THE LOST CITY / MFA thesis excerpt - 2011
In March 2011, I put on another music performance, as a kind of mirror to the Spectral Mornings performance at Cranbrook that took place back in 2010. This time, in contrast to the series of concise electronic pop songs that we played as Spectral Mornings, Trevor and I performed a single, half-hour-long piece of music that moved from a repetitive sequence of synthesizer pulses to a long, droning wash of textural noise and tape decay, eventually fading to nothing. The first half of this piece was a reinterpretation of the song Requiem for a Lost City, which I had written in 2009 as the closing track for the album Highway Wars. That album tracked a journey from city to wasteland, from confusion to clarity, from the known to the unknown, from the past to the future, against the backdrop of an apocalypse, and, as I’ve written previously, it served as the foundation for much of the work I’ve made while at Cranbrook. In the context of that album, Requiem for a Lost City served as a conclusion, evoking the idea of closing credits for a film, and therefore both acting as a marker for an ending to a narrative and existing outside of that narrative, suggesting that the narrative may, in fact, not be finished. The song was made entirely with an Alesis Ion analog modeling synthesizer and was based around the slow buildup of simple melodies, evoking John Carpenter soundtracks and similar cinematic landscapes -- Escape From New York, The Terminator, Blade Runner, and so on.
Reinterpreted for this performance, Trevor and I placed more emphasis on the repetitive nature of that piece of music, utilizing delay pedals and other effects to create a sense of echo and decay, rooted in serialism and dub. Over the course of the performance, these pulses faded away into long noise drones, reminiscent of musicians like Pete Swanson, Xela, William Basinski, and so on. My motivations with this show were twofold. Besides wanting to present a performance of drone music at Cranbrook and letting people see the sort of soundtrack that has accompanied my work here for the previous two years, I wanted to explore the tendency towards “submergence” that appears within my visual work in a different medium -- sound. Much of my music for the years prior to Cranbrook had been based around an increasingly dub-like exploration of the time-smudging effects of delay and recurrence, slowing down tempos, pushing sonic artifacts backwards and forwards through time. The logical progression of that seemed to be to slow down the echo completely, so that the sound becomes engulfed in and frozen within a glacial drone, reflecting a feeling of permanence, of non-time. This feeling of being engulfed in sonic noise and texture parallels my visual tendencies, where I find myself overlaying a patina of noise on my work, mythologizing through the creation of texture.
Writing music allows for the possibility of creating what Kodwo Eshun refers to as “Sonic Fictions” -- the description of alternate spaces through sound, spaces that you can then inhabit.1 This connection between audio and fiction is clearly nothing new, which is why soundtracks exist in the first place, and why the narrative of something like Escape from New York is inseparable from its John-Carpenter-created sonic universe. Despite this obviousness, the idea of the creation of alternate space through electronic music is particularly powerful to me, especially in light of Detroit’s historic connection to the birth of techno.
In More Brilliant Than the Sun, Eshun writes that the “Techno City” becomes an alternate future version of Detroit, brought into being by techno/electro pioneers like Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkin’s Cybotron. “The Techno City is a futuropolis of the present, planned, sectioned, and elevated from station to studio, transmitting from a Detroit in transition from the industrial to the information age,” Eshun writes.2 Even John Carpenter’s audio work represents a sideways motion from Detroit techno to soundtrack design, since he was working at the same time and “revolutionized genre scores in the late 70s and early 80s with his linear electronic compositions for Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York, dragging horror soundtracks out of the Prog era and in step with early electro, House, and Techno.”3 Carpenter’s use of this form of music is fitting for Escape from New York especially, since the film is based around a dystopic, salvage-based urban New York that is, as Evan Calder Williams writes, “not in the future but lived now.”4
Eshun continues, “Cybotron’s Techno City ... is Sonic Fiction: electronic fiction, with frequencies fictionalized, synthesized, and organized into escape routes. ... Sonic Fictions are part of modern music’s MythSystems. Moving through living space, real-world environments that are already alien.”5 In this sense, the “Detroit Techno City” of Detroit techno is a “real” space, a coping mechanism for the alienating economic and racial effects of industrialization and its aftermath that have been inflicted upon the real Detroit landscape. Who’s to say that this alternate space is any less “real” than the reality of Detroit itself, particularly when that reality is halfway down the path of becoming a simulated, ruined version of itself in the first place?
