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Music Essays- Rave Culture Music

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Rave Culture Music

Since its emergence in the late 1980s, the subculture referred to as “rave” has become a significant global youth phenomenon. Postmodern scholars tend to treat the rave subculture as one of disappearance and pleasure. The “armchair” approach of postmodernists is inherently flawed because it fails to acknowledge the meaningful spiritual experiences of those attending raves. Scott R. Hutson’s “The Rave: Spiritual Healing in Modern Western Subcultures”introduces an opposing theory that raving is a spiritual practice wherein the symbolic processes embedded in culture create appropriate frameworks for healing. Gilbert Rouget’s conceptualization of trance and how it is managed in the ritual context provide the analytical foundations for this spiritual practice. This paper will analyze the role of the DJ as a leader of a possession trance ritual who “aided by key symbols, guides the ravers on an ecstatic journey to paradise- a pre-social state of non-differentiation and communitas” (Hutson 1999:54).

Raves have increasingly become the focus of books, movies, and media coverage, and the culture has been the undercurrent behind some of the latest music and fashion trends. Described by Merchant and McDonald as “the most vibrant, popular and visible cultural expression of young people” (Merchant and McDonald 1994:16), rave culture has had such an enormous impact on the mainstream youth and popular culture that it is now often considered part of the mainstream. The electronic and rhythmically repetitive nature of the music, the long hours of dancing, the semi-legal secret location, and the ingestion of psychoactive substances, differentiate raves from other youth parties. When combined, these features are specifically designed to promote feelings of connectedness, spirituality, and a state of “ecstasy” among contemporary youth. At the heart of these proceedings one encounters the individual responsible for the success or failure of the event: the Disc-Jockey or DJ. Using equipment to manipulate the rhythm, sound, and lighting, the DJ guides individuals through a psychological journey of what some have described as healing, identity transformation, and spiritual growth.

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A small body of recent publications on raves reflects the growing recognition that the rave scene provides a spiritual outlet for many contemporary youth. The DJ’s position within this culture as a spiritual leader and guide has also been noted. What is uncertain, however, is the specific nature of this role. Poschardt contends that the DJ’s tendency toward “laconic autism” has made him a difficult object of study that has “remained untouched by academic study” (Poschardt 1995:17). Similarly, Fikentscher observes that “his gradual rise in the hierarchy of the music industry has not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in academic literature” (Fikentscher 2000:33). Although similarities have been noted between the function of the DJ in the rave culture, and that of the shaman in traditional cultures, a precise and in-depth academic analysis of the DJ’s work is lacking. It is often assumed that what ravers experience during raves is “ecstasy,” but a definition or thorough investigation of this state of consciousness is lacking. Similarly, references to “trance” or hypnotic states are also presented as fact but explanations and interpretations of these states and how they are elicited are usually glossed over. Some authors appear to be completely baffled by the altered states of consciousness (ASC’s) encountered at raves, their position clearly illustrates a poor understanding of ASC phenomena. One author explains that “ravers move in a hypnotic delirium which has been described as a ‘trance dance.’ It is as if some sort of spell has been cast over them causing the throng to lose themselves in their own thoughts while the pounding of the music remains starkly unobtrusive” (MacDonald et al. 1998:243). Postmodern scholars seem to avoid the subject of ASC’s altogether, while acknowledging the ineffable quality of the experience as grounds for its exclusion from academic inquiry. Additionally, the DJ’s expertise and the symbiotic relationship he develops with the dancers has also been neglected, perhaps due to the embodied, performative, and intuitive elements under which these processes are informed. In an attempt to explain this neglect, Gerard states that “while the dance music press, insider accounts and testimonials from DJs and dancers suggested a fertile ground for investigation, scholars tended to avoid the dialectical possibilities inherent in performance analyses or phenomenologically inspired investigations by simply treating such interactions as somehow ineffable” (Gerard 2004:170).

