Discwoman 27 and Laurel Halo’s Sonic Manifesto

Laurel Halo’s mix for Discwoman grabbed me by the balls, then gently let go and said, “I’m not that kind of woman.” Then it slapped me in the face and said “pay attention next time!” I like to think my taste is both diverse and discerning, but I can’t help but squirm with insecurity on both those marks having heard the mix Laurel Halo laid down for Discwoman 27. Though she only started DJing in clubs a couple years ago, after getting over “any irrational fear,” her mix for Discwoman would not only pop off in a club with its rapturous energy, but also make the discerning and tasteful club-goer salivate for track ID’s while their noodle slithers out the top of their skull and sidles up to the bar for a drink. To begin she narrows a noisy intro that sounds like it belongs in a white walled art gallery, into the acid-happy Justin Timberlake knockoff, “Bringing Slide Back” by mysterious L.A. techno artist Seldom Seen. This opening essentially declares, “all bets are off boys and girls, I am going to do whatever the fuck I want.”

This is an appropriate attitude for a Discwoman mix. Discwoman is a New York based music collective and booking agency steeped in the left side of identity politics. They promote the marginalized demographics of women and the LGBQT community in the dance music scene, a scene they see as overrun in prototypical patriarchy and prejudice. Identity politics is fueled by challenging and rearranging conventional notions of social organization by maximizing awareness of one’s own identity, and the identities of sub-communities. In doing so a greater power resource is collected for the marginalized. Discwoman’s mission is to upend dance music culture from within, and flip the script on who gets to stand behind the decks and throw a party.

I am sure Discwoman thought they had an ideal candidate in Laurel Halo when they tapped her for a DJ mix. For starters they were sticking to their mantra of showcasing exclusively female or trans DJ’s, and they were doing so with a true electronic music artist. A proven taste maker with a deep reservoir of talent from which to draw. Numerous ears from Michigan to Berlin are happy that Laurel Halo heard Aphex Twin one day (or at least that is probably what happened, dude changed a lot of people) and decided to stray from her classical music training and into electronics. In the DJ booth her style of mixing does not adhere to established cub music conventions. It does not behave itself as a seamless, untainted narrative, or commit itself to a fidelity of genre. The energy of Discwoman 27 is as inescapable as the wails of a baby on an airplane as the mix shakes and bakes through furious percussion and dissonant soundscapes.

Around 35:30 her mix fades entirely out of a spazzy slash-and-burn-the-jungle bass track considering an identity makeover as a trap banger, and reintroduces itself with an IDM funk constellation that sounds like getaway music in an intergalactic bank heist film (presuming the corporate power establishment buries the blockchain and there are still banks to rob in the distant future). In Laurel Halos’s own words, “this mix is somewhere between club and listening, heavy on melody, style jumping & perc-happy.” She mixes at the pace of an overzealous prom DJ attempting to play all 40 of the top 40 in two hours. In fact, according to this accounting of the tracklist, Halo works through a beguiling 29 total tracks in just under an hour.

Typically, such a pace is indicative of a DJ who is impatient on the decks. Such a DJ neglects a fundamental technique of DJing: simply letting the track play out and become something powerful. There is a certain elegance to a hands-off approach to DJing, where the DJ allows each track to express itself, rather than robbing all the attention for themselves to demonstrate the extent of their music catalog and mixing ability. Knowing what a track brings to a particular setting, at what moment to transition to the next, and what that next track will be, is the process that differentiates good DJs from great ones. You could be the most technically proficient DJ in the galaxy, but if you do not know your records, and know how and when to wield them, then you will mix mediocre sets.

What makes Laurel Halo’s Discwoman mix truly mesmerizing is that she manages to combine her frenetic pace with legitimate insight into the tracks she is playing. It is like Peyton Manning in the no huddle offense, down a touchdown in the fourth quarter, with 2:30 on the clock: instinctual precision.

In a pleasurable churn of paradox, the sonic styling of her original compositions belies her rapidly evolving meticulousness on the decks. On November 30, 2017 I had the opportunity to see Laurel Halo perform live at a Seattle basement club called Kremwerk. As she danced her fingers on her keyboard it seemed as if no musical notes were directly resulting from her efforts. She appeared to be playing the most rapid, miniature, and dexterous game of whack-a-mole I have ever seen on her keyboard. A deeper listening revealed that everything she was playing was pumped through a significant delay, and sometime after they were triggered, the sounds were set free in the room to become what they may. It sounded like some sort of homage to Cageian composition by chance. The result was the identifiable layered and ever-changing soundscape that has earned Halo’s music descriptions like “avant-pop,” “experimental,” and “technological dread” off the tongues of critics. It is the job of the critics to put words together to evoke sounds–I hope my own efforts are not in vain–but there is something about her signature sound that beats descriptors away like they are goddamn mosquitoes. It is this ineffability that weaves its way through her productions and ties them together in her catalog.

