJing to dancing, and from leaving the event’s space to catch a breath to event-related substance abuse. In the context of my thesis, however, technoing primarily refers to physical interaction with the sonic object, usually in the form of dancing.

3 Henceforth, I abbreviate these titles for in-text citations as “EMC” (for Embodied Music Cognition and Mediation Technology), “MG” (for Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement, and Meaning), and “TEM” for (The Expressive Moment: How How Interaction (with Music) Shapes Human Empowerment), in accordance with the MLA (Eight Edition) style I use throughout this thesis.

4 I am fully aware that Richie Hawtin is only one among thousands — if not more — techno DJs worldwide, and that his powerful position as a white male conflicts with the emancipatory currents that have my full support in this still maledominant musical scene. However, his historical significance and actuality with regard to both his recent filmregistration and its release-related performance at MONOM’s 4DSOUND studio made me select these as case studies.

5 My “remixological” approach in chapter one is also the reason I dubbed the first sub-chapter “A history of techno”rather than “The history of techno”; techno’s history is not a fixed given, which is why I make use of a variety of sourcetypes for an account thereof that matches the narrative and focus of this thesis.

6 From my observations, It seems that the black turtleneck prevails as the preferred choice of clothing.

7 I write this description according to the three most relevant senses: touch, hearing, and sight. I deliberately leave out the senses of smell and taste here, because — though the smell of secretly lit cigarettes on the dance floor and the taste of beer are typical for techno — their contribution to the focus of this research is negligible.

8 I base this account on my observation of a number of large-scale techno events and festivals, including: Awakenings, MELT, Lowlands, Amsterdam Dance Event, DGTL, Wildeburg, and We Are Electric.

I base this account on my observation of a number of (part-time) underground techno arena’s, including: JACK, Shelter, RLGC, De School, Melkweg, Sugar Factory, OT301, Lärm, Good Room, and Tilt.

10 This is not to say hearing is less significant in the interaction with one's surroundings, yet it works on a more subconscious level. I briefly return to this in §3.1.

11 Although this thesis is predominantly occupied with physical engagement with techno, rather than listening to techno, the registration at hand doest not lend itself well for a “physical account” of the set. Therefore, I use this case study to describe the various sonic objects present in techno, and the DJ’s techniques for (re)producing these.

12 Although the use of recreational drugs remains somewhat of a taboo in academia, it deserves due attention in this section since it is part and parcel of the techno scene. Beyond alcohol, uplifting recreational drugs like cocaine and “speed” (amphetamine), and psychoactive substances such as ketamine and MDMA (3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, the working substance in ecstasy/XTC), are common.

13 This mostly holds true for large-scale techno events as underground events make less use of luminary techniques.

14 A descriptive staff notation of Richie Hawtin’s CLOSE COMBINED could, however, be a satisfactory visual equivalent of the music’s metric nature.

15 For an overview see Repp.

16 For an overview see Burger et al.

The musical samples used by Burger & Toivainen diverge from techno proper, but nevertheless succeed in grasping what is at stake: in moving to a metric electronic dance music, dancers align to its isochronous beat with relative ease.

18 Digital, here, refers to fingers; not to numbers or electronica of some kind.

19 Examples include Blesser and Salter discussing at length the human ability to sense space aurally and navigate accordingly in their works on aural architecture (“Aural” and “Spaces”), which ‘explores the interaction between our auditory sense and the natural and built environment’ (“Aural” 50), and Brandon LaBelle’s study of alternative forms of acoustics as appearing within the practice of sound art.

20 Although the binaural and binocular modes of perceiving spatial dimensions resemble each other (in that they make use of slightly disparate images in rendering a spatial mapping of the subject’s ecology), they are incongruent. That is, the binaural mode largely depends on timing-difference and is prone to the subject body’s physical features whereas the binocular mode draws mostly on parallax for depth perception (stereopsis). Another major difference in the perception of space is that with vision, one can see spatial dimensions in a still image, whereas with hearing, one requires a form of movement to generate perceivable sound (Salter and Blessing, “Aural” 50).

21 To further discuss the exact operation of aural sound localisation would exceed the scope of this thesis. For more comprehensive accounts of sound localisation, see Oldfield & Parker, Middlebrooks and Green, and Grothe et al.

22 An example of mammals employing bone conduction to the fullest are elephants. They can communicate extremely low-frequency sounds imperceptible to humans via their feet and bone structure (Reuter et al.).

23 For instance singers scrambled across the concert hall in Wagnerian operas.

24 These techniques are mainly aimed at mobile musicking devices so as to create the sensation of spatialised sound in listening to music via ear-buds or headphones. Allen Moore, in discussing spatialising techniques in recorded popular song, presents his model of a soundbox, which ‘provides a way of conceptualizing the textural space that a recording inhabits, by enabling us to literally hear recordings taking space. That space can be both metaphorical, if we are listening through headphones, or actual, if we are listening through speakers’ (30). The techniques used in spatialising recorded sound resemble those used in 4DSOUND, e.g. timbral filters that manipulate vertical proximity.

25 Here follows the accompanying text: ‘This reinterpretation of Poeme Electronique in 4DSOUND has been realized by Paul Oomen and was commissioned by Zentrum fur Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, performed and binaurally recorded at 4th of March 2016 at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung, Karlsruhe. The video is a real-time capture of the 4D. Animator software visualizing the spatial recomposition of the original work. The camera viewpoint does not necessarily coincide with the recording position of the binaural microphones’ (4DSoundStudio).

26 This information derives from personal correspondence with Paul Oomen at the Spatial Sound Institute, Budapest, Hungary, 17 September 2019.

27 One example of such an artist, in my view, is Russian composer IOANN, who, with his Imagining the Hyperspace, created an exhibition of “sound sculptures”. The performance was pre-set so that the composer himself was dancing anonymously to his own piece, and there was no orientation point for the audience other than the continuity of spatialised sound. Below follows the accompanying text:

‘Created on the 4DSOUND system, ‘Imagining the Hyperspace’ consists of a series of nine spatial sound projections, each of which is an expression of a geometric shape, starting from the most elementary ones such as a line, triangle and square, to very complex ones such as tesseract and 24-cell. The work aims to give the listener an intuitive, physical experience of the encounter with complex multidimensional structures that lie beyond our ordinary perception, to discover how these affect on consciousness, and using sound to achieve a deeper understanding of our existence in space and its multidimensional nature.’ (IOANN & 4DSOUND).

28 The equipment displayed in figure 3.1 is not necessarily the exact equipment used by Hawtin in his performance at MONOM, but was based on the CLOSE COMBINED documentation. Hawtin did use the Roland TR-909 (displayed on the top right), and the rest of the setup was at least somewhat similar.

29 The two fridges full of Hawtin’s signature drink “ENTER.SAKE”, sold at €4,- a piece, are indicative of his commercial motives, despite the fact that (or perhaps because) he was catering to his own fanbase.

30 Below follows on overview of the Spatial Sound Institute’s technical specifications:

In the SSI’s setup, this grid consists of 4 (l) x 3 (w) x 3 (h) omnidirectional satellite speakers with convex piston cone. These speakers are driven by a custom-made computer engine, and are primarily controlled through Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation (DAW). In this DAW, artist work with up to 24 sound sources that can be attributed individual spatial attributes. Of these sound objects, one can determine the x, y, and z position and dimensions so as to “shape" the sources and position them in a virtual space. Apart from defining their shape and initial spatial location, they can be moved through the room via various gestures. Some of these include: paths, which can be traversed from one point to another; repetitive gestures, which can be superimposed to these paths; and the addition of spatial delay, with which naturally sounding depth can be created through signal delays dependent on the speaker grid. With this setup, the SSI studio makes use of 4DSOUND’s developed panning algorithm (4d.pan) for the spatialisation of sounds. The use of virtual dimensional sources reverberates Varèse’s conception of sounds as objects of mass, in that they rely on the rarefaction and densification of sound waves for a natural reproduction of sound in space. Dimensional sound sources have a strong acousmatic character as they appear to be ghost sources to the listener. That is, the listener may have an idea of where the sound comes from and what their recorded origin outside of the studio is while they are in fact mere projections of these sounds generated by a grid of speakers.

31 In spite of the advice by the SSI’s technical assistant not to rely too much on the visual monitor because of its incongruence with 4DSOUND’s sonic nature, I chose to address it as a reference for the spatial dynamics in this report. 

32 Approximately half of the attendees were not affiliated with the Spatial Sound Institute but with the overarching multidisciplinary Art Quarter Budapest residency program. They did not have a specifically musical background.

33 I consider IOANN’s Imaging the Hyperspace as such a successful 4DSOUND project, as the performance thereof can exclusively be experienced in 4DSOUND or MONOM.

34 One example of techno’s relation to youth culture is its sonic presence at Foam’s opening of the exhibition Adorned (12/12/2019), a photography exhibition on fashion’s transformative power, attracting mainly attendees in their twenties.

35 Social activism, here, relates to a number of clubs dedicated to techno music that have explicitly inclusive doorpolicies, have gender-neutral toilets, and actively integrate into the surrounding community.

36 This thesis deals almost exclusively with techno as a music of the west. While techno has spread around the globe — with festival locations ranging from the Great Wall of China (YinYang Music Festival) to deep into the Brazilian Amazon
forrest (O MATO) — its popularity remains mostly rooted in North America and in particular Western Europe.

37 e.g. Dolby Atmos (see Introduction).

38 e.g. 4DSOUND’s Spatial Sound Institute and MONOM, which were central to my thesis. Other examples include the University of Hudderfield with its Spatialisation and Interactive Research lab (SPIRAL) and the French Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM).

39  e.g. DVS1’s Wall of Sound, which is an event whereby the audience, quite literally, dances in front of a wall of speakers while the DJ is tucked away and invisible from the dance floor. This disembodiment of the DJ results in a crowd scrambled by the blasting bass rather than oriented according to the DJ’s position.



In early 2016, London nightclub Ministry of Sound proudly announced that they had installed a Dolby Atmos sound system. An extra 22 speakers were carefully placed throughout the main hall, “The Box”, which now houses a total of 60 speakers (Francey, “Dolby”). For a room with a capacity of 600, the ratio of one speaker per ten people is not a bad score. And although the aim had never been to provide every ten clubbers with a single sound source, it did in fact have an individualising effect; one that made each clubber’s musical experience a little more exclusive.

Dolby initially designed the Atmos sound system for cinematic use. Such surround sound technology tends to intensify, in particular, action movies, wherein choppers chase cars up the stairs on the side of the cinema hall, or a lowering pitch moving frontwards indicates an incoming bomb from the back. These atrocities now even take place in the safe space of a living room with commercially available home cinema speaker sets, since Dolby commodified the Atmos system for domiciliary use too, two years before the Ministry of Sound implemented it in a club setting.

Atmos provides, at least from the listener’s point of view, a different sonic experience than surround sound technology had been able to effectuate before. It allows for up to 128 individual audio tracks to be assigned with spatial cues, which results in a much more precise placing of each audio object in the (cinema) hall. This spatialisation means for an individualisation of the listening experience, one that renders the physical position of each listener unique.

While surround sound was built around the “common” 5.1 or 7.1 arrangements — whereby the 5 denotes the amount of audio channels placed centripetally circumventing the subject and the .1 stands for the single low frequency effects (LFE) channel sourced in a location-unspecific subwoofer — Dolby introduced Atmos in cinemas as a 7.1.4 arrangement, with four additional overhead speakers. This extra feature, alongside the possibility to individualise audio objects moving through the space, engenders, in the words of Dolby, a “breathtaking realism” (Dolby US). These words might just have been the exact words used for the introduction of 7.1 surround sound, 5.1 surround sound, or even stereophonic systems that developed from cinematic use too in the early to mid-twentieth century. In other words, Atmos is yet another advancement in the desire for natural-sounding spatialisation of reproduced audio; a desire, so it seems, not yet gratified.

This desire is not just cinema-bound. Taking it back to the club, Dolby Atmos not only spatialises, but supposedly intensifies the overall sonic experience too. According to the Ministry of Sound, ‘[t]his is a truly unique opportunity to immerse yourself within the biggest club records played by an enviable lineup of the world's best DJs’ (Francey, “Dolby”). However, a brief peak at their upcoming event listing informs us that no “Dolby Atmos nights” has been scheduled for the upcoming months. (1) In fact, the latest mentioning of the system dates back to November 2018, when the Ministry of Sound announced that Deadmau5 would be ‘utilizing [its] unique Dolby Atmos system to its full extent’ (Francey, “Deadmau5”).

Has the sound already fallen out of fashion three years after its installation? Was the user interface too complex to handle for the average DJ booked there? Or did the system simply fail to impress the club’s clientele? The true reason remains undisclosed. In any case, the Ministry of Sound’s programmers seem to favour established names and extravagant themes, which, presumably, draw in a more commercially profitable public. My quest for an answer to the questions posed above does not end here. I believe that in an age of incredible technological development, spatialisation of sound can offer new ways of interacting with sound objects. Therefore, in this thesis I set out the potentials for embodied interaction with spatialised sound objects in techno

At the base of this thesis lies my personal and academic interest in techno. As with most academic studies in this field, this research project stems from a deep fascination with the music, its surrounding culture, and its ideologies. This fascination, in turn, derived from being actively involved in nightlife as a writer, promotor, programmer, bartender, and above all an aficionado who takes pleasure in clubbing. In particular techno’s power to move people still intrigues me. This movement is not only a gestural act, as is the kind of movement in focus in this thesis. Techno has also developed into a cultural movement that, over the last four decades, made a significant impact within popular music as well as in the daily — or nightly — lives of its devotees. For it is never the music only, but the conjunction of its sounds, its technologies, its spaces and its people that make techno happen.

From gate-keeping bouncers to beer-tapping bartenders, marketeers and promoters drawing a crowd, stagehands and sound-/light-technicians making sure everything works well, programmers and bookers filling the bill with both warm-up DJs and headliners, to night mayors who lobby in favour of clubs; all play their role in the totality of the techno event. Nevertheless, it is the convergence of sounds, performers, dancers, devices, and the space in which it all takes place that stand central to the music, with each components interconnected through a synergetic pulse that lies at the heart of techno: the beat.

In my research, I seek to answer the question as to what today’s spatialising technology has to offer for an embodied engagement with techno music. It is the moving human, the physically engaged human, more so than the listening human, that is at interest here considering the entirety of the “techno triangle” human-machine-sound. Techno music is highly persuasive in inducing regular rhythmic movement, that, as I show in chapter 2, forms the basis of its mode of musicking. This mode of musicking — I hereby propose and henceforth use the verb technoing, as a generic specification of Christopher Small’s musicking (2) — induces a trance-like corporeal entrainment. Hence, the notion of immersion comes to the fore as being the telos of techno. In this thesis I set out how spatialising technologies can induce immersion through the technoer's alignment and entrainment to the sonic materiality of techno music.

