12 - The Michigan Daily - Friday, October 29, 1999
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There's more to this musical movement
than just album sales. A heated debate
is taking place within the electronic
music community - between those who
devote themselves passionately to trance as if it
were a religion and those who despise its expo-
nential rates of popularity.
Consider this fact: On the last Friday of every
month at New York City's largest dance club,
Twilo, thousands of people fill the club until
past sunrise to experience a DJ set by Sasha and
John Digweed that can last up to 10 non-stop
hours. Lines fill the street all night with people
who have traveled across the East Coast, wait-
ing patiently for a chance to get inside.
An equally controversial debate has also
arisen about the relationship between trance and
another imported European phenomenon,
Ecstasy. Ecstasy is to our generation what LSD
was to the 1960s, influencing the music that
then reinforces the Ecstasy culture. Once again,
those comprising the electronic music culture
share widely differing opinions about this rela-
In order to understand why trance has
become exceptionally popular so quickly, and
if there is any relevance to the relationship
between Ecstasy and trance, one must first put
aside all these external variables and focus
exclusively on the characteristics of the music.
The Trance Community
LSA junior Robin Marion said she recently
fell in love with trance after listening to a Sasha
and Digweed album. Her analysis of trance's
formal characteristics seems consistent with
most, considering first the movements occur-
ring within the music's tempo and then the pro-
"The main characteristic of trance is a series
of peaks and valleys," she said. "I listen to it,
and it takes me somewhere. I enjoy the slow
builds and the layering of beats. When I listen
to trance, I can just sit back and enjoy the music
regardless of where I am or what I'm doing. I
have finally gotten to that point where I can sit
down and listen to a track and pick out the
nuances that make it phenomenal. It could be
as simple as a breakbeat or as complicated as a
Trance has often been referred to as "pro-
gressive" or "journey music." These descrip-
tions arise from the music's epic length and
constantly forward-moving structure. Though
most DJs rarely spin a track for its entire length,
most tracks and remixes surpass the 10-minute
mark. In addition, the structure of the tracks can
be compared more to classical music than to
techno or rock music, consisting of a series of
movements that rarely reprise.
A track traditionally begins with an ambient
introduction, which functions to establish a
serene base to build upon. Soon drum loops
will enter and begin layering underneath a pri-
mary synthesized melody. Secondary melodies
soon fade into the track, subordinate to the pri-
mary melody, building in both tempo and
intensity. As the track builds to an ecstatic
peak, ambient choruses of synthesized strings
swirl around the melodies until the track reach-
es its first peak.
There usually is a minute or two of release
following the first peak of the track so listeners
can relax their mind and dancers rest their bod-
ies. From here though, things get even more
intense. The track builds once again to an even
higher peak, more intense and increasingly
relentless. After reaching this second peak, the
track then progresses towards a second release.
At this point, a DJ then mixes in another track,
furthering the journey.
This is a generic formula for traditional
trance songs, such as Binary Finary's "1998"
or Paul Van Dyk's "Words." Tracks character-
ized by this traditional form are usually consid-
ered "anthems" and will often be sandwiched
within a DJ's set by more transitional tracks.
When attempting to describe his first trance
experience, Engineering senior Prasad
Ambekar found it easier to describe the charac-
teristics of trance metaphorically. "It kind of
made me feel like I was falling through a tun-
nel with no bottom," he said. "It was very
smooth sounding, relaxing, yet pulsating and
consistent, and seemingly never-ending."
Engineering sophomore Jeff Wisman is
another University student who has developed
a deep passion for trance. His taste for the
music has evolved to the point that he pur-
chased a set of turntables so he could play his
Like Ambekar, Wisman compared the music
to an experience. "I love the ability of trance to
take the listener on a journey," he said. "When
mixed well, I believe a good DJ can create a
journey that is more involving and incredible
than one created with any other type of music."
The Elements of Trance
While the formal elements of trance associ-
ate the music with a journey, the genre's ide-
ology further reinforces this concept. The
three most popular series of trance CDs in
America all convey this through their titles:
"Tranceport," "Northern Exposure" and
"Global Underground." The series of "Global
Underground" mix CDs released domestically
by Thrive Records all feature a given DJ spin-
ning in a specific major city around the world.
Certain trance music features lyrics, usually
sung by a seductive, angelic female voice. The
lyrics tend to center around ideas of love and
unity. An example would be a sung often spun
by Paul Oakenfold: Ascension's "Someone."
After echoing "ehs," "ahs" and "ohs," the fem-
inine voice sings, "I need a spirit who can touch
my life/I need a voice who can speak the truth/lI
need a soul who will be on my side/I need a
heart I'll never lose/Someone like you."