Another embodied element so central to raving is body movement, that is the dance experience, and as Malbon remarks “I note the reticence and/or inability of both clubbers and academics to discuss dancing” (Malbon 1999:71). It is probable that this reticence is partially rooted in the limitations of an “armchair” approach. It is obvious that many scholars of rave and club culture have never physically participated in the contexts they are writing about. This armchair methodology is addressed by Gerard and Sidnell who call for an approach that is instead framed in the “immediate:”

Rather than attempting to extricate symbolic meanings or covert subcultural agendas, future studies of contemporary dance music would be best served from the dance floor and not the armchair. If as a number of authors have suggested, these music and dance spaces can be likened to ritual events, we should approach them as such-not by serving enactment from text, as Bruce Kapferer has cautioned, but by framing analysis in the immediate and locally organized contexts of performance (Gerard and Sidnell 2000:36).

This paper is an investigation the precise function of the DJ within the rave culture. This involves an investigation of the DJ’s training, of his techniques of the mechanisms involved in inducing altered states of consciousness (ASC’s) in the rave context, of the experience of the participants with these states, and of the relationship between the DJ and rave participants.

Much of the DJ’s elevated status and recent success has to do with the artistic license and technological innovations in music production that afford today’s DJs with seemingly limitless opportunities for creative development. This forces the DJ into a role as a paradoxical artist, a meta-musician whose performance is based on prerecorded music. The profession thus questions the traditional notion of live performance and as Poschardt states, “questions the traditional concept of the artist, blows it apart and re-establishes it in overhauled form” (Poschardt 1995:15-16). An emblematic figure of the postmodern era, the DJ has been likened to a writer, an editor, and even a weaver of mosaics and tapestries. This is largely due to the techniques of mixing, remixing, and sampling, procedures that make each performance spontaneous, unique, unexpected, and thus “live” as opposed to prerecorded. Combining two records is referred to as mixing, remixing involves altering and therefore reinterpreting and existing song, and sampling consists of inserting any sound, musical passage, or rhythm into an existing track at any desired point. This is where the creative element and metaphor of the DJ as writer is relevant:

I love the idea of continuous sampling: like remixing everything as you go so writing is like that. Just like you’re probably going to do edits, cuts and splice when you’re editing this tape, I mean you do that with language, even when you’re speaking, you’re always picking and choosing what words you’re using, the way you’re going to describe something so everything is a mix. I’m mainly a writer, DJ’ing to me… every DJ is a writer, you’re using the urban landscape as your book, as your novel, as your text, so everything is writing (‘DJ Spooky’ in Reiss 1999).

The ability to create new sounds and sample virtually anything also emphasizes the freedom of the artist.

While there are “DJ schools,” information resources on the internet, and technical manuals available to those entering the DJ profession, most DJs are self-taught and the process of learning and refining skills for oneself seems to be the ultimate rite of passage into the trade. For the most part, DJs seem to frown upon professional schools that offer courses in DJ’ing, feeling that these schools are no more than the product of a recent fad. Most seemed to agree that experience and intuition are the greatest tools for learning available to an amateur, and these cannot be acquired in an academic institution.

The notion of being self taught still allows DJs to be influenced by others or to have their careers assisted along the way. Fikentscher characterizes DJ’ing as an oral tradition where knowledge is passed down to new artists from the DJs that come before them (Fikentscher 2000:44). Like raves, DJs on the rise develop a following through word of mouth and the circulation of their music. At clubs and raves, the local and unknown DJs are given the opportunity to spin in the peripheral rooms while the headliner DJs spin in the main room. Through this kind of exposure, a DJ can develop a following and eventually graduate to the central room which houses the best lighting and sound equipment. DJs have also been known to collaborate with other musicians in producing records, and even tour with other DJs thus picking up techniques along the way.

A DJ must have an extensive knowledge of music tracks and remember such details as the rhythm, the vocals, and key structure, so that the current song will be complementary to the track that it is being combined or sampled with. Just as many ravers note an alteration in the way they perceive Techno music through continued participation in the subculture, DJs also identified a change in their musical perception that is oriented toward the more technical aspects of the music. Evidence for this kind of neural entertainment is supported by the finding that the analytic left brain tends to dominate musical processing in trained musicians, whereas for the untrained it is the right hemisphere that dominates (Wilkinson 2000:1).

