Past presence - Page 2

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.

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).

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