THE NATURAL LAWS OF MUSIC: Kodwo Eshun and Simon Reynolds in dialogue
Frieze, May 1999
Simon Reynolds: The best-known British music critics are still the writers from the late-70s NME - people like Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons and Paul Morley - whose writing was to a large extent about their own highly opinionated personalities. Many of them are now columnists in the broadsheets. Looking back at their early writing, it was almost inevitable that these mouthy gits who grew up on Never Mind The Bollocks were going to become the Auberon Waugh, Peregrine Worsthorne or Germaine Greer of their generation. I think it’s significant that the leading edge of music writing since that era has been far less about writers as characters. Someone recently described me as a ‘cultural scientist’, which amused me at the time but is actually closest to what I’m trying to do. You’ve suggested the idea of a ‘concept engineer’, and that seems to be part of the same aspiration to be more rigorous. It’s more as if our generation can get off on our objective fascination with things rather than our subjective personalities. Burchill liked to lay down the law, while I’d say we’re almost trying to find the equivalent of natural laws within music.
Kodwo Eshun: Yes. The exorbitant subjectivity that those writers all had, which paid dividends in Ian Penman, is of very little use now. Music changed so drastically that it was more pressing to analyse the widening gap between how music sounded and the terms we used to understand it. When I started writing in 1992, most dance writing was still at the level of ‘kicking’ and ‘banging’. There was a fiercely-held anti-intellectual drive that made writing about dance music more of a challenge. Because a lot of the people who make the music are working class, aren’t college-educated and aren’t especially articulate, there is a sense of a post-literate culture: people who think electronically, digitally, sonically. Of course, it’s difficult to write sonically and this difficulty is raised to an impossibility and then that impossibility is elevated into a principle. You get people writing things like ‘the music speaks for itself’ as if it’s the most admirable thing you could say - but it’s just a cop-out. There’s an idea that the writer’s aim is to empathise, to intuit, on the side of the producer against the world. It’s got a lot to do with economic status: you exchange the low economic value of music journalism for being close to the DJ, being inside a scene. That’s the deal you strike when you want to be a writer and that’s why so much of it still veers between sycophancy and cynicism.
For me, it seems far more urgent to understand what computerisation is doing to rhythm than to understand that a particular musician was a bad boy who grew up in care and had a really hard time. 99% of writing is still socio-historical and my attempt to totally destroy that is probably doomed to failure, but it’s an experiment to show that it’s viable, using the particular example of black electronic dance music, machine music, computer music. My key point is that you don’t have to begin with the social. When it comes to dance music, it seems crucial to understand the weight of a sound - why does a break press on your arms, why does it seem to scuttle, or why do people describe electronic music as cold, why does it feels like your temperature has dropped? These questions are completely unexplored.
SR: Focusing entirely on the materiality of the music creates a more intense effect. In Energy Flash (1998) I have moments when I try to plug into the drug sensorium, but I am also interested in the socio-historical reasons why a whole culture has grown up based around delirium. My first book, Blissed Out (1990), was very much anti-historical, purely about the apocalyptic now, but I’m beginning to examine the way the urge to escape history occurs within history. I keep oscillating between the idea that there’s nothing new under the sun and wanting to write about total novelty. In some senses Jungle was completely novel, totally unthinkable - it also seemed placeless. Yet in another sense it was totally local - hardcore Jungle and Speed Garage both celebrate themselves as ‘a London thing’. I’m still very attached to the idea of using the social-historical approach.
KE: In More Brilliant than the Sun (1998) I replaced sociology with what I called the electronics of everyday life, a kind of everyday cybernetics - the idea that your most intimate relation is with your record player as much as with your computer or your phone. For instance, if you focus right down and you slow your rate of attention then you hear a lot more; you lose the wider perspective but you gain a more attentive hearing. I do it with tracks which everybody thinks they know really well, tracks that have been around for nearly 20 years like ‘Grandmaster Flash’s Adventures on the Wheels of Steel’.