While there has been considerable discussion surrounding MDMA or Ecstasy use as a prerequisite for fully understanding and appreciating electronic music, in contrast to the majority of rave-goers who advocate drug use to “get into” the music, all of the DJs interviewed in a study by Dr. Melanie L. Takahashi disagreed with this view. Although a majority had tried MDMA or other dance related drugs, the sentiment that the music combined with the skill of the DJ in its own right were enough to elicit an ASC appeared to dominate. The DJ’s adeptness for musical perception and producing musical triggers for trance states could explain the incongruity between DJs’ and participants’ views concerning drug use. All subjects interviewed performed their sets without taking drugs, the reason given being that these substances would negatively affect the concentration required to perform a live show.

Instrumentalists of possession rituals are reported to not ingest psychoactives or enter into trance during performances for similar reasons. According to Rouget, “to do so would be incompatible with their function, which is to provide for hours on end and sometimes on several consecutive days, music whose execution must continuously adapt itself to the circumstances” (Rouget 1985:103-104). Rouget argues that these musicians must therefore be external to the cult, such that they are not vulnerable to the music, or they must be experienced adepts who are able to withstand the effects of the music (Rouget 1985:104).

As the DJ is given the power to introduce the participants to an experience, it becomes increasingly important for the DJ to sustain the integrity of that experience. In Gerard’s 2004 article “Selecting Ritual: DJs, Dancers and Liminality in Underground Dance Music,” Gerard describes the importance of flow by framing the dance experience, and the process of mixing, as conduits for “liminality” as defined by Victor Turner (Turner 2003:176). The DJ employs what Gerard coins as “techniques of liminality” which create periods of uncertainty for the dancers following the resolution. When the flow is interrupted by poor mixing “the flash of spontaneous communitas is potentially threatened; dancers are often drawn out of their ecstatic state; they return to an increased awareness of both setting and self, and sometimes abandon the dance floor” (Gerard 2004: 176).

In order to avoid losing experiential integrity, DJs function in a manner similar to instrumentalists in possession rituals by developing an intimate and symbiotic relationship with the dancers. The dancers’ ability to achieve an “ecstatic” state is dependent on the DJ’s stage presence, his proficiency in intuitively “reading” and responding to the crowd, and his ability to form a temporary bond with the dancers. Without these skills, the techniques of trance induction on their own right are generally inadequate for eliciting what participants call an “ecstatic” state.

In ceremonial possession, the notion of performance is a central element to the ritual. Instrumentalists perform for an audience, and irrespective of an individual’s familiarity with the music, the trance state is only induced within the ritual context in the presence of others. Furthermore, additional aspects of raves that are paired with the music (i.e. lighting, psychoactives) are generally absent at home even though they play an important role in trance induction. Also absent outside of the rave context is the interpersonal relationship between the DJ and the participants. Similarly on the subject of possession rituals, Rouget emphasizes the importance of the connection between the instrumentalists and the dancers, stating “in order to induce trance in a particular person the priests and musicians establish a special relationship with him, make him an object of their ‘solicitude,’ address themselves to him in an exclusive way, and become at the same time very attentive to what he himself is feeling” (Rouget 1985:112).

At raves, participants recognize that a DJ must be selfless in order to establish this special bond. Although most DJs have a general idea of the style of music and the songs that they will play, it is accepted that flexibility is more important, and this is particularly relevant for touring DJs who must also adapt to regional differences in music taste:

I know the records that are good to start the evening, but I don’t prepare my set in advance. I watch and I react. I try to adapt. Every city is influenced by the people who initially created the scene. You have to adapt and still be true to yourself. In Germany, I play techno. In Belgium and Switzerland, it’s more funky tech house. In Spain, it’s predominantly techno, except in Barcelona and Ibiza where it’s house (‘Jack de Marseille’ in Huegli 2002:69).

The active role of the crowd in shaping the mood and atmosphere of the party also favors a more spontaneous approach.

