How Detroit techno changed the fabric of time forever

Alex McKeown gives a thrilling introduction to his paper: 'Detroit Techno: Ideology and Phenomenology of Time'.


Words by: Ruth Saxelby

In the late 90s through to the mid-2000s, Alex McKeown was a key member of Leeds collective Most Wanted who ran the city’s influential Technique club night and introduced a whole new audience to legends like Derrick May, Dave Clarke and Richie Hawtin. With DJ partner Kid Blue, he was also at the heart of the then-burgeoning breaks scene: DJ-ing around the world, producing records and guesting on Annie Nightingale’s Radio 1 show. Towards the end of the 2000s he swapped music for academia, hanging up his decks for a philosophy PHD. Well, almost. He’ll be presenting a paper at Ionian University’s Philosophy and Music Conference this April. The title – ‘Detroit Techno: Ideology and Phenomenology of Time’ – immediately fired up the imagination and so I shot him a few questions expecting, y’know, the standard couple of lines back. What follows, however, is a detailed, lengthy but absolutely-worth-the-scrolling outline of the theories behind his paper that shed fresh light and perspective on what remains one of the most important and influential musics of our time. Ruth Saxelby

Could you explain a bit about the conference?

The conference is being organised by and held at the Department of Music at the Ionian University in Corfu, from April 27th – 29th. The department has a research interest in the philosophy of music, hence the conference title ‘Time Theories and Music’. For any subject, philosophy is concerned with the fundamental questions that relate to it. So the philosophy of music asks questions about what music is, what music means, and the nature of the relationship between music, the world, our minds, our senses and our emotions. The specific branch of philosophy that tends to consider these kinds of fundamental issues is known as metaphysics, and one other major preoccupation of metaphysics is the philosophy of time (sometimes also known as the philosophy of spacetime). The philosophy of time asks similarly big and basic questions – so for example what time is, whether or not it even really exists, how we can acquire knowledge of the properties of time, what the relation is between time and space, and what the consequences are of holding different positions or beliefs about these kinds of questions.

Of course time is also obviously very relevant to music. Pieces of music occur in time; they have a specific duration or length over time as well as a beginning, middle, and end; all pieces of music have a ‘time signature’ which determines their rhythm; music also has a history – i.e. a past, a present and a future; and a lot of music has been written about time itself. So it’s very surprising that in spite of the central importance of time and beliefs about it within music, there has been relatively little philosophical scholarship on the subject. So the aim of the conference is to address some of the rarely asked philosophical questions about the relation between music and time, or about the role that time plays in music.

What will you be exploring in your paper ‘Detroit Techno: Ideology and Phenomenology of Time’?

In the paper I explore two aspects of time, or rather two ways in which time concepts play an important role in techno music. The first of these is ideological, and to examine this I try to get to the bottom of the assumptions about the nature of time that were held by techno’s inventors, and which therefore informed the creation of the music when it emerged back in the early 1980s. We can subject these beliefs to logical scrutiny and try to work out whether or not they can be logically defended and substantiated, and thus whether there are good, rational, grounds for holding them. The second aspect is relevant to techno more generally – not just old techno or techno from Detroit – and looks at the ‘phenomenological’ qualities of the music. This just means examining what it is actually like to listen to techno in certain environments, and looks at the effect that these experiences can have on your subjective perception of time within them. These are different because experiences can’t be subjected to logical scrutiny, so they can’t be proved or disproved. The first aspect is concerned with logical reasoning about time and what objective properties it might have, whilst the second is to do with how the subjective experience of the music itself can distort your perception of how time seems to pass.

I suggest that certain beliefs about the nature of time were (and perhaps still are) indispensable to the creation of techno. These beliefs are a) that time is real, b) that the future is open and unplanned, such that c) we can influence it, and thus d) that free will is also real and not an illusion. I think there’s evidence to show that these beliefs were expressed explicitly by the form that techno took in its early years. It’s often cited, for example, that Juan Atkins was very influenced by the futurist writer Alvin Toffler. One of Toffler’s main concerns is his perception that we need to anticipate the future of high-tech, rapidly advancing post-industrial societies and to act decisively in response to it. Atkins appropriated the ‘techno’ from Toffler’s concept of ‘techno rebels’, the inhabitants of these societies, to describe what he and others were trying to say musically. If you read or listen to interviews with Atkins, May, and Saunderson you don’t get the feeling that they expected techno to make the massive and lasting cultural impression that it has, and to this extent you get the impression that as far as they’re concerned the scale of its impact has been accidental. However they do say that they took what they were doing seriously, and they saw it as something decisively new that they were choosing to create, according to a particular vision of the world that they had and were trying to express in a unique way.

