In this episode I would like to talk about trauma, loss and hauntology, and the ways in which different creative mediums function as environments with which to process these concepts. I am going to compare writing and music, the two outlets I use in my own life, to process shit stuff that happens and has happened. The two function in different ways, and have different merits - I’m going to make a case that by investigating the different processes at work within the two, an understanding can be found of how and why art, personal practice, and eventual output, can be tools with which we can upack our own feelings, and grow as individuals.
Importantly, I’m not going to go into elaborate specifics about personal trauma - I have an obligation both to myself and to the individuals who exist in a state of loss, who have prompted a lot of these thoughts, to remain abstract. This episode will be incredibly subjective, at least in the beginning. That being said, do not worry - this won’t be an agony aunt recording, where I list various bad things that have happened in the past year. As ever, these are just thoughts, from one perspective - aired in a series which first and foremost, is a look inward - into how and why art and the process of its creation, is transformative.
In order to try and keep this anchored in dance music - to keep some focus with this episode, I am going to try and relate a lot of my understanding of personal trauma -in regards to creativity-, into how it fits in within dance music, and its legacy. This obviously, is a little daunting - and I want to make clear that I’m not going to try and compare whatever unpleasantness I have dealt with - all the nasty shit that has prompted these thoughts - with any broader, more far reaching traumas within the sphere of dance music. Rather, put it to you that perhaps some of the processes which occur in the wake of loss, on an individual level, can help to contextualize important - and often unheard - discourse around the more sinister events of loss that can be found in the frequently whitewashed history of dance music.
So yeah, bear with me through the look inwards, and I’ll try and broaden the comparisons today into a methodology that can perhaps be helpful to anyone listening.
As ever, all works cited are listed below this, written transcript available through Patreon.
It has been a shit year. Despite this bassy mumble, I am actually in most cases the baby of my social circles. I’m 23, and in the past year I have experienced some things that, objectively, most people don’t have to see or feel, if they’re lucky, in their lifetime. Loss, a contagious and evolving presence, has for the past twelve months become a constant in my life. Much in the way that depression can have the knock on effect of taking things from you which in turn take and take more and more, loss, and loved objects which are in perpetual departure, leave you static. Serious, real world, grown up trauma, is a nightmare to process. Particularly in an age where we are busier, more stressed, mediate our lives through a screen, and often feel pressured to rely on social media as a lifeline or outlet, more so than ever before. Thinking this through, has been a way of coming to terms, with the absence of loved ones, and understanding that different art forms function in different ways in their capacity to process the shit stuff that happens in life.
I have two outlets, creatively. More than two even: Music, (production, DJ’ing, organizing) and writing (Fiction, nonfiction, essays - whatever). A big motivator for beginning this series was realizing that a lot of the stuff I write about music tends to be dense, and scattered, and not particularly publishable. I realized after a while that maybe speaking these episodes out loud, might make them a bit more accessible - time constraints removed.
I’m sure that many people, particularly in the world of dance music, have more than one outlet for dealing with their bullshit. I hope so anyway. Even if it can be stressful trying to split time, and pursue multiple crafts simultaneously, it’s surely better than to have none. Importantly - with all of this, to have a creative pursuit doesn't mean it has to be recognized. If someone makes tracks in the middle of the woods and no one is there to hear it - it’s still fun, and cathartic. I write as much as I can, and have nothing published - ha - but it is still something I labor over, lovingly - and it is still a way in which I process the world, find meaning, and understand myself better.
So. Again, I still haven’t really got to the point. The point is, in the wake of loss, and of trauma, artists - who are just normal people - struggle to come to terms with their new reality. Can’t figure out how to move forward. Art can seem redundant, or alien. Lifelong outlets suddenly inaccessible, uninviting. The phrase I used earlier - perpetual departure - isn’t an original. It comes from Barthes. He uses it to describe the state of the lost object - it is always moving away from us, while we are static, stationary, unable to move on.
Quote - ‘Now, absence can exist only as a consequence of the other: it is the other who leaves, it is I who remain. The other is in a condition of perpetual departure, of journeying; the other is, by vocation, migrant, fugitive: I - I who love, by converse vocation, am sedentary, motionless, at hand, in expectation, nailed to the spot, in suspense - like a package in some forgotten corner of a railway station. Amorous absence functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves: an always present I is constituted only by confrontation with an always absent you’.
Included in the description below this recording, is a link to “A Lover’s Discourse” - which is a compilation of Barthes’ thoughts that relate to love, and are organized thematically around the different areas of lost love. I would highly recommend it for anyone who is having a hard time with matters of the heart, both platonic and romantic.
I have been in this stationary state for some time. It sucks. And beliefs I held before all of this, about trauma, absence, and loss, have certainly proved to be true.
Creating art, too close to its brutal subject, can often be impossible. I found this to be the case. The following is a slightly modified excerpt from an attempt to capture the way I felt about writing, during an ongoing series of loss this year. I’ve cut out a few names and phrases but you’ll get the idea:
I have an assignment due. It is the day before Thanksgiving and Y leaves for the day. I haven’t been able to write for weeks. I sit at a desk in the childhood playroom of my partner, avoiding eye contact with a (aging?) re-elect Reagan poster across from me. Around my feet are toy trucks and brick-a-brack. A reminder of time and potential, artifacts of Blakeian innocence that lose meaning with age . Nothing comes. I want to write a clever story based on having a tooth pulled without insurance last year - I think about extraction as a theme, make it a breakup tale - funny and sad congruent, how clever. I type out a few pages but it all seems hollow. It all seems meaningless. I haven’t taken a solid shit for weeks, the migraines are twice daily, my universe is centered around - redacted -, and them alone. What use are words on a page now.
