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Negative acoustic space: Ballardian sound art

Author: • Aug 2nd, 2008 •

Category: audio, Barcelona, features, music, urban decay, urban ruins

Ballardian Muxtape>

Ballardian muxtape accompanying this post.

This will be the last post related to the CCCB’s J.G. Ballard exhibition for a while. Next week normal service will resume, including a slew of archival Ballard interviews and articles as well as some newly commissioned posts.

For the CCCB exhibition, I curated a selection of Ballardian inspired sound art and music: 46 tracks in all. I tried to cover everything: the early 80s postpunk era, when Ballard’s influence was at its zenith; the found-sound sound art that echoes themes of urban degradation in Ballard’s work; recent Ballardian stuff such as Burial and kode9; the mid-90s world music strain; title and incidental music from Ballard film and TV adaptations, including all the obscure productions; the late 90s indie homages … even JGB’s Desert Island Disc selections.

Reproduced below is the brief synopsis and the annotated playlist I wrote for the exhibition catalogue. I’ve also compiled a Muxtape to accompany this post. It features 12 of the 46 tracks — for now, a representative sample that tries to at least touch on all the areas mentioned above.

by Simon Sellars

Ballardian Sound Art

J.G. Ballard says he has a ‘tin ear’: that he has no taste for music, barely a feel for it, borne out by his Desert Island Disc selection for BBC radio which included ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’. There’s no music in his writing either, he insists – ‘I don’t know why. It’s just some gene that skipped me.’ He says with a Futurist flourish that ‘the most beautiful music in the world is the sound of machine guns’. Yet his work has influenced a whole range of musicians. In the 80s he was consistently name-checked by influential postpunk and industrial artists: Ian Curtis, John Foxx, Steve Severin, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK. The word ‘Ballardian’ became shorthand for speed and violence, sex and death, but as with The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, the postpunk Ballard bibles, the ultimate aim was to transcend the post-industrial murk, not wallow in the malaise.

Then in the 1990s a curious strain of Ballardian world music began to emerge (notably from Finnish band Mo Boma, who explored Ballardian themes across a three-album cycle). This was lush, steamy and otherworldly, but not in the realm of clichéd exotica common to the genre, rather in the sense of vague unease, borderzones of the mind, the imagination rather than the third world as the last nature reserve. The aesthetic was wholly appropriate to the cycle of novels Ballard was writing – The Unlimited Dream Company, The Day of Creation, Rushing to Paradise – degraded, lysergic visions of mythical lands rusting and undermining the structural integrity of the urban West.

In recent times, Ballard’s influence on music seems to have waned although there is convergence with a cadre of sound artists who have magnified and critiqued the sonic footprint of the world’s cities and conurbations. Interact with any aspect of the Big City today, virtual or actual, and you will be enveloped with noise. When you pick up the handle of a petrol pump, an ad jingle plays. When you prowl the supermarket aisles, blaring adult rock replaces the sedative Muzak of yore. When you click on MySpace, smileys with artificial intelligence shout at you and autoplay music sutures the gaps. When you are put on hold for customer service, recorded voices puncture your calm inner space at regular intervals. In Ballard’s short story, ‘The Sound Sweep’ (1960), he warns of the virtual reality of artificially generated, negative acoustic space. Sixteen years later, in the novella ‘The Ultimate City’, he posits the chaotic sounds of the city as a beacon of vitality, an invigorating counterpoint to the enervating utopianism of hysterical eco-activists.

So, while it would appear to be true that there is no music in Ballard, there certainly is sound. Acoustic space is the last frontier to be colonised by late capitalism and Ballard records the process, but as always in his work, it can be as alienating or as invigorating as you care to make it.

– Simon Sellars, ballardian.com, 2008.

More info: see ballardian.com’s interview with Mike Ryan of RE/Search Publications.


Ballardian Sound Art

‘Thirteen to Centaurus: Main Titles’ – Norman Kay (1964)
From the BBC TV adaptation of the Ballard short story.

‘Hello?’ – J.G. Ballard (2006)
JGB’s voice taken from ‘Rattling Other People’s Cages’, Simon Sellars’s interview with Ballard.

‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ – Val Rosen (1932)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection, a sinister choice in light of the evil mechanical bears in Kingdom Come.

‘Affirmative Dystopias’ – J.G. Ballard (2006)
JGB’s voice taken from ‘Rattling Other People’s Cages’, Simon Sellars’s 2006 interview with Ballard. Soundscape by Melanie Chilianis.

‘Cairo’ – The Future (1977)
Contains a spoken-word passage from The Atrocity Exhibition’s ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’:

‘This Venus of the dunes, virgin of the time-slopes, rose above Tallis into the meridian sky. The porous sand, reminiscent of the eroded walls of the apartment, and of the dead film star with her breasts of carved pumice and thighs of ash, diffused along its crests into the wind’.

