globalism and the international ambient culture
Musicians have long entertained fantasies of sounding the world. Think of the Greek myth of Atlas, doing time -- all of time -- for aiding his people in their fight against Zeus, the penultimate father-figure. For his crime against heaven, Atlas was made to hold up the world. We can imagine, to keep his mind off the injustices of the world, the Titan pressed his ear against the globe upon his back. Musicians have often articulated a similar whim, hoping to give audition to the rotating Earth in space. Today we have satellites standing in our place, positioning themselves like surrogate ears outside the world so as to capture what frequencies are produced from the friction of this colossal celestial body rubbing against its atmospheric raiment.
Other musician harbor aspirations more contingent with the social fabric of the world's inhabitants. When composer Edgar Varèse considered this dream he conceived of the radiophonic symphony Espace. Never realized in performance, Espace was to orchestrate the world's choirs with the utmost precision into one global economy of noise and music. Every continent would participate, every sound would be produced. Besides the interchange of choirs, Varèse also threw into the mix bits of slogans and declarations from the world's great revolutions "like shooting stars", serving as a sort of low-level foundation "stubborn and ritualistic." 1 For Varèse, Espace would have been his master work. Like most master works, the splendor of Espace rests in its conceptualization, its utopian impossibility.
Today, universal sounds, global soundscapes and world-wide webs of musical performance remain an intoxicating notion for many musicians. Often, the dream of musical universality finds indirect expression in the development of world-wide movements of musical forms. As a musician involved in the global ambient music culture, I have noticed how figures of globalism manifest themselves both in musical practice and the reproduction of that culture. Ambient music perceives of itself as a global pop musical phenomenon.2 The most popular ambient artists Orb, Deep Forest and Enigma hail from Britain, France and Eastern Europe, only begin to indicate the extent to which ambient music far-surpasses the anglophone concentration in rock or pop music. Reviewing that central clearing-house of the techno and ambient music cultures on the world-wide web, Hyperreal, a web-drifter uncovers artists and record labels from Mexico, Finland, Japan as well as Britain and the US.
As I made my way through what ambient DJ Mixmaster Morris refers to as the "global chillage",3 I began to wonder about certain historical questions raised by ambient musicians themselves in their efforts to legitimize the music. Specifically, I began to consider the relationship, or rather, the shift from earlier formulations of an international avant-garde to ambient music's own fictions of globalism. Quite simply, what sort of representations of geoculture, or even geopolitics, are reproduced by replacing internationalism with globalism? This perhaps speaks to the ways avant-garde music -- and the proponents of ambient music insist that this is a fully legitimate avant-garde music, typically without articulating what that means -- plays along the periphery of a dialogue between international metropolitan culture and the homogenizing forces of trans-national capitalism.
Raymond Williams' investigation of the social conditions of cultural formations offers a particularly revealing relationship between international cultural practices and the conditions from which they arise.4 Examining the cultural developments which resulted in internationalism, Williams suggests we first consider patterns common to the various early 20th century European avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dada, Vorticism, et al. Such movements "have, typically," writes Williams, "a metropolitan base (where 'metropolitan' must be distinguished from both 'urban' and 'national capital' definitions, its key factors being a relative [especially cultural] autonomy and a degree of internationalization, itself often related to imperialism)."5
By and large, the international ambient music culture confirms Williams' thesis. In fact, the return in ambient to the psychedelic pastoralism found in much popular music in the `60s stems from ambient music's nexus with a dusk-to-dawn techno culture. Whether in urban clubs or rave parties held in rural areas, ambient music entered into `90s youth music culture through chill-out spaces at such events. Characterized by an womb-like envelop of sound and an asylum from the physical rigors of dancing into the morning hour, chill-out spaces provided young urbanites a space for conversation and recuperation from a musical and chemical adrenaline rush. While the term chill-out is not universally applied to ambient music,6 the tropes of relaxation, contemplation and stasis remain ubiquitous.
