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Some Excursions into Sonic Fiction

A two-step with Kodwo Eshun

Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant Than The Sun is an essay about music, and one of the most trailblazing you can read nowadays. It is certainly not a journalistic investigation into the social or biographical backgrounds of music. It presents itself as a form of theory. But not theory in the classical sense, that is, the abstract representation of a subject by a disinterested outsider. Theory for Eshun exists to ridicule and break through oppressive thought patterns and at the same time to make new possibilities visible. Thus his inspiration for the many new concepts and terms he uses in his book originate not only with philosophers and writers, but most of all from musicians, djs and producers. The result is naturally not an analytical aesthetics, but rather an inspired provocation, a tool box for thinking further and making music.

Which music is Eshun talking about? His objective is to write a futuristic, history of today's dance music focused on the future. Traditional genre designations are insufficient for this, because they fail to take into account at all the creative entertwinings of human and technology. Eshun considers an analysis of music in human, historic and social terms as an improper reduction, a misunderstanding of the musical currents (or 'Rhythmachines' in his own vocabulary) that graft themselves onto the Afro-American tradition and developed further thanks to the appropriation of electronic technology (effects, studio technology, sampling, scratching, drum computers and synthesisers). His approach is militantly post-human: according to him, this music comes about through surrender to the specific dynamics of that technology.

In his depiction of contemporary Futurythmachines, Varèse, Xenakis and Stockhausen are of as great a historic value as jazz innovators like Sun Ra and Coltrane. But the actual beginning of the music of the future, according to Eshun, can be found in the electronic jazz of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and George Russell. The examples Eshun chooses are unmistakably all permeated by a sensibility that borrows much from science fiction: the desire to transcend the limitations of the human dimension through technological means. It is as if the musical interaction with machines generates a high that opens cosmic vistas. For him the fusion of disco beats and the synthesiser pop of Kraftwerk, the dub technique of Lee Perry or the phenomenon of breakbeat or mixing in hip-hop and house are examples of Sonic Fiction (parallel to Science Fiction): the design of new worlds. The experiences, ideas and intensities that exist in those new worlds are impossible to translate back into traditional terms like 'identity', 'roots', 'street credibility' or the framework of autobiographical testimony. The Futurythmachines' power does not spring from human, psychological and thus narrative sources, but the explosive fusion of human corporality and imagination with electronic machines.

Considered thus, it is logical that to penetrate the work of the musicians he presents, Eshun just as easily makes use of a meticulous study of the record covers or the science fiction films from which they sample sound effects. His music essay is freely transmedial. In his writing he wants to be a part of the world where the sonic fictions come into being, and in his book he attempts to handle text the way musicians do sound. The book is a mix; constructed from short vignettes, varying from associative impressions to definitory exercises, from historic asides to compact sketches of cross-connections. And everything sprinkled with quotations from philosophers, poets, filmmakers, composers, musicians and cinematic characters.

Eshun's More Brilliant Than The Sun uses the imaginary world of science fiction as a model to show the fusion of human and machine in music as a vital, creative force. Not only does the book celebrate listening as a creative activity, but it fairly bursts at the seams with the pleasure afforded by thinking and writing. It gropes, connects, invents and transforms to its heart's content. Some readers will find this book difficult and unruly. But those who give in to it will quickly see that Eshun's way of working does justice to the effort of his essay: to show the inextricable connection between auditory, visual, tactile and mental experience that is music.

translation laura martz

The Interview

ke: When I started working on More Brilliant than the Sun I was reading Scott Bukatman's book Terminal Identity. It came out around 1994, and it showed exactly this aspect. He was working on these interfaces between science fiction and theory, exploring notions from Virilio and Baudrillard, moving through advertising, arcade games, comics, theory, fiction, politics; in short, all aspects of cultural life. But when he came to music, there was a page and a half of weak analysis of Devo, and that was it. Out of 400 pages!