‘I Want to Be A Machine’ – Ultravox! (1977)
Lyrics influenced by Ballard.

‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ – David Bowie (1977)
Mines the same ambivalent man-machine aesthetic as Ballard.

‘Warm Leatherette’ – The Normal (1978)
Lyrics based on Crash.

‘High Rise’ – Hawkwind (1979)
Lyrics based on High-Rise and the Ballard short, ‘The Man on the 99th Floor’.

‘Plaza’ – John Foxx (1980)
Lyrics influenced by Ballard.

‘Atrocity Exhibition’ – Joy Division (1980)
Title lifted from The Atrocity Exhibition.

‘The Him’ – New Order (1981)
Title taken from a passage in ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

‘Let’s Do It’ – Noel Coward (1955)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. According to David Pringle, this choice ‘betrays a certain leaning towards clever lyrics’ but maybe Ballard just likes Coward’s image of machines having sex.

‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – Antonio Carlos Jobim (1962)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. This choice represents JGB’s attraction to ‘sizzling sex’, according to Pringle.

‘The Dead Astronaut’ (excerpt) – Vanishing Point (1988)
Taken from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s series of Ballard radio plays.

‘The Final Strand’ – Michael Briel (1993)
From the album Crash: A Tribute to James Graham Ballard. According to Briel, it’s based on the JGB short, ‘The Final Strand’, but the story he’s actually referencing is ‘The Terminal Beach’ – Ballard’s title was lost in translation (Briel is German).

‘Golden Skans’ – Klaxons (2006)
Lyric inspired by Ballard’s ‘Myths of the Near Future’.

‘Mausoleum’ – Manic Street Preachers (1994)
Contains a sample from a Ballard interview: ‘I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and then force it to look in the mirror.’

‘Me and J.G. Ballard’ – Dan Melchior (2002)
Shepperton resident Dan Melchior describes seeing Ballard in the supermarket, but they never actually meet.

‘Dr Penrose Has the Solution’ – Super-Cannes (2004)
This band is named after Ballard’s Super-Cannes, and the song after a character in the book.

‘Home: End Titles’ – Andrew Phillips (2003)
Soundtrack from the BBC TV adaptation of the Ballard short story, ‘The Enormous Space’.

‘Low-Flying Aircraft: Main Titles’ – Johan Zachrisson (2002)
From the Solveig Nordlund film adaptation of the Ballard short story.

‘The Pheasant Hunt’ – John Williams (1987)
From the soundtrack to Spielberg’s film of Empire of the Sun.

‘Superchannel’ – Janek Schaefer (2002)
Inspired by Concrete Island, plus it’s musique concrete – get it?

‘Primal Image’ (excerpt) – Alan Lamb (1988)
Sounds produced entirely by wind through telegraph wires picked up by contact mics, with no processing or effects involved except for minor EQ. It is reminiscent of Ballard’s ‘The Sound Sweep’ and other early JGB shorts in which urban sound is trapped and magnified. A sample from this (or something very similar to it) is featured on the soundtrack to Jonathan Weiss’s film of The Atrocity Exhibition.

‘The Swedish Rhapsody’ – Unknown (1997)
A recording of a ‘numbers station’ on short-wave radio. With their origin and purpose unknown, numbers stations are the audio equivalent of Ballard’s ‘invisible literature’. The idea of recording numbers stations, of trapping and recording arcane transmissions, is also reminiscent of T- building his strange radio receiver in Atrocity so he can tune in to pirate radio and ‘the time-music of the quasars’.

‘Don’t Fence Me In’ – Bing Crosby (1944)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. Again, David Pringle reckons this choice betrays JGB’s ‘leaning towards clever lyrics’.

‘The Marriage of Figaro (Highlights): Act IV Scene 11: Finale’ – Hungarian State Opera Orchestra (1786)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. The echoes of opera in ‘The Sound Sweep’ are inescapable. David Pringle muses: ‘The influence of Ballard working in Covent Garden flower market, outside the opera house, perhaps?’

‘Pace E Gioia Sia Con Voi (from the Barber of Seville)’ – Lang, Maloy, Modenas, Stilke, w/ Hamburg Radio Symphony Orch (1886)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. The opera references apply here, also.

‘Nested’ – Coti K (1993)
From the album Crash: A Tribute to James Graham Ballard.

‘More Songs About Factories: Part 4 (Itchy)’ – Camilla Hannan (2005)
Composed entirely of factory sounds, recorded in a similar manner to the Alan Lamb piece and freighted with the same Ballardian allusions.

