Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds

David Toop

The author traces a series of lines running just slightly afoul of the traditional course of Western musicology, a series of stops and starts, of wrong turns and dead ends, of auspicious experiments and outright failures which have been scattered like crumbs to history. Often unrecognized in their time, they are here reconfigured into a kind of trajectory consistently pointing toward “the way out.” Debussy’s encounter with the Javanese gamelan at the Paris exposition of 1889 sets the ball rolling; yet it is up to Debussy’s friend Erik Satie to really run with it—the outcome being his musique d’ameublement, or furniture music. From there, it’s just a few steps further to Muzak and Brian Eno’s notions of ambience—a music without beginning or end, without progression or narrative development, and without motifs, the plural giving way to a single motif indefinitely sustained. The author grants equal time to the ethnographic, the avant-garde and pop camps, interviewing many of their principal representatives and figureheads along the way. From Lee “Scratch” Perry to Terry Reilly to Kate Bush, the range could not be broader, and with the prose restlessly shuttling backward and forward in time, and from one continent to the next, the point sometimes gets lost in a maze of tenuous connections. Above all, though, Toop sees the current craze for ambience as a resurgence of the kind of sensual sophistication which dominated the Symbolist movement at the turn of the last century. Taking his cue from such Symbolist antiheroes as des Esseintes and Dorian Gray, he attempts to expand his obsessions with exotica and armchair travel into a viable musical program for the next millennium. JT

Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Paperback: 306 pages

Subculture: The Meaning of Style

Dick Hebdige

Besides being one of the first books to undertake a comprehensive analysis of subcultural style in postwar Britain, it remains by far one of the most insightful. Subculture opens and closes on the figure of Jean Genet, imprisoned, as he fashions a shrine to the criminal element from contraband photos mounted on cardboard regulation sheets and adorned with wire and beads originally meant for the decoration of funeral wreaths. His particular aptitude for subversion—turning the scavenged bric-a-brac of an authoritarian culture against itself, rerouting its semiotic apparatus to suit some fringe cause or desire—is paradigmatic of subcultural strategy in general, according to Hebdige. In Genet’s work, the author also discovers all the key themes of working-class youth culture: “The status and meaning of revolt, the idea of style as a form of Refusal, [and] the elevation of crime into art.” It’s what they all hold in common, the hipsters, Beats and Teddy Boys, the Mods and skinheads, the glitter and glam rockers, the punks and the Rastafarians. Hebdige proposes style as a Freudian dream-work, rife with elements of condensation and displacement; or a bricolage reworking the anarchic compositional techniques of the Dadaists and Surrealists. No longer new ideas, admittedly, although they were when he first wrote them down. JT

Publisher: Routledge
Paperback: 195 pages

Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes and the Sound of Los Angeles

Barney Hoskyns

Taking off from the Central Avenue jazz clubs of the ‘40s and touching back down just south of there to witness the emergence of gangsta rap in the early ‘90s, this is one Brit’s overview of the musical culture of “the city of night.” Odd brackets, to be sure—The Bird and Ice Cube—to this predominantly lily-white musical journey. It is a point not lost on the author, who works in a City of Quartz type of analysis of the class conflict and racial tensions simmering just beneath the music’s affable exterior. Here again is that irresistible sunshine/noir dialectic, eliciting expressions as diverse as those of the Beach Boys, Steely Dan and Black Flag, all of whom attempted at one time or another to sum things up with respect to the sublime and apocalyptically abject dream that is L.A. For the author, the best So-Cal songs are slick, lushly produced and orchestrated, outwardly beautiful yet at the same time haunted by their own hollowness. Just like your basic Angeleno, that is. As Hoskyns sees it, the music is just as narcissistic and self-destructive, and is a kind of potlatch of sumptuous, ostentatious surfaces erected solely to be stripped away. Hoskins really hits his stride discussing the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter syndrome of the early ‘70s, for instance, while his appraisal of L.A. punk seems rushed and cursory, and rap even more so. Not scary enough, perhaps—at least not compared to the confessional balladeering of James Taylor or Jackson Browne, the studio epiphanies of Phil Spector or Brian Wilson, or the psycho-delicized ramblings of Arthur Lee or Kim Fowley. JT