I try to write about X. That fails too. Anything that hits the keyboard seems either voyeuristic or false. A misrepresentation of my own feelings, the chronology. Fiction isn't working. Plus what if they recover and read this, what if they hate me for it. If. There it is. That’s the big one. Writing is bringing me nothing but misery today. All the past few hours have done is force me to reckon with my worst feeling, my gut instinct - the very real possibility that X will never come back. That they are gone.
Obviously - there is probably some narcissism here. I wouldn’t have included this if I thought it was total dogshit. But the point is that it was part of a longer piece, in which I struggled with using writing to grapple with trauma, as I always have been able to do. Writing, as I understand it, is perhaps the medium which comes closest to capturing our souls. It is differentiated from other mediums, by its contingency on language. The final product is formed out of the same words which exist inside our head, vocalize our thoughts and feelings. But in the wake of trauma, everything is scrambled. Trauma, by its very nature, throws you off course. And words can be of little use processing this, if we do not (don’t)understand how we feel, or really comprehend the effect that the trauma has had upon us, on our worldview.
There are exceptions of course. Writing that discusses loss, and absence, which we know was produced very soon after said loss. Rick Moody, for example, a fantastic writer, wrote a piece called Demonology, shortly after the death of his sister. In line with the title, it is a devastating piece that captures hauntology and grief. It begins with the memory of her children on Halloween. But even in this, it ends with an acknowledgement of the uncertainty that comes in trying to capture loss with writing. The final note, of a brutally dark piece, which does the impossible and seems to capture Moody’s emptiness, and devastation, is one that highlights how impossible this actually is to do with the medium of writing.
‘I should fictionalize it more, I should conceal myself. I should consider the responsibilities of characterization, I should conflate her two children into one, or reverse their genders, or otherwise alter them, I should make her boyfriend a husband, I should explicate all the tributaries of my extended family (its remarriages, its internecine politics), I should novelize the whole thing, I should make it multigenerational, I should work in my forefathers (stone masons and newspapermen), I should let artifice create an elegant surface, I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I'm not angry, I shouldn't clutter a narrative with fragments, with mere recollections of good times, or with regrets, I should make Meredith's death shapely and persuasive, not blunt and disjunctive, I shouldn't have to think the unthinkable, I shouldn't have to suffer, I should address her here directly (these are the ways I miss you), I should write only of affection, I should make our travels in this earthly landscape safe and secure, I should have a better ending, I shouldn't say her life was short and often sad, I shouldn't say she had her demons, as I do too.’
Amazing right? The whole story is pretty short and worth a read. He manages to capture, in a single run-on sentence, simultaneously everything I felt while trying to write this past year, and everything I could not capture. There is an important subtext to this passage - one that I’m going to touch on in a second when we turn to looking at music. It is the dilemma of specificity.
But. First. Moody is an established author, a professional. I am not. And as I realized this year, as I tried unsuccessfully, to make sense of loss, and trauma, I came to accept that perhaps writing, in most cases, is not a medium that can work until the dust has settled, at least for me.
In realizing this, I looked to music. Perhaps, it is a medium more suited to situations like these. It was. And through being able to write music in this time, as best I could, when writing words had failed, it made me think more about why this might be the case. Why music could be the only outlet in this interim period. Why it could address and work through trauma, creatively, in real time. What similarities there are between the two forms, what differences affect the timing for which they can be utilized to get past loss.
The central idea I want to get across today, is that music is a unique medium, one which can channel this state of personal loss, whilst remaining untainted by specifics, context, the explicit. This is where an important theme in Moody’s last sentence comes into play. Like writing, it incorporates symbolism - indeed, it’s often formed out of symbolism, particularly within the mechanics of dance music - but unlike writing, there is a degree of subjectivity which can be retained. If I choose to detail, unpack, and process pain with words - I must bare my soul to an audience with words. I must somehow articulate, both beautifully and effectively, sensations I cannot even describe to a partner who knows me better than anyone else in this world. I must create a product which is explicit, and perfect - that captures experiences of real people and real trauma and real shit - which will remain in the public domain forever. A statement, one to be tied off with finality.
Again, as I said earlier, this argument isn’t unique to a professional level. Committing words to a page, can be ominous enough - an exposure to an audience doesn’t have to be the ultimate fear. But as an artist, time is short. Hours poured into creativity in downtime are numbered, and rare. And it can be hard not to have an audience in mind - with either medium.
Music, on the other hand, has the ability to address all these same elements, all this pain, all of the uncertainty and powerlessness and fear I want to write about. But it retains a degree of ambiguity. Within both genres a perpetual departure may be repurposed, processed. It can be universalized through sharing, in the same way that the cathartic element of comedy functions. It is beamed outward, consumed, extended to community. But. With music, a public voicing of anguish and loss, takes the artistic form of sound, where the intent, at least explicitly, is veiled.
