Monday, April 8, 2013

Der Klang der Musik

The more I become aware of it, the more fascinating I find it that while growing up, I've constantly had to defend my taste in trance music (and electronic music in general) in the face of some outstandingly violent hate speech. I think it can make an insightful psychological study how I've heard the same slur uttered by people from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life: from similarly-confused teenage acquaintances in high school, to teachers and professors, and ultimately, my parents.

   "Your music has no message!", and "I don't call this art!" are the all-time favourite lines which I've been told to my face after bringing a song or concert up in a conversation.

   "OK. What kind of music do you like, then?", would be my inevitable follow-up question.

The typical shallow reply is rushed, and unnecessarily emphasized: "Rock!". I'm using rock music as an example here, but you can substitute other genres; the genre itself is irrelevant, and not to blame for people having lost their heads somewhere up their asses. Such blunt verbal outbursts would also be followed by the other person immediately assuming a passive-aggressive smug face, and giving off an air of confused superiority. I am forever amused by how much childishness their condescension betrays, and how easy it is to see through. However, I also make an effort to hold back my smile and always keep my overall composure.

   "Oh, OK... cool... so... why do you like rock music?", I would further ask.

Not because there is an answer to why people like music, but because I want to find out what the reason behind their tunnel view might be. Getting a pertinent answer is rare, because such answers would come from people who actually appreciate all music for what it is. In the above circumstances, most responses do nothing more than to reveal a weak personality lacking either (1) a self-defined aesthetic construct, or (2) the emotional maturity to understand that there are different forms of expression in art, let alone enjoy them.

Two days ago, I attended A State of Trance 600, in 's-Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands. For years now, I've gone to sleep, worked, and fallen to the music of John O'Callaghan, Ørjan Nilsen, or Armin van Buuren. Finally attending the event where I could get to hear them play live throughout the night was a dream come true for me. And what made it truly special and beautiful was how, for once, I hadn't specifically planned for it to happen. I bought my event ticket only a couple of hours before selling out - the surprising outcome of a random Facebook chat with an old friend. A few days later, I booked a train from London to Bruxelles and a round-flight to go with it. And alas, last Thursday morning I left to Belgium with an open heart and a dumb smile painted all over my face.

I was introduced to, Belgian sour cherry beer in 2011, and it was love at first pint.

I think it's not just hard, but outright impossible to explain why trance music feels so close to my heart. Like all other things I love, I'll have to guess it's just part of who I am. The same way, I find it hard to explain why I enjoyed a traditional Belgian beer, or why I enjoyed being completely lost despite access to Google maps. Or, for that matter, why I couldn't be bothered by having not yet met Liviu's Spanish friend's friend (that's right, thrice-removed), on whose living room floor I would wake up and have coffee the following two mornings.

However, what I think that I can and should explain in this post is how trance music ended up being part of my life today, why I will likely be going to trance events ten or twenty years from now as well, and why I think it is disrespectful to pass judgments about the value of other people's music.

*  *  *

I remember being your average 7th grader at the age of 14. Like any other 7th grader, I would spend my days going to school, getting bored on the walk home, then doing homework, playing video games, and listening to music. I now realize that for the most part, it was my friends' music I was listening to. I would say that I liked it, but I wasn't aware that there could be more to music than other people's reviews -- I thought that the quality of music was something to be objectively assessed. Every now and then, the lyrics would throw words like "love", "pain", or "addiction" at my eardrums. I had gathered from my older friends that these words were supposedly meaningful, and speaking of some very deep and cool feelings. One would speak about these feelings in a very serious tone, and we would all quietly nod in all our teen seriousness -- remind me of the pain and passion that fourteen year olds struggle with :-)...

Of course, I would occasionally use the words myself, feeling really bad ass in the process, but also somewhat aware that I was mostly pretending and trying to fit in with our class' disoriented teen social circle, where being cool was larger than life itself. I didn't know what to like about my music, and I was faking my way through 7th grade with a vengeance, just like the next guy, the guy next to him, and pretty much everyone else.

Little did I know that after having inconspicuously started its own development towards maturity, my brain had decided that year to turn the key for the first time, and give me a taste of what all those serious words really felt like. Without any warning, at the age of 14, I had my first teen crush (on someone who was 4 years older than me and completely unaware of my existence, d'ooh...). I had never felt anything so intense before.