To further manifest literally the pastoral ideal behind ambient music, many artists, composers and DJs, have utilized environmental sounds in their musical soundscapes. The call of the Loon received as much attention from sample-driven musicians as James Brown's caterwauling. Recordings of thunderstorms and ocean waves became a common occurrence in many chill-out clubs and ambient musical compositions.
As ambient music moved out from the "underground" clubs and raves and into home listening, the use of natural sounds became enjoined or even usurped by electronic sound experimentation. And yet still a few musicians continue to utilize environmental recordings as a way of making ambient music literal without necessarily limiting their palate of sounds to pastoral naturescapes. Interestingly, in the context of a metropolitan avant-garde, several musicians have turned to the acoustic culture of the city for their source of environmental ambience.
In the examples of ambient musicians Charles Uzzell-Edwards and Tetsu Inoue, Williams' theses find uncanny resonance. In records like Uzzell-Edwards' Octopus, Create II , A New Consciousness and its sequel and Inoue's World Receiver7 environmental recordings, from Western (and Northern) urban centers such as New York, San Francisco and Frankfurt are interwoven with programmed rhythms, minimalist tones and extensive signal processing. In these recordings, sonic signs collected from around the world are recorded, sampled, processed and mixed in ways that seem to concretize what Walter Benjamin once lauded in the age of mechanical reproduction, the "universal equality of things" -- all things sonic.
In the essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin makes a case for the radical implications of late-capitalist forms of cultural production. According to Benjamin, technical mass production utterly obliterated earlier notions of value such as authenticity and uniqueness. Spatial distance which governed an art object's aura of authenticity has been destroyed, "enabl[ing] the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonographic record."8 No longer anchored to a primary context for meaning, the artist can transplant the art object into any situation. This capacity for recontextualization "reactivates the object reproduced" providing endless possible meanings for the object, and by inference, the context alike.9 For Benjamin, the basis for a new radical cultural practice exists in the ways these forms of production actually produce a new subjectivity. Giving particular attention to silent film, Benjamin concludes that mechanical reproduction "permits the audience to take the position of a critic."10 Unlike theatre, where the audience is interpellated through the perspective of the actor, film interpellates the viewer through the perspective of the recording apparatus.11 "The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera."12 By extension, since it was Benjamin who mentioned the phonograph, we can conclude that, in the scene of audition, the musical audience now assumes an identification with the microphone; at one moment recording vocals and the next, recording a merry-go-round in Frankfurt.
"I am a filter" the ambient music of tetsu inoue
Speaking with ambient musician Tetsu Inoue on the telephone, he in New York city and I in Los Angeles, I asked him about his album World Receiver. According to the official press-release, Inoue based the album upon field recordings taken during his travels through-out Europe, Asia and at home in New York. However, a striking feature of the album is the utter anonymity of those environmental recordings. By subjecting each recorded soundscape to processes such as added reverberation, delay, compression and so forth, Inoue leaves nothing of those environments indicative of their acoustic cultures. He revealed to me that the process of selecting these recordings for montage was not governed by any consideration of their origins. The distance between the actual sites recorded had no impact on his compositional method. Rather, he explained, it was more like receiving radio signals. In this sense, "world receiver" was literally a radio. "You stay in one position searching for that right frequency -- tuning unconsciously, I guess."
I inquired whether this "world receiver" was the microphone or the recording studio? Again, his answer was literal. "I guess a radio tuner." He said. "World Receiver comes from `world receiver' radio. That's the name, the title. There's a short-wave radio. . . . It's quite interesting, in America you can get such a frequency but if you go to another place you can get [radio transmissions from completely different] countries."