Much of the research conducted for this thesis took place at the two permanent facilities of the 4DSOUND project: The Spatial Sound Institute in Budapest, Hungary, and MONOM in Berlin, Germany. The details of the project and its institutes follow in the third chapter of this thesis. For now it is important to mention that these facilities for artistic research provided me with the opportunity to study spatialisation of techno music in theory and practice, as producer and listener, and as researcher and aficionado.

This thesis’s structure is tripartite: I first introduce techno’s logos, based in its history, ideology, and musical manifestation; then I examine techno’s telos — i.e., the purpose of engaging with it and how one does so; and lastly I discuss my artistic research that helped me evaluate the potentials of spatialising technology for techno, with regard to its logos and telos.

1. LOGOS revolves around the definition of techno — its music and culture, from Kraftwerk to now. The chapter opens with a historical account of techno music and culture in which I pay special attention to the u-/dystopian ideological origins of the music. Where relevant, I draw a comparison to parallel popular musics, most notably to disco and house. Next, I discuss how the theretofore determined definition holds in current practices of techno. In addition, I exhibit the functional components of the techno arena, complemented by a case study of Richie Hawtin’s CLOSE COMBINED. At the end of the first chapter I present an allegorisation of the techno event as an electric circuit, whereby cyborg-like dancers plug in to a web of energies. I do so alongside works by two philosophers dealing with the increasingly blurring distinction between human body and machine, namely Gilbert Simondon and Ian Hacking. This section helps me to define techno’s logos in accordance with its practices and technophilic connotations.

2. TELOS offers a first- and third-person perspective on the embodiment of techno’s sonic materiality. This perspective is rooted in embodied music cognition theory. As an emerging interdisciplinary field, embodied music cognition combines musicology and experimental psychology to study the physiological and psychological mechanisms that underly embodied engagement. In this thesis, I draw in particular on three works by the field’s pioneer, Marc Leman, namely Embodied Music Cognition and Mediation Technology (2008), Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement, and Meaning (with Rolf I. Godøy, 2010), and The Expressive Moment: How Interaction (with Music) Shapes Human Empowerment (2016).(3) These titles help me define techno’s telos according to what dancers do when they physically engage with techno music, how they so, and why they do so. Beyond these core works I draw on studies of embodied music cognition involving electronic dance music, despite their tendency to refer to different variants of electronic dance music than techno. Key themes in this section include: beat-induction, (rhythmic) patterning, alignment and entrainment, agency and affect of the beat and bass, and physical metaphors in embodied engaging with electronic dance music.

3. TECHNO IN SPACE, the final chapter, builds on the theretofore defined logos and telos of techno to examine their compatibility with spatialisation. After explaining the relevant principles of spatialised sound and a brief history of sound-spatialising techniques and technologies, I discuss the history of 4DSOUND and its engagement with the spatialisation of techno. Next, I move to my analysis of Richie Hawtin’s live performance at MONOM, which forms the second case study in this thesis. Taking his type of techno as representative of techno’s development over the last three centuries, this set provides me with an example of spatialised techno in a live setting by a key figure in the field. (4) In the last section of this chapter, I discuss my own artistic research at the Spatial Sound Institute. My residency there allowed me to put theory to practice in the form of four-minute spatialised techno track, which I discuss in parallel to chapter two. From this artistic process I was able to distill useful insights into physical engagement with spatialised sound. Having to face various compositional hurdles, I also gained a better understanding of what it takes to spatialise sound from an artistic point of view. Rather than deeming my compositional end product a quality techno track, I consider its components to be the auditory notes of my research.

In the conclusion I return to my research question: what are the potentials of spatialising technology for an embodied engagement with techno music?

The answer to this question adds to the ongoing research in the fields of embodied music cognition as well as electronic dance music (culture) studies. In the former, experimentation crystallises into theory, which, in turn, ‘opens up a number of new possibilities for music research, in particular with respect to the study of subjective experiences, communication, and technology’ (Leman, “EMC” 236). On the other hand, electronic dance music (culture) studies is mostly concerned with descriptive accounts, methodologically based in (auto-)ethnography, anthropology, and cultural analysis. In my approach, I attempt at bridging the two, thereby opening up yet new methodologies and hence new insights. These insights, in turn, help foster future studies and applications in a maturing musical scene. With techno’s exponential growth in the world of popular music and beyond, as well as the parallel development of technologies that directly impacts the evolution of techno, I write this thesis at a time in which both may benefit from a multidisciplinary study of their conjunction.


Academic literature on techno is scarce. As popular as the genre is today, techno proper is often only addressed in a semi-academic, semi-journalistic style (Reynolds; Sicko), in relation to its cultural and historical position (St. John, “Technomad”; Pope), and very rarely on the basis of its sound (Butler). I therefore draw on historical reports, online interviews, and first-hand experiences in order to define the techno’s logos — i.e., the principles by which techno came to be and the way its current manifestation reflects these principles.

In doing so, I follow Graham St. John, one of the few musicological scholars seriously occupied with electronic dance music (EDM). He writes that researchers of EDM ought to ‘pursue writing as a self-reflexive discipline that is not dismissive of sensory impressions’. He adds, ‘[t]he reading and writing of that which is as scintillating and sensuous as the vibe demands appropriate research arts. An experimental artifice of scratching, remixing, repurposing draws influence from the practice of EDM itself. As DJ/producers and dancers are remixologists and bricoleurs, so are researchers of EDM cultures’ (“Writing” 1+).(5) In my definition of techno’s logos, I adopt this “remixologist” approach whereby my varying styles of research and writing resembles the original practice of techno DJs mixing and remixing tracks and samples. My reason for this descriptive turntablism is to remain close to the musical matter by integrating important voices in the scene next to my own observations.

§1.1 | A History of Techno

Techno, much like its peer house music, is rooted in a blend of (Afro-)American disco’s danceability, Italo-disco’s instrumentation, and Euro-synthpop’s buzzing beat. This chapter provides a historical account of techno, from the fission in early ‘80s disco music that spawned Chicago house and Detroit techno to the current (commercial) manifestation of techno in popular music. Because house and techno music were initially two sides of the same coin, I address them both accordingly before shifting my focus fully to techno. However, the emphasis in this chapter lies on the ideological foundations of techno, which are grounded in a (post-)industrialist utopian futurism.

Disco Demolition

On 12 July 1979, Detroit-based radio DJ Steve Dahl organised his infamous Disco Demolition Derby. This halftime show to the baseball match between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers was initially meant to boost the disappointing stadium attendance that season, but, beyond achieving this goal, it symbolised the incipience of electronic dance music in the United States. A crowd of around 50.000 had brought along their disco records, which would either be collected upon entry or be tossed onto the pitch during halftime. Dahl stacked the bulk of these records in a container and blew them up before the eyes of an ecstatic crowd. Dahl himself then roamed around cheering, hoping he had put an end to disco music for once and for all. He had fed on the anti-disco sentiment that had been around for some time, and with success. Discophobia ran deep in the late 1970s, and was based in a snobbish belief that disco music was inauthentic and soulless. (Reynolds, “Generation” 23-24). Similar claims have later been made about two direct derivatives of disco music: house and techno.

The Disco Demolition Derby’s cultural significance, considered some four decades later, is twofold. First of all, its import lies in the fact that an Afro-American music deemed soulless and physically erotic was publicly shamed and scorned. A music praised by its fans exactly because of its danceability, had become a thorn in the public eye; the white-heterosexual-male dominated, rock-‘n-roll-loving public eye, that is. Second, the cities represented by the baseball teams at play, Chicago and Detroit, are now known to us as the soil for house and techno music, respectively. Around the time of the Demolition Derby, disco dissolved and its remnants settled in postindustrial complexes on these cities’ periphery. One of these was a club in Chicago called after its setting’s former function: The Warehouse. Here, DJs started mixing disco records and boosting their bass; a method of musicking that resulted in house music (Reynolds, “Generation” 23). At first instance, this music audibly resembled Detroit’s proto-techno music. Distinct by their method of production and cultural signification, however, they went on to live separate lives. House was, and still is today, more of a musical method of remixing disco, whereas techno formed a futurist idealisation of high-tech music.

On the other side of the pond, German electronic music band Kraftwerk had, from the 1970s onward, already started to pave the way for techno music. Both their performance practices — replacing themselves by actual robots when playing The Robots live — and their musical philosophy — taking themselves to be musical labourers [Musik Arbeiter] rather than artists — had an incommensurable influence on electronic music, and its integration in popular music.

Kraftwerk’s fascination with mechanisation and the potentials of technology for musicking resulted in innovative and inspirational studio albums that thematically parallel their practice and philosophy.

When American post-disco — i.e., house — and its European cousin, “Italo-disco”, collided with Kraftwerk’s synthpop, the ensuing short circuit caused an energy flash that spawned the first forms of techno. A new movement rose from the ashes of the Disco Demolition Derby. In Detroit’s dull suburbs, teens with too much time on their hands started organising underground parties in which the remnants of disco — especially Italo-disco — did well with the dancing audience. Likewise, on the production side of techno, bored Detroit kids started experimenting with affordable Japanese synthesisers, which resulted in the kind of proto-techno wholly different from today’s techno sound.

Welcome to Techno City

In 1984, the Detroit electro-band Cybotron released Techno City. The song’s name as well as the name of their band already hint strongly at technological futurism. It is also a reference to the city of Detroit, known as Motor City; an American metropolis of which its economy, primarily reliant on the car industry, plummeted in the 1970s. Music’s disposition to resonate the sounds of its place of origin is clearly audible in the early techno works by Cybotron. There is an evident audile association with Detroit’s machine-heavy industrial sound, entwined by themes and tropes from popular science fiction. The “unofficial apartheid”, as Simon Reynolds calls it (Reynolds, “Generation” 19), in 1980s Detroit sets the stage for Techno City’s overall unease and dystopian futurist lyrics. Reminiscent of the 1984 sci-fi blockbuster Blade Runner, frontman Juan Atkins sings of working his way up in the technopolis from the underprivileged position he keeps waking up to every day. Techno City musically mirrors Detroit’s mid-‘80s worsening socio-economical inequality in an increasingly technological environment.

The new soundtrack to this capitalist technopolis was futuristic and utopian above all. Techno music, and especially the occasions on which it was performed, meant for a brief utopian escape out of an increasingly dystopian society. On the production side of techno, Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave — a book on the shift from the industrial to the informational age — had a significant influence on the imagery in early techno music as well as the method of making techno music. Dan Sicko describes Toffler’s notion of Techno Rebels in his eponymous book as strikingly applicable to the first generation techno artists: ‘people who are cautious of new, powerful technologies and want to temper the breakneck pace of technological advancement’ (12). Quoting Toffler: ‘The techno-rebels contend that technology need not be big, costly, or complex in order to be “sophisticated”’ (12). By utilising affordable new technologies techno pioneers were able to generate a new world, one bound by the spatial and temporal dimensions of the techno event and defined by repetitive, science-fiction-informed sounds. And so, techno music was born out of a utopian drive to escape the clutches of everyday life in a dismal (post-)industrial

Regarding the performance side of techno, Richard Pope discusses the juxtaposition of techno’s utopian affect amid dystopian Detroit in his 2011 article Hooked on an Affect. He writes: ‘Detroit, by its nature, is aestheticized. The city was a universally-recognized work of art when it was designed and realized as the modernist future of the Western world, and it becomes even more aestheticized as this once utopian vision/realization flips over into its opposite, a realization and a vision of dystopia. It is the ultimate retrofuturist environment’ (41). Techno emerged from Detroit’s demise and hence lends itself well for a dystopian aesthetic with utopian affect. As Pope puts it, ’fleeting feelings of utopian ekstasis do come by those adjusted to living dystopically; they are affects of survivalism, of having survived, and of thereby being in the present moment (for there is no other)’ (29). In the case of Detroit’s aesthetic, utopia and dystopia are two sides of the same coin. ‘[T]here is no simple opposition between dystopian and utopian affects, but there is a difference in how they relate in the different eras: whereas in modernity they were, to the extent possible, split off from one another (utopia was always over the horizon, the object of desire), today utopian affect exists, to the extent that it does, in the moment, in the liberating realization that one’s dystopian ex-sistence “can’t get any worse”’ (29). This gloomy outlook thus brought about hope, as ‘[u]topian affects emerge here only upon recognition of the dystopian moment, when one is at once free and compelled to traverse the inertia of the present and the future onto which it “opens”’ (33). This utopian affect in a dystopian setting continues to play a role in techno today, of which its aesthetics are still grounded in the post-industrial decay of Detroit.

Techno Today

The genre-label techno first popped up on the cover of the 1988 compilation album Techno! The New Dance Sound from Detroit. The record was musically curated by Detroit’s Derrick May, but marketed by Virgin Records UK and titled by Neil Rushton and Stuart Cosgrove in England. Initially titled The House Sound of Detroit, the album was meant as a manner to prolong house music’s success in the UK. Derrick May’s late addition of the song Techno Music, with its title sung in repetition and overall highly Kraftwerkesque sound, had Rushton reconsider the title. The record’s immediate success instigated techno’s definitive branching off from house music and consequent evolution toward what techno entails today (Sicko 67-68).

Genres never subsist solely in their original form, and, as with many genre labels, techno also became subject to further commercial exploitation and the subsequent ramification into eclectic subgenres. As a consequence, little remains of techno’s initial futuristic ideology today. The label techno nonetheless still exists and finds itself applied and branded as a lifestyle label beyond the music alone. The underground techno scene in particular, somewhat reminiscent of punk culture, favours activist illegality and has its own slang, networks, jargon, drugs, sites, and dress code(6). Aboveground, “coolness” is key to techno culture, whereas the ways to achieve it are ambivalent. For instance, extravagance is appreciated while techno still revolves around simplicity, and “inclusivity” is the vogue term for technoers and clubs with an activist mindset, whereas “exclusivity” is a marker for the coolness of clubs. This goes to show that techno became a distinct musical microcosm with its own inner conflicts, rather than a musical movement heading in a single direction in the way that it did upon its incipience.