Publisher: St. Martin's
Hardback: 384 pages

Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-Garde

Edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead

Titled after an essay by the founder of Italian Futurism, F.T. Marinetti, this sleek volume comprises a selection of early artistic responses to the audio and radiophonic technologies—several composed on or about the time of these developments—interspersed with corresponding analyses and theoretical appraisals from some of the leading voices of the so-called new music and radio arts. The editors identify their subject as “sound art,” which is neither songs, symphonies nor any of the more conventional modes of sound production and broadcasting. Rather than attempt an exhaustive survey of this admittedly narrow field, they instead visit and revisit certain key themes which have attended the automation of sound from the start, and which continue to exert a profound influence over present-day creators. The first of these themes is proposed by writer Raymond Roussel, who instinctively identified the record/playback relay as a form of reanimation—a machine for returning the voice of the dead. Accordingly, Roussel’s book Locus Solus is interpreted as a series of bodily metaphors for the inscription, reproduction and transmission of sound.
Synaesthesia is another recurring concept—an idée fixe among the Surrealists, who produced very little soundwork per se, but employed the technology of recording in the most general sense as a model for the operations of the unconscious. Their primary modus of automatic writing is only the most striking example of the sort of technical incorporations which fill these pages. The mind as machine, the machine as mind—the prosthetic motif works both ways. From the chance compositions of Marcel Duchamp to the narrative cut-ups of William Burroughs by way of the Russian Constructivists and their dream of a vast aural archive, the lock-and-key symbiosis between phonographic disc/magnetic tape/wireless transmitter and human consciousness is subjected to all kinds of tinkering, a series of experiments aimed at nothing less than a total overhaul of the human psyche. JT

Publisher: MIT
Hardback: 452 pages

Alexis Rockman: Second Nature

Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman is a successful New York-based painter who is also tremendously popular with the clientele of the Amok bookstore. The reasons for this are easy to see. Aside from a striking technical fluency, Rockman’s work samples a categorical pool which is in many ways similar to the one that gave birth to Amok—R&D, Surrealism, Pulp Sci-Fi, Freaks!—it’s all here. If Hieronymus Bosch were commissioned to produce didactic panels for the Museum of Natural History, they might look something like this. Colliding various established painterly genres such as the still life and landscape with the instructional schematics of scientific display, Rockman meticulously renders tableaux that effectively reconstitute the abstract, theoretical realm of models, graphs and cross sections as organic matter, wholly susceptible to the cycles of decay and regeneration. And that’s not all—as a crowning touch, these naturalist allegories are submitted to the grotesque and paranoid machinations of a budget-horror mise-en-scène. Genealogical trees are turned upside-down by natural forces; dioramas spring suddenly to life and total zoological chaos ensues. By way of interspecies copulation, mutation, gene-splicing or plain old Frankenstein surgery, every taxonomic, phylogenic boundary is systematically transgressed. The result is an exploration of evolutionary anarchy at its most basic and most sophisticated levels.
Second Nature presents a comprehensive overview of this troubling and darkly humorous oeuvre, generously illustrated with sharp, color plates of the paintings, plus an additional selection of source materials from the artist’s own photographic archive. An unusually informative series of critical texts by such science- and art-world luminaries as Stephen Jay Gould and Douglas Blau completes this attractive package. JT

Publisher: University Galleries
Paperback: 98 pages


Thomas Kellein and Jon Hendriks

Amazingly, Fluxus managed to put into practice what so many artists—whether individual, collective or institutionalized—continue to harp on, though mainly in theory: a program of exemplary openness, versatility and continual surprise. Spearheaded by the suitably charismatic George Maciunas, this was a (very) loose consortium of creative oddballs which included painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, poets, musicians, dancers and even the occasional designer, all of whom had agreed to periodically forsake some of their autonomy in order to join together in fluid, collaborative ensembles, to disband and recombine at the drop of a hat, and to explore to the fullest the possibilities that different configurations afford. Variety was Fluxus’ operational principle; variety of medium and technique complemented by that of the membership, which was evenly, yet unsystematically, distributed across still daunting divides of gender, race, nationality. Even the present enthusiasm for P.C. multi-media product cannot begin to approach the sheer breadth and range of these interdisciplinary endeavors.
This being so, it should come as no surprise that the numerous catalogs and publications which have emerged around Fluxus are likewise varied in the particular focus of their essays and documentation. This book happens to be a very good one—including a surprisingly moving account of the short, weird life of the late Maciunas; a more than adequate selection of the various posters, handbills and other printed ephemera which showcase a graphic sensibility that grows more elegant with each passing year; and a bunch of photographs of a bunch of objects and performances that together define just what it is that has all been done before. JT