I’d like, for a moment - to try and illustrate this with an example from dance music, to try and break down a track that has always struck me as one that addresses loss. I will examine, and detail my interpretation of ‘Before You Sleep’, by the artist Bruce.
Now, Bruce -aka Larry McCarthy, is a close friend of mine. And someone I could easily have reached out to to explain his process in writing this piece. How he felt, who or what it concerned. But, I don’t think we need to do that here. Importantly, I loved this piece of music long before I ever knew its creator personally, and I think it is more helpful to approach this breakdown from the perspective I held for years when listening to it. How I interpreted the art, in regards to my own sensibilities and feelings. That seems like it will provide a more universal benefit. If you are listening to this podcast, you will undoubtedly have tracks that stir the same feelings within you, sonic pieces that you turn to time after time again in various situations. Blackdown mentioned once in an interview with Benji B, how in most cases, it’s often the emotional dance music tracks that really stick with you -as opposed to bangers.
Like me, you probably never tried to break down why, from a technical or musicological perspective; tried to understand the mechanics of the piece, and how they evoke this instant emotion within you. It is also possible that you don’t care, and don’t want to dig too deeply into this love.
Now however, I’m going to try and transpose the internal impressions I get from listening to this piece, and try to show how I perceive the track to function, technically. How its construction and physical presentation may serve to provoke the emotions I feel whilst listening to it.
I think that this is a good example to illustrate these ideas around music as a unique medium, loss, and specificity. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to play the track, for copyright reasons. I will double check that before finalizing this.
But maybe, words will do for now. And if it can’t be included here, I would ask you to pause this recording for a second, and listen to the piece start to finish . On good speakers of course, have some decency.
Aite - ready?
So for the purpose of this dissection, I think it’s a good idea to view the track in three sections. The opening, the introduction of the new element (the synth), and the ensuing combination of the two in the final third. The track opens with the beat, which clearly, is a heartbeat. We can tell from the textural differences between the double hits - the first feels slightly stretched, at a slightly higher pitch. It lends to the pulsing effect, and mimics an actual heartbeat in that it loops, but the minor differences between the two beats keep the impression of things moving forward. There is a forward progression, which allows the piece to remain aimed at the dancefloor.
This is important to notice - the practical construction of the piece. It is mixable, and -perhaps- intended to be played in a dancing environment. It is constructed with practicality by its creator, it becomes functional in its utility. This is significant, for reasons I’m going to outline in this interpretation: it is one crucial facet that contributes to what -I think- gives the track its power. Subversion.
It has a necessary degree of functionality. Obviously, there are no - air quotes - “rules” to dance music. Especially when we adopt a DIY ethos and approach. That being said, there are some general rules, or rather, essential structures, which allow a track to be played on a dancefloor + keep the listener engaged. ‘Before You Sleep’ adheres to this. Aside from the obvious, consistent beat, we see new elements introduced at sixteen bar intervals - the first, sinister drone comes in after a section of just the beat, then once the track has dropped back in, we wait another sixteen for it to return etc. We don’t have to go too deep into this, but the important thing is that the track is always moving forward, even at the beginning when the soundscape is sinister, mournful.
If we place the heartbeat kick within the opening soundscape, there is an undeniable element of humanity to the track. This kick drum choice is deliberate, and while functional enough to be played in the club, tells us something. The growth of the track, subconsciously seems to have a personal nature, with the ultimate human noise(/sound?) as its bedrock.
I think here it’s actually hard to differentiate whether this is a human noise or a human sound. Noise, at its core, is often something unwanted, abrasive. Sound on the other hand, typically pleasurable, sculpted with intent. Another factor that contributes - i think - to the subtext of growth within the palette of Before You Sleep, is an evolution of the heartbeat kick. A heartbeat alone can be a sound which is abrasive. Oftentimes when we really listen to our own heart, it is in moments of silence, reflection, stillness. In line with this, at the beginning, it seems to sit firmly in the noise category. By the end, it has turned into a sound via the other elements which evolve around it. I’ll touch on this in a sec.
Alright, I’m gonna just dive into how I hear this track, and what it means to me, rather than lay out each section technically.
I heard this track before I knew Larry. Long before even. I don’t exactly remember the first time I heard it, perhaps it didn’t register then, maybe it meant more at a later point. But I do remember the times when I have listened to it, in the following years. And for better or worse I remember the situations in which I listened to it too.
Over the years, my interpretation, and what it means to me has shifted - naturally. But at its core - for me - it is a track about loss. I won’t try to dig into why this might be the case for the artist, but I have a hunch this is right. And again, being a piece of music, it is subjective - applicable to multiple instances and examples of encounters with loss. For my reading, I want to return to Barthe’s idea of the lost object being in perpetual departure, the loser of the object (no pun intended) remaining static, unable to grow. Obviously, this is taking place on a different level than the physical. In the same way concepts exist such as the salient metric of suffering. Pain, and hurt, in the wake of a loss, are not always bad things for us. Natural sensations even. But, should this pain become something which hinders our personal development, leads to self sabotage, an inability to move forward. That is when it becomes dangerous, a bad thing. Barthes, I think, is referring to a state like this. And perhaps the track is too.