In spite of its paradoxes, the techno club remains important to its attendees in serving as a juxtaposition to everyday life. First of all, it is depoliticised. Hakim Bey posed the term “temporary autonomous zone” (TAZ) with regard to the event’s time-space being devoid of formal political power structures other than those used to guard off the clubbers from the outside world. Second, it is a “space of play”. ‘[I]mbued with the symbolic registers of play and ritual, the playful arena of the underground party is framed, hedged or separated from the world of the everyday in order to keep it “special”’ (O’Grady, “Spaces” 94). The club thus serves as a space for escapism that juxtaposes its specialness to mundaneness. Lastly, Simon Reynolds describes the techno rave as ‘utopia in its original etymological sense: a nowhere/nowhen wonderland, where time is abolished, where the self evanesces through merging with an anonymous multitude and drowning in a blissblitz of light and noise. It’s a regressive womb-space or clandestine kindergarten […]’ (“Energy” 511). More than being merely a music venue, the club is a sanctuary for those determined to escape the rut of day-to-day life by revelling in the temporary liberation that nightlife offers.

Despite changes in the name’s application and its cultural connotations, there remains, at the core of techno, a rigid electro-acoustic pulse. The many sonic mutations techno has undergone are the result of parallel developing technologies, which complies with the origins of techno as a DIYpractice of adapting the latest available and affordable technologies. Regarding production, these technological advancements include the fact that anyone owning a laptop can (legally or illegally) install a digital audio workstation (DAW) and make music. Regarding performance, people now have access to a ton of techno songs, sets, and mixes on the internet. A side-effect of this potential overexposure is the homogenisation of techno, infused by its internet tag. That is, in spite of techno’s ramification, aficionados attribute an all-encompassing essence to the label “techno” in order to access it. By now, there is an abundance of audio files accessible online under the label “techno”, the vast majority of which adheres to the common audile manifestation of techno as an electro-acoustic music with a pulsating four-to-the-floor beat and a similar rigidity in its bass line.

Another major shift that took place over the course of the last four decades, is the emphasis on danceability in techno. From the beginning, techno has been a danceable music, while the intention was not necessarily to make it as such. In fact, quoting Detroit techno-pioneer Jeff Mills: ‘it wasn’t designed to be dance music, it was designed to be a futurist statement. […] If I think about now, about why a lot of music is being made, it’s solely for the purpose of dancing, in a certain arena, a certain atmosphere. That’s it. Maybe in time we’ll realise. It took a turn maybe in the early ‘90s, and it kind of split off... and so again, same machines, same drum machines, same keyboards – it sounds the same, but the intention really divides and defines what it is’ (Gieben).

Commercial success redefined techno’s logos from being a high-tech, DIY-music born from utopian principles to a heavily branded music defined by its isochronous beat and easy danceability. Over the past third of a century, techno’s futurist drive became mere subcultural capital in the hands of commercially minded promotors and club proprietors. And with the turn to the 2020s, it seems that futurism is much less of a drive for artists producing techno music than money and status are. Even those pioneers active in the early days of techno hardly advance the genre any more, yet they dare ask exorbitant fees for an hour of their mixing skills (Sampayo).

Techno’s future as seen from its onset shone bright at a utopian horizon, but looking back it fell prey to the capitalist forces of the music industry that, like the car industry in 1970s Detroit, caused creative bankruptcy.

Especially large-scale techno events are reserved for big names in the techno scene, driven by capitalist forces similar to those in other pop musics. The need to (literally) highlight DJs derives from a demand within the techno scene, which, although generally progressive and anti white-heterosexual-male-dominance, still buys into the market forces of the culture industry. In the underground, clubbers attach more value to, on the cultural side, local up-and-coming names and, on the personal side, on introverted immersion. On the whole, however, techno became fixed on its rigid beat with minimal intention of self-reinvention.

§1.2 | Entering the Techno Arena

After the historical and ideological outline of techno music from its pre-history in disco music to its present form, I dedicate this second section to techno music in its live manifestation. I start with a description of the techno arena’s setup, paying special attention to the techniques and technologies used for exciting a dancing audience.(7) I first provide an account of a large-scale techno event,(8) followed by one of an underground event.(9) For visual reference, I include a birdseye view model of these events’ arrangements (figure 1.1). Next, I address techno’s sonic material by way of a brief musical analysis. For this I use Richie Hawtin’s CLOSE COMBINED, a triptych of techno sets mixed as if it were one, which exemplifies the sonic object central to this thesis.

The Setup

Upon entering the (large-scale) techno event, the dancer immediately encounters the gravity of the beat; a rough and pounding pulse infuses the arena with a recurrent vibration that lies at the heart of the event. Superimposed by cymbals, synthesisers, and the abundance of effects thereon, the smorgasbord of sounds fills the space with blasting pows that feel like a physical force being pressed upon the dancer. Besides the sonic component of the techno event, the technoer witnesses a multitude of visual effects at play: the overall dimness is pierced by heavy use of stroboscopic flashes slashing through the technoer’s sight, lasers in shapes and colours that accord to the mood of the groove continually rearrange the visual perception of the arena’s spatial dimensions, and rows of spotlights flickering in succession toward a specific point in space generate an additional dynamic. Large-scale events, like Awakenings or Time Warp, also often feature video projections placed behind the DJ that display the DJ’s name, live footage of the DJ’s activity, or geometric psychedelic imagery.

Fig. 1.1: a birds-eye view model of the techno arena at a large-scale event (left) and an underground event (right)

In the setup depicted on the left in figure 1.1, the DJ takes in a central position. All of the surrounding technologies ascertain that all eyes are on the DJ. Interestingly, ocularcentrism prevails as the chief directing agent, with musical materiality taking second place in orienting the crowd. As visual perception accounts for a more conscious awareness of one’s surroundings than aural perception(10) visual techniques synchronised with the beat direct the moving bodies on the dance floor frontward.

While this holds true for large-scale events, whereby the DJ has come to replace the rockstar as the perceivable pivotal point of artistic import, small-scale venues — colloquially addressed as “underground” — tend to make less use of luminary techniques and instead conform to a dystopian darkness that disembodies the DJ. This disembodiment derives from the DJ’s backgrounded position in the arena: often not spotlighted but tucked away in the DJ booth behind an abundance of machinery. Many underground venues make use of a non-elevated DJ booth to be circumvented by a dancing crowd, thereby placing the DJ on equal grounds with the audience. This positioning annuls the DJ’s position as forefronted and superior. The placing of the DJ and the (deliberate) lack of light techniques have a strong disorienting effect on the audience: rather than being directed at the source of all visual stimuli (lasers, stroboscopes, screens), crowd is scrambled by the agency of the bass. As Paul Jasen puts it: ‘low-frequency sound not only participates in culture, it has a material agency that can play an organizing role, putting matters of human agency and subject-object relations in question’ (25). Because of its vibrational nature, bass is not so much a directed sonic entity that can be traced back to its source, but rather a radiating pulse that can be felt throughout the arena. Bass’s agency together with invisibility as a result of the dimness causes for a disorienting effect that induces introversion in the dancer. To further illustrate the setup and techniques used in the techno arena, I present a brief case study of such below.

The CLOSE-Case Study

On 20 September 2019, British-Canadian techno artist Richard “Richie” Hawtin presented the release of CLOSE COMBINED: an artistic documentation of three of his live sets (in Glasgow, London, and Tokyo) that, akin to the DJing practice of overlapping records, coincide so as to become one set. Hawtin made a name for himself (under numerous monikers) in the second wave of Detroit techno in the early 1990s. The unified performance at hand is exemplary for techno today in that its focus lies on the continuity of the beat and hence the enhanced danceability, as opposed to the song-after-song style found in early techno sets.

Before moving to an audio analysis of the techno object, I ought to note on the sample with which Hawtin opens his performance. A distorted audio-visual recording of a younger Hawtin in the early 1990s tells of techno’s logos as a futuristic music. Most notable is the quote ‘if you perform futuristic music, you have to perform futuristically’ (2:44), whereby Hawtin frames his own practice of using synthesisers and drum machines to produce music ex nihilo — as opposed to mixing pre-made records — as matching the ideological origins of techno. Around halfway in the registration he adds to this: ‘The more potential I have to play with sound, with loops; the more deconstruction I can do, the more powerful moment I can create’ (30:50). His performance practice is in fact one commonly found among contemporary techno DJs. Some in the scene would ascribe more authenticity to such a “live” set, but its futurist undertones have by now largely dissolved as a result of this practice having become the standard. Though the documentation form of CLOSE COMBINED is inventive for its kind, the set portrayed is thus hardly progressive considering his standard synthesiser setup.

Departing the notion of futurism for now, I take a closer look at what sonic components of techno Hawtin presents in CLOSE COMBINED(11). Throughout, he plays a heavy kick beating times per minute. He often superimposes this kick by various cymbals, predominantly hi-hats, which typically sound at a multiple of four measures into the drop as a reinforcer and intensifier of the beat. Hawtin uses filters such as phasers on his drum computers as the foremost effects used for creating anticipation in the audience. In doing so, he steers the audience’s attention from the monotony of the preceding beat toward the immanent drop. His drops are often composed of a stripped variant of the preceding groove, true to the dictum “less is more”. “Less”, in this case, refers to the removal of musical material other than the core beat, accompanying percussion shaping the rhythmic groove, and possibly a syncopating synthesiser, while “more” refers to the consequently heightened excitement on the dance floor.

The synthesisers Hawtin uses in CLOSE COMBINED are hardly melodic. On the contrary, he uses them primarily to sequence a single tone that he constantly reshapes with various filters. For the audience, the synthesiser’s tonal quality nevertheless is a welcome alternation from the beat. Contrary to the physically intense impact of the beat, tonal sequences pertain more to the domain of aural hearing. Hawtin has his rhythmic groove and synth-tones amalgamate to form patterns that fade into each other, which he uses to build towards a climax. One way in which he does so, is by at the same time looping his rhythmic groove at double speed, gradually cranking up the high-pass filter, and withdrawing the bass until its climactic reintroduction it in the drop (e.g. at 36:10).

Beyond music, Hawtin uses various visual techniques to intensify the set: an enormous screen behind him livestreams (warped) footage of his activity; stroboscopes are sometimes synchronised and at other times superimposed to his rhythms; a spotlight behind him draws out his silhouette; and in the absence of lasers proper, golden spots positioned vertically in the front shine sideward in succession, prompting a spatially dynamic effect (e.g. at 18:07). The top third of the triptych called CLOSE COMBINED features crowd-sourced footage which reveals the audience’s frontward orientation. The entire setup directs all attention to Hawtin’s artistry and positions him as the source of all energy.

In CLOSE COMBINED, Hawtin constructs a physical narrative to be embodied by the audience. This narrative musically builds on simple rhythmic grooves defined by kicks on each beat, superimposed by a syncopating cymbal pattern. By way of looping and using filters on percussion and tonal synthesiser sounds, Hawtin is able to direct this narrative in terms of intensity, and on a more abstract level in terms of proximity. That is, a drop appears to come right at the dancer at full force, whereas the break-downs (the relatively timid sections following drops and preceding build-ups) leave more room for an implicit and embodied spatiality defined by the timbral qualities of the sonic material. In chapter three I return to such spatial notions in techno music, whereby this section serves as an example of how a techno set’s musical material, without state of the art spatialising technologies, already implies embodied spatiality.

§1.3 | Electrifying Energies

This final section of the first chapter is dedicated to a figuration of the techno event’s time-space, in which there is a continuous flow of energetic current, both sonic and gestural. I open with a section on the way in which the moving body reverberates the pulsating flux, which I conclude by framing technoing as what Nina Sun Eidsheim calls a vibrational practice: a physical mode of musicking. Next, I address the technoer as a cyborg, whereby I scrutinise the relationship between dancer and machinery, influenced by the work of Ian Hacking. At the end of the chapter, I present a more philosophical account of the techno arena, in which I allegorise it as a closed electric circuit, drawing on Gilbert Simondon’s notion of the closed system in order to connect the event’s components in their synergetic interaction.

From Techno-Body to Tech-Nobody

Key to technoing is a trance-like, introverted immersion; the sense of “losing oneself” in the music through repetitive movement. In immersing, a number of exciting energies come into play that
invigorate the dancers. In this subsection I discuss two of these, efferent and afferent energy, which collide in the second to last paragraph in the form of a vibrational practice.

Efferent energy — i.e., the energy dancers generate and emit (Leman, “EMC” 86) — is in part engendered by the dancers’ desire to engage with the music. Mindset is a key contributor to a techno event’s energy, as dancers tend to enter the techno arena with a willingness to dance. They dedicate a “specialness” to the dance floor, which, in turn, grants them with space to play and to break with their everyday lives (O’Grady, “Spaces”). Additionally, dancers may be fuelled by substance abuse.(12) The use of drugs has come to be intrinsic for the techno scene, despite its extant illegality. Most drugs increase energy levels while they decrease conscious awareness of time and space. Hence, they affect dancers according to their own selection of substances used, while overall generating a sense of harmony throughout the audience.

Afferent energy is the external energy incorporated by dancers (Leman, “EMC” 85). According to law of the conservation of energy, energy is never lost but can be transferred or transformed into other energised bodies. This metaphorically holds true for the techno event as well, whereby the energy of sonic pulses and luminary techniques impacts the dancers’ bodies, which, as a consequence, redirect this energy through physical gestures. The exact mechanisms through which this procedure takes place are the subject matter of chapter two, for now it is important to differentiate between efferent and afferent energies present in the technoers. However, the two also amalgamate. Afferent energy pertains to the constancy of stimuli external to the dancers’ bodies, yet fuses with their efferent energy in the resulting redirecting of energy. In this sense the dancers channel the various energies present in the event’s continuous current.

Imagining technoing bodies as mediators in the transmission of energy ties in with Nina Sun Eidheim’s notion of listening as a vibrational practice. In her book Sensing Sound (2015), she combats auralcentrism — i.e., the dominance of aural hearing in music — by claiming that ‘also tactile, spatial, physical, material, and vibrational sensations are at the core of all music’ (8). Tactility is definitely a core component of techno, as sonic vibrations are not only processed in the cochlea and converted into aurally perceived sound, but they are also felt as a physical force. In this vibrational practice of perceiving music multi-sensorily, dancing bodies reverberate the energy imposed on them and thereby become vibratory agents itself.

In synthesising efferent and afferent energies, technoing bodies serve as transistor in the event’s energetic current. The deindividualise as they plugs in, as they synchronise with the encircling energies. From this, a sense of harmony emerges among those plugged-in, in turn aggregating the energy emitted by the totality of the crowd. This way, the techno(ing)-body becomes a tech-nobody as it merges with the overall flow of energy present at the techno event.

