05 February 2011

Belated Notes on Hauntology, Pt. 1

The Future Indicative: Boards of Canada & the Subjunctive Moog

"Modernism's rapport with the past, whatever it turns out to be, will not be easy. ... 'All That is Solid Melts into Air.' This means that our past, whatever it was, was a past in the process of disintegration; we yearn to grasp it, but it is baseless and elusive; we look back for something to lean on, only to find ourselves bracing ghosts. The modernism of the 1970s was a modernism with ghosts."
-- Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

Continuing on some some of what I touched on earlier, if only for the sake of covering some basic ground before delving in the theoretical end of this (perhaps by now passé) topic of hauntological whatsis. Excuse me while I slip into a first-person, highly subjective discursive mode...

As far as the matter of "hauntology" is concerned, I think I first encountered it as a sensation (and the vaguest of notions connected with that sensation) rather than as any sort of theory or hazy idea. This happened about 12 years ago, when I first heard part of the Boards of Canada album Music Has The Right To Children. What I heard grabbed me right away, struck a deeply peculiar and uncanny chord, shook loose something that had been lingering unexamined in the substrata of my memory. Something about it was eerily reminiscent of something (something, something, something...what was it?) I couldn't quite put my finger on.

First off, there was the sound itself -- analog synths of a specific vintage which gave the music a somewhat murky, slightly woozy and jaundiced patina, making it the aural equiv of a faded, sun-bleached photograph from some remote, tenuously accessible moment in one's childhood. Perhaps, providing you were of a certain age, a sound that would strike you as deliberately retrograde in character. For listeners younger than myself, it apparently sounded bafflingly alien and weird. But for someone who was older -- someone who might've grown up, say, in the late 1960s or early 1970s -- the music triggered distinct associations.

In that respect, the group's sound had its own peculiar semantics -- one that might've been calculated (viz "creative decisions" & such) for some degree of novelty, but which also carried with it some implied socio-cultural baggage and associations.1. Most specifically, the music chiefly reminded me of the educational films that were widely circulating when I was a child in the early 1970s. Films that usually had to do with science or industry, shown to us in grade school classes or -- just as often -- in science or natural history museums that we'd visit on class field trips.2

The music that went with these sorts of films was always of the production/"library"/functional variety -- created in an ad-hoc fashion, slightly generic, and sometimes slightly ill-fit. By the early 1970s, a fair of amount of such stuff was being done with synthesizers -- still a quite a new and exotic thing at that time, and economical. Plus, the sound of a synthesizer gave any film that dealt with science or technology an appropriately "advanced" and "futuristic"-sounding soundtrack. You’d be treated to swooping helicopter shots of the gleaming towers of some state-of-the-art oil refinery or whatnot, accompanied by a droning or meandering chord from a mini-Moog -- they were somehow supposed to go together.

Played any number of times in classrooms, or more often running on a continuous reset/replay for visitors at the science museum, these films would inevitably fatigue from prolonged or repeated use -- the film itself now running loose on the projector's sprockets, its torque slackened ever so slightly over time, with the audio track beginning to degrade or drag from the slippage and wear. The droning chords on the soundtrack would begin to shift and slur. That sickly, woozy quality I mentioned -- there it was, seeping in and undercutting the narrative, subverting the content of the film -- the noise eroding the signal. You got the feeling that this vision of the modern or of the future was already succumbing to entropy, had already started to unravel.

All of which was appropriate in way, seeing how the narrative -- by nature of its dubious pedigree -- was an unstable one to begin with. These films were, more or less, the rote reperpetuation of the culture our parents had grown up in; the means by which their generation was handing its worldview down to us. As such, the films were an anachronism from another era -- from a time when all talk of the future was boldly and dynamically stated, always confident and assured. A worldview shaped by the urgency and confidence of the early throes of the Cold War, with its compulsion for growth and innovation -- from having to stay ahead of the Soviets, of having to be Number One, of attaining that status by being Leader of the the Free World.

