In their essay-in-response, Jack Madin and Ed Service discuss communitas through ’musicking’ (Christopher Small). The duo’s manifesto, tested globally at clubs and festivals (in the wake of their international anthem ‘Love Tonight’), offers music as a vehicle for the celebration and development of collective relationships. Exploring a dialectic between the structure of everyday society and the anti-structure of communitas, SHOUSE proposes that the latter is generated by rituals – festivals, group singing, dancing – that transgress and dissolve the norms governing our daily, structured, and institutionalised relationships.
During the early days of lockdown we sat still. We paused, isolated, and thought. We longed for things we had taken for granted. Realms of human experience disappeared. Dancing, singing, and music making stopped. Collective joy disappeared.
We watched as musical experiments, virtual collaborations, and digital choirs formed and folded; we grasped at what was lost. As the weeks and months passed, chasms opened in the webs of meaning that coloured and connected our lives.
In 2023, with the pandemic now old news, it’s sometimes hard to reflect on that period of time. We would like to share our story of those years, and explain how it has changed our thinking about music, collective joy, and community.
On a miserable Saturday in August 2016, we were working on a musical side-project, a Melbourne underground act called Shouse (short for shithouse). A group of two dozen people, brought together by loose connections, came to a Brunswick studio to form a makeshift choir. The choir members arrived, sang together, and left.
The impact of that recording session has been astonishing.
Later that year, we worked on the song that would become ‘Love Tonight’, mixing and refining until we officially released the track in early 2017. We played a local launch show, the song bobbed around community radio, and, as songs do, quietly sank into the vast content sea.
The song itself is quite bizarre. The beats are dead straight and pounding, clearly a dance song. A raucous, detuned synth bass growls along while a computerised flute plays wonky arpeggios. This goes on for minutes. We decided that was probably the reason it didn’t connect with audiences.
Only when the choir comes in does the song start to make sense. There’s a collective power in the multitude of voices rising and building. The melody, lyrics, and repetition are deeply satisfying, albeit corny. The looseness of the choir encourages participation. Kids love it, old folks get it. Some people really love the song. An hour-long remix on YouTube has over two million views.
It’s strange now to think back to the song’s origins. We had dreamed of creating a parody of the ‘Live Aid!’ and ‘We Are The World’ supergroup anthems popular in the ’80s. We thought we would ask some local musical heroes, with a few friends and ring-ins, to help create a minor Melbourne moment.
We’ve come to realise, however, that those supergroup songs sound like a group of individuals, while our choir sounds like a collective. Somehow, on that day in August, we captured a moment of deep connection and togetherness. We hoped that someday the world would hear it.
As the years went by we heard that the song was being played at Lithuanian festivals, eastern European raves, and Mexican beach clubs. ‘Fantastic!’ We thought the song was special and we were glad it was still being played. But we weren’t going to quit our day jobs – as a primary school music teacher (Jack) and a community arts manager (Ed).
Then, as the pandemic raged and lockdowns continued, something strange started to happen. Along with the coronavirus, our song spread with virulence. Initially, we saw this as a digital phenomenon. Our Spotify statistics and YouTube views took off. The intense virality of our old song was exciting, perplexing, and intriguing.
From locked-down wintery Melbourne, we watched on as Europe brazenly partied into the 2021 summer. Our loose, riotous, out-of-tune, but oh-so-loving Brunswick choir singing out to hundreds of thousands at festivals and clubs across the globe. And the teeming crowds sang back, ‘All I need is your love tonight!’
We searched for explanations. Our press releases at the time read, ‘A declaration of love during a time of isolation. A demonstration of solidarity. A cry of collective strength.’ Hyperbole perhaps, but our song was finally connecting with audiences and we hadn’t had anything to do with it. Looking on from the other end of the world and unable to participate, we sat and wondered. The song now has over one billion streams.
What is it about humans? Why do they gather in their tens of thousands to dance and sing? And why ‘Love Tonight’? What could they hear in our strange little song? What magic had we captured on that winter’s day five years before?
Music is like a type of magic. A shared form and deeply felt medium of communication. Spiritual but at the same time physical.
The collective experience of music is one of the purest types of collaboration. And the goal of that experience is communication. We can tell stories, create moods, share a temporal plane, and move together. Often the goal is simply to celebrate ourselves and participate in a moment of collective joy.
Lullabies, work chants, family singalongs, wedding celebrations, choirs and orchestras, raves and parties – these are all expressions of the human need to communicate through music. What they are transmitting, or making audible, is that we are a community.
These deeper relationships in music are explored in the writing of Christopher Small, an eccentric musicologist from New Zealand. Small sees music not just as ‘organised sound’ in the abstract, but also as a metaphor for the social relationships between the humans taking part in the experience. His key point is that the more we fetishize what is only the end result of the musical experience, the recorded song, the further we get from the joy and possibility of people actually making music together. When we focus on the product, we forget about the process. That’s why he speaks of the act of ‘musicking’. In his words, ‘The act of musicking establishes … a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies.’
