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A Ballardian BurialAuthor: Simon Sellars • Jul 9th, 2008 •
ABOVE: kode9. Photo by Georgie Cook.
Last Wednesday DJ Rupture hosted DJ and dubstep producer kode9 (Steve Goodman) on WFMU 91.1 fm 90.1 fm (you can listen to the show via the embedded playlist above). Goodman played a live set of typically tasteful and deliriously immersive beats, of which I am reluctant to assign any genre tags to as these things change so quickly and often (plus I’ve been out of the loop for quite some time). Goodman has been associated with the dubstep form in recent times, although as he clarifies in the interview following the Rupture set, he is no longer excited by dubstep or grime and instead has been listening to instrumental hip hop from LA and percussive pirate music coming out of the house scene (‘not straight 4/4′, though). I wonder what this melange will bring forth in Goodman’s future music? I have been more than inspired and impressed with kode9’s broken, tangential and swampy beats, and the other acquisitions to Goodman’s Hyperdub stable, like the ubiquitous (and anonymous) Burial, have only added to the aura of a true original forging his own conventions to build a convincing new scene.
Goodman is a lecturer in Music Culture in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London, and is currently writing a book about ‘sonic warfare’ due for release by MIT Press in 2009. I’m very intrigued by Goodman’s ideas in this capacity, specifically about ‘the role of sound in an ‘echology of fear’. Is it similar to the way piped music has been used as an instrument of control, I wonder? I’m thinking of an example like this:
All unwanted noise raises the blood pressure and depresses the immune system. A survey of 215 blood donors at Nottingham University Medical School in January 1995 found that playing piped music made donors more nervous before giving blood and more depressed afterwards than silence. In February 2005 piped television was introduced on some trains in Essex. Passengers hated it so much that they barricaded themselves in the toilets in protest.
The question is, then: besides locking themselves in the toilet (or replicating Mangon’s sonovac in Ballard’s ‘The Sound-Sweep’), what other guerrilla tactics can embittered consumers employ to fight back? I hope Steve’s book will provide an answer.
Also, Goodman’s theoretical examples puts me in mind of Noriega when he was coaxed from his hideout by the high-volume blasting of Billy Idol and Guns ‘n’ Roses by American troops; more recently, American forces have tortured prisoners with the repeated playing of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’. Out of today’s crop of rock and pop stars, I wonder, whose music would be the most appropriate for breaking the iron will of a hated and feared dictator deep in the bowels of a hideous place that most likely resembles Abu Ghraib, and why?
Goodman’s book includes, so I’m told, a chapter on Ballard, which is appropriate given that in the guise of kode9 he has acknowledged Ballard as an influence on his music. In 2006 Goodman gave a talk on ‘J.G. Ballard’s Sonic Fictions’ and at one stage I was going to interview him about all of this, but it never happened due to his busy schedule (here, though, is an earlier interview I did with Steve in 2003; there wasn’t much on the net about kode9 at that stage, so it was all very mysterious and exciting).
Rupture, however, did manage to pin Goodman down on Ballard, and here’s the relevant transcript from their interview:
DJ RUPTURE: This is a totally left-field question, but I was reading about your influences: J.G. Ballard. What books do you like? And does that manifest in your music in any way?
KODE9: Well, I’ve read a little about musicians who’ve been influenced by Ballard, and it always seems to be Crash, that’s the one. I think that’s an amazing book, but it wasn’t the one that got me. In the mid-90s, when jungle was just coming through and early drum ‘n’ bass, I read The Drowned World, set in London underwater, a kind of tropical London, most of the city’s flooded. The creatures undergo this sort of weird negative evolution, so that there are pterodactyls flying down what used to be streets but are now lagoons. And the humidity and clamminess of that idea of London, I was kind of hearing it in jungle.
DJ RUPTURE: Interesting. A swampy sub-bass?
KODE9: Yeah. But also just the atmospherics of jungle. And also there’s a short story by Ballard that I love called ‘The Sound-Sweep’, which is set in a city in which sound doesn’t dissipate, it just builds up. And there’s a guy who’s like a refuge collector for sound, and he drives around with this truck, with this machine called the Sonovac, and he basically goes around cleaning up spaces, sucking sound. And it’s like, this was written in the early 60s, so it’s like musique concrete or just sampling, generally, in this story. It’s just an amazing, prophetic story about noisy cities — and sampling. So, they’re the two Ballard things I’m influenced by most, I think.
