Postcards from a PhD
On Sunday evening I went to the cinema to see the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van. Afterwards, discussing the authenticity of the late 70s/early 80s period setting, my companion observed in its support that the notebook ‘Alan Bennett’ had been using was “the same one we kept on top of the VHS player to keep track of what we recorded”. I have to admit, I found it quite bemusing that his family’s videoing practices had become so multiplicitous and complex a logbook was required. It prompted a nostalgic discussion of our respective familial video archiving methods (in our house we favoured a very small handwriting label based system) and the sharing of our personal, and still deeply felt, over-taping traumas. And with lovely synchronicity my reading this week has been on residual media, with a strong emphasis on the cultural symbolism of the VHS cassette.
The first article I read was Jamie Sexton’s ‘Creeping decay: cult soundtracks, residual media and digital technologies’ from Volume 13, No 1 of New Review of Film and Television, published earlier this year. It was a paper that stood out on its discovery as a ‘must read’ for me, as Sexton’s ‘Weird Britain in Exile’ is the only substantive journal article that I’ve yet come across on hauntological music in a British context and is one I’d highly recommend. Like ‘Weird Britain in Exile’, ‘Creeping Decay’ serves more as a comprehensive summary of the landscape, in this case of the resurgence in cult film soundtracks, than a critical analysis of the phenomena, but certainly pulls together a lot of the key contributing factors including collecting culture, the function of the web as a sharing medium, and the popularity of Italio-horror (which forms a sizable section of the soundtrack re-issue market). In particular, Sexton discusses how music culture contributes to the cult value of films, noting the parallels between elements of cinephile culture that collect and idealise the VHS format and the marked preference for vinyl releases in the soundtrack market. He also draws attention to the symbiotic relationship between cult soundtracks and independent music artists who not only incorporate elements of cult film into their output (musically or as visual accompaniment), but some of whom also produce soundtracks or are involved in the reissue process.
‘Creeping decay’ includes a particularly interesting discussion of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, soundtracked by Broadcast and with visual input from Julian House. Sexton describes Berberian Sound Studio as “a film inspired by film music (and sound) featuring music inspired by film”. This certainly contributes to the immersive and disorientating nature of the film, which I found was intensified for me by having listened to and become familiar with the soundtrack prior to watching the film, something I don’t think I’ve experienced before. This ties in with a key element of Sexton’s argument relating to role of the video cassette recorder as instrument of temporal disjuncture, a machine that disrupted linear time by freeing the viewer from watching film and television in chronological order, as well as one which increased the density of media content available, officially and unofficially.
Sexton’s article draws on the work of Will Straw, whose article ‘Exhausted Commodities: The Material Culture of Music’ (Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 25, No 1) I have also read this week. The paper takes as its starting point the idea that “obsolete objects do not simply disappear, giving way to a future which will unfold without them, but persist and circulate throughout the commercial markets of contemporary life” with specific reference to physical music formats. It’s an interesting exploration of what Straw calls a ‘hazy international consensus’ of the worth (and worthlessness) of certain types of music and how this is shaped (and reshaped) over time. Going back to the concept of residual media, Straw notes the lack of correspondence between economic and physical decay where the meaningfulness will have dispersed long before the object itself. This for me immediately brings to mind music to which decay is central (William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops being the obvious example), but also artists whose output partially incorporates degradation of physical formats, be that real or simulated, such as the vinyl crackle of Caretaker or video hiss of VHS Head. Straw quotes Michael Thompson who suggests that “In an ideal world an object would reach zero value and zero expected life-span at the same instant, and then disappear into dust”, but of course if this were possible it would mean the loss of the afterlife of objects, an afterlife where they can both be rediscovered as new and exciting as well as revisited as objects whose lack of value paradoxically becomes their value.
This is something explored by Andrew Burke in ‘Trademark Ribbons of Gold: Format, Memory, and the Music of VHS Head (Popular Music and Society, 38:3). Burke starts by asserting that the reprocessing and reconfiguring of analogue media can amplify its “force, menace and strangeness”, and he uses the music and practices of Adrian Blacow, aka VHS Head, as a case study to examine this. Following Burke’s argument, there are two distinct threads to unlocking the power of residual media; the way the recycled media triggers recognition, and the way in which it triggers disorientation. VHS Head uses sampled audio from 80s video cassettes as source material, overlaid onto rapidly evolving rhythm tracks. However, unlike a lot of intertextual commentary, the music of VHS Head does not seem to be constructed for what Joanna Demers calls an ‘idealised listener’, someone that will be able to identify the samples used. Samples are cut and assembled specifically to be unrecognisable in origin, yet retain their familiarity (by way of our cultural associations with the medium and the time of the ‘video era’). To this end, VHS Head uses not just sampled speech, but snippets of distribution ident music, for example, stretched, distorted and overlaid in a way that provokes a disorientating feeling of recognition to anyone who has watched enough videos for the soundmark to have been unconsciously etched on their memory.
Burke links this deliberate triggering of distorted memory to hauntological music, specifically citing Ghost Box artists and the use of “station identifications, program theme tunes and the incidental music for television that never was”. He relates this to a notion that VHS Head is in essence producing soundtracks for films that do not exist “imagined yet unrealized, remembered but imaginary”. It’s a nice idea, but not one that he substantiates with any reference to the artist, and while I feel he is on the right lines by drawing parallels to the use of televisual samples and pastiche to create simultaneous familiarity and disorientation, I’d suggest the ‘imaginary soundtracks’ idea is supposition. VHS Head and Belbury Poly or the Advisory Circle do feel quite a long way from each other sonically when heard side by side, but if one places, say, Mordant Music, between them then the common factors become a lot clearer – ‘Transmission Start-Up’ from MM’s Dead Air and ‘Ident’ from Trademark Ribbons of Gold, one might argue, are very much cut from the same cloth. Burke also crucially mentions Daniel Lopatin/Sunsetcorp and the relationship to ‘echo-jamming’, but in observing an “interesting generational historicity” falls short of fully examining how different generations mine different memory sources. Though on a related note, I found out this week that Betamax are still (for the next four months anyway) producing cassettes, so how one defines the ‘video generation’ is, it would seem, still very open-ended.