The connection that humans feel when they play, or experience, music together is the magic. In a moment of musicking, we can imagine new social relations. An AI algorithm can make a song as a commodity, but it can never experience musicking.
We are guilty of being extraordinarily effusive and excruciatingly earnest at parties and raves. To us, these events have always felt like the most important thing in the world: essential, eternal, elemental. And deeply human.
Our hearts beat faster just thinking about it.
It’s not only the euphoria of being freed from the working week or the endorphins from dancing and flirting that make these shared moments uniquely important. There is something else, something more than hedonism.
For over a decade, we’ve been trying to articulate it. After coming home from a night of dancing, having spent hours with friends and dance-music comrades, we have the feeling that this human experience is vital. With the help of theorists such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Viktor Zuckerkandl, Mark Abel, and many others, we can understand more about the long history of communal events and collective joy.
Why do we humans regularly, all over the world, gather in our tens of thousands to dance? To dress up and move our bodies to music at powerful volumes? It seems to us a technique for achieving communal ecstasy and collective joy.
When we collectively dance to a single beat, we experience transcendence. Our journey through space and time, usually atomised and abstract, becomes less lonely. For a moment, we inhabit a musical universe together. A sphere of solidarity, togetherness, and embodied connection materialises, the sound waves vibrating through our bodies joining us as a community.
Together we step with the kick, we lift on the snare, we ride on the hats, we groove on the bass. Each of these frequencies, and the intervals between them, is a shared manifestation of time itself. When we dance together, we share a temporal existence.
As the beat goes on and on, we fall into a trance, inhabiting a temporal and emotional world engendered by the music. The tragedy of our separateness, the illusion of our loneliness, is overcome. We experience each other anew in a space of mystical oneness.
Through harmony, melody, and language, this temporal plane merges with cultural forms of beauty, the human story. The groove and the beat hit us in the body, the stomach, the legs. The melody, harmony, and narrative strike our soul. The feelings and values we attribute to particular keys, intervals, harmonies, melodies, and chords touch our hearts.
We are elated, excited, devastated, intrigued. We fall in love, are held in the ache of tension, and blissfully released. Waves of harmony compel us to feel. On top of all this: the human voice. Rhythmic, melodic, and deeply resonant. We use language to sing our collective narrative.
When combined, these forces of music and human invention lead to transcendent moments. Most importantly, they are shared moments. At a rave or party, you can transgress and dissolve the norms that govern our everyday reality. Hierarchies crumble and we feel an intense sense of connectedness. With people, rather than beside them. We find ourselves in a liminal space – one that exists outside the structures, conventions, even laws of everyday society, yet not quite somewhere explicitly new – somewhere ambiguous, undefined, ripe for interpretation. A sort of existential holding space where we regard each other wholly.
In these moments of collective joy, in Small’s words, we ‘model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships’. Through the common experience of dancing and singing together, we celebrate our relationships – not just as they are, but as we want them to be. It is an exceptionally human way of imagining a future together.
Communitas as we see it
Something is missing from our networked, commodified, consumerist lives. The stoic working week supplemented by Netflix and Instagram, followed by the hedonism of the weekend. Our thought patterns have been automatised by the passive consumption of dopamine-targeting entertainment, creating our own personalised ‘society of the spectacle’, what Guy Debord called ‘the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing’. Social life has been replaced by its representation. This leaves a gaping hole in our existence, an absence of collective joy and authentic social relations.
Communitas is an interruption of this flow. The creation of collective joy and love. A break from the roil of everyday, individualised, capitalist life. A moment to fully feel and embody our shared experience. A breaking down of the boundaries, rules and roles of daily existence. Communitas is the time we are excited to be alive with our community.
The word communitas was originally defined by the anthropologist Victor Turner as ‘the feeling of heightened solidarity produced during the “liminal” moments of ritual’. Extending Arnold Van Gennep’s work in Rites of Passage, Turner posited that people in a state of communitas ‘elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space’. In communitas, we are neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ – we are in a state of transition, ‘betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed’ by governing laws and norms. From this state we are reintegrated into the structure of society, often with new roles, insights and even powers. Reinvigorated by our experience of communitas.
In the years since the concept has been expanded, especially by his wife and fellow anthropologist Edith Turner, to encapsulate a much broader meaning. It has been moulded and critiqued by many others, but we can find no better word to describe the communal love, ecstasy and shared joy that is felt in these moments of connection within a community.
Communitas exists when a community celebrates itself as, in the words of Ehrenreich (who prefers the term ‘collective joy’), ‘a brief utopia defined by egalitarianism, creativity and mutual love’. In communitas we all have a role to play. We see and experience each other fully.
