Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Drones of Memory

[A sketch of an essay written for the Sonic Arts Network. Thanks to the wonders of multimedia blogging, the post can be read alongside an extract from Brian Eno's Ambient 4: On Land, which I discuss below.]

Given the strange history of nostalgia, originally characterised as a medical condition experienced by Swiss soldiers, it is not surprising that we should learn that during its initial diagnosis in the seventeenth-century, an avoidance of native music was an essential factor in resisting the debilitating consequences the condition entailed. Three-hundred years later, the relationship between memory, time, and music has not disbanded. If anything the intimacy has intensified, as the commoditisation of the past manages to package neat collections of time-capsules into hour-long compilations of music. If the experience suggests a contrivance, then it does nothing to lessen the desire for nostalgia that keeps the past contained.

The artificial containment of the past, as evidenced by its commoditisation, leads us to think more precisely about the relationship between memory and music. If music is able to invoke a different place and time, then what does this say about the musicality of memory itself? Two options present themselves. Firstly, we might want to think of music as merely an aid to remembering. In doing so, we would be positioning music in the classical tradition of ars memoria: a memory palace which places objects in a systematic and linear fashion. In discovering a previously stored piece of music, we would, therefore, be (re)discovering the thing (ourselves included) associated with that music. This view is not especially contentious: medical science has long since established the beneficial role of music in assisting Alzheimer’s patients.

Yet in contrast to this comparatively reductive view on music and memory, we might also consider another option: that music gives form to memory. By this, I refer to the idea that the temporal structure of music consists of the same formal experience as that of memory. So that, in listening to music, we catch a sight of memory at work. Here too, the view has a distinguished history, not least because Henri Bergson persuasively aligned lived, intuitive time (durĂ©e) with musical melody, arguing that our experience of time mirrors the movement of notes “melting into one another” (Bergson, 2001, p. 100). Given Bergson’s conviction that both time and melody are interpenetrative states, the experience of duration becomes seamless. With this seamlessness, it follows that the shape of memory adopts a continuous and unbroken whole. Applied directly to musical melody, is it the case then, that the uninterrupted coherence of a melodic passage forms a structural symmetry with the formation of memory?

Let us turn toward the past. In doing so, already to speak of a landscape of the past, accessed by recollection, is to presuppose the containment of memory. Melody, place, and memory: with this tripart relation, procured through “aesthetic experience,” we are afforded an assuring image of time as coherent. No doubt, the coexistence of a defined melodic structure alongside a thirst for nostalgia is both logical and circular. As exemplary of the desire for the past as absolutely irremovable, nostalgia’s own melodic structure is evident in its capacity to divide the past into unequivocal units of time. In the same way, the music which feeds nostalgia tends to rely on a melodic structure which unreservedly commits itself to a specific temporal context. To return to a time through music, is to return to a time of otherness: distant and distinct from the present. Even when that return constitutes a moment of trauma for the listener, it is surely of greater solace to be situated in a horizon with damaged boundaries, than a horizon with no boundaries at all.

But to what extent does the melodic structure come to form an analogy with the nature of time? Against the divisible tendency of nostalgia to split the past up into unity, so conferring a distinctly narratological aspect upon it, let us consider, if only as a working hypothesis, that such a mode of time is a nothing less than temporal superimposition. There is much to be said about this in relation to aesthetic experience, music specifically. Time and space, however, mean I can only go so far in this discussion. As such, let me cite a passage from Bachelard, which will lead us into thinking about memory in a non-narratological fashion:

Thus, we base all the events in our lives on the continuum of our sorrows; we translate into the emotional language of continuity what would be more accurately expressed in the clear and trenchant narrative of objective events. Continuity is but our emotion, our unease, our melancholy, and the role of emotion is perhaps only to blunt ever-hostile newness (Bachelard, 2000, p. 60).

Bachelard’s correlation between emotion and continuity is fitting. Insofar as emotion imposes a qualitative dimension on the past, then it has the effect of binding time. With that gesture of binding, a distance is gained between ourselves and the past. At the same time, the suppression of “newness” can be understood in terms of a desire to retain the bordering properties of melody, and to exclude a future which dissents from those borders. Distance and containment, therefore, come to form the image of memory as continuous.

Taking Bachelard at his word, how would we approach the “ever-hostile newness” of time and memory in musical terms? Clearly deviation from melody is not enough to instigate a re-phrasing of the past. Pursuing such a deviation would mean creating a false division between melody and anti-melody. The creation of a new language of music, forged through the remains of a previous one, only reinforces the identity of time as relying on a logic of negation. Instead, I want to think about how drones, in particular those we hear in ambient soundscapes, manage to contest a narratological structure, so returning us to an impression of time which correlates with Bachelard’s idea of duration as being a superimposition. If temporal continuity, so far a counterpart to the structure of melody, is said to conceal “the hatched lines of discontinuity,” (Ibid., p. 122) then what does the experiencing of listening to drones tell us about the relation between memory and its form?

