The detuning of the world

Repairing our soundscape, futuristic music, celebrating British things and more.

The Young Ones

Laura Cannell, “Flaxen Fields,” The Sky Untuned (Brawl)

The Canadian scholar and composer R. Murray Schafer’s 1977 book The Soundscape is one of the foundational texts of sound studies as a discipline. In it, he reorients the examination of nature and culture away from our eyes and toward our ears, encouraging readers to hear and listen as much as we look and see. Rereading Schafer’s work today, it’s clear that he indulges a certain seductive notion of acoustic ecology that places sounds upon a rigorous hierarchy. At the top would be any sound that exists in absence of human beings — things like birdsong, howling wolves, ocean swells, the wind blustering through evergreens. Below those might be placed pleasant, human-made sounds like singing or playing an acoustic instrument. At the very bottom are technological and mechanical sounds. He has especially strong words for ringing telephones (“Who invented the telephone bell? Certainly not a musician…”) and honking car horns (“… a sonic absolute bequeathed anonymously to the world by an inventor who took few music lessons.”)

Schafer argues that “repairs” be made to the soundscape through new initiatives in acoustic design. Bells can be made more pleasant; horns must sound more harmonious. Implicitly, improving the sonic environment is an enterprise best undertaken by those with a traditional musical education. “Music is the key to the utopian soundscape,” Schafer claims. “Now it is our turn to anticipate what lies ahead of our ears and minds. You who would design the future world, listen forward with immense leaps of the imagination and intellect, listen forward 50, 100, 1,000 years. What do you hear?” I’m inclined to claim that Laura Cannell’s music ameliorates the soundscape by simultaneously listening backward to a time before sonic reproduction — a time when all music was spontaneous and handmade — and forward to an age after the demise of the machine. If humankind survives the next 50 or 100 years, this is both our retro and future music.

Karl Fousek, “Chapter 3,” In the Forest (Second Editions)

If art is meant to be a reflection of nature, then Karl Fousek’s soundtrack for In the Forest spends some quality time polishing that mirror. The sound of “Chapter 3” evokes falling rain on log drums in a verdant crook of some muggy jungle. Fousek’s woodsy, mossy and unexpected score is a welcome antidote, too, to the steely, glassy, Ballardian-dystopian precision of much contemporary electronic music.

Sabrina Ratté, “Inscape”

Inscape from Sabrina Ratté on Vimeo.

(extremely King Crimson voice) “21st century Plato’s Cave!”

Daniel O’Sullivan, “Silhouette,” Folly (O Genesis)

I love British things. I love Earl Grey tea. I love Burberry raincoats and MGs. I love unkempt gardens and hedgerows. I love Ian Dury and the Blockheads. I love shepherd’s pie and warm brown beer. I love The Young Ones and Alan Partridge. I love both Blur and Oasis. I love the Prodigy — oh, the Prodigy. I love The Quietus. I love the Specials. I love Robert Wyatt. I love tweed (the fabric) and Suede (the band) and Fabric (the nightclub). I even have aberrant British loves like Janet Street-Porter and James May. I especially love the exiting-through-the-wrong-door routine.

I can only imagine the ambivalence my British friends must feel over Brexit. On the one hand, the above list could constitute consummate cause for national pride. On the other, isolation is clearly not what the entire planet needs right now in order to survive the challenges we’re all facing. The earth is one big boat — it’s not like the U.K. can simply sail off the globe and into the sunset. Nonetheless, despite the recent kickings they have endured, I feel that a periodic celebration of very British things — like Daniel O’Sullivan’s outstandingly orchestrated melodic pop — is in order.

Lee Gamble, “Many Gods, Many Angels,” In a Paraventral Scale (Hyperdub)

If I were to travel back in time and ask my 1989 self what music in 2019 might sound like, I probably would have tried to describe something on the cutting edge of technological innovation, something clean and flawless-sounding, something like Lee Gamble. Gamble’s work is almost absurdly futuristic. There is something about the artwork design, too, that suggests impossibly new forms and revolutionary materials. A chrome training shoe, maybe, or a helicopter made from mesh. Gamble envisions multiple potential futures in which the distinctions between human and technical agency disappear, giving rise to a true plurality of power. This is the soundtrack for fully automated luxury communism. Onward, comrade. ■