For Inoue, these transmissions, all equal in their value, pass through his own subjective filter which is rendered literal in the recording studio and its patchwork of sound effect instruments. I asked Inoue if the composing process leveled the recordings as he claimed, whether their material origins had any significance whatsoever. His answer was typically circular: "Of course it matters because it was a location recording." But then he added, "A certain sound has a certain image and I wanted it to go to my filter." When I pressed him to identify this filter, he assigned it the ontological status of self: "I am the filter" he said. "I guess it is a more personal thing than, art." Thus the apparatus identified as self is not so much the cold indiscriminate ear of the microphone but the manipulative process of sound engineering.
For the listener, the liner notes provide the only indication that the environmental sounds found on World Receiver originated from Japan, Thailand, Pakistan, Germany and various locations throughout the United States. In the sensual web composed by Inoue, a sound recorded in Asia could just as easily have originated from the corner of Broadway and 54th Street in New York city. This exaggeration of the "equality of things" sonic is further abetted by Inoue's decision to only use "the sounds of the city."
"I didn't really record nature sounds because I thought that nature sounds are boring," he sniffs. "There are many environmental records that sound like that, with water and birds. I was also quite sick of ambient music. There were always drones and nothing would change, so for the [World Receiver] album I made a lot of changes. There's a lot happening, a lot of movement, a lot of texture."13
The density of the sounds which Inoue manipulates stand in sharp contrast to their anonymity. Sickened, so to speak, by nature sounds, Inoue employs urban acoustic cultures from around the world. Whether those soundscapes contained distinctive sound-marks in their original recorded form matters little when it comes to the final compositions on the albums. The metropolis as a soundscape is universalized and homogenized by the everyday sounds of a radio signal, pedestrian traffic and the calliope of a merry-go-round (cleverly looped upon itself). The leveling realized by the electronic apparatus exposes the leveling already achieved by a global spectacle culture. According to the logic of World Receiver what the filter receives is trans-national culture itself.
Interestingly enough, when auditioning this sort of homogenization Inoue's response is quite contrary to the Frankfurt school's condemnation of mass culture. Inoue treats the sounds as recorded material fluctuating "both, in between location, texture, feeling" and as a record of his travels. "It is hard to explain it." He confesses. "I guess the whole process and way of doing it is more on an unconscious level."
As a subjective process, Inoue describes the album as a "virtual trip" and admits that its conception was born out of his own love for traveling. How then can we reconcile this passion with a record so barren of the sort of plurality of signs characteristic of tourism? One response may be to argue that Inoue has shifted the terms of plurality from sound objects to categories of sounds. The result is the representation of sounds as opposed to sounds which represent. Inoue displaces the cultural tourist for a subject who wanders through the soundscape manufactured by the electronic recording: from Isherwood's "I am a camera" to an identification with the filter. The condition of Inoue's music is no longer his travels, which as a document World Receiver proves inadequate. On the contrary, the condition of music becomes the memory of those sampled sounds interpellated by the recording apparatus. The listening subject remembers itself in this representation of sounds. That a category of sound is received from the world suggests the status of that listening subject in relationship to a representation of global space.
sonic wallpaper for virtual social spaces
Henri Lefebvre, in his discussion of tourism and the production of space, suggests that, if we characterize tourism as a consumption of space, what is consumed is social space. Is the shift from personal record to public record necessarily predicated upon the displacement of social space, or rather, its reconstitution? In the context of the metropolis, tourism consumes space, but it is a consumption that is alternatively productive within, or as, "a productive apparatus of grand scale."14 In this sense, the metropolis both facilitates its own consumption as authentic, auratic and concentrates the apparatus of social production unto itself.15
This "productive apparatus of grand scale" recalls Raymond Williams' thesis that the consumption of a metropolitan avant-garde culture produces, in effect, a global organization. Within the urban context, "such avant-garde formations, developing specific and distanced styles within the metropolis, at once reflect and compose kinds of consciousness and practice which become increasingly relevant to a social order itself developing in the directions of metropolitan and international significance beyond the nation-state and its provinces, and of a correspondingly high cultural mobility. . . ."16
Williams' point is particularly relevant when we think of musical practices as in some way enunciatory. Probably more so than other pop music genres, techno music and ambient music take full advantage of global communication technologies such as the world-wide web. As a technology of distribution, the world-wide web becomes a means of reproducing audiences. The web-site Hyperreal is probably the most well-known and active of the ambient-related web-pages.17 Resembling on a micro-scale the network of flows which compose the trans-national market economy, Hyperreal conducts interaction between bedroom-recording artists, cottage record companies, fanzines, event promoters and consumers. For the users of Hyperreal there is none of the usual technophobia associated with mediating technologies. For musicians and audiences, the web facilitates the permeability of those identities while simultaneously establishing an international techno and ambient music culture.