For example, her 2012 debut record “Quarantine” on Hyperdub begins with what sounds like a SCUBA diving synthesizer. Soon after her vocals rise to accompany the sound, but hardly lead the track; they are featured, but heavily effected. They sound like a voice piping from a TV while I hang in limbo between waking and a sleep state. There are lyrics, they are clear, but they sound detached and artificial, coming at from behind a door of consciousness I don’t really feel like opening. Halo’s vocal productions creates subtle but steady fluctuations on the true sound of her voice. It has the effect of creating slight variations of her central character and never letting the listener grasp onto a single vocal identity.

This style continues on her 2017 album, “Dust,” also on Hyperdub, where you can hear vocals that sound like an angelic haunting demanding you believe in the heaven from which they are emerging. It must be something akin to what the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica felt in the very moment they became post-Columbian. Enthralled by the recognition of fellow human, yet menaced by a form with which they could not totally grasp. Replete with engaging yet sometimes arthritic percussion, there seems to be a disunion between human voice and instrumentals on both albums. These are vocal albums where the human voice takes a backseat to the nuance of sound in which the words are embedded. The voice shifts on the balls of its feet like the heroine in a coming-of-age film delivering her first important line,s long before her transformation. It is a distinct departure from the time-worn institution of vocalism in pop music that shines the spotlight on the easily sourced human voice.

Halo’s mix for Discwoman accomplishes a similar effect as it does not rest long enough for the listener to cling to a single track, but ardently demands the listener hear a track as a small building block of the total mix; as a minor character in an ensemble cast. Rather than providing leading roles surrounded by supporting actors, her mix goes full Love Actually. She deftly maneuvers through, around, and across genres like the Starship Enterprise in the last frontier. The net effect is a mix that sheds labeling every time the listener wants to offer it, but is a raucous party everybody can get behind that both stimulates the senses and the intellect.

One does not typically hear a DJ mix and call it fine art, as it is far too rooted in the beautifully debased entertainment institution of nightclubbing. Yet electronic music, for most of its known existence, has existed almost entirely in the realm of fringe, experimental art. Halo’s deft selections and manipulations pays direct homage to this heritage, and she shoves her party way up into the realm of the intellectual. In this realm art is analyzed against the trappings of civilization. Art is metaphorical, and offers a perceptive window into the humanity that produces it.

As individuals we are mere building blocks for society, there is no way around it. As a matter of practical organization, each one of us must, at some point, be subservient to a society more powerful than us. Yet, in the western tradition, we overwhelmingly focus on the power of individualism, and view ourselves as leading actors of our very own feature work of living art. This is foundational to the ideology of identity politics that seeks improve society by maximizing the individual. Is there room for the individual to be necessarily deferential to society within this framework? If we look at the real world practices of Discwoman, it is hard to see how subservience fits into their mission. In fact, it is exactly the thing they seek to exterminate when and where they can. The irony of course comes when you realize that power, when eradicated, creates a vacuum that must be filled by new systems of power. Discwoman and their fellow ideologues wish to fill the vacuum with the power of collective will; an inclusive will to power that draws on the nuance of the fully realized, loving individual.

Let us use Halo’s mix as a metaphor to help understand the dilemma this presents. If her whole mix is the power of the collective will, then each track is the individual contributing to that new system of power. That power is realized to its fullest with Halo’s rapid fire mixing style that does not maximize each track, but draws on each selectively. Through its pieces there is a palpable aesthetic, an artistic directive that homogenizes each track just enough to work with each other and create a singular identity.

How does identity politics handle the concept of homogeneity? That is, the stuff that provides unity and directive, and therefore forward progress. Without it, we will arrive at less powerful collective will unable to supplant the existing bigoted institutions. Had Halo simply played each of her selections in its entirety, the result would have merely been a fairly interesting radio show, not really the powerful result Discwoman craves.

While it is noble to seek equality in the club space and a critical reevaluation of its power structures, one must have a realistic idea of how that is achieved. The reality is, homogeneity on some level is needed in order to consolidate power. As far as I can tell this homogeneity is expected to be a profound mutual respect that each individual have for all others. This can only be achieved with a fantastically concerted psychological effort by society; a collective mindset of being able to authentically appreciate each person as one can appreciate themselves. Such intimate appreciation is only found in the dusty pages of personal history that are so thoroughly hidden from a public audience.