It is believed that DJs who prioritize the tastes of the crowd over their own, are humble DJs and that this quality is a precondition to a “people’s DJ” (Brewster and Broughton 1999:11-12). Cues indicating a DJ’s humbleness that were remarked upon, are gestures suggesting appreciation and gratitude toward the crowd such as bowing, clapping, eye-contact, and smiling. These gestures also play an important role in breaking the artist/spectator barrier and this strengthens, and reifies the connection between the DJ and the dancers. Breaking the barrier between the artist and participant is another reason why DJ booths are centrally located at raves. It is important that the DJ see the dancers so that he can respond to them, and it is equally important for the participants to be in close physical proximity to the DJ, so that his personality and presence are able to come through:

I don’t feel like I have to hide and say, “No one should see me when I DJ. It’s all about the music.” Bullshit! People always need someone they can connect to and they can identify with. I always felt that I could bring the music across in a more convincing way by using my personality. Because I give people an honest feeling. The most important thing is to see people standing happily on the dance floor in the end (Sven Vath in Huegli 2002:18).

All of these factors are conducive to breaking the barrier between the DJ and the dancers. The communication that occurs between the two is much more than music, lyrics, and the dance movements, or what Rouget refers to as the “level of the code” (Rouget 1985:113). In reference to possession rituals, communication is established “at the personal level, the emotional level of direct person-to-person relationships” (Rouget 1985:113).

The active role of the dancers also reinforces the dismantling of the barrier between the performer and audience, and this is where the concept of the feedback loop between the DJ and participants is relevant. As DJ Spooky puts it, “the DJ/audience relationship is like a symbiosis you know, it’s like a biological structure you know, I mean it’s like you are sending out information and pulses that the crowd in a way then sends back to you, and like you’re like a focal point of the energy of these gathered people” (Reiss 1999). There is also an emotional element involved in this symbiotic relationship which targets the DJ with responsibility for the emotions of the crowd of dancers. The DJ’s emotional state can be transmitted to the crowd through his music and consequently impacts the condition of the dancers.

A DJ’s seeming lack of enthusiasm, his failure to make eye-contact, smile, or dance are indicators suggesting that he isn’t having a good time, and this has consequences on the crowd. While the crowd is sensitive to these nonverbal indicators of the DJ’s affective state, the DJ’s mental state can influence his choice of music, and this too will impact the experience of the dancers. While electronic music has been accused by some of being repetitive, bland, and even minimal, there is a strong correlation between the genres of Techno music and affect. For example, Terrorcore, Industrial Hardcore, Jungle, and Drum n’ Bass, are noted for bringing out aggressive and negative emotional states in some individuals. Bold, militant rhythmic patterns, sounds of machinery, people screaming, and vocals with coarse language, are the kinds of sounds attributed to some of these music styles. It is generally felt that the people who are looking to experience negative and aggressive states seek out these types of events. In contrast, Trance, House, and Happy Hardcore, are generally characterized by warm melodic styles and positive lyrics that are noted for engendering such feelings as love, a sense of well-being, connectedness, and spirituality among participants.

Depending on his mood, the DJ can choose tracks with vocals and melodies that accentuate positive themes, or tracks with sounds and lyrics that concentrate on the darker aspects of life. This is why a participant’s sense of trust in the DJ is so important. It becomes evident that there is a shared feeling of uncertainty arising from the inability to pinpoint the DJ’s intentions:

I realized that the DJ had POWER over me. I was basically prostituting for the DJ: I was a slave to what he had (the promise of the climax) and he was flexing his power and tweaking with me to see how much I could stretch myself out for it. It really scared me… I think some DJs definitely hold the power of a cult in their turntables and in their speakers, and it’s really not something that I want to get down on my knees for. Just a thought, I’m not bagging here. I still think rave is one of the best things the 20th century has to offer, but I think that if left unchecked, it could turn on us (cited in Takahashi and Olaveson 2003:86).

At raves, the trance state is very much dependent on the individual’s willingness to let go and trust the DJ in allowing him to guide the nature of his or her experience. One DJ regards the dancers as having a responsibility to meet him half way, “As long as they are open for a while and let themselves go, they have the opportunity to feel things the way I intended them to” (Heiko Laux, in Huegli 2002). Here again, the similarities between possession rituals and raves are apparent. Rouget characterizes the relation of the possessee to the musicians as “the submission of the former to the latter” (Rouget 1985:112). The following description of the ndop ceremony highlights many of these striking resemblances including the instrumentalist’s ability to observe and respond to the dancers’ movements, and the bond established between the two:

