Features | Jericho

Jericho / II :: Accidental Sound

By Joel Elliott | 7 September 2011

On the same night when beloved NDP leader Jack Layton died and the Libyan rebels entered Tripoli, I heard the wheels of a skateboard roll casually off the sidewalk as if of their own accord, and I remembered a night when we walked straight down the middle of the street, but I could not remember which night or which street.

One of the main achievements of sound in recent decades is its ability to transform space, be it physically (from the competing sounds of a busy shopping centre to a multimedia gallery installation) or just through the imagination that a single recording stirs up. The above thought came to me abruptly in a hypnagogic state, as much if not more prompted by whatever psychological state I was in than any external factor per se.

The word “hypnagogic”—that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep—has, with the speed of micro-genre-casting that happens these days, become inextricably bound with David Keenan’s article in The Wire where he coined the term “hypnagogic pop.” It’s a brilliant idea in principle: that melodies could be half-remembered, and thus evoke as much the subconscious strata behind its makers as the actual cultural touchstones referenced. In practice the latter can drown out the former, nostalgia reduced to a set of almost compulsively-ritualized tropes, bound to a specific past (the ’80s, namely), and thus by extension bound to the present in the way the Hipstamatic will never recall Polaroids as much as it will other smartphone technology in years to come. Our current brand of retro-fetishism is like a hole being dug in soft sand: the lack of stability of the present keeps leveling out any attempts to mine the past. Its culmination, as I see it, lies in bands like Washed Out: evocative of exactly nothing, a symptom of the malaise that drives escapism but not the escape itself.

But the current that drives this type of music is interesting even when the music itself fails to inspire, as a reminder that the overlap between political/cultural histories and personal histories isn’t always smooth. Like the protagonist of Jiří Menzel’s brilliant Closely Watched Trains, even the most cataclysmic events can seem like a faint backdrop to the single-minded pursuits of youth. Conveniently, my generation is uniquely placed to barely-remember a decade which, according to Keenan, “seemed designed to elevate trivial feelings and everyday ups and downs to the level of tragedy,” though maybe this too is a mis-remembering, and when current popular music gains its own patina it will similarly bear the “urge to excess.” Sometimes, when the past is magnified to the point of distortion, new and incredible shapes emerge. When Keenan originally profiled Emeralds, I still considered them to be another in a long line of hyper-prolific cassette/CDR-format drone artists, but with last year’s Does It Look Like I’m Here?, they really did begin to sound like a “coda from an epically sad 1980s Top 40 hit extended to infinity.” The gloss of sentimentality and cheap artifice that this implies can, in patient hands, become subverted by repetition until it reaches a level of transcendence that most mainstream pop from the ’80s only accidentally and intermittently stumbled upon.

Generally though, the core of memory is frayed and unpredictable. Memory without noise is often a picture of some imagined notion of innocence rather than an attempt to contend with the past as past. Leyland Kirby’s recent release as the Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, may be the closest approximation of the more ragged type of memory ever put to tape. With a minimum of artistic intervention, Kirby still manages to completely recontextualize the dusty 78s of his source material, tracks which, even without the crackling and decay that Kirby attenuates, would evoke an almost indigestible nostalgia. And yet, his treatment is entirely counterintuitive: loops veer long past the point of comfort and into dementia, then are cut off abruptly, sometimes mid-phrase. Attempting to simulate the loss of memory in Alzheimer’s sufferers, An Empty Bliss finds that space between recollection and eternal recurrence, emotional resonance and anonymity. Like Andrew Hall, I find the lack of a distinct creative identity behind the mix disquieting, though I also take it to be a sign of the profound absence on display. Memory soundscapes require a certain amount of relinquishing control: unsurprisingly, in a memory-obsessed culture, more and more sound artists seem to be acting as documentarians.

I recently attended Electric Eclectics, a festival near my hometown of Owen Sound, Ontario, which I reviewed a couple years back. The festival itself sometimes seems like a half-forgotten dream of noise, pop, and the avant-garde, blurred together on a beautiful rolling green hill, where torn pieces of plastic toys are nailed haphazardly to trees like a warning to children from a deranged recluse. Here, miles away from what most urbanites would consider substantial culture, someone with as much notoriety as Tony Conrad “DJ”-ed in between sets, which mostly involved playing long, unimpeded segments of audio tracks from old educational reels.

Among the performers was Canadian composer John Oswald. Oswald was effectively the bridge between musique concrète and hip-hop, and his arrangement of samples occasionally recalls both. In an essay written in 1985—five years before Michael Jackson and others threatened legal action for his unauthorized sampling of their music—he coined the term “plunderphonics” to describe his method. He asks whether there is any true distinction between sound producers (instruments) and reproducers (recordings) and why there is no equivalent in music to the literary quotation marks—a similar complaint I heard from filmmakers at a session on copyright law. Plunderphonics is a philosophy that encourages liberal use of previous recordings, including manipulating speed and playback direction, but with the important distinction of preserving the intelligibility of the original recording.

David Toop, in his brilliantly free-form exploration of music, space and memory Haunted Weather, calls Oswald’s music the “collapsing and subversion of memories,” promoting an “acceptance of change and decay.” As with Kirby there is a willingness to allow the inherent irrationality of memories and dreams to be preserved, and to simulate their instability. On his remix of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” he shifts the speed subtly back and forth, as if struggling to get to the end, frantically trying to keep the orchestra from dissolving into some Edgard Varèse nightmare.

I would call this noise music in the purest sense. Its closest comparison in scope might be John Zorn’s Naked City, in the way 20th century classical, jazz, cinema and pop all seem to float precariously together. In the essay, Oswald dismisses melody as the cornerstone of musical composition in favour of timbre, and suggests the same goes for pop: “Notes with their rhythm and pitch values are trivial components in the corporate harmonization of cacophony.” In a way, his music brings out the inherent noise of pop radio, and often his arrangements purposely thwart communication, one track remixing a reading of a mystery novel by isolating only transient words, continually setting up a scene that never happens. As in dreams, the architecture of real life seems to support nothing.

The piece recalls an installation also featured at Electric Eclectics, Christof Migone’s “The Rise and Fall of the Sounds and Silences From Mars,” which isolated every sound and silence-related word from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles onto large placards which blew in the wind. quiet. crackled. voices wailed. voices. voices. The words in print are a reminder of the sound that isn’t there, but also the distinct way in which sound can be easily disembodied and wrenched from its initial meaning and context, part of an alien landscape.

R. Murray Schafer used the term “schizophonia” to refer to the division between the source of a sound and its reproduction, part of his lament for a society full of noise which drowns out natural soundscapes (a term Schafer coined and which now seems indispensable to sound culture). In many ways, “plunderphonics” is the upswing of “schizophonia,” and Oswald’s positioning of all sound as source seems to suggest something more democratic as well as subversive. Indeed, Schafer can seem at times autocratic, as Toop notes. His prescription for music educators was to “encourage those sounds salubrious to human life and rage against those inimical to it,” without ever asking how it is determined that certain sounds are inimical, and who gets to decide.

Toop wonders if noise with its “demand to be felt” becomes perverted into a desire to understand and explain it. He also discusses the Japanese concept of shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” where all the elements outside of a controlled space—natural or man-made—become incorporated into the design. That skateboard served as a shakkei, an accidental sound that triggered both memories and the imagination of places I’ve never been, only remotely familiar. It’s hard to imagine this kind of re-purposing without the intrusion of the unexpected.