A journey out of linear time through engaging with house music.
- Jul 04 2022
- Nat Marcus is a poet, vocalist and designer. Along with Zoe Darsee, she is co-editor of TABLOID Press, an imprint for poetry and art books founded in Berlin in 2014. The publishing house maintains a focus on the public space of a poem and the poetics of a social body. Marcus’ poetry, art criticism and lyric journalism have also appeared in The Ransom Note, Novembre, DIS and Berlin Art Link.
Fade in: “Love is the Message” - MFSB
In the broiling summer of 2018 I’d listen to the first two floating string notes of “Love is the Message” and they bent time just as heat bounced off concrete shakes the air. Beginning to read histories of dance music — first Jenny’s copy of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, then better ones — I knew it was an anthem of the NYC protohouse clubs. [Fade out: “Love is the Message”]. The deeper I read, the more I began to hear in the lilt and echo of these strings and the campy horn punctuation a poignance and sadness I could not attribute to the following 9 minutes of grooving jazzy bar after bar.
“Thru the Skies (Instrumental)” - Kenlou (1997)
“Disco now functions as an aural reminder of an age of innocence,” Tim Lawrence writes in his fantastic chronicle of the New York dance scene, Love Saves the Day. The pain I felt so presently and heard as a means of study no doubt is related to my vantage, looking back to that lost age, knowing the AIDS crisis would sweep in a few years after those strings were recorded. So one can register in this anthem an impending age of loss. However, that temporal cord was tied just as firmly to a future I had not yet come to grasp or was not yet able to articulate. In lieu of language, there is ache.
Neither had I then read Cruising Utopia by Jose Esteban Muñoz, but I think his concept of ecstatic time is worth mentioning here. Queerness, what circulates through the types of bodies and practices rendered deviant, is never quite here, he writes, but always existing as a horizon. Stepping into queerness is in many respects a stepping out of linear time (breaking the forward stride of procreative lineage, for instance, or scrambling the genetic sequence directing my body to grow into a man’s) and ecstatic time occurs in these very moments of experiencing interleaved, triply resonant past, present and future. Engaging with house – listening, mixing, dancing, singing along – often does this to me.
“Closer (Deepdown Basement Mix)” - Mr. Fingers (1992)
You and I have talked often in the last year about my lack of firm belief in a future, or my lack of belief in a firm future, and the model of time this music provides is one thing that keeps me from spiraling into fatalism. Knuckles is on record saying, “House music is disco’s revenge,” and it is not revenge I am after — or not that alone — but in the urgency of spirit that hurdles out of the past to redirect a future (the same urgency that impels revenge, I think), I find a will to live. An ongoing redemption, even. And although the age of innocence house and disco can intone is “behind us, its memory, its ghosts, and the ritualized performances of transmitting its vision of utopia across generational divides still fuels and propels our political and erotic lives; it still nourishes the possibility of our current, existing gay lifeworld.”
Fade out: “Closer (Deepdown Basement Mix)” (1992)
Fade in: “Love is the Message” - MFSB (1987)
Tuned to the passage of time and other transits, the body is a rich instrument. In Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic-Afro Modernity, Alexander G. Weheliye writes, “In essence, the DJ, with the help of and in dialogue with the dancers, weaves together the textures of temporal grooves or monads in and through sound… and in this sounding the thunk of the bass makes time palpable as sensation, which is to say that the complementary yet conflicting times in the mix are heard through the body.” What’s being woven in the club are the tempos of tracks, which is to say the grooves cut into a vinyl record, which is also to say the impressions history makes palpable to our bodies.
Sharing its title with the 1997 track by USG, “Ncameu” is a poem from the fall of 2019, written sick with pneumonia and trying to wrest some hormones from the German health care system. It begins:
I may feel like I’m
dying or my
or I may be dying
and it may it
might feel like my
be alive or my body
is telling me
Put on Ron Trent
and Anthony Nicholson’s
& Soul Vox”) and the moment
I hear those chords
and see these bodies
I never saw never
knew the club they
danced in […]
The poem coils further into the present absence of these dancers: I have never seen these people I envision, but they are nonetheless called up by the introductory chords (tonal doors apparently ideal for time-travel, like the “Love is the Message” strings). Their evocation across time and space is a form of solace, so much so that the poem’s last line resolves “…the moment / I hear those chords” with “I know I will not die today.”
Body and Soul was a party that lived in the wake of spots like Paradise Garage, The Loft, and so on. In naming this mix of “Ncameu,” of which there are 4 on the 12 inch, “(Body & Soul Vox),” the producers Ron Trent and Anthony Nicholson cue the varied sounds, ghosts, statues of this party. House, as a technique and genre of re-edit and sampling is music rich with reference, dipping into a stream of history whose story is still unscrolling with each set, each mix. Charles Mudede writes, “The turntable is always wrenched out of sleep by the hand that wants to loop a break or to scratch a phrase. In a word, the turntable is awakened by the DJ who wants to make (or, closer yet, remake), music (or, closer yet, meta-music).”
“In the Mix (Perfect R&B)” - Romanthony (1994)
This practice of making, mixing and embodying meta-music is in fact where I would locate the spirituality of house. Some would say these techniques need not involve the soul, but the tradition is so imbued with an urgency of extending (surviving) beyond the body and even the mind, I find the spirit indivisible here. Lacking also is a postmodern irony of quotation; as Kodwo Eshun writes, irony “…assumes a distance, which by definition volume overcomes. There is no distance with volume, you’re swallowed up by sound...” To be in the mix, either behind the decks or dancing before them, is to be swallowed in this way. One wades into the seams of chronology, becomes engulfed in an entirely other signature of time. That’s what saved, saves my life. And that is why I call it a crusade.
A Crusade was delivered as part of the Center for Experimental Lecture’s program during last year’s Haus Wien (Wien, AT) on September 3, 2021. I moved through the lecture by reading text and mixing records on two turntables; if not noted otherwise, each track was mixed and blended with the prior.
Banner: Performance score from ‘pollen spools out, words scatter through a waiting room window’, Lou Lou Sainsbury, 2021. Ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.
This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.
- Footnotes Brewster, Bill. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. New York: Grove Atlantic, 1999.
 Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004, p. 438.
 Savage, Jon. Interview with Frankie Knuckles (1990). Copy of original transcript in the author’s possession.
 Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009. p. 34
 Weheliye, Alexander G. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic-Afro Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, p. 92.
 Mudede, Charles. “The Turntable”. https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ctheory/article/view/14561/5407 (last accessed 03.05.2022).
 Avid antispiritualist Terre Thaemlitz/DJ Sprinkles notable here; see: “DJ Sprinkles In-Depth Interview Parts 1, 2 & 3”. http://www.comatonse.com/reviews/cvnty130812.html (last accessed 18.05.2022).
 Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books, 1998. p.188.