SR: Talking about the social leads us to the question of differences between British and American criticism. I have a bit of a bug-bear about American rock criticism. Although the quality of it is probably a lot better than the writing that comes out of England, most of it is still very much bound up with reading music: biographical revelations or the resonance of an individual’s life. It is very much about lyrics, I think, and in some ways that’s the legacy of Greil Marcus - he still towers over American rock literature. Marcus’ last book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (1997) is very much bound up with issues of responsibility and the burdens of history. And I know two American rock critics, for example, who were totally uninterested in Tricky until they realised there was stuff going on in the lyrics. I couldn’t understand how anyone could not be blown away instantly by the sonics, by the sheer sensual pleasure of Maxinquaye. A common US rock critic attitude to dance music is ‘but where’s the ideology? It’s just ear candy’. In other words, it just gives you an empty sugar rush, it’s non-nutritional, sonic junk food.
KE: Not organic.
SR: There is a kind of residual puritanism in American rock writing. They rarely write about just the pleasure of things, the juicy succulence of sound.
KE: Yes, it’s only very recently that American writing paid any attention whatsoever to the sonic design, the production, the rhythm arrangements, the tonal density of hip hop, for example.
For years people even ignored the rhyming skills and the cadences and wrote purely about the signifying and the lyrics.
Not only that: the ethics, the values, the allegiance to keeping it real, to who’s down, who’s a real player, who’s living largest - an entire set of avoidances of the sonic texture, up until Company Flow when it became unavoidable. Even with Company Flow you still got writers talking solely about the fact that they’re proudly independent, until everybody found out that their label Rawkus was somehow bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. But the idea that this is more interesting than Company Flow’s arhythmic structure is really stupid.
SR: A lot of American critics like Dave Marsh feel that music must be responsible to a certain class struggle. Marsh is the hagiographer of Springsteen and he also published Rock and Roll Confidential, an irregular magazine full of pungent attacks on the record industry, with a lot of anti-capitalist, sociologically informed writing. He’s very anti-English music - he hated all the synth pop bands and called them the new pop tarts.
KE: That’s right, it breaks the law of labour: you just extend one weedy finger, touch the button and out comes a sound, the sequencer plays for you, you don’t have to do anything, how terrible! The decadence of machines!
SR: I think this goes back to Greil Marcus too; the strong current of patriotism that often becomes a kind of Anglophobia. After the Sex Pistols and Gang of Four, English music is perceived as an effete, style-over-substance wasteland. Marcus brings up America all the time, it’s almost like he sees himself as the last true American patriot. I think REM were apotheosised as representations of some kind of lost Americanness - in the middle of the 80s there was suddenly a group that rather vaguely and abstractly talked about a new frontier.
KE: You can see it again in the way American critics over-valued Public Enemy - they thought Public Enemy was the Hip Hop equivalent of the Dead Kennedys. They loved the noisiness and insurgency because this could relate them to Punk. At the same time, techno was more austere, more glacial and totally tonal; it offered none of these consolations. As a result it’s totally off the map. At the beginning of the decade, Nelson George wrote ‘A Post-Soul Chronicle of Black Popular Culture’ in which Techno doesn’t appear. He’s utterly deaf to it - all of them were until a couple of years ago. It’s an historical situation that still amazes me.
I have to say, though, that Greg Tate has been a very big influence on me because of the way he brought science fiction and electronic music together. He made links through the encyclopaedic references of Parliament’s ‘Mothership Connection’ cycle to Samuel Delaney to Ralph Ellison, so suddenly he’d connected science fiction and concept albums, and crammed in a massive amount of information in a really encrypted way. That made for a real break with rock writing.
SR: The relationship to drugs, especially with rave music, is very problematic for many American rock critics and that goes all the way back to 1968 and the moment when a lot of very important rock bands backed away from psychedelia: Dylan and the Band returned to Americana and Roots Music, the Stones became very bluesy after their disastrous psychedelic follies, and the Beatles got raw-sounding again. That was a pivotal moment, and if you look at Stranded (1979), Greil Marcus’ collection of essays by writers on their favourite Desert Island Discs, at the end is a list of what Marcus thinks are the best 150 or so records from rock history. Psychedelia is written out of it almost entirely. It’s the same in Joe Carducci’s book Rock and the Pop Narcotic (1996) - he thinks the raw heat and pulsing energy of rock was tampered with because psychedelia made it too studio oriented. So the whole idea of psychedelic or drug-related music, whether it’s Dub Reggae, modern neo-psychedelic Rock or Techno is problematic because it’s all to do with illegibility.