Williams might use this as an example of postapocalyptic thinking, of stepping outside of reality to remake the world, of acting “as if there is a course of history into which intervention is possible, an intervention which becomes paradoxically possible and necessary only with the knowledge that there is no fundamental direction to history.”6 As Geoff Manaugh wrote in an April 2011 article on BldgBlog entitled “Fiction and the City,” “the point of combining place and fiction is not so that we can sit around infantalizing one another with fairy tales, treating the world as empty spectacle, but to reveal, through projects of great imaginative power, that another world is possible, and architects have a unique ability to chaperone this future earth into physical existence.”7
Eshun takes the analogy of the “Techno City” a step further, writing that “to enter the Cybotron world, it’s necessary to technofy first yourself, then [that] world. Press the Enter button on the Roland composer.”8 The virtualization of the landscape corresponds to a virtualization of the self, just as the physical manifestation of nonspace requires the physical inhabitation of a nonself/persona. “To technofy is to become aware of the coevolution of machine and human, the secret life of machines, the computerization of the world, the programming of history, the informatics of reality. To technofy is to evolve a mindstate which grasps the migration paths of machinic processes, builds Sonic Fictions from the electronics of everyday life. To technofy is to optimize the machinic mutation of music.”9 This idea of “technofication” (or, indeed, “technofiction”) is embodied by someone like Sun Ra, who used music as a means “to get us out of this place, not merely as a means of escape but in the hope of some evolution -- even if that means, imaginarily, leaving planet earth.”10 Music as literal escape. Music as virtual reality, alternate truth, separate ecology, psychogeographic journey -- fiction as transcendence.
For myself, this alternate Sonic Fictional world cross-references the forms of electronic music, from John Carpenter to Detroit techno and from Manchester post-punk to the sounds of the British hardcore continuum, with the hauntological melancholy nostalgia of longform drones, pointing backwards, forwards, and sideways. Just like in my visual work, this theoretical framework forms the background of my music, while the foreground is composed of elements designed and arranged to evoke and extract cathartic emotions, working on an instinctual basis. This is my own Sonic Fiction, and it translates from music to visuals. This description of Leyland Kirby’s Sadly, the Future is No Longer What it Was album seems particularly appropriate, in light of my own work: “Kirby is using these ... elements to mythologize his own experience in familiar tropes, to allow us to understand its emotional trajectory while still leaving us with something both beautiful and mysterious as an artifact of that journey.”11
The performance of this piece in the Cranbrook Forum Gallery was entitled “The End,” and it was accompanied by a pair of visual panels created by myself and fellow 2D student Satoru Nihei. This visual collaboration was carried through onto the posters promoting the show, which were screenprinted with white ink on black paper, mounted on half-inch-thick boards, and literally nailed to bulletin boards on campus. The visual style of these panels and posters drew heavily from the evocation of layered Gothic and Victorian baroque imagery, textured details, and the ornate flowing shapes of Satoru’s typography. The idea was to give the impression of a religious event, or sacred space, buried deep in the possibilities history but still unrecognizable. The two panels used as a backdrop for the performance were mirror images of each other, one reading “the end” and the other reading “dne eht,” echoing the mirrored structure of the stage and the music: two performers, two synthesizers, two cassette players, two halves of the same performance: a beginning and an end, a look forward and a look back, a buildup and a fade away, an original and a trace.
1. Kodwo Eshun. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. Quartet, London: 1998.
3. Joseph Stannard. “Horror Show.” The Wire. January 2011. Issue 323.
4. Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
5. Kodwo Eshun. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. Quartet, London: 1998.
6. Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
7. Geoff Manaugh. “Fiction and the City.” Bldgblog. April 24, 2011. bldgblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/fiction-and-city.html
8. Kodwo Eshun. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. Quartet, London: 1998.
10. David Stubbs. Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don’t Get Stockhausen. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2009.
11. Joshua Maremont. “MP3 Discussion Group: Leyland Kirby's ‘Sadly, the Future…’” Disquiet. November 18, 2009. disquiet.com/2009/11/17/leyland-kirby-sadly-the-future/