But as far as the cultural climate of the early 1970s was concerned, all of this stacked up incongruously against what spilled out of the TV every evening when the 5 o'clock news aired. The tone of this perennial narrative, with its stentorian sense of certainty and positivism, stood in sharp contrast to the sober, measured, ambivalent manner that senior news anchors had adopted when reporting and discussing the events of the day. Yes, things were still changing and developing rapidly, but not in the directions that many ever expected. Now you got the sense that the vitality and assurance of the recent past was quickly receding in the rearview mirror, was shifting into a collective sense of anxiety. Whereas the early 1960s had been a time of hope and optimism, the 1970s were a time in which many felt that things were falling apart or going off the rails. Most of the films we were screened for educational purposes at the time either hailed from that prior era, or -- by sheer force of habit or narrative inertia -- adopted the same formula, rhetoric, and presentational manner. But if you were the least bit perceptive or attentive, you couldn't help but notice the disparities, the disconnect.3

So the music of Boards of Canada evoked that particular era in a highly coded manner -- sans lyrical content, through the mere choice of musical instrumentation, production, and style. Plus there were also the supplemental references evoked by track titles, sleeve art, accompanying visuals, and non-musical samples. These often involved allusions to both outmoded notions of technological progress, or to bygone counter-cultural aspirations (complete with many of its "Age of Aquarius" trimmings). Add to this repeated impressionist connotations of a Whole Earth Catalog-styled naturalism and excerpts from nature documentaries that filtered through the interludes; all signifying the idyllic, neo-Arcadian dreams of yesterday.

But for each of these ideals there's an antithesis -- for each of these cultural quotes or signifiers would eventually offset by allusions to the withering or the demise of these ideals. References to hippie communal life and "alternative spirituality" of the 1960s, but inevitably canceled out by an oblique cross-reference to the Manson Family, the occult, or the Branch Davidians. Or the invocation of pastoral tranquility contrasted with the specter of encroaching industry, environmental degradation, technological alienation, and etcetera.

Add to this the central themes of childhood that so pervaded the group's music, much of it buttressed by audio borrowed from educational films and television PSAs. It was this theme that was central to setting or defining the overall mood of the group's material. With this, the group evoked a sense of childhood innocence and wonder -- but of the fragile sort that was continually threatened or teetering on the verge of being lost, or of being tarnished by the intruding reality of an adult, more pragmatic world. And, of course, this theme worked with the music's other motifs to form a conjoined metaphor -- one that intertwined the loss of childhood innocence with the death of bygone utopian ideals. So it only follows that the soundtrack for all of this would be so languid and downtempo, so melancholy around the edges.

Which is why, when I first encountered discussion of the concept of hauntology in a musical context several years ago, it made immediate sense to me -- if only because it steered me back to my initial impression of the music of Boards of Canada. The discussion then, and what remains of it now, in relation to the works of specific artists, continually hinges on one central criterion -- that of the “degraded ideal” as a creative starting point. Adam Harper of Rouge’s Foam addressed this quite astutely a while back. Stacking the work of BoC alongside that of several visual artists, Harper proposed that hauntological art consists of two dialectical layers. A representation of some past ideal (or some facsimile thereof) constitutes the first layer, that layer often being the primary impression that initially registers with the listener or viewer. The second layer, however:

"...problematises, compromises and obfuscates the first layer, undermining or damaging it in some way and introducing irony into the work, and represents the opinionated viewpoint of the present. …The hauntological layer contradicts and undoes [the first layer] by expressing a satirical doubt and disillusionment...[in a way that] corresponds to the darker historical context we’re aware of that transforms our perception of the first layer."

Harper argues that this secondary layer, this spectral antithetical subtext, "result[s] from a relatively unintended consequence of context," and thereby "distinguishes hauntological art from art that’s simply retro or idealistic."4

For the few years after the release of Music Has The Right To Children, it seemed that all these cultural references and sonic semantics of Boards of Canada's music proved too enigmatic or esoteric for many listeners. Some critics spoke of its languid quality and dubbed it (ugch) "pastoral electronica," suggesting that the music was inspired by the musicians'(brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin) living environs in the Scotland countryside. But eventually some fans attempted to connect some of the dots, deciphering the varied coded references. Amusingly, this quickly resulted in flurries of speculation on IDM chatboards, with some listeners -- the ones who were too young or historically unattuned to make coherent sense of it -- arguing that the two brothers must be pedophiles and Satanists of some sort. The fact that the brothers kept such a low profile only added to the enigma and mythologizing.5

Speaking in a 2006 interview, the brothers denied that their music was so tightly or deliberately tailored to such a unified theme as I've delineated above.6 Still, they admitted that many of much of the above inspired their music in varying degrees. On the matter of childhood and cultural memory, they stated:

"'There are textures in what we try to do,'" explains Eoin, 'which borrow from certain sounds or eras -- even in visual things that we do as well, artwork -- to trigger something, almost a cascade. It's like a memory that someone has -- even though it's artificial, they never even had the memory; it's just you're ageing a song. And then people feel, is that something familiar I knew from years ago?'"

