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Black Sky Thinking

Hyperdub 2010 And Kode9, The Knight Of The Living Bassheads
Melissa Bradshaw , January 8th, 2010 04:38

Melissa Bradshaw examines the Hyperdub 5 compilation and Kode 9's new book Sonic Warfare at the start of a new decade and likes what she hears and reads. The lady's not for changing frequency

What’s the best way you can imagine for a soundman to wrap up the first decade of the millenium and signal the future? Or rather, can you think of a better one than Kode 9’s? He released Hyperdub 5, easily one of the best compilations of the decade, with a series of beautiful accompanying 12"s (credit to be shared by the artists featured), and celebrated with the perfect birthday rave at Corsica studios last November. Now he’s letting loose Sonic Warfare, a masterful motherfucker of a book. Together they fuse charged aspects of the universe that precipitate into a terrifying, thrilling tomorrow.

A certain resistance to theory is pandemic in pirate/rave/urban music. Sometimes it’s more than understandable, especially given the recent attacks from certain older pockets of the critical establishment on the burgeoning new generation. Sometimes, though, those that blast theory are wilfully brutish, reacting with aggressive fear, perhaps, of what is challenging to their habits of thought and their self-assurance. That Hyperdub is putting out a disproportionate amount of the best music in the world right now is a terminal shut the fuck up to both sides.

While Sonic Warfare is an exhaustive, generative and very powerful theorisation of sonic culture, one of its key arguments is against the primacy of theory over music. The point is not that thought should govern music, but how music engenders and revivifies thought. “Sound comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body."

Conversely, that a label run by a man who has been thinking as extensively, carefully, and imaginatively as in Sonic Warfare is running a label that’s pushing the very frontiers of future music also proves the better the thought, the greater the music. Sonic Warfare grew out of 9’s PhD thesis (what a lonely, endurance-testing path that can be). It’s also the outcome of years and years of hard intellectual pursuit.

But Hyperdub is also far from espousing ‘intelligent’ music of the IDM vein. Another of Sonic Warfare's main thrusts is anti-Cartesian. There should be no division between mind and body. Sonic experience, as vibration, is articulated as amodal (prior to the division of experience into the 5 senses), as transversing surfaces (think skin, eardrums, organ tissue), and transducing the very particles of being (think quarks, cells, neurones). The book’s vision is anti anthropocentric. Vibration traverses the whole enormity of the universe from the sub-atomic (quarks, hadrons) through urban geographies (walls of buildings, streetscapes) to the cosmic, reaching far beneath and beyond the present limits of human audition.

The method is a fusion of philosophy, fiction, and cultural theory which is equal parts cartographical and analytical and, vitally, productive. A genealogy of ‘sonic warfare’, a concept he takes from a description by Kodwo Eshun of Underground Resistance’s guerilla propaganda in a film by the Black Audio Film Collective, proceeds into a philosophy of sonic potential. Emerging in and through these are descriptions of sonic cultures past, present and future arising both in tandem with and up against the ubiquity of global capitalism. The ultimate question is whether sound will be annexed by capital, or whether it will be used as another kind of weapon.

Kode 9 aka Steve Goodman is especially interested in culture which, following the Ccru (Cybernetic culture research unit, a research collective to which Goodman belongs), he calls ‘hyperstitional’. The hyperstitional predicts the future. Most famously there is William Gibson’s cyberpunk, the subcultural science fiction that predicted cyberspace, but there are many more examples here; artists that have found visual ways to portray ‘anarchitectural vibration’ (vibration that transduces architectural spaces and boundaries), set loose sonic vortices, generated computative music that emulates viral DNA, and created filmic parodies of militarized sonic control.

Ghost armies, sonic bombs used in the Israel/Palestine conflict, imperialist anti-terror torture, manic military commanders and secret research units all appear in the history of sonic warfare, beginning even before technological innovation in the First World War and the thinking of Luigi Russolo and the Futurists, and later theorists like Paul Virilio and Jacques Attali. The sheer extent to which sonic innovation has been generated by actual warfare is quite disturbing. But Goodman’s insistence is on futurity, and in a temporality which he develops from his favourite philosophers he urges a present that depends on the pastness of the past, and always contains its future moment.

Affect and vibration are his central concepts. The ecology of fear is the result of sonic technology’s increasingly microscopic power to manipulate and produce fear, and by producing fear to dominate and control. The possibilities presented are dystopian, including paralysing, mind-arresting sonic viruses, hand-held sound devices to target ‘antisocial’ behaviour, and signaturised holosonic control and audio branding to target consumers. The need for futurity in sonic culture is even greater, Goodman argues, because capital is already beginning to find means of pre-emptive branding, of making consumers want products which may not even yet exist.

