Perfect Sound Forever

Rhythm & Trance


Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy

By David Cranstoun Welch
(February 2009)

Trance music staged a takeover of the world's clubs sometime in the early 1990's; its steady, pulsating beat dominating the drug-addled dance floors that had once been the domain of Disco and Synth-Pop. It stripped away the flashy adornments of earlier dance musics and placed it emphasis squarely on dance's 'trance inducing' qualities.

Modern Trance is a form of electronic music that is often characterized by an accelerated tempo as well as by accessible, melodic synthesizer phrases and a structure that builds dramatically throughout the duration of a track. It has been described as "classical melodies with jungle beats"; a populist, inter-racial marriage of European harmony and African 'trance inducing' musics.

Amongst the most popular electronic Trance acts are MOR DJ's like Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, Paul Van Dyk and Robert Miles. Trance music stemmed from the early experiments of kosmische legends Klaus Schulze & Manuel Gottsching as well as the Detroit techno of Juan Atkins and Cybotoron/Model 500 whose music impacted the German clubs of the early '90's. Popular trance acts to emerge from this period include Joey Beltram, Heinx Roth, Oliver Lieb, Sven Vath and Jam El Mar and acts on the Frankfurt Harthouse/Eye Q labels like Cygnus X . DJ Shadow's 1996 debut album Endtroducing has also been labeled as 'Trance.'

But what exactly is 'trance inducing' music and what are the reasons for its appeal? At it is base, pure 'trance' music is simply three or more individually engaging rhythms. According to Dennis R. Weir of the Trance Institute of Breutten, Switzerland (a pseudo-scientific organization which he founded) "...the engaging aspect of trance inducing rhythms is important. What may be 'engaging' to one person may be repulsive to someone else. Repeated rhythms can be seen as 'boring' but it is precisely this 'boring' aspect that is the precursor to trance. If a rhythm is 'engaging' and not boring, then trance is certain to occur.

Trance alters the way our mental energy is put to use and certain cognitive functions become temporarily disabled. Of these cognitive functions, critical judgment is among the first to become disabled, along with short-term memory. In the words of Dennis Weir, the disabling of cognitive functions during trance can result in "increased visualization, inner involvement, literalism, awareness, and an inability to discriminate realities. Some cognitive functions are interconnected so that when one cognitive function fails, other cognitive functions will also begin to fail."

Dissonant passages are often counteractive when creating or maintaining trance states as are sharp or unsettling rhythmic changes. The reason is that trance is generated by extended rhythmic loops. A loud or heavy volume does not have any great impact. Trance is induced strictly by repetition. An overly complex rhythm is also not necessarily conducive to a deeper trance state. Deep trances tend to be more easily created via 'engaging rhythms' with ever-more subtle rhythmic or melodic changes that are introduced over increasingly prolonged intervals.

These engaging rhythms can be found in examples as diverse as the music of the Rain forest Pygmies of Mbute (see Music of the Rain Forest Pygmies: The Historic Recordings Made By Colin M. Turnbull) and the canonic variations of J.S. Bach. It can even be found in the ambient music of Brian Eno, like Thursday Afternoon or Neroli. By contrast, the constantly shifting rhythms and dissonances of electronica acts like Oval and Autechre, particularly in their Confield-ear keep trance at bay. Also, the same comparison could be made between the Motets and Madrigals of the 15th century and the serial music of the 20th century.

The rhythmic loops in modern trance tracks tend to be cut short by what is referred to as the 'break down,' where an accessible, anthemic melody is introduced: one example is Rabbit in the Moon's "East (Opium Den Mix)" but it is also very common and most obvious in the 'Uplifting Trance' of acts like Daude and Brooklyn Bounce. These sequences are dramatic and highly effective because of the 'engaged state' of the listener and their anticipation of the return of the rhythmic loop, or the 'kick back' as it is known.

In many traditional cultures, rhythmic loops can be extended over a period of days during protracted religious ceremonies. Entire communities become involved in these ceremonies which are often coordinated and directed by the local mystic or 'Shaman.' The Shaman serves a variety of roles depending on the society they live in, including healer, chiromancer and preserver of oral traditions. They are also given the role of 'mediator' between the physical world and the ethereal 'spirit' plane and trance ceremonies are often for this purpose. The Shaman connects with this spirit world and communicates with his followers through a variety of means; verbal, artistic, and through physical expression like dance. One famous trance ceremony is that of the Hausa Br cult of Nigeria, Niger and Sudan though the cult is also prevalent in many other Western and Central African countries. Their music has had a tremendous impact on Nigerian folk music and involves trance inducing rhythms performed on calabash, lute and fiddle. During the ceremonies, many 'marginalized' groups fall into trances and perform exaggerated and exhibitionistic behaviours, unacceptable in their normal day-to-day social interactions including mimicking animals and extreme sexual behaviours. The performers in these rituals tend to take on various 'personalities' and live out a life remote from their own largely repressed existence. In this way, trance music would seem to serve a vital and important role, common to many countries. Allowing people to step outside their daily reality and experience a life they can normally only live out in their subconscious. In many ways you can see the same behavior mirrored in western society with Stage Hypnotists, where volunteers from the audience are supposedly placed into a deep trance and then act out uncharacteristic and demeaning behaviors in front of the local community.


