Hauntologists mine the past for music's future

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You may argue that pop culture has always drawn heavily on nostalgia, and you’d be right, but things have changed. What was once a dim memory, a wobbly VHS tape, a slice of warped vinyl, or a bootleg DVD or CD trading hands amongst enthusiasts has become a towering digital midden so huge that it threatens to impede our view of the future. The growth of online media channels means that the near-entirety of our cultures’ pasts have been excavated and placed on display for anyone to watch, hear, or read in an instant. Hence, hauntology.

At the heart of the musical micro-genre of hauntology is the sense of atemporality that underpins our present culture. Whether it’s musicians pastiching multiple vintage styles in a single track, the endless cycle of remakes and sequels in cinema, or historical genre mashups in pop literature, our future is looking increasingly like our past, which now looks like the future, which looks increasingly like the past, and so on.

Back in 2006 Mark Fisher, author of the essential Capitalist Realism and the K-Punk blog, first applied the name “hauntology” to an emerging field of music that he identified with the crackle-steeped, dubstep dérives of South London’s Burial and the music of the Ghost Box label. That label’s founders Jim Jupp and Julian House fused pop concrète, soundtrack and library music with sharp design and a swarm of esoteric pop-cultural references to create a parallel reality built upon memories of a very British past.

The term “hauntology” itself had first been discussed by the post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida, as a play both on Karl Marx's introduction to the Communist Manifesto, “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”, and on the word 'ontology' (say it with a French accent). Derrida outlines the opaque art and science of ghosts in Ken McMullen's 1983 film Ghost Dance.

Most hauntological music has taken a playful approach to the past. Ghost Box’s nostalgic avant-electronica has appealed to more esoteric and largely British tastes, but Burial, Broadcast and The Focus Group’s Witch Cults Of The Radio Age (2009) and, more recently, Demdike Stare’s pulp-horror beats and library loops, have opened the pool of references and aesthetics out to a wider audience.

Hauntology may a thing of the past, but this of course means that it will always be with us. Time’s arrow is now a circle: and how do you measure where a circle begins, or ends? Well, I’m going to have a go. In a bid to map at least a fragment of its vast territory to those of you unfamiliar with it, I present a brief, personal survey of Britain’s haunted cultural landscape. Our ride on the ghost train will be all too brief, but these few stations will provide enough launching points for you to explore on your own.

We are, and always have been, a nation of ghosts. Few understood this fact better than a triumvirate of Victorian and Edwardian authors, who between them formed the basis for so much of the horror that was to follow.

MR James, whose shade celebrated its 150th birthday earlier this year, is still regarded by many as the finest ever writer of ghost stories in the English language. A professional historian, James was acutely aware that the shadows of the past could prey heavily upon the present. Several of his tales were adapted for television in the 1970s, to be screened at Christmas, as if it wasn't grueling enough for most families already. This is perhaps the most disturbing of all the MR James TV adaptations: Lost Hearts (1973)

Welshman Arthur Machen maintained a career as a pragmatic Fleet Street journalist while dreaming up unsettling, timeless, and elegantly-crafted supernatural tales. Like James, Machen drew attention to a past in danger of being buried by modernity, but his focus was on the landscape that he feared would soon disappear beneath bricks and mortar, and on the ancient others who, largely unseen, share that landscape with us. Once these Others were known as the Good Folk, or the Little People, and were treated with the utmost respect, until the Victorians tried to tame and belittle them as faeries. Machen knew better than that and presented them in their true guise: often beautiful, often terrifying and sometimes very hostile. The Shining Pyramid is one of the most explicit and bizarre expressions of this conflict between ancient and modern:

"Haunted, you said?"

"Yes, haunted. Don't you remember, when I saw you three years ago, you told me about your place in the west with the ancient woods hanging all about it, and the wild, domed hills, and the ragged land? It has always remained a sort of enchanted picture in my mind as I sit at my desk and hear the traffic rattling in the street in the midst of whirling London.

Machen’s spirit lives on in the work of contemporary artist Tessa Farmer, whose narrative sculptures centre around a species of hostile faeries. Some years after she had begun working on her sculptures, Tessa discovered that she was Machen’s great-granddaughter. The faeries live on, in her blood.

