Music is a form of care – perspectives on vibrations, community, and the works of Steve Goodman, Thodén and Clarissa Conelly

Feature June 5 2024
Foto: Red Bull Music Academy

By Juliette Thouin

Today, music seems more and more diluted into the backdrop of our daily routines. This essay explores some ways in which music, more than a product to be consumed, can be a powerful form of care and community. The relentless commercialisation of music risks alienating us from its essence, presenting it as a functional tool rather than a source of emotional and social resonance. This gradual change encouraged me to seek some perspectives and practices that reclaim music’s transformative potential as a living, breathing entity that can open new perceptions, carrying memories and emotions across different experiences.

As the independent music scene faces increasing pressure from corporate and algorithmic control, it seems crucial to re-establish our bond with music as a dynamic, reciprocal relationship – one that nurtures listener and community, and one we must also nurture in return. This essay explores how the works of Steve Goodman (Kode9), Thodén, and Clarissa Connelly show music’s physical impact on our bodies and minds, provoking sensations that can lead to new forms of understanding as they connect us to unseen and unheard aspects of our environment. 

Some years ago, I worked in a small music label where I discovered just how much playlists had become a thing. All of my A&R and marketing-tasks revolved around playlist curation, making, managing, and growing playlists to fit various moods: music for going to the gym, going on a date, or music for chilling. Artists trying to make it were even paying labels just to listen to their songs in the hope of being playlisted.

This experience somehow changed my understanding of music. Being immersed in the harsh reality of music as an entertainment product meant for me personally that I needed to find other ways to reconnect with music. To come up with criteria and definitions that asserted my bond to music better than this endless stream of moods adjusted to fit other activities. I had to ask myself: Why care about music?

How to care in the playlist era?

Music provokes sensations that can seize you in more or less intense encounters. The current music industry is increasingly tailoring it as a functional and convenient commodity. The playlist era has shifted into that of the personalised playlist one, ruling and deciding how a song feels according to a set of data points. 

As this music-capitalist infrastructure alienates us further from music’s essence, I found a lot of hope in other academics’ writings that resist music’s appropriation as a resource. Instead, “sound comes to the rescue of thought”, as the author of Sonic Warfare, Steve Goodman, puts it. It does something to us. It doesn’t simply make us think or set us certain moods. It makes us vibrate with it, physically and metaphorically. 

Just like this way of thinking has restored my own relationship with music, I see from my home in Lisbon some tendencies in the Danish music scene to restore a relationship with music and resist some of the market logic that drives the industry. With this article, I try to reach back to music’s core to cultivate the bond as a reciprocal and caring relationship with music. I will try to explain what I mean by paying special attention to two artists, Thodén and Clarissa Connelly.

Existence is vibrations

Copenhagen-based Thodén embodies a particular lineage of rave and sound sensibility that he brings to life through his work as a producer and DJ. Clarissa Connelly explores folkloric heritage by invoking other-worldly and other-timely canons and melodies. While at two aesthetic poles, Thodén and Clarissa Connelly seem to emerge from similar conceptual grounds that resonate with some aspects of Steve Goodman’s take on sound.

Steve Goodman, also known as Kode9, has committed both his musical and academic practice to the potent power of sound. Founder of British label Hyperdub, Kode9 has been a pioneer in electronic music, notably releasing works by Burial, Babyfather and the late DJ Rashad. In his book Sonic Warfare he explores how sound is felt, rather than heard, and how it can be used as a tool for dominance and resistance. He approaches sound, in both his writing and music, essentially as affective forces of vibrations. As an autonomous thing that moves, mutates, encounters, and reverberates through your whole being. 

“The only way to not exist is to be still”

Affect, in its ordinary usage, means the felt impact of something. In this particular strand of critical theory, affect similarly refers to an embodied sensation – but more precisely as this little slice of intensity that occurs before we are able to classify the sensation as any specific emotion or feeling. Slices of intensity loaded with potential, but not yet defined by inner dialogue as any specific feeling.

Goodman zooms into these slices and explains affective forces as vibrations. He defines “vibes” as those energies, movements, forces, sounds, textures, emotions, or music that occur, more technically in sine waves. Existence, he reminds us, relies on the vibrations of “the echo of the big bang”. Instead of “to be or not to be”, he defines everything that exists as vibrating atoms. The only way to not exist is to be still.

The sonic realms of Thodén – an alternative world of affective resonance

To me, Thodén’s mix feels like the sonic elaboration of this theory – a microcosm of vibrating atoms. As he gradually lures you into his hyper-cadenced lope, the heavy bass pulsation grounds you into a texturally thick, hypnotic, and entrancing groove. The body of the mix feels like a virus mutating at the contact of different electronic music genres, where the rhythm organically spirals and (a)morphs, shifting seamlessly between tribal rhythms, acidic undertones, and dub-induced echoes. Thodén’s crafts this dubby Tekno-hardgroove – similar to that of Omen Wapta, Appendix.files, or Nebuchadnezzar – by amplifying the most affective qualities and textures from the “club-and-adjacent” genres he encounters.

“(…) listening is a full-body, tactile, and sensual experience from which  another reality can emerge, a pocket universe.”

In a sonically material way, Thodén shows us that listening is a full-body, tactile, and sensual experience from which another reality can emerge, a pocket universe. The rave and dub lineage resonates immensely here, bringing us to the ephemeral, utopian social worlds that were built on a sense of belonging and unity. A unity that was created with the cultivation of particular sounds. These genres can be felt as sound-driven communities. Dub, Tekno, tribal, or psy-trance – these sonic communities have used the mixing deck, sub-bass and DJs as shamans to manipulate reality at the level of vibrations into a sort of institution of care for the bodies that vibrate with it.

