This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject
Theodor W. Adorno would have liked Burial’s music. This is a ridiculous statement of course, not only because it is impossible to verify, but because if he were still alive when the Burial LP was released – a cantankerous old public intellectual of 102 – he would almost certainly have disliked it, dismissing it with all the other beat-driven commodity music whose slight innovations of timbre, texture and timing still pale in comparison to the radical freedom of 1910s expressionism. But to accept this would be to accept Adorno as the elitist, culturally imperialist music critic, constructing ad hoc theories to valorise his own taste whilst patronisingly proscribing all real agency by non-academic musicians in advance. This is not the Adorno that I’ve been making use of in these essays, and it is not an Adorno that has any real use in contemporary music criticism. Moreover, even if the above characterisation is an exaggeration, I still think any such a gloss on Adorno confuses the conclusions of his theories with their processes and rationale.
To take Adorno’s sociology of music seriously as a critical tool, and not just an ad hoc construction based on his personal tastes or on the music’s actual material relations of production, is to ask: what kind of music would Adorno be promoting if he were a music writer of today?1 In this essay, I suggest that the exceptional popular and critical reception of Burial can be understood with reference to Adorno, in particular his writing on Mahler, as a particularly ‘truthful’ (or, at any rate, convincing) expression of the contemporary subject within what Gilles Deleuze and others have called ‘the societies of control’. Along with the music of James Blake, I frame Burial’s music in terms of an Adorno-friendly strategy of resistance on the part of a musical (vocal-)subjects, against the oppressive social conditions of the day. What’s more, I will (of course) argue that Burial’s achievement of this relies on a direct engagement with the categories that I’ve been developing over the course of the previous chapters: vocal-subject, objective instrumental forces, song world, technologies of control.
Adorno and Contemporaneity
Would Adorno still be advocating the work of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern as the most ‘truthful’ or ‘moral’ musical practice a hundred years on? I think we can find clues in Adorno’s own attitudes to the music of conservative composers of his day (e.g. Jean Sibelius), who eschewed atonality to continue to work within the common practice tonal language of the past century:
It is not simply that these sounds are antiquated and untimely but that they are false. They no longer fulfil their function. The most progressive level of technical procedures designs tasks before which traditional sounds reveal themselves as impotent clichés… If a contemporary composer restricts himself exclusively to tonal sounds – in the manner of Sibelius – these sounds are just as false as if they were enclaves within the tonal field. (Adorno, cited in Witkin 1998: 147)It is the moral duty of the composer, as we previously saw, to ‘reflect the truth of the subject’s conditions in society’ (3) – in other words, to be ‘historical’. For Adorno, this meant finding a musical language that was specifically truthful to the subject’s position within modernity. It would surely follow that, a hundred years after Schoenberg, the subject’s conditions has shifted again. A great deal has changed since the Expressionists wrestled with the alienating onslaught of modernity. Globalisation, as well as the radical individualism involved in reconstituting the Western subject as a consumer-subject along with subsequent emphases on the discourse of identity, have severely complicated what might be seen as the purity of the Expressionist position. Of course, one could still argue that these shifts are quantitative rather than qualitative, understandable as the further totalisation of the Marcusian ‘one-dimensional society’ (see Marcuse 1964), and some Marxist critiques of the theory of postmodernism can be read along these lines. But such a standpoint is problematic in that it invokes a kind of nostalgia for the ‘simpler’ times of early modernism, before new plural subjectivities muddied the water, relinquishing at the same moment any new potentialities or ‘lines of flight’ that have opened up since 1968. To put it another way, finding new possibilities in an Adornian sociology of music shouldn’t mean having to return always to the same, now-problematic model of the ‘true’ conditions of the subject in modern, Western society (i.e. circa 1930).
But moreover, even if there is still a conflict between an increasingly rational-technical society and the hopeless yet resistant subject, the musical language of expressionism itself has certainly become one of impotent clichés that ‘no longer fulfil their function’. After the radical extremes of total serialism (which Adorno criticised) and minimalism (which he surely would have hated), not to mention experimental electronic music or Fluxus, the composers who still write music that sounds a bit like Berg or Webern occupy a fairly safe, tasteful (although still academically-centred) middle-ground.
Whether the ‘truth’ of the contemporary subject has changed, or atonal music’s unique access to a particular hermeneutics has been compromised (or both), one of the tasks that these essays aim to achieve is to point towards contemporary music that might fulfil Adorno’s imperatives for new music, on his own terms. John Maus says something similar, in an interview that I love to quote:
I believe that music is part-and-parcel with the structures of power at any given time. Romanticism was perfectly part-and-parcel with the bourgeois individualism. And, of course, the Renaissance and Medieval music was perfectly part-and-parcel with the church as the dominant structure of power. So today the dominant structure of power is capital, capitalism, global capitalism, so music takes on this commodified quality, it answers to that alone, but if we want to enter into a conversation with those pieces, those works, we have to do it through our own objective historical moment, using the vernacular. Which is, as far as I can tell, pop music. (John Maus: Live at Glasslands, +1, Pitchfork.tv, 02:10 - 02:57)Burial as Post-Dance
‘Burial Studies’ is already an extraordinarily widespread sub-discipline across the web.2 Will Bevan’s music is almost unparalleled in its ability to elicit an impressionistic critical response: images, locations, scenarios and narratives seem easy to attach to his music, with a striking amount of consistency in evidence between interpretations, which is very rare in today’s music criticism which focuses so much on big-picture stylistic transformations, subgenre charts and technological determinism, and a lot less on sonic analysis on.
The music invites this response, of course, and it often requires such an invitation for critics to feel safe enough to make such concrete interpretative statements. As well as the extra-musical signposts – track titles, album art, interviews - the music is highly impressionistic in itself; it activates its own sense of ‘realist’ diegesis (sounds ‘doubly mediated’ through the intimation of some ‘sound source’ – earphones, car stereos, muffled club soundsystems – within the track world), as well as presenting ‘everyday’ space-times – tracks segmented in ‘real time’ by the suggestion of movement and of space (emerging round a corner, slipping through doorways), sounds encountered and abandoned with a restlessness that suggests some other governing motive (see Kindred and Truant/Rough Sleeper EPs in particular).
The two key threads in Burial Studies are urbanism and hauntology. Burial’s music is inextricably linked to a sense of place – South London – and time – now:
Burial's sound evokes what the press release calls a 'near future South London underwater. You can never tell if the crackle is the burning static off pirate radio, or the tropical downpour of the submerged city out of the window’. (Fisher 2006a)But, at the same time, the music is supposed to speak both to the past and to the future, by dwelling on the demise of rave music (as rave sounds appear in ghostly form from the mist of the track, as the vinyl crackle suggests the replaying of past experiences within a present frame) by it thereby points to the ‘lost future’ implicit in rave’s utopian spirit:
It's the uncanniness of listening to a sound that so perfectly captures the feeling of the streets in which one lives that makes the LP so madly compelling. (Fisher 2006b)
How does Burial paint London so effectively? … Burial’s representational skill works through subtle association rather than strict reproduction. As images, his tracks reveal all kinds of recognisable detail, but he’s not a photographer so much as an impressionist painter. (Harper 2009)
It reminds me of a car purposefully moving through a cold wet city night while a passenger stares, heart-in-throat, out the back window, remembering places and people as they pass. (Autonomic for the People 2006)
This is hauntological dance, music for abandoned nightclubs… But it is also a post-millennial nocturne for the loss of a collective purpose: it says, ‘After the nineties, we’re all on the Night Bus now.’ (Reynolds 2011: 393-394)The way that these two threads are conventionally tied is through biography: young Bevan missed rave, heard the tales and the tapes from his older brother, wanders the city pining for the promised communal experience that never was.
Burial is an elegy for the hardcore continuum, a Memories from the Haunted Ballroom for the rave generation. It is like walking into the abadoned spaces once carnivalized by raves and finding them returned to depopulated dereliction. Muted air horns flare like the ghosts of raves past. Broken glass cracks underfoot. MDMA flashbacks bring London to unlife in the way that hallucinogens brought demons crawling out of the subways in Jacob's Ladder's New York. (Fisher 2006a)
For a while now there’s been a certain degree of consensus on the answers to these questions: Burial ‘mourns the death of rave’, his music is (to paraphrase a handful of commentators) a ‘plaintive echo from a bygone era of collective energy’, ‘a melancholy, ghostly memory of the faded promise of rave, drenched in weathering and mired in urban decay’. (Harper 2009)
Burial’s own interview comments suggest that even though he never participated in rave first-hand but experienced it vicariously through his older brother’s DJ mixtapes and stories, the post-rave comedown is a large part of what his music addresses. (Reynolds 2011: 393)I don’t think this biographical narrative is needed for an understanding of how these two threads might connect, if we listen to the music in terms of my analytical categories. The argument that I make below is predicated on Burial as a ‘post-dance’ artist; the homology that I want to make is between a post-dance ‘world’ (the nostalgic or critical relation of Burial’s music to the self-contained ‘worlds’ of the dance track) and the ‘post-disciplinary’ society, which Deleuze called the ‘society of control’. In this way, the innovations that Burial makes in relation to the dance track, which I have already discussed in terms of space and time, subject and object, control and resistance, can be heard as commentary and criticism on a state of affairs (given its ‘realist’ presentation) which somehow supersedes, falls short of, or otherwise fails to fit with how things were previously supposed to function.3
Wire: I suppose your contact with Rave through your brother is what makes your records so mournful: you know what is missing now, whereas others might not even know what they are missing.
