Past presence

Pub date October 5, 2010

LIT/MUSIC/VISUAL ART A present from the past — the paradox within that phrase is as close as one might get to pithily describing hauntology. The term was coined in 1993 by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe utopian specters within capitalist society. But more recently, the music writer Simon Reynolds has specifically applied hauntology — literally, ghost logic — to music, using the term to describe the playfully eerie studio-as-séance-site releases on the British label Ghost Box, and similar recordings.

Since his early days as a journalist for Melody Maker, Reynolds has cannily related French theory to musical phenoms in practical and illustrative ways, whether applying the feminism of Hélène Cixous to Throwing Muses, ideas about jouissance to the sonic innovations of My Bloody Valentine, or Deleuze and Guattari to the jones for acceleration in rave culture. With the release of Reynolds’ most recent book, Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews (Soft Skull Press, 464 pages, $16.95), I thought the time was right to turn the tables and interview him about hauntology and the related library music genre — especially since the current Berkeley Art Museum exhibition “Hauntology” cites him while putting forth a hauntological theory of visual art.

SFBG What do you think about the current interest in library music as culture grows ever more digitized? To me it seems there’s an intrinsic push-pull between searches for rare objects in far reaches, and then their incorporation into digital or online spheres.

Simon Reynolds Certainly there are some music bloggers who specialize in library [music] and go about it in an extremely systematic manner — they aim to upload or share or post every single Bruton or Peer International Library or Chappell release. They work their way through the entire catalog, number by number. These are super-obscure records, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of discography for a lot of the labels — I guess they weren’t precious about their own output. That must be both attractive and maddening (attractively maddening?) for a certain kind of obsessive-compulsive collector.

People are building a body of knowledge about library music, in the same way that reggae collectors did with the similarly chaotic and massive output of record labels in the ’70s. But it still has the aspect of an unmapped zone, a zone of discovery, which you can’t say about many other areas of music.

SFBG What aspects of library music appeal to you, and what aspects don’t?

SR I like the electronic stuff done by people moonlighting from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, or by oddball figures like Ron Geesin. Or Eric Peters and Frederick G, who did stuff — electronic weirdness, or effects-laden goofy production-type tracks — for Studio G among other library labels. The Studio G stuff on the Trunk compilation G-Spots is just so luxuriant sounding.

In library music, the weird combination of anything-goes experimentation and un-precious functionalism creates good results, especially when you factor in brevity. Most library tunes are really short. So you get the same alien buzz as from experimental music, but without being detained for 20 minutes to an hour.

I also like the whole mythos and vibe around library music, the idea of all these studios in Wardour Street and thereabouts in central London churning stuff out, with top session players or underemployed composers earning a bit of dough on the side. And of course the packaging, with its uniform artwork for different series and wonderfully distilled evocative track descriptions (“pathetic, grotesque”; “relaxed swing-along”).

The downside is that some library music is just anodyne. A large proportion is sub-music, just splinters of mood or feeling that aren’t developed because they’re meant to underscore or mood-tint brief moments in a movie or TV show. I’m also less interested in the breaks end of library music, the “groovy scene in swinging discotheque” redolent tunes favored by some beat headz.

SFBG How would you characterize or define the relationship between library music and hauntology?

SR What people would consider the classic era of library music — the ’60s and ’70s, when there were groups of musicians in the studio, as opposed to the ’80s and thereafter, when it increasingly became one composer using a digital synthesizer to play all the parts — has heavy associations with the popular culture of that period. Especially TV programs and radio, and particularly children’s TV. Library music was used when there wasn’t a budget to get a soundtrack made, so you got this off-the-peg stuff.

If you’re a child of the ’60s or ’70s, this music has a potent memory-stirring effect, but in a nonspecific way. You hear certain kinds of lite-jazz chords, or melancholic orchestrations, or certain analog synth sounds, and it sets off reverberations inside you, but you can’t place them. (A later generation will probably have the same relationship with digital-era music — we’re maybe getting that with the vogue for video game sounds in a lot of dance music now.)

When hauntologist artists use this material, they can trigger all these emotions. They can also mess with the “science of mood” in library music by making emotions clash and mingle in strange combinations.

