Ambient Photography

An old post from an old blog, 2014


Ambient music has had a resurgence of late. In many ways, it’s never really gone away. 

The history of ambient music is fascinating and complex. Explorations of it — from Brian Eno’s discography and David Toop’s Ocean of Sound — often avoid making points about style and form, instead discussing philosophies towards sound and ways of listening.

With this resurgence in my mind, I came across two essays on photography that used Muzak — the very music that catalysed Brian Eno’s own ambient music — to negatively describe a certain kind of photography.

The first was a blogpost by Colin Pantall in which he railed against the majority of photography that we see all around us — “visual Musak, that inadvertently lulls us into a state of thoughtless consumption”. For Pantall, the pervasiveness of a photography so bland must surely be (negatively) affecting how we visually experience our society.

The second was a description of a similar phenomenon by David Campany in his take on the increasingly obligatory State of the Union address written to accompany the 2014 Deutsche Bank exhibition, Time Present:

The further photography moves from known objects, the less reliable its description of the world. If, as we are often told, the photograph is a universal form of communication, it is only at the level of the obvious and the already understood. It is clichés and only clichés that bind us in this increasingly fragmentary world, argued Gilles Deleuze. Indeed, what there is of a “global language of photography” is made up of images of commodities, celebrities, sunsets, and other clichés of locality. “Viewzak.”

Both use ‘Muzak’ in a context fitting with our cultural lexicon and they are certainly not the first to make such a comparison. The word ‘Muzak’ lives on (albeit only just) as a synonym for the worst examples of derivative and reductive corporate cultures that dilute the truly artful.

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A Forest

Come closer and see
See into the dark
Just follow your eyes

Into the trees

Suddenly I stop
But I know it’s too late

I used to work with a burly Welshman called Marc.

Marc liked music and we would talk a lot about our favourite records.

Most of the time we worked together it was to install exhibitions and so this was often the perfect time to listen to albums and talk about them. Other times, we’d just listen to the radio.

This morning, whilst on the bus into work, The Cure’s A Forest came on and I was reminded of the last time I had heard that song. It had come on the radio whilst I working with Marc around three years ago.

Marc began to laugh to himself when he heard it and told me a story about seeing The Cure at Glastonbury in 1986. I’ve never been to Glastonbury but one part of its reputation that precedes it is the size of the festival site itself. Marc said this can be irritating but it has its uses.

He told me that, whilst standing around all day, eating and drinking and listening to music, he had felt the need to relieve himself. He walked around for a while but felt that this was an “evacuation” that warranted more privacy, shelter and a wider berth than your usual duck behind a tree…

Marc decided to walk for some distance, away from the festival site, away from camp sites, away from any potential passersby.

He found himself walking through a forest, through patches of bluebells and wild flowers, and soon he was in a suitable clearing, alone.

Marc dropped his trousers to his ankles, placed a selection of large leaves in a pile in front of him and attempted to squat next to a tree.

Before he had had a chance to exert any pressure on himself, he heard a low rumbling sound. The clearing around him gradually came alive with activity, like a storm had brewed out of nowhere, and then continued to excite itself beyond the possible influence of any natural source.

Before Marc’s very eyes, too shocked and too unstable to move, buffeted by the violent currents of air now billowing around him, his pre-selected leaves lost to the wind, a helicopter descended into the clearing.

As it touched down, a succession of bodies, their heads bowed towards the ground out of reach of the rotor blades, exited the helicopter and made their way to the edge of the clearing, towards the festival site, some carrying bits of equipment and lighter instruments.

The final person to disembark the helicopter, their hair a black bramble mess, caught Marc’s eye as they looked up towards their destination and, were it not for the force of air at their back, may have otherwise stopped in horror at the sight of Marc’s Somerset greeting.

It was Robert Smith.

Understanding

The best thing about Jungle is that every first encounter with a tune has the potential to be ungrounding. Not only is that the general sensation of the genre as a whole, but sometimes a track comes along that has you falling over yourself all over again.

