Consequence of Sound’s Aux Out: The History of Hauntology

Welcome to Dreamlab. As this is the inaugural column, it seems appropriate to introduce you to the premise. A couple of weeks ago, Evan Minsker debuted his column, Trash Collector, a series that explores “music that’s immediate, doesn’t pull punches, is fast, propulsive, slack-jawed, manic, screaming, ridiculous, sludgy, lo-fi, and loud.” In that sense, Dreamlab offers the foil, examining the sonic fringe of music and the artists who eschew traditional structures and forage inspiration from decidedly niche source materials. These artists create sounds that stretch and breathe and yield unusual, creative works that can be long-winded, restrained, obtuse, or otherwise hypnotic. Each column will address a paramount topic or specific question related to this aesthetic: Why do we like it, and why do short-lived movements (psych-rock, shoegazing, post-rock) hold a strong enough fascination to keep new artists mimicking the sound ad infinitum, among other “hard-hitting,” think piece-y topics.

For this column, let us explore nostalgia-sourcing. It’s not a new trend by any stretch, but the practice has been pretty pervasive within the past few years. How does one make nostalgia interesting and original? Because, let’s face it, everything’s been done already, and they were called The Beatles.

“U.S. Dept. of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out of Past’” reads a classic headline from The Onion. As with any satire worth its salt, the quip grapples with some poignant and perhaps patently true ideas. We may have actually “run out of past” in pop culture. More on that later. At hand, the world of indie music has been particularly guilty reanimating erstwhile styles as of late, having maintained a particularly strong holding pattern of sonic recycling in the last decade. Hey, at least it’s sustainable.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, of course. Take for example LA’s Paisley Underground in the 80’s, a movement that embraced Haight-Ashbury flower power to push back against the city’s hardcore movement. Or look at the ’90s fondness of The Me Decade, propelled by grunge’s propensity toward bombastic arena rock and Dinosaur Jr’s Frampton-esque amp stacks. Both these decades forged their own sound, something that became less common post-Y2K. The early aughts relished in the flashy rhythms and angular guitars of early ’80s post-punk (The Strokes, Interpol), while the latter part of the decade careened toward the hazy synths and cavernous percussion of the New Wave era (slowed down roughly 25% to create chillwave). Of course, these nods to the decade of greed came from kids who are mostly my age or younger, and I was five when the decade ended. The perennially self-aware James Murphy branded this trend as “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s,” though you could apply that to a swath of movements. When all was said and done, the aughts squeaked by without establishing its own identity, and in 2012, as the teens begin to solidify, the hype and critical success of Cloud Nothings’ Albini-approved send-up of early Slint-informed slop rock cum Mineral-evocative emo has summoned the ’90s.

Maybe we did run out of retro? Well shit… what’s next?

The obvious answer is to make a copy of a copy, one that I’m sure more pedestrian artists will explore, and it’s certainly an issue that’s plagued the shoegazing sub-sect for about 10 years. Another avenue is to invent an entire new genre or sound. Obviously this is the preferred method for moving subcultures forward, but that involves years of general under-appreciation and going through the motions of being a tortured genius. We can’t all be Aphex Twin. The most reasonable option to approaching the incorporation of established sounds and aesthetics sans rehash hackery: intense recontextualization. Producer-centric hip-hop is particularly good at this. See Light in the Attic’s The Now Sound Redesigned compilation, wherein the good doctors Peanut Butter Wolf, Madlib, and other luminaries drastically, yet recognizably, reconfigure songs by cultish light psych ’60s family act The Free Design.

In a similar vein, one of the most profoundly creative approaches to recontextualization in the past decade has come in the form of “library music,” sometimes referred to as “hauntology.”

There’s still not an absolute definition for hauntology or library music. Julian Cope hasn’t written Hauntologysampler just yet, but it lies within defined parameters. For example, all artists that classify as library music source sounds and inspiration from archives like the library of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which is a large operation of sound engineers that created soundtracks for television shows, public information films, and documentaries. Utilizing a vast palette of then cutting-edge instruments that included synths, oscillators, theremins, and other esoteric noisemakers in tandem with a palpable adoration for musique concerte, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is arguably the origin point for experimental electronic music.

All these musicians embraced the possibilities of music in the future, resulting in sci-fi and galactic soundtracks that offer varying degrees of campiness. As opposed to the electronic movements within krautrock two decades later, their extraterrestrial, electronic sounds never felt angular, distant, or cavernous. Their brand of atomic-age ambience created a sort of optimistic futurism: The war is over, the era of space is near, and the coming days are looking bright, impending Cold War dread be damned. The artists informed by this hypnotic mid-century retro-futurism have, in turn, cultivated an entirely new way of conjuring nostalgia: a false sense of nostalgia.