Fear is produced in ‘affective tonality’, a mode of affect where affect is understood as the impact of bodies on one another. Here, in probably the most demanding part of the book, Goodman describes and develops rhythmanalysis, a fascinating philosophical tradition which makes rhythm a method, not just an object, of study. This tradition began with Brazilian philosopher Pinheiro dos Santos, and was later picked up by Gaston Bachelard in a critique of Henri Bergson. To his own critique of both Bergson and Bachelard, Goodman adds Baruch Spinoza, Alfred North Whitehead, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. He develops a rhythmanalysis that emphasises the instant over duration, discontinuity over continuity, syncopation over time signatures, and speed, assymetry and the vortex as vital to creation. Affect is understood as the impact of bodies on one another. By rhythmic, discontinuous, syncopated, speeding, assymetric and vortical instants bodies affect one another. This description may well, by now, be reminding you of something.

Rhythmanalysis enables Goodman better to move from Futurism to Afrofuturism, where the ubiquitous rhythmachine of the universe abducts the human, and not vice versa. The affective nexus derived from Whitehead is particularly captivating. In a nexus, the relations between things is as important as the things themselves. In rhythmanalysis a nexus is produced by rhythmic asymmetry where at “a certain rhythmic density, a threshold is crossed in the process of individuation, producing a body in excess of its contsitutent particles, a vortical body out of phase with itself”. Here, to feel something is to be affected by it. Effectively, everything is affected by everything.

Combined with conceptions from Kodwo Eshun’s Afrofuturism and Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, the nexus leads to a powerful vision of the social. When the social is imagined via the nexus, there is “a multiplicity of simple physical feelings of antecedent actual entities, the derivation of conceptual prehensions, and the integral prehensions leading toward satisfaction, whereby an actual entity becomes ‘one complex, fully determinate feeling.’” Prehension here describes the affective capture of an entity(body), by another. “Bodies, entitities, things, are instituted through the social, not vice versa. As the actual entities in a nexus come into being, their intermediate reality, the nexus of actual entities, comes into being.” There is no thing that is not social. The affective nexus is the absolute antithesis of Thatcher’s ‘there’s no such thing as the social’. In ‘Sonic Warfare’ this social is black music.

It’s here and in a world of pre-emptive, mind infecting capitalism that pirate cultures built of soundsystems, downloading and illegal transmission take on their fullest force. In come Hyperdub music. The huge deep pulse underscoring The Spaceape’s echoing poem of corruption in ‘Ghost Town’, LD’s urgent, machinically agitated ‘Shake It’, and Rustie’s remix of Zomby’s ‘Spliff Dub’, sparking and grainy with colour, all different facets of dread, the Black Atlantic’s inflection on the ecology of fear. ‘Ghost Town’ is dystopian unease embodied, ‘Shake It’ speeds up the present into a cybernetic future and ‘Spliff Dub’ is a way to cope. After the book the experience rebounds.

Samiyam’s ‘Rollerskates’ is no longer simply skewiff hip hop but an the asymmetrical collision of rhythms to form another whole of blissed funk. Naked syncopation precedes 4/4 and freedom from the weekly grind on Cooly G’s ‘Weekend Fly’. Just try not to want to dance. In a non anthropocentric universe, “if we subtract human perception, everything moves… All that is required is that an entity be felt as an object by another entity”. Mala’s extraordinary ‘Level Nine’ captures something of the shifting mystery of such a cosmos. There’s a peculiarity in his aesthetic touch that makes a characteristic Mala track feel more about a kind of planetary spiritualism than, say Loefah-style dread. Still it deals with the unknown.

‘Level Nine’ is also a return to true dmz form from the days before when producers began to misconstrue what was thrilling about dubstep, turning it like bad drum and bass into a set of toneless riffs. Not that any member of dmz ever made this mistake – the problem was more that creative genius like Mala’s got lost in a sea of ugly basslines. Mala and Kode 9 played consecutive sets at the Hyperdub’s birthday party which were very emotional for those of us that were reunited from raving together from early dmz days. Though Hyperdub and dmz are different camps, the symbolic conjunction that Mala and Kode 9 made was a reminder that they were part of the core of original dubstep pioneers, and the packed out dance of just how much they still motivate a whole culture. While Mala played 2004-6 era dubstep, 9 sped it up to 2009 trends with a fusion of garage and funky things.