There is a particular exercise in listening that Thodén fosters by playing with untimely and random interventions of non-music sounds. Playing with the perception of sound, like Goodman’s theory, these interventions of grain, texture, and timbre – the “sound of sound” – are foregrounded through surprising apparitions of glitchy, aquatic, rustling, swift sonic clips. It feels like an inheritance of ambient and field recordings that opens up the soundscape as a responsive environment. Sounds of the surroundings (involuntarily) appear and create a contour of an alternative world of affective resonance.

Foto: Amy Gwatkin

Human perception is overrated

Goodman challenges the assumption of human perception by reducing everything to vibrations. Perception is not uniquely human, it is but one result of interplay of vibration. From my perspective, Thodén’s music directly incorporates this contestation of human centricity by magnifying the slices of affect provoked by sounds and their vibrations. So, sound is cultivated by artists, but it also moves autonomously and exists without people. “Good” music, Goodman argues, seems to surrender to this more natural and reciprocal bond, as one that magnifies these intensities for others to perceive.

“Connelly uncovers layers of sound that lie beyond human perception”

In a completely different sonic exploration, Clarissa Connelly’s folky work similarly conjures music as an other-than-human life force. Just like Thodén’s microscopic mutation, Connelly uncovers layers of sound that lie beyond human perception, magnifying these sensitivities that affect her. Indeed, in her work, sound traverses rather as spirit through the mythological, the historical, and the folkloric to our contemporary, as the inner spirits of things, peoples and places. For example, in her 2020 project The Voyager, she could hear melodies emanating from Viking relics in the Danish countryside. Aptly described as an experience of clairaudience by Matt Marble in a recent interview, music is a life force that comes to Connelly in moments of movement, during walks, and during instances of spirituality, like divine messages.

Clarissa Conelly releases vibrational forces

In her latest release, The World of Work, Clarissa Connelly seems to explore sound through its divine quality. Melodies and canons repeat and re-iterate, echo and intertwine as they flow in and out of the album like a spiritual earworm. These subtle familiarities provide the listener but also Connelly with certain feelings of comfort and warmth as the artist questions the uncertainty of what lies ahead, of the path(s) of the future. Loneliness, an inevitable consequence of this World of Work, is guided and shouldered by these sweet and recognisable sounds and melodies that echo as songs succeed into one another: “In silence, loneliness appears”, the last sentence of the song goes – reminding us of Goodman’s idea of being, that the only way to not exist is to be still.

“music can alter reality or reveal another possibility of reality.”

On the cover of the release, this supportive bond between the artist and sound becomes visually apparent. Brought to life with cartoon faces, the bell and piano take the centre of attention as Connelly positions herself relative to them as she kneels, leaning onto the side of the mischievous piano and her hand delicately swaying the cheerfully chiming bell. This emphasis on her own presence relative to that of living instruments resonates with the core value of the dub and rave soundsystem communities mentioned above. In these sound-centred communities, sound is the social force that cares for and unites people. Goodman’s abstraction to vibrations reveals how music can alter reality or reveal another possibility of reality.

Music offers the potential to device another reality

While in Thodén’s mix, there is total surrender to the force of vibrations to the point of extracting even the shadow of the human figure from it, Connelly examines sounds that are embedded in certain social systems. In the traditional realms of the folkloric and the religious, sounds might signal exclusions, restrictions, dangers, orders and sometimes, celebrations. The bell, which Connelly describes as the “wall of the album” in a Clash magazine article gradually loosens up to a more chaotic ringing, joining all the other instruments’ full power momentum in the grand finale of S.O.S Song of the Sword. Movement unleashes the force of vibrations to release yet unknown potentials.

In another bridge between the folkloric and the electronic worlds, in an interview with P/A, Connelly wished for folkloric raves where people would not only be faced with sound but be “forced to meet each other” while participating in folkloric dances. You can almost hear Goodman’s definition of the sound system resonate through this yearning. A sound system, in his words, is the alignment, or “rhythmic sympathy”, “of bodies, technologies, and acoustic vibrations”. Music’s social and uniting force is shown through the ability of vibrations to touch us, speak to us, and empathise with us. Music is about movement, relationality, and encounters that help us feel new possibilities, offering the potential to devise together a new reality.

Unknown, Kitan Club Magazine, 1950s

The only good system is a sound system

When music is manipulated to move through the norms of an industry, it endangers its essence and force. The contamination of function, convenience, and efficiency is reaching into those spheres that were once stable pillars of independent music culture. Bandcamp, notably adverse to algorithm personalisation, was recently sold for the second time in less than around a year. Following the sale, editorial employees unionised to protect their rights from the first acquisition – and were fired in consequence. Pitchfork announced that it was about to be swallowed into GQ. Even NTS is now partially owned by the biggest record label in the world, Universal Music. Imposing industrial norms on a scene that sees itself rather as a culture than a branch of the industry is something of an music-ecological crisis.

“Listening carefully is only a first but crucial aspect for preserving the culture of music.”

The works of Thodén and Clarissa Connelly remind us of music’s innate ability to foster connections and other realities. Their music, rooted in the traditions of rave, dub, and folk, resonates with Steve Goodman’s notion of music as a force that moves through our beings, shapes our perceptions, challenges our assumptions and unites us in shared experiences. Together, they evoke dub’s faithful adage that “the only good system is a sound system” – a system not built on profit margins but on the transformative power of sound to foster bonds of community, empathy, and sonic exploration. Listening carefully is only a first but crucial aspect for preserving the culture of music.

Info: This piece was brought as the result of an exchange of ideas between the writer and Mathias Schønberg. Read Macon Holt’s introduction to Steve Goodman’s vibrational ontology from 2019 here.