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awkwardly peering at the rave voyeur

Quite unsurprisingly, this current heatwave messed whatever remained of my schedule up. The past few days have gone by in a strange blur – with me spending as much time as possible outside, having all nighters snowball into something larger, and constantly refreshing the HSE’s vaccination portal. Ireland very rarely experiences warm weather on this scale, meaning everything went out the window the second I had to open it. Productivity flatlined, skin failed to burn, and anything beyond reading dumb books on my Kindle felt impossible. On account of this, I’ve done fuck all this week beyond overthinking about producer Lorenzo Senni – bringing my semi-ironic obsession with Italy to new heights. It’s set to rain shortly after this piece goes live, hopefully meaning we’ll be back to more regular programming by next Friday. That or I’ll throw together a 3,000 word essay about Giorgio Chiellini, scaring away all three of my readers in the process.

perpetually teetering on overwhelm (but in an italian way)

Without a hint of irony, Senni is one of the most Mediterranean sounding musicians of all time. The thirty-eight year old’s work is heavily inspired by the excesses of trance, with Pitchfork comparing it to “a festival’s-worth of fist-pumping anthems freeze-dried and then shoved into three-minute pop length”. Senni started out playing in straight-edge bands, falling down the rabbit hole of electronic music while studying Musicology in Bologna. After a few ambient experiments in MAX/MSP he started stitching together the buildups from tacky trance tunes – something that drove unwitting audiences insane. Following this Lorenzo picked up the Roland JP8000, abusing its supersaw preset to emulate his obsession.

Senni has described his music as “pointilistic trance”, forgoing any percussion to make tunes that are simultaneously claustrophobic yet radiant. One of the main things that draws me to Senni is raw emotion – with his work effortlessly channeling the melodramatic highs and comedowns inherent to the genre. These tracks provide the listener with pure, distilled intensity – perpetually teetering on overwhelm and hinting towards respites that never materialise. This approach to music can often unsettle audiences during their first exposure, something best captured by an (extremely comedic) anecdote from Lorenzo’s Red Bull Academy lecture:

In Rome, people were very angry with me because it was like the opening of a big gallery and they ask me to play. Everyone could come in and drink for free. There were drunk people, and they start like, “DJ boom, boom!” Like asking for the kick… it’s not coming. It was even like they need to wait 30 minutes. It’s like, “DJ boom, boom!” After awhile I saw as well, I saw them like a bit aggressive and they started fighting each other and they were kicked out. I was so happy, I was like, “Oh wow. There is an expectation, not given.” It’s very powerful. Especially because we are, our brain is educated to work: “and now it’s going to be the drop.” This expectation’s not fully satisfied, it’s really something that could touch you in some way, if you are in the mood.

While it hasn’t lead to me fighting buff Italian hooligans, ‘One Life, One Chance’ is a song that evokes feelings of a similar strength. Mainly known for being blared during Aphex Twin’s Field Day set, the track feels almost tailor-made to make you melt. This track was released during a period where Senni shifted from focusing on arpeggios to chords, a shift that arguably mirrors the work of PC Music associates like Danny L Harle and A.G Cook. One of the most impressive aspects of this track is how easily it straddles the line between the artificial and genuine – almost as if Senni worked out the bare minimum necessary to induce deep emotion. At times it’s easy to forget about the musician’s choice to avoid using drums, his work shifts so rapidly that any omissions rarely make themselves known. ‘One Life, One Chance’ is an utterly intense track, which in part explains my current obsession with it.

there is a rave voyeur inside all our heads, he must not be destroyed

As I’ve tried (and arguably failed) to stress with my writing on Autechre, the lines between experimentation and cheese are blurrier than we want to admit. The supposed divide implied within the term ‘intelligent dance music’ doesn’t survive the smallest amount of scrutiny – it all inevitably loops back to tacky techno, something we should draw pride from. It feels wrong to depict the work of Autechre or Senni as completely distinct from what came before, even if it makes writing about them slightly easier. Something I respect about Lorenzo is how clearly influences are worn on his sleeve. Senni has frequently referred to himself “rave voyeur”, drawing something different from the music while keeping a similar level of enthusiasm – in part due to his introversion and sobriety. To quote his lecture once again:

Vivian Host: Yeah, I think a lot of your stuff that comes later… I mean, your concept of being a rave voyeur maybe comes from being a straight edge kid and kicking back and being clear-headed while you’re watching everybody else party and get fucked up.