You can find this idea that techno expresses a ‘vision’ of the future further on in the Detroit lineage as well. Jeff Mills, for example, is still making music that is overtly futuristic in nature. As recently as 2010 he said in an interview that the point of the music for him is to say something about what the future could be like, that ‘it can be about a vision that you had about the year 2050 in New York’. You could also think about his alternative soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s futuristic 1927 silent movie ‘Metropolis’, or a similar soundtrack project that he used to perform live with screenings of ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ about a decade ago. You could also look at the music of Underground Resistance, for example their fascination with the technological cutting edge expressed in records like ‘X-102 Discovers the Rings of Saturn’ in 1992, or much later in the vocal exhortation of 2002’s ‘Transition’ to ‘ask yourself….am I happy with who I am? Am I happy with the way my life is going?…point yourself in the direction of your dreams….and make your transition’ . What is common to all of these examples is an obsession with the future and what it could be like. Not all music is so interested in speculating about that, or so ideologically bound to the idea that the future is not yet determined but instead contains many possibilities that can be chosen and realised.

I think it’s true to say that the emergence and continued proliferation of of electronic music was inevitable, however my argument is that if people like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance and so on had not held these kinds of beliefs about the future and the reality of free will then the techno that we recognise would never have come into existence. Now, I accept that this sounds like a ridiculous observation to make. Of course most people – myself included – do believe that time is real, that the future is open, that we have free will and that choice is not an illusion. Unfortunately, however, as deeply held and intuitive as a belief in the reality of time might be, it’s one which is extraordinarily hard to prove. This is where it gets complicated, and I find it hard to understand it myself, so I’ll try to make the explanation as brief as possible:

All events happen somewhere in spacetime, which you could also call the Universe. The Universe is everything that exists. That is to say, all events occur in the universe or spacetime ‘at some point’. That ‘point’ though is not a position along a line, but a vector in a multi-dimensional map which contains literally everything. It might help if you imagine it as a three dimensional space initially, and then incorporate a kind of invisible fourth dimension into it, which is time. Spacetime contains every single thing that happens, including every event that occurs to you in your life. Your birth and all the other events that are ‘past’ relative to you at the present moment occupy unique vectors in spacetime. Equally, because there is a fact of the matter about what else will occur in your life, all the events that are ‘future’ relative to you right now also occupy a different set of vectors. Given that there is a fact of the matter about what else will occur in your life, and that all those events must occur somewhere in spacetime in order to exist, it looks like the objective view of time bears no relation at all to the way in which we experience it. Rather than being a straight line along which we travel and in which only the present is real, from a purely logical point of view it looks like all events are equally real and they occur permanently and simultaneously, irrespective of your proximity to them. Thus what changes is not the reality of each event but your position relative to them. This is a really problematic conclusion, because if this is what time is actually like, it looks like free will is an illusion because everything that is going to happen both is already happening and is always happening, but you just haven’t reached those vectors in the 4D spacetime map yet, so you don’t experience those events until you do. Consequently this means that ‘time’ might not be a linear flow in which events come into and pass out of existence as we travel along the line, but a permanent and eternal snapshot in which everything is happening all at once, with each event frozen at its unique spacetime location. If the whole picture is frozen in eternity and never changes, the concept of time makes no sense. This, however, is a highly weird conclusion and one that our experiences make it virtually impossible to believe. As an aside though, what is also particularly interesting about this picture of time is that if there is a God, then this is how the Universe might appear to him, i.e. when viewed omnisciently from the perspective of eternity and infinity.

The people who tend to think about this stuff are mathematicians, physicists, philosophers, and theologians, and the whole time they’re grappling with things like the logical possibility that time and free will may not be real, i.e. conclusions that run completely contrary to our intuitions about the world. I think techno is special because its pioneers used a lot of futuristic and spacey imagery and terminology in expressing themselves, and they were really interested in sci-fi ideas like time, space travel and so on. They incorporated the language of cutting edge science and technology into their art in a way that identified existing on that cutting edge as an expression of free will, and with the creation and discovery of the future as their goal. A belief in free will and the reality of time was integral to what techno’s pioneers were doing. So if you bear this in mind, what I think is really interesting is that if you go beyond just looking at techno as a cultural phenomenon and start delving into this stuff at a deeper logical level, then a lot of really fundamental questions and conceptual problems start to emerge about the ways in which reality may or may not fit together.

Moving away from that for now though, the other side of the coin in terms of understanding what techno is about demands that you actually listen to it. One of the reasons why techno music is effective and can trigger the emotional response that it does, and the main reason why it counts as great music is obviously to do with what it’s like to experience it, and is nothing to do with having metaphysical discussions about it. Part of what makes techno great is that the combination of its sonic characteristics, the environments like clubs and raves for which it was designed, and the way in which a skilled producer or DJ can manipulate these can alter and distort your subjective perception of time passing to the extent where – speaking from my own experience alone of course – it can seem to ‘stop’. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that though because artists even talk about trying to generate that kind of experience. Describing his own parties in Detroit in the 1990s, Richie Hawtin said that ‘…it was just huge fucking Cerwin Vegas, a strobe light…you forgot who you were, where you were, and why you were there, and it became about this beat, this environment, and eight hours later we’d spit you out and you went home.’

