Plate 2: Six Flags, Music, Bodies, and Machines.

Brandon Avery Joyce
7 min readSep 19, 2023

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From Earth’s lower orbit, rollercoasters probably resemble war-machines: red and yellow catapults hurling and terrorizing human bodies, not for neighboring destruction but sheerly for the thrill of it all. On a sweltering weekend in June, families and adolescents will press their bodies into queues, surrounded by acousmatic puffs and whirs, then all climb aboard those great machines together. On fairgrounds, they scramble onto the Tilt-A-Whirl platform in search of an open car, one that will rotate around its axis and revolve around the ride’s brightly-lit maypole, like Mercury whipping around the Sun, to the tunes of Carly Ray Jepsen or more quintessentially, the Venga Boys: “Boom boom boom. I want you in my room. Let’s spend the night together from now until forever.

If the riders didn’t appreciate the songs before, secretly they do now. It’s the perfect hype music: punchy, fast, infectious, de-individuating — yet here in a theme park, a little redundant. Why? Because these rides are musicalizing what is already plainly musical; whereas the shocks, intensities, and geometries of their motions would musicalize nearly any sound. The Gravitron, with a DJ at its center, could play anything — Schoenberg, Merzbow, a soundboard of brilliantly stupid effects — and young teens would hear it all with new ears.

Traditional music is embedded in the body — or rather, in bodily power. Its primary value, pitch, represents the traditional form of what we might call the “principle of voice” — all that concerns or governs the immediate aspects and intensities of a sound. The supremacy of pitch, as a value, comes from the fact that pitch is one of the only aspects of sound under the easy, common, and reliable control of the human voice. The traditional conception of rhythm is similarly a specific form of a more general “principle of action,” corresponding to our intuitions about how sounds may be produced by movements and human bodies. If we so much as hear a melody, we subvocalize; if we hear a rhythm, we involuntarily twitch: much of music is understood this way, through bodily response or mimesis. As we add other people to the mix, with dance or polyphony, the meaning of music interlaces with the bodies of others, conventionally in the form of harmony or rhythmic patterns and meters. While musical history provides exceptions — all traditional instruments, for instance, have quirks that reliably produce inhuman effects — most musical categories remain embedded in the body as its primary locus.

According to John Locke, bodily power — specifically its power over its own movements — is how we first come to comprehend all causal powers:

The idea of the BEGINNING of motion we have only from reflection on what passes in ourselves; where we find by experience, that, barely by willing it, barely by a thought of the mind, we can move the parts of our bodies, which were before at rest. So that it seems to me, we have, from the observation of the operation of bodies by our senses, but a very imperfect obscure idea of ACTIVE power; since they afford us not any idea in themselves of the power to begin any action, either motion or thought. But if, from the impulse bodies are observed to make one upon another, any one thinks he has a clear idea of power, it serves as well to my purpose; sensation being one of those ways whereby the mind comes by its ideas: only I thought it worthwhile to consider here, by the way, whether the mind doth not receive its idea of active power clearer from reflection on its own operations, than it doth from any external sensation.

Stephen Mumford words this a bit more scientifically: though perhaps causal powers are not given to staidly outward observation, we nonetheless have an inner model of them in our experiences with proprioception, our body’s integrating awareness of its own position, force, movements, and volition. Whether or not we literally and directly perceive power through our senses — and this much is equivocal — power is still never fully or strictly empirical. It can neither be purely observed nor thoroughly represented. Our understanding of power only emerges through effort, intervention, enactment, exercise, if at times only hypothetically — which is the very reason that this understanding would begin with the mastery of our own bodily movements, that is, with the first efforts, acts, exercises, and interventions we dare to undertake in the cradle. The primality of this experience of power also explains the visceral primality of rhythm and dance: they are vigorous aestheticizations of that bodily core of causal power. However, though our understanding of power may begin in the body, in its dominion over its own parts, it doesn’t remain there long, imprisoned in one side of yet another kind of metaphysical dualism. It soon creeps outward. Our hands grasp and guide things other than ourselves. Our cries beckon and alert. Our own powers interbraid with those of others, and soon extend into words and tools, discussions and machines, languages and systems, before eventually spackling into all the folds and crevices of the outer world. So we might expect our sense of musical power to follow that same outward trend or creep.