In 2007, Burial’s last album was a hot topic in certain areas of the blog world, with Burial, as an entity, often bracketed with kode9, many thinking the two producers were one and the same — hence the photo heading this post. People really were straining to find the appropriate terms to describe this strange, otherworldly music, and often the conclusion reached was: it’s Ballardian. I became interested in tracking this meme because, as Steve suggests, Crash would invariably be the book that got referenced, yet I couldn’t really hear Crash’s themes in the music of either kode9 or Burial. It seemed that Crash was beginning to function as a default Ballardian reference, like 1984 standing in for ‘Orwellian’.
But as I was hunting this meme down, I came across an interview kode9 did with k-punk, in which k-punk asserts that the ‘strangely lulling, hydroponic humidity’ of Ballard’s Drowned World is etched in kode9’s work. This book does feel like a good fit, and its theme of overlapping time tracks appears especially relevant to the kode9 and Spaceape album Memories of the Future. The Drowned World, at its core, features a devolutionary time-loop, the ancient/modern city rising up to take its place among the prehistoric/future London, and this seems similar to Goodman’s claim that his music is about the ‘ominous anticipation of the future in the present’.
Regarding ‘The Sound-Sweep’, I too have been very influenced by the musique concrete aspects of this story, and I have to thank Paul Williams for turning me onto the noise in Ballard’s work. Once I looked for it I found it was everywhere in his writing, and Goodman’s views on this have inspired me also. Given Goodman’s interest in this story of Ballard’s, and the fact that in the Rupture interview he said he is also listening to lots of non-dance music, I also wonder if one day he will produce work in beatless, psychoacoustic, macrocosmic, musique concrete idioms. I think those results would be very interesting indeed.
Also related to ‘The Sound-Sweep’, I can’t help but think that when Steve said he wanted to work with the vocals of Spaceape because he wanted to ‘problematize the too-easy drift towards a purely instrumental, colourless, technoid aesthetic in the [dubstep] scene,’ that this is in fact a mission to reinvigorate the potential of vocals, similar to Mangon’s attempt to fight the flattened influence of ‘ultrasonic music’ in ‘The Sound-Sweep’. In Ballard’s story Mangon was, after all, trying to revive the career of the opera singer Madame Giaconda, with the telling statement that ‘Ultrasonic music is great for atmosphere, but it has no content. It can’t express ideas, only emotion.’ Substitute ‘ultrasonic’ with ‘dubstep’ and that could almost be a kode9ism!
Brought about through no fault of her own, Madame Gioconda’s decline was all the harder to bear. Since the introduction a few years earlier of ultrasonic music, the human voice — indeed, audible music of any type — had gone completely out of fashion.
Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music.
Ballard, ‘The Sound-Sweep’ (1960).
But back to the broken beats: I thought I would do a tour of some of the more interesting Ballardianisms that were floating around the kode9/Burial orbit in recent times.
ABOVE: kode9 & the Spaceape. Photo via Zoopersound.
First up, Jonathan Fletcher at Playlouder brings the occult into it:
For ‘Memories of the Future’ then, we can assert that Kode 9 is the music machine while Spaceape invokes modernist viral ‘fictions’ as a Ballardian stoned mystical preacher. His words continually repeat and rematerialise across each of these 12 songs, as well as the Burial album and Dubstep Allstars Volume 3 (a defiantly studio-bound DJ mix) inducing an occult-like mantra.
…while Warren Ellis nails the Drowned World connection:
[Burial’s] GHOST HARDWARE EP was as Ballardian a record as I’ve ever heard: the sound of a drowned London. “Ghost Hardware” is on UNTRUE, but UNTRUE is an attempt to turn away from the watery cemetery of the EP, to make a “glowing, buzzing” record. I’m not so sure that he achieved that. Like his eponymous debut, like GHOST HARDWARE EP too, it’s head music, it’s contemplative. The textures of the thing are incredible. The beats come from under the road, the breaks come from three rooms away, and some of the vocals come from over your shoulder and thirty years ago. People sing with the crackle of dusty old vinyl. The ghosts of old musics.
