Posted on 20 December 2011 by Bowlegs

Hauntology image 1


In approaching this article, charged as I was with drawing attention to some of the more ‘out there’ fringes of experimental electronica, I was very aware of wanting to find a context for the seemingly endless indie releases available to an insatiable army of fans of the offbeat, the leftfield, the oddball and the generally unclassifiable. Among those with an appetite for the challenging, the freakish, the obscure, the genuinely groundbreaking and, in the truest sense, the ‘outsider’, there is more opportunity than ever to download, blog, discuss and dissect ever growing ranks of undiscovered gems and lost classics. When boot fairs and record collectors’ conventions gave way to online blogs and forums, the horizons of the online collector were forever expanded and the market place for outsider music would never be the same again.

Online retailers such as Boomkat parade a seemingly unending array of new releases and rarity reissues designed to tempt the left field enthusiast with ever expanding booklets and limited edition gatefolds. This scene in particular has benefitted exponentially from the continuing expansion of electronic subgenres, taking in dubstep and leftfield hip hop through to wonky and off kilter house. But what lies behind this insatiable impulse for rediscovery and its accompanying re-contextualisation of lost musical moments?

It seems sensible to address this area with reference to some of the more current philosophical ideas, which we might use to test the aesthetic statements of some of the protagonists. The ‘buzz’ word I want to address here is ‘hauntology’, a term coined by the (like him or loathe him) French philosopher and academic cause celebre Jacques Derrida. Hauntology, in particular, has most recently become a shorthand for discussions of ‘the past inside the present’; an often ironic recreation or quoting of a fondly remembered past, only to deconstruct it by creating works of art that are fully conscious of these ‘rememberings’, however distorted the results may be.

If one wanted to create a recent hauntological survey with reference to current electronica (hauntological approaches have been identified by critics in current fiction, poetry, architecture, fashion, photography and many other branches of the arts) then it would not be hard to find names that crop up again and again.

The much lauded and highly influential Scots electronica duo Boards Of Canada, with their mysterious lexicon of pagan flashbacks, re-imagined through the lens of 70s tape and camera manipulation, might be prime candidates, with compositions that burn like acid vignettes to a time recently passed, in re-imagined memory – part overt nostalgia, part dread for what we may or may not become. Their composition Music is Math on the dark and complex Geogaddi album from 2002 features a disembodied voice intoning ‘the past inside the present’, as if to provide us with some clue to their already highly mythologised output. The fixation with the instruments of their productions is key to understanding the central tropes which characterise this recurring commentary – radiophonic distortions, tape wow and flutter and surface noise, re-contextualised snippets and samples, all coalescing to present an imaginary world built on the chassis of hip hop dynamics, but with the individual vestiges of their 70s childhoods as a poignant and resonant backdrop. That this music continues to be so influential within the field of leftfield electronica should be no surprise, such is the suggestive and ironic layering of the duo’s keenly wrought structures. To date BOC still have whole Wiki areas devoted to unpicking their more obscure layers and backwards masked points of reference – signs, symbols and sounds seemingly left, like Led Zeppelin and others before them, for the interpretation of eager fans. BOC have traded very effectively on that mystique and, in turn, have inspired a generation of electronica artists who have also tried to exploit that seductive amalgam of reinvention, reflection and re-playing of the past.

Such is the rabid interest in their official and unofficial catalogue, that several of their fansites are devoted to uncovering lost records from a mythical back catalogue which the duo seem very content to keep out of reach. Rumours range from the discovery of private tapes from the 90s, existing in mere handfuls of copies, to a full scale reissue programme which will ultimately reveal the truth and place their whole output in context. The ultimate hauntological players thus themselves become subject to the unwritten laws of the archive, with their own output becoming a fetishized object where rewrites, lost demo versions and renamed tracks become a new currency in the on-going narrative of BOC.

Without the influence of Boards of Canada and the obsessive interest of their fans, we would arguably not have labels like British Ghost Box and their equally individual and ironic take on a peculiarly British world of radiophonic experimentation, public information films, and the lexicon of post war paranoia’s. Once again this is an artfully conceived world of replayed memories and fragments, which haunt the contemporary reality of the actual recordings to the effect that one layer cannot help but re-contextualise, or sometimes deconstruct, the other to often disorienting effect.

-Mark Williams-