I interpret the opening of the track to represent a state like this. There is forward motion, but it is subverted by the ambience and textures that smother it. The beat moves forward, but there is a wayward quality in how it does so. In real life and human society, you are never truly allowed to stop moving, to come to a standstill. As such we are always in motion (at least physically), but in the wake of loss this is all we can do. Exist, via our beating heart. This heart beat is the only real source of motion, the only constant. The low pitched (pads) that drone upwards as it moves forward, call to mind the image of someone wading through a swamp - be that literal or metaphorical, or emotional. There is an aimless quality, a sad progression in which structurally, the elements that are introduced do not really vary sonically from the heartbeat. They just curl around it, consume it.
And then the switch up comes. As if out of nowhere this beautiful, alien sound emerges. Melodic, ethereal, it clashes with the previous soundscape in its ambience and its technical form (that of melody). Something pure, and ambiguous, and different hits us out of the blue. In my eyes, this new sound is representative of a new perspective. The type that has been brewing somewhere in one’s subconscious in the wake of loss. It seems to arise out of nowhere. We see our situation, and the vacancy left by the object in departure with new eyes. Be that clarity, or a sense of love, some new knowledge that allows us to reassess and recognize things for what they are or can be.
Importantly, this also doesn’t have to be any [specifically positive] new emotion. Something like clarity, for example, or forgetting, are still new perspectives that can help in the wake of loss. Emotions which ultimately push us farther away from the object in departure, in a new direction. If we continue with Barthe’s model however, and extend it. In my view, the emotion - an emotion provoked by the subconscious process of mourning, or grieving, one that emerges out of the subconscious, doesn't come from nowhere. The emotion itself is secondary to the change in perspective (and ultimately behaviour) it prompts. Some new perspective has arisen, and it doesn’t really matter what form that takes. We are no longer static, we have escaped this state of paralysis. We are progressing now.
Movement, I think, in any direction either closer to or even further away from the lost object, equates to reconciliation, confrontation, coming to terms with the loss.
Paradoxically, even if we begin to move farther away from the lost object which is in perpetual departure, even if we begin to develop in a direction which is totally divergent from its path, we actually become closer to it.
We become closer to it, because we are facing it in some way. We cannot avoid these new perspectives and emotions that jump out at us from our subconscious, where this processing is ultimately occurring. The states draw level again - one can become closer to the object of loss through their own growth, wherever it may take them. The previously static figure, and the object they have lost, actually come closer together, because they are both in motion, equal again on this level.
This is a good way I think, to contemplate the material vs immaterial objects, often contained in the same being or figure. It also helps to account for how the complexity of the process of grieving functions.
Say we take a break-up as an example, which surely is a relatable instance of loss for many. Many exist in this static state when someone leaves their lives romantically. Feel stuck, while the lost other seems to move further and further away, exists within the silence and space left by them in perpetual departure. There is the material object, the person, their physical being, and then there is the immaterial. The construct of them, their higher form which typically exists in memory. Sometimes it is helpful to differentiate between these two states, to allow them to become one again should they seem splintered. A good friend once said to me during a break up, at a time where I felt overcome by the physical absence of a partner, the inability to communicate, that there are ways to love someone which are not contingent on their physical presence. To communicate. You can love the version of them you hold inside you, he said. The word immaterial wasn’t used, but I think that’s what he was getting at.
Regardless, say you’re going through a break up, and you respond with this crushing, overpowering sense of being stuck, static. You feel as if the absent other is always moving further and further away from you, whilst you cannot move forward in any sense. Eventually there will come a day where this changes. Something new, some Brucian moment (laugh). Oftentimes, this step forward does not necessarily come in the form of something (air quotes) “good”. It could come in the form of demystifying a deified partner. Recognizing differences, realizing that their absence in your life may be a good thing. In cases of abuse, which is complicated and sinister and destroys your sense of self on many levels, it could be a very painful reckoning. Recognizing things for how they were, what they have done, what you have been through.
That’s an extreme type of loss, which might be a little hard to unpack right now. But in any case - motion can begin to occur, on a level which may seem to be going in an unpleasant direction. You may begin the process of falling out of love, with someone who you had craved and wanted during their material absence. With someone who has died, who you cherish and miss and long for, you might start to forget them.
In either case, and all cases, what I’m getting at is that this sort of progress, is just that. It is progress. And when the immaterial object is in motion, progress within ourselves, in any direction, actually brings us closer to it. Even if we’re saying fuck that lost object (haha).
On a sort of internal metaphysical level, we now exist within the same state as the thing we have lost. We are closer now, on some level. We draw closer to their immaterial presence, and in doing so compensate for and fill the hole left by their material self.
In the final third of the track, we see the new sound (the perspective), and the original beat, come together to create something new. The perspective alone, the sound that signifies it, emerges as something alien. The heartbeat before it simple, primal, lonesome. Now, the two fuse together, and a new state emerges. The steadily increasing reverb glues the two together. The track, and the individual, begin to move forward again, in a new way this time. Sonically, nothing has been taken away or lost, in terms of elements there has only been gain. They have combined to create something new, which hinges on the coexistence of two previously alien states.
