Ghosts of Our Time
“This house will always be haunted rather than inhabited by the meaning of the original.”
-Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
One could call Witch House a haunting: an inhabitation in the present of fragments of several pasts. Like its many contemporaries, it depends on borrowed gravity for effect. It is a voice without a body, a speech without a speaker, building its physical presence through an accumulation of other’s projections. The coded structure of its communications, the confused relationship of covers and originals, and the chilly spectacle threaded throughout, all serve to build up an exquisite corpse genre that embodies a kind of zeitgeist–a spirit of the times.
We are in another new wave of sounds to emerge after the idea of originality has been extinguished. The circular, searchable world has become the one we now know. The period is one of recombinatory flourishing in which Gregorian chant can be overlaid with Southern juke and trance synths. The scene’s lightening rod, SALEM, serves up chopped versions of “O Holy Night” set to drag and follow it a few months later with a slowed down version of Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends,” assembled with a video of grotesque strippers and night-vision war coverage. The flat world is self-consciously examined, chopped n’ screwed. Pointing out the spectacle at this stage in history is too easy. In the Situationist sense, SALEM “follow[s] the language of the spectacle, for it is the only one [they are] familiar with,” and exist in the same social relation to images that they help perpetuate.
Tri Angle, an influential label headed up by Robin Carolon, archly embraces this conceptual position of the spectacle. In one of its few public pronouncements, the label defines itself with the enigmatic epigraph,“Tri Angle is a record label. Pop is religion. Overground is underground.” Firmly situated in the underground, the forward-thinking label accurately assesses the collapsing distinctions at play not just in popular forms, but in individual production. Interestingly, Tri Angle shares its name with a now-defunct bootleg record company based in Singapore. The unauthorized copy is at the heart of both business models–Tri Angle has just taken the concept to the logical conclusion. One of its first releases, Balam Acab’s See Birds EP, was reportedly constructed completely of found samples by then-19-year-old Alec Koone, but each release carries the unmistakeable Ableton Live sample/splice fingerprint. Beyond its own artists’ sample-based beats, the label put out Let Me Shine For You, a compilation/mixtape with some interrelated artists reinterpreting Lindsay Lohan’s horrific pop ouvre. The mixtape’s press release acknowledges both its sincerity and its interest in exploring this kind of “black hole existence”:
Inspired in part by Lindsay Lohan’s grotesquely fascinating black hole existence and in part by my unwavering belief in the power of pop music as an artform, I saw an opportunity to create something interesting with her music, and decided to ask some friends to reinterpret some of Lindsay’s songs. “Tri Angle Records Presents: Let Me Shine for You” is the result. Even though we are all fond of Lindsay in our own ways, there is no FREE LINDSAY agenda here. We all love pop music and this is merely an experiment. All of our intentions are very sincere.
The release stands out as an attempt by some of the scene’s more interesting artists to explore the contemporary moment through a self-conscious engagement with the spectacle that has shaped it. Pop is its religion. Underground is overground and there’s no going back. The mixtape’s intelligently deconstructed pop sounds unsettlingly like the moment: abstract, distorted, drenched in reverb and unable to locate the original celebrity’s aura.
“Reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is removed.”
You are in a large room. You are in a padded room, a bathroom, a hall, a chapel, a cave, a metal oil drum. You speak. Your voice returns, echoed. Your voice dissipates, extending forever outward. It is reversed. You speak before the word. The reverb precedes you. It enters the room first and you follow after.
The dominant sounds of the past several years are cloaked in reverb, that uncanny effect that dislocates the voice in time and space. More specifically, they are cloaked in digital reverb, artificially measuring time and space on devices where there is none. Reverb, like an echo, implies enormity, yet also defines it. The moment it stops is traceable, measurable. When your voice stops echoing, the cave has ended. So, in this non-place, what kind of cave is being measured, exactly, and does it ever end? This reverberation persists and there is no original.