Loki @ An Idiot’s Guide to Dreaming reiterates the motorway scenario, and scores points for the accompanying image, a reproduction of Ballard’s favoured Ernst, ‘Europe After the Rain':
I keep hearing Cranes, especially Cranes as heard under hash and bio-yogurt; Cranes as de Clerambault syndrome. The same smeared vocals, child-like echoes, the sound of calpol sliding onto a spoon in the middle of the night…
Which then led me to the image of the cranes flying overhead at the beginning of Lautreamont’s Maldoror – Burial inhabits the same kind of world as Maldoror; half-real, half-imagined, schematic and partly skewed, sidereal. The same world transposed to a resolutely urban environment (one thing with Burial, it’s impossible to imagine greenery when listening to it, the colours that are synaesthically beamed in are almost all shades of blue and grey and black – like some vaguely Ballardian motorway junction or conference centre that never ends).
Late night listening to the new Burial release Untrue on the Hyperdub label, reading the introduction to a book by Dominika Oramus on the slow decline of Western Civilization viewed through the literature of J.G. Ballard… Burial’s release Untrue is a small masterpiece of the ethereal electronic post reggae dub know as DubStep. It makes an appropriate sound track to the ideas of Oramus. Quoting Arnold Toynbee from his book A Study of History, Oramus sets the stage for a brilliant introduction to the dystopian world view of J.G.Ballard;
“The self-inflicted wounds from which civilizations die are not these of a material order. In the past, at any rate, it has been the spiritual wounds that have proved incurable (Toynbee 1949: 135).”
Ballard and Burial make for a well matched pair. I recommend Untrue and the writing of Dominika Oramus, maybe have a glass of Calvados as you listen and read.;)
Appropriately, given that Dominika Oramus is from Poland, here is a Polish perspective… I get the hauntological connection; can anyone translate the rest, please?
polecam ostatnie wymiany tekstów w blogosferze na temat Joy Division n(fascynujaca lektura chwilami). czy o Burial, “hauntology” i “Ballardian connection” (nie próbuję nawet tego tłumaczyć). nie chce mi sie szukac linków ale jest to naprawde kawał mięsa dla każdego kto tęskni za pisaniem rozintelektualizowanym
Elsewhere, k-punk explains it uniquely well, engaging John Foxx, Joy Division and architectonics to support the comparison:
One of the reasons that I and others found the comparison between Burial and Martin Hannett’s productions for Joy Division so irresistible is that both producers’ sounds are architectural… This brings out the point I was trying to make in my Fact piece on Metamatic about the Ballardian being essentially architectural… Whereas Foxx — and the virtual populations that Metamatic projected — found a new kind of jouissance in brutalism’s angular arcades and the disassembling of the self into neo-Surrealist collages (‘he’s an angle/ she’s a tangent’), it was as if Joy Division were seeing Ballard’s high-rise Britain through the eyes of a neurasthenic Romantic. At the same time, they foreheard — and were a forehearing of — the No Future that would ensue once rock ran aground on the terminal beaches at the End of History, where depression amongst the young is normal…
ABOVE: ‘J. Mourinho, kode9 and Burial in a press briefing. Not pictured: Burial’ (according to Deeptime).
Richard Kovitch chooses to weave in another Ballardian luminary, Chris Petit, into the orbit in a review of Petit’s film Radio On:
It is interesting to note that the anomie that haunts every frame of ‘Radio On’ can currently be detected in the pioneering sounds emulating from London’s Dubstep scene, particularly the music of producers such as Burial and Kode 9. Despite thirty years segregated, they share the same Ballardian vision of Britain – a perverse romance for the urban and disconnected. Thanks to Plexifilm in the US, Petit’s film has finally been restored and reissued on DVD, so a whole new generation can catch up with his dark, Post Punk vision. It has been a long time coming.
…while Dorian Lynskey at the Guardian, in a post on Ballard’s influence on musicians, disavows the attention-grabbing antics of the Klaxons and instead defers to the subterranean beats of our subjects under discussion:
Perhaps Klaxons are trying to revive post-punk’s ostentatious I-read-books-you-know intellectualism, but it’s hard to discern Ballard’s DNA in their glowsticks-aloft optimism. His true disciples can be found on the dubstep scene. Burial’s “underwater-London” conceit might have been based on 1962’s The Drowned World, a once-outlandish prophecy made disturbingly credible by climate change, and Kode9’s Memories of the Future album is up to its eyeballs in JG.
