Rouge's Foam - The Premature Burial: Burial the Pallbearer vs Burial the Innovator. Here you can listen to this blogpost as spoken word and together with the musical examples. Download this as a high-quality mp3 and listen elsewhere by clicking the arrow on the right of the player.
What is Burial’s music ‘about’? What does it ‘do’? Come to think of it, what is his music? What does it mean? Of course, all of this is up to the listener’s imagination, but for a while now there’s been a certain degree of consensus on the answers to these questions: Burial ‘mourns the death of rave’, his music is (to paraphrase a handful of commentators) a ‘plaintive echo from a bygone era of collective energy’, ‘a melancholy, ghostly memory of the faded promise of rave, drenched in weathering and mired in urban decay’.
It’s difficult, not to mention pointless, to argue that this reading of Burial, derived from ‘hauntology’, is invalid. Its validity seems confirmed by interviews with the guy, even if the interviewers sometimes do come across as a bit leading. To dispute this reading would be intolerant, even mean-spirited – it’s as a pallbearer for rave that Burial takes on a powerful meaning for many of his fans, and why argue with that? Of course to see Burial in this way you’d first have to agree that rave is in some sense dead, and that’s a hotly disputed point. It’s a question I won’t try and answer here, largely because at the time rave was in its generally accepted heyday I was just getting into solid foods, but being reluctant to sit down and accept that I’ve arrived at a time when musical culture has declined almost to worthlessness, the ‘death of rave’ angle on Burial doesn’t really have any definitive meaning for me per se.
It’s a reading that’s solidifying into a naturalised collective interpretation of Burial though – his image within culture and history is being covered in six feet of earth. But this fresh, living and newborn voice still has a lot more to offer than the corpse of rave. There’s Burial the Pallbearer, but there are other Burials too.
Burial the Painter: Representations of LondonI’m not necessarily saying that Pallbearer-inclined listeners are unaware of or ignoring these other Burials, but other ways into listening to the music can get somewhat neglected. One way of listening that has been described to a small extent in music criticism and by some listeners outside of the more underground urban music scenes however is Burial the Painter, who seems to portray the physical and emotional environments of his native Zone 2 London with startling familiarity. One of the common unconscious preconceptions of our time, particularly among those who might describe themselves as being ‘serious’ about music, is that music (as opposed to lyrics) is ‘autonomous’, ‘abstract’, largely meaningless, that music is ‘about music’ primarily, and ‘about’ anything else only secondarily and weakly, that it exists wholly or partly in a vacuum, separate from and above any external worlds – that it’s pure sound and not sound with worldly meaning. Burial the Painter challenges these preconceptions by revealing a music that can be in constant, detailed and illustrative dialogue with a worldly reality that listeners can recognise and relate to, not just enriching the world but reflecting and embodying it too.
How does Burial paint London so effectively? Part of the appeal is that it’s so difficult to pin this down: he does nothing so simple as recording the sounds of the streets, the voices and traffic, and even were he to do this, it would only amount to only one dimension of the city, that of the sonic. The only non-musical samples he uses come from a small number of films and contemporary computer games. Burial’s representational skill works through subtle association rather than strict reproduction. As images, his tracks reveal all kinds of recognisable detail, but he’s not a photographer so much as an impressionist painter.
Burial the Painter is an ally of Burial the Pallbearer because his tracks have a loose but appreciable resonance with dance music styles like rave, jungle, 2-step garage and dubstep, which contribute many of the associations that specify the Zone 2 London of the early twenty-first century. The light, nimble beats may remind you of 2-step, the shadowy bass sounds a bit like a junglist hoover sound, the vocals are a fractured reflection of RnB and rave’s soul divas – these are all musical symbols of Zone 2 London because they’re aspects of musics that come from there and that are listened to by many Londoners.