Simon Reynolds, a writer for The New York
Times and Spin and the recent author of
"Generation Ecstasy," views the ideology of
trance as a dismissal of our reality in favor of a
more hedonistic, utopian reality.
"It's the avoidance of ideology, an evasion
of the real-world and all its divisions, conflicts,
etc.," he said. "Pretty much MDMA (ecstasy)
utopianism - wouldn't it be nice if we all
loved each other, peace, unity, etc."
This utopianism is essentially one of the key
factors fueling Marion's passion for trance. She
found that the music provides her with a neces-
sary escape from her schoolwork and a great
way to spend time with her close friends.
"Trance is journey music. There's really no
other way to put it," 'she said. "When Paul
Oakenfold came to Detroit, I stood next to a
friend of mine and every time Oakenfold laid
down another track, my friend and I looked
over at each other, smiled and embraced. We
had these smiles on our faces that we couldn't
wipe off even if we tried. I remember standing
in the middle of the floor with my eyes closed
and just let the music take me elsewhere."
While many students share a deep love for
trance that surpasses that of traditional music,
other students in the electronic music culture
share an entirely different view of trance. Chris
Lim and Disco D are University students who
are fans of electronic music, yet cannot bear to
even hear about trance.
"Trance has to be the worst music right next
Courtesy of Doris Payer
A group of students groove to electronic music at State: Awake, a free event the first Friday of every month at the Michigan League Underground.
to minimal techno," Lim said. "Trance to me
seems like the pop music of rave culture. It is
sick and disgusting, and anyone you turn this
on to will be forever damned."
David Shayman, also known as Ghetto Tech
DJ Disco D, has been submersed in the elec-
tronic music scene for over a year. He's blunt
about his stance on trance.
"Most trance sounds like a crappy 'Best Of
Rave' compilation that you found in the bottom
of the sale bin at Tower," he said. "It makes me
want to vomit. I just headlined a rave in
Alabama where every other big act on the bill
was trance, and it was so unbearable that I
wanted to leave the party five minutes after my
set. Sorry if this offends you, but trance offends
In order to understand the implications of
trance to our culture, one must first trace its
basis. Often considered a synthesis of house
music's ability to move a dance floor and tech-
no's sublime ability to tap into one's senses
with technological psychedelica, trance began
to fully evolve in the early '90s when
Europeans began producing their own interpre-
tations of the two American-born genres.
Reynolds looks even farther back in time.
"The ultimate roots of it come from Giorgio
Moroder's productions for Donna Summer like
'I Feel Love' - which was the first dance
record to be almost entirely made from synthe-
sized sound, synthetic percussion, etc," he said.
"Trance's pulsating basslines and arpeggiated
riffs all come from Moroder ultimately.
There's a lot of house music, especially acid
house, that prefigures trance. But in terms of
trance as a defined genre, people cite a record
by Paul Van Dyk and Cosmic Baby, 'Visions
Another possible theory on the evolution of
trance centers on the fact that trance's begin-
nings coincided with the rise of Ecstasy culture
at the beginning of this decade. Just as LSD
influenced the sounds of"Sgt. Pepper" and "Pet
Sounds" in the late 1960s, trance was consid-
ered by some to be the perfect soundtrack for
Though Wisman "in no way believes that one
needs to be on Ecstasy to enjoy trance," he does
admit that trance seems oriented towards
rolling. "Trance is arguably the perfect style of
music for people in an Ecstasy-induced eupho-
ria," he said. "Its frequent builds keep the crowd
into it, building everyone's energy. The melod-
ic ambient parts, the occasional vocals, and the
beautiful synth lines all serve to take a listener
on an ecstatic journey, and when the listener
has taken MDMA (Ecstasy), they are in an
excellent frame of mind for this journey."
These theories present a problem to those
with a passion for trance such as Wisman,
Ambekar and Marion. Do they love the music
because it touches something inside of them, or
because they associate it with Ecstasy?
"I've read that most people feel that trance
and Ecstasy go together, but I don't feel that
way," Marion said. "I've stood in the middle of
a dance floor, closed my eyes and lost myself
in the music. I was taken away and the music
became my 'drug.' I think that some people
might feel the need to do drugs when they lis-
ten to trance, but it shouldn't be the rule. If peo-
ple need Ecstasy or anything else to make the
music move them, then maybe they shouldn't
be listening to it."
Many of those who love trance share a simi-
using Ecstasy due to health concerns yet still
seem to appreciate the beauty of trance. Others
may need the heightened experience provided
by Ecstasy to first discover this same beauty.
Either way, one thing is certain: Once one has
learned to appreciate trance, a new and exciting
door of musical experience has been opened.