What is striking about this permeability is that despite the close association of composition and distribution, practices often accomplished by the same technologies, these material conditions are often bracketed by idealist claims and hyper-spiritual tropes. For all the sensuality of his recordings, Inoue like many musicians is quick to defer signification and affect to that which is mysterious. Eschewing strategy or intention, Inoue considers his compositional method as "Inspired by texture."
"Because if it's one texture it doesn't grow, but two or three textures together, it grows itself. More like automatic things. I thought it was very mysterious. If you take all those sounds and listen to one sound it's quite boring, nothing really appealing. But if two or three or four or five things get together it's starts [coming] alive. Sort of growing their own. I thought it quite interesting."
This matter of a representation's magic, its mysterious autonomy is the subject of anthropologist Michael Taussig's study of the mimetic faculty. Taussig poses the question of just how it is that even after the aura is ruptured, do cultural practices cling to the aura of the representation -- the representation as the product and producer of magic? In his book, Mimesis and Alterity, Taussig offers a definition of mimesis as "the nature that culture uses to create second nature, the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield to and become Other."18
Taussig goes on to examine how this mimetic faculty is at the root of both the fetishization of consumable goods and, more significantly, the ways in which those goods acquire a mystical status. Like Benjamin before him, Taussig's primary concern is mimesis as an optical process. He employs Benjamin's notion of the "optical unconscious" to describe both commodity saturation (and related mystification) and the potentialities of resistance. If we substitute "optical unconscious" for spectacle culture, we begin to wonder if indeed the culture of the spectacle is limited to and governed by the image. Oddly enough, when we speak of perception, particularly in capitalist modes of social organization, the eye dominates all that we hear. We might be tempted to think, if this were the case, that sound and the ways we make sense of our acoustic culture, exist outside the material forces of a mimetic faculty. Ambient music potentially suggests otherwise.
the listening subject as artificial intelligence
In oceanography, sounding is that process by which sound waves are projected at regular intervals across a spatial distance. By monitoring the time delay of the reverberation, the sonographic machine creates a topographical image. San Francisco composer Pauline Oliveros uses sonography as a metaphor for the process of giving shape to the inner space of the soul. The soul is energy, is vibration, is sound -- a body within a body.19 Interestingly, this "giving shape to the soul" is accomplished by constructing a representation. This model reinforces Taussig's notion that magic or the mystical (usually operating as a category of identity) is in fact only possible through repetition. Sounding is especially indicative of this when we consider that not only is the resulting representation a repetition or mapping of a space, but that representation is made possible by repeating tones. The original sound signal emitted by the sonographic equipment would be meaningless unless its reverberation repeated in echo that original sound. But as a process of repetition and mimesis, the representation acquires an almost mystical aura as that which it purports to represent, whether the "real" contour of the earth or the contours of the soul -- in the case of Oliveros.
How is it then, if we recognize that this representation is just that, a product of technology, are we able to invest into that representation our faith in its verisimilitude? The aura, pronounced dead by Benjamin upon the arrival of mechanical reproduction, proves tenacious in its return as the mystical and the organic. These terms -- carry-overs from new age metaphysics -- serve as signs of innocence, talismans against an age of cynicism and free-market totalitarianism. Rather than reconcile the labor of music composition with the history of the labor which produced the hardware employed, many ambient musicians tuck the traces of accumulated labor into an ethereal embodiment of Otherness. As an abstraction, globalism provides an ontology for what is, in the material world, trans-national capitalism. Whether attributed to post-rational science - the ghost in the machine - or a creative process autonomous from meaning and human labor, the aura boasts to be alive and well in the "global chillage".
