One of the most exciting things about hauntology, I think, is that it’s possibly one of the first aesthetic movements in quite a while to see some very specific equivalence in technique between sonic and visual art. I’d been looking long and hard for a visual counterpart to the music of The Caretaker, William Basinski and lately Indignant Senility – I knew one definitely existed, it was just a matter of finding it – when I suddenly found a postcard of an image from one Doug Harvey yesterday.
The Caretaker, Basinski and Indignant Senility (call them the ‘playback hauntologists’) create new pieces of music from ancient tape and vinyl recordings that are treated or weathered down in various ways until they become an ironic, emotionally-laden dark ambient noise. Generally their work is not what you’d call collage – the recordings they use are chopped into long extracts, looped or even left to play in their entirety, but significantly they don’t combine samples (as The Focus Group does) or mix in more contemporary elements (as Boards of Canada and Mordant Music do). In this way the outlines of the original source object are faintly intact, but it’s heavily ‘decayed’ or ‘decaying’.
The rotted celluloid paintings of Peter Doig, which I described in my big ol’ treatise on and survey of hauntology, seemed a bit analogical to this process, but since they were paintings, the original image (even if based on a photograph as it usually was) was always ultimately contrived. To make the equivalence closer, the original source object would have to be an image that was recorded in a similar way as sound is recorded on tape or vinyl. Such a recorded image would of course be generated through photography.
The images in this post are slides found by Doug Harvey in the growing pile of waste kipple outside the Los Angeles home of a serial hoarder, following some kind of intervention or change of heart. Untouched for years, the slides had fallen prey to damp and mould, a process which dramatically transformed the colours and forms within them. Harvey exhibits these extraordinary images as Rhizomatic Transmission, a slide show accompanied by a soundtrack of recorded improv music. Links here, here and here.
Even without the original figuration of the photographs being clear, these images are of course amenable to all the usual basic themes: as metaphors for the tragedy of passing time, memory, death, just as the playback hauntology music is. Yet the sense – always to some extent concomitant with this process of decay whether sonic or visual – of a transition towards a new formal and colouristic abstraction is particularly pronounced here. Each image resides at some point on a bizarre continuum between family photographs and abstract paintings by Fiona Rae, Morris Louis or Jackson Pollock. Out of the molten ruins of the old, the new.
I’ve hinted before, as has Alex Williams, that hauntology and ‘wonky’ are aesthetic siblings. Both are processes that create something new using a wide range of creative methods for treating something ‘old’, or what could be described as old. Williams suggests:
Rather than a pick and mix approach to generic materials, wonky is strategically applied to pre-existent genres, not as an adhesive but as a liquefying agent... [cf perhaps Negarestani's rotting objects?]... a making strange... not in the sense of hauntology's unheimlich-home, but in the deliquescent informational fluidity and interoperability of late capital, the strangeness of a blooming iridescent corpse, (not a spectre) a sonic embodiment of its distributive ground. (emphasis is mine).Harvey’s slides, with their psychedelic fungal blooms, are certainly an example of such an iridescent corpse. They’re a ‘missing link’ between hauntology and a visual ‘wonky’.
(I should say at this point that I’m even less keen on the label ‘wonky’ than I was last summer, though I still have to admit that a certain count-for-one is useful, maybe even important. The best alternative epithet I’ve come up with is ‘hypergroove’ to refer specifically to the unquantised element, and in a broader sense, just ‘hyper’ – a nod to Hyperdub, hype, hyperstasis if you agree with it, maybe even hyperreality if you wanted to maintain a cynical distance).
While hauntological art is clearly a post-modernist art, the relative formal abstractions in the rhythms, textures and harmonies of ‘wonky’ (that is, its certain distance from reliance on signs, whether that’s post-structural or via postmodern pastiche) prompted me to risk calling it ‘modernist’. However I’m sure Owen Hatherley’s term ‘pseudomodernism’, used to describe the seemingly modernist geometries of the recent ‘building as sign’ architectural style nurtured by Norman Foster, applies to a notable degree here, and that deserves further study. But ‘wonky’ as a movement surely has more ‘new’ in it than hauntology – now whether or not this ‘new’ has any significance or validity is very much moot.
Another reason that ‘wonky’ is a bit ‘newer’ than hauntology is that the supposedly ‘old’ sources it ‘treats’ are far less clear cut than those of hauntology. This brings me neatly into the ongoing debate on the status of old and new in the new music, which flared up again recently due to a post by Simon Reynolds and a subsequent Twitter discussion, all prompted by the imminent release of Ikonika’s debut album. Reynolds suggested that I write about this album, and I’d actually already reviewed it for the current issue of Wire magazine. Further thoughts on it may appear up here in due course.