Burial references other musical styles that can seem to address more historical aspects of the London environment, though, and sometimes he seems to look back to the 1890s just as much as the 1990s. ‘Archangel’, from Untrue, is a fan favourite largely because of its excellent melodic vocal science (see below), but the sample of Romantic orchestral music that it’s built around is also a major part of its appeal. It samples the intro video to the Playstation 2 game Metal Gear Solid 2 at a point when the game’s protagonist, having technologically rendered himself invisible, jumps off a suspension bridge in torrential rain with his arms spread out angelically. The sample exemplifies contemporary orchestral music written for epic films and computer games (dominated by strings, untexted mixed choir etc.), which itself is derived from the classical music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More specifically, the sample’s pseudo-baroque harmony and grandiose, orchestrated melancholy could point to the late Victorian and Edwardian urban Gothic grandeur that still forms an important part of the Zone 2 London cityscape. This Gothicism is particularly characteristic of areas that didn’t usually lie underneath the flight-paths of the Luftwaffe and/or were historically well-off areas, such as the south-west (Burial went to school in Putney and the Wandsworth area is depicted on the cover of his self-titled debut LP).
The sample could be a choral snippet from a lavishly orchestrated Romantic performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, held in the Royal Albert Hall on a rainy November evening in the late nineteenth century as the Bach revival was in full swing – the Victorian RAH isn’t a gothic building but it is a venue where you can hear rain drumming on the rooftop. I’m also reminded of composers like Brahms (German but popular in the homes of the Victorian middle classes), Hubert Parry and particularly the Elgar of the theme to his Enigma Variations, which shares many musical similarities with the Metal Gear Solid 2 sample, such as the speed, orchestration, stepwise harmonic motion, minor mode and their related keys (Enigma’s opening is in G minor, ‘Archangel’ is in the harmonically next door C minor, and both put emphasis on the subdominant chord/key during the course of the melody).
‘Forgive’ loops a sample thought to be from Brian Eno’s ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ which is a synthesiser piece, but Burial’s reverb makes it sound nonetheless grandly orchestral. I know they’re not there, but I swear I can hear symphonic French horns and trombones in the mix. Burial’s London is a place where distantly-heard echoes of contemporary urban music reverberate against a backdrop of rain-eroded Victorian schools, stations, churches, cemeteries and prisons.
The connection of Burial’s music with London goes beyond the simple association of certain musical styles with the places where they’re produced or celebrated, however. Sound effects, again taken from films and video games, also play an important part. In the context of this music the metallic noises of falling gun cartridges, drawn jungle knives and rifles being reloaded in the music are not so much threatening indicators of urban warfare as the non-specific background sound of an inhabited industrialised environment. The ubiquitous hiss and crackle of vinyl records that overlaps with recordings of rain on empty streets has been seen as a metaphor for (musical, cultural) decay, which it can be, but in a less complicated sense it describes the dirty, weathered and rainy streets of London with amazing efficiency.
The subject matter in these paintings of London isn’t usually very specific, even with the descriptive track titles, and nor should it be – again, Burial’s depictions are emotional reflections and impressionistic atmospheres rather than literal reproductions. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but it’s worth a second thought. ‘Night Bus’ manages to convey what it’s like to wait for or ride one of London’s night buses home at 2am, but there’s no glazed robotic voice reminding us ‘One seven one. To. Bellingham, Catford Bus Garage’, no constantly shifting crowd of tightly-squeezed passengers and no rumble of giant diesel engines. Instead, there’s the intermittent sound of rain in the middle distance and a slow, simple, pulseless minor-feel melody in the treble with an echoing, heavily processed vocal phrase nestled gracefully at its core: semi-conscious rumination around a couple of ideas in a beautifully basic mood, largely isolated from the surroundings. ‘Night Bus’ perfectly reflects the vaguely melancholy, half-asleep state of mind you’re in at the end of an exhausting night out, still a rainy hour’s travelling and walking away from home and a warm but lonely bed. Burial’s London has the emotion painted in too.
Burial the Storyteller: Text and NarrativeInstrumental music generally gives rise to meaning by association or connotation, unlike pictures or words, which have relatively specific (or denotive) meanings, but a piece of music can still tell a story by manipulating its connotative elements over time. Burial’s music has the best of both worlds because it incorporates recorded sound effects (sonic photographs, really) alongside sampled speech. By combining these specifically meaningful sound-objects with the more ethereal language of musical connotation, Burial acquires a unique and strangely gripping ability to tell mysterious and open-ended stories.