Just when Jungle starts to become familiar, all it takes is one track to make everything feel strange again. This track somehow manages to unground itself three times over the course of its seven minutes, denying you of the one thing it seems to promise: understanding. It is a masterpiece.

RIP Tango.


K-Punk on “Tales from the Darkside” for FactMag:

Translating rave frenzy into jungle dread, ‘Tales From The Darkside’ runs at a cartoon-hectic pace, with its stabbing riff sounding like pitched-up electro, Mantronix’s ‘Bassline’ running at  +8. The brief, speeded-up-to-chirrup rap sample you hear, though, is from Eric B and Rakim.

Wander into the Bog of Names

Leaving the path
Lured by an emerald
I wander into the Bog of Names

As is so often the case in January, I have spent a lot of the month latching onto a couple of albums from last year that were slow burners which I had not yet given the chance to click with me yet.

Richard Dawson’s Peasant is an album that it has taken me a while to connect with  a fact that has surprised me. I have been a fan of Dawson for a good few years now, entranced by 2011’s The Magic Bridge and later obsessed with 2014’s Nothing Important. Whilst 2017’s Peasant is recognisably Dawson, the maximalism of his latest effort will no doubt be jarring at first to anyone more familiar with his trademark Geordie primitivism.

Previously, his music has always embodied a weirdness (in the true Fisherian sense), pivoting on “the contrast between the terrestrial-empirical and the Outside“, de-naturalising the quotidian and dragging the psychedelic out from under minutiae. “Wooden Bag” from 2011’s The Magic Bridge is a perfect example of this. What begins as a Proustian encounter with a picnic box becomes an affective wormhole, an albatross around Dawson’s neck, a time capsule for his memories and something of a casket for himself.

This continues throughout the album, with glimpses of an unknown beyond that is always tied to material objects (excluding, perhaps, “Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations” in which Dawson takes a leap towards this Outside, set adrift in his experience by such close proximity to death).

The Magic Bridge is primarily, in this way, an album of object-oriented hauntologies.

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The Year in Music

An additional New Year’s Blog Resolution that must be added to the previous 2017 post is to write more about music.

When I first moved to London, eagerly anticipating the tutelage of Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, I had intended to step away from the visual arts and write much more about music and sound arts. I ended up writing about political philosophy instead…

What is far more depressing than a lack of music writing, however, is a lack of music listening in general. I lost the ability to study with background music and having to put my record collection in storage, selling some of my more prized LPs so I could survive in the big city, has meant that this year has been one of the quietest I’ve ever known.

Thankfully, since finishing my studies and starting this blog, I’ve managed to put out two mixes: Exits and The Ritual. Expect a lot more where that came from in 2018.

I made up for the quiet at home by enjoying many loud nights out, thanks to the freedom of a full-time student schedule. The year was peppered with a number of raucous squat parties around Elephant & Castle and I lost count of how many times I saw Kode9 DJ in 2017.

Regardless of the frequency, Kode9 was also responsible for the best DJ set I saw this past year as part of April’s Record Store Day celebrations at Copeland Gallery in Peckham. The moment below – a perfect blend of DJ Rashad and Sister Nancy – was one of many highlights that night.

That was also the night that the fire alarm repeatedly went off in the venue. The party continued with the lights on with no one prepared to leave regardless of whether there was a fire or not.

(There wasn’t).

Another particularly serendipitous and fraught night involved meeting Andrew Ashong after a conference at Goldsmiths, at which Kodwo Eshun premiered the Otolith Group’s Julius Eastman film. We bonded over my past life as a visual artist working on videos for electronic musicians, and he invited me and a friend to a secret basement party. That night terrorists killed 8 people on London Bridge and around Borough Market. The night was spent trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, dancing, afraid to leave the venue.

On top of most other listening experiences signifying some sort of remembrance for Mark Fisher, it’s been a weird and emotional year for my ears.

What I’d like to do here is list a bunch of my favourite musical experiences from over the last year, followed by a more usual album list…

So, in chronological order:

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