When I first heard Techno I was so confused

Isaac Castella McDonald 13 November 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When I first heard Techno I was so confused.

I’d been told all about the clubbing scene in Berlin; in my small village home it had steadily accrued a mythical air. I had gone in feeling certain that whatever it was that was in there was going to change my idea of a good time. I struggled against my dire first impression: that this ‘music’ was uninteresting trash. A 4/4 beat and the occasional industrial interjection, a lot of people in the room trying to be hardcore and believing it.

It took me a long time to get to the point where I am now, where I can confidently state that Techno justifies its presence in the landscape of late 20th and 21st century music. But more than this, I would argue that Techno deserves greater recognition by performance artists and psychologists too.

The reason I was so confused by Techno was its uncompromising simplicity: it was boring to someone who is used to dancing performatively at and to and for others with cheesy club classics. Techno is not ‘entertaining’ in the same sense; it doesn’t approach you. Listening to 25 songs plus an hour, as opposed to one continuous morphing stream of 4 by 4 bars, is a completely different experience, and the similar setting in which these experiences are placed can often lead people to misunderstand the drastic differences between the two.

Wolle XDP, a Berlinite techno artist describes techno as an ‘out and out rejection of Disco values’ (Disco being the popular club music of the day) it is instead to do with a ‘dance floor socialism’, where there is nothing of the hierarchy and showmanship of performative dancing, but instead every person is made equally subject to the music and can ‘lose [themselves] in light and sound’ [1]. If fully accepted and engaged in, listening to techno is close to meditation, but this does not happen over two minutes. There is a reason why in Berghain, the notorious club occupying an abandoned power station on the outskirts of Berlin, opens on Friday night and closes again on Monday morning, because appreciating techno, like benefitting from meditation, takes time and effort and focus, and is completely engaging once accessed.

The Berghain Club, Berlin. Image credit: Flickr.

Once I was ‘in’ the music, I became fascinated with how my mind worked during the process.

Although I cannot claim to have come anywhere close to mastering the skill, I feel I did get a sense of where it could lead, and why, indeed, there is such a fanaticism for techno in its subcultures and geographical hubs of Detroit and Berlin.

The beat became for me an intimation of brute reality, uncompromising and commanding. It opposes egoism and encourages unbecoming, it refuses to be manipulated, and it manipulates you. It felt at points like I was in a contest with the beat. For DJ Tanith, another pioneer of the Berlin scene, techno epitomises being ‘against something’ [2]. Like meditation, everyone will respond to Techno differently when they engage with it, but engaging with it like this is in my opinion bound up in its nature. You cannot truly hear Techno if you listen to it quietly in the background for 10 minutes

This reception of and engagement with the music on a subliminal level is part of the nature of the music itself. It can only be heard, as opposed to just listened to, in the performance of receiving it and dancing to it. Just as a poem written and put in a drawer only half-exists, the dancers are part of the existence of this art-form. The dancers perform the music.

The framework of Techno can be seen in Kraftwerk, the German group that pioneered the use of synths and drum machines, popularising electronic music in the 1970s, but it became a genre in the industrial wreck/artefact of Detroit.

As Techno’s popularity grew it became increasingly commercialised, so much so that by 1992 a number of European producers and labels began to associate rave culture with the corruption and commercialization of the original techno ideal [3]. These producers, including Robert Hood, wanted a ‘basic, stripped down, raw sound… Only what’s essential to make people move’[4]. The point of its existence is to ‘make people move’. It opposes the egoism of the artist in a time when many rappers have ended up selling their personality more than they sell their lyricism or musicality. Many techno nights at Cambridge fall foul of this capitalist curse. Techno seeks a dance floor equality, the DJ included. It is to do with losing yourself rather than swaddling in layers of ego. It is to do with mental performative engagement with the music that defines the genre, rather than a product to be sold. It is art, but art as access rather than object, experience over possession.

I’m not an expert on techno music, and these are my own thoughts that I encourage you to evaluate. But don’t dismiss Techno before you’ve listened to it as I have suggested, because you might turn out to love it.


[1] Sicko, D., Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999
[2] Sicko, D., Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999
[3] Reynolds, S., Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, Pan Macmillan, 1998
[4] Osselaer, John (February 1, 2001). “Robert Hood interview”. Overload Media/Spannered. Retrieved December 2, 2011.