Past presence

Simon Reynolds sounds off about the music of hauntology

Simon Reynolds' new book Totally Wired focuses on post-punk, but recently he's covered haunting acts like Mordant Music.

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").

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