Publisher: Thames and Hudson
Paperback: 142 pages

Immediate Family

Sally Mann

Mann is famous for nude photographs of her disconcertingly gorgeous brood. On the cover of this collection stand her three bare-chested children in a line, two little girls and a boy, proudly flaunting their infantile sexuality/sexiness while unsmilingly staring you down. Inside are pictures of them rolling around in the grass, in the mud or on sheets on which they’ve just pissed. In one photo, a girl, seen from above, is splayed on the ground in a swastika-like pose that’s so twisted she looks like a rape-murder victim—if only for a moment. The clothes come on and off. Mostly the kids are part-naked, their smooth, undefined bodies either ultrawhite or provocatively sullied. Blood, mud or shit, when applied to body or face with even the smallest amount of intent, grant the recipient a Lord of the Flies-type aura. These kids are all so self-possessed, almost aggressive, never smiling, eyes closed in sensual rapture or fixed straight ahead, at the camera, at you, as if to say—what? JT

Publisher: Aperture
Hardback: 88 pages

The Secret Heresy of Hieronymus Bosch

Lynda Harris

The ecstatically demented, sublimely excremental oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch has no doubt generated more questions, more outright befuddlement, than any other in the history of art. Today it is perhaps easier to grasp its turbulent appeal, but in the highly repressive, post-Inquisition climate of late-15th, early-16th century Europe, what on earth did people see in his work? The answer, at least according to the author, is not very much. Bosch’s most notorious patron, the Spanish monarch Philip II, probably found him a trusty purveyor of the sort of naughty tee-hee grotesqueries the king favored for his private entertainment. The rest of Bosch’s contemporaries mostly saw no further than the conventions of liturgical allegory which Bosch consistently employed, if only as a point of departure. To them, these were pictures of other places: a little bit of heaven and a whole lotta hell. But to Bosch, who was, as Harris argues, a closet heretic thoroughly steeped in the critical shadow lore of Gnosticism, they depicted everyday life on Earth. This was the world as he saw it, a world—to quote from Harris’ wonderfully restrained prose—”fundamentally unsound.”
This heretical take is not new, and while readers have already been regaled with one sectarian rereading after another (Bosch as party-hard Adamite, Bosch as Rosicrucian dandy), Harris’ thesis is convincing. She labels our man a devout Cathar, one of the few remaining supporters of a uniquely bleak and uncompromising brand of dualism originating in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This connection provides a tenable key to decoding the buried church-baiting, hell-on-earth messages of his art, while also suggesting an almost primordial source for the mind-boggling extremity of the present-day horror stories that seem to flow nonstop from that Balkan region. JT

Publisher: Anthroposophic
Hardback: 285 pages

Shock XPress 2: The Essential Guide to Exploitation Cinema

Edited by Stefan Jaworzyn

From Britain comes this appreciation of the cinematic extremes and margins, much like the Psychotronic and Re/Search books but without the requisite countersnobbism and wholesale rejection of so-called art film. Appropriately, the articles range from incredulous evocations of the worst of the worst, to devoted exhumations of the unjustly overlooked and/or trivialized. Would-be auteurs such as Pete Walker, and maligned genres such as soft-core Gothic, Sexy Nature, and Splatter Western are treated to respectful, and often exuberant, analysis. A piece on the oeuvre of arty smut-peddler Walerian Borowczyk signals a welcome change of pace, however, as does the career overview of Eyes Without a Face director Georges Franju. Between further exegesis of such standard non-standard fare as The House of Whipchord, Django and the films of Danish naturalist and hard-core animal lover Bodil, the reader is treated to a fetishistic paean to the joys of the filmic apparatus by George Kuchar, a poignant tribute to London’s premier cult-movie showcase the Scala, and a countdown of one viewer’s top cinematic gross-outs entitled “Insidious Little Globs.” All of which somehow adds up to a workable definition of whatever it is that makes film so compelling. JT

Publisher: Titan
Paperback: 128 pages

Yves Klein

Hannah Weitemeier

A concise overview of the French protomodernist’s career, containing brilliant reproductions of many of his major efforts, plus a text which achieves (inadvertently or not) just the right tone of elitist obscurantism to carry off the relentless myth-making that was so integral to his oeuvre. “Klein never learned the trade of painting; he was born to it,” enthuses author Hannah Weitemeier, paving the way for Klein’s own claim to having “absorbed the taste of painting with my mother’s milk.” Perhaps there wasn’t all that much to learn, seeing as how the paintings in question were mostly one color, mostly blue—a particular hue Klein went on to patent as “International Klein Blue.” This same blue was also applied to sculptural objects as well as naked women whom he employed as living stamps in the production of his “Anthropometries” series. Elaborately ritualized, with a full orchestra and a tuxedo-clad Klein as MC, the process was documented in the film Mondo Cane, and thereby doomed to go down in history as an emblem of avant excess. Here it is, then, “a life like a continuous note,” which Klein meant literally of course, composing the famous paean to himself The Monotone Symphony-Silence, and having it performed at openings, at his wedding and finally at his funeral. JT

Publisher: Taschen
Paperback: 96 pages