Burial: I don’t know if it exists any more at all. A lot of those old tunes I put on at night and hear something in the tune that makes me feel sad, - a few of my favourite producers and DJs are dead now too - and I hear this hope in all those old tracks, trying to unite the UK, but they couldn't, because the UK was changing in a different direction, away from us. (Burial/Fisher, interview in the Wire 2012)
To summarise, my argument runs thus:
- Burial’s music mobilises a pronounced sense of ‘realist’ space-time which encourages the listener to consciously hear the track as such, but also to consider what the space-time of the dance track would look like.
- The half-world between realist space-time and track allows us to hear ‘post-dance’ along two dimensions, which has been heard elsewhere in the wholly realist image of ‘hearing the rave music through the wall’.
- The first of these is contiguous with the space-time of the dance track, but removed from it. If the dance world can be envisioned in Guy Debord’s terms as an outwards-facing sonic ‘spectacle’, Burial’s tracks are positioned on the ‘other side’: on the ‘interior’, or ‘behind’ the spectacle.
- The second dimension is as the ‘worlding’ of dance music, in which the self-contained dance world is ‘turned out’ into the wider world, or ‘globalised’.
- In addition to this, hearing the population of sampled, mediated voices as vocal-subjects invokes Foucault’s concept of ‘biopower'.
- All these processes are also paradigmatic of life in the neoliberal city of London.
Burial’s tracks often seem to present themselves as field recordings. In addition to the ubiquitous use of actual recordings, sounds that signify recording media and place-specific titles (‘In Macdonalds’, ‘Night Bus’), the structures are frequently presented as contained within the kind of ‘hearing’ frame which I previously denied the existence of, the ‘empty hopper’ of silence waiting to be filled. The edges of this frame are shown up through the use of constant, light noise - vinyl crackle, rain or some other ambient noise - and tracks develop as sounds enter and exit this frame, rather than developing on their own. Often tracks begin and end in relative quiet – the sounds disappear but the tape is still running.4 One way of hearing this ‘frame’ is as the ear of some wandering listener, coexistent with these sounds within their world, out in the rain (Bevan himself, so the romantic trope goes). Another similar way would be as a tape recorder, recording the sounds as they appear without discrimation, hence as field recordings. On the long-form EP tracks (e.g. ‘Truant’, ‘Ashtray Wasp’), we can potentially hear the movement ‘between’ and ‘through’ the sounds, whether these are imagined as places or feelings or literally as sounds coming from sound sources in the world (this is particularly pronounced on Rival Dealer’s ‘Hiders’). All this makes for a very keen sense of the track as ‘space-time’.
Yet the space-times evoked on Burial tracks exist somewhere between the ‘real’ space-times of unedited field recordings, and the space-times of the musical track, as I have described them over the last few essays. Despite the fact that the solitary protagonist of Burial’s ‘Ballardian’ city can be heard to ‘listen in’ to this or that phantasmatic rave from behind shuttered doors, to hear snatches of voices, rumbles of garage beats like passing cars or distant thunder, the sounds themselves unfold and relate in the same way as musical sounds within any track. The result is neither some kind of concrète collage, nor a neatly integrated re-composition of borrowed sounds (like some of his ‘hauntological’ antecedents espoused). Burial thereby points up the phenomenology of the unique, self-contained (hypothetical, idealised) space-time of any track, by inserting ambiguous sonic signifiers, which act as multi-dimensional ‘gates’ from the song worlds with which we are familiar to Burial’s ‘field recording’ worlds.
The obvious example of this is the rain sound/vinyl crackle gauze which often overlays the entire track; these two sonic substances are two sides of the same phenomenon, their mirror selves, always signifying each other. Examples can be heard from the opening moments of the debut LP Burial, after the introduction. In the first ten seconds, the three key sounds of the track ('Distant Lights') are introduced but genuinely sound like random noises within a field recording (perhaps taken in an echoey tube station): a half heard vocal exclamation, the distant rattle of a train and a sharp warning tone, maybe from an alarm, later gel together to form the vocals, beats and melodic motif of the song. They retain this half-identity for the entirety of the track, with other elements emerging simultaneously into the track as musical structure and into the tube station. The thing to remember about these effects (and all similar effects) is not that they take you out of the song’s internal world, but that they seal you into it. They confirm what I’d argue is a common conceptualisation of all pop tracks, as a kind of ‘space-time’.
I wanna make tunes that are like a space in London but also a space in a club or in your head. A club is not that dissimilar to sitting on your own with headphones.A good deal of the discussion of Burial has situated him (or his persona as musical protagonist, the subjective perspective which might in film be called the ‘I/eye’ (so, the ‘I/ear’?) of his tracks) as an ‘outsider’. Moving from the basic fact of his (diminishing) anonymity, his being ‘outside’ of the sphere of ‘conspicuous’ musical production, but also as an autodidact (as if this were unusual in pop music), and as being an outsider to dance music, specifically rave as topic. Dance music is, of course, present in his music but generally in its functional absence, as a vacuum (or, to hear it another way, its failure). Both Burial the producer and Burial the ‘I/eye/ear’ through which we access ‘his’ musical space-times are positioned, by critics, as poignantly outside. His song titles, and the sounds littering his tracks, allude to an exterior soundscape, corroborated by album art and track titles (‘Street Halo’, ‘Homeless’ etc.). And his interview statements have given good biographical reasons to hear moments like the opening of ‘Ashtray Wasp’ as the sounds of a rave heard through a wall or closed door:
(Burial, interview for Blackdown 2006)
My older brother loved tunes, rave tunes, jungle, he lived all that stuff, and he was gone, he was on the other side of the night, almost. He was the one who wasn’t back, he was out there, going to places. He’d tell us stories about it. We were brought up on stories about it. Leaving the city in a car and finding somewhere and hearing these tunes, and he’d bring them back. (Burial, interview for the Wire 2012)Burial, Spectacle, Interior
This is all well and good, but for me the operational preposition where Burial is concerned has always been inside. I hear Burial’s music, bleak and beautiful, as an interior music, rather than an exterior music. I mean this in a very specific way, which has something to do both with the worlds of dance tracks and of the contemporary city. Rather than situating the listener outside of the dance track, Burial places us within the interior of the dance track.
To understand this, it must also be understood that a musical ‘world’, while evoking a hypothetical (three-dimensional?) space-time ‘behind the speaker’, and projecting itself into the ‘real’ space-time in front of the speaker, is a world that is materialised ‘outwardly’. It is irradiated out towards us, both striking us with sound as energy/action and enveloping us with sound as space/ambience, from a fixed (fictive) ‘horizon’ at the ‘back’ of the idealised space-time beyond the speakers.
In this way, recorded music can be heard as ‘spectacular’ in the Debordian sense. The musical world is first-and-foremost a sonic spectacle (as oxymoronic as that sounds): a rush of artificial, arbitrary logic which floods the ‘empty vessel’ of (both real and hypothetical-recorded) space-time. This is mainly because, if we are to experience the musical track as a ‘world’ opening out onto our ‘real’ world, it must be one in which ‘everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’. It is the very difficulty inherent in a single sound’s ‘representational’ potential which encourages this ‘accumulation’ into a ‘world vision’ (or ‘audition’) which has become ‘materially translated’. A few further quotes from Debord should clarify this idea:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.Replacing images with sounds, it is fairly easy to see how these little ‘autonomous worlds’ materialise as microcosms of what Debord saw more generally as the Society of the Spectacle, which dominated (and still dominates?) modern life. Of course, merely to say ‘replacing images with sounds’ is to ask a lot, and it is the particular quality of images that allowed them to accumulate into this all-encompassing ‘pseudo-world’ of representation. And yet, these fictional, ‘sonic spectacles’ share more with Debord’s concept than simply an abstract materiality. As he writes, ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images [sounds], but a social relation among people, mediated by images [sounds]’. And so the logic of the pseudo-world of the track enters the real world in the mediation of social relations through which the pseudo-world is recreated. This is function of dance music at its purest, as a spectacular music world.
The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.
The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification.
