Thursday, April 25, 2013

KODWO ESHUN, More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures in Sonic

The Guardian, 1997

by Simon Reynolds

More Brilliant Than The Sun is a survey of the 'black science fiction' tendency in music, from Lee Perry and George Clinton to contemporary sonic wizards like Tricky and Goldie. Although the idea of 'Afro-futurism' has been broached before (most notably by American critics Mark Dery and Greg Tate), Kodwo Eshun's book is the most sustained and penetrating analysis to date of what the author calls 'sonic fiction': the otherworldly vistas and alien mindscapes conjured by genres like dub reggae, hip hop, techno, and jungle.

The book kicks off at blitzkrieg pace and ferocity, with a manifesto that excoriates music journalists and cultural studies academics for being 'future shock absorbers', forever domesticating the strangeness of music. Dance music hacks are rightly ticked off for their abject failure to deal with rhythm, dance music's absolute raison d'etre and primary zone of impact on its listeners. As for the academy, Eshun is particularly scathing about treatments of black pop that analyse it in terms of soul, roots and 'the street'.

Rejecting these notions of raw expression and social realism, Eshun instead celebrates a lineage of black conceptualists, speculators and fabulists. These renegade autodidacts - Sun Ra, Rammellzee, Dr Octagon, Underground Resistance's Mike Banks and Jeff Mills - weave syncretic and idiosyncratic cosmologies using an array of esoteric sources. Eshun tracks this 'MythScience' through lyrics, songs and album titles, cover artwork, and (in Underground Resistance's case) hermetic slogans etched into the run-out vinyl of 12-inch singles.

As well as decoding these encrypted expressions of the Afro-Futurist imagination, Eshun focuses on the materiality of the music -- jungle's convoluted breakbeat rhythms, the headwrecking delirium of dub production and 'remixology', the timbral violence of the hip hop DJ's scratching. But Eshun's brand of "sub-bass materialism" has nothing in common with Marxist historical materialism. Instead of causality or continuity, Eshun looks for breaks, those moments when the future seems
to leap out of music; his punning name for the Afro-futurist canon he's erected in More Brilliant is a discontinuum.

It's a provocative stance, for sure, but at times you wonder if the baby hasn't been thrown out with the proverbial bathwater. Jungle, for instance, is probably best understood as a tangle of 'roots and future', to borrow a phrase from drum & bass outfit Phuture Assassins; as a subculture and a sound, it has one foot in the concrete jungles of Kingston, Jamaica, and the other in the data jungles of cyberspace. And is it really true, as Eshun seems to insist, that hip hop or reggae are diminished by attempts to locate them in a social context? 'The streets' may be a journalistic cliche too often marking a condescending attitude towards black creativity, but the phrase also contains a kernel of truth that can't be blithely brushed aside: the material realities of exclusion, disadvantage and exploitation that simultaneously hamper and energise all forms of underclass music, black and white.

Still, as a rhetorical strategy, Eshun's relentlessly future-focussed approach pays huge dividends. Compare More Brilliant Than The Sun with Greil Marcus's overpraised Dylan tome Invisible Republic of last year. Marcus's is a book burdened with history and barely concealed nostalgia, weighed down with ponderous, almost Old Testament imagery of curses, birthrights, debts, reckonings, and so forth. Having gleefully jettisoned the very category of the sociohistorical, Eshun's prose is free to be rapt by the future-now materiality of music as it impacts his "bodymind". The latter is just one example of the author's favorite stylistic strategy: the neologism. Puns, self-coinages and compound terms like "sonomatter", "conceptechnics", "clairaudience" and "auditionary" (the last two refer to seers who work with sound rather than vision) induce a pleasurable disorientation akin to starting a William Gibson novel, where it takes 40 pages before you get any grip on how this strange new world works.

Eshun's stylistic dazzle (every sentence aspires to be a bomb going off in your head) is highly effective in conveying the intensities of music, but it does mean that More Brilliant is best consumed in short spurts and small sips; a little pacing, the odd workaday bridging sentence, wouldn't have hurt. The influence of Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari isn't just intellectual but stylistic; like them, Eshun's forte is the aphorism and apercu.

Still, if the absolute measure of any music book is the extent to which it makes you want to hear the records, More Brilliant is a blinding success (literally--sometimes you have to shield your mind's eye from the glare). Eshun's book will get you rushing off to hunt down George Russell's Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature, a 1968 masterpiece of studio-warped 'electric jazz',
or Alice Coltrane's controversial tetralogy of albums that orchestrally remixed the music of late husband John. A 219 page elaboration of the enthused entreaty "you've just got to hear this record, you won't believe your ears", More Brilliant Than The Sun is compulsory reading for anyone even
remotely interested in music's cutting edges.

More Brilliant Than The Sun, review for Groove magazine special on Essential Techno Books, 2008

Kodwo Eshun’s first book takes a panoramic sweep through the “black science fiction” tendency in music. Not so much interpreting as recreating in ultra-vivid prose the alien mindscapes conjured by genres like dub reggae, hip hop, techno, and jungle, More Brilliant offers a heroically unorthodox approach to music writing. Eshun rejects the standard academic and journalistic approaches to black pop, specifically the sociohistorical angle that analyses Afro-diasporic music in terms of soul, roots and “the street”. Instead of perpetuating what he sees as the condescending myths of raw ghetto expression triggered by oppression and exclusion, Eshun celebrates the power and penetration of black intellect. He focuses on a lineage of conceptualists and fabulists that includes Sun Ra, Rammellzee, Dr Octagon, and Underground Resistance. Practitioners of what Eshun calls “Mythscience,” these artists weave idiosyncratic cosmologies from an array of arcane sources, scattering clues for the listener in lyrics, song and album titles, cover artwork, and so forth. As well as decoding these encrypted messages, Eshun pays equal attention to the materiality of music--jungle's convoluted breakbeat rhythms, the head-wrecking delirium of dub production, the textural violence of the hip hop DJ's scratching.

Rather than celebrate the grand ongoing tradition of black creativity, Eshun looks instead for breaks: moments when the future seems to leap out of music. He calls his Afro-Futurist canon a discontinuum. It’s a provocative stance, especially when you consider that the discourse of roots and reverence for ancestors has always been integral to black musical culture. Another problem with Eshun’s approach is that in rejecting the social aspect of music, he falls back into a kind of cyberculture era update of auteurism. More Brilliant focuses entirely on the singular genius, figures like Lee Perry, George Clinton, Goldie, rather than the collective processes by which music really evolves and mutates. More Brilliant is asocial in another sense: it is written from inside the head (or “bodymind” as Eshun calls it) of the atomized individual. There’s never any sense of the communality of musical experience--a major failing when you’re writing about dance music and especially black culture with its call-and-response rituals, rewinds, and appeals to the “massive”. In the end, though, these are small quibbles next to the enormous stimulation provided by Eshun’s provocative thesis. Above all, the book triumphs as an intoxicating prose experience. The inventiveness of the language is dizzying, its bombardment of puns, neologisms and compound terms "sonomatter", "conceptechnics", "auditionary"--a visionary who works with sound rather than vision) inducing a pleasurable disorientation to rival the music itself. Ten years on, More Brilliant Than the Sun remains compulsory reading for anyone interested in music’s cutting edges.

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