If a musical form, such as ambient music, produces specific representations of global space, a process made possible by technologies of perception and memory, what it consumes is social space. Again we recall Inoue's bricolage of field recordings, where the compositional process effaces the specificity of local space into a mapping of global space. And yet, whose social space is consumed? We have listened to ambient music which employs reproductive technologies to represent global space, such as Inoue's use of the "world receiver" metaphor, but for the constitution of which community are those sounds transmitted? To musically represent a global ambience, the music of Inoue and other worldly-minded musicians, enunciates a specific subject who, like Atlas, presses an ear to the world. However, as Frederic Jameson reminds us, in the postmodern era of electronic reproduction (here located in the bedroom home-studio), every subject position is at once a position within global capitalism.20 When we speak of a subject interpellated by recording technologies, it is a subject hailed by the same technologies which produce representations of global space. Ambient music is always and already a manifesto in sound, or, more accurately, a manifestation of the one who listens.
Ambient music which traffics in world records, where globalism is always and already a device of economic and political power relations, introduces the possibility that the aura's return may be enjoined by the noise of its material conditions: the spinning wheels of those socio-technologies. Whether intended as formalist play or ideological inquiry, ambient music must continually rescue itself from what social space is consumed. Again, exactly whose social space is consumed? This is the realigning of the division of labor, where the need to create new consumer markets collapses onto the southward push for new labor markets. The silent truth of this "global chillage" resides in those networks operating under names like GATT, NAFTA and the proposed Multilateral Investment Agreement.
I was reminded of this fact recently in a series of email correspondences with Marcela Weintraub, a journalist affiliated with a small ambient music community in Santiago, Chile.21 Here the struggle for an autonomous music culture, where local ambience might be heard locally, has met with an inundation of foreign (specifically, American and European) culture. At the same time that these musicians struggle for local spaces and local audiences, the architects of the global economy engineer trade agreements that will further indenture Chileans to the spectacle culture industry. Simultaneously, trans-national corporations eagerly await the availability of unorganized Chilean labor. For these ambient musicians, the price of an unchecked global milieu threatens more than their access to digital samplers and imported compact discs -- as it does, I would argue, for all within the global chillage.
The necessity of talking trade in an evaluation of ambient music rests in ambient's radical contingency with the networks of distribution. This as I have suggested is the milieu of a particularly interpellated subject. By expanding the ambient music community beyond artist and audience to include the whole economy of musical production enunciates, or manifests, a program of action for that subject. Hailed by perceptual technology - the listener who receives - integrated in networks of distribution - the world received -- we approach a subjectivity in possession of a vengeful spirit. As the ethereal voices of accumulated labor, these world records are less the aura's return than its sweetly administered revenge.
The subject of ambient music casts the truth of globalization within the collective body of an artificial intelligence: the global citizen. The social space consumed is nothing less than the globalization of the division of labor. The challenge for an ambient community interested at all in the evaluation of ambience, rests in the matter that if ambient music is to musically mean and its audition is to resonate within a global environment, then its sensuality must recall the traces of its conditions however effaced by any claims to the contrary.
If we take ambient music to mean literally the perception of ambience as musically organized, the question is not whether ambient music trades in representations of globalism. Similarly, our query is not driven to resolve ambiguities surrounding ambient music as geoculture. The more vital inquiry examines how specific music practices are situated within the grain of global flows. To ignore this question reduces ambient music to a lot of dead air. It is the sort of reductionism that lubricates a trans-national spectacle culture, that hears music as immaterial and ultimately conceals how it is that music "provides a rough sketch of the society under construction."22
Los Angeles, December 1996.