[The spectacle] is a world vision which has become objectified. (Debord 1967)
So, when I say that Burial places us inside the dance track, I mean that he places us on the other side of the flat plane that is the sonic spectacle of the dance track, or the source of the spectacle – the LCD membrane – from which it radiates always outwards. We might also say that Burial places us ‘behind’ the dance track, as in ‘behind the scenes’, which is very different from being ‘outside’ it. If the dance track is a brightly coloured, backlit billboard, Burial places us beyond the glass, in the glare of the phosphorescent strip lights. If the dance track is a glowing, pulsing lamp, we’re inside with the burning filament. He places us behind the cinema screen, with the lantern beam and the reversed images casting semi-coherent shadows, within the ‘Shell of Light’. If these images, displays, screens and stacks are constructed so as to project coherence outwards, to stretch out into a flat totality with which we are constantly confronted – the face of capital – then behind the veneer, things fail to cohere. We are at once closer to the inner workings and no longer able to take in the whole picture through which these inner workings conspire to present themselves to the world.5 This is how I hear the weird, ‘backwards’ production on ‘Southern Comfort’, with its sucking bass, ravey effects that get swept out of earshot immediately, the bare, mechanical beat at the centre of it. Likewise the distant, processed vocals and inside-out bass on ‘Loner’, a track which plays the listener strangely close to the looping synth motif at the expense of all other sounds.
The full and complete dance track, like all coherent musical worlds, is radial rather than vortical. The centre itself – that which expresses, both the (power/energy/desire) source of the instrumental forces and flows, and the core of the song subject, whose psychic world is the song’s world – is as difficult to perceive as the mechanics of a bright lightbulb when looking directly into its glare. I would compare Burial as situated ‘inside’ the dance track to My Bloody Valentine, whose music is situated ‘inside’ the rock track. Especially on their most recent album m b v, we seem to be cushioned within the primordial chaos of rock materiality – we hear riffs in their raw state, as unrefined ore, distortion as a kind of elemental reservoir, song structures flowing as slowly as magma. It is not a messy chaos, not full of jagged fragments or utter formlessness, but merely the birthing of a kind of Ur-rock music, before its filtration and condensation. The effect is very similar to a track like ‘Dog Shelter’ or ‘Endorphin’, a soft white cradle of proto-sounds.
In the same way, despite the urban connotations, I don't think we can hear Burial as dirty, gritty or grimy; what is remarkable about this music is rather its emptiness. His music inhabits a kind of chaos, but it is a clean chaos, from which all elements have been vacuumed out. This is not where the people are, where the party is. In this blank space behind the dance veneer, we hear the unformed embryos of beats and euphoric synths bubble up, as pure light, to hit the veil and burst through to the other side (where whatever chemical reaction might produce some sense of form or colour or regulated frequency – the lingua franca of unremarkable representation).
This interior hearing of Burial reverses the usual idea that the reverb-obliterated synth pads, detuned vocals and feeble scattergun beats are ghosts from a musical past-life, spectral presence haunting the forgotten vinyl-land of Burial’s soundscapes. Instead, I hear these sounds as proto-sounds, as the substance preceding the apprehension and enjoyment of dance music as dance music, but also as the ‘Real’ of the sound world (i.e. of the potential Burial club-banger emanating out from the other side of the veneer). Debord’s spectacle is somewhat removed in scale, function and history from Lacan’s idea of the Symbolic order as opposed to the Real, and yet one criticism of Debord’s idea might be that the ‘real world’ is always already a spectacle, the pseudo-world of totalized partiality and accumulated images which is the Symbolic order. To creep behind the backdrop of global capitalism, behind the image of the barely held-together totality that is so desperately communicated to us, is to have a run-in with the Real of contemporary capitalism, in all its desolation, violence and irrationality. As Fredric Jameson would attest, this ‘Real’ of global capitalism is also sublime in that it cannot be fully comprehended. It is so massive, so all encompassing; like the unconscious, it can only be glimpsed, and not without experiencing trauma.6
This returns us to my politicised/politicising hearing of Burial. The notion of his tracks as depicting a dismal London haunted by voices and desires of the past, even if they do speak to some lost future, is not enough; it fails to get fully to grips with the real futurism in the tracks, which relies fundamentally on their articulation of the present. My suggestion is that the key to Burial’s extraordinary contemporaneity (and hence the reason why Adorno would like his music, as historically truthful) is in the way in which he executes a ‘worlding’ of this interior space on the ‘other side’ of the capitalist/dance music spectacle, mapping it onto an everyday space-time and hence mobilising the relationships of control operative in dance tracks to evoke half-familiar worlds. In this way, the very materiality of these worlds, their terrains, ambiences, events and inhabitants, are rendered in the substance of pure Control.
The Worlding of Dance Music
The idea of ‘worlding’, in urban and post-colonial studies, has to do with the resituating of a community or subject within the wider world. I first encountered the term in AbdouMaliq Simone’s essay ‘On the Worlding of African Cities’ (2001), in which the shock of globalisation, situating the African city as a node within a vast global network, and opening the horizons of the African city dweller to their dizzying place within a sphere that stretches way beyond the community or city limits, creates a profound sense of dislocation, alienation and generalised contestation.
Burial’s music performs a ‘worlding’ of the dance track in that it ‘turns it out’ into a wider world.7 The enclosed, perfect, harmonious, quasi-utopian logic of the dance track, united by pulse and by key, supported by bass and by beat, regulated by predictable metre and phrase structure, is unleashed into the ‘real’ unregulated space which cannot be fully contained by any one single track: the club is turned out into the streets.
In many of Burial’s tracks, there is nothing fundamental – no absolute musical law – that binds the elements of the track (vocals, beats, synth textures or reverb choirs/strings) to each other, beyond the physical containment of the track – when it starts and finishes – and the horizon of audibility, which often lacks the fixity of the ‘back wall’ of musical spectacle, the furthest point from which sound is projected, but instead dissolves into sonic ‘mist’ or shifts with the ‘perspective’ of the ‘ear-I’. Even those tracks which attempt to cloy to some fixity of structure or beat, which might propose a physical certainty against/within which the other elements of the track can move and act (i.e. a closed structure, home chord or continuous beat) tend towards disintegration.
These tracks undermine much of my theorising, in Chapter 1.1, on the musical space-time as produced through a tonal centre, regular pulse and metre. When beats and chords interlope in Burial tracks, it is as if they too are discrete characters (even Subjects) within a pre-existing world, not part of the foundational materiality that produces such a world. The beats on ‘Gutted’ or ‘Broken Home’ rattle into view like broken wagons, weak, trebly and without any of the ‘bass materialism’ that can be used to mobilise a crowd (see Chapter 1.3). The questing bass on ‘Loner’ loses its way in confusion. ‘Etched Headplate’ takes this general disconnection to extremes, while retaining the sense that some integration was intended. Even the beat underpinning the relatively focused ‘Spaceape’ feels precarious. The effect in all these cases is one of failure – of the failure to cohere as a total world.
Returning to Debord’s spectacle, such a strategy of ‘failure’ can highlight to us the differences between the ‘half-world’ of these musical field recordings and the ‘real world’ on the one hand, and the hypothetical ‘pseudo-world’ of the dance ‘spectacle’ on the other. The notion of failure is integral to any analysis of the operation of spectacle in the real world, as something more than a hypothetical concept. The particular effect of the spectacle must be understood through its effectiveness, in spite of its manifest failure. In this way, as Debord says, its effect is really felt as ‘a social relation among people’, even if it is often conceptualised as an autonomous illusory shadow world of simulacra, in which we are invested.
This kind of critique is made possible by the fact that the macro ‘world’ into which the dance track’s micro ‘world’ is turned out is still a musical world. Even in the most diffuse of his large-scale tracks, we don’t hear these discrete musical elements as ‘music’, being played into a ‘real’ space-time (as if he were literally standing outside in the rain with a tape recorder). The desire for cohesion and totalisation, in terms of beats and keys and structures, is still present. The logic of musical control – the same structural homology as discussed previously – is still at work, but used to depict a very different kind of ‘world’, which I would be quick to identify (like many before me) as ‘the neoliberal city’.