‘Crash!’ – composer unknown; probably library sounds from the BBC audio archives (1971)
A montage stitched together by Simon Sellars of ambient sounds and music from the soundtrack to the Harley Cokliss short film, ‘Crash!’, which stars Ballard. Parts of this soundtrack appear remarkably similar to the Alan Lamb and Camilla Hannan pieces.

‘World War III As a Conceptual Act: The Atrocity Exhibition Main Titles’ – J.G. Thirlwell, aka Foetus (2001)
From the soundtrack to Jonathan Weiss’s film of Ballard’s book.

‘Road Research Laboratory’ – Howard Shore (1996)
From the soundtrack to David Cronenberg’s film of Crash.

‘Wind from Nowhere’ – Uzect Plaush (1994)
Patterned after Ballard’s first, disowned novel, a rare inspiration to say the least!

‘The Kindness of Women’ – Mo Boma (1994)
Inspired by the Ballard novel.

‘Matinkaari Bridge, Helsinki, Finland’ – Jodi Rose (2004)
Composed entirely of sounds made by the Matinkaari Bridge in Finland as it bends under the load of traffic, twisting and turning due to heat and cold. Recorded in a similar fashion as the Alan Lamb and Camilla Hannan pieces, with the same sonic/conceptual allusions to Ballard’s work.

‘Forgive’ – Burial (2006)
For better or worse, the music of Burial has been branded ‘Ballardian’ by all and sundry. But is Ballard as downbeat as this?

‘Track 12 (The Kiss)’ – Cousin Silas (2006)
Inspired by the Ballard short story.

‘Lime’ – kode9 (2006)
kode9 is Steve Goodman, a lecturer and theorist who has written on what he terms Ballard’s ‘sonic fiction’, including ‘The Sound Sweep’. The urban influence of Ballard’s music unavoidably seeps into the music.

‘Falling in Love Again’ – Marlene Dietrich (1964)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. Marlene’s frigid yet sexy film persona is surely very close to JGB’s cold and impenetrable women characters.

‘Put the Blame on Mame’ – Rita Hayworth (1946)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. More ‘sizzling sex’, says Pringle.

‘The Ballad of J.G. Ballard’ – Kevin Mahoney (2006)
Mahoney’s self-styled ‘iconoclastic tribute’ to Ballard.

..:: Related:
+ Tribute to J.G. Ballard & Brian Eno
+ A Ballardian Burial
+ ‘Magisterial, Precise, Unsettling’: Simon Reynolds on the Ballard Connection
+ A Whirlpool with Seductive Furniture: The John Foxx Interview
+ Critical Mass: Sound, Story and Music in David Cronenberg’s Crash
+ ‘No-One Dances in Ballard’: An Interview with Mike Ryan
+ Cousin Silas: Another Flask of Ballard

…:: More info on the exhibition:

+ More exhibition photography from Rick McGrath
+ J.G. Ballard, Autopsy of the New Millennium
+ Ballard at Kosmopolis
+ Official exhibition blog

…:: Exhibition-related posts on Ballardian:

+ Postcards from Barcelona
+ Rick McGrath’s Letter from Barcelona: The Exquisite Corpse, An Autopsy of the New Millennium
+ Ballardoscope: some attempts at approaching the writer as a visionary
+ J.G. Ballard: In the Raw
+ JGB exhibition opens tomorrow in Barcelona

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21 Responses »

  1. You may or may not know that “Uzect Plaush” is actually the jokey acronym of the brilliant Australian ambient/funk/minimalist composer Paul Schütze, whose work – not least the obviously JGB-inspired ‘Site Anubis’ – clearly carries the spirit of JGB throughout his dozen or so excellent recordings. Google for his website. And check his band Phantom City’s ‘Shiva Recoil: Live/Unlive’, which knocks Miles Davis’ ‘On the Corner’ into a cocked hat…

  2. Ah, I knew it was Paul but hadn’t twigged it was an acronym! Seems really obvious now… Thanks, Jack. I’ve got a few of his tracks on various compilations, but ‘Wind’ is all I know from Uzect Plaush. I’ll check out your recommendations.

  3. […] manner in which dystopian bard J.G. Ballard’s worldview is suffused into contemporary sound (ballardian.com): In recent times, Ballard’s influence on music seems to have waned although there is convergence […]

  4. Good to see Paul Schütze mentioned here, a very underrated artist who seems to have abandoned music for other media. He was on the Extreme label for a while, along with Mo Boma. I’d recommend Abysmal Evenings for his electronic gamelan side and New Maps of Hell 1 & 2.

    There’s a couple of musical moments I can think of in Ballard’s corpus, notably the singing statues of Vermilion Sands. And don’t Kerans and Beatrice Dahl while away the hours listening to Beethoven in The Drowned World?

  5. Thanks John, I’ll seek those out, too… ‘New Maps of Hell’ — more JGB associations there, with its title borrowed from Kingsley Amis.