The formality and institutional vibe of library releases has a similar appeal to the “benevolent state” stuff that the hauntologist artists are into (like polytechnics, new towns, the BBC when it believed in elevating and educating the common man, etc.). Even though the library labels were commercial ventures, the aura of them is oddly similar to government or educational institutions: kind of stuffy and prim. The artwork relates to the way Penguin and Pelican books looked. It has that “lost Britain” quality.

SFBG Have you heard responses from theorists about your application of Derrida’s concept of hauntology to music?

SR No. I really just stole the word off Jacques because I liked the feel of it. It’s Mark Fisher of k-punk who’s done the more serious mapping of hauntology as a theory onto the music. I think there are definitely some parallels and connections, but Derrida’s thing seems very much bound up with Marxism and philosophy.

SFBG What is particularly hauntological about the Ghost Box label’s recordings, and what are some notable hauntological recordings over time?

SR The “haunty” aspect to the Ghost Box stuff relates to the reverberations I just described. They use samples from the era’s library or incidental music and TV or Radiophonic Workshop scores. Or (in the case of more composed-and-played recordings by Belbury Poly or The Advisory Circle) they write new melodies and motifs that are evocative of that era or in the style of that music.

I think there’s an intrinsic musical appeal and value to this stuff that works on people who don’t have the nostalgic connection. For instance, I know some quite young Americans who really like Ghost Box’s stuff. But if you are of the demographic, it has this extra layer of meaning and effect. It can be bound to a generation, and also to nationality. (Interestingly, it appeals to Australians, who get a lot of the TV from the U.K., and thus have a similar pop cultural matrix of memory).

The Ghost Box artists have a “haunty” aspect in the sense that they’re interested — in a simultaneously playful and serious way — in all kinds of pop culture to do with the supernatural and horror, from the Algernon Blackwood/Arthur Machen tales of cosmic horror, to the Hammer House of Horror movies, to Doctor Who, to ghost stories. Again, there’s a nostalgic aspect in the sense that these things, first encountered as a child, have a profound effect. British children’s TV had some really creepy and macabre stuff on it. In retrospect, you wonder, “What were they thinking broadcasting this stuff to under-10-year-olds?”

Ghost Box has fun with the cultural associations of all this stuff. There is a really pleasing clash of the campy and the genuinely disquieting in the way they handle it. It’s not some goth/industrial scary thing, which I think is where people get confused — they put on the Ghost Box records and discover they’re quite pleasant and enjoyable.

I like the main three Ghost Box groups very much — The Focus Group, Belbury Poly, and The Advisory Circle. And Roj made a cool album, The Transactional Dharma of Roj. The label’s most fully realized, brilliant record is Advisory Circle’s Other Channels. But in terms of individual peaks, I’d say certain tracks on Focus Group’s Hey Let Loose Your Love and Belbury Poly’s The Willows are among the most remarkable music of the past decade. For me they find this place between idyllic and eerie that just presses all my buttons, especially when you add the overall framework — the design and the concepts have this dry, poker-faced humor to them.

A similar vibe is going on in the records by Moon Wiring Club and Mordant Music, who are the other two central hauntologists for me. The Caretaker, a.k.a. Leyland James Kirby, has also done some really great stuff, but it’s more amorphous and drone-y.

SFBG Inside and outside of a deployment of library music, does hauntology appeal to you more than “retrofuturism” as an idea and a practice?

SR They are similar, or they overlap. The Ghost Box guys and Mordant Music are into the whole nostalgia for the future trip. Part of the appeal of something like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is the futurism of it, the alien impact it had on impressionable ears, now inevitably filtered through a scrim of bygone charm and quaintness.

SFBG What future forms might hauntology take?

SR It may well be that every generation will come up with some kind of working-through of its recent past, the stuff that affected it most intensely as children. If you look at Ariel Pink and all the people he’s influenced who’ve come through recently, it’s bound up with a different memory-set: ’80s pop, MTV, and radio.


Through Dec. 5

(Oct 29, 6-9pm “Hauntology at L@te Event with Interdisciplinary Intro Panel and musical performances Indignant Senility, Barn Owl, and Jim Haynes)

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-0808