Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Sinister Resonance in Electric Eden

Two absolutely essential books are appearing on the publishing horizon, both set to come out later this summer. They both look at music within wider cultural (and social and philosophical) contexts and both are by writers associated with the magazine The Wire. Both could be said to be connecting with current trends on the musical margins (the folk revival – or rather a revival of the 60s/70s folk revival – and the ‘hauntological’ summoning of the ghosts of the mediated past) but placing them at the crest of the broad sweep of history lends them a depth which gives us an idea of why they have made such an impact on a certain (admittedly small) section of the population.

The first book is David Toop’s Sinister Resonance, subtitled The Mediumship of the Listener. It comes with an impressive pre-publication collection of recommendations from a varied roster of artists, from musicians and composers such as David Sylvian, Alvin Curran and Christoph Cox, to writer Steve Erickson and film makers and puppeteers the Brothers Quay. This is testament to the breadth of cultural reference which Toop brings to his books. Part of their pleasure is in the unexpected juxtapositions which they introduce between seemingly disparate musicians (and, indeed, artforms). His first book (excepting Rap Attack, which as the title suggests, was more narrowly focussed), Ocean of Sound, ranged from Debussy to Indian dhrupad singing, free jazz noise attack to Eno-esque ambient calm. Exotica traced the invisible threads connecting the likes of Sun Ra with Martin Denny (well, maybe not so invisible there) and Haunted Weather set the radar to detect the music emerging from the cracks between sound and silence in the new millennium, taking in the wildlife sound recordings of Chris Watson and the digital minimalism of Toshimaru Nakamura and Ryoji Ikeda, with a fascinating detour to look at the soundscapes which Toru Takemitsu produced for the 60s films of Hiroshi Teshigahara (Japan always tends to be Toop’s centre of gravity when it comes to cultural reference).

Toop points out in his introduction (part of which you can read on the Continuum site, here) that this book is ‘more about listening than it is about music’. He begins by relating an experience of waking in the night to hear the dying echoes of a sound, whose source remained mysterious and which may indeed have leaked through the boundaries of dream. This is the Sinister Resonance of the title, which he goes on to explain thus: ‘sound is a sinister resonance, an association with irrationality and inexplicability, that which we both desire and dread’. Such an association leads on to hauntings and his fascination with supernatural fiction which he shares with many of the ‘hauntological’ artists. He gives his own interpretation of that horribly clunky academic neologism (invented, perhaps inevitably, by a French philosopher – Jacques Derrida) in terms of ‘exploring the ghostly and nostalgic affect of music’. ‘Sinister Resonance’, he states, ‘begins with the premise that sound is a haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory’. The thinking behind the subtitle‘The Mediumship of the Listener’ is elucidated by noting that ‘listening, as if to the dead, like a medium who deals only in history and what is lost, the ear attunes itself to distant signals, eavesdropping on ghosts and their chatter’. He talks of late night reading, which makes him more alert to the sound in silence, and also ‘to the importance of sound in literature, not only for the twentieth century authors such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but in the supernatural fiction and ghost stories of writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins’. Two examples of the emotional impact of sound exaggerated by surrounding silence within supernatural fictions (in this case films) are given, the first arising from an interview with a member of The Animal Collective, who recalls the effect of the music and sound design of The Shining. Toop talks of the crunch of snow, the bounce of the ball, Danny’s car in the corridor driving over different surfaces (with their hard and soft sounds) and the distant echo of dance band music, whose obscured source is located in time as much as space (hauntological before its time). The second is the sound of the harp played without the touch of human hand in The Haunting, an effect which director Robert Wise may have borrowed from a similar scene in I Walked With a Zombie, produced by his mentor Val Lewton. Toop also points to the seemingly counterintuitive dimension of ‘listening’ within visual media, citing Nicolas Maes’ painting The Eavesdropper, and also mentioning Juan Munoz, Georges Seurat, Marcel Duchamp and Ad Reinhardt. He intriguingly posits that sound provides ‘a hidden if uncertain history within otherwise silent media’, perceptible through a species of clairaudience. It’ll be fascinating to hear what any accompanying CD might contain. A series of readings intermixed with resonant sound from film, maybe.