And at another point...

"'There's this little moment where there's enough nostalgia attached to the former recording media and the faults that it had, that certain people will get it, and understand what we're doing. If there's sadness in the way we use memory, it's because the time you're focusing on has gone forever. I guess it's a theme we play on a lot, that bittersweet thing where you face up to the fact that certain chapters of your life are just Polaroids now.'"

It is here that the matters of memory and nostalgia (be they of the personal or collective sort) enter heavily into the discussion, and where the theoretics of a hauntological reading and contextualization begins. Which is where I'll leave things for the time being. At some point further down the road, I'll be returning to the topic and address it in a broader and more theoretic manner in a later post.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1.  Had they merely aimed for for a novelty affect, then the throwback move worked brilliantly. What, considering that in 1998 electronic music was still being packaged and discussed in the terms of "future sounds" and futurity in general, it made for a perversely contrarian gesture in a way.

2.  And yes, I'm aware that that not the first to discuss the  music of Boards of Canada in this context. While the group's status has waned in recent years, their music provided the boilerplate for output of the hauntology-themed Ghost Box label, and has been extensively plundered by at least one shamelessly thieving indie-music act.

3.  And by this, of course, I'm talking about a sense of sociological anxiety and disillusionment that runs much deeper and was more sweepingly comprehensive than the usual "where's my rocket pack?" cliché. It could be argued (as I’m sure it already has been) that the work of a number of major American authors who came of age in post-War America has repeatedly dealt with this theme. This is particularly true of the work of Don DeLillo, and his efforts to chronicle the nature of this cultural unraveling -- of attempting to pinpoint the various moments of rupture, of accounting for America’s societal estrangement from its own history and its prior self-mythologizing.

4.  I'm not sure if, by bringing visual art into the equation, Harper is aware that he's opening a proverbial can of worms, here. As it is, it engages a theoretic line of inquiry that's plagued aesthetics for the past 150 years -- e.g.: Modernism's calculated usurpation of the "decadence" of 19th century academic/Salon/Beaux-Arts traditions and hierarchies; and post-modernism's use of ironic quotation and "appropriation" against Modernism's own categoric imperatives. While this may not warrant discussion in the present (narrowed) context, I thought it worth acknowledging.

5.  All of which I found richly ironic, given that the era that Boards of Canada continually reference (late 1960s-early 1970s) was rife with paranoia, conspiracy-mongering, and speculative demonologies. The fact that Sandison and Eoin had planted some of the deciphered "clues" by way of tongue-in-cheek "backward masking" techniques only made it that much funnier.

6.  Which may be neither here nor there. Burial has often proved similarly evasive when anyone tried to pin him down on a hauntological reading of his music (à la the "mourning the death of rave" rubric).


  1. Aesthetics and sound, hauntology is in evidence.

  2. Spot on with that description of that initial exposure to BOC and that "what, what…?" sensation.

    I was convinced that one of the pieces ripped off/sampled a track by Doris Hays only to be unable to find it after many searches through her LPs. So, yes that nagging feeling was damn strong.

    The mention of the "degraded ideal" reminded me of an interview with Kevin Sheilds were he stated that the sound he was after was that of a 10th generation cassette - one where out of the fug of hiss creeps new and otherworldly sounds and melodies.

  3. Hey thanks, sacmagique. And yeah, I hadn't heard that Shields remark, but I like the idea of trying to sound like a tenth-gen cassette. "Aging" the sound in a certain way, as one of BoC guys remarked.

    Which I suppose plays into a stylistic trope that's been around for quite a while -- the intentional substandard or degraded sound as some sort of signifier. A punk/"lo-fi" aesthetic that signifies deliberate unprofessionalism or "indie"/fringe status. And perhaps there's times where it's also employed to foreground the edifice of the act of recording as a documentary/contrived/non-"spontaneous" process (by way of calling attention to its mechanical aspects or whatever).