Machines of all sorts displace or scooch the bodily locus and focus of music. They make not only their own sounds but their own kinds of sounds, irreproducible by the human body. Like Luigi Russolo foresaw and celebrated, electricity, engines, and general industry created a whole stock of new sound values and intensities. Phonographs succeeded in finally apprehending and reproducing our once-forever-fleeting noises and voices. Midcentury musical synthesis then brought nearly all aspects of the waveform under the knobs of precise human design. And to the degree that these machines and their sounds were musicalized, they disembedded music slightly more from its human-bodily source. Rarely was this a total displacement or alienation. Many machines maintained a tight rapport with the human body as a master, target, cargo, or partner. Some of the manned electrical and motorized machines — jackhammers, motorcycles, automobiles, power drills and saws — also happened to be unnaturally noisy, bringing with its “infinite variety of noise-sounds” some fresh categories and intuitions about the power and meanings of sound in relation to the human body.

This body-machine rapport is particularly intense and visceral when it comes to thrill rides and rollercoasters, and remarkable for yet another reason: these machines operate completely and deliberately outside of the control of their riders. When we blast the radio while speeding down the highway or sweating it out on our Stairmasters and Pelotons, our musical intuitions are being formed or reinforced in tandem with machines that more or less obey and amplify our bodily autonomy, as prostheses or demonstrations of bodily speed and strength. This interrelation of music, body, and machine combusts into an unmistakeable sensation of personal empowerment or autonomy, fantasies of which gets siphoned into twenty-minute Fast & Furious chase scenes or Led-Zeppellinized Cadillac commercials for pining men in midlife crises. This interrelation is nearly the opposite for most thrill rides and rollercoasters however, which act altogether heteronomously on the human body: we can do nothing but submit to their movements, a submission that is quasi-spiritual not only in its smack of death, but in its resemblance to, in Schleiermacher’s words, the “absolute dependency” of the religious experience. My favorite ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain, in Valencia, California, the X2, is justifiably hyped as a “fifth dimension rollercoaster.” Its seats swivel and barrel roll on a full 360-degree pivot, totally disorienting its stunned riders. You never know what’s up or down, backwards or forwards. The dark night sky sometimes opens below you; or you brace for a fall and are then shot upward: you are robbed of all semblance of control and dangled over the abyss in the hands of an angry God.

What this suggests to me, musically speaking, is a new protoype of venue. If traditional harmony and rhythm emerge from musical coordination between otherwise autonomous bodies, this is unneeded in the moving vise of a rollercoaster: our bodily movements and frightened intonations are despotically coordinated by the machine itself. In a venue like a roller-rink, the rhythms and intensities of the music are collectively interpreted through the circular motions of all skaters together around the rink; this circularity is a roller-rink’s technique for fostering a shared musical mood. You may have noticed this yourself: whether it’s Lil’ Kim’s Lighters Up or a Viennese waltz, the glide of the crowd always seems to subtly “go with the music.” Gravitrons or Tilt-A-Whirls keep the circularity but impose the motion heteronomously: it is my world that is whirling, not I the dervish. This is the good kind of heteronomy though, whose fundamental difference with, say, heteronomous political control is in our total affirmation. As with true love or psychotropic drugs, we wish nothing more than to feel so wholly overpowered. We climb aboard, sometimes fifty of us at a time, and through an involuntary choreography, our bodies feel the power of the outer world through the brunt of its physics. The intensities of the drops, stops, thrusts, twists, and turns are even ventriloquized into our screams, gasps, prayers and laughter. Here’s the thing: any sounds — whether from the people, machine, or environment, or thoughtfully composed to accompany or embellish the ride — would be musicalized to the degree that they corresponded to these shocks, intensities and geometries. This is why I claim that fairgrounds and theme parks could become — even if under the pretext of a cheesedick experience economy — the origin and host of their own musical genres, serving as late-nite venues for new inhumanly cosmic or demiurgical forms of music. This is extremely unlikely but the equipment’s there is all I’m saying.

Some of my own machinic Hype Music from Berlin’s Maientage

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