The second book is Rob Young’s Electric Eden, subtitled Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. This traces the changing ways in which British (although it looks like they’re predominantly English) traditions have found expression throughout the twentieth century and on into this one. It’s not shy of using the f-word (folk) to describe many of the impulses underlying the music which it looks at, but at the same time isn’t bound by it. This is a musical stream from which a wide variety of artists have drawn, effecting their own transformations whilst maintaining a sense of underlying continuity. The eclecticism of the Matter of Britain which Young draws together can be gleaned from the links which he provides at the book’s accompanying blog (which you can find here). These include Vaughan Williams, Sandy Denny, Ghost Box, Kate Bush and early music pioneer David Munrow amongst the musicians; William Blake, John Clare, Arthur Machen, William Morris, John Cowper Powys and Christopher Priest amongst the writers (the latter presumably for his A Dream of Wessex); and on the ‘magic box’, The Changes (when will the BBC get round to releasing this?), Smallfilms (Oliver Postgate), Derek Jarman, Powell and Pressburger and Peter Watkins. All indubitably British and the kind of names far more likely to conjure my nationalistic pride than the usual martial icons of Churchill and Nelson etc. Other links take you to the excellent Toys and Techniques blog; the fantastic graphic work of David Owen at the Ink Corporation, which re-imagines folk as a popular art form central to British culture; Subterraenea Britannica, which explores the man made underground spaces of the land; and the unclassifiable English Heretic.

The cover of the book is particularly fine, with its ploughman working his way around the pylon standing in the centre of the field. Big technology in a rural setting always tends to make me think of some post-catastrophe world in which pylons and cooling towers stand as memorials to a fallen civilisation in much the same way as Roman bridges and temples must have done in the early centuries of the last millennium. The pylon plays an important symbolic role in The Changes, which takes part in an England in which technology, and electricity in particular, is suddenly considered evil. Young also points to the post industrial fantasies of late Victorian and Edwardian society in his excellent Guardian article on Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia (find it here), mentioning William Morris’ News From Nowhere, Richard Jeffries’ After London and HG Wells’ The Time Machine (in which the bucolic future world of idle pleasures is, of course, a false Eden). The publishing blurb for the book offers an enticing glimpse of what we can expect:

‘In this groundbreaking survey of more than a century of music making in the British Isles, Rob Young investigates how the idea of folk has been handed down and transformed by successive generations – song collectors, composers, Marxist revivalists, folk-rockers, psychedelic voyagers, free festival-goers, experimental pop stars and electronic innovators. In a sweeping panorama of Albion’s soundscape that takes in the pioneer spirit of Cecil Sharp; the pastoral classicism of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock; the industrial folk revival of Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd; the folk-rock of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, John Martyn and Pentangle; the bucolic psychedelia of The Incredible String Band, The Beatles and Pink Floyd; the acid folk of Comus, Forest, Mr Fox and Trees; The Wicker Man and occult folklore; the early Glastonbury and Stonehenge festivals; and the visionary pop of Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, Electric Eden maps out a native British musical voice that reflects the complex relationships between town and country, progress and nostalgia, radicalism and conservatism. A wild combination of pagan echoes, spiritual quest, imaginative time-travel, pastoral innocence and electrified creativity, Electric Eden will be treasured by anyone interested in the tangled story of Britain’s folk music and Arcadian dreams.’

Dreams and hauntings, the daytime reveries of English pastoral Edens, and the nervous nighttime glances over the shoulder at small sounds real or imagined. The books look set to provide an ideal complementary pairing. I look forward to reading them both.


Rob Young said...

Thanks very much for your wonderfully generous comments – and without reading the book too! It should be out at the end of July. I'll put a link to your blog at

All the best,

Rob Young

Jez Winship said...

Thanks for adding me to your links. I'm more than happy to be filed under Poly-Albion. Very much enjoyed the Old, Weird Britain article in Sight and Sound, by the way, which covered many of my favourites.