(The second part of this essay, "Now, the AI" begins to set forth a concrete project for an internationalist ambient practice. As intimated in "World Record", such a project is not so much an imposition of action upon preexisting material but a collective response to "Ambient music [as] always and already a manifesto in sound, or, more accurately, a manifestation of the one who listens.")
This version of "World Record" is slightly modified from that which appeared in the journal Trans>, Spring 1997. This article was originally part of an invited lecture before the Ethnomusicology Graduate Colloquium at Wesleyan University, Middleton, Connecticut. I want to thank Ron Kuivila at Wesleyan for his fierce support. Additionally, I want to thank my friends and accomplices in the ambient music community; Lynn Hasty, Tamara Palmer, Cylena Simonds, Marco Larsen and Terre Thaemlitz. Special thanks go to Marcela Weintraub and, most sincerely, Tetsu Inoue for their assistance during my research. Finally I want to thank Carlos Basualdo whose conversations initiated the idea for this paper. Dedicated to the ambient international, Dont Rhine.
1 Quoted from Fernand Ouellette, Edgar Varèse in Douglas Kahn "Introduction: Histories of Sound Once Removed" in Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-Garde, eds. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992), p. 23.
2 To avoid the simplifications of the mainstream versus alternative paradigm typical in discussions of the avant-garde, I presume a sort of mass cultural currency for ambient music. One could substantiate such a presumption with sales figures or the commercial success of ambient pop artists like Deep Forest or Enigma. However, this would ignore the parallel success of ambient music in terms of its use in commercial advertising or the ways ambient music has been used to normalize emergent technologies (as soundtrack) or ground subjectivity in the marketplace (as muzak).
3 New York: Astralwerks, 1994.
4 Williams prefers the use of the term paranational over international to describe the dialectic between the local and the global. Nonetheless, whether we elect to use paranational, international, multinational or transnational, each term inserts the function of national state governments in the accommodation of global exchange. While international organizations from the International Monetary Fund to Amnesty International rely on national states to effect the changes the prescribe, a global organization "takes the total picture of world interactions into account and is not led by power relations between individual nations" (International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Worker's Unions (ICEM), Power and Counterpower: The Union Response to Global Capital (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1996), p. 52).
5 Raymond Williams, The Sociology of Culture (NY: Schocken Books, 1982), p. 83.
6 This was made evident to me recently in conversations with a group of ambient musicians in Santiago, Chile. These members of the ambient international use the term "estar pegado". Usually associated with the feeling produced by smoking marihuana, "pegado" means to be pasted or stuck. It describes a form of seeing without "paying attention to anything visual in particular." Thanks to Marcela Weintraub for this insight.
7 Octopus (Frankfurt, Germany: FAX, 1995); Peter Namlook and Charles Uzzell-Edwards, Create II (Frankfurt, Germany: FAX, 1995); Peter Namlook and Charles Uzzell-Edwards, A New Consciousness (Frankfurt, Germany: FAX, 1994); Peter Namlook and Charles Uzzell-Edwards, A New Consciousness II (Frankfurt, Germany: FAX, 1994); World Receiver (New York: Instinct, 1996).
8 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (1955), tr. Harry Zorn (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 222-23.
9 Ibid., p. 223.
10 Ibid., p. 230.
11 For a full discussion of the interpellation of subjects by socio-technologies, see Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, tr. Ben Brewster (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 170-177.
12 Benjamin, ibid.
13 Tamara Palmer, "Tetsu Inoue," Raygun: Big In Japan Issue (38): no page numbers.
14 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1974), tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), pp. 348-9.
15 Ibid., p. 353.
16 Williams, p. 84.
18 Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (NY: Routledge, 1993), p. xiii.
19 David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Æther Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (NY: Serpent's Tail, 1995), pp. 248-51.
20 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 3.
21 As of the writing of this essay, on the eve of Bill Clinton second term, there is discussion of extending NAFTA to include Chile and possibly other South American nations.
22 Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1977), tr. Brian Massumi (MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 5.