notes on space music

fragment one: what's up in chill-out space?

A brief return to Contact, a return to space. Perhaps we were a bit too quick in our dismissal of Space Music in the early (and still existent) works of ambient music. An easy reading of what appeared to an easy read. Perhaps we were unable to read the image metaphorically and literally. The end of the cold war signals the end of the space race and, with it, the violent project of dueling utopias. In the material arena of ideological battle, both economies were devastated by an imperative to prove superiority in the neutral domain of space. However, while the American effort levied a great price against its own infrastructure, the Soviets suffered an even harsher consequence after many decades of ecological, economic and oligarchic strain, where state capitalism would be eventually usurped by the ravages of a "free" market system. With this end comes the forfeiture of the utopian (modern) project. Or is it the return? Can we now resume the modernisms of utopia?

Keeping in mind the context of Contact: Earth Orbit Rendezvous, we propose an additional essay for the newsletter. That essay would develop the relationship between ambient music and politics - specifically the politics of everyday living. Beginning with the etymological definition of ambient as that which surrounds, we will discuss ambient sound/music as that which situates the listener in a spatial relation. For an understanding of any music, be it hard rock, country, opera or dance, it is crucial to remember that the faculties of hearing and equilibrium are contained within the same organ. Thus it is that the deaf person experiences sound as physical pressure beyond the discretion of particular sound objects. Additionally, the dual action of the ear gives rise to certain sonic phenomenon such as phasing where binaural audition produces in the listener an experience of dizziness or - the potentially pleasurable - loss of balance.

It is to these physiological occurrences that, in some way, ambient music reefers when it calls upon the lexicon of space. But more than postulating some sort of verification of scientific processes, ambient music evokes space as a way transforming one's bodily experience. Metaphors of "space" and "space travel" produce a sonic field where orientation is socially determined. Like an animal which uses sound to ascertain relations, position is not a matter fixed in nature but subject to other bodies. Referencing Lakoff and Johnson from their book Metaphors We Live By, music critic John Corbett speaks of the notion of "the (endlessly deferred) final frontier.

In their working on the "grounding" of metaphors, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson use a hypothetical outer space example as a critique of the idea of nonmetphorized, directly experienced spatial reality: "Imagine a spherical being living outside any gravitational field, with no knowledge or imagination of any other kind of experience. What could UP possibly mean to such a being? The answer to this question would depend, not only on the physiology of this spherical being, but also on its culture." Outer space becomes the testing ground for the limits of metaphor, a place where anthropomorphized spheres prove that metaphors, in the end, relate to no one "absolute," but are always culturally determined.1

This "spherical body" becomes another manifestation of the sound body - a body which produces spatiality (what is UP in relation to this body?). Is this then the expropriating function of the chill-out room? Losing all bearings from a disorienting assault on the dance floor, the beleaguered subject retreats to the chill-room to recover her sense of UP.

In this sense, "chilling out" obviously configures the sound body within the bourgeois economy of labor and leisure where the ambient retreat assists in restabilizing a dizzied ego. But is the chill-out room all that therapeutic? Or, is an ambient music club, like Public Space, just the sort of "spiritual" retreat from the everyday a cohesive subject requires at 4:00 in the morning? . . .

Is space a social relationship? Certainly - but one which is inherent to property relationships (especially the ownership of earth, of land) and also closely bound up with the forces of production (which impose a form on that land or earth); here we see the polyvalence of social space, its "reality" at once formal and material.2

More than a simple matter of claims of property ownership, space in its specific "nature" (or even its general "nature" as such) cannot be located apriori production. Furthermore, the relationship between space and production is one of intra-penetration, for the productive uses of that property, in turn, produces its spatiality, produces the networks of social relationships (hierarchies, cooperation, antagonisms, linkages, domination) which define space. This observation leads us to a final (or rather transitional) interrogation of spatial music; the matter of its production.

If we accept Henri Lefebvre's model of the polyvalent, intra-penetration of space and production, whatever production occurs within the space of ambient sound, folds back upon the aural landscape giving it its defining characteristics as a recognizable space. This then takes us back to the (deceptively) simple pretext of ambient - the chill-out room. We have never abandoned the notion that what ambient house or ambient noise produces is leisure, relaxation, recuperation, escape, rehabilitation and, in regards to energy, replenishment. In fact, perhaps this has been our question all along; the function of leisure in the sonic fabric of everyday life. And, additionally, the nature of pleasure which leisure prescribes.

