The beat is about to drop | Thinking Out Loud No. 33

Why leaving employment is like progressive trance music

Hi friends,

Welcome to the 40 of you who have joined since last time and hello again to the nearly 600 of you were here already! 

This one is about a nine minute read, says Ulysses (the best writing app in the world).

In this issue I’m going to take two seemingly disparate topics and smash them together: leaving my job and progressive trance music.

Yep.

This will be my last week of conventional employment. I may return one day, but the plan is to pursue the self-directed, self-employed thing for as long as feels right. From Friday I’ll have time to write, read, think, build my course and do whatever else seems fun.

There have of course been many emotions behind this journey: excitement, frustration, sadness, fear, anxiety, hope. 

But this move has felt like a long term coming. I’ve been wandering in this direction for many years, half realising it was possible for much of 2020, and now my notice period after resigning has been three months (yes, Americans, three actual months).

It’s not possible, at least for me, to exist in a highly emotional state for any of these lengths of time; I would just get emotionally ‘burnt out’. Instead, my emotions around heading out on my own have ebbed and flowed through both positive and negative valences and strong and weak intensities. 

This is the kind of effect that tends to reveal itself on reflection and rarely at the time. I’ve often had moments where I’ve sat and wondered: why am I not more excited? I was hunting around for metaphors to explain this and realised...

The moment I leave my job will be like the moment the beat drops in a progressive trance track.

Some of you will immediately and fully grasp what I mean by this (if this is you, please send me music recommendations). For everyone else, let me show you something...

Though I have pretty wide-ranging taste in music, I tend to keep coming ‘home’ to progressive trance, particularly music produced by Above & Beyond and their label Anjunabeats. It’s what I listen to most and the music I probably have the most refined ‘ear’ for.

Their tracks are almost entirely about the emotional journey you go on as you listen. They are meticulously crafted layer by layer, second by second to build and release emotional tension, often tending towards either the euphoric or the melancholic (or both at the same time).

The beat drop, which is characteristic of most electronic dance music and frequently done badly (and thus often ridiculed), is one way to engineer that release. 

It’s a momentary fleeting, mind-scrambling and thoughtless kind of bliss, a liberation of potential energy where your entire being is consumed by the experience. If this kind of music works for you, it’s almost impossible not to express that release through movement. This is what makes live events with true fans so powerful — everyone gets it and shares the same shared attention space. Without saying a word to each other, they share a glimpse of the same emotional experience, which allows them to connect.

The drop is (usually) obvious, flashy and fun, but to see it as the purpose of a track, with everything around it as mere padding, is to fundamentally miss the point. The drop only works as a release of tension if you’ve taken the time to build it up in the first place. It’s the creation of tension that is the art and magic of progressive trance.

Strictly speaking, the beat drops when there’s a marked change in the beat between sections. This means there are usually multiple drops throughout a track, each of a different kind. Some can be very subtle, but when you get a feel for them, you’ll hear them, and they can be beautiful. 

So, coming back to tension, let’s look at some of the ways it can be created. 

Narrative

Some tracks give you some lyrical context to bring up your own stories to relate to emotionally. This isn’t universal, but it is common. Lyrics are usually about some universal themes, like love, fear, courage, grief or belonging.

In the setup to Thing Called Love (link below) we’re given lyrics that could be hopeful, grateful, or melancholic. We don’t know — there’s no resolution to the story. That’s up to you.

There was a time, there was a place, but there was fear inside.
A witty line to save my face, a parachute of pride.
To cross the line takes a tiny step, but will this spark lead the bridge to burn?
My fear entwined with my regret, I beat a path for safe return.

Even without lyrics, great progressive trance still gives you hint of a narrative, entirely without words. The specific content of the story is up to you, but the shape is there.

Example: Thing Called Love by Above & Beyond

Complexity

People who like progressive trance often also seem to like classical music: good examples of both involve of multiple layers that fade in and out, each one providing a different flavour and and texture to the experience. 

Depending on your ability to notice different layers and your familiarity with a given track, you might have a new experience each time you listen. I think this is why I can listen to this style of music so frequently: there’s so much going on that it rarely gets boring.

The complexity of a track lets you go deep into different emotional states or mix and match them. You might have mostly ‘happy’ layers with a subtle overtone of sadness, or vice versa. It’s rarely 100% obvious how you should be feeling (though this happens) — it’s more like each layer is an invitation for different emotions to show up in you.