KE: I’d say the writers associated with Spex magazine in Cologne are much closer to the writing you find in British magazines like the Wire than to anything coming out of the States.
SR: Definitely. Just through talking to Diedrich Diederichsen and younger writers in his tradition, you can see that they’re operating at a very high level of discourse. It also suggests that there might be other good stuff going on in other European countries.
KE: David Toop’s book Ocean of Sound (1995) had a huge influence. I’d say it was one of the key books of the 90s for European writers because his project of tracing the tendencies of ambient from Debussy to Aphex Twin has really allowed Europeans back in, in a way that Americans would never have done.
SR: In Europe in general, because the lyrics are often indecipherable or incomprehensible to them, the whole rock apparatus - the importance of lyrics and persona identification - is not so pronounced. People identify with the emotional mood or the grain of a singer’s voice, or the abstract feeling that you get from a track, which leaves them more open to write about the texture of the music.
KE: Absolutely. There’s a really impressive magazine, Nomad’s Land, that’s published in France, and I was really influenced by the people who produce the Dutch magazine, Mediamatic. But the rate of translation in the other direction is disgustingly slow. As soon as you travel and start to make contact with people in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium and Holland, you get a sense that everything being produced in the UK is moving out there, but it’s excessively one way and very few European books make it over here. I’ve been more influenced by European techno-theorists than European music writers.
SR: Is that where your non-linear approach to writing comes from?
KE: I’d say my writing is omni-directional rather than non-linear. It follows several paths at once. What disappears is something that most academics still have, which is a kind of post-Modern ennui - this sense that we’ve been born too late and that all we can do is cite and quote in this classic post-Modern way. Instead I have this sense that everything’s still to be done. Sometimes I get re-enchanted with nature - with the sense that nature is pulsing with microprocessors at every level of reality, that everything is potentially digitisable and that writing’s job is to trace that path. Digitisation doesn’t stop at machines - it carries on through your head, through your fingers, through the phone when you talk to somebody, and the idea is to follow the tendencies, follow this path and see where it goes…
SR: I really like the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit’s idea of ‘theory-fiction’ that’s somewhere between the rigour of academic writing and the prose-poem qualities of cyber-punk writing. But there seems to be a sort of polemic within that CCRU stuff against the idea of metaphor, whereas to me it’s still within the domain of figurative language. The Romantic poets took inspiration from the latest scientific discoveries, and sometimes I wonder - can you describe music with scientific accuracy? Isn’t this writing actually a kind of late-90s poetry?
KE: No, no, not at all. I hate it when people describe what I’m doing as poetry, that’s the worst thing. It’s not science, it’s cybernetics and it’s not cybernetics in the sense inherited from Norbert Wiener, it’s cybernetics in the Deleuze and Guattari sense. There’s a section in Mille Plateaux (1980), so I’m just going to read it. ‘There is no biosphere or noosphere but everywhere the same mechanosphere. Cultural or technical phenomena provide a fertile soil, a good soup for the development of insects, bacteria, germs or even particles. If we consider the plane of consistency, we note that the most disparate of things and signs move upon it. A semiotic fragment rubs shoulders with a chemical interaction and an electron crashes into a language. A black hole captures the genetic message, a crystallisation produces passion, the wasp and the orchid cross a letter, there is no ‘like’ here, we are not saying ‘like’ an electron, ‘like’ an interaction. The plane of consistency is the abolition of all metaphor. All that consists is real. These are electrons in person, veritable black holes, it’s just that they have been uprooted from their strata, destratified, decoded, deterritorialised, and that is what makes their proximity and interpenetration in the plane of consistency possible, a silent dance. The plane of consistency knows nothing of differences in level, orders of magnitude or distances, it knows nothing of the difference between the artificial and the natural.’
SR: A lot of scientists would have problems with that.
