Steen Christiansen Sounds of Futures Past: Materiality, Hauntology, Affect

New technologies, including music technologies, constantly emerge. Some flourish but some fall to the wayside. But what happens when obsolete music technologies make a reappearance? Media archaeology has become a strong field for understanding the complicated genealogy of media technologies and the ensuing “technics of the body” (Parikka 2012, 31). However, media archeology has little to say about the experience of said media technologies, instead preferring to remain well below human phenomenology.

However, just because something is below human phenomenology is not to say that it does not register in our experience. Alfred North Whitehead in his Process and Reality distinguishes between two modes of perception. The first is perception in the mode of presentational immediacy, which is essentially ordinary sense perception. The second is perception in the mode of causal efficacy. Causal efficacy is a vector feeling that allows later experience to coalesce and as such, perceptions in the mode of causal efficacy are fedforward to consciousness, as Mark BN Hansen terms it (Hansen 2014). In a slightly different register, we can say that the causal efficacy haunts our experience — we never have access to it, yet it impinges on us. I will argue for a hauntology of aesthetic experience, a kind of uncanny sensation of materiality exhibiting agency over us.

One of the best examples of materialist energies that produce ghost effects is Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse’s controversial album The Dark Night of the Soul. The controversy surrounding the album comes not from this album itself, but from another album that haunts this one, if only in a legal context. Originally, the album was a concept album collaboration between Danger Mouse, a musician and producer possibly known best from Gnarls Barkley, Sparklehorse, an indie rock multi-instrumentalist, and David Lynch, who would provide photographs. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse performed and produced the music, inviting many famous vocalists to contribute. The album was ready to be released by EMI in 2009, when EMI abruptly decided to drop the album. The reason: Danger Mouse’s 2004 The Grey Album, a mashup of The Beatles’ self-titled album commonly referred to as The White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Danger Mouse released this album online without asking for permission or rights and so EMI (owner of The Beatles’ copyright) demanded distribution ceased.

In what can only be considered an act of petty revenge, just as the Dark Night of the Soul album was ready to be released, EMI dropped it, making it impossible for Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse to release the album without incurring legal action. What they did was to release the book of photographs with an empty CD. Simultaneously, the music showed up on various illegal download sites. A year later, the album was released by conventional means through Parlophone and Capitol Records, containing far fewer of Lynch’s visuals.
Be that as it may, the album’s music employs an impressive array of sonic effects. The ambience teems with uncanny sonics through the foregrounded materiality of residual media, such as vinyl records, speak-n-spells and other outdated devices. Simultaneously, these older musical technologies are reframed by newer, digital processes that resurrect aesthetic textures from earlier music technologies. Digital dust, doppelgänger and machine voices blur the separation between human and nonhuman performance, showcasing that materiality exhibits agency.

We might call such materialist agencies “ghost effects,” taking a cue from Brian Rotman’s concept of “invisible, technologically induced agencies that emerge … as autonomous self-enunciating entities” (Rotman 2008, 113). Ghost effects confront us with the fact that we are often the results of materialist agencies and energies. That is to say, aesthetic encounters and events hinge on the transduction of materialist energies to bodily affects.

As a way of understanding what such ghost effects might be and what they might entail, let us take the last track on the album “Dark Night of the Soul” sung by David Lynch. The entire song has a distressingly mechanical reverberation to it, not unlike the industrial soundscapes we know from Lynch’s early films and Lynch is also credited with sound effects and synthesizer in the liner notes. This mechanical acoustic space lends an ominous mood to the song. The use of sound effects, such as crackling, distortion, echoes and so forth changes the music as it collapses what we consider musical — what David Toop has called sinister resonance.

This spectral effect is also evident in the use of the Speak & Spell for this last track. The Speak & Spell is an old toy produced by Texas Instruments, although it has long been discontinued. The Speak & Spell was the first mass-produced synthetic voice chip and it was used mainly to teach children how to spell. The Speak & Spell would say a word which the child was then supposed to spell, hearing whether or not he or she got it right. The voice synthesizer was quite simplistic and by today’s standards sounds incredibly artificial. However, it is not its capabilities as voice synthesizer which is the main point here. Instead, the presence of the Speak & Spell in “Dark Night of the Soul” comes in at what we might call the bridge of the song, where the digital dust gives way to clear sound production. Then, we hear a string of peculiar crackles and pops in the back of the mix, clearly electronic.

These strange sounds come from a circuit bending practice known as key ghosting, where three keys are pressed down at the same time. Upon pressing a fourth key, the device will produce an erratic sound, depending on which key is pressed. Depending on the device and its electrical circuits, some key combinations will not produce the ghosting effect, but for those that will, it is in fact possible to play the device as a kind of keyboard, only here you are playing errors and glitches in the hardware, rather than an actual instrument.

These sounds, then, are ghost effects, autonomous and self-enunciating because the sound is erratic and unpredictable, because it is a glitch rather than an actual sound or instrument. They are, in a word, potencies. New sonic experiences emerge as the result of key ghosting and if they register as sinister, it is because they are autonomous. Always already contingent on materiality, art may be considered any object that impinges on us and will not rest, despite the fact that it is not directly accessible to us, since the ghost effects are autonomous and self-enunciating. Ghost effects are affects in that they are present absences, things that escape conscious, cognitive processes, and yet these ghosts linger. As Jacques Derrida has argued “what surpasses the senses still passes before us in the silhouette of the sensuous body … that remains inaccessible to us” (Derrida 2006, 189). For Derrida, this is why any ontology must begin with a hauntology (the word works as a homonymous pun in French). I would rephrase that to say that we must begin with the generativity of materiality. Every affect, every encounter, every event begins in the productive encounter of at least two bodies, or entities.