As well as the overall vision, Sonic Warfare intervenes in several more minute but nevertheless crucial problems in current music. For instance, what are the politics of the use of the voice in black music? One critique has been that sampling and manipulating the voice takes it away from what it refers to, detracting soul and context. To Goodman this misses the point: Afrofuturism’s critique “operates at the level of the construction of reality itself, not just its representations”. (Additionally, it’s deluded of the ‘soul’ school to elide the fact of technological reproduction in the recording that’s made the global and historical transmission of soul possible). I can’t do more than speculate about why Hyperdub hasn’t put out any recordings of grime MCs – Kode 9 has worked with them live and on radio and there are passages in the book describing their practice in all its dirty fury – but all of the vocal tracks on Hyperdub 5 are fascinating and differ over human artifice. The voice seems to appear most when the music is most about desire. On King Midas Sound’s ‘Meltdown’ Roger Robinson’s tender lament struggles, barely, through unstable zones to sound like human loss lost in technology. Yet as an expression of desire it’s not lost in but enhanced by technology. Or should I say that the sense of loss is exacerbated by technology? 2000f and Jkamata’s ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ and Darkstar’s ‘Need You’ play with a different interface: one where we might want robots to need us.

Difference matters in the translations between place and virtual sonic space that happen in tracks by the likes of Quarta 330, Black Chow, LV and Burial. In Goodman’s rendering, rhythm fuses time and space. The grainy ambience that characterises ‘Distant Lights’ and ‘South London Boroughs’ becomes as much about vibrational anarchitecture and its recreation as it is hauntological. Urban geography becomes a virtual product of sound. LV’s ‘Globetrotting’ proclaims the universal infectiousness of the Black Atlantic. And does it matter where Quarta 330 and Black Chow are from? How did these bright distortions from other places get into my home?

Many will be delighted by Sonic Warfare’s explicit retranslation of the hardcore continuum and global ghettotech as forms of viral replication (think versioning) and the affective mobilization by bass materialism of micropolitical scenes (baile funk, kwaito, kuduro, grime). Affective mobilisation and contagion replace memesis. As a model of outbreak memes erase difference and mutability. Affective mobilisation through viral contagion is seen as more creative, more potent. Further, microcosmic scenes don’t need to construe themselves as political messages, since they are immanently powerful. (You might want to think of the people who awarded Speech the Mercury Award). “Rather than diminishing their importance, their subpoliticality is in fact crucial, potentiating an affective mobilization, underneath the segmentation of belief into ideological, territorial, affiliative, or gang camps, providing a vibrational infrastructure or platform for collectivity”.

Global ghetto musics are engaged in corresponding battles: “Parallel sonic wars (in the age of pirate replication) are being waged across the planet by an array of these virosonic microcultures”. Essentially, these microcultures mutate popular culture “to their local desires”, and are ensconced in pirate economics. Tracks like Joker and Ginz’s ‘Stash’ and The Bug and Warrior Queen’s ‘Money Honey’ are fired with money and bass in desiring relations. Both their titles play on urban tropes, with Warrior Queen’s lyrics a witty junction of woman as hip-hop sex object and bread-head femininity. ‘Stash’ sounds dreamy while ‘Money Honey’ is an unstoppable affective itch.

Returning to the core emphasis, especially in its latter half, of the book, the question that remains is how pirate economics can move fast enough. The gap between capital and grass roots is ever decreasing, and older critical models of mainstream versus underground flail. This applies particularly to debates about pirate radio and filesharing. “Pirate radio, for instance, is parasitic of a state media space only insofar as this bandwith is is already colonized by parasitic antimarket media systems”… and “peer-to-peer file trading damages corporate margins, allows music to flow more freely (increasing the potential audience for the music), while simultaneously depriving some artist of income outside of the majors”. Goodman mandates an “audio virology” which would stress the symbiosis of these territories. He foresees a future of “ever decreasing time loops between innovation and mass marketing”, so that the “challenge is whether pirate cultures can retain autonomy as major corporations switch from aggressive conflict to aggressive competition. Can they develop their own preemptive mechanisms to ward off capture?”

There are several instants on Hyperdub 5 though that provide strategies in terms of the movement of territorialization and reterritorialization that Goodman describes. A word, first, about prose. In the past he has been accused of jargon and impenetrability. But the accessibility or not of a text, especially a theoretical one, is a relative thing. As a PhD student who’s just spent 4 years reading Lacan, my own judgement on the difficulty of reading theory is probably askew. I’m used to demands on my concentration and comprehension. Reading this kind of prose is, comparatively, a breeze. On the other hand I’ve never been schooled (or very much schooled myself) in philosophy, and had to reread several of the chapters particularly on rhythmanalysis. Perhaps part in anticipation of hostile reactions Goodman split the book into 34 small chapters, digestible chunks each of whose focus and synthesis with the other chunks is impressive. The book is designed so you can dip in and out in any order and at will, and no concept is left unexplained. Even at its densest the prose is precise and vivid, and in many moments a succinct and often poetic clarity emerges. Goodman is a very talented prose writer. Challenging, yes – but what’s a world without a challenge to your thinking. Use a dictionary (I did).

