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“transforming Ravel’s music into an uninterrupted and iridescent flow of sound material”. Sciarrino’s honesty is inspiring: seeking asylum in music’s past glories is the last refuge of the washed-up; he is in a dialogue with the past, a process that De La Nuit plays out.

Sciarrino puts himself between Ravel’s original material and the listener, and adds compositional intention into the equation. Ravel’s harmonic narrative is trashed as Sciarrino’s collage creates an objectified and atomised perspective on Gaspard; the pace, scale and time of Ravel’s original piece is sent scattering. But also its place within historic time: Sciarrino no longer evokes history – by identifying and reexamining how Ravel’s music works he skydives inside that history, making it crackle with life again. Listening to the piano music he created after De La Nuit – with its trademark surface gestures of collapsing trills, structural fold-ins and abrupt disjoints – the lessons Sciarrino learnt from filleting Ravel remain audible. But he’s removed the source. Retro-activity goes live.

Michael Finnissy

Michael Finnissy’s cycle for solo piano The History Of Photography In Sound (1995–2001) embodies a comparable attitude: sound and music – and the sound of music – stay logged in our psyche like sepia photographs, Finnissy suggests; how do composers deal with this weight of documentary evidence? Finnissy’s structural scaffolding is anchored around Charles Ives’s fascination with the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in turn the melodic linchpin of Ives’s own Concord Sonata. To this Beethoven-Ives lineage, Finnissy adds a third layer of historical comment, using Beethoven’s iconic motif to knit together an extraordinary montage of references to classical, folk and popular references, reminding me of another quote from my Boulez interview: “Schoenberg does not adapt his vocabulary to the past; he adapts the past to his vocabulary.”

Also sucked inside Finnissy’s meta-collage is Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose 1969 Requiem Für Einen Jungen Dichter (Requiem For A Young Poet) is one of the most tumultuous scores of post-war European music. Dictatorships and the dehumanising brutality of war are Zimmermann’s apparent themes. A labyrinthine assemblage of text stirs the core of the piece. The three poets around which Zimmermann built his structure – Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Yesenin and Konrad Bayer – all committed suicide, as Zimmermann himself did shortly after his Requiem’s premiere, Mayakovsky and Yesenin’s lives poisoned by state interference. Extracts of speeches by Hitler and Stalin are spliced into the collage, the sensitive language of the poets admonishing their macho, manipulative soundbites.

Musically, Zimmermann extrapolates material from the rhythms and contours of his texts, but the suggestion is that ‘original’ music is impotent in this context. Instead, stunted blasts of jazz and electronic noise cut through Messiaen’s L’Ascension, which is spliced into Hitler’s voice and Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde. Ligeti’s wartime Requiem appears from a dark place; The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” represents idealistic youth. Zimmermann doesn’t express anger, or portray the emotion of anger, using an already available range of gestures. This music is angry, collapsing the sound of history inside an allegory for fragmenting certainties. 

Desecration Row

Mark Fisher on two salvagepunk repurposings of Chris de Burgh

Oneohtrix Point Never is not the first artist to base a track around Chris de Burgh’s “The Lady In Red” – the whole song was also sampled by V/Vm in 2000. What are we to make of these two reappropriations of the same song? Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Nobody Here”, collected on the album Memory Vague, has been greeted as a sliver of sublimity. His lift – a slowed down four-bar sample – lacks any parodic designs. Instead, the decontextualised phrase “nobody here” is mined for all its evocative power, calling up the empty Caspar David Friedrich landscapes also suggested by the title of another track from Memory Vague, “Zones Without People”. There’s a sense of temporal as well as spatial vastness – “Nobody Here” only lasts a little over two minutes, but the loop implies an infinity.

Meanwhile, V/Vm’s take on “The Lady In Red” is not some lagered-up jape in the spirit of The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu. It actually sounds disturbing. The pitching down and distorting of the vocal, and the replacement of the backing track with a Raster-Noton-like driving dub-drone, make it resemble the kind of sinister message you might expect a psychopath to leave on an answering machine in a film by Michael Haneke or David Lynch. Rather than desecrating the original, as it may first seem to, V/Vm draws out something suppressed in it – the thin line between the lover’s eye for detail and a stalker’s obsession. Suddenly, the words “nobody here” are freighted with menace, but this suggestion of violence also brings with it a harrowing sadness – the pain of the abject outsider tormented by an unattainable beauty.

V/Vm’s pirating of de Burgh was initially heard as pranksterism, but that impression has gradually been unsettled by James Kirby’s more recent work under the aliases The Caretaker, The Stranger and Leyland Kirby, projects whose meditations on memory cannot be considered exercises in humour. American Hypnagogic pop, meanwhile, has been remarkable for the way it has transfigured sounds that have been consigned to the bargain bins of bad taste – the high gloss textures of New Age, FM rock and mid-1980s sequencer-bloated pop – suggestions of all of which can be heard in many Oneohtrix tracks. But where the US artists seem immune to embarrassment, the triumph of the British hauntologists is apparently to have overcome embarrassment, and regained sincere passions for enthusiasms that had been condescendingly dismissed in the sneery-cheery atmosphere of compulsory trivialisation and conspicuous detachment that governs British pop culture.

American theorist Evan Calder Williams’s concept of ‘salvagepunk’ provides a broader context for thinking about how these methodologies deviate from their banal twin, postmodernity. For Williams, salvagepunk – at once a sensibility; a kind of non-genre embracing film, fiction and other cultural spheres; and a theoretical framework – is to be opposed to the “inherent flatness and equivalency of postmodern cultural production”. It draws together (and from) the 20th century’s chief arts of reappropriation: montage (Eisenstein, Vertov, Chris Marker), collage (Heartfield and Gilliam), détournement (Duchamp, Debord and the Situationist International, hiphop) and farce (Monty Python and Richard Lester).

By opposition to postmodern pastiche, in which any sign can be juxtaposed with any other in a friction-free space, salvagepunk retains the specificity of cultural objects, even as it bolts them together into new assemblages. That’s precisely because salvagepunk is dealing with objects rather than signs. While signs are interchangeable, objects have particular properties, textures and tendencies, and the art of salvage is about knowing which objects can be lashed together to form viable constructions. Viewed in this way, both Oneohtrix Point Never and V/Vm’s use of de Burgh can be seen as exemplary acts of salvagepunk, since they are both about repurposing (rather than simply citing) “The Lady In Red”. Both tracks drew their charge from something that was already there in the de Burgh song, but which could only emerge when it was recontextualised. It isn’t just any syrupy ballad that could be repurposed into a fragment of infinity or a stalker’s lament. 



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46 | The Wire | Retro-Activity

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