Firstly, I’d strongly disagree that much of this new music can be described as pastiche – Belbury Poly and the early Advisory Circle do pastiche, not Zomby, Ikonika, Joker et al. I can’t imagine what it would be that their music pastiches. To say that they pastiche video game music, almost solely on the basis that they use basic waveform synths, would be shallow and depressingly unimaginative, like seeing no difference between the piano idioms of Beethoven and Debussy because they use the same instrument (actually I think there’s a real sense in which the exponentially varying timbres of pop music in the last fifty years, while being a very good thing, have caused such an impatient, superficial selective deafness in listeners, causing them to meet a musical surface composed of timbre – classical refuseniks, I’m looking at you). There is a fairly weak pastiche of video game music in one layer of the penultimate track on Ikonika’s album ‘Look (Final Boss Stage)’ (take that word ‘weak’ as a value-judgement if you like, it’s not necessarily a bad thing), but anyone familiar with the internet-catalysed 8bit hobbyist boom of the mid-noughties knows what 80s video game music pastiche sounds like, and this is not it.
(In fact there’s a significant degree to which employing basic waveform synths is a classically modernist technique, akin to using only primary colours in painting, or only bare concrete or glass in architecture. The bareness of these timbres draws attention to the exotic melodic, rhythmic, textural and formal concerns in the music. Leave it crudely at just drawing attention to video games, and you’re missing out. Modernist music demands modernist listening: listen with fresh ears, don’t just assume the promiscuity of postmodern signification).
There’s a tricky but important difference between a music that’s historically established (‘old’) and music in which certain constituent elements are simply echoed elsewhere in time and space. (By ‘element’ I mean any sort of musical structure or process, any flexible but coherent configuration of sonic variables that recurs, from notions of melody to a specific 808 kick drum.) Pastiche, then, is not as well-used in this particular old/new debate as notions of ‘recombination’.
Now to oppose creation of a ‘new’ with a process of ‘recombination’ of potentially familiar elements is false. As usual, Charles Ives is a brilliant example (click here for great music - hauntology from the 1910s - and a pretty good video too), though his references are now a little difficult to detect in being buried, squashed together with his originality under the layers of an intervening century’s musical idioms. And you can’t say that jungle, repeatedly held up as some paragon of modernism in popular music, was not a product of recombination, even if it did find a distinctive technological space at the time. Musical styles, even hyper-modernist ones, never emerge from nowhere.
In basic terms, even the most loyal of pastiches or the most conscientious of recombinations is a production of something original on some sonic level. This is a stupid point but it is worth noting that original music is still appearing in this way, as opposed to composers calling it quits and settling down with a swollen iTunes library. However, we’re concerned here with more significant instances of newness. Reynolds calls ‘hyperstasis’ the scenario in which a range of original music is energetically produced using a wide range of sources and influences, but the parameters of its originality never reach a point that he feels he can acknowledge as original, hence ‘stasis’. Hyperstasis is a closed loop or space in which sonic elements or musical signs are constantly recycled – closed because it is ‘struggling to find exit routes to a beyond, to terra incognita’, or as Owen put it on Twitter, ‘it’s trying to break out of something but can’t’.
I don’t think I can ultimately believe in the notion of a closed system of musical styles, certainly not in practice, but particularly as it pertains to the richly varied milieu of this new music. To be sure, in this case I strongly disagree that this new music hasn’t found stylistic terra incognita. Actually the ‘terra’ it finds is so ‘incognita’, that many people don’t seem to have noticed or appreciated it. An aesthetic system or discourse such as the hardcore continuum concept naturally has certain blind spots, blinkers that conceal certain elements, largely because only certain featured elements were being aimed at in the first place. Systems like these have certain aesthetic priorities, with only certain specific elements being considered ‘on the table’ or ‘in the game’. Judgements of recombination and hyperstasis are predicated upon a finite picture of musical resources and priorities such as this.