With a few exceptions, the library artists tend to associate with the Ghost Box label, hauntology ground zero. Like Creation or Motown, the London-based collective of sound alchemists, artists, shamans, and thinkers create a holistically distinct body of work. In sight and sound, Ghost Box exists wholly within the realms of science fiction and kaleidoscopic whimsy, noir and sorcery. Visual treatments are handled by Ghost Box’s in-house artist Julian House, whose Technicolor accompaniments are as fantastic and fanciful as the music itself. The hauntological canon proper includes Ghost Box staplesBelbury Poly, The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group (Julian House’s sound project), Roj (ex-Broadcast), and Mount Vernon Arts Lab–all of whom retain a prolific output and tend to collaborate with each other through subscription services such as The Study Series. The library music’s reach has also been extended to more familiar names like Stereolab, Pram, Bibio’s folk output, and Boards of Canada (whose name derives from The Film Board of Canada, a move apropos to the Ghost Box signatories). Unlike their contemporaries, however, the Ghost Box artists do not write traditionally accessible music or immediate music. Rather, they develop a strange, wholly immersed, and meditative experience, and there’s no better jumping-off point than Broadcast.

Broadcast, the anomalous and unbelievably gifted act on the Warp label, won the hearts and minds of disparate and discerning crate diggers throughout the ’90s and ’00s, blurring the line between mod chic and glitch electronic. Most fans, including myself, did not realize that Broadcast aligned itself with a large movement until 2009. The cheekily titled collaboration with The Focus Group, Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, is a pinnacle release in the library music catalog and one that greatly upped its visibility, aided in part by Wire rightly voting it the best album of the year. It goes without saying that the passing of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan shortly after its release looms heavily over the record. But even if that weren’t the case, this effort is remarkable. As the title suggests, the album unfurls layers of history and vivid imagery: field recordings of nature’s splendor, the eerie static crackle of clandestine number stations on the shortwave dial, the fun and fright of trespassing on haunted sites as a kid. The rustic, the archaic, the occult, and the like. All themes are given due diligence throughout its prolific 23-track sequence. Witch Cults is as spooky and unnerving as it is joyous and majestic. These extreme, inherent reactions reflect much of the notion of childhood, like the feeling of discovering an unknown world that’s equally exciting and terrifying. In a sense, Witch Cults catalyzes a sense of nostalgia infinitely more visceral and potent than a simple rehashing of some tangential idiosyncrasy of pop culture.

Witch Cults, among other Ghost Box releases, owe a fruit basket or two to jazz’s first incorporation of electronics. Concurrent to the Radiophonic experiments, jazz musicians like Basil Kirchin began experimenting with prototype synthesizers and self-fashioned instruments to forge jarring, robust, cinematic otherworlds on works such as Abstractions of the Industrial North. On this side of the Atlantic, composer Raymond Scott established Manhattan Research, a sort of basement factory in which he constructed fun toys like theClavivox sequencer and the Electronium synth as a vehicle to move away from his big band repertoire and concoct wholly alien sounds for everything from television commercials to child care (see Soothing Sounds for Baby).

Broadcast, The Focus Group, and Belbury Poly heavily borrow from this aesthetic. The compositions of Kirchin, Scott, and the Workshop bore little to no resemblance to the pop sensibilities of the era; they were the future gazers of the ’50s. Save for the occasionalTwilight Zone-evocative bloops and bleeps and better-living-through-technology kitsch, this form of futurism had no real time stamp other than our own associations, so its sampling in modern music feels outside the zeitgeist. The hauntological sect liberally borrows these antiquated soundtracks and effects from vintage information films and general public domain ephemera and runs it all through a gauntlet of sampling and reconstruction to concoct something new, something without a time. Essentially, it becomes a form of Moog-centric electronic psych with a false memory. Thematically, library music is a euphoric recreation of what people in the past hypothesized the future would sound like – something that, for all intents and purposes, never happened. This is their nostalgia.

Less familiar than Broadcast, yet critical in their own right, is The Advisory Circle. The nom de plume of electronic composer Jon Brooks, The Advisory Circle has produced three prolific albums for Ghost Box since 2005, the latest and best being As the Crow Flies,which dropped late last summer. Brooks candidly described his sound to XLR8R as “everything’s fine, but there is something not quite right about it.” Indeed, The Advisory Circle offers one of the more customarily composed soundscapes from the hauntology crew, propelling a cascading repertoire of glacial, glitchy, electronic pop from the outer reaches of the known universe. On casual listen, The Advisory Circle’s analog exploration fits somewhere between Zodiak Free Arts Lab motorik grooves, conversations between ARPANET-connected supercomputers, and the soundtrack to a Carl Sagan documentary. Listen closely and a more resplendent patchwork of aesthetics reveals itself. Ominous tensions arise, like the soundtrack to an old spy thriller, flanked by driving rhythms that almost fall into the IDM and no wave camps. It deconstructs the collective unconscious’s archetype of campy, archaic electronic music and reconfigures it into something both modern and “unremembered.”