In forty-six seconds, Burial has told a compelling – and frightening – story. Who says these opening words, and why? Why the tone of spirituality? More pressingly, what’s the relationship between the opening voice and whatever it was that happened next? Did she show something, do something? Was something done to her? It’s fitting that Burial sampled a Lynch film, as his musical storytelling method has a lot in common with the director’s cinematic storytelling method. Both rely on connotation and mood to create effective stories when the conventions of specified meanings break down, raising questions rather than answering them, and it’s this disorientation that makes Lynch’s films so much more terrifying that conventional horror films. In fact, Lynch’s films contain many instances of carefully constructed atmospheres of anticipation climaxing into a moment of shock just like the untitled opening of Untrue – the monster that suddenly walks out from behind the wall at the back of the Wendy’s restaurant in Mulholland Drive, for example, and the moments in Inland Empire when Laura Dern’s face suddenly becomes grossly distorted.
Where ‘Night Bus’ could be a relatively static painting of someone on or waiting for a bus at night, tracks like Untrue’s ‘Endorphin’ tell a much more complex and ambiguous story. A minute-long segment in C minor of soft tones, multi-layered crackle and looping rave synth sounds featuring the slowed-down and pitch-shifted words ‘…and you see all these flashing blue lights’ is repeated in its entirety. At the end of the second iteration there’s an abrupt ending of this material, leaving only dislocated reverb, then suddenly new material for the last thirty-five seconds fades in. In this coda it’s started raining and we quickly modulate to a strange new key (ultimately F sharp minor, which is harmonically the furthest you can get away from C). A final cadence falls into place, its oddly emphasised penultimate chord a caustic open fifth on E natural (E and B natural are both notes that are very dissonant and out of place in C minor), which really creates a burning sensation. Then the downward octave-leap at the end confirms the arrival in a new and slightly disturbing harmonic place. The story has an AAB structure, and there has been a major development: something dramatic has happened, harmonic ‘home’ is now far away and we’re not taken back there. The quoted speech and the title are clues whose significance is unclear, enhancing the mystery rather than clarifying anything.
Another beatless track on Untrue, ‘In McDonalds’, ends with the words ‘you look different’ just as the music has died to deep, reverberating hum. These words, spoken by the mother of the main character in the film Bullet Boy, have been slowed down and deepened, so ironically it’s whoever says these words that sounds different. We’re listening from the perspective of an implied first person whose transformed state (i.e. the change in appearance noted by the second person) is further demonstrated by their strangely altered hearing at the moment a friend or relative expresses concern, as if they're on the threshold of a bad drug trip or something more supernatural. What happened ‘in McDonalds’?
Burial the Singer: Unquantised Melody and Vocal ScienceThe end of ‘In McDonalds’ is an elegantly simple instance of Burial using electronic manipulation of voice to powerful expressive effect, and he does it in more elaborate ways throughout his work, particularly on Untrue. The complex electronic alteration of rhythm and pitch in vocal samples to create new, cyborg melodies is referred to as ‘vocal science’. It’s a hallmark of recent underground dance music and Burial is an innovator and a master of it. The name ‘vocal science’ clearly comes from people who believe this kind of music to be a rational, painstaking and objective exercise (ugh), and it’s slightly misleading because although complex technical wizardry is often required, it’s still very much an art(form) and can be likened to older traditions of decorative improvised singing.
Burial himself doesn’t sing on his tracks (as far as I know), but he does construct a personal singing voice for himself by reshaping vocal fragments selected from pre-existing music, positioning rhythm, pitch and EQ with precision just like any other vocal performance. His vocal science is an inventive and artful balance of melodic grace and rough rhythmic collage achieved through the re-engineering of found sound. The results are junkyard sculptures that point to new and undiscovered worlds of vocal-melodic expressivity.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Burial’s voice is its inhuman, androgynous quality. By always shifting the pitch of the vocal samples up or down, male voices take on a feminine or childlike quality and female voices take on a masculine quality respectively, something Burial has described as ‘sexy as fuck’. In fact, this pitch-shifting is so complex and widespread among Burial’s tunes that categories like ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘child’, ‘adult’, ‘black’ and ‘white’ are entirely left behind. In this way Burial’s voice can be seen as a Utopian fantasy, poignantly representing an ideal Self or an ideal Other, as in the legend of Pygmalion, about a sculptor who creates the perfect woman out of ivory. I use the phrase ‘Burial’s voice’ in two senses, as in simply ‘the voice of Burial’ but also describing something created by Burial – as in, appropriately, ‘Frankenstein’s monster’.