Dancing Cyborgs

What are some of the devices necessary for creating self-regulating man-machine systems? This self-regulation must function without the benefit of consciousness in order to cooperate with the body’s own autonomous homeostatic controls. For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term “Cyborg.” The Cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments. If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel. (Clynes and Kline 27)

This first mentioning of the term cyborg — short for cybernetic organism — dates back to 1960, and already has a similar science-fictional feel to it as what the word has come to represent over the last half-century. Today, its use is widespread and links in well with the above disquisition on the dancer as embedded in techno’s energetic current, in particular with regard to introverted immersion. For immersion to occur, the dancer’s body moves in an automated motion, allowing for the mind to lose awareness over the body’s actions and instead wander off. In spite of the Cartesian-dualist undertones, this does not imply a sharp separation of body and mind. On the contrary, this thesis draws on embodied (music) cognition which holds that the mind is always situated in the body, that is, ‘[t]he embodied music cognition approach assumes that the (musical) mind results from [an] embodied interaction with music’ (Leman, “EMC” XIII).

However, hints of dualism prevail in this discourse, since body and mind are still attributed individual qualities that nevertheless overlap and interlink. Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking addresses the cyborg’s dualist nature when he states that in the astronautical application of the cyborg ‘[t]he body was modified so it could live in alien environments, while the human mind went on creating, exploring, thinking’ (“Canguilhem” 210). Automation of the technoing body brings about a similar effect: when the physique aligns and adapts to its (energetic) environment — that of the techno arena — the mind is free to wander. In this way, the technoer is able to achieve the desired state of mindlessness leading up to immersion.

In Hacking’s account of what makes a machine (in relation to a human being utilising it), he writes that ‘[l]ate twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines’ (“Canguilhem” 205). While musical instruments are already appreciated as sound-producing extensions of the artist, rather than mere tools, the technoer, too, interacts synergistically with machines. The above figuration of the technoer as transistor serves to illustrate that the technoer is actively involved in the totality of the event by transmitting and redirecting its energetic flow. The technoer, physically linked-up to the system and largely devoid of conscious thought, is like a cyborg adapted to an alien atmosphere. The dancing cyborgs are partially battery charged (efferent energy) and at the same time fuelled by the event’s current (afferent energy). This allows the technoer to immerse in the totality of the event: with the body entrusted to align to the beat it leaves the mind able to diverge into a desired state of thoughtlessness.

The Electric Circuit

Fig. 1.2: the techno event schematised as a closed electric circuit, featuring: (counter-clockwise from the top-left) the DJ, light techniques, and the dancers

In this last subsection of chapter one, I elaborate on the metaphor of the techno event as an electric circuit with special attention to its web of energies. In my schematisation of the closed electric circuit above, the techno event is powered by the beat as an alternating current (AC). Ergo, the DJ plays the part of transformer, light techniques function as inductors,(13) and the dancers are transistors redirecting the current. Key to this schematisation is the line connecting the crowd and the DJ. Although their connection is reciprocal, the energy flow from DJ to dancing audience is mediated by a variety of supplementary effects and the architectural acoustic properties of the arena. In turn, the energy emitted by the dancing audience impacts the DJ, who subsequently adjusts the music accordingly. In other words, the electric circuit is a system composed of various interconnecting components.

The notion of system here refers to its use in Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. In this book, originally published in 1958, the French philosopher sets out a contemplative reflection on the integration of technical objects into human life. Some four decades before Ian Hacking, he notes on the blurring boundaries between machines and humans, conceiving of machines as autonomous entities rather than mere tools. In advancing my notion of the techno event as a system, it is important to note on the two distinct types of systems that Simondon’s describes, namely the abstract and the concrete. The former, the abstract system, is one that is made-to-measure so that every individual component is interdependent on others components for the system to function; the latter, the concrete system, is a synergetic whole that is ‘no longer in conflict with itself, [it is] one in which no side-effect is detrimental to the functioning of the ensemble or left out of this functioning’ (Simondon 38). In perceiving of the techno event as a system, I classify it as the latter, the concrete system, because each component serves a function in the synergetic totality of the system. Every component stands in constant reciprocal relation to one another, whereby the high level of energetic current is effectively maintained.

Simondon notes that automatism is not the value of perfection for machines. Automatism only serves an economic goal as it fixes the utilisation of the machine and disables any flexibility. Instead, indeterminacy is what defines the progressive perfection of the machine, for ‘it is this margin that allows the machine to be sensitive to outside information’ (17). In a techno context this means that the soft- and hardware present are fundamental to the system, and that the DJ, as a mediating artistic agent and electric transformer, is able to adjust the system’s current according to the energy levels retrieved from the audience. The act of DJing, due to its acousmatic nature, is already so scarce in evidence of a DJ actually mixing records or making music in the moment, playing a pre-arranged or automated set is one of the biggest sins in techno performance. Therefore, the technological flexibility to control the current is a prerequisite for any DJ’s on-stage credibility.

By inlaying the notions cyborg and electric circuit in this introductory chapter on the ontology of techno, I strove to stay close to its initial futurist ideology. Techno, as grounded in science-fiction fantasy and electric energy, is much more than what Eidsheim calls a “figure of sound”, in which ‘the dynamic, multifaceted, and multisensorial phenomenon of sound is often reduced to something static, inflexible, limited, and monodimensional’ (2). Techno, sonically signified as a predominantly non-melodic music, does not lend itself well for score analysis either.(14) Techno, as a music more than sound, is a movement, or rather: is movement. Techno is a constant current running through a closed electric circuit, a concrete system of which each component plays its part in the synergetic totality of the event.

Taking its evolution over the past four decades into consideration, the overall focus-shift that took place within techno — i.e., from being a sci-fi inspired music to its insistence on danceability — accounts for its logos today. Residue of u-/dystopian themes and tropes found on event posters and venue ornamentation still remind the dancer of techno’s genesis, much like the way in which authenticity attributed to the performer’s live use of electro-acoustic instruments connects techno to its heydays in the 1990s. An intrinsic paradox thereby arises, since techno, on the one hand, is a music once prosperous due to its utopian affect amid a dystopian (societal) setting. Its scene encouraged a technophilic DIY-exploration of sounds, with danceability as a delightful side-effect. Techno today, on the other hand, is governed by market-forces and idolises past innovators, with their stylistic progression stagnating under the increasingly fixedness of techno’s sonic signature — i.e., its constant, rigid, four-to-the-floor beat. Techno’s futurism, in retrospect, is a 1980s sci-fi futurism unanswered by its actual 2000s future.

All things considered, the stylistic paradox in techno is what accounts for techno’s logos: most technoers want techno to be futuristic and revive utopian affect amid (a simulated) dystopian setting, but at the same time they favour market-driven superstars who curb techno’s initial drive for sonic exploration. Fact of the matter remains that techno today is sonically characterised by its continuous beat. In my assessment of technological potentials for the dancer’s interaction with the music, my focus shifts, in line with techno’s evolution, toward its danceability.


Within music studies, the increasingly interdisciplinary successor of musicology, embodied music cognition has gained substantial ground over the past decade. In a field that ought to keep up with musics to which old approaches and means of analysis tend to become outdated, theories and methods from surrounding disciplines take their place. Those forming the inspiration for this chapter originally stem from psychology’s (“regular”) embodied cognition, adapted to fit issues in music studies. Quoting the field’s pioneer Marc Leman, ‘[e]mbodied music cognition entails a view on mind, matter, and the human body. It conceives the musical mind as embodied, that is, as mediated by the human body’ (“EMC” 235). In dealing with a music that is, at least in its current manifestation, concerned with physical activity above all, this field comes to the fore as the most appropriate toolkit for studying the flux between the moving body and techno music. Rather than
delving into the physiology of the ear, I thus choose to focus on gestural listening and interaction. I do so because, quoting Marc Leman and Rolf Inge Godøy, ‘gesture can be defined as a pattern through which we structure our environment from the viewpoint of actions’ (“MG” 8). Precisely these actions interest me in studying the synergetic interaction between technoer and the techno object in space.

My conception of the physical interaction between technoer and techno’s sonic material draws on Marc Leman’s systematic approach to what happens in an embodied engagement with music. Considering the ways in which action and perception are coupled, he distinguishes three levels of such engagement: synchronisation, embodied attuning, and empathy (“EMC”). The first, synchronisation, involves low-level sensorimotor schemes and demands relatively little effort. In other words, most dancers experience no difficulty with beat-prediction in reaction to regular pulses. Synchronisation and the ensuing entrainment form the central matter of §2.1, which is concerned with what embodied technoing entails. The second form of engagement, embodied attuning, requires slightly higher-level sensorimotor schemes, as it intuitively links specific musical features more complex than the isochronous beat to physical gestures. Leman adds: ‘It can be seen as navigation with or inside music’ (“EMC” 115). In §2.2 I discuss this level of engagement, in relation to the additional rhythmic patterns and syncopating synthesisers found in today’s techno music. This sub-chapter is occupied with the question as to how the technoer embodies techno’s sonic material. Lastly, Leman proposes empathy as a stage in which the embodiment is consciously reflected upon, allowing the subject to identify emotional expressivity in the music (“EMC” 122). This notion returns briefly in §2.3, in which I discuss motivations for embodied technoing — i.e., why doest the technoer physically engage with techno’s sonic material? At the end of this chapter, I define techno’s telos according to its affordances for embodied engagement with its sonic material, and the motivations for this form of engagement.

§2.1 | Moving to the Beat: Correspondence and Affordance

In 1665, Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens devised an experiment that involves two clocks hanging from a common board of which its ends rest on two chairs. Because of the common board by which the two clocks are connected, both pendulums in swing are able to exert a physical force upon each other that, due to a mutual attraction, has a synchronising effect: after a while, the two pendulums swing completely in synchrony. The process by which this synchronisation took place is called entrainment, and is present, though mostly uni-directionally, in techno as well. The beat forms a constant and dominant pulse to which the subject aligns bodily movements. Because of techno’s electro-acoustic nature, this beat is presented at a high volume. This then means that not only the air as a mediator for sound waves forms the common board between the two pendulums (the beat and the dancer, respectively), but that the reverberating floor also exerts a physical force from below.

Entrainment occurs when two oscillating agents share a “common board”, and ‘[d]ancing to the beat of the music is an example of [such] a coupled oscillation system’ (Leman, “TEM” 102). Indeed, dancers lock themselves to the groove by retracting and extending the physique at (or around) salient points in the music. Such salient points are, in order of prominence, the first and third beat of each measure, followed by the second and fourth beat. Each beat forms an “affordance”, with the last half of the word italicised here as a textual pun that nevertheless captures exactly what is at stake, namely: a salient rhythmic moment to which the dancer aligns. Doing so in succession generates synchrony, or correspondence, which endows the beat with a regulating effect. Correspondence, in a techno context, implies that the technoer perceives, anticipates, and moves to the beat. And it is only through the beat’s constancy that the technoer is able to generate a predictive model and act upon it. In this line of thought, Leman writes that ‘expressive alignment with music implies that actions are carried out in correspondence with music. This correspondence draws upon the ability to predict timing and energetic flow and to adjust the movements in agreement with the flow’ (Leman, “TEM” 160). The flow of which Leman speaks here, is key to techno music today. With techno’s current focus on danceability, the beat’s energetic flow as engendered by the DJ forms the main affordance: “that which affords to dance”.

Entrainment involves the technoer aligning to the energetic flow of the music, which, in turn, is governed by its continuous beat with clear salient points. That is to say, there is a mirroring process at play in which the subject embodies the beat through movement. Leman calls this form of interaction pattern alignment, whereby the subject imitates the musical pattern as it presents itself sonically in time. This form of alignment implies an instinctual physical representation of the sonic material at hand, whereby, Leman notes, ‘the quality of the alignment will typically depend on their familiarity with the music […] and on the degree to which the perceived music can be predicted’ (“TEM” 159). Techno’s high predicability promotes embodied alignment as it allows dancers to put the music ‘under the control of internal predictive models, and thus automate[s] motor activity’ (“TEM” 160).

Fig. 2.1: a common embodiment of techno music portrayed per beat (over one measure)

The sequence of images above shows a possible embodiment of techno music in the subject, illustrated per beat. Leman points out that each beat — and in particular beat one and three — forms a salient rhythmic point that guides the dancer’s gestures. He calls an embodied salient expected sensory output, such as the position of the hand at a particular time’ (“TEM” 165). The dancer in figure 2.1 is in full extension — or at least as far as limbs extend in a techno dance — at these salient rhythmic moments, which, through their embodiment, become landmarks. Earlier Leman wrote that ‘[t]he idea with goal-points [later: landmarks] is that they are goalpostures in the form of the position and shape of the effectors […] at certain important moments in the flow of musical sound’ (“MG” 121). The figure also goes to show the sheer simplicity of the technoer’s cyclic movements, akin to that of the beat. Though it illustrates only one of many imaginable, this two-step dance represents techno’s embodiment as a mimicking of musical figure rather than musical topics or themes (“MG” 108).

Rhythmic entrainment is a central issue in the field of embodied music cognition. Numerous experiments have been conducted in order to deepen our understanding of this human ability, (15) many of which involved the subject tapping along to a beat.(16) Burger and Toiviainen build on this existing methodology to study embodied movement to electronic dance music in comparison to latin, funk, and jazz music (4). Participants in their experiment were asked to intuitively move to the respective musics. When dancing to electronic dance music, most participants had a high overall acceleration rate, indicating that the dancers closely followed the music’s affordances (14). Their findings suggest that the metric musical structure of this music(17) facilitates rhythmic entrainment by dancing subjects.

Locking to the groove proves to be relatively easy as long as the subject is able to generate a predictive model of salient rhythmic points. Staying locked is even easier as the prediction model only needs to be adjusted minimally to potential alterations in the beat (Leman, “TEM” 114). Techno’s continuity provides its dancers with rhythmic stability and therefore with easy predictability. This way, technoers can go on for hours without missing a beat, embodying the music’s structure, and dancing themselves into immersion.

§2.2 | More than a Beat: Expressive Alignment

Taking the beat’s repetition as a trigger for movement as my starting point, I here discuss how a subject might move to techno, analogous to Leman’s above-mentioned notion of embodied attuning. That is, what agency does specific musical material have over the dancer’s bodily movements, and how can they be spatially expressed? To answer these questions, I first focus on how the rhythm section in techno is gesturally expressed, before moving toward subordinate musical structures. In the end I also briefly touch upon intersubjective motivations for movement, and how they shape the embodiment of techno.

Norwegian scholar Hans Zeiner-Henriksen observes a strong vertical bias regarding rhythmic embodiment. In his doctoral thesis, he onomatopoeically verbalises the basic rhythmic figure in electronic dance music as the “poumtchak pattern”, with ‘“poum” referring to a bass drum sound and “tchak” to a hi-hat sound (or a similar high-frequency sound)’ (3). He adds that ‘[a] complete poumtchak pattern has bass drum sounds on all of the downbeats and hi-hat sounds on the upbeats (off-beats) between them, and it may comprise the “basic beat” of the track’ (3). Regarding this poumtchak pattern in relation to embodiment of sonic objects on the dance floor, he witnesses a ‘correspondence between the bass drum sound [“poum”] and a body movement downward (on the downbeats), and the hi-hat sound [“tchak”] and a movement upward (on the upbeats), together comprising a continuous and undulating vertical movement pattern performed with different parts of the body’ (4). These movements also show from figure 2.1, in which each downbeat accounts for a salient point in the music at which the extension of a body part ends and subsequently retracts.

