Thursday, November 5, 2009


An online retailer, Boomkat, has a weekly-curated service, where they serve up 14 tracks handpicked that fit into some theme. A couple of weeks ago the theme was "Hauntology: A peculiar sonic fiction". Hauntology, as described by Wikipedia, is a musical idea that stems from sound studio experimentations, capturing the "cold-war dread" of the time; the word originally coming from Derrida as a way to describe how an idea can haunt and permeate thought, like Marxism did in his time.

Recently, a group of music journalist, Simon Reynolds most notably has brought this term and idea back into the popular consciousness by attaching it to artists such as Portishead, Burial and other brooders. Their music, included with others, is known for its ability to capture empty spaces, alleyways, ballrooms, etc. These grim and foreboding acoustics are mesmerizing, if you can wrap your mind around music as guide rather than music as purely entertainment. They use field recordings, samplings of old records, lots of recorded tape hiss, echo, reverb etc. The cliched idea of music underwater comes to mind.

They are creating music with two layers. The first layer is the form and melody we associate with music. The piano lines or drum loops, snippets of song here and there. The second layer is the distress, the grit, the dirt and haze. This second layer “haunts” the first, changing the way in which we understand the first layer of music. By bringing the second layer to the forefront, these artist are changing the overall portrait of their music, moving beyond simply what we hear, but what whe hear and what the presence of these sounds mean to us.

Thanks to Boomkat, I've been hooked by this strange blend of music and ideas. They're big fans of drone, ambient and generally formless types of music, and their fascination has infected me as well. My collection of these strange musical ideas is slowly growing, but i wanted to share some of these discoveries with you. My musical tastes seem to be very influenced by my environment, as I am now currently residing in Portland, which can lend itself to music not painted in primary colors.

Philip Jeck is a turntablist. Not Grand Master Flash or DJ Krush type of turntablist, but an artist who seeks to use records and the instruments that play them in new ways. Playing records at the incorrect speed, distressing records, looping and other creative ways to recontextualize their content. Notice how you can hear snippets of melody from a fanfare but it sounds like its been sped up or played at the wrong speed, almost like you can see the record spinning in a lopsided manner. All the melody is buried underneath a gauze of other sounds. It was shocking when I first heard it, but ultimately one of those albums you listen to again and again, learning and finding more each time.

Burial, as I mentioned earlier, couches his ideas of dance music within a larger context of atmosphere. Notice when the track begins you hear a gun loading, the beep of a train, and other sonic detritus. It feels like you're listening to someone play the song on the street, and you're hearing not only the music but everything that's happening around you. The rumble of the vehicles, grinding of buildings slowly decaying.... etc.

The Caretaker is more overt with these ideas. For this album he collected a bunch of old 78's ( i think) and recorded them playing their music. He added some echo and reverb, looped them and recorded the results. Its pretty, but underneath a haze of sonic grit from a distressed vinyl surface. I read in an article from The Guardian about his new album that's just come out and have been digging since then. Somewhere I read he takes his Caretaker vise from The Shining, Jack Nicholson's character and the the movie's large empty spaces.

I've been enjoying these artists and others quite a bit recently. The Portland sunshine has made it more poignant I'm sure. I tried to pick three sources that were pretty diverse; to give a better picture of the elements I'm focusing on here. I am interested with where these ideas can go. How much farther can one take tape hiss and distressed sound recordings? But for the moment I am enjoying the novelty and enjoy learning new things, digging about the Internet.

And if you want something a bit headier, check out Rouge's Foam, who recently just posted a massive article on the exact same topic. His is a more researched and academic. If you're interested, it's a great read.