Tuesday, October 25, 2016
The Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music - Stephen Graham
University of Michigan Press
So there is an underground then? I’m sorry I was all confused. This mainly due to a piece written by David Keenan in 2014 entitled ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ in which he defiantly stated that the underground is no more and if people don’t get up from behind their table full of gadgets and start jumping around there’s going to be nothing worth writing about. He even asked Thurston Moore if the underground was dead and he said ‘yup’ or something similar, before adding prophetically ‘but something will come along, it usually does’. So there is hope. Rest easy now.
In an early chapter of Stephen Graham’s studious and at times stimulating book he asks the question ‘what exactly is the underground?’ before coming to the conclusion that its a bit of vague term that's hard to pin down. There’s a diagram that shows it existing slap bang in the middle of a ‘fringe’ buttered sandwich with popular music and contemporary composition as the crusts.So that's where it is but If there isn’t an underground does that mean that everything else is overground? Its all a matter of how deep you dig I suppose. I work with people who’ve never heard of Neil Young and think Bruce Springsteen only ever recorded the one song you hear on Radio 2 everyday [Dancing in the Dark obvs]. For them Throbbing Gristle would be a difficult concept to get their heads around but in 2016 you can be never be further than a few clicks away from something that's just been created on the desktop studio on the other side of the world by someone whose just heard Whitehouse for the first time and has decided to form their own solo project and after several days of experimentation with some software they downloaded for free, has a release that's ready to go. But they’re not jumping around to it. So maybe that's not the underground at all? If you upload that work to Bandcamp or Soundcloud or your Facebook page and wait for someone to rate it is that the underground? Or do you have to play some gigs and jump around and get to know some people and network and hand out some homemade cassettes first? If you’re part of a small nexus of creative minds who meet up once a month in a small gallery in London to play improv are you the underground? Or does the underground cease to exist once music critics become tired of writing about it or waiting for something new to happen? You see, its a tricky one.
Graham’s book is divided into three parts: ‘What is the Underground?’, ‘The Political and Cultural Underground’ and ‘Listening to the Underground’ with each section further divided into sub-sections covering topics such as ‘The Politics of Underground Music and Noise’. ‘The Digital Economy and Labels’, ‘Artists and Music, Improv and Noise’, ‘Festivals and Venues’, ‘Noise as Concept, History, and Scene’ before ending with, rather oddly I thought, a chapter on ‘Extreme Metal’.
As you’d expect from someone who is Lecturer of Music at Goldsmiths University London the language Graham uses isn’t of the kind you’ll hear at your local noise gig which for someone brought up on Bukowski can make for heavy going. But then Graham is no Lester Bangs but then this is no Carburetor Dung. This is a serious study and as such uses the kind of language more likely to be found in the lecture hall than the upstairs room of The Fenton. Hence ‘anintermediated’; a term Graham introduces to describe the lack of boundaries inherent in the underground as opposed to the more inherent ‘disintermediation’ that prevails in the mainstream where major record labels and the media do their bit to shape and channel consumer taste. I can get my head around that one but ‘esemplastic nominal improv’ I had more trouble with. Of course there were others but on I merrily went.
Good sense is written though and not all of it needs a dictionary. I like what Graham has to say about the magical quality of lo-fi recordings, the contradiction that lies at the heart of those who take the funding cheque but rail against capitalism, the importance of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. I found myself disagreeing rarely but we were bound to fall out at some time. This happens when he falls into the same trap as the oft quoted Paul Hegarty, the man whose virtually unreadable ‘Noise/ Music: A History’ has Phillip Best down as Pete. Graham commits a similar noise crime by referencing The New Blockaders throughout with the lower case definitive article thus denuding them of their powerful TNB acronym and their true nomenclature. It may seem a small point but its a telling one. When writing about noise artists who are ‘forced to take day jobs’ to fund their work Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosakai of Incapacitants are mentioned, both of whom are well known salary men, both of whom I have no doubt see what they do within the Incapacitants framework as vitally important to their creative wellbeing but nevertheless something that will never take the place of their day jobs. After seeing em live I doubt they could repeat what they do every night in a regular gigging band kind of way anyway. Not every noise artist suffers hours of toil to fund their label/project/gig cycle.
There are interviews with improvisers, noise artists and organisers, people like Steve Beresford, Vicky Langan and the man behind Colour Out of Space Michael Sippings. Carlos Giffoni relates how he organised the first New York No Fun Fest with just a couple of credit cards, all while holding down a day job. Mattin features heavily and at its end you know that Graham has indeed gone to the gigs and got his ears blasted and got his hands dirty at the merch stall. He is a fan and is work is readable but this a mere scratching of the surface of the thing that is the underground. A study of all underground musics would no doubt end up being a lifetimes work.
Of the books I’ve read regarding the underground and noise music in particular Hegarty’s aforementioned tome and David Novak’s Japanoise, Graham’s ‘Sounds of the Underground’ makes the most sense. Until somebody comes up with something better this looks like being the definitive work as we stand at the fag end of 2016. Now for the really bad news; it don’t come cheap. Readers of a nervous disposition may want to look away now - £53 via Amazon for the hardback and £50 for the ebook [other outlets are available of course]. At those kind of prices this is a book destined only for the hands of the most deeply committed. If anybody wants to borrow of my copy drop me a line.
After making my way through to the very end of this book one sentence stood out and its this one; ‘A final point to note here is that overreading is certainly a real danger in writing about this music; let me just note that, in many cases, noise simply provides listeners with pleasing aesthetic experiences’. As a fan of the odd noise release I couldn’t agree more.