ABOVE: Burial. Photo via The Wire.
And for balance, here is John Mulvey at Uncut:
My … hunch is that dance music, thanks to its notional futurism and its frequent lack of subtext, often attracts writers who are interested in constructing a progressive agenda which can accommodate a bunch of records they like at the time. This seems particularly true of dubstep, which is something I’ve never quite developed a taste for, in spite of many friends proselytising about stuff like the Burial album. It strikes me that this is music which is gagging to be theorised about: lots of urban dystopia, grimy Ballardian futurism, a potentially intriguing mixture of dancefloor codes and morbid alienation etc. But to be honest, it all seems a bit corny and obvious to me, reminiscent of those studiously bleak “Isolationist” comps from the early ’90s, when someone (Kevin Martin from Techno Animal, if memory serves) worked out that the paranoia-inducing aspects of dopesmoking could be aligned to dub.
…while Fire in the Mind expresses similar, though more temperate, views:
They may, as I have written in the past, remind me of certain Ballardian landscapes, but I will never go as far as to call Kode9 or Burial Ballardian artists. Nor will I call Will Self a Ballardian writer because he writes about a submerged island. Maybe it does sound impossible/improbable but every day again I try to be a blank sheet, a tabula rasa. To quote The Spaceape, I try to let music “stimulate the audio nerve directly”. This is not to say that this approach will always work out as I intend it, but I have to try or most of the true meaning will escape me.
As for me, I enjoy all of these perspectives, and I probably sympathise a little with John Mulvey, too (although he clearly doesn’t like the music, whereas I do), but more so with Fire in the Mind. I enjoy reading about Steve’s influences very much and I am very interested in how that filters into the creation of sound and music, but I am not sure it is directly possible to discern Ballardian themes as such in the music of kode9 and especially Burial without knowing the context of its creation (as far as I know, in the few interviews Burial has done he has never declared Ballard as an influence). That said, I throughly enjoy basking in (and, ultimately, can’t live without, despite my sympathy for the tabula rasa gambit) the grid of context surrounding the work: the theory inspires me and expands the listening experience. Someone like k-punk, for example, who can explain the architectural similarities between Burial and Ballard is therefore invaluable; this provides infinite levels of meaning, wormholes to undifferentiated matter, as does Tom @ Sparks House, with his reminder of the delicious possibilities inherent in a marriage of Burial and Oramus. To someone interested in the theory and the influence informing a piece of music, should it matter whether that raw material is clearly ‘audible’? Or is it important, rather, that there is simply an end product, of whatever shape and form, derived from the raw material (in the case of kode9) or that there is a mass of raw material, omnidirectional flows, informing the end product, the body, intentionally or not (in the ambiguous case of Burial). Whatever the case, all the above quotes I’ve cited clearly indicate that the Ballardianisms of kode9 and Burial, however they are generated, are far preferable to an endless parade of Crash-influenced songs featuring metallic car-crash sounds and groaning sex noises!
Still, in my un-interview with Steve Goodman, there was one burning question I wanted to ask. In a previous kode9 chat, Steve said, ‘While a lot of what has been said about grime and dubstep being influenced by its place of origin is real, I think that it can also become a tedious cliche.’ By cliche, he means ‘Croydon’, a borough of London, supposedly where dubstep originated, but also another label that keeps popping up around the genre (Paul from the deeptime blog wrote that ‘people act like there are dubstep spores in the Croydon water supply.’)
Given this and also taking into account Goodman’s Ballard influence, I was reminded of this quote from Ballard’s story ‘The Enormous Space':
Crusoe wished to bring the Croydons of his own day to life again on this island. I want to expel them, and find in their place a far richer realm formed from the elements of light, time and space.
Therefore, my burning question to Steve Goodman is this: ‘You have DJed extensively overseas, seen how dubstep translates beyond Croydon and London, yet people still keep tagging it as a London thing. Therefore, after having to explain the Croydon connection in a thousand interviews, do you now also want to expel Croydon, as Ballard did, in favour of something more universal?’
ABOVE: kode 9 and Spaceape. Photo via kode9.
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