KE: Of course they would, but it’s not science… it’s science escaped from the laboratory…
SR: You don’t think that passage is rhetoric? I mean, I might come up with a description of a music track as an engine, but how can we possibly say that that’s an scientific description of what the music is? Someone else could come up with a totally different one, that’s equally valid.
KE: Well, I hope they do. It’s not so much about accuracy as functioning - it’s that the description works, and allows a connection to be made to other things. I think links can now be made between fields that previously were quite rigidly separated - by value, for instance. None of us are interested in the old Dylan versus Keats argument, that’s totally dropped out of the window. The Deleuze and Guattari approach leads you away from all those value judgements, and that’s what’s great about it. TV and radio journalists always end up asking me what’s good and what’s bad, and that’s just not the point - the point is how music functions and what it’s doing. If you went back to ideas of value we’d all get blocked and stultified - we’d be inventing canons that legitimise this approach over that approach - really boring things like that.
SR: Alright, for example, let’s take the stuff the CCRU’s allies,
O[rphan] D[rift>] have written on Techno. It’s often brilliant, but I can’t take it in any other way than beautifully drug-addled prose poetry. Their descriptions of the way certain sounds dismember you and tear your body perceptions apart, like being fucked by the music or having your limbs wrenched out, make for incredibly grisly sensual writing, but to me it’s in the same counter-canon as Lautreamont and Rimbaud and Bataille… it’s not as if we’re measuring the bass frequencies with a sonograph or whatever apparatus real scientists use. There’s a certain sense in which using scientific language at this point seems much more sexy and exciting and productive as a way of thinking about music - it doesn’t seem tired, and it opens up new ways of feeling - but I still think someone could come up with a totally different frame of reference and have an equally valid way of responding to it and enjoying the music.
KE: Yes, that’s very much the point; somebody should say ‘well this is all wrong because...’, that would be really wild. One of the things I wanted to do in my book was find what Erik Davis calls the ‘electromagnetic imaginary’ - it’s the idea that music is an energy source. You’ve written about this as well, and you can see it most clearly in Jungle tracks and Miles Davis - that listening to the music is like getting into the Jefferson Airplane or getting onto the Grand Funk Railroad or taking an expressway to your skull or listening to Air and going on a safari to the moon. In the late 90s, we’re all plugging into an electromagnetic way of thinking; we’re more into electronic thought processes and digital thinking and that’s where I want to get. It’s what I call ‘concepttechnics’, the kind of conceptual thinking about music, the idea that there’s a turntable in the head, that there’s a synthesiser in the head, that there’s a sample in the head, that our way of thinking is a sampladelic thought process. This feels exciting to me, and this is the kind of science I’m doing - it’s not a question of not scientific laws, but definitely transonic processes. What do you think?
SR: It strikes me that what you’re talking about can also be applied to earlier periods of music. I always loved The Stooges, for instance, and their songs are all about energy pulses - Raw Power. You can see it running through the history of rock - Garage Punk was about these kids who were really hyped up on illegal stimulants like amphetamine and LSD, which actually increased the rate of electricity flow in the brain and the nervous system. And they were hyped up on new technology - the wah-wah and the fuzz-tone pedal were the sampler and synthesiser of their day - that guitar sound seems gritty and organic and ‘authentic’ now, but at the time they were intensely technological, artificial processes. Like Techno, Garage Punk was all about electricity. I’m trying to develop a way of looking at music past and present that’s not about identifying with the emotion or the protagonist of the song, it’s about intensifying with the energy.
KE: Yes, that effortless momentum - the music pulls you forward, as if you’re attached by a big string. Greil Marcus described the intro to ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ as making you feel like you’re on Jupiter, like you’re crushed by the gravity, by the weight of the sound. It’s the one time I’ve read Marcus really thinking about the effect of sound, and it was very smart.
SR: He once wrote that music doesn’t change the world, but it can change the way you walk through it. He meant your cultural perceptions and your sense of possibilities -like the Sex Pistols gave people a glimpse of a whole different way of living their lives - but in a quite literal sense that he didn’t mean, music really does change the way your body moves.
KE: The gait, the kinaesthetic - absolutely.