As more and more Americans begin to dis-
cover what Europeans have already embraced
with open arms, it's certain that trance will only
grow increasingly popular. Some of the world's
most popular DJs, such as Oakenfold, Sasha,
Digweed and Dave Ralph have spent increas-
ing amounts of time touring America's urban
centers. In addition, mix CDs featuring these
same DJs have been selling at an impressive
Andy Sibray, the buyer specializing in elec-
tronic music for Borders Group, Inc., views
three separate series of mix CDs as the keys to
trance's popularity in America: the "Global
Underground" series by Thrive Records, the
"Northern Exposure" series by Ultra Records
and the "Tranceport" series by Kinetic Records.
"All three of the series mentioned have had a
profound impact in making the 'trance' move-
ment an accepted part of the electronic music
scene," Sibray said. "In particular, the 'Global
Underground' series has done a great deal to
establish Oakenfold, Sasha and Digweed as
artists. The success of the first three releases
has allowed more releases under the GU ban-
"Most of the sales seem to be coming from
areas that are rich with colleges and universi-
ties or established music scenes," he continued.
"Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, San Francisco,
Seattle, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Honolulu,
Ann Arbor, New York City and Washington
D.C. are all major markets for us. But the suc-
cess of the genre is not exclusive to major mar-
kets. Places like Singapore, Pittsburgh, Kansas
City, Albany and Anchorage also do well."
A Fast-Rising Trend
Ultra Records can be considered an early pio-
neers of the American trance scene, having
spent the past three years establishing Sasha
and Digweed. Things started in 1997 when the
New York label licensed the British pair's first
"Northern Exposure" album and got them a
monthly residency at Twilo.
"Getting the residency was a huge deal, being
in New York every month for journalists and
people to write about them and to see them
grow," Geoffrey Tomes from Ultra said.
"They've really done well, and I don't think
you could have forecasted that trance was going
to just take over dance sales, especially for mix
CDs, which are the biggest selling things out
there besides the Fatbov Slims of the world.
continuing to grow in popularity. There are
many possible variables figuring into the equa-
tion for its success including its unprejudiced *
accessibility, its appeal to the emotions, its
relationship to Ecstasy culture and its sheer
Of the many attributes Wisman enjoys about
trance, its ability to win open-minded listeners
rates highly. "I have to admit that I enjoy
trance's accessibility as well," he said. "I've
given many friends one of my favorite trance
tapes to borrow and they've come back raving
about it, telling me that they couldn't stop lis-
tening to it and wondering where they can find
more. In my mind, music has to be pretty
incredible and moving to elicit that kind of
Ambekar also continues to be impressed by
trance. "It's as if there's something in the sound
that takes control over you and gives you a
whole new way of looking at what music can
do for you."
'Even DJ Legal Alien, an Engineering alum
currently finding success as a junglist, finds
beauty in trance. "I love jungle, and I don't real-
ly want to spin anything else for now, but if I
had a chance to go see Sasha and Digweed or
some of the other great trance DJs spin at a
desert party, or a party on the beach some-
where, I'd go in a second," he said. "There's a
feeling you get from trance that you just don't
get from any other music "
Greg Damiani, the man half-responsible for
State: Awake - a free night of electronic music
at the Michigan League Underground once a
month - -already sees elements of trance being
integrated into-popular music.
"Just take a listen to some of the new 'hit'
music," he said. "Madonna's 'Ray of Light' and
that new Cher song, they're dance music. Weak
ass, clubby, NRG type dance music, but dance
music nonetheless, and they're not devoid of
trance influences. Club culture is on the rise in
the U.S., and I think trance is and will be on the
forefront of it. I don't think it's too far down
the road when we see someone like Moby or
the Chemical Brothers producing a trance track
that spends 10 weeks on Total Request Live."
After extensively studying the cultural rela-
tionship between drugs and music for
"Generation Ecstasy," Reynolds was a little
hesitant to discuss the increasing popularity of
"It's the perfect soundtrack for those in the
honeymoon early phase of Ecstasy use
before excess, paranoia, polydrug disorienta
tion, etc. sets in - which is why people have
gravitated towards it," he said. "Whether
trance will spread beyond the rave scene 1
don't know, but it's pretty melodic compared*
with other forms of electronica so it has that
potential. I think the whole Mitsubishi (a
potent form of Ecstasy) explosion will go into
a darkside phase next year, when people will
be overdoing the stimulants and feeling the
inevitable comedown and side effects of long
term MDMA use - paranoia, eerieness etc.
This is what happened with rave in 1992,
leading to the darkside hardcore and then jun-
gle. It'll be interesting tohear what happens
to all this fluffy, lovey-dovy cheesy trance
when it becomes the soundtrack to bad trips
Those who get drawn into trance because of
its relationship to Ecstasy may want to keep
Reynolds' theories in mind, or they may want
to maintain an optimistic view similar to
Marion. who doesn't need Ecstasy to enioy
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