The instruments of this new music may be familiar, or to put it more broadly, the easily-spotted and practically unavoidable signifiers of certain pre-existing genres may be familiar, but what they’re doing and having done to them formally in other dimensions of sonic production (rhythm, harmony, texture) is often strikingly innovative. It’s like the direction of musical innovation has taken a right-angle turn into a new dimension instead of proceeding along a familiar or predictable trajectory. Perhaps this is why the theoretical dynamics of the hardcore continuum concept as a certain specific frame of aesthetic possibilities / imperatives (i.e. what is ‘in the game’ and how it is appreciated) either needs to be expanded or is simply too limited to be able find any value in this new music. Because it’s looking at the new music with the wrong dimensionality, flatly. Maybe this accounts for Reynolds’s ‘vague sense of dissatisfaction’. A Rodin sculpture is much less striking if all you can see is a certain two-dimensional cross-section, and this new music is much less striking, or seems much less innovative, if your aesthetic priorities are slick timbres, aging definitions of ‘beat science’ etc, and not exotic grooves, broken textures and innovative melodies.
Reynolds’s complaint that the music ‘never settles into genre-icity’ seems to assume a specific and potentially outmoded idea of the size, shape and orientation of a style (for various reasons I prefer the word ‘style’, which I think is synonymous with Reynolds’s ‘genre’ here). ‘Wonky’, for one, is a style that cuts across older conceptions of styles as if it were orientated perpendicularly, across a new dimension in stylistic space, as is hauntology. These two movements have been called ‘themes’ in an attempt to differentiate them from more conventional ontologies of style. This new music ‘settles’ – though I’m not sure that’s the appropriate word – into an alternative kind of genre-icity, one that plays out across different levels of sonic variability. (Reynolds says that this music nonetheless remains ‘a long way short of being limitless’ and that ‘there are areas that are off limits to it’ – but surely these are the very definitions of musical style?).
Taken as a whole, Ikonika’s music presents this ‘alternative kind of genre-icity’, but along with this, she has created a number of coherent sub-styles within her growing oeuvre. I’d argue that ‘Millie’, ‘Idiot’ and ‘R.E.S.O.L.’ are all in much the same style, while ‘Yoshimitsu’ and ‘They Are All Losing The War’ are in a different (not the same) style, but they’re all subsets within Ikonika’s broader metastyle. Personally, I have no problem with a lack of genre-icity in the new music. For me, the internal similarities in different areas of it suit the natural predilection a listener has for ‘genre-icity’, or what I’ve previously called ‘the recurring specifics of style’, just fine. Some commentators characterise this music and its listeners as ‘glutted’ with stylistic resources, but evidently its adherents have bigger (healthier?) appetites and stomachs than they do.
Show me jungle as an example of a ‘better’ type of genre-icity, a more traditional conception of style, and I will tell you that what you find to be appropriately coherent, consistent and internally conscientious, I find to be boring, almost maddeningly boring. It’s nice that there’s a lot of it, I guess, but I much prefer a broader variety within a DJ set or a rave, even if that variety comes from the incorporation of ‘familiar’ musical signs. But then (sarcasm here) what I do I know, I’m of the Hyperdub generation, not the Metalheadz generation, I was reared by the Internet, so my aesthetic sensibilities have been spoiled, haven’t they. It’s a rhetorical question, I know there were different, less maximalist aesthetics at the time (those old habits die hard), it was listening on a different level, good luck to that – but how did you people listen to the exact same breaks, the same tired clichés over and over again, night after night after night after night? Lack of originality, you say?
For me, one of the most exciting areas of innovation in Ikonika’s music specifically is in the rhythmic qualities of her melodies, rather than in the instruments she uses (I use that word ‘instruments’ in a very broad sense, even incorporating notions of pre-existing style). Like the rest, Ikonika brings a new take on melody to ‘the game’ / ‘the table’, and everything that comes with it – emotionality for one, which is a welcome contrast to the coldness of most jungle, garage and old dubstep (and I’m not, of course, doing the woman-as-emotion thing, you’ll find similar, sometimes greater emotionality in Starkey, Joker, Hudson Mohawke, Zomby’s Digital Flora and particularly Darkstar).
Yet for the Metalheadz generation of critics, who only ever seem to talk about genre-icity and recombination, these melodic elements don’t seem to register: a musical element like this isn’t supposed to be ‘in the game’ – this is why Woebot was confused by their presence, saying they were ‘jammed on top’ (no link, sorry, he deleted his review). Those who demand innovation don’t notice it because they got a lot more than they ever wanted. The new artists like Ikonika don’t just innovate along the same old trajectories, they innovate in the process of innovation itself. Innovation squared. Along with many others, Ikonika does indeed escape from a hypothetical closed system of hyperstasis, by escaping into a different musical dimension that more traditional aesthetic systems cannot detect.
And that really is breaking the mould (lol).
Some of the conceptual background of this post is outlined in my essay on The Twenty-First-Century Modern Composer. I'll be going into a lot more detail on this sort of thing in my Zer0 book Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-making.