On ‘Archangel’, as on other tracks, Burial’s voice is a transcendent post- (or pre-) human, an angel that professes its love (‘holding you, loving you, kissing you’) in a broken voice both soothing and gothically lachrymose, and promising from a supernatural plane that with all this ‘[you] wouldn’t be alone’.
Burial turns the possibilities of unquantised rhythms (i.e. rhythms that don’t line up to a metronomic pulse) to his expressive advantage, using a subtle, precision earliness or lateness to make the voice seem like it’s breaking with emotion. This can be heard noticeably in ‘Etched Headplate’, but the most powerful instance is in ‘Near Dark’. A sample of the words ‘I can’t take my eyes off you’ is repeated over an over, pitch-shifted into different variations to create a great eight-bar melody. Listen to how each phrase is rhythmically placed though: the first one, an initial proposition, is slightly early, anticipating the drop of the main material, so seems to be nervously rushing ahead. In the second phrase, which forms a response to or development of the first, we notice that the ‘I can take my…’ half of the phrase is too fast, but then it slows more to align with the beat, and the final note differs from that of the first phrase, implying a new harmonic direction. The third phrase is the one that really gets you – it’s a calculated fraction of a second late as if pained, reluctant to carry on. It also returns to the harmony of the first phrase like an insistent denial of the second phrase, and after this the fourth phrase is late too. Rhythmically, the sample moves like a fish in a stream, sometimes swimming against the current of the beat, sometimes propelled forward by it, all with an effortless shifting of fins. Emotionally, it’s like a subtle, perfectly timed acting performance that sends a shiver down the spine.
Occasionally people ask whether the effects of techniques like unquantisation are ‘accidental’, in accordance with the ancient, glorious and undying traditions of skepticism towards new art along with rhetoric about drugs, infantilism, mental illness, savagery, degeneracy, disrespect of tradition etc etc. It’s irrelevant really. Burial, whatever musical training he has or hasn’t had, clearly does possess a remarkable ear for inventive rhythm (as well as for melody, harmony, texture, structure, sampling) and ‘Near Dark’ has to be one of the finest uses of electronic unquantisation, this brand new musical technique, that I know of. You don’t write a tune like ‘Archangel’ and then fail in your intentions to line rhythms up ‘properly’.
Burial the Poet: Words, Phrases and Sentences.There are lots of ways to construct a melody, but a particularly effective method is to string together a series of sub-phrases that respond to and develop each other, often along the lines of the so-called ‘question and answer’ (also known as ‘call and response’, or more technically ‘antecedent and consequent’) pattern beloved of music teachers. There could be any number of equivalents to poetry in music, but to pick just one: the construction of melody mirrors the structural balancing acts of poetry that take place up and down the hierarchical levels of words, phrases, sentences and stanzas or paragraphs.
Burial the Poet operates in the area where close vocal science becomes large-scale storytelling, crafting musical phrases and sentences in an alien language with shifting, intangible meanings. Instead of nouns there are pitched tones, instead of verbs there are harmonic directions, instead of adjectives there are effects like filters, EQ and reverb, instead of rhyme, assonance and alliteration there are melodic logics like ‘call and response’, and instead of punctuation there is rhythm. This is a process most clearly exemplified in ‘Near Dark’ and ‘Archangel’. ‘Etched Headplate’ has a more irregular poetry, while ‘Ghost Hardware’ creates the line from a handful of disparate elements. In ‘Shutta’ an unusual phrase is constructed from four staccato chords that are harmonically embellished with vocals.
My favourite example of Burial the Poet is the main melody of the brand new track ‘Fostercare’ from the amazing 5 Years of Hyperdub compilation released recently. It’s an astonishing track, one of the strangest and most fascinating since ‘Shutta’. As poetry, the opening lines of the melody reach right inside you and hold a conversation with a part of you that you never knew existed.
