Emptyset played the Twisted Pepper last Friday night for !Kaboogie’s 7th birthday and it was great. A short-ish set of chest-rattling bass and immense white noise, controlled by Paul Purgas and James Ginzburg. They took full advantage of the great system in the stage room of the Pepper with a dynamic approach to intensity. It was loud and quiet, harsh and soft, and everything in between. It was physical and cerebral. It was stunning. The depression set in even before we got home. Why is there nothing like this here? Why do we need people to come in from elsewhere to make us feel like this? It’s not over-familiarity. It’s not lack of opportunity. What is missing? The conversation afterwards ran through all these things, looking for some kind of answer and knowing that there wasn’t going to be one, or at least not a neat and easy one.
If one is to read Irish blogs and websites, we’re often told there is a wealth of electronic music talent in the country. I disagree but that doesn’t really matter. There is a distinction to be made though. None, or almost none, of the acts we see talked about in relation to “Irish electronic music” have any relation to the wider concept of club music. Generally they do not make music for dance-floors, they make it for headphones. There is no engagement with the traditions of house and techno beyond metre (and sometimes tempo). It is mostly “electronic music” divorced from its own history and it feels light, even inconsequential, as a result. There is, of course, a dedicated house/techno/etc scene here (with names like TR-One and Sunil Sharpe at the front of it) but it is generally pretty far from the concerns of the media, tiny blogs and national newspapers alike. We could just as easily discuss this in relation to other genres but the particular prominence of electronic music worldwide at the minute, as well as some specific factors relating to nightclubs, make Emptyset a good foil.
Emptyset come from Bristol, they come from a place where club music, bass-centric music particularly, and the top quality sound-systems that go with that, are a central part of going out and experiencing electronic music. They have had years of exposure to top quality club sound and they have the experience of working on that level. They clearly care an awful lot about sound and the impact it can have. Being in the UK too, they’ve had the opportunity to explore sound in an art context, through installations in the Tate and elsewhere. Sound art and club culture are two vital parts of the UK’s musical make-up that we simply do not have here to any great extent.
There is not a single sound-focused art gallery in Dublin, and there is no provision for the support of it. Our galleries sometimes engage classical musicians for performances but there is no attempt to make the music as contemporary and exciting as the art supposedly on show. This goes for large cultural events like the Fringe Festival as well. The music is meant to be a fun thing to do after you’ve viewed and digested the “serious” art. It all adds up to a broadly-held cultural view that music is not art, especially not club music. If you go to London, Bristol, New York, Detroit or Berlin, sound’s central place in the cultural experience of each city is striking. There is history and there is a future. Here we have the Joinery and we might not have it for much longer.
Our nightclubs are curtailed by the most stringent licensing laws in Western Europe and the effect this has on the way we party and experience club music is hugely detrimental. The clubs we do have cost so much to keep open they have to pack the rooms every weekend, which means less room for local acts and DJs. The audience comes only to party, often for just an hour or two, in places that often have terrible sound and bear no relation to club experience elsewhere. Perhaps it is because of our mono-cultural history; we lack the influx of black culture that really forged the way for these kinds of clubs and this kind of music in the UK and America. (It’s not just that, not by any means, but that issue right there is worth a book in itself.) There is no history of sound-system culture here, where Dev’s “dancing at the crossroads” was a strong part of the national identity until well into the 70s. It’s not to say that there aren’t good places with good sound and great booking policies, there are a couple, but they are hampered at every stage by an overly conservative and restrictive legislative policy.
Club music is something that comes about in real life. It is practiced, perfected and experienced in front of audiences. Whether producer, DJ (and there are few who are one but not the other these days – another issue) or dancer, the club is a place where visions and ideas can be tried out, explored and brought to fruition. A serious appreciation for sound as art cannot come about unless it is presented in an environment where art is taken seriously. If we do not have the space (temporal or physical) for these things to happen here, we cannot create an audience and so we cannot create the artists. We are set to remain the warm-up act for some one else, from somewhere else.