Zeiner-Henriksen’s account of the technoer’s predominantly vertical incorporation of the beat forms my starting point in outlining the overall embodied engagement with the techno object. Beyond the centrality of the beat — and its affordance for up-and-downward motion — techno music today largely revolves around a perpetual beat that is constantly superimposed by additional layers of sound; especially common are complimentary percussive rhythms and syncopating synthesiser sounds. In framing the embodied engagement with techno, I conceive of such complimentary layers as patterns as well, distinct from the poumtchak pattern. Where the beat forms the main perpetual pattern, other patterns come and go, at times overlapping so as to form new patterns with which the subject can potentially engage. Furthermore, the patterns’ emergence ‘facilitates interaction because it reshapes complex pattern configurations so that they can be dealt with in simple […] terms’ (Leman, “TEM” 84). Conceiving of the distinctive musical layers as patterns helps the dancer’s embodied prediction mechanism, which, in turn, facilitates the alignment of different body parts to these different patterns.

Resembling the practice of rappers of using hand gestures to imaginarily place phrases in space, the technoer uses the full length of the arms to spatially mimic musical features diverging from the base beat. From my observations in the field it seems that the more divergent the sound — the more distant it sounds from the bass kick in timing or timbre — the more delicate the physical music-mimicking movements are. This implies that full torso gestures occur at each downbeat, synchronising to the four-to-the-floor bass kick; cephalic (Phillips-Silver and Trainor) and carpal gestures may occur at each down- and upbeat; and digital(18) gestures can mimic musical movements in between down- and upbeats. This observation accords with a study by Toiviainen et al., which revealed that eigenmovements of different parts of the body synchronise with the metrical values of musical patterns (59-70). This parallel between musical structure and the embodiment thereof is striking for the general scheme of sensorimotor embodiment of techno music: the beat lies at the heart, in the torso; complimentary rhythmic patterns are mimicked in the surrounding areas, in the head, legs, and arms; and sonic material farthest from the beat, whether through syncopation of timbral divergence, manifest in the movement of the outermost body parts, in the hands and fingers. Aligning the torso to the beat in techno — the most central units of the body and music, respectively — becomes a way of out-sourcing the basics so that other body parts can align to more complex patterns.

In summary, the dancing body incorporates techno’s sonic material centrifugally: the torso, centre of the body, accounts for the music’s basic structure and the more delicate the complimentary sonic object is, the further outward it is embodied and expressed. Different dancers, however, respond to different affordances, as they, ‘dependent on their individual background, expertise, [possible inebriation, and] particular situation or mood at any moment may focus on different features in any single phenomenon of the world’ (Leman, “MG” 103). Leman deduces from this that ‘we may see great variations in the movements that people actually make to any single piece of music. People may perceive some salient features of musical sound similarly: for example, people may all move in synchrony with the pulse of a dance tune, yet at the same time individually make hand movements that reveal a focus on different features in the music’ (Leman, “TEM” 103). Each technoer dances idiosyncratically, often with a variety of signature moves in their repertoire, and dependent on the groove (Witek et al.; Koelsch et al.). Whether this involves a simulation of synthesiser-playing while two-stepping to the beat, or forcefully “smashing invisible piñatas”, as I once overheard someone interpret their friend’s gestures at a techno event; nearly all technoers adhere to an embodiment that is based on the beat and finessed in the extension of the arms.

Most technoers’ movements are cyclic by default, meaning they follow a pattern and return to their original position when the pattern cycle comes to an end. The frequency of these cycles differ per body part, yet each movement cycle would typically relate to multiples or divisions of the beat frequency (Leman, “TEM” 163), which, as I stress in the next section, functionally mirrors a techno set’s incorporable narrative.

The schematisation of embodiment above comes a long way in illustrating how the dancer incorporates and expresses patterns of techno’s sonic objects. These patterns, in turn, comprise overarching patterns that serve narrative functions. If a techno set would be composed of the fundamental patterns presented above in a random sequence, it would be horribly boring to a dancing audience, as the gratifying effect of accurate beat-prediction is lost. Therefore, it is up to the DJ to construct a narrative of musical embodiment out of these patterns through the building and releasing tension. This push and pull of tension takes shape in three recurring sections within a techno set: the breakdown, the build-up, and the drop. According to Norwegian scholar Ragnhild Torvanger Solberg, these tensions are also embodied by the dancer. She notes on their etymological rootedness in embodied musical metaphors whereby ‘[t]he names of the sections breakdown, build-up and drop are related to their function and intention’ (67). She describes the embodied tension-building in electronic dance music as follows:

[F]irst the breakdown section breaks down the groove and intensity of the track, then the build-up section builds it up to a peak which is symbolised by dropping down the bass and bass drum. A breakdown is characterized by the track’s texture becoming considerably thinner or even being entirely changed. Several instrument layers are removed, most importantly the bass and the bass drum – the foundation and steady beat upon and after which the dancers rely and coordinate themselves. The build-up gives strong indications of a massive musical, but also emotional and bodily peak ahead. The different instrument layers are built up one after one, layer upon layer, the rhythmic structures being constantly compressed, with the clubbers both hearing and sensing many upward and uplifting movements. This continues until the dance floor is bursting with anticipation and seemingly cannot tolerate this any longer. Yet, the DJ plays with them and pushes their boundaries of patience just a little further, before giving them the timely tension-resolving part. The bass and bass drum are dropped down, and the main groove returns with its regular rhythmic and melodic structures, ideally leaving the dance floor more ecstatic than ever. (Solberg 67-68)

Solberg’s striking account of DJs’ techniques for working on their audience’s predictive embodied schemes is telling for techno’s telos: the dancer is in constant flux with the musical material and experiences climactic gratification via the incorporation of the music’s tension. The fact that each section typically comprises multiples of two measures helps the dancer predict an oncoming drop. In contrast to the various layers to which different body parts align, these sections are sequential, meaning that they alternate within the embodied narrative generated by the DJ. Their role in  techno’s telos is to keep a long set exciting through the build-up and release of tension.

In the block quote above, Solberg also notes on the reintroduction of the bass as a constituent of the drop’s climactic effect. Bass, together with the beat, is what signifies techno’s energising power and its ability to make people move beyond simply synchronising to a regular beat. On this notion, Paul Jasen writes that ‘bass-centric musics [of which techno is quintessential] rely on felt vibration. They have a more explicitly material aim, being designed to modulate flesh and space’ (152). Indeed, the effect of bass transcends beat-induction and instead endows the music with an imaginary punch. Bass reverberates through solidity, coming from below, making the floor its “common board” through which it impacts its audience.

A last movement-inducing affordance to be addressed here is intersubjectivity. Not only musical structures induce synchronisation, fellow dancers do so too. Dancers move more when moving together (Leman, “Quantifying”), and seeing others dance fosters synchronisation (Leman,“Statistical”). In a 2019 study, Solberg and Jensenius motion-tracked participants dancing in a group to a pre-mixed EDM set. They concluded that intersubjective synchronisation stimulates especially vertical movement, which is mostly associated with the constant beat of the music. Their study also showed that intersubjective synchronisation peaked during the drop section, andwas at a low in the breakdown. The latter section was nonetheless important as a moment to reenergise and re-group (Solberg & Jensenius, “Group”).

Concerning intersubjective agency, Leman suggests that ‘gestures form the basis of mutual adaptive behavioural resonances that create shared attention and are responsible for the feeling of being unified with other people’ (“EMC” 21). Gallese and Metzinger write that ‘to perceive an action is equivalent to internally simulating it’, and this principles ‘enables the observer to use [their] own resources to penetrate the world of the other by means of an implicit, automatic, and unconscious process of motor simulation’ (383). Leman adds: ‘One important element of embodied cognition is our inclination to spontaneously — and largely involuntarily — mentally imitate the movements that we see other people making, as well as the movements that we assume other people are making in cases where we cannot actually see their movements’ (“MG” 108). The latter is of course especially applicable to the underground-techno event, in which the dancer might have an idea of how others align to the music without being able to see them through the venue’s dimness. It means that dancers can still share their conception of the techno event through intersubjective alignment, which feeds into the sense of harmony, energy, and overall vibe.

In Marc Leman’s account of expressive gestures, space also plays an important role — all gestures are in the end spatial externalisations of the body. He writes:

To conceptualize most (if not all) features of musical sound in relation to their gestural affordance, we can think of these features as trajectory shapes in time and space. The term “space” is here used not only in the usual sense of threedimensiona Euclidian space for body movement, but also in a metaphorical sense to denote different feature dimensions. Such is the case with the use of pitchspace as a conceptual scheme for ordering difference in pitch, but also as something that may be mapped onto the “real” space of the keyboard with the keys arranged on a horizontal plane, left to right, from the lowest to the highest. ("MG" 113)"

The quote above implies a demarcation of inner and outer space, as perceived by the technoer. On the one hand, inner space is determined by ‘the sensing of our body movements [that] leaves traces of motor activity in memory, and the sum of these motor traces defines an internal model (or internal representation) of possible movement trajectories’ (Leman, “EMC” 85). On the other hand, outer space is ‘an internal model (or internal representation) of the external world’ based in sensory data (87). Corporeal musical articulations, or expressive gestures, are the result of a kinaesthetic coupling of these spaces (87). Leman suggests that mirror neurons reveal a common neural structure for action and perception, bridging inner and outer space (90).

The sensation of inner and outer space is transmodal, meaning that it traverses from sensory perception to muscle movement. In other words, sound objects can synaesthetically be perceived as spatial cues, which can then be kinaesthetically embodied. This model also applies to a techno set’s structural section: the breakdown, build-up, and drop. In these embodied musical metaphors, as described by Solberg, exo-corporeal stimuli integrate in the endocorporeal sensorimotor scheme. For instance, a heightening of pitch connoting an increase of tension in the build-up is mirrored in the subject’s prediction, anticipation, and ultimately in gestural action.

§2.3 | Motivations for Embodied Engagement

So far, I sought to answer the questions as to what the technoer does in embodied technoing (§2.1), and how the technoer does so (§2.2). This last section of this chapter moves toward the why of the matter: why does the technoer indulge in physical engagement with the techno object? In other words, what are the motivations for repetitious bodily movement synchronised to the beat? The answer to these questions ultimately help to define techno’s telos in relation to the technoer’s embodiment. Below, I present four main motivations for technoing from a first-person

Prediction, Anticipation, Gratification

An embodied interaction with techno is largely facilitated by the music’s continuity and consequent predictability. However, to have a complete constancy of musical material significantly diminishes the prediction’s gratification. Therefore it is of vital importance for the vibe that the DJ constructs an incorporable narrative over time. The three structural sections of a techno set — the break down, the build-up, and the drop — are rooted in the use of affective musical signifiers for the building of tension and its subsequent release. These signifiers include, for the build-up, the multiplication of frequency ratios in the rhythm section and a heightening of the pitch. Such signifiers are essential to techno simply because they prove to be so successful in enthralling an audience.

In David Huron’s ITPRA-theory, of which the abbreviation spells imagination — tension — prediction — reaction — appraisal, ‘each response is related to physiological and psychological changes, and may cause changes in attention, arousal and motor movements’ (Solberg 63). This quintuple scheme helps understand this pleasurable process of embodying techno by examining the evolving relationship between technoer and musical material over time: the technoer, first of all, imagines where the music is heading and what affordances this implies; then assesses the level of tension; based on this, the technoer proceeds to make a prediction what is to come; when the musical event takes place, the technoer reacts; and at last, the technoer appraises this reaction. The technoer evaluates (unconsciously) whether the musical event had a positive impact given the preparatory stages leading up to it. Although Huron does not specify on where to apply ITPRA to time-wise, it seemingly matches techno’s narrative sections, or embodied musical metaphors Solberg (2014): the break-down, the build-up and the drop. The climactic satisfaction of the drop is the result of an anticipatory process that starts with the subject’s imagination, and is shaped by the DJ’s techniques for tension-building.

Activating Agency

Richie Hawtin’s CLOSE COMBINED, taken here as representative for a contemporary techno set, has a steady tempo of 130 beats per minute (bpm). According to Leman, such a pace of around 130 bpm has an activating effect on a dancing body as it is just high of the resonance frequency of the human oscillatory rhythm — i.e., the preferred tempo at which humans, on average, operate corporeally (e.g. in walking) (“TEM” 106). Techno’s pulse at 130 bpm thus facilitates entrainment ‘because [it falls] within the tempo area where humans are at their most responsive’ (Leman,“TEM” 106), while at the same time have a stimulating effect because it is at the high end of this tempo area’s range. Any tempo significantly above 130 bpm decreases this positive effect because embodied beat-synchronisation becomes gradually more exhausting and ultimately impracticable. Leman writes that this is because ‘rhythms that are in the region of the resonance frequency will gain more stability than rhythms that aren’t in that region, and the stability may facilitate entrainment’ (“TEM” 106). In techno’s evolution from dystopian sci-fi soundtrack to its preoccupation with danceability, its tempo gradually got fixed at around 130 bpm, as this, implicit or not, proved to be the best pace for embodied alignment.

Other rhythmic parameters of physically activating music include: the absence of ternary components, a continuous strength that is typically supported by a bass active at a sub-beat metric level, a downbeat characteristic (with the strongest pitch on the first beat), and short melodic motives comprised of short notes and played in repetition (Leman, “TEM” 174); all of which are evidently present in techno music. In addition to rhythm and tempo, volume — or sound intensity — is a prominent contributor to techno’s activating agency. ‘In the second halve of the twentieth century in particular, with the advent of modern dance music’, Leman writes, ‘the sound intensity at concerts came to have an ever-increasing range. In fact, both the increase of sound intensity and the integration of multiple media are likely to facilitate peak experiences. They are examples of the human predilection for using music to become totally immersed in energy’ (“EMC” 140). Today, the volume at techno events even reaches levels that, without protection, can permanently damage the ear in a matter of minutes (Maassen et al.). In prevention of a tinnitus epidemic in the techno scene, the consensus seems to be that, in order not to reduce the music’s activating agency induced by volume, dancers wear protective earplugs, allowing the DJ to crank up the volume (Veen & Hijmans). Larger venues paralleling techno’s increasing popularity also make use of increasingly powerful sound systems. This might then, in part, explain techno’s focal shift toward danceability: once the music became loud, it was all the more enjoyable, and soon technoers only wanted it louder.