If we want to bring it back to the technical construction of dance music - this evolution is mirrored on a purely sonic level. Tracks aimed at the club are often quite simple in their construction - they develop through a give and take of different elements. An off-beat hi hat, a synth line, whatever. In the final third of the track, the two key protagonists are doubled up: the previously alien, melodic synth, and the previously singular heart beat kick combine. Sonically, the palette has expanded, two isolated elements combined. The sound is larger now, it has greater depth, is more complicated, the sum of its parts.
The new perspective, and the laboured heartbeat continue together, the journey through loss and the need to process it continue, but the new perspective is now incorporated into this motion. The mournful drone, the pastoral textures, become soaked in something new. They are transformed by the new element, expanded. We can find beauty in the earlier state somehow, it has grown to be something larger as the two elements combine to make a state of mind or being that wasn’t there before.
I fucking love this track, people. Also again, returning to the concept of utility, the club-ready structure of the beat. Notice how at the end, we return to the same state as before. The euphoric, ethereal synth retreats, leaving us where we were before. Or does it? I actually don’t think so. It seems that way perhaps, on the surface. The ending of the track is almost identical to the beginning - the same lethargic heart beat consumed by texture, devoid of any melody or accompanying element. But, knowledge here becomes the crucial element. The new state of mind, represented by the synth has passed. But notice how, once we have experienced it. Even after it is taken away, even as we return to what is essentially the same palette as the tracks opening. The ending seems different somehow.
This is because we have experienced something new. Something fleeting. Something that breaks a cycle. Something that perhaps shows us the state we dip in and out of, one in which the only onwards motion comes via a labored, broken heart, is not as permanent as it may seem. I wonder if this is why I love the track, and interpret it in this way. It doesn’t promise salvation, or permanence, or a solution. It seems to capture a microcosm, a moment. A new perspective in the midst of grief or loss. It speaks to moments I have had in the past year, where even if just for a night, the mundanity of sustained anguish seems to lift, and in doing so proves it can do so.
(It’s the same reason people are trying to treat chronic depression with pingers now. While it might seem counterintuitive to draw out and then extinguish the patient’s serotonin - just a moment of euphoria, of chemically wheedled happiness, even if it is followed by a significant low, disrupts the pattern. Demonstrates that happiness and stability are not lost.)
Again, this is just my reading of a piece of music that has continued to impact me over the years. I view it as a depiction of a moment in time in the artist’s life, captured during an ongoing process. Which asks the question - why music? Why does this do this and achieve this in the form of a track rather than - say - a poem?
Well, the obvious or surface level answer is talent. It is masterfully crafted, from someone who knows their shit and has mastered a discipline. And I love Larry but I can’t really imagine him writing that many poems. You never know though ey.
But. If we take my (subjective of course) reading, that this is what the track is getting that. We can understand why it works, where attempting to capture this same process with the written word could fail.
Writing is attached to linear time, and becomes a fixed reality outside of the artist’s mind at some point. - expand on this idea - writing, is so specific in how it is executed and consumed, that a final product which tries to capture a micro moment within processing a loss, might on some level become redundant (in the artist’s eyes), down the line, as the situation and their own perspective changes.
Music’s multilayered, overlapping nature - complex elements doing their own thing but combining to create form - is perhaps more adept to convey confusion and complexity. In writing we can only be directed to a single line of thought, by nature of the medium.
Therefore, if you wanted to write these same feelings down, responding to real life events that are evolving and changing - you would probably be inclined to wait. Wait, and wait, until more has revealed itself, for certainty, for whatever the final process of grief looks like. You cannot address an ever evolving process with words to create a piece that is universally applicable to many consumers’ situations. Like Rick Moody, one could capture a moment, a moment of uncertainty, and artistic paralysis. But this is Moody’s moment. And I’m sure he had many moments later. For the reader it is a beautiful product, but one that relates only to Moody, and his moment in detail. Even if we can empathize, or relate, its scope and relevance will always be secondary on some level, contained to the moment within the process he is describing.
With ‘Before You Sleep’, the track as I view it details a similar moment. It seems like the transition from fetal position days-that-blur into nights, feelings of isolation, emptiness. Transitioning to some realization that allows us to move past this state of static devastation. An alien, positive emotion such as hope returning, it provides us a new lens with which to view and shift our devastation. To begin to move again. With music, we can capture this micro moment, this stage or step forwards in personal development, in the wake of personal loss, and not be tied to it. One can create something expressive, and beautiful, that subverts linear time - It happens, and is crafted within a linear time frame, but exists outside of it. Think for a second about personal moments of loss, grief, something gone. There are stages to processing such things; hurt, anger, acceptance, fondness. In writing, to utilize the medium to deal with one such stage can help, but the final product will exist as an artifact tied to that stage alone. Painful, unfortunate periods are ultimately followed at some point by positive emotions such as hope returning, seeing the situation in a new light, as your perspective shifts subconsciously.