One of the terrains in which the battle between capital and pirate is fought is that of digital sound design. As with the critical debates about pirate radio and filesharing, the romanticisation of the analogue doesn’t keep up. A kinship to Gibson’s prose is salient when Goodman describes digital sonic texture. Arguing for a “healthy skepticism” about digitalization, while suggesting its potential to create microscopic, granular sonic fields, he comes up with Gibsonesque sentences like “The narrowband of humanoid audio perception is a fold on the discontinuum of vibration”, “The vibrational discontinuum can be mapped as molecular texturhythm”, “This plane is populated by molecular entities composed of variations of speed and slowness or marked by fluctuating degrees of affective potential”, and “these bodies can be clouds, vortices, or densifications of sonic matter.” It is, like I said, a thrilling vision.

Glimmering surges of noise, deep humming basslines and infectious steely hooks comprise Joker’s ‘Digi-Design’. This is a big dancefloor track of 2009, and a romper that sonically embodies Goodman’s Gibsonesque prose. It charges crowds. Martyn’s equally contagious ‘Megadrive Generation’ similarly reclaims the stereotype of youth fixated on the rush of Sony mass produce, with its stuttering, various and addictive textures. It does sound like megadrive music. Between it and you there is a jittering nexus. In the dance it activates a plexus, contravening the alleged anti-sociality of computer gaming. Megadrive the rave.

Another of capital’s means of assimilation is the earworm, an infectious tune which by the way it gets stuck in your head is form of sonic branding. The earworm is very difficult to remove. Here I refer you to p.147 and challenge you not to laugh. Ikonika’s tunes are undoubted and sophisticated responses to earworm invasion. ‘Please’ and ‘Sahara Michael’ are both made of bent refrains which penetrate and lodge in the brain and create the earworm’s cognitive itch, an urge replay the tune where the trap is the more you scratch the more you itch. Ikonika’s particular mutation of the earworm is such that it is very hard properly to scratch: just try singing her pitchbent and treacherously modulated dubstep/RnB/hardcore derivations to yourself.

If there’s one absence in Sonic Warfare, it’s of women. Given the enormous and exhaustive scope it would have understandably been outside of the book’s remit to include any theorisation of gender. Similarly, the assymmetry in the references to women academics, philosophers, and theorists (there are more on the hyperstitional side of things) is likely due to reasons beyond Goodman’s power. The book could therefore rise to more questions and further study in this area. To what extent could the potentialising of affect and vibration correspond to aspects of the world that capitalism has feminised and thereby muffled? Can the anti-ocularcentric bent of work in the sonic sphere free women from the gaze? In particular, I felt there were resonances between the affective nexus and what art theorist and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger calls matrixial borderspace: an experiential link between two entities which is the trace of uterine experience and remains, but needs to be better articulated, throughout life. Fascinatingly, Ettinger’s grainy, texturized and anti-objectivizing artwork seems to have a lot in common with Goodman’s digital texturhythm. Post-feminism, gender has separated the social construction of sex and sexuality so far from biology that the female body has in many ways been lost. The point was to free women from sexist arguments about their biological weakness which were used to justify their relegation to the domestic and their exclusion from the social. Now, however, it’s increasingly hard for women to make claims based on their bodies in a working culture (think, for example, the politics of pregnancy leave and the surge in artificial insemination much of which is attributed to women leaving children til later in life for the sake of their careers). Simultaneously women are conspicuously absent in for instance televisual newsreading posts, most likely on the basis of their physical appearance. An emphasis on a gendered affective nexus, or matrixial borderspace, might enable a reconnection of the sexed body to its cultural construction without disempowering women and the feminine. Warrior Queen in particular is a shining example of how music can play with stereotypes and invert assymetries in women’s favour.

Similarly, and as something that I have been trying to begin in this essay, _Sonic Warfare’ gives rise to spaces for minute and particular interpretations on a kind of poetic basis. I’ve saved Zomby’s awesome ‘Tarantula’ as my prime example. What happens when such a stomping, reverberating anthem is called after an exotic spider? It is because it’s hairy and eight-footed? Menacing? In tandem with its name ‘Tarantula’ conjures a a huge, black, eight-paced virtual presence far bigger than your own body. A tarantula is both non-human and foreign. Cast so large it is totally alien. Dancing in the face of this alien we are celebrating it.

Maybe I’ve made the mistake of trying to extract the earworm by identification and analysis, which is “a risky strategy, as analysis always pressuposes a potential escalation in the intimate relation between host and parasite”. Or maybe I’m just enjoying musically inspired thinking.

Sonic Warfare is out now

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