Is it any wonder that a straight white dude, with homophobic parents, perfectly ironed suits, and irresponsibly wielded trust fund is prejudiced against a queer kid with holes in their clothes, jewelry placed like it was the result of a blindfolded birthday game for children, and a tenacious independence born out of sheer necessity? These two individuals don’t know each other, cannot feel what it is like to exist inside each other’s identities, and therefore can never intimately respect one another just by being asked or commanded to, not matter how loud the social justice uproar may be. Discwoman has a mission to reverberate the uproar; their roster of DJ’s and artists is charged with bouncing it off the walls of each space they play in, glorifying all the traits that make us unique in a thumping bid for equality. But the essence of equality is a great feat of homogeneity, it is to be socially the same in each set of eyes and each nuanced mind. Can Discwoman do what Laurel Halo accomplished in her mix? Can they celebrate each person as Halo celebrated each track? Drawing upon their unique power while simultaneously subverting them to the whole piece?

While we absolutely need the world’s boundless identities to be made known, and Discwoman proudly does just this, at some point the individual needs to give themselves up for the common goal. A true and authentic equality between all human beings will be achieved with the drowning of the self as the leading actor, and the obliteration of the narcissistic walls erected between each of us. It is the aprreciation of humans as exactly that, humans. Equality is what happens when we finally transcend our obsession with the power of identity.

Unfortunately, a debased narcissism is in vogue in the electronic music world. In 2012, when “Quarantine” was released, The New York Times published this article, detailing Las Vegas’ balls out investment in electronic music. By merging hyper-paid DJ’s with the pop star ethos, they dipped electronic music into the popularity of egoism like a priest baptizing a baby in the holy font of C.R.E.A.M. Five years ago, electronic music was no baby, but rather like married 32-year-old, with a habit of reminiscing about youthful non-monogamy, and the thrill of one-night stands. That is to say, the roots of clubs raking in millions of dollars lie in sweaty basements and anonymous warehouses of Midwest metropolises. The scene was impulsive, improvised, and truly underground. The philosophy happened at 33 or 45 rotations per minute, and was disseminated to a people who did not give a single silicone fuck about table service. Record collections were gospels, and the DJ’s who wielded them were apostles spreading the message. They believed in what they were playing, and understood they had a responsibility to the themselves, and to the party, to drive taste, to entertain, and to educate.

While that original identity has a strong international cadre of purveyors—loosely referring to itself as “the underground”—electronic music has erupted above ground in the technology takeover of the music industry. Huge synths dripping with dopamine, and frenzied beat drops became the new pied piper, drawing in hordes with trace neon clothing clinging to their glittered bodies. Hike up your thong, take your shirt off, and swallow your molly because David Guetta is about to step onto stage. Or Deadmau5, or Tiesto, or fucking Hardwell. (Seriously, who the shit is Hardwell? His name sounds like a phony penis enlargement product sold to sad man-boys watching Fight Club at 3 am on cable TV).

Thankfully, the EDM craze appears to be dying like an Orca Whale at Sea World, but not without leaving a legacy behind like goo behind a slug. A legacy that undermines the rightful code of electronic music (sorry PLUR, it’s not you).  This code can be dated back to 1913 Italy, when Futurist artist Luigi Russolo penned a manifesto entitled The Art of Noise. In it he states, “we must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.” His argument revolves around the idea of not resting on what is popularly accepted, but denying the ego and pushing into the age of industrialism to unlock the undiscovered musical potential of noise. He essentially predicted exactly what happened over the course of the 20th century with the rise of technology in music. What he never could have predicted was how much money noise would make. Sadly, the presence of money seems to have reestablished the circle of pure sounds, reformulated that which is standard by way of greed and fame.

For nearly all of the 20th century electronic music served as subversion to the restrictive circle of normativity, precisely because it operated outside the bounds of what was considered beautiful and right. Now that it is fully in vogue, and poring out of venues and clubs the world over, we risk losing electronic music as a method of seeing past our egoism. Luigi Russolo saw technology as a way that we could dissolve the status quo of music. Discwoman participates in a movement that seeks to upend the socio-political status quo with their steadfast taste in music and fiery identity politics. Russolo’s critical insight was that there was beauty and musicality in noise, and noise was so often unintentional. Often only heard in the background, and rarely singled out as important, but together it was the orchestra that nobody expected, but what we ultimately needed moving forward. Halo’s mix eloquently merges Russolo’s manifesto, with Discwoman’s agenda. She hints at the elegance of individuality and uses its power to ossify her selected tracks into a more powerful whole. I suggest we do the same with ourselves.