Empowerment, as a result of accurate prediction, anticipation, and physical reaction to techno’s musical material, implies that a subject feels in control of the music. As Leman puts it: ‘[t]his match of music and movement generates a new state of action control, and this control is perceived. Interestingly, the feeling of action control isn’t fully real, in the sense that it doesn’t involve the causation of action and music. It involves only the causation of action, and not the causation of music. However, despite the fact that music isn’t causally generated, the alignment gives rise to the feeling that the music is acted upon.’ (“TEM” 168). The subject thus experiences an imaginary causality between action and perception, even when there is none. Especially in a techno performance, wherein the DJ’s electro-acoustic instruments conceal their music-making mechanism, the dancer may experience a strong sense of agency over the music. With regard to this kind of acousmaticism, Leman writes that ‘[t]he abstract nature of electronic music often invites one to imagine the distal action event that could have produced the sounds. Being surrounded by sound may give the feeling of immersion’ (“EMC” 98). In a trance-like immersive state there might still be a perception of the sound by the technoer, but there is no apperception. That is, the perception of sound is not perceived of as having an artistic origin (as is the case with, for instance, perceiving a violin player). Instead, the acousmatic sound becomes an affordance, in that it signifies nothing other than a moving sonic form for the dancer to engage with.

Entrainment becomes empowerment in a state in which the dancer feels closely connected to and in control of the music through a synergetic interaction with it. The empowerment, or simulation of agency, endows the dancer with empathy for the music — i.e., an embodied understanding of its expressiveness. Again, this understanding does not concern a conscious perception (apperception) of techno’s musical forms, but instead builds on an almost entirely physical engagement therewith. Leman and Godøy see this gestural interaction with music as ‘an expression of a profound engagement with music, and as an expression of a fundamental connection that exists between music and movement’ (“MG” 3). Moreover, gestural interaction and the resulting empowerment help constitute techno’s telos: with immersion as the main objective, the dancer’s experience of empowerment is a great motivator for prolonged embodied interaction with techno on the dance floor. Because it is ‘[t]hrough the repeated physical experience of specific actions in relation to specific sounds and introspective states’, Leman and Maes write, that ‘excitatory links are established between the involved motor, sensory and introspective representations in the brain’ (Leman and Maes 87). These repeated actions cause for a mindlessness in the technoer, resulting in the desired state of trance. This state, characterised by a loss of conscious thought, is what attracts thousands to techno events worldwide, and contributes to techno’s telos.

Intersubjective Synchronisation and Agency

Intersubjective synchronisation, as a form of embodied engagement discussed in §2.2, implies that the technoer is not only able to align to musical affordances, but also to fellow technoers. Solberg and Jensenius report on the pleasurable effect of a shared experience, after motiontracking participants dancing to electronic dance music and having them fill out a questionnaire on the pleasurable effects of moving in a group. The results reveal that synchronising with other participants heightened the pleasurability of dancing in the first place, in support of their hypothesis that ‘clubbing may be seen as an intersubjectively embodied experience’ (“Pleasurable” 313). “The more the merrier” seems to holds true for techno too, as a collective embodied engagement therewith ‘involves the blurring of self-awareness and a heightening of fellow-feeling with all who share in the activity, leading to warm emotions of collective solidarity’ (Leman, “TEM” 172). Group (or allelo-)imitation is a powerful contributor to the techno telos since the energy present in the event largely depend on the mutual motion of a dancing audience. Collective correspondence to music strengthens solidarity among dancers, possibly in combination with energy-enhancing and mood-altering drug use (Kavanaugh and Anderson).

An additional motivation for embodied engagement with techno is intersubjective agency. Somewhat similar to empowerment as discussed above, the technoing subject may sense a causality between first-person movements and movements made by fellow technoer. In this case, the technoer may in fact have causal agency over others due to the possibility of bilateral (nonverbal) communication — i.e., dancers synchronise to each other as a result of reciprocal bodily cues that are directly incorporable (Leman, “TEM” 43). The dancers align to the same musical material, and their repertoire of signature movements is in part the product of perceiving others.

Techno’s affordances, which allow for rhythmic synchronisation and expressive alignment, in combination with its activating and intersubjective agency, may result in a desired state of immersion. This immersion, comparable to what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, implies that technoers ‘concentrate their attention on a limited stimulus field, forget personal problems, lose their sense of time and of themselves, feel competent and in control, and have a sense of harmony and union with their surroundings’ (Csikszentmihalyi 182). Various pleasurable effects add to this flow, such as light techniques synchronised to the beat (and thus to the technoer’s body), and perceiving fellow technoers synchronised to the beat while being in a similar state of trance. On flow in electronic dance music, Alice O’Grady writes that ‘[r]eaching the point at which a [dancer] feels they are able to experience a sense of flow in the dance space is perhaps the ultimate goal’ (“Interrupting” 31). Based on my account of techno’s affordances and mechanisms for embodied engagement, I agree that immersion, or flow, forms the technoer’s desired end-goal and ultimate purpose of physical interaction with the music’s sonic material. That is, techno's telos is a state of trance.


This next and last chapter is devoted to spatialising technology and its potential for techno. In particular, I address the 4DSOUND system, currently situated at MONOM, Berlin, and at the Spatial Sound Institute (SSI), Budapest. This system is used as a tool for the spatial exploration of sound through a grid of non-directional speakers that can accurately project sound objects in the studio space. After a short introduction to spatial sound and a brief historical overview of some historically significant sound-spatialising techniques (§3.1), I follow up on 4DSOUND’s origins, principles, and projects (§3.2). In this second sub-chapter, I move toward the spatialisation of techno music, first, according to 4DSOUND’s own rootedness in and engagement with techno, and subsequently, alongside a second case study: Richie Hawtin’s performance at MONOM. At the end of this chapter (§3.3), I discuss my own artistic research at the SSI. My residency there allowed me to put embodied music cognition theory to practice, and thereby gain a better understanding of how spatialisation of sound may impact embodied engagement with techno. The question underlying this chapter is: can spatialising technologies account for techno’s future?

§3.1 | Spatialised Sound

In the context of sound, space is a highly ambiguous concept. It could easily be argued that “all sounds are spatial”, as actualised sound requires space as a prerequisite: no space means no vibratory means. Hence, for its use in this thesis, I define space as the three-dimensional realm in which media — gaseous, liquid, or solid — are able to vibrate or propagate, allowing for the sensation of sound. Spatialisation of sound, then, implies artists and researches intentionally using spatialising techniques and technologies in the interest of generating unique effects. Although this thesis is concerned with an almost anti-aural form of listening — i.e., embodied technoing — I did choose to include an introduction to aural sound-localisation. This is because a spatialisation of techno’s sonic objects that makes full use 4DSOUND’s potential still relies, in part, on the music’s aural qualities. In addition, I address two non-aural ways of sonic perception, namely via the lamellar corpuscles and via bone conduction. Their contribution to soundlocalisation pertains more to the domain of the subconscious, but is nonetheless relevant in an evaluation of spatialising technologies for techno.


At the base of sound-spatialisation lies the human capability to localise sounds. This capability is a natural human trait that is above all functional as a passive navigational mechanism. It enables listeners to (subliminally) single out a specific sound in a hodgepodge of sources — e.g. a friend’s voice at a cacophonous cocktail-party or in a club setting — and safely steers pedestrians through the soundscape of a busy city’s streets. Ocularcentrism has long overshadowed our understanding of how we locate and navigate ourselves spatially. In recent years, however, sound scholars have combatted the general under-appreciation of our conception of space through hearing, often in relation to architectural spaces.(19) 

Just as depth in visual perception is predominantly caused by the slight disparities in binocular vision (stereopsis) — i.e., both eyes perceive slightly different images which the visual cortex processes into an impression of depth; depth in aural perception largely derives from the processing of disparate sonic images.(20) In binaural hearing, the relative time-difference by which sounds reach the ear, and this is a case of milliseconds, enables the listener to localise the sound source. Besides binaural timing-differences within a sound wave’s phase, the shape of the (outer) ear, side of the head, shoulder, and jaw; the movement of the sonic object as well as that of the listening body; and the pitch, timbre, and amplitude of the sound object all interlace in the process of aural sound localisation.

Spatial hearing is predominantly horizontal as the ears are located on the same lateral level. Verticality in spatial hearing derives mostly from (a change in) sound colour, or timbre. It becomes an even more complex story when multiple sounds and sound sources are involved because their mutual interference can distort or annul their individual localisation. In aural perception the cochlea’s organ of Corti converts sound waves to electro-chemical nerve impulses. This implies that what we seem to hear is in fact the result of a transduction taking place in the inner ear, and that there is a notable physiological threshold between our aural ecology and our perception thereof. Put differently, the impression of sound’s spatiality is the result of intricate hearing mechanisms culminating in a mental conception thereof. (21) 

Then there are ways in which a subject may sense sound’s spatiality other than by aural hearing. One of these is via the lamellar corpuscles. These tiny nerve endings are mechanoreceptors in a mammal’s skin that are able to pick up on pressure and vibration. This means that, over the full extent of one’s exterior, one detects sound (pressure) and estimates its spatial point of origin. Another way of hearing that pertains to the domain of bodily vibration, is through bone structure. In contrast to the lamellar corpuscles, this implies a reverberation of the physique’s interior. Bone conduction of sound works particularly well for the apperception of low-frequency sounds,(22) but is limited in its sound localisation capabilities. Bone conduction and mechanoreception via the lamellar corpuscles can help explain why dancers at bass-heavy techno raves exclaim they “feel the beat”, and go to show that sound localisation is a full-body process in which the embodied mind connects the various sensory data to (subliminally) map its sonic ecology.

A Brief History of Spatialising Techniques

For humanity, sound and space have been inherently linked since time immemorial. French musicologist Iégor Reznikoff suggests that already in prehistoric times, Palaeolithic tribes drew on sonar methods to coordinate themselves in caves (sec. 2.1), and Salter and Blessing suggest that‘[f]rom a biological and evolutionary perspective, our binaural ability to localise prey and predator probably had important survival value for our ancient ancestors’ (“Aural” 54, 56).

In music, the St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice forms a striking example of the interlinkage of sound and architecture. Its design, featuring multiple choir lofts, resulted in a new form of composition: cori spezzati [separated choirs]. This Venetian polychoral style emerged from the very architectural acoustic qualities of the space (Long). For privileged Venetians, this signified a revolution in the way they could listen to music since sound now not only came from the front, but instead seemed to fill the space from all angles. Western composers have experimented with spatialising techniques ever since.(23) In recorded music, new technologies developed in the twentieth century provided music with a virtual space shaped by textural techniques.(24) With regard to electronic composition, the works and methods of two mid-20th century pioneers still reverberate today and are particularly significant for this thesis.

First of these was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge [Song of the Youths], which combines electronically generated sounds with recorded voice and was initially mixed for five-channel output. The harmonic convergence of voice and electronic sounds renders the piece especially valuable in composition history because of its productional quality.

The second pioneer to significantly contribute to the spatialisation of electronic sound was French composer Edgar Varèse. His Poème électronique [Electronic Poem] set the stage for further experimentation with the spatialisation of sound reproduction. This 8-minute piece was coproduced with fellow composer Iannis Xenakis, architect Le Corbusier, and film director Philippe Agostini, and was a site-specific production for the architectural acoustic properties of the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 world expo in Brussels. According to Marc Treib, Poème électronique ‘was to be a demonstration of the effects of stereophony, reverberation, and echo. Sounds were meant to appear to move in space around the audience’ (282).

The work itself is largely lost as the pavilion was demolished after the expo in 1959, disabling any future performance of the multimedia piece in its authentic form (Zouhar et al. 247). A team of sonologists were able to restore, to some extent, the acoustic architecture of the pavilion in a virtual reality reconstruction of Poème électronique (Tazelaar et al.), and released a remastered rendition of the piece in 5.1 surround sound and stereo.

Poème électronique’s import today lies in Varèse’s idea of sounds as objects, or “soundmasses”, that are free to roam in space rather than confined to their role in a musical composition (Wen-Chung 3), and in his conception of his pieces as organised sound rather than works based in melodic syntax (Goldman, 133). This approach to sonic composition, and Poème électronique as an example thereof, linger on in contemporary practices of sound spatialisation.

§3.2 | 4DSOUND

In 2007, Dutch composer Paul Oomen founded 4DSOUND, an interdisciplinary project exploring spatial sound as a medium. After various ad hoc installations in the Netherlands and Germany, the project was allocated in 2015 to the Spatial Sound Institute (SSI), located at the Art Quarter Budapest in the Hungarian capital’s 22nd district. This permanent artistic research facility dedicated to the spatialisation of sound serves as a sandbox for artists, sound engineers, sonologists, musicologists, and others with a serious interest in spatial sound. Interestingly, one of the first works at the SSI was Paul Oomen’s reinterpretation of Varèse’s Poème électronique,(25) to which he also paid homage in an accompanying essay (Oomen et al.). Varèse’s conception of sound as an object of mass rather than a merely functional unit in a musical structure thus reverberates at the Spatial Sound Institute.


The 4DSOUND system was initially devised for Oomen’s 2012 opera titled Nikola. In the words of the opera’s composer and director, and devisor of the system Paul Oomen, it was a ‘5-hour experience where opera and techno encounter, […] alternating between scenes that emerge within the audience and sets of DJs’ (Nikola). The name Nikola is an evident reference to Nikola Tesla, the Serbo-Croatian inventor celebrated for his alternating current (AC) induction motor. Oomen told me that he drew influence from Tesla’s groundbreaking work in the field of electric engineering in his opera with the use of “electrifying sounds”.(26) In effect, Oomen also allegorised his piece as an electric circuit, only adding opera arias arising from within the audience in order to construe a semantic narrative. The made-to-measure manufacturing of the 4DSOUND system was key to the operatic concept because Nikola revolved around a real-time club-like experience for a dancing audience, in which spatialised sound accounted for an enhanced synergy between the music, the performers, and the audience.

Spatialising Techno

Given 4DSOUND’s rootedness in an experimental adaptation of techno, it is no surprise that one of their biggest projects hitherto was called Techno is Space (2015). Outlining techno as ‘transformations of dimensions and intensities of sound’, the project sought to ‘make the implicit movements of techno music explicit’ and engender ‘constant shifts in spectrum and phase of the sounds that make the listener lose orientation and transcend the actual space one is in’. Oomen’s primary purpose was to create ‘spatially expansive, psychologically rich, and physically immersive’ techno. Beyond 4DSOUND’s sound-spatialising system, this project also involved a wearable haptic suit, the SubPac M1, that ‘allowed a personalized experience of bass you don’t hear, but feel’. Oomen adds: ‘The merging of spatial sound and tactile bass technology introduced a new ecology of listening to the club experience – a natural and dynamic sound environment, that didn’t damage the ears but remained intensely physical’ (TECHNO).