Burial, Dub, Biopower
Burial makes vocal music. Let us consider the vocals in his tracks; the ubiquity of these bodily human presences in his music sets him apart from many of the producers who are making similar music. Sampled, these voices usually retain their original melodic, rhythmic and lyrical identity, the trace of their previous lives, their originary logic, within other musical space-times. Detuned, laden with reverb, thoroughly modulated, their status as mediated vocal-subjects is accentuated. If they had a past life within some distant groove, there is no attempt to make them at home in their new musical world. They float out of time, dequantised, dislocated from the other sonic elements, dis-integrated from the distribution of elements on the sound ‘stage’. They are not ‘of this world’, in that they have been literally pulled from other tracks in which they would have made more sense, but they are processed so as to remove all sense of their simultaneous presence as real expressive human subjects in the track, acting spontaneously and expressing themselves directly. Hence, the ‘ghost’ reading – an obvious and admittedly attractive one (which Burial invokes himself, see his interview with the Wire 2012).8
But as sampled, uprooted vocal-subjects rather than found dialogue, these voices do attempt to impress themselves onto whatever musical world they find themselves in. The intention – of expressing themselves musically, of inhabiting and controlling a musical track – is retained. Unlike the sampled speech from movies and TV which are scattered through the albums, we can hear these vocal presences as vocal-subjects, in the terms of power and control that I have established; what kind of vocal-subjects do they make? If the vocal-subject plays out relationships and struggles of power spontaneously in relation to the instrumental forces that surround them – i.e. every playing of a song is ‘as if for the first time’ – then these manifestly displaced, mediated vocal utterances should be heard as always already disciplined and controlled. They carry, inscribed into their melodic and rhythmic shape, the effects of past apparatuses of control. Forced into certain configurations by tight grooves, falling in once-defiant lines which now have no chord or beat against which to move, this is the inverse of what Mark Fisher called dubtraction – the peculiar phenomenon left by the absence of the vocals in dub music, and the pregnant spaces that they leave. Now we know where those vocals emptied out into: they land in some quiet alley in the streetlit sobriety of Burial’s neoliberal city. These vocal-subjects, forever frozen in the attitudes of past struggles, are no longer able to resist or even properly interact with the new instrumental forces that surround them. Burial’s relationship to dub practice, for Fisher writes, is also integral to the sense of a ‘3D’ space-time in which these voices exist:
My problem with dubstep has been that in constituting dub as a positive entity, with no relation to the Song or to Pop, it has too often missed the spectrality wrought by dub's subtraction-in-process. The emptying out has tended to produce not space but an oppressive, claustrophobic flatness. If, by contrast, Burial's schizophonic hauntology has a 3D depth of field it is in part because of the way it grants a privileged role to voices under erasure, returning to dub's phono-decrentism. ([Ian] Penman again - Dub 'makes of the Voice not a self-possession but a dispossession - a "re" possession by the studio, detoured through the hidden circuits of the recording console.') Snatches of plaintive vocal skitter through the tracks like fragments of abandoned love letters blowing through streets blighted by an unnamed catastrophe. The effect is as heartbreakingly poignant as the long tracking shot in Tarkovsky's Stalker that lingers over sublime objects-become trash. (Fisher 2006a)We will return to his notion of ‘the Song’ because it is fairly crucial. In general, though, what I am sketching here is a biopolitics of the vocal-subject.
‘Biopower’ is a concept that originated with Michel Foucault, and has since become a crucial concept in the discussion of contemporary social life:
I think we see something new emerging in the second half of the eighteenth century: a new technology of power… Unlike discipline, which is addressed to bodies, the new nondisciplinary power is applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being. […]What biopower really means is social control through the distribution of life (population, health, patterns for living, lifestyles) rather than the distribution of death (or the threat of death, both physical and in terms of incarceration: civic death). Foucault focuses on a range of implicated in regulating life: first and foremost is the prison, subject of Discipline and Punish (1975), and especially the practice of rehabilitation (as opposed to punishment as deterrent) as being one of the regulation or disciplining of behaviour, in which the attitudes and actions of the prisoner are forced into line with a model of ‘normal’ civilian behaviour. But this same practice of disciplining occurs in other similar institutions, the hospital, factory (or call centre/office etc.), barracks and school, in which the ‘socialisation’ of the subject involves molding it into a ‘correct’ or ‘normal’ range of behaviours.
What does this new technology of power, this biopolitics, this biopower that is beginning to establish itself, involve? …A set of processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on. (Foucault 2004: 242-243)
There is a certain violence in the experience of disciplining behaviour to fit a particular ‘norm’, whose traces remain in our conditioned, corrected and pacified bodies. It is the same violence that we recognise in the ‘conversion therapy’ supposed to ‘cure’ homosexuality, and is related to the Freudian category of ‘repression’, giving rise to the same damaging symptoms. Using the figure of the ‘vocal-subject’ and its relationship to control, the mediated, sampled vocal can be heard as the disciplined vocal-subject, carrying the traces of a prior disciplinary process, the violence of which can be located in the pitiful inflexibility of the vocal lines as they move through the new sonic landscapes of the track.
The Anguished Vocal Sample
The link between the mediated, sampled vocal as biopolitical vocal-subject, and Burial’s musical ‘worlds’ as suggestive of the neoliberal city, can be made via a famous essay by Gilles Deleuze, entitled ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ (1992). Deleuze articulates a shift from what he understood as Foucault’s ‘disciplinary societies’, in which the subject never ceases in passing from one enclosed disciplinary institution to another (from the patriarchal family, by way of the school, to the factory), to what he terms – after William S. Burroughs – the ‘societies of control’ (4). The mechanisms of control are generalised and flexible, rather than rigid. The subject under control is the indebted subject, who must submit to the constantly modulating dictates of control, pre-empting and adapting to parameters even as they melt away. Thus, even while ubiquitous surveillance and ‘total policing’ universalises the ‘Panopticon’ which, for Foucault, characterised the disciplinary society as a prison technology, so the idea of a steady, fixed model to which a ‘normal’ subject must cohere is removed.
What the Deleuze essay contributes to my hearing of Burial is the profound shock of the new situation – emerging from what he calls the crises of the disciplinary society – in which we are no longer contained within these enclosed institutions. The example of recent developments in the Western ‘workplace’ is paradigmatic of this shift. No longer are we consigned to the factory and factory time, with its regulation and repetitive dehumanization. Even the office is melting away. In its place is the flexibilisation of work, the idea that we can choose our own times and places in which to work, along with a shift from the simple, repetitive ‘labour’ of production, or basic administrative tasks, to the general incorporation of our creativity, our emotions, our personalities into our work – our ‘souls’, as Paulo Virno would have it. More and more, the trend is that our work lives fuse with our everyday lives. New communicative technologies allow us to send email and have meetings anywhere at any time of the day, and with it comes the idea that we should be available to receive messages at any time of the day as well. We find ways to invest every aspect of our inner selves into our work, capitalising upon our total being. And our absence from a regulated disciplinary environment is replaced by the generalised feeling that we could, and should, be working all the time – a self-policing of productivity which as become integral to securing profits in the age of flexible accumulation.
Virno, in Grammar of the Multitude (2004) – one of his books on the Subject’s condition within ‘post-Fordism’ – focuses partly on the transformation of the categories ‘dread’ and ‘refuge’, which were established by Kant in his ‘Analytic of the Sublime’. The Sublime experienced when one encounters fear from a position of relative safety. It heightens our sense of what he calls ‘the absolute danger connected to our very being in this world’ (32): for Kant, our sense of unconditional refuge from this absolute danger (of being-in-the-world) comes from ‘the moral “I”’, our sense of self. The difference between particular danger (Kant’s example is a snowslide) and absolute danger is, in turn, drawn out in Heidegger’s distinction between ‘fear’ and ‘anguish’: ‘Anguish is provoked purely and simply by our being exposed to the world, by the uncertainty and indecision with which our relation to this world manifests itself.’ Post-Fordism, for Virno, effects a crisis between the private and the public, the community and the world, which is the same that is enacted in the ‘worlding’ described above. Conventionally, ‘fear situates itself within the community’, whereas anguish ‘makes its appearance when it distances itself from the community to which it belongs, from its shared habits, from its well-known “linguistic games”, and then penetrates into the vast world’.
For Virno, tallying with Deleuze’s essay:
What he have, then, at every moment and no matter what, is a reality which is repeatedly innovated. It is therefore not possible to establish an actual distinction between a stable ‘inside’ and an uncertain and telluric ‘outside’. The permanent mutability of the forms of life, and the training needed for confronting the unchecked uncertainty of life, leads us to the direct and continuous relation with the world as such, with the imprecise context of our existence. (33)The result of this blurring, is ‘a complete overlapping of fear and anguish):
If I lose my job, of course I am forced to confront a well defined danger, one which gives rise to a specific kind of dread; but this real danger is immediately colored by an unidentifiable anguish. It is fused together with a more general disorientation in the presence of the world in which we live; it is identified with the absolute insecurity which lives in the human animal. (ibid.)Burial turns his fixed, disciplined subjects out into a totally free world. Unregulated or controlled by key or pulse, these vocal-subjects could range wherever they like, express themselves freely and radically, reclaiming the vacant spaces of the track. But they don’t, and in fact they cannot. They long to reconnect with the (musical) ‘language games’ (i.e. genre convention, tonality, metre) which allowed their expressions to cohere in their original song worlds. They attempt to find refuge in passing chords, in weak and superficial pulses, but cannot find a community or a home: ‘Today, all forms of life have the experience of “not feeling at home,” which, according to Heidegger, would be the origin of anguish’ (34). The vocal-subject, in Burial, is defined by anguish – post-dance as post-Fordism. Hence the yearning for a refuge that is spiritual: ‘The counterpart of fear is that security which the community can, in principle, guarantee; the counterpart of anguish (or of its showing itself to the world as such) is the shelter procured from religious experience’ (32).
Just as Burial’s music involves a ‘worlding’ of the dance track, so the logic of his tracks incorporates a ‘worlding’ of the enclosed, disciplinary apparatus of the single dance track world, from present and apparent discipline to generalised yet conspicuously absent control, ‘absent’ only because it is so ubiquitous and total. ‘The surveillance city’. ‘Total policing’.