Example: Anjunabeach - Above & Beyond (Genix vs Las Salinas remix). This one also illustrates most of the other characteristics here, but no lyrics. It’s an all-time favourite of mine — just listen to all the places it takes you!

Ambiguity

This is your experience. The point of the music is to allow you to channel whatever comes up for you in listening to it. 

The best tracks somehow seem not to impose their own sense of right or wrong on you. They don’t tell you how to feel. Their themes are rarely HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY or SAD SAD SAD or ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY — they reflect the truth that nothing in life is just one way, but could also be a million other ways. 

These tracks, like our lives, are open to interpretation.

Example: Sink the Lighthouse - Above & Beyond feat Alex Vargas (Maor Levi Remix). This one is also an absolute banger.

Space

If you’ve listened to any of the tracks I’ve shared so far, you may have noticed something they have in common: while they can be quite intense and ‘clubby’, they often have long periods of relative calm and quiet.

In what might otherwise be a frenetic experience, the producers of these tracks very intentionally give you space for… something. In a club setting, dancing solidly for hours is exhausting, so moments to rest are great for endurance.

But there’s so much more to it than that. It’s like you’re being given space to reflect on and process what’s just happened. 

You’re thrown into a kind of sensory overload, often with strong emotional and physical components, and then you get time to integrate it. In the club, you may stop dancing, close your eyes and think “huh, yes, I am still grieving for that loss. I’m glad I got to process it again here.” It’s like the annealing process I mentioned in No 30 — you need to take the heat and pressure off the steel from time to time to make it stronger.

It also reminds me of this wonderful discussion of “ma” that you can see in Hayao Miyazaki’s films

I told Miyazaki I love the "gratuitous motion" in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

”We have a word for that in Japanese," he said. "It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally.

Is that like the "pillow words" that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?

I don't think it's like the pillow word." He clapped his hands three or four times. "The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb."

That ‘ma’ in the music — perhaps counterintuitively — lets you go deeper into it. You can’t have constant tension or you go numb.

Example: Hello — Above & Beyond.

Predictability

One criticism I hear about this type of music is that it’s predictable. There will be a build, then there will be a drop, and it’s obvious. Where’s the subtlety?

Well, aside from all of the above, that predictability is a feature, not a bug. It gives us — individually and collectively — something to orient ourselves towards, like a kind of shared group intention. The fact that you know there will be some kind of release, and that you can forecast roughly when and how it will happen, lets you look forward to it, while also freeing you to let go fully into the experience leading up to that point. 

This is extremely evident in clubs. There’s always that moment when it’s obvious that there is an absolutely epic drop coming: everyone gets very into it, the energy in the room shoots up and everyone becomes even more connected. 

And then, when the absolutely epic drop arrives, and you all see it coming, and you all move and release that potential energy in unison: well that’s just magic.

Example: Tension — Ilan Bluestone and Jerome Isma-Ae. This one is much less subtle than the others. And yet…

All of this is what the last few months/years have been like for me

And I wish I’d seen that at the time and not just now as I’m looking back.

 Each of these characteristics has been present:

  • Narrative. I am leaving a ten year career in energy innovation to become an online Alexander Technique teacher, coach, freelance consultant and who knows what else. There are a lot of stories in there. Some to let go of, some to forge, some to integrate with others.

  • Complexity. Gearing up to leave a career to go feral is no easy thing, particularly during a pandemic and while still doing the job. At any time it’s possible to focus on one of many layers within the experience. In some cases, it’s easy to over focus on some layers to the unhelpful exclusion of others.

  • Ambiguity. Despite how it may seem, it wasn’t and still isn’t at all obvious how I should be feeling about it, or whether I should be doing it at all. Some days my experience of this journey is excitement with overtones of fear, other days it’s anxious with overtones of hope.

  • Space. Regardless of the time horizons I look at — whether it’s the decade of wandering, the last year of building, or the last three months of waiting — there has been plenty of ma, that emptiness between the things that move the story along. In many ways, 2020 has been the year of ma. This ma has given me time to reflect on and process this transition, while also helping me get through it. 

  • Predictability. This one has only become relevant since I actually resigned and the three month countdown started, but it has helped me lean into the process until then more deeply. Knowing that there would be an end and when it would be has been valuable to help navigate the period leading up to it.

But linking this back to progressive trance — all of these elements have introduced their own kind of tension into my system. That tension has built up over years.

The big drop, that enormous release of accumulated potential energy, is yet to come. 

Friday.

(ABGT350 in Prague — October 2019)


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