So me and Steve Beard (co-editor of I-D magazine and author of Logic Bomb Eds.) started noticing this omission, this blind spot when it comes to music. Music was this point where science fiction apparently could not go, where it breaks down in a certain way. We realised that when you really wanted to analyse the science-fictional components of music you had to do it with this immanent analysis. You had to start from what producers were already theorising about music. That's when I realised that producers were already theorising about their music quite well. Science fiction contrasted so drastically with, say, some of the things that Holger Czukay and Can were doing. I had collected a whole series of their statements and realised that they were so science-fictional about their music. Holger Czukay would say things like, I was in the studio with David Sylvian and in order to attain the right atmosphere for this record I'd put the whole studio under perfume. And he meant that he put a shortwave radio in the corner of the studio, just filtering out sound throughout the entire studio so that the recording process was under this tint of sound. Such a brilliant way of thinking about sound. Then there was this interview in The Wire where Czukay was talking about Jaki Liebezeit, who started as a free jazz drummer and gradually wanted to take away the complexity of free jazz drumming. He kept reducing his drumming into simpler and simpler polyrhythms all the time. Czukay said that as Liebezeit's drumming became simpler, he started drumming like the first man who ever drummed, like a stone age man. And the more simple he got, the more he started to sound like a machine. I was really amazed by this, because it conjured up this image of a drum machine in the Palaeolithic age. Suddenly you start imagining 2001, and instead of this monolith you see this 808 drum machine with no surface, this impalpable surface, landing, and these ape men start touching it...

So through this idea of Jurassic drumming, it suddenly seemed to me that producers had a much clearer idea of the science fiction capacities of their music. Suddenly it was evident that 'sonic fiction', as I proposed it, was already being practised by producers, musicians and composers. All I had to do was extract what was already there and materialise it. All the ideas seemed to rush towards this - sonic fiction seemed to be an attractor - and all the terms just moved towards it and it was the easiest thing in the world to extract them and plug them all into each other. But yeah, science fiction in itself, in its strict terms, for whatever reason seems to be mainly just generational, I think.

dvw: (interrupting the flow) I think it has to do with a too sociological idea of music, whereas if you look at the material of music, that's where the thoughts come up. When people try to use music as something that enhances their literary or theoretical vision, they always fail, because the riches are in the material itself. The material itself is always far more intelligent than the one who plays with it. So the people who are familiar with this - the producers, djs, turntablists as you say - are the ones who make it. People who have a kind of applied, speculative approach to music. By looking at it, by being the applied philosophers of music, they are in a kind of in-between space. In between people who are trying to express themselves in music and what is possible in the world. In between, where there are very few rules, except for the rules that you can think of in looking at the material itself. The sounds, the machines that are there (like Czukay's shortwave radio) can do something and there is a pattern to what they can do, an effect. But you won't see it if you have a sociological idea of what it can mean or if you're trying to make the best love song possible.

ke: That's right, you have to start with the material, with the technical apparatus, no matter how small. The smaller the better; the more restricted the apparatus the more you can go into the apparatus. So it becomes a sonology of history, not a historical contextualisation of sound. As soon as you realise that sound/audio space/acoustic space, however you define it, has a generative principle - that it is cosmogenetic in a sense and that it can generate its own world picture - you're off. Then the technical machine isn't just a technical machine, it's a vector out into the world.

dvw: Even the most chaotic circumstances you can look at as if they were a machine. Lee 'Scratch' Perry's studio, for instance, is in essence a machine, not a chaotic unique incident. It was almost designed to have a certain effect and to supply certain possibilities. So even machine-like parts can work as a machine, as a generative principle.

ke: David Toop's famous interview with Lee Perry (reprinted in Ocean of Sound) was a really key influence on us; a key influence on a lot of sonic theorists. Perry said that he regarded the machine as a living being. And then he sketched out this analysis of the human-machine interface, and you realise that that's what music is. The human-sound machine relationship. So suddenly the entire human-machine analysis that had previously been restricted to Stelarc could now be applied very directly to music; all music was a variation of the human machine interface. Suddenly sound machines were just as cyborg as gigantic corporate simulations.

dvw: One question interests me though. All this is very easily understood as a very productive way of looking at music, especially the kind of music that I like (that's why I like your book). But that is a kind of music that is in a sense non-dramatic. It lives of, it projects a kind of atmosphere of rhythms, elliptical rhythms, rhythms that are not played. There is a strong connection between this music and a geometrical way of enveloping the listener and the material; even the machine, the matter itself, is deeply geometrical in its production of space. But there is so much music that is connected to mathematical structures, more in a harmonic sense, more in a sense that is closer to feeling than to a spatial experience. Like a lot of classical music or even rock. When you talk about hip-hop or fusion jazz all this is easily understood, but what about the live concert of Tony Joe White? Still, there must be a similar way of looking at it, from the material. An equivalent, non-rhythmic or para-rhythmic. It's more like the problem of storytelling, which takes place in a situation, not on the record. Less out of the matter itself and more in relation to the people, the situation and the stories that are there. What I would like is that your theory would move in that direction with the same kind of power. Not moving towards sociology but trying to find something in the music that is equivalent to your 'rhythmachine'. For instance, analyse what is the moving principle behind Bruce Springsteen's appeal by looking at his vocal chords, physically and medically, as the kind of machine that a studio is.