Burial and the Neoliberal City
So what of the instrumental forces that constitute the terrain through which these vocal-subjects pass and in which they congregate? What is significant about these worlds is their emptiness. Neoliberal London is a city emptied out, and continuously emptying out. To walk through the City, around the Docklands, or the riverside developments in Lambeth and Southwark, is to experience this at its most extreme. London is emptying out its residents, its communities, its lives. The spectacular riverside buildings, with their smooth, dark glass curves, are iconic of this broader tendency. There is no-one in them; even those apartments that have been sold are owned by foreign property speculators, or held as third or fourth homes. They are spectacular, even attractive, but they are vacant. This is neoliberal London – outwardly spectacular, attractive, but vacant. Workers are forced to live further and further out, and have to commute in. Traditional middle-class neighbourhoods towards the centre are experiencing hyper-gentrification or being bought up by landlords looking to cash in on a transient class of cosmopolitan, middle-class students and creatives, the children of the international bourgeoisie, escaping the private moral embarrassment of conspicuous consumption, who can nevertheless still afford to be penniless rather than poor (‘conspicuous poverty’). Older working-class neighbourhoods are becoming hipster leisure playgrounds, while poor communities are being forcibly fragmented and displaced through strategic ‘redevelopment’ and benefit cuts. There will be nothing to replace them, as rents and student debts continue to sky-rocket, while no effective limits are placed on the buying up of huge swathes of land and property by foreign investors. And at the same time, the crisis of the high street, the privatisation of public space, the virtual, technological shifts in forms of social life. London is no longer somewhere in which forms of life can take root.
It is this clean, desolate emptiness in which Burial’s music is staged. It is the interior of a city that increasingly faces outwards, as a series of glass polygons on a skyline, attracting fly-by-night investors and rich tourists while repelling all authentic forms of social life. It is London as spectacle, and – again – Burial takes us behind the veneer, to the strange incoherent ‘inside’ spaces of capital. These are not necessarily spaces that are meant to be seen, but this is not to say that they are dirty, and gritty, and ‘real’ in the sense that real people live there, with real lives and messy emotions and passions etc., but more in the sense that they are the ‘Real’ absent centre of global capital-as-spectacle, the lack of a heart or a soul, or of any kind of rationality or ideology, which is pasted over with the glare and blare of advertisements and mass entertainment, as well as feeble nationalisms and spiritualities. They are totally bleak spaces, but beautiful in the relief that they give from the illusory noise of the spectacle. To experience the emptiness of London as neoliberal city, capital of capital, is to experience something of the truth of its power – as it is concentrated not in Westminster, or in the old-world grandeur of Chelsea and the decadence of Mayfair, but in the City and around Canary Wharf. And perhaps it is sublime as well, in its resistance to the human and its intimations of the post-human. The sheer impossibility of seeing poverty graffiti or even litter on these clean night-time streets, despite their emptiness and their warm glow, gives a palpable sense of the absolute cleansing of a post-apocalyptic, or post-human, scenario.
It is this ambience that extends to Burial’s South London, if we hear his music as such: the total coverage of the surveillance cameras, a silent, private high street with only the 3am glow of McDonalds, the tables and chairs stacked and cordoned off and a sleepless security guard by the door, the blinding light of the menu display, a simple transaction with a faceless employee, and then you leave to go home. The generalised terror of the outside at night, the fetishisation of private space, the implicit criminality of anyone out after dark.
These are spaces in which autonomous power is severely limited. The privatisation of space, along with the extension of ‘anti-nuisance’ laws and a crackdown on freedoms of assembly and protest, limits the possibilities of public life to keep in line with those conducive to capital in its current state: prescribed escapist leisure activities, shopping, maybe going for a jog. The individual has very little control over the substance of their lived environment, as public space is sold off to unelected corporations; there is a generalised alienation of the subject from its lived environment.
Burial mirrors this with a generalised alienation of the vocal-subject from its sonic environment, introducing the vocal samples into a world in which they have no purchase, which they cannot affect and with which they can hardly even interact.9 This sense of alienation is conjured up in much the same way as Radiohead’s music, especially on their less guitary material. Although Radiohead are frequently labeled as writing songs ‘about alienation’, this hasn’t really been theorised much beyond the content of the lyrics, album art and videos. However, albums like Kid A makes use of the disjunction between an ‘organic’ vocal – and a weak, thin, ‘all-too-human’ organic vocal at that – against a flat, clean electronic or electro-acoustic surface, in order to achieve a similar kind of disjunction. It’s not that the vocal-subject has no relation to the instrumental forces, but that it cannot stick to anything, it slides right off (in the manner of Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) ‘body without organs’ (see 2013)). Thom Yorke’s vocals appear in the music like the appearance of the pedestrian reflected in the black glass of some City megalith.
Most importantly for Burial and his collection of vocal-subjects, which are plural although still self-contained and never approaching a collectivity, the neoliberal city is one in which resistant acts of passion, protest and violence are impossible. Along with the debilitating ambience of control, the moments of disruption are met with swift and brutal state reprisals, whose apparent support from the public, under the rationality of ‘criminality’, silences dissent. Critique itself glides off this frictionless surface; with every escalation of the dehumanisation of society under capitalism, the accompanying lack of effective resistance hardens the sense that criticism is both impossible and perhaps therefore also unwarranted. K-Punk’s title for his formative Burial post ‘London after the Rave’ clearly draws parallels between the moments of excess involved in the rave to that of the riot. I discuss the ‘heterotopian’ potential of the rave, with reference to protest events, in Chapter 5.1. We can clearly experience Burial’s ‘post-dance’ world in terms of ‘post-protest’, by which the vocal-subjects retain the traces of affirmative, utopian movements of the past which, nevertheless, fail to make a mark on the neoliberal track, neither catalysing events or reproducing like a virus, but standing as singular points of light on a canvas of grey haze.
The apparent impotence of the 2011 August Riots, a vital outburst that exploded all across London and England, that transformed the ‘self-evident’ for a few short nights, can be perceived in the swiftness with which they have disappeared from the public consciousness, condemned and then explained away in order to remove all their radical, volatile inexplicability, and wiped off the surface of the neoliberal edifice without making any discernible kind of mark or dent.
All these factors come together to produce the particular sadness of Burial’s music. Post-dance, post-history, post-ideology, post-hope. However, it is not just the vocal-subjects that are free-floating in Burial’s tracks, of course, but the beats and textures themselves. They are the remnants of previous regimes of control, of previous ‘territorialisations’; what might once have been a beat that stretches across a whole set, or an all-encompassing synth progression, stutter into life and fall away just as quickly. They provide temporary homes, but they too are unstuck. The surface of the track is not fitted with a beat or key, but is silent, or spattered only with the sheen of crackle and rain.
One of the defining problems of societies of control, in comparison to disciplinary societies, is their lack of a clear model of normality to which to adhere. No longer does the good, hardworking, respectable WASP family, deployed so extensively in advertising in the early days of the consumer economies, stand up as a formation to which one can aspire (sometimes realistically, sometimes not). At the same time, the surety of religious teaching, of heteronormativity and gender roles, have all dissolved. We are told only to ‘be ourselves’ and ‘to be whatever we want to be’, to follow our dreams, to aspire, but to what? There is nothing to be anymore: not only no grand narratives or great historical causes, but nothing except professionalisation and heritage in the arts, the vanishing spiral of service industries in which everyone is everyone else’s servant, technological inventions that merely transplant fairly untaxing ‘real-life’ activities into a virtual world, for the sake of a semblance of continued innovation (and returns), the transfer of manufacturing to the Global South, cuts in public services, further automation, etc etc. And we can only aspire to be ‘ourselves’, or famous (for being ‘ourselves’). No jobs, no movements, no future. Perhaps it is appropriate, perhaps ironic (or even symptomatic), that this disintegration of an absolute social model to aspire to has taken place at the same time that standards of living in the UK has almost certainly peaked and will now probably begin to decline indefinitely. The first generation of young people, in every social class, who can expect to have it definitively worse than their parents. And even the middle classes must expect to have to worry again about how to make ends meet, how to stay alive, that old distraction from more transcendental, less materialistic aspirations.