    Paul seems to have been rather prolific while he was making music. I’ve got an Extreme compilation, must dig it out again…

    Re: music in Ballard. There’s muzak in Super-Cannes I recall, but I guess my point is that there’s more noise, hence my affinity for the found sound of Alan Lamb and so on.

  6. Alan Lamb is even more underrated, if not completely unknown! If you want another Ballard/Lovecraft connection, I put his Night Passage album in the doom-laden drones playlist for my Lovecraft book.

  7. Acherly, had an email from Paul recently saying that, after a few years working on his lightbox sculptures, he’s preparing to re-enter the world of music, rather noisily, with a metal noise project… stay tooned…

    And I’d forgotten the singing sculptures in Vermilion Sands. Must dig it out again…

  8. Oh, that’s good to know. His ‘Third Site’ piece at the Hayward’s Sonic Boom sound art exhibition was one of the best things there but I still miss his music.

  9. At risk of revealing my lack of know-how here. How do I play a Muxtape? If I take the link to the ballardian.muxtape.com it gives me a page of links to Amazon.com each exhorting me to buy that particular mp3.


  10. John E. — it streams the songs. Just click on the song name on the muxtape page and it will play in your browser.

  11. Yeah John, I thought Paul’s installation at the Sonic Boom exhibit was one of the best things there. Good to hear he’s returning to music. You should also check his work with Simon Fell – well, basically anything with Paul’s name on it. By the way, I do not get paid to say this stuff (and he already has a boyfriend…)!

    Yours from a small unnamed Greek island…

  12. Small Greek island, eh? Something tells me jack heron may be John Gill. (Gil Scott-Heron, geddit.) Tell me I’m wrong…heh.

    I’ve done my best to accumulate the complete works of PS but some of the early Extreme releases proved frustratingly elusive. I know they got reissued but the shops round here never seemed to stock them and by the time I got round to ordering anything I could only get Green Evil. I shouldn’t complain; in an era of overabundance and continual reissues of lost works it’s good to have something left to search for. And he may yet reissue the stuff himself, of course.

    He has a boyfriend? Damn. Cos, ya know…clever, talented, cute, etc.

  13. http://swen.antville.org/stories/1823749/

    “DJ, producer, and label-owner, Kode 9 is one of the most consistently innovative leaders of the dubstep scene. He’ll be playing exclusive tunes, doing a live mix, and discussing low-end theory from J.G. Ballard dystopianism to dub’s viral nature.”

  14. Aleix, I discuss this show here:

  15. Damn. Outed. But I ain’t tellin’ the name of the island… heh heh…

    yours pseudonymously…

  16. It gets even more incestuous…

    Schütze es to say he is actually lurking on this site, and that he wrote a piece called Vermilion Sands on the Lo Collaborations Vol 2 compilation, and that Green Evil was inspired by Crystal World. He has also made photo artworks of drained swimming pools, viewable at this url


    If John Coulthard would like to get in touch via john@johngillwrites.com, I might also be able to suggest ways of getting hold of Paul’s stuff.

    And, yes, he is cute… I think the man’s a genius.

  17. Aha! I thought I remembered a Vermilion Sands track title but I don’t have that one and didn’t follow up with a search.

  18. Grrr. The RIAA has closed down Muxtape!

  19. Brilliant playlist, but I’m pretty sure only one or two of those pieces could be considered sound art, which is not a musical discipline.

  20. Cheers, Alex…

    I count at least 5 that should be considered ‘sound art’ in that they focus on urban found sound (mostly untreated) and the way we hear them: namely the pieces by Camilla Hannan, Alan Lamb and Jodi Rose, as well as the Crash! montage and the Conet Project extract. At a pinch, the Cousin Silas piece might be bracketed in this way, too.

    But I take your point; i probably shouldn’t have called the entire playlist ‘Ballardian sound art’!

  21. Funny that you mention a lack of music in his work, I thought of him as an author who seems to have a deep ongoing relationship with sound and music in his work. Perhaps in the same manner as William Gibson does with technology, in the sense of not understanding or particularly caring to understand how it works, but looking to explore the possibilities of it, and the responses of the individuals shaped by it.

    Some of the stories in vermillion sands prefigured sound art, and in there own warped way predicted many concepts that are currently explored. The sound sweep is another example of Ballard’s warped take on music. Interestingly, there’s that Buggles song “Video Killed the Radio Star” which essentially describes the narrative of that story, if you’re looking for it.

    As far as musicians inspired by Ballard, I’m a fledgling composer myself (about to begin an MFA program at Mills college for electronic music), and have personally had his influence creep into my work. More so with noise/punk projects, but his work seems to not only articulate certain themes that are conceptually appealing, but also serves as a reference point that evokes a particular perspective.

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