Communitas is a physical and embodied human experience that has always involved music and dance. When we sing, groove, and playfully celebrate our existence together, we show, and see in others, the wholeness of our being. We, to quote Ehrenreich again, take a moment to ‘acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence’.
Communitas is what makes us human. In the moments that we make and share meaning together, we build something – what Franco Berardi might call ‘bridges of understanding over the abyss of the absence of meaning in life’. Communitas is a community’s experience of shared meaning.
In all facets of human life, we are dominated by the infosphere, the breakdown of thinking in and about the collective, and the relentless march of capital and commodification. Communitas is an antidote to the financial automatism of thought, a remedy to depression, loneliness, and alienation.
Looking back over the European experience of communitas, Ehrenreich shows how unstructured moments of ‘collective joy’ have always been a threat to centralised and exploitative power structures (including, and especially, those of colonisers). These flashes are deeply connected with forces of revolutionary solidarity and love.
Unwittingly, on that fateful day back in 2016, we believe we captured a moment of communitas on tape. What we did was organise a fun day of music making for two dozen friends. What occurred in that Brunswick warehouse was a moment of liminality, when individuals came together in collective joy, and sang together as a community. Two dozen souls experiencing a moment of pure communitas. That moment in time, recorded and produced into a strange little song, reverberated around the globe.
Since our strange viral phenomenon, we have toured the world, stepping away from our normal lives to perform and attempt to share this feeling with crowds around the globe. We’ve had moments of elation and confusion, transcendence and deep conflict. We are hoping we can find something real in the spectacle of late-stage capitalism and techno-feudalism.
Almost all aspects of communitas have been exploited, commodified, and perverted by capitalism. Not many festivals, events, and club nights can create spaces for ‘real’ communitas. Nor do they really want to. Rather they aim to create a simulacrum, a plastic commodified echo of communitas, consistently stimulating and always filmable for Instagram.
Many of the venues we play at are citadels of consumption. They are designed purely for the efficient transfer of money from partier to club owner. The Electronic Dance Music explosion of the last few years is corrupted to the core. Many of these settings are tense with latent violence and misogyny. We believe, however, that the yearning for communitas is what keeps the people coming back for more.
We have been lucky to witness glimpses of real communitas, true collective joy in incredible human cities around the world. It can be found in urban spaces calibrated to the human scale, with day-to-day communitas occurring freely on the street, pedestrians’ bodies moving through public space, the piazza, the dérive, the passeggiata, the flaneur. Human-to-human connection, movement and enjoyment of public space beyond commerce or consumption. Just being in time and space together. So rare in our Australian cities, ruled by the car, where spontaneous urban gatherings are limited to property auctions.
Huge choirs jamming in warehouses in London, outbursts of song in New York bars, spontaneous street gatherings in Sardinia, park parties in Berlin, crowds singing together long after we have finished our sets in Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal. Back home, at incredible underground raves, music festivals, and urban choirs. We’ve been reminded that real music can only come from real communities, people and places. Real communitas can only be achieved in space and time inhabited together.
When we did return home, we pulled together another choir for our follow-up to ‘Love Tonight’ called ‘Won’t Forget You’. Proving the point, the recipe worked again, and another moment of communitas spread around the globe. We’ve been back to the folk festivals that inspired our philosophies, and taught and played our songs in ensembles of all ages, instruments, and abilities.
We have been inspired to create our own local insurrections of connection against the incessant march of financial logic into our collective consciousnesses, yielding brief moments of cognitive revolution and solidarity at home. Through reengaging with our community, we’re inspired to create spaces for communitas to occur in our cities. We’re just getting started.
When we came upon this concept of communitas, it struck us as a beacon of possibility. An illuminating answer to why we are so desperately driven to create and participate in collective music, song, and dance.
The field of communitas appears wide open, with many explorers adding and shaping the terrain. The traditions and rituals that create communitas are as old as human history, but are at risk of being entirely subsumed by the dynamics of late-stage capitalism. Are we writing about something we are no longer living?
It is hard, and getting harder, to share any understanding of reality in our globalised, individualised infosphere. We rarely engage in shared experiences. We can exist alongside, practically on top of, each other and not communicate in any meaningful way. Certainly, we don’t have many moments when we sing and dance together.
Thinking back to the deepest moments of global lockdown, communitas as we knew it ceased to exist. Rather than collectivise us, the pandemic splintered us into our personal spheres of consumption.
Nevertheless, the longing beats within us all. Celebrations, weddings, parties, raves, singing, and musicking together allow us to escape the structure of our lives. We long to create new relationships in shared collective moments of joy. We need more of this.
As a society we can celebrate our need for this collective love. To look beyond simplistic descriptions of hedonism and escape, and acknowledge the deeper meaning of what it is we are really doing. To create spaces, ritual, and song. To come together again and again, to the beat of a drum, a chorus of voices, a mass of humanity, finally together in space and time.