Burial’s vocal-subjects are filled with the affirmation of past ideologies, their identities fixed through the logic of now-absent dance worlds, but their expression of these identities made impossible by the lack of a discernible framework. And potential frameworks emerge, for certain. Beats and chords appear which appear to give these vocal-subjects meaning for a second. They indicate towards a potential belonging – the world in which the voices might have been able to express freely and spontaneously – which is not necessarily in the ‘past’. Deleuze’s society of control is characterised by its gaseous structure. Subjects have to adapt to logics which might change from moment to moment. In his Burial essay, Adam Harper points to the vocals in ‘Near Dark’ in particular, as ‘the most powerful instance’ of unquantised rhythmic placement, that makes ‘the voice seem like it’s breaking with emotion’: ‘Rhythmically, the sample moves like a fish in a stream, sometimes swimming against the current of the beat, sometimes propelled forward by it’. The effect is the same as the percussion lines in the central section of ‘Raver’ that just can’t seem to line up. The struggle to make something from what is available, and to make it something to believe in. One never knows when, where a door once was, there might suddenly be a wall, and the sheer arbitrariness of it all becomes evident again:
Félix Guattari has imagined a city where one would be able to leave one's apartment, one's street, one's neighborhood, thanks to one's (individual) electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person's position – licit or illicit – and effects a universal modulation. (Deleuze 1992: 7)Burial’s tracks, EPs and albums erupt with these temporary coherences, when the wandering beats, textures and vocals meet at some particular crossroad or in some plaza, but just as quickly these coherences can be dispersed, via a security camera and a G4S security team, via Section 60, via Olympics-style ‘dispersal zones’, via dystopian bail conditions, via water cannons, wiping them from the granite and slate of these ‘public’ spaces.
Burial the Mahlerian?
Back to Adorno. My hearing of Burial is one in which the space-time of the track evokes and critiques London as neoliberal city, or specifically the idea of a neoliberal city, experienced as the ‘interior’ of global capitalism as spectacle, via the invocation of an ‘interior’ of the dance track as spectacle. This is complimented by a relationship of control between vocal-subject and objective musical forces which suggests the Deleuzian crisis of the disciplinary society, and its traumatic transition into the control society. Clearly, this whole, elaborate interpretation (as much as I do sincerely endorse it, and it really isn’t a massive departure from the other dominant hearings of the music, Burial’s own statements included) is meant to contribute towards an idea of Burial’s historicity, the idea that – using the same homology that Adorno uses of the alienated subject as ‘sensuous particular’ within the social totality of the composition – his music can be heard to express a particularly truthful account of the Western subject’s conditions at the beginning of the twenty-first century (according to the legacies of Debord, Foucault, Deleuze, Virno etc.).10
But it is not only this intra-musical ‘up-to-dateness’ that is behind my claim that a twenty-first century Adorno would like Burial. It is also the attitude of the Subject within its conditions, which is – if anything – even more vital to Adorno’s interpretations. For Adorno, the totalitarian truth of modernity was rendered accurately in a lot of music that he disliked: Stravinsky, serialism, even pop music. This music isn’t mendacious, or expressive of an ‘illusory’ freedom, in the manner of high Classical music, neo-Romanticism and jazz. The problem with this music is that the motivic subject ‘identifies with the collective force of society as the aggressor’. It derives its power vicariously through being assimilated into an impersonal, fascist ‘mob’ of structural relations imposed from above. It is my wager that Burial’s music expresses a resistant subject through the manifest failure of the ‘dream’ of purity and harmony – not only of the construction of an all-encompassing groove into which the vocal-subject fits, but also the expressive potential of song form through which the vocal-subject can articulate a harmonious world through spontaneous musical action. In this way, Burial’s music can be understood best in relation to Adorno’s work on Gustav Mahler.
According to Witkin:
In Adorno’s treatment of modernism, Mahler is a composer who excels at the creation of this tension between expression and form, especially the art of using the musical language inherited from Viennese classicism against its own inherent intentions. The grand symphonic style, the elaborate programmatic content, the evocations of nature, are all there but are deployed in ways that deconstruct the very model from which they are drawn. Irony and deconstruction are central to Mahler’s modernism. (1998: 104)Burial is post-dance in the way that Mahler is post-Romantic. The hypothetical (spectral) ‘tracks’ that are intimated in his music fall apart or deconstruct themselves in a manner that reveals their impossibility or hopelessness. The ideal of the dance track as a self-enclosed, coherent ‘world’, bounded by the bass and the beat, is severely problematised, just as the ‘freedom’ of the vocal-subject within these ideal worlds is belied by their rigidity as sampled melodies. It is the vocal-subjects of the songs which articulate this most perfectly, in their eminent dislocation and displacement, stolen from other worlds that do not really exist, or – if they did – were never wholly truthful. Mahler’s melodies, quotations, lyrical lines and folk dances fall apart in the same way, never developing organically into the kind of classically-proportioned sonata movements that constituted Mozart’s lie of enlightenment perfection. As Witkin glosses: ‘For all their particularity, Mahler’s sensuous details remain, in relation to the idea of totality, essentially incomplete’ (118). And this is wholly true of Burial’s vocal apparitions as well.
In the way that I have outlined it, Burial’s musical strategy can be aligned with Mahler’s music, which ‘imitates the world’s course – its bleak banality – in order to resist and oppose it’ (115). The crux of this ‘resistance’ emerges in Adorno’s idea of negativity:
It is Adorno’s argument that art must imitate the alienating force of modern society as it manifests itself in the banality of a world abandoned by the spiritual, but only in order to force that banality to express the spiritual negatively. (115)The ‘spiritual’ takes a shape in its very absence, in the desperate urgency of its pregnant vacuum. The often devastating beauty of Burial’s music and the ever-present reference to angels and haloes, visitations of the spiritual in the midst of the utmost banality and bleakness, takes its form in this negative image. It is manifestly clear to anyone who has listened to Burial that any discussion of dingy London streets and contemporary alienation must also be able to deal with this beauty, which is possibly the music’s primary feature.
I believe that the notions of failure and of resilience are key here. As mentioned before, there is an incredible poignancy to the failure of the vocal-subjects to initiate their own songs, to assimilate themselves within or affect the world in which they move. The weakness and impotence of these voices is our weakness, and it is a deeply ethical weakness, which Adorno considered paramount:
An acceptance of weakness, an acknowledgement of smallness, of pain and defeat is characteristic of the music of Berg and of Schoenberg. Adorno sees such music as deeply compassionate, as inscribing even in fragmentary dissolutions, a deep compassion with all suffering victims. (128)And yet, in their extreme weakness and impotence, these voices are resilient and affirmative. They keep singing, and singing their old songs of love and attachment, hope and companionship, or of a suffering that is real and human, even if we are hearing it heavily mediated and several times removed. And as voices, they find new, ephemeral moments in which to make some brief meaning, stumbling across some glowing chord or rattling beat against which, for a moment, their song (or what Fisher, via Ian Penman, calls ‘the Song’, which we hear being ‘erased’ in dub practice (2006a)) can ring out clearly, and all the more poignantly because of the certainty of its subsequent failure. And you could say that to sing is always to affirm vitality, we always sing ‘in spite of’; as Deleuze himself wrote, with Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: ‘Music is never tragic, music is joy’ (Deleuze & Guattari 2013: 299)
This is a particular feature of Burial’s music because of his ubiquitous use of vocal samples. There is always a vocal-subject present, a human presence that cannot be completely erased (even if they remain, as Fisher says, ‘under erasure’ (2006a)). In this way, because of the resilient humanity which drifts across the city surface, the failure articulated in Burial is also a failure of the neoliberal city as an ideal, which cannot totally erase the humanity of the subject, a failure of the spectacle whose interior is not completely clean and blank, a failure of the control society, whose passing moments of solidity resound with a redoubled beauty and hope, even as they fall apart.
The subject of modernity, weak, overwhelmed and defeated…survived, as in Beethoven’s late style, not through its identity with the forms that constitute the banal but through its non-identity with them, its capacity to realise itself in mutually deconstructive counter-forms. (Witkin 1998: 60)It is in this spirit, as part of an ongoing struggle on the part of the vocal-subjects to sing their songs again, that last year’s Rival Dealer EP felt like such an event. From the plaintive opening lines of ‘U Hurt Me’, via the tongue-tied sobs of ‘Kindred’ and the multiphonic voice on ‘Rough Sleeper’ that can’t quite rest in the harmony, there is a desire for consummation and for peace in song which feels like it is achieved by the end of this latest EP. It is the desire, as stated previously, for a refuge from the anguish of being-in-the-world. In the language of the record, and Burial’s comments on it, we can hear it as the visitation of the archangel, who has been called upon from at least Untrue onwards. The sense of arrival, the repetition of the ‘come down to us’ sample, is palpable through the first two tracks on Rival Dealer, and when it does come down, it is like the fulfillment of the promise that opens ‘Loner’: ‘There is something out there’.
