Some months back, Mark "K-Punk" Fisher curated a guest podcast over at Pontone. Beginning, ending, and threaded by the leitmotif of crackling vinyl surface noise and featuring tracks by the likes of Philip Jeck, William Basinski, and The Caretaker, the mix played out like a musical séance for moribund audio media. By way of accompanying liner notes, Fisher wrote about the spectral (there/not-there, presence versus absence) nature of phonography in relation to Derrida's ideas about the "metaphysics of presence," adding:
"With vinyl records, the more that you often hear is crackle, the sound of the material surface of the playback medium. When vinyl was ostensibly superseded by digital playback systems – which seem to be sonically ’invisible’ – many producers were drawn towards crackle, the material signature of that supposedly obsolete technology. Crackle disrupts presence in multiple ways: first by reminding us of the material processes of recording and playback, second by connoting a broken sense of time, and third by veiling the official ‘signal’ of the record in noise. For crackle is of course a noise in its right, a ground becomes a figure."
The concept of spectrality and haunting was a central theme in The Caretaker's project from the very start, with the artist having derived both his moniker and his creative premise from Kubrick's The Shining. Basinski emerged on the scene some years ago with his acclaimed requiem cycle The Disintegration Loops, which deals with mortality and entropy by way of the material and sonic degradation of timeworn magnetic tape. And Jeck's work owes it melancholy creakiness to the notions of obsolescence and abandonment it invokes...
Many of these tropes harken back to the work of noisician and artist Christian Marclay, who himself began working with LPs and record players back in the late 1970s. From the beginning, Marclay was fascinated the materiality of recorded media, especially with the record LP as a physical object – as document of a performance, an ephemeral and intangible moment in time, arrested and affixed in material form, commodified and mass manufactured in serial units, circulating in the cultural domain of commercial society.
Plasticity aside, there was also Marclay's affinity for "the unwanted sound." Primarily this was the sound of technology being intentionally misused and abused, but it was also the sound – or the combination of sounds – of all the bygone and discarded musical products of previous years and decades, now amounting to only so much landfill fodder or cents-on-the-dollar clutter in the bins of second-hand music shops. All of it – the exemplars of former zeitgeists, even – rendered equal by its outmodedness, its use-value amounting to little more than the part it plays in a layered cacophony. Same too with Marclay's later works involving album sleeves or other formats such as audio tape – in the end it comes down to the utility or stylishness of last year's model seeming so remotely quaint or clunkily alien when seen from just a little further down the evolutionary chain.
Sure, LPs and turntables were the dominant technology for home listening at the time that Marclay first started working with them. And he wasn't the only one messing about with gathering and manipulating these items for the sake of making noise in the late 1970s.
GRANDMASTER FLASH: At the time, the radio was playing songs like Donna Summer, the Tramps, the Bee Gees – disco stuff, you know? I call it kind of sterile music. Herc was playing this particular type of music that I found to be pretty warm; it has soul to it. You wouldn't hear these songs on the radio. You wouldn't hear, like, 'Give It Up or Turn It Loose' by James Brown on the radio. You wouldn't hear 'Rock Steady' by Aretha Franklin. You wouldn't hear these songs, and these are the songs that he would play.
TONY TONE: I was working in the record shop, so I used to know all the records....but I didn't know the records Herc was playing. So now it's grabbing me, now I'm trying harder to order them for my record shop, but I can't find them 'cause they're not records that are selling right now – they're older records, jazz records, whatever.
So "digging" always involved hunting and unending quests to excavate the rare and the funky, but it also – once upon a time – meant sifting through the unwanted and the forgotten. Used bins, "cut-out" bins, thrift stores, or even – in the case of Grandmaster Flash – running the risk of catching an ass-whooping from your pops after being told, "Don't ever touch my records."
By now it's a little trite to make a case for framing the creation of cutting and scratching (and eventually sampling) as a street-level, mother-of-invention version of musique concrète. But one may as well make one for the first-gen practitioners of hip-hop DJing – Herc, Bam, Flash, and many others – as being early pioneers of some musical equivalent of salvagecore, if only for the sake of "keeping the funk alive" in the face of the monocultural sweep of disco.
But: Surface noise as sonic patina – as signifier of the music's physical format and vintage, as a deliberately skewed figure/ground relationship. That's a later and different development. Initially, it was something to be avoided at all costs – only so much noise contaminating the signal, or undesirable syntagmatic slippage.
If the nature of the "hauntology" rubric has been difficult to nail down with any sense of certainty, it might be due to the facts that (a) it was never that firmly formulated of a concept to begin with, and (b) the term and corresponding concept suffered a denotational shift as soon as it began to circulate more broadly. At first it referred to something slightly intangible and impressionistic; something not too different, in certain ways, from Freud's notion of the Uncanny (especially in that both involves varieties of cognitive dissonance and a sense of dislocation or "dyschronia"), and how it plays out aesthetically.1 But soon enough discussion of the hauntological began to focus less on the nature of the sensation or condition, and rather on the mere things that might bring the notion to mind. And by things I mean just that – books, toys, films and TV programs, photographs, and various other ephemera from one's childhood, from prior eras. In the end – objects and the associations projected onto them. Which, in many ways, borders on mere, mundane nostalgia of a sort. Not that nostalgia doesn't factor into this in the first place, but that's a whole other line of theoretical speculative – a line that could draw from a rich backlog of philosophic ink that's been spilled on the topic over the past century and a half.
And I'm fairly certain that aspects of all of this overlap – however tangentially – with the topic that Simon addresses in his new book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its own Past. I haven't read or even gotten a copy yet, so I can't say for sure. But Alex Niven recently posted some thoughts on the book's focus that struck an intriguing note...
"Moving quickly into the realms of massive theologico-cultural conjecture, the whole retromanic thing seems to me to have something to with the occlusion of death in a modern technocratic society. Death has replaced sex as the great taboo. We just don't know what to do with death – the one thing a culture of pluralism and excess cannot find a space for: the absoluteness of an ending. Hence, things that are obsolete become weirdly fetishized. The sobering fact that the past is absolutely no more is replaced with a sort of adolescent inability to let go of childhood toys and move on."
An "occlusion of death" perhaps, a way of stacking some barricades against the door in an effort to hold off a particular type of existential dread. Or what happens when a schizophrenic economy of scarcity and surplus flatlines into one of equally-available "pluralism and excess," and – sensing it may have hit some teleological impasse – suffers an extended spasm of insecurity in regards to where it was all supposed to lead in the first place, and compulsively doubles back on itself in a frenzy of archiving, retrofitting, taking inventory and what-have-you.
Static, surface noise and signal interference, however, is more bluntly about the big D. It ultimately points to the corporeal fragility and impermanence of it all, a nagging momento mori that nothing will ever ever be as it was despite whatever effort or technology is employed to stave death and degeneration away. If, as K-Punk once phrased it, the history of recording constitutes a "science of ghosts," then the metaphysics of crackle (or of the sputtering, atomizing digital glitch) serves as a reminder that it's an imperfect science. Or as he stated early in the discussion, the figure and ground are inextricably linked by the sheer materiality of the medium...
The spectres are textural. The surface noise of the sample unsettles the illusion of presence in at least two ways: first, temporally, by alerting us to the fact that what we are listening to is a phonographic revenant, and second, ontologically, by introducing the technical frame, the unheard material pre-condition of the recording, on the level of content. We're now so accustomed to this violation of ontological hierarchy that it goes unnoticed.
The rest, as they say, is just noise.
1. Or I suppose another way that this could be discussed, given the excretal economy of consumption and waste that all of this points involves, might be by way of Kristeva's notion of the Abject.