March’s column for Berghain’s flyer: Tempo Zones
Panorama Bar, Sunday morning. Andre Galluzzi plays the last hour of his set and the floor is properly crowded. Andre flips feverishly through his CD wallet while the BPM meter shows 119. The tracks he pumps out aren’t produced differently from those you used to hear two years ago at 128 BPM. It’s just that the pitch control is set to minus 8 – a DJ’s creative decision. Now the music feels totally different. The elegantly euphoric swing of deep house’s classic tempo zone between 123 and 128 made way to a heavy, dragging grind. Limbs seem to rather float freely than move along actively to the beat. Any excessive movement of an arm here would look like the out-of-synch crowd expressions at an indie rock concert. Long gone are the times when Kevin Saunderson spoke: “130 BPM and people dance the whole night.” Well, the night has been over for quite long, too.
Even slight changes in tempo strongly affect the impact and perceptions of musical elements. Certain quantizations, rhythmic microstructures, sound differently when just a few BPM faster or slower. The bass seems to shift, too: from solid to pushy, from heavy to hectic. A light offset from binary towards triplet rhythms, produced by turning a wheel named “shuffle” on the drum machine’s sequencer, evokes associations with Chicago house. Turning the wheel up to the max produced a style associated with Cologne (the city where Kompakt is based, not the other stuff).
Different tempo zones address different possibilities to express and engage with. Different people and different social groups are drawn to (or driven off) the dance floor by them. Sometimes it’s a loose common experience by individualistic hedonists, sometimes it looks like a marching formation of people in uniforms – BPM-fields of identity. May that be a reason for the predominantly teenage or male audiences found in styles ranging from dubstep to hardcore techno? Will you see women dancing only below 130 BPM? That’s probably a cultural phenomenon. At hectic bass parties in Detroit for instance one can witness quite remarkable female dance moves, too. In a European setting, things theoretically turn around again once beats push past 160 BPM. When I was 16 and visited the Metalheadz Sessions at London’s Blue Note, black girls in athletic gear simply danced incredibly liquid moves in half time – i.e. they synched to a groove at 85 BPM (instead of the 170 the DJ was spinning).
Playing around with rhythmic patterns is like looking through a kaleidoscope, assembling a new cultural concept every time it is turned around. Whole genres in the fashion of “footwork” can be created by accidentaly pushing the tempo controller somewhere unintended. Miniscule interventions at the right time and place are often sufficient to quickly build a devoted crowd, meeting for a dance in some basement, week after week. No one needs to fear boredom, that is. And hardly anyone has touched on all the asymmetric metres as yet. Endless possibilities.
As I found out recently, the duration of exposure to a rhythm has its own special meaning too. When recently, after a frenetically greeted live set, KiNK decided to engage in 15 minutes of experiments with layered loops drifting apart, someone started screaming “stop! stooooop!”. Everyone looked with amusement at the angry girl. She probably felt betrayed, the spell of potential eternity that was built up by the looped 4/4 kick drum being broken. Do not disturb my circles.