The best dub always has a relationship to a certain sweetness of (the) Song. The white take-up of dub has often seemed to think that you can make dub more intense by entirely removing those elements and simply turning up the bass… Course the point is that the bass sounds all the more powerful BY CONTRAST with those sweet elements (and the Song sounds all the more plaintive, all the more affecting for being disappeared in front of our ears - that's why the best dub is literally sublime). (Fisher 2006b)
The very opening of ‘Come Down To Us’ weirdly evokes the beginning of Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’, but the prayer seems not to have been answered, for at least the first four minutes of the track. The track is then interrupted by alien interference, black-out, ‘the unknown’, a new direction, but manages to start up again after five minutes, perhaps unaffected. Towards the seven-minute mark, we escape from the questing but repetitive jam, into silence and solitude, and it is here that the vision occurs. What we get in the second half of the track is the closest that a Burial vocal-subject has ever got to singing its song. It even has a fairly regular song structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus, over which it develops and expresses its own coherent melodic material. What is absolutely crucial about this song as a moment of spiritual consummation for the vocal-subject (and something that pre-empts the next few chapters of this series) is that the vocal initiates the musical changes, which articulate the structure of its Song. First bringing in the chorus at 7:42, then starting the verse up again at 8:17, and filling in the ‘missing’ parts of the verse the second time round – ‘there’s no-one like you’ – before restarting the chorus at 9:06, and finally kicking the final chorus off at 10:36 with the statement: ‘You are not alone’. Immediately after this, we hear that same sample from ‘Loner’ – ‘There is something out there’ – but it is answered by the vocal-subject, within the song: ‘Sent from up above’.
It is not a perfectly-formed Song, it is still fragile and liable to disintegrate. But its beauty comes from how hard-won it is, the sheer struggle of bringing it together from the mist and chaos of Burial’s song world. In the bare open space of the track, there is nothing to force it together, no guiding logic. The ‘angelic’ force (or deus ex machina) is not the vocal-subject here, nor necessarily those numinous synth clouds, but the possibility of combining them in a way that – for a few minutes – gives the vocal-subject back their sense of self.11 And this is, of course, the message of the record, its fragile intervention, summed up in its final moments in the Lana Wachowski speech, and brought home in Burial’s later statements:
I wanted the tunes to be anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them. So it's like an angel's spell to protect them against the unkind people, the dark times, and the self-doubts. (Burial, quoted on spin.com 2014)James Blake and the Preservation of the Subject
This preservation of the vocal-subject, in spite of (and in defiance of) the fragmentation of song form, key and metre, and the alienation of the vocals from the rest of the track, can be understood as the project of James Blake’s music, from his early EPs to his most recent album. His early tracks on The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke were constructions in which the vocal, where it did appear, was always threatening to disappear. These mediated, sampled voices were always on the verge of being fully assimilated into what was often the hollow outline of total dance track, filling the spaces like petrified caryatids, post-human, rationalised into instrumental forces just as the synths are ‘humanised’ through strange timbres and modulations, sharing the same ambiguous middle-ground. But just as the vocal-subject seemed to risk a total disappearance into the post-human apparatus of the fully rationalised machine, his next recordings radically re-affirmed the singular humanity of the vocal-subject.
First with his cover of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ which made a cavernous space in which to expose his own voice with all its grain (that familiar guttural gloop lubricating between registers), then with the release of his debut LP in February 2011 and, most strikingly, the simultaneous cover (in a Radio 1 Maida Vale session) of another Canadian songwriter: Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You’. This was an extraordinary cover because it was so organic, so pliable, making use of only voice and piano, conspiring to express a radical freedom – of tempo, rhythm and timbre, but also of harmony and melodic ornamentation – by no means straitjacketed to the memory of the original recording (or, indeed, to common practices of keyboard writing), but re-expressing the original sentiment through bouts of spontaneous soulfulness.
Since February 2011, Blake’s work has been all about saving the free, expressive and human vocal-subject (and pianist-subject) from the threat of assimilation and disappearance that was articulated on his first EPs. The vocal tracks through which he appears are, to different degrees, fitted into, buried beneath or interpellated by a terrifying reserve of electronic machinery. James Blake, the album, is an ongoing struggle to preserve song form, and the singing subject, against this machinery which is not violent in a coercive sense, in the sense of the futurhythmachine and the controlling groove (see Chapter 1.3), but more in its absolute indifference to the voice’s humanity. I have argued in a previous post about how the singing voice in ‘Wilhelm Scream’ is enveloped by an apathetic bed of sound, which effaces the melodic patterns and structures contained within the repeated vocal verse, eliding all its differences. This process is restaged on ‘I Never Learnt To Share’, from which the plural voice of the subject is eventually blasted away by an agglomeration of synths (3:41), and later on ‘Retrograde’, from Overgrown, in which the laser-like synth chord that erupts with the chorus (1:39) remains as a pedal which can’t be shaken off. In fact, it is almost the governing rule of Blake’s compositions that they begin with voice, and piano, and are gradually overtaken (or overgrown?) with digital lines and structures, in which the voice is lost in a cloud, or – on some tracks on Overgrown – assimilated into a more totalitarian dance texture.
‘Voyeur’ stages the most dramatic erasure of the vocal-subject, ‘dubtraction’ in real-time. As on previous track ‘Life Round Here’, the vocal track has an ambiguous identity between repeated sampled phrase and free expressive verse. What might have sounded, at the beginning of ‘Voyeur’, like a repeated chorus hook, which is given space to develop in an airy verse section, is then reframed as a sampled fragment, progressively wrapped with long, gliding synth lines and beats until the vocal phrase itself loses any independent identity and fades into the background. The texture clears a little before a clean break, and the instrumental texture and beat comes back in as a total edifice, but with the vocal erased (3:12). We hear the vocal-subject, in frozen sampled form, recur very faintly and deep within the texture, before the song concludes, but it is totally integrated within the instrumental forces. The brief pause can be heard as ‘forgetting’ the original song through which the phrase developed – its provenance in organic human expression – and re-establishing it as another part of an imposed whole. (The opposite happens in ‘Digital Lion’, when the voice attempts to develop a broader phrase despite already being integrated into the instrumental forces from the outset. In terms of the resistance of the structure against the totalitarian assimilation of EDM structures, it is the most dystopian track on these albums).
Meanwhile, ‘Give Me My Month’ and ‘DLM’ – along with the Joni Mitchell cover – stand as testament to Blake’s dream of autonomy against which every struggle should be judged. The promise of these tracks, glowing behind each subsequent recording, is a constant reminder of the vocal’s otherwise unfreedom, and the almost universal failure of the vocal-subject to maintain its identity in the face of digitization gives a definite sadness to these songs, as exceptions and possibly delusions of self-possession and self-knowledge. As with Burial, it is the persistent attempt to realise this self-possession, despite failure after failure, that gives James Blake’s music its Adornian morality. He acknowledges the unstoppable tide of digital atomisation, rationalisation and control, and yet continues to assert the radically subjective song form in face of it. And he ends both James Blake and Overgrown on a note of hope; the final tracks ‘Measurements’ and ‘Our Love Comes Back’ seem to resist the disappearance or disintegration of the vocal to the end. While there is some ambiguity in the pitched-up hum that closes Overgrown, suggesting a slightly uncanny instrumental quality to this non-linguistic vocal sound, the congregation of heterogeneous, layered vocals that close ‘Measurements’ appear to have exorcised the threat of assimilation.
The Suffering Vocal-Subject
Burial’s stubborn use of vocal samples, and James Blake’s stubborn references to song form, secure their music within an Adornian ethics in which the subject ‘suffers [the] absurdity, fragmentation and meaninglessness [of technological administered society] and yet… somehow endures, somehow resists being absorbed, refuses identity’. To reiterate Witkin’s formulation:
Criticism, [for Adorno,] meant that in depicting the objective truth of the power of the collective force of modern bureaucratic society and the weakness of the individual subjects who are its victims, an artist like Kafka struck from it an expression of the suffering of the victims, a sense of what has been done to them, of what was withheld from them, of loss and absence. In the presence of this absence, as disclosed in the sufferings of society’s victims, the artist provided a via negativa from which to glimpse utopia. (1998: 4)These artists share ‘the compassion of Mahler as an artist for the weak and defeated and his opposition to the strong’ (114). What’s fascinating about Burial’s music in particular is that the vocal samples which are lifted from out of past, vanished worlds – the closed ‘disciplinary’ worlds of the dance track, no less – provide a glimpse of utopia not as a return to these vanished worlds (the ‘actual’ rave of the past, the spectre of a ‘real’ movement) but instead project forward to a world yet-to-come (the ideal rave of the future, the spectre as unrealised potential). And this is effected through the fragmentation of their illusory harmoniousness, the prying open of cracks in the ‘lie’ of the happy dance world, in what is a classically Expressionist manoeuvre. And here we return to the canonical texts of Burial Studies: all of this emerges clearly in Retromania and in K-Punk’s posts – the Burial LP as haunted by ‘what could still happen’ – and his quotation about dubtraction as ‘the production of virtualities, implied songs all the sweeter for their lack of solid presence’ (quoted in Goodman 2010: 159).
The Voice as vocal-subject, as human presence (even in absence or ‘under erasure’), is integral to this musical ethics, as the free motivic subject is to Adorno. Understood in this way, it finds something of its obverse in those electronic subgenres critically aligned to notions of ‘accelerationism’ or the ‘post-human’. This would include vaporwave, in all its manifestations, and also the affiliated music of Oneohtrix Point Never, which deals extensively and fundamentally with problematising the notion of the Voice, in relation to the individual subject or as human presence. As the empty room on the cover of R Plus Seven should attest, the vocal-subject in Oneohtrix Point Never has long since disappeared. The Subject has given out, has stopped resisting, has been absorbed, and the many ‘voices’ which can be heard throughout the record give expression to a frightening post-human, post-subject vocal music that places us beyond the angelic redemption promised by Burial.
