Ambient music and the impulse towards deconstruction
Out of Light Ц cometh Darkness, dark ambient music and the impulse towards deconstruction
© 2000 Daniel du Prie
1. УThese recordings may be seen as a notation of our deadminded society, but not as a reaction against it, we will all become ambient dead heads, if not...Ф (Archon Satani, In Shelter, liner note, 1994)
If not, then ellipsis. The conditional clause of fact, followed by an open-ended ellipsis, where not only the conjunction between a conditional present and an effected future (then...), but the whole of future time itself is omitted Ц is a good way to immerse oneself in a description towards a functional definition of a difficult form of a УpopularФ underground music (I write popular because it is, in critical terms, usually excluded from the domain of УhighФ culture, or УseriousФ music, being more aligned with other popular underground genres, eg, industrial, death metal), that would seem to defy the very notion of popularity a priori: I write of so-called Сdark ambientТ music.
2. Your attention is drawn to a notation of the future as ellipsis, as a potent form of signifying a coming-into-being that is never-yet, and may well never be, as a danger:
The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with the constituted normality and only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity (Derrida, 1974: 3).
This ellipsis of the future, signifying danger (becoming, in Archon SataniТs space, dead headed), also dislodges the comfort of the present, and of presence; of the representing object, and its relation to the object represented, of the sign versus its referent. Hence the need for a notation, obtuse of signifying directives, not yet as a denotation and decoding, full of revealed meaning, of a certain type of society; but only of the function of recording qua art in reality, over and against symbolised reality, and even without any metaphysical reality. Archon Satani refuse permission for their recordings (not yet historicised as music, nor art) to be seen and hence, to be read as a reaction qua art against society: Уwe will all become ambient dead heads...Ф
3. In refusing music, and art, and reaction as historically revealed, politics are also seen to be refused. The future is one where the listener-subject will become as dead as the given inanimacy of the environment that surrounds her. Fundamentally psychoanalytic desires Ц those hinged upon death and sex may be in nuance in such a statement. In that case, this is not music with a message, a will to change the world, it is not resistance a la Theodor Adorno against regressive listening, it is not vibrant, it is not constructive, it is not essential, itТs not high art, it is not even supposed to be music yet, with all the ideological imports that the word СmusicТ carries, and may well never be. It is just a notation, a form of writing, transcription, a recording. But to that extent, it must be added that it appears as such already given within the universal ideological written document that is usually named as reality. These recordings are neither transparent signs Ц across the surfaces of which one may easily interpret the messages, nor opaque signs Ц seeking to problematise notions of reference, representationality, or even the position of the speaking subject. The recordings are just discrete bits submerged within the general recording called Сthe environmentТ. And it must be emphasised that their discretion is lent them mainly by the signs of commodification which surround them Ц here, the compact disc, the cover art, the credits, the track-titles, the bandТs name, the price tag which informs me that I paid $26.95 for these recordings. All these commodifying instances lend these recordings a certain productive, cultural, musical value which directs the way in which they are listened to, which in fact makes them that much easier to accept as, at least, СrecordingsТ and not just background noise. The ellipsis, however, remains Ц an internal slippage and excess, a trace, within the notion of recording and its product itself - and hints that they are, after all, just noise, a part of environmental excess, and it is in this very manner that they manage to actually be a notation of a certain society, rather than simply a reaction against it. The future to be fashioned is never anything that is to be found, it just always might be, or it might not be, in death, and danger, and to hope for more is to succumb to a cynical nihilism of the present. In this sense the recordings offer a moment of affirmation...
4. Similarly, Time Machines (better known as Coil) on their self-titled disc from c. 1999 direct the listener to the idea that, УArtifacts generated by your listening environment are an intrinsic part of the experienceФ. Once again, what is affirmed is no longer all in the music, is no longer all generated by music, is not a simple or even more complex expression of the musicТs Сinner formТ, but is the problematisation of the distinction between presence and future Ц so as to affirm a historical moment in preference to history as a Сgrand schemeТ, a relation between music and the environment in which listening is done - so as to affirm the social Ц but which environment music traditionally has no relationship with, which itТs supposed to transcend. In such a direction, perhaps the existential as opposed to aesthetic authenticity, but also the reifying, and stultifying principles of repetitive listening, which tend, admittedly, to make much popular music into more or less relevant pieces of nostalgia, but nonetheless static and ossified in terms of the present moment, (ie formally complete) are violated. These principles must be aborted where the listening environment (never static, never repeatable) becomes an intrinsic part of the (musical) experience:
5. ...the emphasis on the artifactual element in art concerns less the fact that it is manufactured than its own inner constitution, regardless of how it came to be...[Artworks] speak by virtue of the communication of everything particular in them...it is precisely as artifacts, as products of social labour, that they also communicate with the empirical experience that they reject and from which they draw their Inhalt [content]...If art opposes the empirical through the element of form Ц and the mediation of form and content is not to be grasped without their differentiation Ц the mediation is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content (Adorno, 1997: 5)
It is by this appeal to the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content, through a self-consciousness of the mediating process between form and content, that Time Machines pose a challenge to the idea that aesthetic value is ahistorical, already given, whether in the inner form, or upon the postmodern СsurfaceТ. Time Machines would return us to the value of a cultic symbolism.
