on music : essays / ideas

#1 on electronic music and solitude


One of the many truths this pandemic has brought to light is the power of art, in all its diverse expressions, as a tool (or weapon) against loneliness, fatigue, and anxiety. Seeing, hearing, reading, creating, or collaborating—many of us have zeroed in on the art forms we love, to lift our spirits and keep us going in this bleak nearly-two-years. For many people, the lack of live events and the closure of venues during 2020 and the first half of 2021 was an occasion, welcome or not, to dive more deeply into films on demand, archives and online exhibitions, or simply our own bookshelf or record collection, if we’re lucky enough to have one. It has been a chance to rediscover what we’ve known, loved, and maybe half-forgotten. But, with the sudden silence in our social lives, and for those of us whose jobs allowed us time and space to ourselves, it has also been a chance to discover whole new realms of the imagination in art forms we had not yet explored.

For me, 2020 was the year that my love of electronic music crystallized. In fact, the last five years have been a slow-burning yet increasingly passionate embrace of a musical genre—or, more accurately, a wide umbrella of genres; a vast and telescopic series of discoveries within discoveries; a domain that it would take a lifetime to build a comprehensive knowledge of. I am scraping the surface and thrilling at every nugget of revelation. But if I was already wading into the shallows, 2020 was the year I leant over and plunged. And the isolation of the pandemic was certainly what pushed me in.

Growing up with a deep love of rock, folk, pop, and indie, I started to look for something new and lyric-less while studying for a master’s in 2016. (A prosaic way in, but a way in.) I made some blind forays into YouTube chillhop playlists with their anime art of rainy Tokyo streets. Then I landed on the warm grains of Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Vanilla, and early Bonobo. From there on in, I gradually sloughed off what I didn’t like and began to understand what I did. I wandered unhurriedly through ambient, techno, EDM, IDM, house, jungle, dub, and breakbeat. I built spreading, branching Spotify playlists—and had a serious wake-up call when, scrolling through the artists I had followed, I was met with the faces of white man after white man after white man. I began to seek out diversity in my listening. I got switched on to the structural discrimination within electronic music that continues to impact women and people of colour in a very concrete way. I am still in the foothills of a steep learning curve, but I am reading and listening and holding my lack of knowledge in mind.

And since the pandemic hit in March 2020, my journey into music has taken on new layers and new personal significance. With time and solitude came reflection, with anxiety came a renewed need for solace and escape, and in all of this, I found electronic music to be astonishingly nourishing. Now that the circumstances are shifting again, and this period of intense isolation is—for now—drawing to a close, I wanted to untangle some of the reasons for this profound experience of a genre. In doing so, I’ve been intrigued by deeper, larger, more universal questions about music and our plurality of relationships to it, as humans in 2021, as humans in very specific crisis with its wild array of repercussions.

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The reasons for our personal connections with particular art forms are, of course, highly subjective. Individual taste is obviously key, but so is exposure, the context of that exposure, and the emotional and circumstantial connections that have built up around that art form during our lives so far. Some of these factors can be explained, it seems to me, and some cannot. At first, I assumed that the reason why electronic music has felt so meaningful to me in the last year was just my shifting taste—nothing to explore, nothing to explain, no use delving for deeper reasons. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was some kernel of objectivity under the woolly clouds of preference; some core of truth about electronic music’s particular aptitude for isolated listening and for connection in solitude, its peculiar intersections and overlaps with aloneness and togetherness. So I decided to try peeling back the layers, to see what, if anything, lay underneath.


Out of the nebulous fog of these ideas, the first observation to surface was perhaps the most obvious: a lot of electronic music is created by people working alone; by artists and producers who are themselves isolated in studios. If music is created in solitude, I thought, could there be some quality of solitude that bleeds through it, slotting in like a key with the like-minded listener?