Lorenzo Senni: It’s just now that I realize that, but it’s very interesting. That kind of experiencing this but from a very different point of view, enjoying it but not being interested, really, in maybe all the things that were happening, but not really judging, was very important to develop this idea of rave voyeurism that I transposed in my music, or I tried. I don’t know. Because it’s been just what I was doing, just being a voyeur of these kind of club raves, just being seated. Not in a negative way. Maybe I was not dancing like all of my friends, they were looking at me, and I was like… Actually, I had great fun, I had great fun, but I was way more conscious of what was happening around me. So it was like, “She is cute.” My friends were like…(mimes dancing) [And I was thinking] “This I like, maybe something more melodic.” That’s why I went back to trance. “This more melodic [music]. This I like.” Then I was not getting back to my friends, asking, “What’s the name of this track?” This is what I was doing when I was a kid.

It’s very easy to view exploratory musicians as aloof, academic figures – droning on about Deleuze, gazing at their navels, and smugly looking down at the rest of us. However, this stereotype doesn’t feel accurate when it comes to the musicians I cover on here – they’re closer to being enthusiasts than ostentatious, fanboying their way to the logical conclusion of their genres. In the words of Senni, “if you look through all the pioneers of electronic music there is always this idea of enjoying what you’re doing while experimenting”. What actually differentiates these musicians is perspective – it feels as if their enthusiasm is warped into a new direction, be it towards insane MAX/MSP patches or just to endless buildups. These musicians aren’t separate from rave, if anything they just spent too much time overthinking at one. One could cynically claim creatives are just massive fanboys constantly channeling past obsessions, but perhaps that’s something worth admiring. We’re all deeply uncool, just a case of admitting it.

high tech, low standards

Something that’s been driving me insane lately is the way in which art (and criticism) gets framed by larger publications. The traditional divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art has been inalterably blurred due to widespread adoption of the internet – conventional barriers have been blown asunder, with the piracy of software and content opening up doors to anyone with the right level of enthusiasm. This shift is mirrored when you look at the initial ascent of bedroom musicians on sites like Bandcamp – fanatics with dodgy copies of Logic Pro could push their mediums forward, even if they broke from the bourgeois mould. Everyone can acquire the tools to make something great, even if it also leads to these cringy blog posts.

However, something that annoys me about this blurring is the choice by corporations to combine the worst aspects of both – taking the sheer pretension and navel-gazing associated with ‘high’ art and applying it to the generic and unchallenging. The opening of the floodgates has gradually felt more about monetisation than democratisation, especially at a time where three or four corporations control a decent chunk of what we consume. The powers that be want us to demand less from the art we absorb – silly (but not necessarily bad) superhero shows like ‘WandaVision’ and ‘Loki’ are unironically compared to ‘Twin Peaks’, catchy pop songs from rich people get blown out of all proportion, and endless rehashes of intellectual property take the place of anything new. The original appeal of approaches like poptimism has gradually faded, in part as any alternative has gradually vanished.

When I was sixteen years old, a line on Mark Fisher’s Wikipedia page melted my brain. This sentence talked of the post-punk music press, which managed to casually combine music with the wider world surrounding it. “It wasn’t only about music and music wasn’t only about music […] it was a medium that made demands on you”, as Fisher termed it. There was something about this combination of the high and low that blew my mind – as if popular culture was being pushed in a new direction by actually challenging those consuming it. There was something oddly democratic about the scene surrounding post-punk – anyone could make something interesting or overthink, anyone could warp their enthusiasm. It provided us with low-culture approaches to high-culture work, allowing exciting artists to emerge.

Even if it sounds a bit silly, I think Senni’s work serves as a fascinating example of this blurring of culture. His music is clearly avant-garde yet also utterly unfeigned. He’s still a massive music nerd (after all he studied Musicology!), but one without many illusions in his art. Senni can create something radically new while also unironically referring to things as “epic” and gushing about his love of the Spice Girls. His compositions challenge listeners without shutting itself off, the exact reason it can have such an impact. Senni is such an innocent soul that he can get away with playing weird synth noises, an energy part of me wants to channel.

As critics, performers, and obsessives we need to push for art that challenges boundaries without wallowing in the pseudo-intellectual. During this era defined by the puerile and inoffensive there’s a renewed need for work that can jolt us towards something new – if anything so we don’t go insane having to pretend that Disney’s cash grabs are profound. In the years following my initial obsession with Fisher (and the endless blogposts badly quoting him) this urge for something redefinitive has grown exponentially. To once again distort the words of Peter Weiss, we need “exclusive, demanding achievements of art […] to complement what we were familiar with” – a side “which has no monuments”. “Our efforts to conquer art and literature [can] have no other purpose than to strengthen the togetherness of people who had so far sensed only their isolation”. That or just to sound extremely Italian. Both are cool.