Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dance Little Lady Dance

From 1994

I’m reading Stockhausen’s notes on the works, and I’m wondering at this descriptive project of Stockhausen’s, this listing, this projected matrix of ideas that is then re-cast back onto sound. Somehow this is upheld as a liberation into ideas, and allows a consequent transformation of sound. Yet I don’t know where this transformation is, and the casting of some idea of “transformation” onto what happens sonically is arbitrary and slippery in its monumentalism. What is Stockhausen really about? Can I hope to get there? Where is this transformation? Have I missed it? Does my loss somehow lessen my appreciation?

What if “Dance Little Lady Dance” were the highpoint of Western art in the 20th Century? How do we know anything is a great work of art? What if something small and lost in the fray is actually a major work? What conditions would need to be met, or what would it need to do, for “Dance Little Lady Dance” to be considered great? Why do I advance the idea that something small and lost like this, something that isn’t even considered worth a listen even when we do pay attention to it, is worth a listen anyway?

What I want to do in this essay is to sneak into that small space that lets me enjoy “Dance Little Lady Dance” despite its age, its context, its hipness (or lack of it), its low “production values”. I want to see if even this song, which is about as extreme as we can get in looking at notions of value in recorded sound, can help us understand how technological sound arises in our listening, how technological sound has repositioned music and listening, and how music has been lost in the context of technological sound. I want to find some sort of kindly analysis of music in sound under a ruling technological order.

It would be easy, for instance, to begin from a position of the cutting edge, and explore notions of what sound is and how it shapes certain ideas. The cutting edge in itself packages a whole set of values and ideas that are amenable to using sound to break open our attitude to “post music”. Yet I suspect that by listening to the cutting edge we will actually miss, or be distracted from, the very thing which makes our listening anew under the order of technological sound. In a sense, by listening to the cutting edge, and coming up with some matrix for sound as a result, we won’t get anywhere revealing with technological sound. We’ll just get a series of axioms that predict our listening, rather than finding a way for us to be in our listening. I can asseverate the truth or otherwise of sound under this order, but I may never simply be there with it.

By listening to “Dance Little Lady Dance”, I want to duck out of distinct and big categories. I want to continually return to some sort of modal empirical method, of returning to my own feelings and how these may sit with a position in recorded musics. To be explicit, I find no automatic reason for attributing any sort of value to any particular (kind of) music, and therefore, why “Dance Little Lady Dance” should not be accorded as much weight or attention as any other. I’m not interested in finding an endpoint to this argument, however, by replacing the (masculinist hegemonist) canon prevalent in popular music with one populated by trash (though I think such an exercise would have numerous interesting erosive and redistributive advantages).

I’m not even trying, ultimately, to make a point about the “size” of this song, its artistic position or its lyric stature (though its cultural “size” and its ephemerality are of prime concerns in this essay). Instead of measuring this song, I want to pick out those points that spring up when listening, I want to listen to those voices that are aroused even before, but also during and after, the song makes its way through the speakers.

As I’ve already implied above, the first voices I lay credit to are those that say that this song is not worth listening to. If I “listen” longer (though these voices are as much generated by me as part of a continuum on which my ear happens to fall), then I hear that the production of this song is very “flat” (and “cheap”). There’s very little sense of a “space”, particularly either some sort of originary space in which the music may have been ideally performed (i.e. the studio or other recording place) or an imaginary alternative world in which the music is moved into (e.g. a cavernous cathedral, a dry plain, an empty basement, etc). In fact, there’s very little sense of space (between instruments, within our speakers) in the recording as well. It sounds like it must have been recorded in five minutes, with virtually no post-production. The backing band sounds like a sequenced sample, if it wasn’t for the fact that we know these things weren’t available in 1976. Thus, a song so buried in the production milieu of the time, so buried in the machine, that not even the live production of music sounds “real” or live, that the only alive thing is Tina Charles’ voice.

This is, no doubt, part of the reason why that first voice (that of dismissing the song) gains credence. Yet surely this song’s similarity to sequenced musics, particularly as it has arisen in a (virtually) pre-digital era, should give it some status. Techno, for instance, employs very similar techniques of “de-localising” sound and sonic architectures, so that chunks of sound become modalities in a palette of sound. That palette, as the term suggests, leads sound to have a much more two-dimensional character, and fudges the relationship between listener, speakers, and the productive process. For all intents and purposes, the only reality in techno is the artificially generated one midway or around the speakers, in which the listener happens to fall.