ke: I always thought that Springsteen's power was his strenuous voice. It has muscles in it. The grain of his voice indicates labour and struggle. So his tracks become these epics, these odes to the dignity of labour, a narrative of heavy industry. There is this idea that Americans mistrust the law of least effort, something which Simon Reynolds (author of Energy Flash, a Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture Eds.) and I talk about a lot. Americans mistrust too much digitisation, too much loss of distinction between effort and output. Think of the sampler that allows the click of a button to produce a massive noise. So they like Springsteen because he restores this equivalence of effort. His voice is struggling, straining and is carrying the burden of everybody's hopes for the duration of his song and his narrative. But I'm not so much interested in narratives. I'm more interested in patterns, the recognition of patterns and sequences, and the breakdown of them.

dvw: I think that this is part of the success of music like soul and hip-hop, which is very much about these patterns and the power of them, but it disguises itself as a storytelling moment, like a confession. It disguises itself as a story, but it keeps mutating as a pattern. This is also your problem with hip-hop. When they are talking about keeping it real, they want this authenticity, their problems, to be talked about. This seems to be their power. But the real power, the subversiveness, is in the sounds they make. That's why I bring it up, because in the good sense this is a problem in your work; this connection to the storyteller, the narrative and the kind of emotions it mobilises.

ke: Yes, its a problem for me, because that's the area which all the writers who came before me have invested in so heavily. All the stakes of culture were invested in this, and there were all these other aspects going on right under their noses and ears and they missed it all. So when I started out I had this very missionary purpose to reverse this polarity, to change the stakes and totally translate the sphere of value somewhere else. But part of the project is reactive, provocative. It's saying, No, you've followed this all wrong. All those writers I talk about, from the late eighties and early nineties (like Nelson George) - a lot of African-American writers who started off brilliantly - all go wrong. It's got something to do with trying to discern the politics of sound in politics, not in sound. As if sound can't carry politics in itself.

dvw: The sound is a politics in itself; it doesn't represent anything at all. That is the problem. As a European you're very suspicious of the concept of one thing representing something else. It may seem to work when many people believe in it, but you know deep down that it isn't true, it's just a trick. This kind of sound does not represent anything at all; it is a sound, remember! In all its simplicity, it is something like that. They have this eighteenth-century idea of politics which is idealistic, and they cannot make a problem of representation. But we have to. It's our mission and our way to be free. So much appears to be normal, negotiable and democratic that you have to find where the freedom is, where the tricks don't work...

ke: These days there are a lot of amazing r&b productions. I watch a lot of mtv and there are all these r&b artists like Ginuwine, Missy Elliot, tlc and Timbaland Productions. You listen to them and they are all processed, a bit fast, a bit android, The rhythms are very stop-start, they judder, they falter. The register is very trebly... When I was writing my book this had not started yet, so if I'd be writing it now I'd include a huge section on r&b. I'm currently preparing a long piece about Androids in r&b. It's all about the new-style r&b, which has totally changed itself and moved over the border to the posthuman. It's not posthuman in the Underground Resistance/techno sense. It's not militant. It's inside love, it's a softer, warmer machine.

dvw In their video clips they depict themselves as successful citizens, defined by their surrounding objects and architecture. They are defined by the space; architectural surroundings designed especially for the clip.