In fact, a close interpersonal relationship develops at this point between drummer and possessee. The drummer takes charge of her, so to speak. Keeping very close to her, never leaving her side, concentrating on her slightest movements, incessantly observing her behavior in order to: speed up the tempo, or, on the contrary, relax it; select the necessary types of beat; and adjust the intensity of the stroke. Communicating the rhythm of the dance to her, he holds the possessed woman in his sway and leads her into the ever more violent whirlwind of his music. But if he is able to lead her in this way, and finally guide her where he wishes, it is because he has been able to establish a close understanding with her. It is because he can follow her that he is able to dominate her and impose his will upon her. He is the master of the game, but within a dialogue. He speaks music and she replies dance (Rouget 1985:112).

The theme of submission is also apparent in possession ceremonies in relation to the spirit beings that possess cult members. In the case of Haitian Vodou, for example, Bourguignon highlights extreme passivity as one of the prerequisites for trance induction:

However, one aspect of submission-dominance seems of importance in relation to possession trance: in person, as we have seen, is said to be “mounted” by the spirit, to be his “horse.” The personality of the individual, one of his souls called “gros bon ange,” is displaced and the body is taken over by the spirit. In other words, there is total subjection to the spirit and total submission to him (or her). The spirit, as a powerful superhuman entity, can do as he pleases, both with the horse he has mounted and with other human beings present. We thus have an expression of extreme passivity in this interpretation of possession trance (Bourguignon 1976:40).

At raves, references to the power of music in directing the body are reminiscent of possession’s horse and rider metaphor. According to Sylvan, these accounts of submitting to the music “suggest a trance state very similar to possession, in which music becomes the rider and the body becomes the horse, but without reference to any specific possessing spirit” (Sylvan 2002:129).

In the rave locale, the DJ is equally influenced by the emotions of the crowd, where participant feedback is transmitted at the visceral level. While it is not unusual for participants to demonstrate their admiration for a DJ by whistling or chanting his name, for the most part, crowd feedback is nonverbal. Occurring as sets of coordinated body techniques that all ravers seem to intuitively know and all DJs can follow, these moves are acquired at the corporal level and most ravers seem to be unconscious or unaware of these movements. The responses to the DJ are well coordinated from an observer’s point of view. Fikentscher calls the sum of individual dancing bodies the “collective performance” wherein the bodies of the dancers can potentially unite to form “one musical instrument” (Fikentscher 2000:58-59). As McCall suggests, this process is mediated by dancers’ observation of subconscious cues. These cues create a system where “people are helping each other dance without knowing it, feeding off the collective anticipation for that moment of synergy where it feels like utter madness: cheers, claps, whistles, hands in the air. Suddenly everyone is dancing in unison” (McCall 2001:93).

When the dancers are in sync with one another, the boundaries between individuals seem to vanish as the crowd appears to function as one organism (McCall 2001:95). This process of synchronization also encompasses the entry into a collective psychic space.

In Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession, Rouget emphasizes that rituals of possession are embedded within rich cultural traditions wherein trance is a learned and culturally patterned process. In these traditions, the musical motifs, instruments, and dance steps are localized to specific gods and myths, and thus the music operates as “the principal means of socializing trance” (Rouget 1985:323). Rouget argues that it is the possessee’s ability to identify emotionally with the music and dancing as signifiers of cultural knowledge, that enables him to enter the trance state. This is where electronic music departs from possession music. Although raves are emotionally charged events, the music and dance movements are not rooted in a specific cultural tradition other than rave. Nevertheless, there is an inherent power in the music to evoke extraordinary states of consciousness and this is where the universal agents involved in triggering trance are paramount. DJs have not only utilized these mechanisms to induce trance among participants, but the available technology in sound and music production has given artists the means to refine these practices into a science of precision. To a certain extent, these technological advancements compensate for the lack of cultural signifiers, as DJs have access to a range of equipment that is clearly absent in ceremonial possession.

Electronic music producers are creating works that are intended to elicit specific states in the brain, and advancements in sound and visual effects at raves create the optimal listening environment for these tracks. Even though the sophisticated scripted process of initiation as observed in ceremonial possession is lacking at raves, these features when combined with the DJ’s proficiency in track selection and crowd interaction, and the learning on the part of participants in recognizing and responding to the DJ’s cues, account for the ASC’s that people are reporting at raves.