This melody is unusual among Burial tracks in that it’s constructed from much smaller fragments of vocal samples, so there are no words to make out. We’re in C sharp minor, and the first phrase (the call) starts with an anacrusis (also a poetic term) by entering before and anticipating the harmonic downbeat. The first phrase ends, via an unquantised downward slide, on the minor third. The second phrase (the response) partially lines up harmonically with the bass, which cycles two bars of tonic (C sharp, home), one bar of G sharp and then a bar of the foreboding submediant (A major - we actually hear A major’s third over G sharp, a bar before the bass comes in with A). Here it’s not just the beginnings of the notes that are unquantised to great effect, but the ends too: there’s an odd semi staccato feel as the notes cut out slightly early that makes the voice sound timid. As in ‘Near Dark’, the third phrase is another ‘call’ and so echoes the first phrase. Here, though, it’s actually exactly the same as the first, which is what makes melodic sense here, but again Burial is cleverer than trite reiteration, and muffles the phrase with a low-pass filter, making brilliant use of technology that wasn’t available to the writers of expressive melody in the nineteenth-century.
Then the fourth phrase, another ‘response’, mirrors the second phrase accordingly, again, switching the harmony to the submediant. Now Burial’s bassline, powerful as it is, is pretty simple, just a loop of three notes, so he’s running out of ways to keep his melody fresh by the time he gets to the fifth phrase, (which is a new ‘call’ and could be thought of as the beginning of a new sentence), so he changes his game. Instead of using anacrusis as he did before, he does the opposite, waiting until the downbeat has passed before the notes of the fifth phrase start, now quite close to where a sixth phrase should be. This phrase actually takes place halfway between where the fifth phrase and the sixth phrases should be were the phrases coming in at the same rate as before.
All the fifth phrase does after the first note is bounce back and forth between two more notes, the third and fourth scale degrees. With traditional notes, traditional paper and traditional conventions of melody, this seems a little weak, a rather flat gesture (though deliberate imperfection or naivety like this is something you often find in Schubert or Schumann). Played on an acoustic instrument it wouldn’t sound that great, but Burial’s unquantised rhythms and manipulative vocal science really bring the phrase to life with a judiciously controlled articulation that no acoustic composer could possibly hope to notate for a performer. That Burial manages to turn such a relatively dull phrase into something like this is yet another example of how he’s made advanced use, practically unprecedented in its sophistication, of the medium of electronic composition to multiply the possibilities of composition as a whole.
The fifth phrase was a ‘call’, but even though we’re left hanging and the bass implies that a response is due – there isn’t one. In fact, the melody stops right there, even as the background harmonic parts carry on as before. The melody was an irregular six bars long but the background harmony carries on to the regular eight bar mark, and then goes on for a further eight bars without any melody as if it were a dub version. After this, new material comes in that offers a new beat but now doesn’t even have any harmony. The track sounds ‘unfinished’: as it carries on it boldly puts a highly tense lack of melodic (and then harmonic) material in the foreground.
Burial the Architect: Texture, Form and Cadence‘Fostercare’ is the inverse of conventional expectations of structure, an ‘Archangel’ robbed of its melodic material just as it was getting going. This is another example of Burial’s storytelling ability (think of this structural outline in the context of the track’s title), but it’s also a notable outing for Burial the Architect.
Conventionally speaking, there are two dimensions in which music can be subject to structural or what could be called architectural design: the horizontal and the vertical. The horizontal axis is time, while the vertical axis spans the variety of sound produced in a single moment – usually this means pitch but timbre and frequency in general could also count. Construction across the horizontal time axis is often called ‘form’, while construction across the vertical axis could be called ‘texture’. In practice it’s ultimately quite difficult to notionally separate the two categories, just as a building is (to add on another dimension) a three-dimensional object and not a pair of two-dimensional objects at right angles, hence the analogy of ‘architecture’.
A key two-dimensional structural point in many musical styles is the cadence, an event which can bring structural harmony both to a close and to a new beginning. Really well done cadences have been rare since the nineteenth century and they’re often barely more than vestigial in contemporary popular music. Burial, though, seems obsessed with them, creating layered and innovative cadences almost out of nowhere with startling creativity. New voices and sounds will suddenly enter to accentuate a cadence, heighten the anticipatory tension and then bring it home to release of that tension. This is particularly noticeable in ‘Distant Lights’ and ‘Etched Headplate’, where Burial uses a single cello tonic note to bring out the cadences while that surreptitious leaping bass approaches from beneath.