6. Once again, in fact, the hyper-loaded term СmusicТ is avoided. It would seem that Сdark ambientТ albums often avoid the simple term of music, in order to dislocate this very loading itself. Once one is sure that one is listening to music, much else flows automatically. The very term СmusicТ already classifies and categorises the experience in such a way that it becomes instantly ossified, assimilated into wider cultural experience in predictable ways that rob the experience of any potential, which may invoke the metaphor СspiritualТ. It is by disturbing the phenomenon of music, by radically unsettling it, by СdeconstructingТ it if you like, that something, anything might occur. If we donТt all turn into ambient deadheads... who knows? The only other clue to the functionality of the listening experiences invoked by playing Time MachinesТ CD is that these are У4 tones to facilitate travel through timeФ. With the challenge to aesthetic value as ahistorical comes also a challenge to conventional narrative practices, to the inevitable forward, СprogressiveТ flow we have constructed as being the force of history (into the future), which force itself is traditionally written as ahistorial, supposedly the highest aesthetic value. But if this is, in fact, not a given, then Time Machines would also suggest that if time and history are produced (by a machine), it must follow that they be ideological. In short, there is no simple historical Сlife forceТ Ц progress is a sham, one should dream instead of time travel.
7. If resistant moments in pop music (such as СgrungeТ or СpunkТ), so often read in a political context, always end up being sacrificed to hegemony, assimilated into the mainstream, it is because they always seem to be expected to change the world: УMusic seeks to change life; life goes on; the music is left behind; that is what is left to talk aboutФ (Marcus: 1989, 3). If itТs an affirmed and consistent life, life as self-fulfilling presence, as stable present, past and future which is being challenged, itТs by using an inadequate terminology which, while it may resist the structures in the dominant language, is nonetheless intrinsically dependent on that language without any consciousness of this dependence. In such instances music in the capacity of music is a functional tool, ready-made, the language of which is taken for granted Ц music itself may become distorted, but it is never yet deconstructed. It is always so associated with a Utopia, or more recently with anti-Utopia, so far lifted out of its environment, that its form tends to choke it. The question of the future, whether it might be in fact, nothing more than an abyss, is never really raised. Whilst resisting structures, resistant strains in popular music never seek to fundamentally question the actual structural foundations of the languages they speak, nor do they seek to radically historicise these structures. Too often, in grunge, seriousness becomes parody. Irony becomes sarcasm, which becomes cyniscism, which in turn melts into a hopeless despair (Kurt Cobain being the most obvious symbol of this).
8. But perhaps this is moving too closely to political speech. After all, Сdark ambientТ recordings are not yet asking about direct political motivation or goals, they are asking questions about the generalised structures of utopia, about the fundamental definitions of music, about the meaning of the listening subject within an environment; in this case, about the idea of travelling through time using tonal facilitation.
9. Perhaps this is a reason why Сdark ambientТ works are often engrossed with abyssal, massive and fantastic spaces: such spaces are fundamentally indeterminate. The cover of the Time Machines CD returns us to art as cultic symbolism: it is simply a black ellipse with the words TIME MACHINES above it, against a grey background. It recalls to me George GroszТs comment on Dada: УOur symbol was nothingness, a vacuum, a void.Ф But this isnТt just about a nihilistic void, nor a naпve void that would pretend to triumph by standing on its own, resisting any point of meaning. Rather, this void tries mostly not to fall back into what Barthes called the trap of essentialism (in Mythologies) Ц unwittingly coming to represent what is being rejected, ie, the essence of things, by attempting to represent nothing. This void here, in any case, is placed below the words СTime MachinesТ, against a grey background signifying the highest state of entropy, of equilibrium. Here the void is firmly placed as a signifier within a system and structure Ц but one that presents itself as something to be played around with: on the inside cover the theme is repeated, now the background is black, the ellipse is white, suggesting an egg, maybe, and in its centre is a sign whose meaning is indeterminate, it could be an astrological symbol for one of the planets, but it isnТt. Nonetheless, the abyss is now given a momentary centre, perhaps from which to commence oneТs time travels, but the centreТs meaning is unknown: its signified is as wide open as that of the result when artefacts generated by the listening environment do in fact become an intrinsic part of listening, whether they be as mundane as the sound of the vacuum cleaner next door, or as exotic as the sound of oneТs heartbeat while under the influence of psilocybin.