This sound is about what continues beyond originality and the uniqueness of individual utterance. Technology, whether cause or accomplice, has found willing inhabitants of its confines. Computer technology’s rapid development into the primary instrument of music composition and production has had a predictable influence on human communication. The voice, like all other material, is made into a malleable sample processed at 44.1Khz. The voice has been converted into adjustable bits to be sped and slowed, twisted and detuned. The process isn’t new, but has amplified in the past several years, following the proliferation of samplers and open-source software. Samplers have an infamously flattening effect that renders all archival material into usable form. If it exists, it exists as a sample. Bach’s Goldberg Variations translate into the same waveforms as an internet meme, are triggered with the same ease, and are infinitely more combinable than the initial 30 variations on an aria.
Likewise, if the possibility exists that a sound is a sample, it is necessarily interpreted as one. In the digital production process, the voice becomes data, regardless of the input. Every breath can be edited and is. The voice submits to the tech in order to speak. The impossibility of distinguishing the difference between performed and sampled speech is particularly prominent in Witch House and related sonic palettes like chillwave and all its children. Every utterance is immediately distanced from the individual. The sound enters the slipstream of all assembled samples, accessible through a few simple search + copy commands.
Of the dozens of micro-genres that have emerged into the blog screen limelight over the past few years, most have had a similar relationship to the voice, breaking familiar phrases into unintelligible fragments, gender-bending vocalists into androgynous affectations and filtering vowels through vocoders, Antares auto-tune or simply Pro Tools presets. Even current top 40 pop and hip hop share these superficialities with the most underground of sub-genres. When have so few voices been recognizable to the average listener? It’s not just Lohan’s black-hole voice that is absent, but a quick scan through the radio reveals that auto-tune has flattened the R&B star factory into an unnameable mass. Stuttering house samples punctuate what was once the guest hook. The lyrics are synthesized from unknown mouths and downloaded directly to our near-infinite cloud. This spectral nature is its haunting and, perhaps, its appeal.
“Do they talk, then? O, no! Mighty phantoms like these disdain the infirmities of language…Theirs were the symbols; mine are the words.”
-Thomas De Quincy, Suspiria de Profundis
We desire mystery as much as we desire to extinguish it. At the same moment we have mediated expression from body to silicon, we seem poised to archive all thought and have invented the means to thoroughly catalogue and search it. Art has only slightly resisted this tendency and even more rarely, engaged it conceptually. Witch House congealed almost entirely online, despite a noble attempt at being ‘ungoogleable’ through its use of visual (rather than textual) character-based names. These special characters have become the dominant shorthand for the genre–a kind of self-labelling impulse that immediately categorizes them into a social relation mediated by common images. The upside-down triangles, symbols of infinity, crosses in all stations, and every kind of faux-pagan character stand in for names, sometimes with no apparent relation to the speakable name. †‡†, for example, translates as ‘ritualz,’ and in perhaps the most self-deflating interpretation yet, standout producer oOoOO is simply pronounced, “Oh.” Yet some are literally unpronounceable. They have no other referent and cannot be mentioned by name; they can only be searched, linked to, drawn and spelled out. They exist nowhere in an individual tongue.
All those special codes and characters are representable on any keyboard, but you could say Google does not find this data significant enough to convert them into its own codes. Witch House’s brand of anonymity only works because there is as yet insufficient reason for “†‡†” to be searchable and sold via Adwords. It will be categorized eventually, once there is sufficient utility for a search engine to include it. For now, it is by the term ‘witch house’ itself. If you can’t find a band, add witch house to the end of your search and you’ll end up with a trove of data leading you directly to it. Even after it is archived, tagged and made searchable, the intent will remain genuinely unique. It is an early, often immature attempt as an artform to exist in relation to the terms of technology’s time and spirit. If it is to be primarily searched and heard online, that is the format to conceptualize and wrestle with. If the gravity of the original is disappearing in a haze of reverberations, echoes and resonances, its ghost must still exist to contend with what is left.
The zeitgeist ducks in and out like Hamlet’s stage directions: Enter the Ghost. Exit the Ghost. Re-enter the Ghost. Exit. The state of the kingdom is in shambles. Art falls to the occasion and attempts to communicate to the ghost, whether by presence or absence, speakable symbols or samples of itself. Witch House, whatever its future, is perhaps the first genre to have fully engage the ghosts of our time. The reverberations will outlast it: the individual has disappeared, the name is unutterable, the voice has become bodiless and the specter of our future is all over us.