There are good reasons to stand with Burial and Adorno (and James Blake and Mahler) and affirm the survival of the Subject, even though there might also be reasons given to allow it to falter and die. The preservation of the human vocal-subject is also its preservation against deconstruction and critique; the mediated, processed vocal is also a post-gender vocal after all. But there is another final, more political implication to this hearing, which returns us to Lacan and the notion of the ‘Real’ interior of capital. The affirmation of Burial’s vocal-subjects, who keep singing with the trace of real human voices and languages, undoes a double lie. The empty, absent centre (of the ‘neoliberal city’) in which Burial’s tracks unfurl might be perceived as the cold ‘control room’ behind the brash spectacle of capitalism – the media, consumer goods, ideologies, entertainment, etc. Vaporwave, as a genre, plays on the fissure between these orders: the ‘Imaginary’ smiling face of the corporation and the ‘Real’ deadness behind its eyes. Yet this very interior space, of the soulless corporate boardroom or the clean, empty neoliberal plaza, is itself an ‘Imaginary’ space. Capitalism is not a soulless robot machine, a conspiracy of men in suits, pure chrome and glass and cash. It is the greatest coup of global capitalism to present itself as such, to slip hints of the steely corporate aesthetic behind the ironic marketing or the earnest lifestyle product, to get the conscience of the West to rail against the corporation, against consumerism, against ‘capitalism’ as a kind of tastelessly inhuman aesthetic. Vaporwave, through its subtle culture-jamming, alludes to this kind of conspiracy theory.
But this is all a ruse to distract from the real ‘Real’ – the properly unbearable truth of global capitalism – which is that it is all predicated on real human suffering, on the exploitation and immiseration, and the violent deaths of billions across the world and throughout history (and probably even more millions of unsuspecting future humans, ghosts of the future indeed). This blank interior space, the City of London, the cold fluorescent light behind the advertising poster, is merely a place-holder for other spaces in other places and times: the sweatshop, the coltan mine, the shipping container, the prison, the hold of the slave ship, the mass grave. It is by putting the human back in, refusing to erase it in a masochistic fantasy of post-human dystopia, that these artists attest to this abiding truth. People do still live in the cities, even though they are hidden. Life can take root in the cracks of a capitalist landscape that isn’t all-powerful. Deleuze’s control (just like Bernard Hogan-Howe’s police force) is not total, real resistance happens on the ground, between real humans, and real oppression takes the same form. The figure of the all-powerful corporation lurking behind the capitalist spectacle is a convenient fantasy which must be resisted. And this remains the halo of hope in Burial’s music, allowing his vocal-subjects to maintain their faith in angels.
1 Sam Kriss, who writes on critical theory, politics and pop culture at Idiot Joy Showland, has pre-empted this essay with his post: ‘Guest column: the ghost of Theodor Adorno reviews Sepalcure’s self-titled album’. In a typically wry fashion, Kriss’s pastiche imagines a revenant Adorno’s reaction to post-dubstep which is only half tongue-in-cheek. His imagined Adorno makes similar conclusions to mine: “The repetitiveness of dubstep was not, as in other forms of popular music, a mere manifestation of the prevailing mode of mechanical reproduction, but when coupled with the overall air of alienation, actually constituted a critique of it”… “it shattered the illusion of leisure as an escape from the banalities of life under late capitalism”… “Sepalcure maintain the disjointedness of dubstep while casting aside the actual musical vehicle it formerly inhabited”… “as a reaction against prevailing conditions it does constitute a radical work”, etc. It’s definitely worth a read.↩
2 Some of the foundational writings in this burgeoning sub-discipline, with which I will be primarily engaging, are Adam Harper’s essay ‘The Premature Burial’ on Rouge’s Foam, Mark Fisher’s posts on his K-Punk blog, Retromania and Simon Reynolds’s contribution to the ‘hauntology’ argument, and the discourse around a few interviews with the man himself, which certainly stoked the debate in the right kind of way.↩
3 If we hear any note of bleakness or sadness in this new social world, which we’re told is contemporary London, it is up to the listener-critic to make sense of its nature and cause. Hence, I take this basic musical tension and politicise it via my own experience of London and its sadness. If we listen hard and still hear the sadness of London in the tracks, it makes sense that we should find its real situation and problems reflected back to us. In this way, I use Burial’s music to open up a hearing which permeates the complexities of the situation; as far as I’m concerned, this is what music criticism is for. It is true that I can easily find the things that I listen out for, it is not hard to do. But this shouldn’t be a problem. The question is not ‘does Burial’s music fully and accurately represent the political reality of the contemporary urban subject?’ but ‘if we cannot say it does, can we really persevere in attesting that we really hear London in this music?’. It’s just sounds, after all; if you were to argue with me about what can or can’t ‘be heard’ in Burial’s sonic London, what I’d be arguing for is nothing less than an aesthetic life, attuned as we are to the representational qualities of art, in which one finds a politically progressive worldview reflected back to one, and re-confirmed, re-enlivened, re-enflamed with each pleasurable re-hearing.↩
4 'Burial: Pirate radio crackle, vinyl crackle – I like. But most of all I like rain. Fire. I’ve got recordings of rain and fire crackle that would put most electronica producers to shame they’re so fucking heavy. That crackle sits over my drums, hides the space between them. When I started making music I could see through it and I was disappointed because it destroyed the mystery for a bit. But when I chuck crackle over it, it hides it under layers, it’s no longer mine. And you get a feel of a real environment.
'Martin: It’s insane because your use of crackle is exactly the reason why about two years ago I started using sonic ‘keysounds’ in tunes and why I started Keysound Recordings, because I felt I could see ‘through’ the space in the tunes between the percussion into empty space and because I wanted to fill that space with an environment, my urban environment and consequently to place my tunes in that space.' (Burial, interview for Blackdown 2006)↩
5 Thinking about an opposition of interior/exterior in this way, as behind or in front of a ‘flat’ spectacular world, reminds me of Gaspar Noé’s film Enter The Void. After his death, having ‘crossed over’, the protagonist (I/eye) of the film floats freely over the world. He is ‘outside’ of the living world, but as an ‘insider’, enlightened by death, his strange and sublime visions positioning him nearer to the terrifying ‘Real’ than the world of representation (underlined by the film’s setting in gaudy Tokyo) in which the living remain.↩
6 What is on the 'other side' of this music? Vaporwave, as a genre, explores the idea of a corporate sonic spectacle most vehemently and critically, but any number of pop styles could fulfil this role. What is the ‘Song’ in Burial, that we never hear? There are times when I feel like, if you turned Burial inside out, you’d hear Moby. Something that taps into the same soft spirituality, borne by ambient music and vocal samples, but – in the case of Moby – from the position of great power and conventionality, a kind of global corporate zen as the sunny side of Burial’s desperate, pathetic search for angels in the murk.↩
7 This turn of phrase invokes the Ian Penman article, that Fisher quotes with reference to Burial, about ‘dub's materialist sorcery in which “the seam of its recording was turned inside out for us to hear and exult in; when we had been used to the ‘re’ of recording being repressed, recessed, as though it really were just a re-presentation of something that already existed in its own right” (cited in Fisher 2006a).↩
8 Also: 'I don’t think Burial set out to make a funeral for soul music. But none of these lush R&B voices are alive. They’re all haunting broken speakers. They’re all coming from abandoned houses, the middle of empty streets, the floor under your flat where sometimes you hear someone tapping at the walls but that can’t be right because no-one’s lived down there in years. Vocals loop like the old stories of ghosts returning to perform the same motions night after night' (Ellis 2007).↩
9 Burial himself says of his vocals: “When you are young you are pushed around by forces that are nothing to do with you. You’re lost, most of the time you don't understand what’s going on with yourself, with anything.” (Interview with the Wire 2012).↩
10 Both Harper and K-Punk would seem to back up this claim; Harper calls Burial ‘one of the first truly twenty-first century composers’, while K-Punk called the Burial LP (back in 2006) ‘very London Now’. Interestingly both these intimations at historicity – the present-ness of the music – are still qualified by references to the future: ‘lost futures’ in the latter, ‘a foretaste of music to come’ in the former.↩
11 Elsewhere: “You see people, and you’re disconnected from them, they mean fuck-all to you, but other times you can invest everything in someone you don’t even know, silently believe in them, it might be on the underground or in a shop or something. You hope people are doing that with you as well. Some people, even when they’re quite young, and they’re in difficulty, maybe taking a battering in their life, but they still handle themselves with grace. I hope most people can be like that, hold it together, I wanted this album to be for people in that situation.” (Burial, interview with the Wire 2012).↩