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Trance Legend Paul van Dyk Discusses Music, Education, and the Meaning of Life

Paul van Dyk Event
Paul Van Dyk in conversation with the Harvard Electronic Music Collective.

Dozens of electronic music fans from Harvard and the Greater Boston Area filed into the Adams Lower Common Room on Feb. 20 to hear a talk from German trance music legend Paul van Dyk. Hosted by the Harvard College Electronic Music Collective, van Dyk discussed his life, his music, and his groundbreaking career.

The DJ and producer grew up in East Germany, unable to listen to his favorite music except by tuning in to illegal radio stations. He would eventually become the first electronic artist to be nominated for a Grammy. Today, van Dyk is best known for pioneering the sub-genre of trance and for his hit songs “For An Angel” and “Nothing But You.”

During the event, van Dyk shared his unique personal story and offered advice for young musicians, particularly those in college. Asked how he got his start in the music industry, van Dyk said, “I started making mixtapes for myself and some friends, and one of my friends actually passed on my mixtape to the guy at the door of Tresor… There were a few things where I was in a lucky position, but the thing is as well to take your chance; make this real.”

Van Dyk emphasized the power of resilience and love in the face of adversity. The artist suffered a brain injury in 2016 after falling 33 feet through a stage during the “A State of Trance” festival in Utrecht. It took several years for him to return to touring. “In the first few days, when I was still in a coma… I was connected to all the machines, so there was no brain function, and I was not aware of anything,” the musician said. “But when [my wife] came and asked me to grab her hand, I did. So there was something inside of me that was not my brain that knew this is my girl. And that’s the meaning of life: that’s the soul, that’s love, that’s connection.”

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Van Dyk also stressed the importance of pursuing an education, even if it means delaying musical dreams. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I believe in education… If you have the chance to actually study, to learn, if you are given the great gift of knowledge in a place like Harvard — take that gift, learn as much as you can. And then, with what you learn, make your dreams come true.”

The crowd was a mix of college students and community members. Many attendees were long-time fans of van Dyk’s work: One woman said she had attended 80 of his shows, and another said she had been a fan for more than 20 years. Other guests included producers and DJs living and working in the Boston area.

Community member Alex J. Birch attended the event. “Paul van Dyk has been doing this since as long as I’ve been alive. He’s been DJing, and he’s a huge initial part of the German trance scene,” Birch said. “So just to hear some of his background, how he got into the whole scene, and I’m also very interested in how he’s interested in politics as well.”

According to Fay Huo ’20, co-president of the Harvard College Electronic Music Collective, this diverse audience is typical for her organization. “We invite people from the greater Boston area, not only just Harvard students. We are very inclusive, actually,” Huo said. This is something we’re proud of. We strive to be a platform, a community, that can collect all the musicians, producers, and DJs that are interested in electronic music to come to our events,” she said.

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