Significantly, what is at stake here is the fact that materiality and action ground experience, as Matthew Fuller argues, while at the same time there is no hierarchical organization in art’s processual encounter; it is rather collective processes occurring inside and outside fluctuating and agitated bodies (Fuller 2005, 63). The media technologies used to produce the album are every bit as expressive as the musicians involved; at times even more so. While Lynch ostensibly “features” on “Dark Night of the Soul” and “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It),” we cannot truly say to have heard Lynch singing. So extreme is the use of vocoder that it is impossible for us to tell where his voice begins and the vocoder stops. It is not that the vocoder simply modulates a pre-existing human voice, but rather that the two vibrating bodies enter into an assemblage that includes other actors such as microphone, amplifier, and speaker, not to mention the instruments and the lyrics.

Another example of Dark Night of the Soul’s disruption of boundaries is in the album’s fetishistic use of outdated instruments. Consider the song “Grim Augury” where Vic Chesnutt’s vocals are pushed to the very front of the mix, thick with shadows and extra resonance, while we hear the scratches, fizzes and pops of a gramophone needle and a wriggling melody produced by synthesizers but this time also with an Optigan. The synthesizers push and pull the melody out of its natural rhythm and disturbs the temporal dimension, making time actually perceptible as we can actually hear the notes being dragged out, the timbre shifting in what is almost a dream image of a song.

Yet the warble of synthesizers is not the most disruptive element of the melody. That honor goes to the Optigan. The Optigan is a peculiar keyboard instrument, first released in 1971 but dead already in 1976 due to its poor sound quality and peculiar sound production. Unlike a piano that works by vibrating strings, the Optigan produced sound through the use of pre-recorded optical soundtracks stored on plastic discs that were loaded into the side of the keyboard. The Optigan, then, does not truly produce sound as simply play back already recorded sound. The various discs available were sound samples recorded by studio musicians. Part of the soundtrack disc would be sustained notes from a particular instrument, while the other part would be a soloist playing chords in different keys. In other words, the Optigan does not play music but instead conjures the performances of earlier musicians — the Optigan plays with ghosts.

Because of the unusual design of the Optigan, notes do not have a limited duration but can play a constant timbre indefinitely. At the same time, the Optigan has a built-in tempo switcher, that can manipulate not just the speed of the notes or chords but also the pitch, since sound is caused by air vibrations. These melodic changes are clearly evident on “Grim Augury,” as most of its musical expression — as opposed to the vocal performance — derives from the elongated and meandering notes. All in all, the Optigan stands not so much as a musical instrument but rather as a temporal instrument, playing time itself. This is the case because even though the Optigan is electronic, its sound reproduction is analog, so it does not separate speed from pitch.

So the Optigan plays slices of time from elsewhere and elsewhen — sound objects of the past inserted into the present, where they do not belong. The Optigan, in a sense, play nothing but samples, even if these samples are not recognizable as belonging to any specific song (which they don’t). However, unlike typical recordings that also attempt to control and limit the future, the Optigan’s past-present-future division is far more complicated since the temporal slices of the past were always meant to generate new and different futures. The future, that is to say the new, is generated by temporally altering the past in the present, thus collapsing time into a vertical pillar, making musical time fluid, which is exploited in this song. The material manipulation of sound through the Optigan is an unusual technique that turns the performance of playing the Optigan into a kind of necromantic augury — collapsing past and future into the present.

Sonic experience must therefore be said to be a highly complex assemblage with no clear demarcations or boundaries. One boundary that can be traversed to interesting effect is the temporal boundary. That is to say, old media anticipated a future that never happened, and so still carry immanent potentials that are now fedforward into a different, tangential future. In other words, the locus of past, present and future stops being a linear unfolding and is instead a rupture of old, past potentialities that suddenly gain new actualities. Yet the sonic ghost effects of old media technologies erupt as sinister resonances because they are out of time. As they drag dead futures into the present, time is out of joint and this registers as uncanny.

Listening to dead media is not simply an archival activity but a haunting experience of hearing what never happened. Listening to Dark Night of the Soul, we hear the dead futures of the Optigan. That is to say, we listen to an instrument’s unrealized potentials, the futures that were never actualized. Yet at the same time this is a haunting experience, because we do in fact hear these dead futures. While I have only focused on a few examples here, it should be evident why we can only understand the album through hauntology, because “a ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back” (Derrida, 2006, 123). The ghost that returns, kicks back, is materiality, the very potencies that are inherent in every object, every assemblage of matter. Matter is not inert, materiality is not distinct from other entities but imbricated in a reciprocal process.
Dark Night of the Soul thus produces ghost effects; effects that are best regarded as intensities that shift and warp affects and agencies inside the soundscape. To listen to the album is to allow dead futures to constitute me for the duration of the encounter, to feel and sense their agencies as integral to me. As affect arises from contact with other, material entities, we recognize that our experience is not entirely ours but traversed and haunted by the autonomous agencies of materialities.

Works Cited

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse. Dark Night of the Soul. Parlophone, 2010. CD.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Hansen, Mark BN. Feedforward : On the Future of Twenty-First Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Kindle.
Fuller, Matthew. Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005. Print.
Parikka, Jussi. What is Media Archaeology?. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Print.
Rotman, Brian. Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures in Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978. Kindle.