James and Machen’s contemporary Algernon Blackwood also shared a fascination with haunted landscapes, especially the great wildernesses of Europe and the Americas, which he deployed to chilling effect in The Willows (1907):

After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapesth, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes. On the big maps this deserted area is painted in a fluffy blue, growing fainter in colour as it leaves the banks, and across it may be seen in large straggling letters the word Sumpfe, meaning marshes.

Incidentally, The Willows by Belbury Poly was the third release on the Ghost Box label.

As the Situationists were conducting their first psychogeographical explorations of urban environments in the 1950s and 1960s, Englishman Tom 'TC' Lethbridge was devising his own, simultaneously more mystical, more scientific and more Surreal, experiments with contacting the genius loci, the spirit of place, using pendulums, dowsing rods and other means of unconscious operation.

Lethbridge also originated the notion of the 'residual haunting', outlined in his 1961 book Ghost and Ghoul. This is the idea is that, under the right conditions, a powerful event – perhaps a death or an accident – can somehow be imprinted into a building or a landscape, leading to a haunting. This manifests as a kind of replay of the event, such as in the famous case of the Roman legionnaires marching, from the knees up, through a pub basement in York.

This concept would form the basis for a key hauntological text, Nigel Kneale's 1972 television play, The Stone Tape.

Here, as in many of Kneale's works, science and the supernatural collide as parapsychologists investigate a haunted mansion. State-of-the-art 1970s technologies – oscilloscopes, oscillators and tape recorders, also the tools of contemporary electronic musicians – are used to capture the tragic memories that haunt the building.

In the mystic haze of late '60s Britain, TC Lethbridge's ideas would converge with the ley line theories of Alfred Watkins, giving birth to the ‘Earth Mysteries’ movement, and feeding the minds of New Wave psychogeographers Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd (Hawksmoor), Alan Moore (From Hell), and others whose ideas subsequently flowed into the hauntological timestream:

Another of Nigel Kneale's classic TV plays, Quatermass and the Pit (1955), about the excavation of a Martian spacecraft beneath Hobs Lane tube station in London, was a key reference point for Mount Vernon Arts Lab, whose 2001 album The Seance at Hobs Lane was a sonic touchstone for Ghost Box, who reissued it in 2006:

First releasing 7 inches in the mid-1990s, MVAL founder Drew Mulholland was heavily inspired by the far out electronic sounds created for the film and TV of his childhood (including Tristram Cary's music concrete atmospheres for the 1967 Hammer film adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit), and particularly the BBC’s legendary Radiophonic Workshop:

Another key player in MVAL’s haunted pantheon was the brilliant pop producer Joe Meek. Obsessed with flying saucers, spiritualism and the occult, during the 1960s Meek pumped dozens of exuberant-yet-melancholy pop tunes out of his cramped apartment on London's Holloway Road.

Despite scoring some major chart successes – most famously Telstar – Meek's burning ambition was routinely thwarted by the politics of the music business, while his own erratic personality, exacerbated by a serious drug habit and his homosexuality (still illegal at the time), drove him to a tragic end, shooting his landlady, and himself, at the age of 37.

For his album Seance at Hobs Lane, MVAL's early ditty Scooby Don't, was transformed into a synthesised funereal march, Hobgoblins, by another key hauntological progenitor, Coil. Here's the before and after.

Coil's music was always steeped with references, both explicit and hidden, to books, films, people and ideas that drew on similar pools of spectral pop culture.

Perhaps none better encapsulates this than ‘Going Up’ from their final album The Ape of Naples, finished after the death in 2004 of the group's founder, John Balance. The song transforms the opening title theme of a wildly popular, camp 1970s British department store comedy, Are You Being Served, into a transcendent, ascendant afterlife hymn for elegantly-attired spirits everywhere.

Who knows where our pasts will lead us next? Some fear that the sheer weight of available archive material is so overwhelming, and so alluring, that new generations of artists and musicians will be unable to escape from their retrospective orbits. This may be true for a while, but the future will find a way to leak through and catch up with us. And, rather than an all-consuming black hole, the vast weight of the past will slingshot us into a new, weird, and always-haunted future.


Dedicated to new ghosts: John Balance (2004), Peter Christopherson (2010), and Trish Keenan (2011)