ke: That's Hype Williams, the director of video clips for Busta Rhymes/Janet Jackson, TLC and Missy Elliot, who also gave them their animatronic cyborg look. He's always using this fisheye lens, so everything always has this anamorphic look, and the aspect I like is that this relates muscular tension to the environment. So when they dance in the video, the whole space dances with them, or when Missy Elliot blows off a kiss the whole image kisses you as well. Everything they do, their whole world does with them. So he has managed to make this total intimate relationship between muscular effect and world. I relate it to this sixties architectural concept of the pneumocosm. Groups like Coop Himmelblau designed all these pneumatic structures, like the inflatable buildings in Woody Allen's Sleeper. In the Pneumatic Cosmos, each gesture you made, no matter how small, would instantly be transmitted throughout the entire environment you are in. Like the sixties dream where your room would be a heartbeat, where your heartbeat would be instantly transmitted into the room you're in, so that your room would have the sensitivity of your heart. A complete collapse of interior and exterior space. When I look at Hype Williams I see that thing as well; the tiniest movement Missy Elliot makes is transmitted throughout the entire space. The closeness and softness of it; the kind of intimate technology you'll also find in William Gibson's work. When I watch r&b I can clearly see the same tendency towards touch, towards liquidity and new forms of computer love. Zapp, Roger Trautman, a big producer from la who just died, is very important in my book because of his tracks More Bounce to the Ounce and Computer Love. These are like r&b before r&b in the early eighties, but they promote this idea of soft love. It's like going back to Burroughs' Soft Machine, but taking the terror away from it and re-interpreting it as this intimate love. That's why I got obsessed with human-robot sex. r&b seems to be preparing us for this. This aspect of r&b fascinates me because it shows a kind of cyborg aspiration that isn't overtly avant-gardist. It's not terrorising or traumatising at all. It's intimate and it's clinging.

dvw: The weird thing is that it's supposed to do something about alienation. It's singing about getting closer, but in doing so it radicalises a lot of alienating principles, which are also liberating.

ke: Steve Beard and I went to a showing of Crash and the novelist Ian Sinclair, who had just written an introduction to Crash, was quoting Ballard. Ballard, who was such a key figure for us, was saying that you always have to access inconceivable alienations - alienations that previous eras didn't even think of - and that you have to go through them. This made a big impression on us all over again. So then we saw Crash, the movie, and it was completely reduced to these extreme sexual encounters in crashes. But after we watched it we couldn't remember anything about it. Crash has this aggressive amnesia quality, this positive quality of forgetting that we were really amazed by. We would relate it to Nietzsche's concept of this active forgetting, where it is useful to forget whole stretches of history in order to move forward. But R&B, too, has this a lot. Sometimes an r&b clip is really memorable and really forgetful at the same time. You think, Oh my God, this is really incredible! and then it falls out of your head. This also has something to do with the fact that it doesn't really access all the familiar points of the classic avant-garde life. They don't have any interest in this whole way of talking.

dvw: I think R&B is incredibly self disciplined. Even in hip-hop there is a kind of riot, a kind of ecstasy. There is a kind of spacing out of the music, also of course because it is tied to a live performance. But even on record they tend to go crazy every now and then, when they want to show off the force of the rhythm machine. But never in r&b...

ke: I always thought of it in terms of mechanical brides. A few years ago I was planning a piece where I would take the principle of McLuhan's mechanical brides and apply it to all the girl groups of that time, like En Vogue and TLC. And you could very clearly see it, the formation dancing like in this En Vogue clip where they were giving it this kind of rock-chick form... I think this principle is still a very good way of looking at this; the mechanical bride still works. It's this soft mutation that's going on, which is so compelling to me these days. You can hear it on all the pirate radio stations in London. They're all playing this mixture of r&b and underground garage these days. Underground garage takes the rhythm programming from drum 'n' bass, but it takes the vocal science, the arrangement of the voice from house, and then it mixes them together with dj manoeuvres taken from hip-hop... These pirate stations are a perfect indicator of where the passion of the city is at, where the energy has moved at that point in time. London always needs this American input, but combines with a sort of misrecognition. This used to be accidental, only now it's deliberate. They're actually very proud of this, as this misrecognition gave rise to drum 'n' bass. A lesson was learned that everybody should actively misrecognize the music they hear. This import culture arrives and the best thing you can do is get it wrong. If you get it wrong you get it right. Drum 'n' bass proved that.

dvw: Isn't that exactly how rock music got started: Applying Muddy Waters to the music hall and getting the Beatles. Even with the early music of the Rolling Stones, they clearly don't get what Muddy Waters was about, but they were really applying themselves to get it right and so they invented something new. I saw an extensive documentary on mtv about the Beastie Boys, and I never realised before how drastically they have changed the way they produce their music in the course of three albums. They are almost like paradigm shifts.

ke: Yes, and everybody hated it when they produced Paul's Boutique, although that was a brilliant album. It's hard to say why people hated it so much.