In essence, if you’ve ever tried to think about abstract ideas like infinity, the origins of the universe and what happens outside its boundaries, whether you have free will (given that there are facts about what the future will contain even if you don’t know what they are yet and so on), and if you’ve tried to work out whether your beliefs about those things hang together logically, then you’ve grasped the ideological point. If you’ve ever been in a club or at a rave where there’s a really good DJ playing really good techno, in a dark room, at punishing volume, totally submerged in rhythm and bass, and felt hypnotised by the intensity of the music and the repetition of the beat, combined with the disorientating effect of smoke and a strobe picking out and freezing individual moments that you’re contained inside – if all of that has ever created in you the sensation that the normal flow of time has been interrupted and reduced to a permanently repeating present, then you’ll have grasped the phenomenological point.

But there is a tension between these two ways of thinking: We believe time must be real in the way that it seems to be, i.e. that we travel in a linear fashion from the past into an open future, via a permanently changing present, and what’s more we believe those things with good reason. The feeling of time passing is so acute and so intimately connected to the way we make sense of our existence that it’s virtually impossible to imagine it could be an illusion. Also if you really believed that you had no free will your life might well start to seem a lot less meaningful. And yet sometimes not only does it seems like time could be an illusion but as a matter of pure logic it might also actually be an illusion. The problem is that it’s totally counter-intuitive to just give in and say ‘ok you got me, time doesn’t exist’, but the logical arguments for the unreality of time are really hard to defeat. We try and justify beliefs on the basis of logic all the time – it’s meant to be a kind of paradigm of knowledge, but in the case of time it’s different. It’s almost impossible to accept the logical conclusion that time might not exist or that our perception that it is real could be wrong. So how can we reconcile this problem? It’s this tension that my paper explores.

What led you to an interest in writing this paper?

A few things, really. As soon as I saw the call for papers the possibility of doing something about techno sprang to mind, and the whole thing came together quite quickly. The philosophy of time is a really hard, technical and highly abstract area, and much more difficult than the kind of things I do in my PhD, which is mainly moral philosophy and philosophy of science. So for that reason it was a good challenge to see if I could up my intellectual game and get a paper accepted in an area in which I’m a total amateur. The other reason it really appealed to me though was it’s a fascinating way of uniting my two main interests in life, i.e. philosophy and music.

There were several reasons why I chose specifically to write about techno though. Firstly it’s a simple route into the core of some very difficult philosophical problems. I find the philosophy of time so mind-bending to get my head around that I wanted to find some sort of more concrete way of getting a handle on these problems myself. I was looking for a kind of musical exemplar that I could use to help in understanding some of the weird and abstract conclusions that the philosophy of time generates, and for several reasons techno fitted the bill perfectly.

Techno is only around 30 years old so it’s relatively easy (at least for anyone over 30!) to conceive of a time before it really existed. That in itself I think makes it interesting, and I chose to focus the ideological aspect on the very early years of Detroit techno because at the point of its invention it had no past, only a present and a future. Now it’s of sufficient age that it has a history which can be pastiched, referenced, ripped off, studied, discussed, and so on, but during the early years in which it emerged it had no history of its own. This is not to say it didn’t have defining influences of course, because it did, and these are already well known. Artists like Kraftwerk, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Clinton, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Giorgio Moroder and so on had an impact on what techno sounded like, as did broader musical movements like disco, hip hop, chicago house, funk and soul. Until the early 1980s however these were just different antecedent strands which techno’s inventors then assimilated and incorporated into one entirely new form of music. This is important because you get the strong impression from reading and listening to interviews with its inventors that they were doing something deliberate, decisive, and original which they also felt had to be explicitly futuristic in order for them to be able to say the kinds of things that they wanted. You can’t set about making futuristic art unless you believe in the reality of the future, and you wouldn’t bother at all if you didn’t believe that you fundamentally had the metaphysical freedom to do so. These philosophical assumptions – that the future is open and free will is possible – are thus embedded in the music by virtue of being ones that were held strongly by its inventors.

Also there has been a lot written about techno within sociology and cultural studies – how it came into being and what the socio-economic and cultural reasons for it were and so on, and this is all good stuff but I think we can go further. As useful as that work has been, I don’t think anyone has produced anything for a while that says much that is new, and some more recent books about it have got a bit dull and obvious. I think there has been a kind of laziness in some of the books about the recent history of music where authors just explain how some socio-cultural phenomena gave rise to a particular kind of music, then make some observations which point out the connections from it to the music that came before and after and just leave it at that. I don’t know why they stop there – all too often I’m left thinking ‘so what?’. So with all that in mind I think this is an opportunity to advance things a bit. I think we can use the descriptive work that has been done by the cultural theorists and sociologists of music as a point of departure for going deeper, and by taking a more sophisticated approach we can start to grapple with some of the interesting and more complex philosophical ideas that underpin the music itself.

Alex McKeown is in his second year of a Philosophy PHD at Bristol University and will present his paper ‘Detroit Techno: Ideology and Phenomenology of Time’ at the ‘Time Theories and Music’: Philosophy & Music Conference in Corfu this April.

Photo: Sweetie187

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