10. Brian Lustmord is another charter of listening experiences, whose work is concerned with abysses, darkness, reverberation and space. With Lustmord, we move closer to the idea of a project within listening Ц of direct, discrete, even central affirmation. Not just concerned with notation itself, the album The Place Where the Black Stars Hang (1994) is concerned with У...a very real need to uncover the magical graphs and ciphers that unseal the cells of... eldritch dimensionsФ. Works prior to this (eg Heresy, Paradise Disowned) were concerned with what I would best term an aural СdeconstructionТ of western judeo-christian principles. The mingling and mixing of vastly reverberating christian chants with pipes, machinery, gongs, a shawn, Сnoise generationТ, Сacoustic treatmentsТ and Сdigital loopsТ on Paradise Disowned re-configured and undermined traditional notions of canonical musicТs function as a mainly liturgical tool for godly worship and reaffirmation/reification of immutable dogma, while Heresy is a work so intense that it deserves an essay unto itself. The Place Where the Black Stars Hang poses the challenge to orthodox scientific methodology as the new dogma and religion of the (post)enlightenment era, in invoking cosmological space, Уthe space between space... and the infinite darkness thereof, where metaphysical transgressions prevail.Ф Also invoked is microcosmic space, У...where DNA is the ultimate parasite, and life itself is but a vibrationФ. This evocation of vast spaces, both cosmological and microcosmic, affirms absence rather than brute presence, vibration rather than expression. In form also, the western musical tradition of tightly structured time signatures, clearly defined harmonies and melodious pitch variations, so enamoured of musicologists of the Canon, is utterly denied. It seems that Lustmord is (by negation) most clearly articulating (western) musicТs alignment and intimate relationship with ideological structures and practices. Rather than seeking to revolutionise these through force and violence (not that these do not have their own particular articulations within the СgenreТ, but that is another discussion...) he is seeking to create, by way of abyssal, cavernous aural environments, a re-opening of the question of truth, of the future, of the course of human evolution usually taken for granted. This is not yet saying there is or there is not truth, or a future, or evolution, but is asking after, even interrogating the very structures which make such saying possible. In making СmusicТ out of deep space or metastatic resonance, one is taken to a very different place than by either traditional western classical or popular music. With Lustmord, it may be appropriate to talk of a Kristevian signifiance. In affirming the abyss, emptiness rather than presence, vastness as opposed to centre, in affirming Сmetaphysical transgressionТ, Lustmord, like other Сdark ambientТ composers may be said to be fundamentally unsettling the traditional syntax and order of western music, using a fundamentally radical way of creating СmusicТ Ц that actually goes beyond codal transgression into a deep rupturing of the code itself. The traditional elements of the score, the orchestra, the band, the song, have all been replaced Ц they have a completely different kind of presence. In place of СinstrumentsТ we have thermal radiation, electron particle interaction, metastatic resonances Ц a new language, for not many listeners could assign these СinstrumentsТ discrete semiotic meanings, let alone identify these sounds СnaturallyТ (How to recognise hearing electron particle interaction? What should it signify, like the cello signifies this sad emotion, or the harp that gentle one?) It is of note that one theme or device that is always employed in LustmordТs works is elaborate, lengthy reverberation, often with times of twenty seconds or more. But of course it goes without saying that this is just one interpretation... A music that appeals to a vast abyss must to an extent, remain that; as well as an open wound in discourse...
11. Similarly, David Myers of Arcane Device is concerned with such re-conceptualisation of music, as can be heard on Envoi in Cumin (1993). Perhaps one of the most subtle works that may be classified Сdark ambientТ, the ellipsis here transforms itself into an infinitely polysemous loop, fascinatingly engaging itself with the idea, so current in contemporary theory, of the eternally sliding, slipping signifier. Here the loop is closed, like the linguistic system, the producing device sees its own output as its input, it feeds upon itself, figuring itself according to Myers, as a snake eating its own tail, where as a result, У...the snakeТs body becomes not a single solid, but a vast interpenetrating webФ (liner note). For 75 minutes a single loop lasting between seven and fifteen seconds is repeated, but the loop, continuously fed by itself, is never the same Ц a СmusicТ is produced, for the system which encloses it also guarantees that infinite difference, unending variation ensues. Perhaps this is the most СhopefulТ (in the traditional sense) and affirmative (in the deconstructive sense) of Сdark ambientТ pieces I have come across. After 75 minutes the loop fades away, much like an ellipsis. But it could well have gone on for ever, never repeating itself, never finding a centre, neither bowing to utopia, nor to homogeneity, but Уallowing electrons to create a self determined shape and dynamic, showing their place as an element of great natureФ, which might be a good analogy with what many humans would like to make of their own lives.
Adorno T.W. (1997) Aesthetic Theory (eds. G. Adorno and R. Tiedemann) (new trans. and ed. R. Hullot-Kentor) London: The Athlone Press.
Derrida J. (1976) Of Grammatology (trans. G. C. Spivak) Baltimore: John Hopkins UP.
Myers G. (1989) Lipstick Traces: a secret history of the twentieth century Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Arcane Device (1994) Envoi in Cumin Compact Disk. Almada: Play Loud.
Archon Satani (1994) In Shelter Compact Disk Waldassen: Dark Vinyl.
Lustmord (1984) Paradise Disowned Compact Disk. Amsterdam: Soleilmoon.
________ (1990) Heresy Compact Disk. Amsterdam: Soleilmoon.
________ (1994) The Place Where the Black Stars Hang Compact Disk. Waldassen: Side Effects.
Time Machines (1999) Time Machines Compact Disk. London: World Serpent.