Postcards from a PhD
Despite missing half of my PGR induction due to a ‘bridge bash’ somewhere between Manchester and Liverpool, still not being able to work out how to pay my fees and my supervisor seemingly having dematerialised, I was, up until yesterday, still congratulating myself on how laid back I had been over the first slightly bumpy week of my PhD. Of course something was going to push me over the edge eventually and I have now officially waged a vengeful war on whoever it was that chose to recall the library book I took out on a three month loan the day after I borrowed it. To this end, today I have been power-reading Listening through the noise: the aesthetics of experimental electronic music by Joanna Demers so I can get it back to the library tomorrow.
Revisiting my proposal I realised I’d drawn on Demers a lot as I hurtled through an overview of existing literature on contemporary electronic music, so I was keen to go back to Listening through the noise for a closer reading to see if I was still equally enamoured 9 months on. The short answer is, I completely am.
Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been reading too much psychology lately, but all too often I’ve read introductions that set out an intention to ‘explore’ a topic only to find in reality they metaphorically walk a predetermined path, arriving on time and unruffled at a conclusion that neatly verifies their hypothesis. Demers’ writing, on the other hand, really does feel like a genuine exploration. She makes no claim to a definitive notion of how meaningfulness in music is perceived and interpreted and it’s this open-mindedness I like. To illustrate this, the body of the book is divided into three two-chapter sections delving first into the idea that sound functions as a sign, then sound as object and then finally sound as reflection of situation. This approach enables Demers to engage with the central questions in relation to the aesthetics of electronic sound, as Brian Kane succinctly testifies on the back cover, “To refer or not to refer? To mean or to be? To situate or dislocate?”.
As one would expect from a book that deals with the large range of material that comes under the umbrella of ‘experimental electronic music’ – broadly bracketed in this case as electro acoustic music, electronica and sound art – some chapters will be of more interest to the individual reader than others. The second chapter, on material as sign in electronica, was particularly enjoyable for me. Demers suggests that within electronica the relationship between signifier and signified is not necessarily based on resemblance, but on conventions over time that have paired particular sounds with exterior concepts. This seems particularly persuasive with hauntological music in mind, where the use of a certain synth sound is able to evoke a particular period in time due to its a priori associations.
The book also contains some interesting observations on sampling as a means of intertextual commentary and how, on the part of the author, this presupposes an idealised listener ready to engage in what Demers calls a “contest of connoisseurship”. Again, in the context of hauntology this seems particularly relevant; indeed, one might suggest a large part of the appeal of, for example, Moon Wiring Club or Belbury Poly, is the reference spotting aspect of the package they present. I’d elaborate further, but I’ve got to get this book back to the library.