30 June 2011

Vinyl Reckonings

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 When vinyl was ostensibly superseded by digital playback systems – which seem to be sonically ’invisible’ – many producers were drawn towards crackle, the material signature of that supposedly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.

Some quotes...

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.


W. Kasper said...

Excellent post. I think you and Alex are hitting the nail on the head regarding western death-denial (I think it also relates to colonial legacies, but I'd need a lot more space to elaborate). Digital media was promoted with vague promises of physical transcendence and 'immortality', no? Hauntology could be vague disillusion with these promises, especially as its an idea largely circulated online. What's a ghost, if not an uncanny denial of death?

Perhaps relevant: I saw Jeck live - and most of the audience were grim-looking men over 50.

That Flash quote is very telling. Relates to what you said on the 80s blog. Stetsasonic: "tell the truth / James Brown was old". He was everywhere in the late 80s, but indirectly, a spectral presence. Sly Stone was even more 'haunting' as sample source, especially in light of his own ghostly life. Hiphop may be the most death-obsessed pop music since WW2 for a reason (all those rappers imagining their own death on record, in between collage imagery of old TV shows, ads, cartoons etc.). Maybe the frictionless way we consume music is what finally made hiphop irrelevant. Not so much the text as the texture - but of course both compliment each other.

Greyhoos said...

Thanks, Wayne. I was just loosely stringing some thoughts together. It's something I could go into far more extensively, but hey...it's a blog post.

And you raise some interesting ideas, some that go in a different arc than my own -- somewhat more "macro," whereas my own were more localized in certain areas. But definitely giving me other ways to think about it all. But responding to a few random points, off the top of my head...

1.) "James Brown was old." Thing is, in the context of fashion-obsessed '70s culture, anything that dated a couple of years or longer was "old." Meaning it was worthless, laughably passe, garbage. Which is kind of why hip-hop DJing ran against the cultural grain in a certain respect. It all comes down to a culture of hyper disposability. Not that that isn't still the case, but now there's this odd parallel fixation on the past -- on provence, back cataloging, prior stages of evolution, etc. And the retention thereof. In some ways, Kristeva's theory of "the abject" (excreta/waste, the symbolic order, and the inevitable intrusion of "the Real") is very apt. But honestly, I think it's only rephrasing ideas that Bataille and others had pursued decades beforehand.

2.) Relatedly: Quite frankly, I have my share of doubts about the whole "accelerationism" theory (inasmuch as I've bothered to investigate and grasp it in depth). Seems to me that advanced capitalism is already on that course and always has been, because it's own demise is an inbuilt component/part of its genetic code. As Marx said from the beginning: This matter of capitalism having frequent crises and meltdowns -- it's a feature, not a bug. Recent history keeps bearing this out, so perhaps it's some growing subconscious collective unease (about unsustainability, and/or a rapidly approaching terminus) lurking underneath all the "retromantic" obsessions and fetishizing.

3.) As far as the "retromania"/semi-mournful nostalgia thing is concerned, there've been version of it in other spheres of pop culture, particularly in the graphic design community. Graphic design never had much much truck with the whole "anxiety of influence" thing, so any sort of po-mo ironic quoting they engaged over the years was usually of a playful and angst-free variety. But among graphic designers (as well as with more design-oriented "street artist" types), there's long been a fascination with older forms and working methods. Yes, there is some sense of loss involved in this, because there's an inherent recognition of a lost set of skills, craftsmanship, and stylistic inventiveness that enters into it heavily; but one could argue that it's equally fueled by a deep-seated aesthetic ennui (if not full-fledged revulsion) with the contemporary. For example...


And yeah, this end of it is much more flatly nostalgic in nature.

And I could go on, but instead...

4.) "...And most of the audience were grim-looking men over 50." Yeesh. Makes me regret I missed him in Chicago a few years ago, because I'm sure it would've been a better/different crowd than that attending.

Greyhoos said...

And: "Digital media was promoted with vague promises of physical transcendence and 'immortality', no?"

Oh, one of the most absurdist things about living through the '90s -- the endless gush of cyber-gaga quasi-mystical rhapsodics spewing forth from the pages of Wired (and recycled ad nauseum everywhere else). Between that and the huge boom in Management Lit, it really was a decade of wall-to-wall, deep shag horseshit in some respects.