Many DJs as well as experienced rave participants have developed their senses in such a way that they perceive Techno music differently than those who have never been exposed to it. This shift in musical perception is a learned by-product of repeatedly exposing the auditory system to new stimuli, and this transition is a key part of the scripted process as well as a prerequisite to ASC induction. For DJs and their fans, listening entertainment is only a small part of the electronic music scene. Specifically, the tones, frequencies and beats of electronic music are designed by producers and further refined by DJs to target the body in precise ways. Electronic music is intended to be physically experienced and this is evinced by the fact that many veterans of the rave scene describe the music as having a three-dimensional vibrational quality that transcends the traditional way music is perceived. The body-centered quality of the music is deeply intrinsic to electronic music culture and this is the common thread that links the numerous classifications of rave music.

Computer technology has provided the DJ with the power to totally control the means of perception at raves. Whereas “the tonalities and structures of traditional music are limited by the parameters of the instruments on which they are played” electronic music “sets tonality loose releasing creativity from the discipline-and exclusivity-of musicianship” (Hemment 1997:29). As Gauthier remarks, “Techno becomes a presence that cannot be ignored-more, it is a shock whose intensity is only matched by the body’s urge to give in to it, an aggression made positive through the festive context” (Gauthier 2004:75). The dominance of the music is also supported by the high volume of the music. According to Fikentscher, this ensures the authority of the DJ as the music establishes “absolute priority over other acoustic phenomena: conversation, handclapping, foot stomping, yelling, whistling” (Fikentscher 2003:85). Some electronic musicians are even experimenting with sounds that go beyond the human auditory range. Fritz argues that sounds that vibrate through the body without being heard “may be partly responsible for the powerful emotional response people have when listening to rave music” (Fritz 1999:78).

While the majority of DJs are not necessarily versed in the scientific literature on trance states, or use scientific language to describe what they do, there is an underlying intuitive knowledge of what works with the crowd at raves. Rouget observes that an interruption in the music’s flow is used cross-culturally to induce trance. Such catalysts as the acceleration of tempo, the crescendo in volume, the use of polyrhythm, rhythmic changes such as syncopation, and even a brief cessation of the music, are techniques that interrupt the music’s flow, triggering trance (Rouget 1985:80-84). Rouget notes that most possession ceremonies begin slowly, gradually intensifying throughout the evening with the onset of possession being the climax of the event (ibid 1985:80-84). The methods implemented by instrumentalists in interrupting the music’s flow function to intensify the sound and atmosphere of possession rituals. With electronic music, the idea of tension and release is a built-in characteristic of all classifications of rave music. Thus while Trance, Jungle, and House may differ with regard to tempo, meter, instrumentation, and use of lyrics, the same techniques of building tension are employed by DJs in all three genres. As Reynolds notes “rave music has always been structured around the delay of climax” and the anticipation of a “plateau of bliss that can be neither exceeded nor released” (Reynolds 1994:56).

This paper examined the role of the electronic music DJ, and how DJ’ing has evolved into an art-from as well as a science. Technology has played a pivotal role in shaping the development of rave culture. At its core, the music that binds this global culture together is created, exchanged, performed, and experienced through computer-mediated technology. According to Wilson, “a reverence to and celebration of technology, and an implicit and explicit belief in ‘progress through technology,’” is one of the underlying doctrines of rave culture (Wilson 2003:386). As Gauthier remarks in reference to rave culture, “technology is synonymous with possibility, and stands as a prerequisite for creation, gathering and effervescence” (Gauthier 2004:71). Raves would be crippled without technology and this reinforces Reynolds’ point that rave music is not about “what the music ‘means’ but how it works” (Reynolds 1998:9). The DJ is the expert in knowing how electronic music works. His expansive knowledge of repertoire, aptitude for musical memory, technical prowess at the turntable, charismatic presence on stage, and ability to interact with, read, and manipulate the crowd, have awarded him the power to take his dancers on what participants have described as an “ecstatic” journey.


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