While all the library artists, particularly within Ghost Box, trademark their own approach to surrealism, the themes and emotions evoked remain constant. In Australian electronic magazine Cyclic Defrost, label founder Jim Jupp described the group’s curriculum vitae as “a tradition of British science fiction, where you’ve got on the one hand the setting of a very traditional background, with very ancient things, but you’ve got this weird, cosmic stuff happening at the same time.” As a listener, however, library music is almost antithetical to any specific given time or space. It offers a phantom of a known past or reality, yielding a sort of malleable void wherein the listener can ascribe their own notions, memories, and experiences within. The music invites such. It haunts. It taps into a unique way to distort the idea of nostalgia that, in both aesthetic and attitude, embrace the hauntology ethos of providing only shades of what’s real.

The fluid pieces of the library music sect evoke a time while remaining timeless and create intrigue and wonder through hypnosis rather than lush orchestration. “Wonder” is certainly the operative word here, as my experience listening to The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group, or Belbury Poly resembles the sounds and notions of topics like fringe science, astronomy, and the world of tomorrow that I would conjure in my mind both as a child and a grown-up. A lot of this certainly can be attributed to the motifs found in old cartoons, movies, and the vast plethora of media we consume.

More importantly, the idea of nostalgia becomes distilled through a new medium. Rather than reproducing the pop sound of an earlier time, library music dives into deep psychological territory, creating a nostalgic wonder of an aesthetic you were not technically around to experience. Unless you’re, at youngest, a baby boomer, you have no memories of the time in which library music was born. Yet, even without a reference point, you feel a reflexive nostalgia. Hauntology feeds on intrinsic notions of memories and reminiscence and skews them into something both past and present, dramatically transcending the typical associations within a music listening experience.

If it sounds like an exceptionally postmodern concept, it’s because it is. British music critic Simon Reynolds was the first to ascribe hauntology to the recurring themes in this odd little sect of weirdo British electronic, appropriating a term coined in the early ’90s by French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx. Hauntology was his play, linguistically and ideologically, on ontology–the study of the nature of being– writing that the present “exists only with respect to the past.” In other words, the past haunts the present. Derrida’s notion specifically reflected on the influence of Marx–that the “spectre” of Marx, and Marxist utopianism, will echo louder after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “haunting” a flawed western democracy. He writes “the spectral rumour now resonates, it invades everything: the spirit of the ‘sublime’ and the spirit of ‘nostalgia’ cross all borders.” Derrida’s ideas have crossed from political philosophy to many other realms such as deconstruction within literary critical theory circles, yielding interest in “replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.”

Library music is largely apolitical, but it isn’t hard to glean how Simon Reynolds made the jump from utopian idealism with Derrida’s deconstructionism to music when absorbing the bright tones of Belbury Poly’s The Farmer’s Angle or shades of longing and future anxiety in The Focus Group/Broadcast’s Familiar Shapes and Noises.

Around the same time, political scientist Francis Fukuyama established the notion of “the end of history”. He argued that the proliferation of Western democracy after the fall of communism signaled the ceasing of sociocultural evolution and a final form of government, in direct contrast to Derrida’s views. Similar to Derrida’s hauntology, however, “the end of history” found a home within pockets of art and pop culture pushing against the overactive, Future Shock-paralleling digital age. The Guardian‘s Andrew Gallix writes: “There is a prevailing sense among hauntologists that culture has lost its momentum and that we are all stuck at the ‘end of history.’ …The web has brought about a ‘crisis of overavailability’ that, in effect, signifies the ‘loss of loss itself’: nothing dies any more, everything ‘comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective’ like the looping, repetitive time of trauma.” Gallix later references Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, a dissection of what he calls “pop culture’s addiction to its own past.” In other words, an addiction to its ghost.

It’s a lot to wrap your dome around. But think of it like this; looking at music as text, the ghosts that hauntology disinters–sights, sounds, and techniques that have all been wiped out by history–exist in a present ghostly form even more powerful than during their original lifespan, as they are not beholden to any real zeitgeist. The juxtaposition these relics represent–images of idyllic small town prosperity, Red Threat fear mongering, and the beeping of Sputnik above–strongly parallel the contradictions in our own time, the double-edged swords of globalization and digital innovation. Indeed, with this fluid past inside the formless present, library music offers a powerful and transient ghost that’s just too fucking difficult to accurately describe and one that provides a richer spiritual experience than surface-level nostalgia. It certainly makes the idea of “the end of history” a little easier to swallow.

Therein lies library music’s potency. It’s not reliant on retrospective kitsch or provoking cheap reminiscing. As a bizarre revenant of a possible or parallel future from the past that never was, library music can transcend both the frivolous notions of “retro” and nostalgia to invoke profound, viscerally powerful introspection that wobbly, self-referential, sun-soaked synth pop simply can’t do.

Whatever or whenever the end of history is, we can bet the day we’ve exhausted our retro will be the watershed moment.

Kenny Bloggins is the man behind The Decibel Tolls and founder of the forthcoming website Distonal.com. His Twitter is ridiculous.

For additional references, see The Hauntological Society, Barry 7’s Connectors series, the old Dr. Who, and the Hate The Future tumblr.