Techno is Space departed from a similar interest as this thesis, in that the project ‘explored the nature of spatial forms and energetic movements within techno’ and ‘intended to open up new scope for sonic exploration, artist performance and audience experience’ (TECHNO). Over the course of the Techno is Space project, 4DSOUND had various established techno artists ‘investigate and deconstruct their signature sound and evolve it into a fully spatial sound approach’ (TECHNO). This “signature sound” has come to play a vital role in my assessment of spatialised techno because, as it turns out, it often forms a limiting factor in a techno artist’s activity with the system.

One of the first established (techno) artists to work with the system in the Techno is Space project was Max Cooper. In comparing the 4DSOUND system to a normal club, he observes that in the latter, ‘it’s loud, and it’s dark, and you’ve got that sort of bass punching you; but essentially, most of the time it’s even mono. Unless you’re […] in the sweet spot, in the middle of the room’, he continues, ‘[…] you don’t really hear the stereo side of things, it’s more that you just hear […], the melody and the rhythm and the timbre of the sound, but you don’t really get any […] spatial cues.’ Regarding 4DSOUND, he notes that ‘it takes that spatial experience into a club, and to the extreme’ (Cooper). Indeed, a “normal” club setting, as outlined in §1.2, makes use of a circumferential setup that directs its sonic energy centripetally at the audience. According to Cooper, a 4DSOUND experience is ‘halfway between a museum experience and a club experience’ (Cooper). Like in a visit to a museum, an explorative mindset is encouraged in order to get most out of the 4DSOUND experience.

Common techno today relies on the physically perceived pulse of the bass and beat. Implementing these in a 4DSOUND setting in part eliminates the possibility of having intricate spatialised sounds, as they will be eclipsed by the heaviness of the bass and beat. Conversely, deconstructing techno so as to utilise its individual components in a more modest fashion, for instance in alteration, diminishes the physical affect that forms the telos of techno today. This paradox has troubled many artists involved with 4DSOUND so far. Especially already established techno artists in residency at MONOM or the Spatial Sound Institute often lack the time to learn to work with the full potentials of system and rather attempt at spatialising their musical idiom. For instance, they implement their signature bass and beat and seek to superimpose more subtle layers, thereby frustrating their piece due to the former’s perceptive prevalence. Artists arriving with the patience and willingness to deconstruct their compositional trademark are more successful in their spatialisation.(27) Such artists start afresh in the studio and work with and from within the system’s interface, rather than forcing through a particular sound or technique. As straightforward as this may sound, techno’s initial ideological principle to explore and make the most of new technologies is not necessarily congruent with the sonic objects which have come to represent it. The following case study is demonstrative of the above paradox.

Case Study: Richie Hawtin at MONOM

On 19 September 2019, on the eve of releasing his CLOSE COMBINED film (see §1.2), Richie Hawtin gave a private performance for some two hundred of his most dedicated fans on the 4DSOUND system at MONOM in Berlin. In his introductory speech, he declares he is rooted in the early Detroit scene and trained by some of the biggest names in techno history, and remains true to the futurist fetishisation of state-of-the-art technology (see appendix). Because, in the end, the event is a promotional campaign for his new multi-media product, it is representative of the commercialising techno scene while at the same time it is demonstrative of some of the core values therein as formulated by a successful artist. Hawtin’s framing of himself as an authentic superstar can even be seen as a symptom of techno’s commercialisation and musical stagnation over the past two decades. As Resident Advisor, one of the most prominent online journals on electronic (dance) music, rightfully notes: ‘CLOSE COMBINED, the product of an experienced artist who knows what he’s doing inside and out, doesn’t need the self-important rhetoric of pushing the artform forward to impress. When done well, a live set is impressive on its own terms’ (Stolman). In this case, Hawtin preaches to his own choir, whereby his words automatically resonate well with his most dedicated fans. Then again, it is his solid fanbase that grants him his fame in the techno scene, which, in turn, got Hawtin to perform for them at MONOM. Preoccupied with his upcoming release, Hawtin does not at all mention the institute, the system, or the spatialisation of sound in his speeches. In his performance, however, he did make use of some spatialising techniques. Therefore, I will now take a closer look at how successfully he did so by sharing my auto- ethnographic notes of the night.

Fig. 3.1: a top-down schematised view of Richie Hawtin’s performance in MONOM’s 4DSOUND studio (28)

Upon entry, the first thing that struck me was the simple DJ-booth setup in the foyer, opposite to the bar were Hawtin’s signature Sake(29) was being sold. The space reminded me of an “underground event”, but with preset techno beats playing for an evidently uninterested yet extravagantly dressed crowd. The general vibe felt more like that of a social get-together than a night of artistic exploration. Although there was no designated DJ in sight, the bass-heavy beats worked well in the near-empty concrete space. I felt its vibration throughout my body in each corner of the foyer as it almost succeeded in exceeding the volume emitted by the loudly chatting audience. At around 23:10, everyone was instructed to move to the studio space the ground level, schematised in figure 3.1 above. Then, at around 23:25, Hawtin (coloured red in figure 3.1) commenced his introductory speech while standing in the exact centre of the system, surrounded by his equipment. Encircling him in figure 3.1 is his audience, who, throughout the twenty-minute performance, seemed to show more interest in his music-making activities, than in the potentials of the sound system they found themselves in. Only a handful of attendees actually moved in between the speaker-stacked poles (coloured cyan in figure 3.1) in search of spatialised sounds, while the majority remained sensorily fixed on their centre-staged idol. Although Hawtin remained close to his musical idiom — i.e., the piling of synthesiser sounds with different filters and short drum-machine patterns on top of a pounding beat — he was unable to trigger the audience to dance. As the crowd seemed only interested in Hawtin’s musicianship and machinery, which admittedly was the purpose of CLOSE COMBINED (see appendix), they swarmed around him in the hopes of catching a glimpse of his practice. This made the event feel closer to a concert than to a techno event, with a motionless crowd glorifying their idol rather than plugging into techno’s electric circuit.

With regard to the spatialisation of sound, Hawtin’s performance did not exactly make full use of the 4DSOUND system’s potential. He had not been able to master the system and work out a spatialised arrangement for his music, probably because it only concerned a one-off event rather than the final project of an extensive residency. In the end, he made use of 24 tracks split into stems, which MONOM’s sound technician then separated into a left and right channel, opposing each other so that the inbuilt spatialisation (panning) was retained. This allowed Hawtin to spatialise his setup’s output, to a limited extent, from his own devices. On the sound technician’s monitor, the 4DSOUND software was pre-set to have the sound objects rotate slowly in the studio space. This approach helped Hawtin spatialise some of his sounds, but because he stuck to his own idiom (as presented in CLOSE COMBINED), the spatial features hardly added to the music. On the contrary, on the few occasions in which the spatialisation was audible, it only seemed to distract from what he was trying to establish: an insight into his method of making techno. The visual recordings comprising CLOSE COMBINED’s triptych were projected separately on the venue’s walls (see figure 3.1); one of which even featured him filmed from above, displaying the very activity he was showing his fans around him. Hawtin was evidently more focused on gratifying his expectant Berlin-based fans than on exploring sound-spatialising technology as a tool for furthering techno’s development.

About ten minutes into the performance, I headed upstairs to the balcony to get a good overview of the event. When passing through the foyer, I was surprised to find that Hawtin’s set was playing from the simple setup there too. In that near-empty concrete space, his beats reverberated particularly well. Devoid of high-tech spatialising technology and a superstar DJ to look at, the techno resonated well within me and, perhaps more than in the hall where Hawtin was playing, induced me to move. To me, Hawtin’s inability to turn sound-spatialisation into an effective tool for his music made me appreciate his set the most in a grim, concrete space, devoid of anything other than a heavy pulse and the few musical layers superimposed to it.

§3.3 | Artistic Research

The 4DSOUND studio at MONOM is primarily used as a sound-spatialising tool for performance. In order to get an insight into the ways in which techno can be spatialised, I did a one-month residency at the Spatial Sound Institute (SSI) in Budapest, Hungary, where the 4DSOUND studio serves as an artistic research instrument dedicated to the exploration of new forms and modes of music-making.(30) The artistic research I conducted here explores and evaluates the potentials of spatialising technology, building on the institute’s prior findings and taking into account the historical, ideological, and especially the physical facets of techno.


At the Spatial Sound Institute, I worked on an own composition, which allowed me to use the system firsthand rather than only observing others working with it. The aim was to gain a better understanding not only of how it works, but above all of how artists can engage with it. A handson approach enabled me to study the potentials of spatialisation in line with Tim Ingold’s approach to self-education in his 2013 book Making: ‘[T]he only way one can really know things – that is, from the very inside of one’s being – is through a process of self-discovery’ (1). His approach, rooted in anthropology, is one of maintaining an open-mind toward the research object, trying to let loose of limiting presuppositions about it, and learning to analyse one’s own actions in the moment.

Working on my piece outside of studio hours was futile as stereo speakers or headphones were not at all able to simulate the studio’s sonic setting. As a consequence, I only worked on my piece inside the studio, which endowed the space with a special significance for my exploration of sound-spatialisation. This stands in sharp contrast with the case study presented above — Richie Hawtin’s performance at MONOM — in which the artist mostly used the system in application to his pre-established musical idiom. I aimed to compose from its capabilities instead, singling out the aspects of embodied music cognition I planned to study regarding an embodied engagement with spatialised techno.


Below I have listed the elements of embodied music cognition that I used for my composition, their application, and their relevance for my study. The structure of this section parallels chapter two: 1. Beat (-and-bass) induction connects to §2.1; 2. Expressive Alignment connects to §2.2; and 3. Empowerment, Activation, and Gratification connects tot §2.3.

1. Beat(-and-bass) induction

At the core of today’s techno music, the techno event, and its allegorisation as an electric circuit lies a powerful, movement-inducing beat. Since synchronisation to the beat forms the foundation of an embodied engagement with techno, I chose to commence my exploration of spatialisation therewith. As can be seen in the binaural audio/-visual registration of my artistic research project,(31) I had my four-to-the-floor (digital) bass drum (coloured red) rotate clockwise around the centre of the space (Schelvis). The idea was to divide a hypothetical audience over the four corners of the hall, so that for each position the measure would start at a different beat. The dancing audience would be in sync, but there would be a discrepancy in the perception of the measure’s start. This discrepancy is reinforced by the bass, which I designed to coincide with the beat (in timing and motion), surging from underground to approximately the height of the dancer’s torso. At a techno event, the sensation of low-frequency bass mainly takes place via bone conduction through the material vibration of the dance floor, which I tried to integrate in my bass’s spatial movement.

As perceivable from a central position in the space, the beat circles the subject clockwise. By withdrawing the bass at what originally was the first beat of the measure (in the upper left side of the video registration) I disrupt this continuity and instead invoke a constant shift of measureperception. At other times in the piece, I stop, revert, slow down, or alter the rotary path of the beat, so as to study the subject’s adaptiveness to the further blurring of the track’s constancy. Approximately halfway (starting at 2:20), I decelerate the general tempo for four measures to examine entrainment in the dancers.

2. Expressive Alignment

This section connects to §2.2, in which I proposed a model for the layered incorporation of musical material. Based in Zeiner-Henriksen’s poumtchak pattern, I devised a centrifugal bodily schema for engaging with the techno object: the “poum” (bass drum) as the most constant factor reverberates in the dancer’s torso, the “tchak” (syncopic hi-hat) in the under arms, and additional layers are generally gesturally expressed in digital movements. I integrated this schema by having a syncopic hi-hat ascend in the centre of the space over the course of two measures, circumvented by the bass drum. After arranging the basic rhythmic qualities, I continued to look for ways to integrate the notion of “expressive alignment”. The up- and subsequent downwardsweeps (at 0:22, 0:38, and 2:09) crossing diagonally through the space form an extra layer with a strong orienting agency on top of the beat. The ambient sound slowly funnelling towards the centre (starting at 1:25) serves as an additional orienting agent, juxtaposing the rapid tempo of the hi-hats.

In §2.2, I also discussed the incorporation of a techno set’s narrative structure of tension building and release, namely the breakdown, build-up, and drop. I integrated these musical metaphors in the overall compositional structure with the above-mentioned sweeps, which carry a dual narrative quality: they serve as signifiers of an oncoming/occurring drop while at the same time they work as vertical bodily metaphors. The upward sweeps give the sensation of ascension, and through their rapid movement they insinuate tension that is subsequently released by the downward sweeps, signifying the drop. The same goes for the quick vertical sweeps introduced towards the end of the piece (starting at 3:09). I designed their shift in timbre to correspond intuitively with their upward movement, giving the sensation of an acousmatic sound emerging from the ground. Together with the drop-foreshadowing sweeps they play a crucial role in the overall flow of the piece by enticing the dancer to embody specific spatial dynamics, thereby implying an embodied narrative.

3. Motivations for Embodied Engagement

This last section deals with the way I implemented motivations for embodied engagement with techno music, linking back to §2.3. The first of these motivations discussed was gratification resulting from correct prediction and anticipation. A predictive model for the incorporation of techno music is fairly straightforward due to the music’s (rhythmic) constancy. Structure-wise, I composed the up- and downward sweeps to aid the subject in predicting and anticipating the impending drop. In order to test the dancers’ entrainment according to their prediction, I deliberately disrupted the constancy in my composition by stopping, reverting, slowing down, or altering the rotary path of the beat; reversing the path of the bass; rearranging the order in which the bass emerges; and changing the tempo.

With regard to the latter, a change in pace also entails a change in activating agency. While the tempo for the first part of the piece resides at a steady 130 beats per minute (a physically activating frequency), the deceleration (starting at 2:20) takes it down to 112 bpm, which is significantly less activating. At its low, incorporating the tempo gesturally feels heavy and inert. After the bongo section’s deceleration, the tempo shoots up and stays fixed at 128 bpm (at 2:28), which is common in electronic dance musics, and in this piece only slightly slower than the 130 bpm in the first half.

Then, I integrated the notion of empowerment — in the sense of the subject “feeling in control of the music” — by way of implementing an implied choreography in some of the sounds’ spatial dynamics. Bass emerges from the ground at around each beat, the syncopic hi-hats rise from knee to head level, and the up- and downward sweeps fade in- and out from an imagined
extension of the arms.

This choreography was configured for an audience directed at the centre, in a hall divided into four quarters. Within these quarters, intersubjective agency occurs as dancers synchronise their expressive gesturing based on the spatial dynamics of the sound objects perceivable in that section. Conversely, I also wanted to test if dancers in one quarter would desynchronise with dancers in the other quarters, as the measure-perception diverges and spatial dynamics are perceived differently from the distinct locations.