With music as the means of expression and working through such processes, you can capture a micro-moment, or step in personal development in the wake of a loss, and not be tied to it. You can create something expressive and beautiful, which by the medium’s nature is constructed in linear, empirical time, but by its artistic function exists outside of it. This is an important phenomenological element in music. Dance music especially hinges on elapsed time, clock time. Even as a consumer, as opposed to a DJ looking down at a CDJ, we rarely experience music without some reminder as to its presentation within linear time. Writing is slightly different however because written words are created to be read. But in writing and reading, the experience of time is different. And this affects our interpretation of the art. About a decade or two into the digital age, statistics emerged that people were reading less and less recreationally, particularly men. Wallace observed in an interview in 2003, how reading largely involves sitting alone in a room, with your own thoughts as well as those conveyed by the author. This process is something we are slowly being trained to find less and less enjoyable, the opposite even. Sound and introspection, the sound of silence, is more alien to us the deeper our digital addictions embed. Music, perhaps, can be more palatable here as a solitary act than reading however. There is a difference in that writing is constructed by the language in which we think. It is unique in this artistically. The substance of which it consists, the means of articulation, is the same thing as the voice inside our heads. So in many ways, it can be a more intense artform to experience for the human mind. When we read something, even if it is crafted by someone else, its format and internally projected sound is identical to the voice inside your head. It penetrates your soul on a level that music cannot.
Music also speaks the soul however, but it’s an alien presence in the room with you, because it’s meaning is subjective, we can only project our meaning onto it. An alien presence in a room with you, less objectively decipherable, instills a sense of companionship rather than oneness. When we read, we are faced only with ourselves. Importantly, the experience and our engagement with it is not superior in either medium. They instill different kinds of comfort. And when the written word is beamed into your soul, and conveys something that you relate to and understand on a personal level, the effect is surreal and jarring in equal measure. I had this recently with the Barthes book I mentioned last episode: ‘A Lover’s Discourse’. His words in some areas, written in like 1910 mind you, are so applicable to the patterns that unfurl - often unpleasantly so - within me. They make me feel less alone in the wake of loss, and help to diffuse my own suffering somehow, by making it less of a unicorn. The connection between creator and consumer within writing hits different when it lands at the right time.
Music comforts us in a different way, one in which a feeling is projected onto you. We still connect with the creator, but the sense of comfort is projected onto the listener directly. Writing inspires a feeling within you, engagement leads to interpretation which leads to the final feeling.
Perhaps, this is because when we read something we are trying our best, consciously or not, to decode, or to translate, or to extract explicit meaning. Whereas when listening to a track, this isn’t so much the case. We are less trying to interpret what it means, rather experiencing the emotion it instills within us at face value. It’s a process which isn’t rational and can’t really be deciphered. We don’t need to “understand” the music to connect with it and find comfort. This could be a reason why those of us who connect so intensely with dance music find it more appealing that lyrical music. We are given less direction as to how to feel, what its about. It becomes more applicable to our own experiences and internal states.
In another episode I wanna chat about how this relates to hierarchies of taste within both sonic and visual arts.
An argument can be made, that within sound, we are unencumbered by linear time. Whilst with any creative medium, time must pass in order for the artist to truly make sense of these emotions, and to process them. In music, it is easier to cry out, and express the pain of loss, without the restraints of this real-time processing. I can make a track when I am broken. I could even release it. But on some level it will always be, at least to some degree, subjective. I am not writing, with words, a harrowing account of the trauma. I am not explicitly addressing the individuals who I love but can no longer know. I am expressing these feelings via the organization of sound, through the inevitable trial and error of the bedroom producer, through a primal process of transference. When I wake in grey, I can get up, and make noises that are a product of the loss that crushes me. I can explicitly, create something inexplicit, that speaks to my mental state, and how I feel in the moment, and can even be pushed quickly into the public domain, without anchoring the specifics or details in time, which seems dangerous.
Real quick. I sometimes realize I caveat a lot of the ideas in these episodes with a reminder that all of this is subjective. Most of the time that’s true, but it occurs to me that this is a little deflective. It makes me think a little, of the trend that has popped up more in recent years, of artists adopting silly monikers in quite a post-modern way. DJ Seinfeld, Ross From Friends etc. It often seems to me that the choosing of these names reflects a sort of millennial insecurity. A feeling of the need to caveat one’s work, which presumably they are proud of and care about, with a sort of silly self-aware caveat. It feels deflective. Heading off potential criticism with a sort of look-how-ironic-and-self-aware-I-am message. Maybe it's not that deep. I’ve made a few side projects, and always wanted to name them something a little silly, have fun with dance music in a different way. But, I’ve always been a bit hesitant. I wonder if it comes across as defensive, packaging art with humor, so as the listener already has some notion of the intent before consuming it.
I dunno, just a thought.
But, by acknowledging these thoughts as subjective, I don’t want to give the impression that they are just aimless musings. Subjective as they may be, they are things I care about, and believe, and I don’t want to minimize them by packaging them with too much caution. It seems a little fearful, like I’m trying to sidestep potential criticism that could arise from voicing things I care about and believe in. I think maybe a lot of that comes from the current state of dance music discourse online. How quick people are to shit on each other, negate different perspectives, condemn rather than take the time to educate.
Whatever, but in this case, in talking about the interpretation of art as a listener, it might be an idea to look at what the subjective and objective really are, and how the two are not as distant within the interpretation of art as they may seem. Music, is a product of human beings. We engage with subjectivity on both the part of the creator, and the subjectivity that we ourselves carry. Objectivity, in this case, isn’t total fiction, but there are actually some important restrictions on what we can say is truly objective. In the past, people strove to idealize and to discover the objective within music. It led to the goal of purifying analysis, being able to point to elements within music in an empirical way.