dvw: I think it has something to do with the punk negation that you mentioned earlier. What they did was apply the punk negation to the material that hip-hop was made of. People wanted the punk negation to sound like itself, heavy guitars and all, but the Beastie Boys just did hip-hop all over again with the punk negation. That's what the public didn't like; it's too complicated. But on the other hand, that's what made it so creative.

omc: But what is it that makes this punk negation so continuously important? Punk created this freedom, but it also proclaimed this enormous reduction of sound. That's why I like it so much when Simon Reynolds keeps stating that he likes p.i.l.'s Metal Box so much, because it's punk but in a very psychedelic way.

ke: Yes, Metal Box is so great because it marks where punk shed its ideological corset; its loosened its belt and all this sound came spilling out. I think punk was fundamentally anorexic, very rigorous. It still functions as this ideological alibi, a fundamental touchstone, especially for critics. You can see this very clearly in the backlash on Radiohead for indulging in so much sonic richness on ok Computer. Musicians don't have a problem with this; it's mainly the critics. Critics need this; they would love to declare another Year Zero, and punk is a way of invoking their lost power. Now the critics have become part of the lowest level of the foodchain of media, so it's all so futile. Music has moved so far away from this and has completely blown to pieces.

dvw: Once more the Beastie Boys are the best example of how to use the punk attitude in a completely nonideological way. They use it as an active form of disbelief. They disbelieved their own harness of sound from License to Ill while they were making it. And then they showed that they didn't believe in it by moving in a different direction. It's the best, the real sense of this punk attitude.

ke: Oasis and Britpop was a dream for the music press, a relief for the whole media because it gave them something they could relate to. For about two years Britpop existed as a separate world next to the whole drum 'n' bass culture, and it took up all media attention. And then it stopped... Now the best tracks of the year are these brilliant electronic tracks like Flat Beat, Fatboy Slim, tlc. Simon Reynolds and me, we used to joke about this image that if digitalisation was turning music into an ocean of sound, then Oasis and Britpop were this island of solid rock that everybody was landing on because they were really afraid of the water. Everybody was trying to get out of the water; so much water, so much sound. They were just clinging to Oasis. But now it's going back to an ocean of sound again. Maybe this is how it will always be, moments of fluidity and deterritorialisation and then everything reterritorialises on the rock, on a substance, on a sound, and then it floods again. Now everyone in London is complaining about the lack of a new movement, that there is no one narrative to attract everything. But of course that is the beauty of it, the beauty of this extreme confusion, this plurality of sounds, rather than this narrative that everybody can join into.

ke: There are so many interesting things happening at the moment, so much music, that you have to keep your ears on about five different strands all the time. It gives you a kind of permanent anxiety, a feeling that you're missing out on something and you are... But anxiety is good, it gives you these slight panic attacks all the time and drives you to pursue the fact that sonically there's always a lot more going on. Sonic thinking has to do with what John Cage used to say about listening as an active process. Sometimes listening to music is more about listening to your own ways of listening, hearing your own ways of hearing. Wondering what you're hearing. And sometimes you need time to do it, and that's when the anxiety sets in. Everyone around you says that listening is time-wasting, but you have to remind yourself that listening is an active form of creating. I listen to soundtracks a lot. This friend of mine, Kevin Martin (Techno Animal), did this project based on this film The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola. One of my super-favorites because of the sound of these tapes rewinding. They are so much about the sounds of thought.

dvw: Listening is an act, but it coincides with thinking. What you hear in this film is how thinking slides into paranoia. It is done in a very technical, laid-out way, like a blueprint, and you can actually hear it.

ke: Yes, it's the apparatus for thinking as a hallucinatory power. One critic in London said that there's this hidden polemic about drugs in my book. But I'm saying that that's the whole point, that thinking is a hallucinating process separate from drugs. It's not that drugs make you hallucinate, it's that thinking does. The bad news of my book is that thinking can give you bad trips more than drugs can. That's exactly what is so great about the conversation, because it lays out this process. There's one point where you don't believe your feelings, where you can't believe what you're hearing. And once you're into this process of disbelief, it's endless. The tapes in the film just amplify this disbelief; you really strain to hear details in these bland conversations. It's a beautiful film. Anyway?

Liner Notes
Lead Vocals: Kodwo Eshun (ke) and Dirk van Weelden (dvw)
Backing vocals: Omar Munoz-Cremers (omc) and Geert J. Strengholt
Recorded at The Firestation, Utrecht, May 1999.
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