My artistic research at the Spatial Sound Institute presented me with some fruitful insights into the practice of composing with sound-spatialising technology, as I was able to adopt an artist’s view and experience obstacles and artist might encounter when working with the system. Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned was that in order to make the most of 4DSOUND’s spatialising technology, one ought to discard most of the preconceptions and propositions contrived without hands-on experience with 4DSOUND’s soft- and hardware, and instead make while learning. The SSI’s technical director, Vladimir Razhev, advised me to disregard my previous experience with DAWs and instead tackle the system’s complexity by discovering its compositional capabilities in the process of making. In doing so, I was also instructed to refrain from relying solely on the visualisation of my composition’s spatialisation (as displayed in realtime on one of the monitors in the working booth). Instead, I was instructed to wander through the studio space as often as I could in order to listen, and try to embody the sound objects from various vantage points.

This brings me to my second significant discovery in my artistic research residency, namely the insight into the paradox of spatialised techno, as addressed in §3.2, from an artistic perspective. Initially, I designed my piece with at its base a heavy kick drum, building layers of spatialised synthesiser sounds on top of it. In doing so, I began to notice how, no matter how I shaped it, the blasting beat that I deem imperative to techno’s telos eliminated the perception of the other sound objects’ spatialisation. Knowing where I had placed these objects I was still able to locate and hear them, but the perception of their precise placing and movement in the studio space had significantly diminished. Despite the lack of compositional refinement, the process of composing in itself helped me come to the conclusion that spatialising technologies can only make a meaningful contribution to techno music if the producing artist is willing and able to start from scratch and operate according to the system’s potentials. My hands-on experience helped me realise that established techno artists, like Richie Hawtin, seem to restrict themselves by forcing through their musical idiom rather than start afresh and learn from the process of composing with spatialising technology.

At the end of my residency period, I presented my thesis project, followed by a “listening session” of my piece in the 4DSOUND studio for about a dozen of fellow residents.(32) The quotation marks above serve to indicate the peculiarity of the session, considering the fact that listening carries strong aural connotations whereas I designated my project and piece to an embodied (and almost anti-aural) engagement with techno’s sonic objects. In spite off the low turn-out and (perhaps the resulting) focus on aural perception rather than physical engagement, the attendants did pick up on some of the implemented theoretical features, such as the vertical physical metaphors in the quick sweeps and the fast adaptation to discontinuity in the beat’s tempo and position. As a result, there was a stronger general awareness of musical embodiment in spatialised techno. Attendees seemed to entrain to the beat and follow its de- and acceleration, with most of them automatically incorporating the vertical bodily schema of the poumtchak pattern. They also seemed to be corporeally oriented by the spatial dynamics of the up- and downward sweeps. These sweeps also succeeded in their second function as structural cues: by foreshadowing and signalling a drop, they boosted movement among the attendees. The presentees did not note on an empowering effect of their embodied engagement, presumably because of the brevity of the piece. The low turnout resulted in little to non intersubjective synchronisation.


My artistic research of the spatialisation of techno music remained largely hypothetical. In my one-month residency I was unable to master compositional skills, gather a significant crowd, and organise an event that convincingly represented a techno event, while at the same time serving as a research tool. A four-minute piece of techno stands in sharp contrast with techno’s telos, since in its current form, this telos builds on continuousness and elongation in multi-hour sets. Even if it were to be injected into an actual techno set, the four-minute piece would be too theoretically dense to study the artistic application of embodied music cognition, and would rather have to be deconstructed and pieced in imperceivable to an immersed audience. What proved to be the pitfall for Richie Hawtin’s set at MONOM, at least from the perspective of 4DSOUND’s potentials that is, would have to come naturally in order to study techno: the dancers’ minds should be set on dancing, and not fixed on an idol or on the fact that it concerns a musicological experiment. After the listening session, attendees also mentioned that the lab-setting hindered an intuitive embodied engagement with the techno-based sonic material.

In retrospect, I perhaps failed to recognise the system’s potential as a possible impulse for an ontological shift within techno because of my fixation on spatialising contemporary techno as a music defined by its pounding beat. My project was, especially at the onset, overshadowed by the limitations of working with a pre-fixed concept of what I wished to compose, namely a composition conform techno’s telos, using spatialising technology as a mere addition. Technical director Vladimir Razhev told me he had seen many artists come in with a fixed idea on what they wished to achieve, most of which ended up frustrated by the numerous hurdles to be overcome in working with the 4DSOUND system. Especially residents with established names in the techno scene became upset over the fact that their signature sound was not “spatialisable”: they had planned to use the system as an add-on for their idiom, but were often struck by the complexities of spatialisation, even already in the system’s interface. Conversely, those who were able to keep an open mind throughout their residency and work with the technology rather than on it, were more successful in making the most of the potentials of spatial sound technology. For this reason, “successful” projects — success, here, being measured by the extent to which a composition explores spatial sound as a medium rather than it being a limiting factor — entwined sound and its spatialisation in a way that one cannot exist without the other. In these cases, even a highquality binaural recording would not do justice to the composition, as they ought to be experienced in the space of a 4DSOUND studio. (33) 


Today, techno music is a common signifier for club culture, youth culture,(34) and social activism,(35) and has established itself as an eminent popular music in the western world.(36) On the downside, however, techno’s original technophilic and utopian drives have, over the past three decades, largely been lost under the weight of commercialisation. Neoliberal market-forces have exploited its appeal to foster “techno-stars” akin to rock-stars, whose musical progression stagnated under the pressure of a public expecting to hear their signature style. Taking into account techno’s evergrowing popularity and, as a consequence, increasingly musical fixedness, techno anno 2020 seems to leave little room for sonic exploration.

Its shift in focus from explorative to danceable underpins the paradox in techno’s logos: the musical stylistics that once signified a futurist sound have become a fixed norm themselves. This norm, in turn, engendered techno’s telos as an immersive embodied engagement with these stylistics. Based in a type of techno that undermines its origins, this telos thus, in turn, bolsters the paradox in techno’s logos. Hence, the question arises whether technological developments can engender a convincing reconsideration of techno’s essence, and resolve its logos’s paradox.

With spatialising technology on the rise, both commercially(37) and institutionally(38), I assessed its potentials for techno from the perspective of embodied engagement in this thesis. My “remixologist” approach resulted in an eclectic mix of research styles; remaining close to the scene in order to define its logos, and drawing on embodied music cognition to determine its telos. The possibility of converging these approaches in an artistic research led me to conclude that, regarding techno’s telos today, the spatialisation of contemporary techno music brings about a productional paradox too: an adherence to its stylistic essence — the continuous isochronous bass-heavy beat — results in a de-spatialisation of all other musical material, and thereby in a loss of spatialising potential, whereas deconstructing techno and accurately spatialising its sonic objects eliminates the energetic current that runs through the techno event. The technoer relies on the embodied entrainment to a constant mono-pulse for the immersion that forms techno’s telos.

Considering this paradox, I have come to the conclusion that current spatialising technologies have little to offer for an embodied interaction with techno as it manifests itself according to its telos today. Technoers expect a bass-heavy beat to interact with, one that drowns out all spatialised sounds and thus renders the use of sound-spatialising technology ineffective.

There are, however, alternatives for the spatialisation of techno, even ones which are able to preserve the beat’s physical impact while allowing for perceivable spatialised sound objects. Haptic suits, for instance, can generate a physically felt bass-heavy beat while not affecting aural perception. These suits effectively divide the physical and aural parts of the music and thereby leave room for sonic exploration through spatialisation. The same goes for vibrating floors that conduct bass directly through a physical pulsation that impacts from below, leaving the spatialised sonic objects intact. Unfortunately, the financial investment in an inventory of haptic suits and/or the instalment of a vibrating floor remains a big risk for techno venues. Even if a venue decides to invest in spatialising technology, like London’s Ministry of Sound did with the instalment of Dolby Atmos, success is not guaranteed. Programmers will need to book artists willing and able to work with the system, and the club’s clientele would have to adjust their expectations from a night of embodied engagement to paying attention aurally. Alternative event setups that maximise the impact of techno’s pulse have, in popularity, proven to be successful as they feed on techno’s telos today, and often include big names on the bill (39) .

In conclusion, for the advancement of techno’s spatialisation, a reconsideration of techno’s ontology is required. Other than its logos, which is rather a descriptive account of how techno relates to its own origins, its ontology entails what techno is, or can potentially be. Technoinspired pop-star Björk used the term techno as an adjective (Sicko ix), indicative of its potential to be something that its logos has for a long time not enabled it to be: fluid and flexible. In artistic research in fields beyond music, techno’s sub-/club-cultural connotations and metric simplicity have already transcended and condensed into performances of para-religious practices on the dance floor (Michelle) and dome-filling kinetic light shows (SKALAR). Considering techno’s initial technophilia in combination with today’s technology, spatialisation seems like a logical way to resolve its logos’s paradox and regain its explorative nature. An ontological shift would restore techno’s progressive drive at the cost of (in part) doing away with old forms of technoing. What Hawtin refers to as the original practice of DJing: ‘playing two records on top of each other’ (see appendix), will have no place therein. Super-star-fandom incongruent with techno’s origins will, presumably, not vanish overnight, meaning that most techno will, for the foreseeable future, remain fixated on its current sonic characteristics, and thereby on its current telos. Yet with electronic dance music (culture) studies rapidly gaining ground within popular music studies as a result of a generation of students whose musical youth was soundtracked by a variety of EDMs, my hope is for future artists and (artistic) researchers of techno to continue to explore the potentials of spatialising technology, and to continue to put techno’s logos and telos to the test.


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This is a transcript of my recordings of Richie Hawtin’s speeches at MONOM, Berlin, Germany; 19 Sept. 2019.

Introductory Speech

This is one of my harebrained ideas. Now standing here, I’m wondering why I did it. So, we have a new album coming out tomorrow, it’s actually a film, album, and an app, based on my CLOSE live-shows. So, the idea of CLOSE […] is really to let people get closer to how I play, and to my idea of DJing. It’s about being fully transparent, and hopefully inspiring other artists to go beyond just playing two records on top of each other. Nothing against that, you know, that’s where DJing came from. But, I’ve always been very inspired to push further than that. You know, I’m very lucky. I came from a time, maybe a long, long time ago, in Detroit, where and when I first started to think about DJing, I had a couple of DJs around me who were always gonna watch, and who would show me the way. And those DJs were people like Derrick May and Jeff Mills [slight applauding emerges], you know these guys right? You know, when I was a sixteen-year-old kid, and watching Jeff [Mills] and Derrick [May], they already had something more than turntables. They had a [RolandTR-]909 drum machine, they had effects. So, you know, as a kid, that was what you were supposed to do! And that really set me on my path, to mix technologies — analog, digital […] — and see what was possible. […] DJing is about […] spontaneity, and about improvisation, and taking people on a trip. You don’t know who those people are every night. For me, I don’t know the records I’m really gonna play, but I wanna create a special moment, we all live in, together. I was talking about the future of techno, or the future of electronic music, but I think, when I perform, we’re kind of in the future together. Because, as I’m thinking of what’s gonna happen, what’s gonna play, it’s all happening at the moment. So I don’t really know how it’s gonna develop, you guys don’t know how it’s gonna develop, and so at that moment, we’re all in sync. And that’s really, a beautiful thing. And that’s what I hope I can strive for for each time I perform [applause ensues]. Man, I didn’t get into this job to do public speaking [crowd laughs]. So like I said, tomorrow we have the CLOSE COMBINED release, it’s three live shows combined into one. It’s like a live show that never happened, you know. So I hope, again, that it has this energy and anticipation of the future built into it. And to celebrate, I thought, if CLOSE [COMBINED] is all about letting you guys get closer into what I’m doing, how I play, you know, the good, and the bad, then let’s get everybody as close as possible and see what happens. So, here we go.

Concluding Speech

So that’s a little bit what I do, when I’m usually on a bigger stage, and, you know, I try not to plan anything. I get on stage, and I have one hundred, two hundred records with me; the modular and the drum machines are empty; and we start together and we take a journey together, and we end together. So, that’s what I love about performance, that’s what I love about DJing, that’s what you’re gonna see in the new release.


Over the course of my thesis research project, many beautiful souls in my surroundings have helped me achieve its finalisation. I first of all wish to thank my supervisor, prof. dr. Julia Kursell, who, from the first meeting on, was always set on me reaching my highest academic potential in the writing of this thesis. Then, I also wish to thank my second reader, prof. dr. Marc Leman, whom, curiously enough, I’ve only met in person for no more than five minutes after a colloquium at the University of Amsterdam back in 2016. “His" field of embodied music cognition continuous to inspire and excite me, and has completely changed the way I conceive of engaging with music.

Not only did I conduct the majority of my research at the Spatial Sound Institute, the (sometimes informal) conversations I held there with the staff and fellow residents have definitely helped shape this thesis too. For one, I owe many of my thoughts on (contemporary) techno to Paul Oomen, who, as artistic director, even had me travel from Budapest to Berlin for one night, convinced it would be good for my research (as it turned out, it did). I also wish to thank and congratulate John Connell with whom, despite his premature paternity leave, I had the best of talks on what spatial sound is and could be (for techno). Also, spatialising Nyan Cat together was definitely a highlight of my time in Budapest. Then there was Vladimir “Vlad” Razhev, whose seemingly infinite patience, sympathy, and helpfulness got me to compose a piece of spatial music. A last big SSI-thanks goes out to Peter, Viki, and Alifiyah, who, each in their own way, contributed to an amazing and resourceful residency at the Spatial Sound Institute. Special thanks are due to my dear friends Sam and Katariina for their peer-reviewing, making sure I changed all my Dunglish words and phrases to proper English; the KVNM for enabling me to pitch my ideas at their student symposiums and funding me for presenting my project abroad; everyone at Melkweg — from colleagues to guests — for an endless stream of inspiration; and to anyone else who ever dared venture into a discussion with me on the ontology of techno and the spatialisation of sound. Last but definitely not least, a big loving thanks to my parents and rest of the Schelvis family for their eternal (financial) support; and of course to my significant other, Marieke, who was always there to help in whichever way she could, and managed to get me out of bed at times so early in the morning that I might as well have still been at a techno rave.

About The Author

Sydney Schelvis is a Dutch musicologist specialised in embodied music cognition theory. He holds a BA and MA in musicology and rMA Art Studies from the University of Amsterdam (the latter was concluded with a residency project at the SSI). Other research interests include musical materiality, musical semantics, club culture, and gentrification. Beyond academia he is active in the creative industries, recently co-founding Radio Izolat, writing for the Amsterdam-based label Liberty City Records, and working as a programmer for the independent Amsterdam venue OT301.