This idea is underpinned by a cliché (albeit one that contains elements of truth) as, obviously, not all electronic producers work alone. Collaborations abound within this genre just as in any other. Artists team up with other artists, and they also work closely with sound technicians and engineers, recording artists, and post-production teams. All the same, many electronic music producers do carry out all aspects of their tracks’ creation entirely independently. This process can range from the relatively simple (an artist working with a digital audio workstation, or DAW, to build a track from pre-made elements—which artist Machine Woman has said she can do on the bus, using her phone) to the staggeringly complex (using advanced software to chop and splice miniscule fragments of sound, and to modify frequencies and waves on the molecular level to produce the desired effect). A casual listener might never grasp the enormous technical skill and attention to detail that has gone into producing a polished and well-balanced electronic track. And the artist may have done all this alone; the one-human-band of the electronic world.

Yet the solitude of autonomous music production is not something we can hear in a track; it is simply an external fact. In other words, you can’t tell by listening to an instrumental track by Beatrice Dillon, Bicep, K-Hand, or Aphex Twin if it was made by one person, a duo, or a team. But maybe that’s the point: by the same token, there is no audible teamwork. In an electronic track, you don’t hear instrumentalists playing together in the same room, or a vocalist backed by guitars. So, electronic music often doesn’t inherently tell us anything about the solitude (or not) of the track’s production. How, then, could there be an inherent “solitude quality”? And how could it affect the listening experience?

The real contrast, I think, is between music where we can hear multiple people’s involvement (a choir, a quartet, a band, a duo, etc.) and music where we can’t (a lot of electronic music). And it seems to me—anecdotally, subjectively, but undeniably—that the psychological experience of listening to music (audibly) produced by multiple people is different, and makes us feel different, to the experience of listening to (what sounds like) one person. It feels like the difference between hanging out with a group of people and hanging out with one person, in the most basic sense. With electronic music, if I’m listening alone, I often have the ridiculous sense that the artist and I are the only two people to have heard this music. Or perhaps we are the only two people to get it. It is intimate and it feels like it’s taking place in my own head. The connection is of a different texture than the connection I feel with music played by a band. My brain’s interpretation might not reflect reality, and it might be double-think-ishly conscious of that, but the sense of intimate connection—one solitude with another—remains.

Another, related, idea takes the solitude factor one step further. In electronic music, not only can we not always detect any human input aside from the artist themselves, sometimes we can’t detect anyhuman at all. I have the impression that this, too, is more than a fact we consciously acknowledge in our heads—it’s also a gut feeling, a subconscious sense we get from the music itself. It’s the same sense that made me, at one time, actively dislike electronic music: it made me feel lonely. I couldn’t identify tangible traces of the human making the music, and where my listening brain reached out for company—voice, breath, strumming, striking, or bowing—it found none of these. It slid off the smooth, metallic surface of what I thought of then as “just” machine-made sounds.

How is it that this aspect of electronic music, this aspect of perceived lack of humanity that once left me cold, also be experienced (as I now find to be the case) as something positive and richly intriguing? Why would the music that had made me feel lonely now feel like a balm for solitude, both deep and deliciously coloured, inviting me into its glittering depths?

I think it has to do with the freedom it gives to our brains to project their own impressions, our sensory experiences of light, colour, shape, and texture—but also emotions, often nebulous—onto the sounds we hear. In music without vocals, we are not faced with the realism of a human experience expressed in lyrics. And in much electronic music, we do not even have an audibly-human-touched instrument to connect with. We have, instead, abstract sounds and soundscapes. I find this extremely calming. This idea has been intriguingly described and explored by DJ and producer R. Kitt who, in his Soundcloud mix for B-side in May 2021, speaks of “the philosophy I have around dance music, and my relationship with it, and why it’s so important in my life.” Referring to Traumprinz’ track “2 bad,” he describes how this music is “really just a vehicle for emotion; and instrumental electronic music is so effective at taking you to an emotional space without the context of having to deal with the baggage of that emotion. And that’s so cathartic, you know, it’s liberating too, to be able to feel an emotion without having to deal with something in the world that’s actually the source of that emotion, particularly when it comes to sadness and regret. I think it’s so healthy for us to be able to engage with these emotions, decontextualized from their source.” It is the same reason I like walking in industrial estates, especially when my brain is in overdrive: with no houses, gardens, or driveways, there are no personalities to be seen. Just corrugated steel and barbed-wire fences. Grass and flowers poking through the cracks. High, barred windows. And even when the sounds are harsh, electronic music (particularly instrumental, minimal, industrial and techno, but also ambient, breakbeat, etc.) feels like the aural equivalent of this bleak and soothing landscape. It is the perfect setting for solitude because, although rich in expression, it keeps the space open for our own feelings to spill out, rattle around, form and unform, and perhaps untangle themselves a little.