In particular, this song has a similarity to ambient techno which, along with the drug states which often accompany its (techno’s) playing, partly predicates on some notion (traceable to Stockhausen and other modernist programmes) of transformation and liberation into another existence through technological purity and rarefaction. Perhaps, then (if we were to use the lyrics of the song as a gloss) “Dance Little Lady Dance” moves into some sort of transformative position reflecting that of the little lady (through romance and dancing).

My point here, however, is not so much to claim some equality for “Dance Little Lady Dance” with the predominant recorded art music of our time, but to tease out the difficulty for us of taking as read the inherent value of the assertedly worthy, in this case, that of techno, the predominant recorded art music of our time. Simply: to say ambient techno is implicitly worthy because of its transformative agenda becomes a problem when we line up other musics (of reputedly lesser value) which, without setting out to do so, achieve the same ends. This would even occur with other musics that aren’t devalued: “Carolyn’s Fingers” by Cocteau Twins[1], for instance (which, though produced in a way which focuses on the production process, the relationship with the listener, and the nature of recorded sound, nevertheless results in having a “net ambient effect” in which the listener can become buried), or It’ll End In Tears by This Mortal Coil (an album much closer to “Dance Little Lady Dance” than many people would care to admit).

Perhaps the reason that this becomes a bigger problem for art musics of our time is that the asseveration of transformation in the operation of music such as ambient techno becomes doubly redundant, both because its claim to special status is eroded by comparison with other music, but also because it really goes without saying in recorded sound. Recorded sound will always be, in a very simple way, transformative, because of its inherently physical and enveloping nature (i.e. our listening environment will tend to be re-shaped by recorded sound). Even whether representationalism or theatrical projection is pushed into the sound before, during, and after its production and reproduction (and these are separate issues to the transformationalism of music such as ambient techno), there remains the nature of sound to re-cast our listening environment (obviously in a way that no other art form can do, except, perhaps, literature, by extension from the enveloping modality of reading).

My concern here, however, is not to show how ambient techno tackles any special extra considerations of transformation. I believe that ambient musics set up their own circular problems in this regard which, for my ears, tend to remain unresolved. (In fact, by becoming a more written medium, particularly in terms of writing on and across our listening space, I imagine this circularity will be exacerbated.) What I am interested in is where this leaves us with a song such as “Dance Little Lady Dance”. Given that its transformational aspect can be taken as read, the distinctions held out against this song become less tenable. Given, moreover, that the transformative musics against which it can be compared employ similar notions of repetition and derivation as are articulated through the recording of the backing band of this song, there seems to be more to this song than meets the ears.

For instance, the song also has a somewhat (but not markedly) peculiar place in the production context of the time. At a time when sound/studio production was becoming an industrial entity of its own, when the studio was becoming embedded as an industrial machine with which to present recorded sound, when recording technology as a result was becoming increasingly sophisticated and complex, this small unsophisticated unoriginal song reached the top of the charts.

This has implications for our listening now in that recording of popular music is in a similar position, except that the full weight of the machine itself is right through the production of music now, rather than heightened at one end. There is no recorded music these days that is not exceptionally highly produced and unproblematically so. The highly produced is the norm, even in terms of small songs potentially equivalent to 1976’s “Dance Little Lady Dance”, such as Ace of Base’s “The Sign” (which, for instance, in its marrying of light ragga rhythm with a Swedish ABBA-pop sensibility, has the same kind of small kooky idiosyncrasy of “Dance Little Lady Dance”). As we can, however, hear in a song like “The Sign”, the capacity for the kind of leakage available through a small and insignificant work like “Dance Little Lady Dance”, even despite the latter’s “unspatial” recording style, is actually reduced with a more written medium, such that the relationships within the work as a projected whole (as a series of written discourses related through digital technology to each other even before they leave the hard disc) become predisposed onto our listening before the relationship exists in real time and as-lived-with by us in our living rooms (or wherever the speakers happen to be). This is not to say that we can’t make what we will of what we hear, but that the conditions (but not necessarily the possibilities) for doing this are more (at least at this stage) restricted. Under digital, on the input side, even with artists who are directly and self-consciously aiming to burrow into the implications of the digital forms, the small, the lapse, are hardly seen (or heard) as possibilities. With the written matrix of digital, these things are overlooked (or perhaps not even able to be overlooked, so that the possibility for leakage is severely limited), while paradoxically the monumental paradigms and programmes of modernism are able to gear themselves up again. It’s quite strange that the aleatory forms explored under late modernism are both quite natural under digital (through digitalised random generation), and yet also, in the main, actually excluded.