Ivan Pavlov, 1904 (Public Domain)

The psychologist and physiologist Ivan Pavlov believed that hypnosis, which is similar to trance, is caused by a lower brain function and 'partial sleep', while other psychologists, like Graham Wagstaff have claimed that hypnosis is actually a form of learned social behavior, that it is a complex hybrid of social compliance, relaxation and suggestibility- this may explain trance states as a behavior brought on by the 'relaxation' caused by subtle and extended rhythms.

Anthropologist Audrey Butt has noted that there is a correspondence in many communities between breath and spirit, which indicates there may also be a correlation between specific breathing techniques used for inducing altered states of consciousness. This also goes towards reinforcing the idea that trance states are simply a means of relaxing an individual and giving them permission to 'let loose' and behave in a manner they wouldn't normally allow themselves to behave in.

Many Shaman use 'performance enhancers' to help them achieve their trance state. In addition to fasting or strictly observed diets, the Shaman can, in some cultures, ingest cannabis or psychedelic mushrooms. The Maya used leaves from wild tobacco plants and smoked them to help induce trance through deep concentration. Alcohol was also commonly used in Mayan rituals as a vehicle through which to alter consciousness and achieve another plane of reasoning.

Trance music's history is intimately linked with a number of intoxicants; most commonly alcohols, though today drugs like 'ecstasy' serve the same function. Similarly, the ancient 'Dionysian Mysteries' of Greece were founded as homage to the god of wine and intoxication himself, Dionysus. The Dionysian Mysteries were an ancient initiation ceremony that first took shape in Minoan Crete between 3000 and 1000 BC. When it was absorbed into mainstream Greek culture, it evolved into a complex and arcane mystery religion that made extensive use of intoxicants and trance-inducing techniques including music and dance so as to remove inhibitions and artificial societal restraints and to liberate the participant to a more 'primal' and 'natural' state. Due to this, it was hugely popular with Greece's enormous slave class.

At the cult's height, the Dionysian rites were almost exclusively associated with women, who were drawn to it as it afforded a certain degree of liberation in the repressive male-dominated society of Greece at that time. However, as the title of officers in the cult had both male and female forms, it casts doubt on the idea that it was simply a 'woman's cult.'

The trance induction that was central to the cult was known as the 'invocation of the spirit,' and was performed by means of an instrument known as a 'bull roarer,' an ancient horn famed for its distinctive vibrato sound. It was also accompanied by ecstatic communal dancing to drum and pipe music, in a manner not unlike today's raves. Movements in the ritual, like the 'head flick' described by witnesses of the time resemble those of the Vodou religion of Haiti and the southern states of America.


The Apache Bullroarer (public domain)

Also, as in Vodou ceremonies and today's trance parties, particular drum rhythms were associated with the trance state. In the drum ceremonies of the royal drummers of Burundi, over 40 different trance-inducing rhythms are performed, each with their own specific, symbolic meaning. In the drumming of the Burundi, as it is an agricultural nation and many of the drummers also live out their days as farmers, the connotations tied up with the rhythms tend to deal with birth and regeneration, a cycle both familiar and vitally important to anyone dependent on the elements.

Trance music maintained its connection with religious ceremonies over the ensuing centuries. Trance was deeply linked with the Hermetic brotherhoods and followers of Hermes Trismegistus (the inspiration for the largest Magic cult of the Middle Ages). Trance was also linked with early Christianity and is manifested most obviously today in Glossolalia or 'speaking in tongues'.


Hermes Trismegistus (Public Domain)

Glossolalia is the vocalizing of fluent speech-like but unintelligible utterances as part of religious practice. It is enacted when the participant is in a trance-like state. Glossolalists believe that Christian glossolalia is equivalent to the 'speaking in tongues' detailed in the New Testament. Some believe that it is a gift from the angels, and that such speech is a real, ancient language that has been lost to the sands of time. Glossolalia re-emerged in modern times with the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 and in the growth of the Pentecostal movement. It is also found in Haitian Voodoo, which is itself, a hybrid of African and Christian beliefs.

Glossolalia is found in a number of cultures, even within the United States, from the Puerto Ricans of the Bronx to the snake-handlers of the Appalachians and the Russian Molakans of Los Angeles. Lingusit William J. Samarin who investigated cases in all these cultures, came to the conclusion that glossolalic speech consists of strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from all those that the speaker knows and put together in a haphazard fashion, though emerging in word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody derived from the speaker's native language.

Though Glossolalia still occurs throughout the West, it is not sufficiently popular to fill the gap left by the disappearance of mystery religions in the modern world. As the ancient rituals faded and the gibberish of glossollaia didn't hold sufficient appeal to satisfy a large audience, something was needed to fill the void; and the drug-focused raves of Trance were part of what people were searching for. In many ways, Trance music is the perfect music for our era. It caters to the tastes of a society raised on accessible, melody-focused music but without the adornments of previous dance styles and offering a social outlet through its long-duration rhythms. Music to get high to (metaphorically and otherwise); but instead of reaching for the spirit plane, we're reaching for a diversionary entertainment. But maybe that was always the focus. Maybe it's also a chance to forget ourselves and be who we cannot be in our daily lives with complete social permission.


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