At the outset, unlike the structure of melody, which literally establishes points of attachment for memory, the drone delivers itself from this convention by relying on morphological, rather than narratological, states. In other words, the clearly demarcated beginning and end of a melodic phase insulates the contents within a consolidated gesture. Where the drone is concerned, the absence of temporal “points” means that memory struggles to belong to a given unit of time. Instead, time surges and withdraws, causing modulated textures to unfold. In the ambient soundscapes of Brian Eno, this texture is clear enough, not least in its relation to place. Especially in his earlier work, such as “Ambient 4: On Land,” the broken terrain of isolated musical phrases manages to evoke a sense of time and movement as being fundamentally suspended. In a word, the blurred lines of Eno’s soundscape confront us with a porous structure, in which the past and future converge simultaneously on the present. In the linear notes to “Ambient 4,” Eno writes thus:

What qualified a piece for inclusion on the record was that it took me somewhere, but this might be somewhere that I'd never been before, or somewhere I'd only imagined going to….We feel affinities not only with the past, but also with the futures that didn’t materialize, and with the other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we have agreed to live in [cited]

Eno’s reference to imagined places testifies to the discontinuous production of time and memory. The “affinities” we feel with the unexperienced future instils a disturbed framework within the drone. In distinction to the music of nostalgia, difference rather than sameness becomes central to the drone. And paradoxically, it is through repetition and a cyclical form that this difference becomes articulated. As such, in Eno’s “Ambient 4,” the “affinities” we feel with an altered timescape occur through being reminded of what differs from the time in the immediate present. In this sense, the drone gathers time, whereas the fixed structuring of melody repels time. Discussing the same piece of music, Eno goes on describe the cyclical surging of time and memory, he writes:

My instrumentation shifted gradually through electro-mechanical and acoustic instruments towards non-instruments like pieces of chain and sticks and stones. Coupled with this transition was an increasing interest in found sound as a completely plastic and malleable material; I never felt any sense of obligation about realism. In this category I included not only recordings of rooks, frogs and insects, but also the complete body of my own earlier work. As a result, some earlier pieces I worked on became digested by later ones, which in turn became digested again. The technique is like composting: converting what would otherwise have been waste into nourishment (Ibid.).

The self-digestion of Eno’s own compositions is an exterior expression of an internal movement within time itself. The reconstituted repetition of Eno’s ambient music is at once an appearance of time as haunting the present, but also of memory as assimilating the past in an uneven and discontinuous manner. Because of this digestion, the distinction between the past and the present becomes ambiguous. As formed from particles of the past, the drone erodes the narratological structure of time precisely through allowing the morphological overlapping of time to develop. The result is that time proceeds to move only through disjoining with memory. Finally then, the peculiarity of the drone is thus that it invites us to consider memory as movement turning on itself. In radical distinction to the ordering of melody, the drone does away with points of (place)-attachment, disclosing in the process a landscape which remains indebted to a past that can no longer be accessed in an original form.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007


Readers may be interested in an interview I gave to There’s some spiel about the background to writing the Aesthetics of Decay, and various other topics familiar to this blog.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

What Lies Beneath

As fundamentally organic, a house does not come into existence without exposing itself to radical diminishment. A house dies, and in that death closes down, defining itself as an imposition rather than an opening. And yet, the house remains lived in. There is no departure, only an after-effect. To live on, in, over, beyond, around: there is hope in this lingering, a hope of renewal through commitment. The commitment is telling: it reveals a struggle between the wilderness which lies with the superimposed order of time and memory.

But to live on means to be a vessel for the dead house. The body is porous, able to absorb its surrounding environment, often without the mind being conscious of such an involvement. Place is parasitic in this fashion, it leaches upon the body, pressing down with greater intensity the nearer it reaches its end. Here, we cross into a process of altered mimesis: an identification of otherness, estrangement, and erosion as bridging the gap between self and place. The imitation of place carries with it the modulation of self. We are told by Georges Rodenbach how:

In love, the way [resemblance] operates is principally in charm of a new woman appearing who resembles our former lover….[Hughes] possessed what one might call a ‘sense of resemblance,’ an extra sense, frail and sickly, which linked things to each other by a thousand tenuous threads, related tress to the Virgin Mary, creating a spiritual telegraphy between his soul and the grief-stricken towers of Bruges (p. 60).

The mutating gesture of mimesis proves advantageous for Rodenbach: by its very power, Bruges comes to assume an amorphous similarity to the inner experience of lack. Only it is a negative mimesis: a correspondence in which death and absence (dis)embody themselves in space, each revolving in their mutual erosion. The house dies, and with it the city, too. The process of mimesis is in every sense metamorphic. It mutates, stretching beyond the walls of the house, leaking through the windows, seeping through the keyhole, until the domestic correspondence between the extinct house and the subject colonizes a broader region:

Like the timeline of the house, the absorbing gesture of mimesis proves finite. Mimesis is an active identification, empowered by the continuity of time and memory. To merge these two realms, mimesis relies on the imagination to produce a synthesis. Assimilation is thus also a falsification, a willful drive towards oblivion, death, and the undifferentiated. Architecturally, this death-encompassing reaches a limit. As the grip of mimetic death loosens, so place becomes exposed to a foreign landscape. What lies beneath the death of a house is thus the glacial indifference of a world beyond the anthropomorphic superimposition of loss and presence.