Historically, this hasn’t really worked. It ends up just obscuring our judgement. In certain cases, with German and Vietnamese thinkers for example, the “objectivity” people thought they had uncovered, turned out to only really be relevant within the cultural landscapes it was constructed in. Readings of music in earlier periods, often saw things through a subconsciously nationalist lens, grounding the “truth” and empiricism, in geo-specific readings of culturally distinct music. We can see how this poses problems. Specifically in dance music, where eurocentric conclusions based on euro-specific experience.
Perhaps something that led people to go down this weird rabbithole of trying to hammer out the objectivity within music, was a theoretical misreading of the experience of listening. It could be the case that the difference between the subjective and the objective isn’t as stark as we often believe it to be. Our reading of music, at its core, functions by underscoring our reality. This ties back into last week’s episode - Small’s assertion that listening to music reinforces social values. The objective elements, if we have to find them, are often case specific however. In ‘Before You Sleep’, we can find it perhaps, in the structure of the track. If we take the view of music as organized sound, then the technical elements, the manipulation of sound on the part of the creator, the intent that has translated into what the music presents itself as, these can be the objective elements. The metrics of time, the drop outs, etc. Stuff that any outside observer can agree, unanimously, us happening. The subjective, is how I interpret the track. My personal conjecture. The individual meaning that is found by each listener. To identify the subjective readings in this case, it’s crucial we acknowledge the objective and how that informs this subjectivity. Personally, as a producer and DJ, I pay attention to the elements I can know are objective, things like tempo, gear used etc. But the focus for all of these discussions, and this track, are on my own subjective readings. I think ultimately that's all we have, the objective within music, will always be secondary, redundant even, to our subjective thoughts and feelings while we listen to it.
I’m gonna go on a tangent real quick.
Something to bear in mind with all of this, is that the framing of music and art shapes its meaning - even if the music itself is ambiguous, or universally accessible.
Let’s take Burial as an example. I think we can all agree that his music retains ambiguity, but on some level a lot of it is overtly sad. This sadness lies in the sonic palette itself, and is therefore ambiguous - created out of sonic elements which are subjective, yet powerful, and contribute to the work’s wide reaching accessibility and popularity.
Paradoxically there is a certain irony in the Burial project. He quickly became this mysterious figure, through the decision to work in anonymity, never revealing the human behind the music. But at the same time this is undercut in some ways by the music itself. The tracks contain such explicit examples and allusions, through sampling, their names, how they were released, that it is on some level pretty hard not to hear them as an explicit commentary on isolation, and disillusionment in the UK at a particular time.
Look. I’m not an expert. And I’m 23. Untrue came out in 2007, so at the time I was ten, and probably munching on a Yorkie in a park somewhere, oblivious to both the unquantized melancholia being produced in south london, and the problematic marketing of a nice raisin and biscuit bar. That’s a very english joke. Apologies American listeners.
But still, I find Burial fascinating because there is this sort of dichotomy within the project. Many track titles are accessible and familiar to an English audience. I mean - Midnight in Mcdonalds? Maybe the saddest three words placed in order I’ve ever heard. And yet, as an English dancer - the defeatist reality is so vividly recalled. A big mac in the middle of the night (or filet O’ fish for the intellectuals among us), the end note to a weekend, Monday round the corner, Nightbus home.
In his sampling too, there are both titular and sonic allusions to his mental state whilst creating the music. Archangel. I’m not gonna go into some heady biblical dissection of the word, but on a tertiary level it symbolizes something. Maybe something unintentional. The sample is from Lost Souls, a video game. What do first player video games all share and entail? Solitude. Sitting alone. In adulthood, often a choice to do this. A decision to be alone, be an individual, at home, on a friday night.
Still though. I’d argue that while this loose context is necessary, and shapes the Burial project. Anything we can gleam is still only partial. The format of music always retains ambiguity. We are privy to the artist’s soul. Not their brain, or their life, or details of why their soul hurts, or the names of souls that are gone.
We can project our own meaning onto the work. Implied loss, isolation, disillusionment with a subculture at a certain time. But this projection exists only in the present, as we experience it. This connection exists only in the moment as we interact with the art. It is timeless, whereas the music’s creation and conception was not.
One thing that Burial illustrates too, is the idea of accessibility as democratic. This is another thing which separates music as a unique medium. Through its very form, it negates hierarchies of interpretation that consume all other places in the artworld. This is particularly common in visual art. Shit like expressionism, abstraction. We require education in the medium of visual art to decode it - and often that education is inaccessible, a privilege. It’s why people will go to museums and whisper to their mate - “I don’t get it”. Of course you don’t, I don’t in most cases. I do not have the tools to decode works like this, to understand their significance and their meaning, to place it within a legacy. Music however, sidesteps this. It tickles areas of our individual brains, and stimulates us in ways that no one can really understand. I like what I like - and I don’t need to know why.
Following that line of thinking, artists like burial who utilize specific allusions to places and time and the feelings of the creator, can be seen to work through two processes. The work is musical, and therefore accessible. But it also contains a roadmap of how to understand it further, should we want to as listeners.
Sorry for the big Burial tangent.