It was beautiful, insane, and scary. Every time we passed each other in the corridors at school, I would blush, lose my voice, and start shaking. During the few weeks before the storm in my head finally showed signs of subsiding, I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't get out of bed. I remember even throwing up. But I still couldn't think of anything else. Every day spent at school was nothing more than another chance for us to run into each other, and every day we didn't make eye contact felt like a wasted day for me. I lost interest in most of my usual hobbies (that was the end of video games), but I would still be caught smiling uncontrollably all the time. As I couldn't focus on anything even during tests, my grades collapsed. In the space of just two weeks, I turned from a regular happy-go-lucky kid into a confused and euphoric mess.

Ladies and gentlemen, I felt that I had been asleep until then. Forget lame puppy love, and third-grade feelings. My friends suddenly seemed pathetic, with their claimed love pains - I suddenly saw through the falsity, and felt more smug than Columbus discovering America -- I knew something that they didn't; I had been shown the real deal.

This was years before my first attempt at asking someone out (in the golden age of mIRC), years before I finally learned to tell the difference between infatuation and love (in the later, but similarly-golden age of Yahoo! Messenger), and what seems like an eternity before learning through trial and error what a relationship really is -- the process of negotiating the trust necessary to begin safely expressing emotion and building a sense of stability, while resisting the urge to occasionally snap at the object of your affection when you wake up frozen and ready to kill for your half of the blanket at 3:00am.

What was really happening to me in 7th grade had nothing to do with feelings proper. It took ten years, a few dinners with a PhD student in Neurology, and a few seasons of "Breaking Bad" to make me finally understand that throughout my crush, I had been high on serotonin and dopamine -- as close as you can ever come to experiencing Ecstasy without actually taking it, I am told. It doesn't matter what I thought I felt, or whether it was reciprocated or not, it was a natural reaction outside my control. And when the euphoria started wearing off, the subsequent panic, anxiety and depression I felt is exactly what junkies supposedly experience when their synapses have burned themselves out of transmitters and the receptors on the neurons have down-regulated from over-stimulation. Not a pleasant experience overall.

According to an Italian Professor of Human-Computer Interaction whom I met last year at a conference, lots of things happen to your brain during this stage in development: your true behaviors and tastes finally emerge, and you begin growing into the person you are really meant to be. He is right. It was then that I discovered things like coffee, nubuck, and cologne, and I slipped into these tastes as naturally as I live and breathe.

Daft Berlin performing on the main stage at ASOT 600, Den Bosch.

It was also back then that I discovered trance music. If I had to say what I felt while listening to my first Paul van Dyk song, I would describe it as an immense relief. It was the same feeling of relief you get when you finally hear a song that you've had obsessively stuck in your head. It just felt... right.

Despite not having been to a concert since Gareth Emery, last August in New York, I felt the same relief two days ago in Den Bosch, when the three Red Bulls had me jumping with both fists up in the air, sharing those moments with thousands of anonymous entranced people, and letting the sound of music and the lights wash over me.

I've long outgrown being a teenager. I've learned to love different kinds of music, the same way I've learned to love people with different personalities. But trance was my first infatuation, the one to which I had the first hints as to what the 'serious' words might mean. From so many points of view, this concert felt like coming home, and I am grateful to have shared it with Liviu, Simina, Alex and the people whom I've met there.

Ultimately, I guess I wanted to show my views on why I think it's absurd to compare or explain music. If you expect it to literally have a message, you're doing it all wrong: music is a message in itself, and one that starts from well inside your head.


  1. I'll start with a quote from August Rush:
    "Music is all around us. All you have to do, is listen."

    I'll complete that music is within us. And we live by the music.

    As for the first part of misunderstanding the trance music, I told you once :) They just don't have the necessary maturity to understand it now.

    1. Well, I don't agree with this either, because it sounds pretentious. There is nothing to understand about the music itself, and liking or disliking something is definitely not a question of maturity.

      However, what some (not many, thankfully) people should understand is that trance music is meaningful to others, so they should demonstrate respect.