Burial’s approach to structure is usually pretty fiercely original, but ‘Ghost Hardware’ is one of Burial the Architect’s most inventive and accomplished edifices, showcasing his skill for form and texture at every level of structure, from the small to the larges scales. Burial has said that he’s not into long intros that slowly build everything up, but his alternative structures are not weakly abrupt, and here he manages to create a very short and detailed intro that works remarkably well. Satisfyingly paired down though it is, it nonetheless introduces many of the motifs that take on key structural roles as the track plays out before the anacrusis of the vocal phrase takes us elegantly to the drop. One of these is a quote from the film Girl With a Pearl Earring: Scarlett Johansson exclaiming ‘you looked inside me’ when she sees Vermeer’s portrait of her. Throughout the intro, Burial uses sound effects like he’s reinvented the medium of percussion and its structural logics (the break, the fill etc). The material for the intro is used in beatless secondary areas that periodically punctuate the track and contrast with the track’s main material, building in texture and heightening tension while the harmony remains rooted to the spot.
The primary texture of the track is dominated by a deep bass part that’s only used to present a bare minimum of load-bearing harmonic anchorage. It amounts to only two notes for the cadence at the end of the eight-bar ‘sentence’ and one more short note in the middle, irregularly positioned in bar four where bar five would have been the obvious, more even place for it. This is much like syncopation or unquantisation but on the much larger scale of bars rather than the pulse and its subdivisions. This economy of bass sets up a great interplay between areas of presence and areas of absence. Just as the difference between areas of low and high air pressure causes the wind to blow, so there’s an ebb and flow of anticipatory tension and release across the eight-bar ‘sentence’ – listen out for it, it’s something Burial’s very good at. Here, as in ‘Fostercare’, Burial is acutely and audaciously aware not just of exactly where to put notes, but where to leave them out.
Burial the 21st Century ComposerThe Burials I’ve identified here are just some of angles from which to look at this multi-faceted composer. Of course, Burial is all of these things simultaneously – despite the necessarily sequential nature of this discussion, singing was never distinct from poetry, painting was never distinct from storytelling, poetry was never distinct from architecture. There are many more Burials too – others that I have or haven’t touched upon that could be recognised may include the Percussionist, the Audiophile, the Engineer, the Polyphonist, the Gamer, the Film-Watcher, the Music Fan, the Listener/Perceiver, the Orchestrator, the Gothic, the Socialist Realist, the Dancer, the Poststructuralist, the Bricoleur, the Romantic, the Diarist, the Raver, the Independent, the Victorian and the Myth. I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Burial offers here. Given all this it seems that effectively Burial is still anonymous, still to be discovered. It’d be a shame to prematurely make like we’ve got him sussed.
Many music critics compare contemporary music with the music of the past, sometimes favorably, often unfavorably. Taking the opposite approach, one could compare contemporary music to how music could be in the future. (Let’s not forget that the past is usually just as much of an unknown, just as subject to the clouding of ideology and bias, as the future can be). I’d like to think that rather than simply being a reminder of what we might’ve lost, Burial’s music is a foretaste of what’s to come.
Is Burial one of the first truly twenty-first century composers? Absolutely. His music has to be one of the most accomplished, sophisticated and personalised applications we have to date of the possibilities inherent in the technologies of twenty-first century electronic composition (and he pretty much used the bare minimum there) and the twenty-first century musical and sonic environment. But even Burial, astonishingly unique and innovative though his music is, keeps a loose grip on the stylistic conventions of Western music’s previous few centuries. Perhaps by making uniquely detailed inroads into post-experimental electronic musical style ahead of others, he’s paving the way for the detailed and articulate languages of newer, even bolder generations of composers.
So what does this word ‘composer’ mean, now that we’re in the twenty-first century?
This essay is partly a response to this and partly inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s essay ‘Brahms the Progressive’. Also want to mention that Burial the Ballardian was already on the list of Burials, and that Devil, Can You Hear Me, who writes a good blog, complained about the ‘codified aesthetic’ surrounding Joker while this post was still on the drawing board.
This is the second part in a four-part series of essays on musical pasts, presents and futures. The other parts are:
1. ‘Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present’.
3. ‘What is a [Classical] Composer?’.
4. ‘The Twenty-First-Centry Modern Composer’.