Micah Silver | Essays

In Paradise

RLA-designed console

Richard Long & Associates (RLA) designed many of the top clubs during the disco era, notably New York’s Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, and Ministry of Sound in London. RLA is broadly credited for making discos the immersive audiotopias that they were. 

RLA became a worldwide name for their thoughtfully and painstakingly designed systems that were tailored to the individual needs of the club’s architecture and its distinct use. The process was somewhere between that of a high-end tailor crafting a bespoke suit and a specially commissioned artist painting a portrait of an esteemed patron. This “tailoring” created rooms that were hypersensitively aural in ways the general public had never experienced, and the most advanced DJs of the era were exploring the potential of this sensitivity with sophistication. A social architecture emerged around liberated sexuality and identity within the semiautonomous, near-imaginary air that the disco sound environment enabled. Richard Long was not simply an engineering bystander, but an active participant in the imaginary. As one playful indication of this, he named his inventions in ways that linked them to the social milieus they engaged: Double 12” Dildo midwoofer (there was a giant plug that could switch the phase which looked like a dildo) and Puissance (French for “power”), for example. 

An RLA speaker array 

It is illuminating to take a close look at RLA’s system for the Paradise Garage, as it was arguably the apex of disco sound in North America (though many would argue that by its opening in 1977, disco had been largely co-opted by the record industry and had a transformed clientele and weakened cultural position). Regardless of disco’s cultural status, the Paradise Garage as audiotopia benefited from almost a decade of rapid technological advance. The resident DJ was Larry Levan, who was among the most widely acclaimed of the time. The sound system would be developed not only to address the acoustics, but also Levan’s performance technique, cultivated over the previous decade. Long designed and fabricated a unique bass horn (called the Levan Horn), as well as a new enclosure to replace the four existing sub-bass speakers. Each was 1000 watts and had twenty-eight-square-foot “mouths” (the open surface area that projects sound outward from the drivers). According to RLA’s testing, one of these overpowered all four of the speakers previously used. 

Against criticism from his professional peers, Long defended the choice to give the DJ direct control over such a powerful sound system: In order to explain our concept of a disco system, let us give this analogy: In a discotheque the sound system can be considered to be the orchestra while the DJ is the conductor. The conductor’s job is to stimulate and entertain the audience; the DJ must entertain the dancers. The DJ is not reproducing the works of Bach or Brahms as performed in a symphony hall, but is instead playing music which was created in a multitrack studio under artificial conditions and mixed by an engineer also attempting to create the most exciting sound possible. The social architecture of disco was an outgrowth or even the more real, realization of the ’60s optimism via social dancing in a hyper-affective space. While arguing that this would not have been possible without parallel developments in audio representation, the two (just as rock festivals had several years earlier, and urbanization drove the realization of Jamaican sound systems) needed each other. Building-scale sound meant that a small town’s population could fit themselves onto the floor of a warehouse and quite literally be swimming together in soundwaves. This meant all bodies in contact, moving together, transcending the common kinetic limitations of individuality present during the 1950s and early ’60s America of the dancer’s youth. Discos have been historicized as a predominantly gay scene, and while it is clear that in post-Stonewall New York City discos became a home for gay liberation, it was also a home for a social context that could absorb any willing body into its territory. This communality is also what defined early rave culture, which would be the next occurrence of large-scale social dancing. 

An RLA-designed DJ console

A knotted complex of relationships between people and machines, and a multiplicity of paradoxes in the transformation of how we trust our subjectivity confuse what “audio” has become. Its ubiquity has proved a more radical force than anticipated, and has not received the same surgical disambiguation as the image. Audio affords an uncomfortably intimate encounter with representation, as our subjective acoustic memory, our sense of place, our personal memories, our ways of thinking, feeling, and being spark together, merging so quickly it’s nearly impossible to parse the resulting composites.

To read the complete article buy a copy of Observer Quarterly 1: The Acoustic Issue. 

Jobs | November 30