What I’d like to pursue further, therefore, is how our experience of recorded sound (working from our listening position) occurs regardless of this monumentalism (even though it may or not be present in or around a work. For our listening of “Dance Little Lady Dance”, much of this lies in the relationship which Tina Charles’ voice has with the listener, and with the relationship established between her voice and the backing band in that formulation. Listening as we now are in a digital world where decay is so strongly resisted, Charles’ voice sounds to us doubly so close on the technological (and hence aesthetic) form, close to the point between physical location (as placed in the recording studio and on the physical tape), and yet is also being buried in an overcoded subcultural matrix (i.e. sounding tacky, cheap, ephemeral, sounding like a piece of girly fluff). These two tendencies are twinned in there, so that there’s a point of suspended animation between the two. This kind of constant mediation and interaction is highlighted in other more self-conscious works, such as “Slogun” by SPK[2], where the point of physical location and presence is crossed such that the medium’s fragility and inherent weaknesses are exposed and factored into the aesthetics and the listening. (I would argue that this is present in all recorded sound, but its phasing in our listening is suppressed by other recorded forms and works, including and especially digitally recorded and produced works.) There’s no escape for the sound of SPK out of the analogue bind, in a similar way to Tina Charles, whose voice almost distorts in the medium despite itself. The potential breakage of her voice is as much a threat (albeit muted) of breakage of the medium, so that the medium itself becomes close on our ears. In a sense, there’s a kind of inverse breakage with the backing band as well, in its extreme overcodedness: the backing band (in its repetitiveness, both in a sonic mechanistic way and in the performative norm under which the industry has placed them), as well as its recording, resist any attempt to take on the full range allowed by the recording medium, so that its very low fidelity causes a sort of internal collapse or implosion for the medium, especially when laid behind the careless overcoded girly abandon of Charles’ voice.

In this way, the medium begins to arise as a physical and metaphorically arisen entity predetermined and preexistent with our own experience of it, so that the experience occurs as much across as within the speakers, and across our shared experience outside the speakers and regardless of the production process. (At a different level, this is analogous to the way adolescent girls make of pop stars what they will, despite the supposed repressive manipulations of the industry[3]). The cliché of this form, therefore, is a kind of planned or inbuilt redundancy which mediates a kind of rhythmic cultural movement (in this I don’t mean a capital M Movement) across the medium and across a range of communities of interest.

This is allied to the way repetition and cliché became opened up by the arrival of house and rap music (for the latter, particularly in its mid-period of the late 80s). Repetition became some sort of recuperative process, but not in the way that might be immediately apparent (i.e. recuperative of earlier musics in a straight borrowing sense), and not recuperative in the sense of trying to return music to some utopian performative norm (much of the music on which this is based already arises from a living as-performed context by real people in real communities). The recuperation here is one of constant momentum and cycling, not necessarily of renewal but of re-living through living on. The idea of cliché, in fact, becomes redundant when the entire oeuvre is recursive and derivative. Instead, the repeated becomes a means of progressing sound, animating life, maintaining networks and relationship, and this across a community of interest and a community of sound mediated through a range of networks, including radio, dance parties, record stores, and so on. (A case in point is the repeated sampling of James Brown’s “unh”, which, through its excessive repetition, had less to do with cliché and more to do with shared exchange of an artistic moment.) It’s no coincidence, then, that house tended to sample works from the genre of “Dance Little Lady Dance”, in a sense revivifying that pulse of broad aesthetic/cultural rhythm. As much as any other performance event, this kind of aesthetic rhythm becomes articulated as a shared cultural practice and modality.
©Timothy James Horton 1994

[1] From Cocteau Twins’ 1988 album Blue Bell Knoll, available at; "Carolyn's Fingers" available at iTunes Store
[2] “Slogun” appears on SPK’s 1983 album Auto-Da-Fé, available at
[3] As studied by someone like Sheryl Garratt in “Teenage Dreams”, in Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin’s On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, Routledge, London, 1990, available at
"Dance Little Lady Dance", "The Sign" available at iTunes Store
It'll End In Tears available at

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