W. Kasper said...

He was playing with Can drummer Jaki Liebzit and Jah Wobble too - strangely disappointing, downcast night. The Bug were support act - didn't exactly get the crowd moving.

"Seems to me that advanced capitalism is already on that course and always has been, because it's own demise is an inbuilt component/part of its genetic code."

- too true. Fascism, WW1, the scramble for Africa and 1848 revolutions were scorched-earth crises of capitalism too, coming after financial buoyancy and then a crash. Even environmental crises aren't strictly modern - European deforestation, Krakatoa, and the El Nino droughts all led to catastrophe in different ways. How 'macro' is that?

BTW the whole 'excremental culture' idea is something I've been toying with for the 70s blog - excremental US cities ('drop dead' New York obviously), or even excremental Europe with those scatological costume dramas that were all the rage then. Or art based around blood and shit like Herman Nitsch. I think it relates to certain music too - punk obviously, but even excessive prog or jazz fusion and their 'abject' masturbatory solos that went nowhere. Definitely has something to with consumerism/pollution, imperial blowback and political disillusion.

W. Kasper said...

Computers, finance capital, happy pills and the 'end of history' made dummies out of a lot of excitable, supposedly intelligent people! It was crazier than the 80s in that respect. No wonder everyone got so worked up about O.J.'s gloves and Bill Clinton's jism...

Greyhoos said...

Re: 'Excremental culture' and the '70s. Funny you should bring that up. Something akin to that was definitely a trope in a fair amount of '70s performance art. Especially regarding foodstuffs -- smearing oneself with them, rolling around in them, throwing them at each other, etc. in the course of a performance. Part of it seemed to have to do w/ wanton waste in a culture of excess; but there was also a very visceral and infantile (as in playing with one's own feces) aspect to it as well. The Kipper Kids (a duo) were the ones who I most associate with this sort of thing; but there were numerous others. They were all considered pioneers of performance art in its early days, but almost completely forgotten by about 1982.

As far as Nitsch and the whole Aktionist thing...I'm inclined to say there are better, more relevant topics. In certain ways I suppose c/b be framed as some "transgressive"/excessive/faux-"primal" offshoot of some aspects of 60s culture, but in the end it's too cloistered and cultish and utterly inconsequential to merit attention. The Akionist things has never struck me as anything more than some "Iron John"-styled men's-group weekend retreat gone horribly, horribly wrong. Perhaps it's the sort of thing that might seem "cool" or interesting to a handful of people -- the sort, say, that likes the "RE/SEARCH Guide to Bodily Fluids" just a little too much (knowwhatimean?). But to anyone else, it just seems a bit silly.

Greyhoos said...

But now that I give I give it a few moment's thought, I suppose you could write about Nitsch and the Aktionist fests, but only if you cross-referenced/parallel it with a critique of the film Deliverance. That might actually make it interesting; and it'd be too appropriate.

W. Kasper said...

Nitsch and Deliverance? Interesting. I just used Aktion as a random example really (pictures of them flinging cow guts came to mind). Nowhere near as knowledgeable about modern art as yourself. Especially not performance.

Actually wrote a uni essay wayyy back about the 'orgiastic' aesthetic of post-68 Euro movies. Fascism haunted its more sombre side - Pasolini's Salo being a big example, as he also celebrated the more 'carnivalesque' aspect with Decameron etc. A lot of it seemed to be disillusion with the 'sexual revolution', including US movies.

Recall a book about post-modernism basically being 'excremental' because its the result of cultural and material waste. Can't remember who wrote it though.

W. Kasper said...

Re: Re: Search -
I think the only ones I actively avoided were bodily fluids and the tattoo/piercing one. The rest were handy 'primers' at an impressionable age, but those two seemed too corny even then.

Greyhoos said...

I guess I was mainly thinking of Nitsch's "Orgiastic Mystery Theater" (or whatever it's called), where people gathered on the grounds of his estate to indulge in a "primal" weekend of ritualized drinking, nudism, killing and dismembering animals and smearing themselves with the viscera, etc.

W. Kasper said...

Nitsch's 'early funny ones'!

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