The second facet of electronic music’s solitude-aptitude feels, at first, almost antithetical to the first. And yet, delving further into both, I find them strangely complementary; flip-sides of the same coin.

Electronic music is, in a very large part, made specifically for clubs, for dancing, for crowds—that is, made to be experienced in the least solitary context we can conjure up in our atomized cities. It is made to stitch us together in company with hundreds of other humans expressing something profound through movement. For anyone who has made it a part of their lifestyle, listening to electronic music cannot fail to remind us of going out dancing. Clubs, raves, parties, rooftops, street parties, sound-systems, parks: the environments are inseparable and inextricable from the music they give rise to, and they often play a key role in how the music is created. As electronic producer Saytek explains, “As a live act, I rely on […] feedback from a live crowd. This music is designed to be performed in front of a crowd of people dancing together, and that human emotion is so important to an artist.”

It is also important to point out that large swathes of electronic music—acousmatic, syncopated, experimental, conceptual ambient, and even “intelligent dance music” or IDM—run counter to this context, made less for dancing and more for thoughtful or engaged listening (often in a live performance, installation, or concert context). Still, many of the more mainstream electronic music genres are most definitely made to be danced to; hence “dance music.” To take an obvious example, the variety of EDM known as “four to the floor,” with its tracks often described in reviews as “club-ready,” is consciously constructed for the collective experience; a kind of benevolent manipulation. R. Kitt again: “it’s the ideological position that you put people in when they’re on the dancefloor—you expose them to this intersection between their individual autonomy and a collective structure that actually facilitates that individual autonomy; something that is at once both personal and shared. Private and public, together. And that’s an incredibly exciting feeling.” Indeed, build-ups and drops are the architecture that funnels the most elemental emotional experience of dancing in a club: as a group, we feel the build-up, the rise in pitch, the tension, the deliberate suspense that ratchets up among the closely packed crowd, the wild excitement and anticipation… and when the beat drops, the joy, the ecstasy, the gratification as the crowd goes wild, together. The energy of the club is so powerful because we go through these emotions, these small but explosive anticipations and fulfilments, together with hundreds of strangers, sharing an experience more visceral than one we could express in words.

Listening to this same music on your own, at home, in the bubble of your headphones, is obviously a very different experience. So why—in my own experience, at least—should it feel good to listen to this music in solitude? And if the lack of audible togetherness in the music’s maybe-solitary production process adds to its aptitude for solitary listening, as I claimed earlier, then why should the same music’s raison-d’être of collective experience still feel good (rather than feeling at best nostalgic, at worst irrelevant) in the isolation of lockdown?

This time, the only way I could see to unravel this apparent paradox was by comparing my experience of electronic music with that of music played by a live act. When we listen to a band or solo act performing live in a venue, our attention, as their audience, is naturally focused on them. We dance and sing and cheer alongside the other audience members, but our reactions are more or less directed at the people on stage to whom we want to show our appreciation. We watch them play. We look at their faces. We yell the words back to them. It’s a powerful experience, and it’s more or less a two-way communication.

The togetherness of sharing electronic music with other club-goers is of a very different kind. It is real, concrete, fully the intention of the music’s creator (or at least, of the DJ), and perhaps universal among the other members of the crowd. When we’re dancing in a club, the only focal point we have as a source of the music is the DJ, if indeed they are visible. Focusing on a band feels obvious because they are performing. DJs are different: normally they are skilfully ordering, selecting, arranging, and weaving together records to create a coherent experience for the crowd—often shaping it to reflect the energy and the mood on the dancefloor; but the crowd does not necessarily face the DJ, nor gravitate towards them. Our attention therefore pans out to the people around us—friends or strangers—and ultimately, inwards to ourselves. Personally, as I listen, I’m submerged in the music and its almost tangible textures and shapes, the physicality of the bassline in my bones; in short, the very individual experience that takes place in a room packed with people. It’s comparable to what happens in a cinema: the immersive movie experience is totally individual and subjective, and we get lost inside our own heads until we look around and see the dimly lit faces of a hundred other people plunged into their own deeply subjective experience. Alone, but not.