This is a fairly long episode, and there are plenty of other works of both music and writing I would love to squeeze in. But I think it’s a little indulgent to let a recording of one person talking run on for too long. That being said, one super quick piece of art which I think, can tie some of these thoughts together, is worth mentioning. In much of this episode, I have focussed on a lot of differences between music and writing, from the personal perspective of a producer. I hope that in outlining my own struggles with when to utilize what, and how the two function differently at different stages of loss, it has become clear that there are actually overwhelming similarities between the two mediums, even if one trumps the other in its necessity and utility at a certain time. Perhaps, this overlap is even more apparent from the perspective of the consumer too. When both can be utilized as an external tool, the artist’s intent open to interpretation, we have more choice in what we consume, and select artforms across different mediums based on our own subconscious desires. When we seek meaning rather than seek to convey meaning, it is maybe a little easier to see how different artforms are connected, or can combine via their essence and message, to work towards the same effect upon us.
Recently, I have been re-reading the book ‘Beloved’ by the late, great, Toni Morrison. Probably due to being English, I hadn’t read the American classic until fairly recently. I first read it a year ago, and with all the downtime during corona, have been returning to texts that I enjoyed. Right now in the states, a beautiful novel that tackles hauntology through the evocation of its supernatural, intergenerational qualities, is an important one. Reading it for the second time, whilst gathering the ideas for this series, I found it helpful for observing the similarities between writing and music. The way that when the separate mediums address specific topics - such as trauma and loss - certain elements within the two artforms function in the same way. Mostly, this occurs in their structuring. How the construction of both artforms can be used in the same way, to reflect the human processes and plights they address.
Some quick context for those who haven’t read the book. Beloved is loosely based on real life figures, and slowly engages more and more in the supernatural as the story progresses. Set in post-Civil War era America, the protagonist Sethe who is a former slave, is haunted by pre abolition horrors inflicted upon her almost two decades before. Much of this is seen in her mourning of her daughter, who died nameless, and is buried beneath a tombstone that simply reads: ‘Beloved’. Through both her daughter and mysterious female figures who appear in her world, she is haunted by a legacy of suffering, loss, and trauma. Much of the book serves to illustrate a myth that pertains in America today, that significant change occurred in the wake of abolishing slavery. The space in between the two main time periods in which the book takes place, deals with the black experience in the segregated south, the oppression that has simply switched to a new, embedded form - the beginnings of economic and structural violence that has only really hidden itself better today. It’s a beautiful, dark novel, that captures the nuances and complexities of intergenerational trauma, and does so on an incredibly inventive level. I will try not to give anything away here while talking about it.
The book is deliberate in that the actual structuring of the narrative reflects the process of trauma. If we accept a baseline amount of specificity (via the written word, characters etc), and put aside the separate ways music and writing impact us, the process of revealing still occurs. Like music - all music, but maybe dance music particularly, elements are taken away and brought in. We are subjected to this. In the same way the musician constructs something through choice and intent, retaining the power to grant the listener access to specific elements, so too does the writer. In ‘Beloved’, Morrison does exactly this, and it contributes to the conveyance of the book’s fundamental theme. Trauma is encapsulated symbolically within the work itself. And this is one of the novel’s strength. Morrison helps us understand, through her creative decisions, how loss can function. Beloved does an impressive job of merging the literal supernatural with the supernatural quality of memory and repressed images, making the brutality in the novel even more painful to digest. Her approach, her refusal to give the reader all the facts at once or in any consistent chronological sense, as well as her introduction of ghostly presences, paradoxically accentuates the realism of the text. Her style of writing mimics patterns of trauma, meaning that the book is vastly more impactful because it shies away from falling into the trap of using realist language to describe a supernatural psychological phenomenon. I don't think it could have been nearly as powerful had it not harnessed the spectral in its approach to unpacking collective trauma.
A similar approach is undertaken by WG Seabald in his novel Austerlitz, which details second hand, the experience of a child, orphaned during the Holocaust, trying to unearth his past, piece together a brutal personal history to which he has been denied access. The same structural mimicking of the protagonist’s internal process occurs.
Music functions in a similar way. Particularly music that explicitly grapples with loss and trauma. Not only is there the parallel of structure, the creator’s control over core elements, reflecting the process they wish to convey. There are also similarities within imagery. In writing, imagery is descriptive, beamed into us via specifics. In music, it is open to interpretation, individual. Sounds function the same way descriptions do in written texts. They conjure something up, provoke a reaction. Most of us “see” the music we hear without really thinking about it. Even if this occurs in a slightly different way (i.e. writing pushes something into your mind, explicit imagery full of intent versus music, again, being something we project the final image onto), the two are utilized in the same way by the creator, and impact us in the same way.
In Beloved, Morrison’s use of imagery is mental. Painfully evocative phrases litter every scene in which characters recall and reveal the trauma from past experiences. In this instance, the allocation of detail furthers her adherence to realism in terms of recounting trauma; we are given sudden floods of detailed imagery as it re-appears to the characters in real time. It is what the novel’s structural intent consists of and hinges upon. In the same way with music, the give and take of details, or in this case sounds, is dependent on what those sounds are. What they conjure for the listener, the images they convey. Certain sounds, like certain written details, instill specific feelings in the listener. This is how music finds its variation. The choice of sounds come from the artist, are individual. This is how specific genres can move forward and stay fresh; common structural processes are accentuated and textured by the different sounds that they are built of. The sounds that come from the producer, convey a specific message.