It’s this quality of the together-experience of electronic music that, for me, allows it to seamlessly cross the divide into a rich and immersive solitary experience: because there’s something joyfully solitary about the music, even in the midst of a sweaty club. Even when I’m thrilling to the shared emotion, the contagious energy, the visceral force of moving bodies, I’m still deep inside my own head, adrift and buffeted by colours and patterns and forms that are unique to my own senses (and, you may have guessed, my own synaesthesia). At the other extreme, when locked down and completely alone, and when I haven’t been within two metres of another human for a long time—too long, longer than nature intended—I put my headphones on and I’m nonetheless immersed in that same sensory galaxy. Yes, I am strongly and inevitably reminded, by force of association, of the club crowd. But that’s not all there is to it. The music itself, with the same crowd-electrifying capacities it has built into its DNA, works to plunge me into the same inward-looking maelstrom I would experience on the dancefloor. This is very different to the sense of distance I feel when listening alone to music by a band, which serves as a starker reminder that once, these people were together in a room, and now they and I are isolated from one another and everyone else. So even when I wondered if I’d ever be on a dancefloor again, when it felt a world away and I missed it like crazy, the music put me in the same headspace, the same gloriously subjective world; it’s just that the other people I’d otherwise be sharing this alone-togetherness with were now, possibly, diving into their own music bubbles in their own rooms in their own houses, across the city and the country.


Finally, there is another quite self-evident way that electronic music can be, and has been, a source of solace in this turbulent time.

The pandemic has obviously had as much impact on artists as it has on their listeners. For artists whose main professional activities were producing music and playing at clubs and parties, lockdown took away not only their day-to-day professional work and their income, but also the driving force and context for their artistic creation: producing music for club-goers, for dancing, for the energy of the crowd. With no prospect of their music being enjoyed by a dancefloor full of people, many artists found their whole approach to their artistic practice turned on its head.

Some have used the opportunity to consciously create music with a very different focus—one of calm, of clarity, of introspection. In an interview about her track “Rotating in Unison,” Australian producer HAAi says, “The track and the visual were both made to highlight beauty and coexistence as we all rotate around the sun. To try and remember beauty and calm in a time of uncertainty and unrest, even for just a few minutes.” Similarly, describing their track Sapphire Eyes (featuring a poem by a spoken word artist), producer duo Wayward say, “One of the only things keeping us sane during lockdown was making transportive music that conjured up club moments. The spoken word was given to us by a friend and it fit perfectly, the words really resonating with the state of things at that current time.” Meanwhile, producer Nadia Struiwigh describes her shift in focus: “Because of the pandemic, I now start with the kick and the bass. They say it is a more grounded sound, it’s lower and more connected to the earth, quite spiritual almost,” she explains. “My compositions are different, but I feel my sound is more complete right now. This year, I have been able to be more present with my sound and observe what it is missing and what I can learn to evolve it more.”


I set out to explore solitude and electronic music with not much more than a hunch that the two might be connected in multiple and complex ways. While the personal resonance of any art form is of course highly subjective, I felt sure that there was some objective truth to the idea that electronic music has particular characteristics apt for listening to and enjoying in solitude—and which even make that solitude more bearable. The feeling of intimate connection with the producer, whom we can imagine to be bubbled in their own solitude (true or not) in creation and production; the inherent ability of electronic music to conjure up vibrant individual sensory experiences, whether we’re dancing in a club crowd or alone in our kitchen with headphones on; and the conscious shift many electronic artists have made towards making music differently during and after the solitude of lockdown: all these factors have combined, for me, to make electronic music a lifeline and a tangible salvation during these bleak months. The particular mechanisms and effects that I have described are firmly rooted in my own experiences, and they may not ring true for the next person. But trying to unravel these questions has highlighted a more universal truth for me: that non-verbal (in this case, electronic) music allows us to mentally transcend some truly grim challenges through its capacity for profound expression without the need for words. Sometimes, the best way to process our emotions is to say nothing at all—just listen, move, and feel. If this is a life skill to learn, if this is an important tool to come away from the pandemic with, I’ll take it.


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