fragment two: leisure space

Simon Frith's Sound Effects offers an archeology into our own impulse for a politicized musical production. In his discussion of the more radical legacy in rock music, Frith locates that political impulse in the inextricable links between rock music, leisure and youth. According to Frith, rock 'n' roll as a product of leisure becomes a political site as a result of bourgeois youths' own liminality between childhood and adult responsibilities. We say bourgeois because, as the rock and pop myth goes, in youth all class distinctions are flattened and music "knows no boundaries". In truth, the middle-class youth experiences a temporary "betweenness" when concerns (and the inevitability) of economic security are temporarily deferred by issues of sexuality. This experience of the most personal of issues was effectively collectivized in the '60s when "rock politicized leisure - gave public, collective expression to usually private issues of risk and pleasure and sex."3

Even after rock and pop were relatively depoliticized in the '70s and '80s, youth experiences of sexuality remained central to the leisure industry of rock. The danger with this monolithic notion of leisure is that it conflates all youth experiences, across class lines, race, gender, geography and sexual orientation. Furthermore, for popular music to hail a homogeneous subject, that subject becomes reductively that of bourgeois youth. Thus fixed, any possibility for political action is similarly fixed within the space of leisured activity. Political action becomes restricted to the limits of a temporal phase, presumably just as youth rarely interest themselves in going beyond their own leisure class.4 Today, the politicization of youth culture is often met with scorn or patronizing whim, largely due to the fact that since the rise of the mass culture industry, youth experience has been assigned the status of temporal leisure.

In many respects, the chill-out room and the chill club represent the realization of youth leisure. In these spaces there is no rebellion, no aggression, no resistance, no mad assertion of frenetic energy. Only resignation. However, in contrast to previous practices of youth leisure, the chill-out club represents a shift from temporality to spatiality. This shift, modest and in many respects unspectacular, suggests an historical moment where leisure is not a momentary escape from property, but rather the full appropriation of the logic of property. In other words, material conditions are no longer some foreign agent to be injected into the body of youth leisure culture, rather, youth leisure culture has produced its own material conditions. That this fact could either open or close the possibility for transformative action indicates the urgency behind a notion of ambient music within the politics of everyday life . . .

fragment three: the ambience of everyday life

Our second point is in the register of politics itself. We have been so accustomed to the bureaucratic forms of state power and the rituals of legitimate representations (read, majority rule which, as Hannah Arendt has demonstrated is antithetical to the very basic notion of a democracy), that we can only perceive the political as that - fruitless? -- jockeying for state rule. [French Marxist philosopher] Henri Lefebvre and the situationists attempted twenty-five years ago to reintroduce the mundane sphere of everyday life as the political scene where all contests for power are waged. For ambient artists and audiences, the notion of everyday life as the political domain is truly radicalizing in hearing sound as the context, the spatiality of the political. But is this new?

Surely one can find traces of the political in other musical moments; John Cage's anarchistic manifestos, Cornelius Cardew and the Maoist Scratch Orchestra, the impact of green politics on a number of artists and the gender politics of Laurie Anderson and Sylvester. What is specific to ambient music is its own self-conscious shift from an approach to music which purely temporal to music's (or sound's) spatiality. This is how it is that electronic soundscapes by Pete Namlook and the Hafler Trio can be considered ambient alongside earlier, more classically avant-garde approaches.

Essentially, any music which privileges spatial relations over temporality or even traditional structures of song-form, can be considered ambient music. If we were in the business of commodifying rhetoric, we would insist that ambient music is space music. However, what we would like to suggest is that by privileging spatiality over temporality (or more accurately, rescuing the spatial in sound has a similar impact on the time/space binary as any deconstruction of oppositions), ambient music opens a way for us to think the politics of sound. This is, of course, central to the thesis pursued in our own work. A thesis that, while accepted by many on a superficial - say we say, theoretical - level, will undoubtedly be rejected by most practitioners of audio-art who still cling to a certain understanding of the avant-garde as detached from the mundane elements of social space. These artists, working under the burden of their objectifying distance, make pathetic use of the sounds of everyday life, where those sounds are reduced to mere sound effect. As an effect, sound is depoliticized and, when characterized as sound the effect always resorts to idealizations of identification. Thus it is, when sounds are appropriated from the everyday, traffic sounds, machinery, sidewalk traffic, water et al., these sounds are employed for their own sake. Cage's phenomenology of sound "in itself" serves as a sort of bureaucratic management of the spectacle of noise.

Fortunately, the uses of music - just as the uses of sound - do not conclude with the intent of their producers. Even the recording of sound effects gives us an opportunity to intervene upon social space. Furthermore, it is in this realization that we can even speak about the political uses of a largely apolitical formalism - ambient music. Yes, we must resort to irony and appropriation, second-hand noises turned against the noise-makers. One would think that, given the relatively liberal to leftist sentiments of most audio-artists, we would have more to work with than invocations to, "lie down and be counted!"

The question needs to be asked: is this sensibility of liberalism incapable of speaking to the mundane? In its nearly reactionary withdrawal from the social sphere, the avant-garde has been unable to discern the two faces of everyday life: the ideology of the common as deployed by the ruling classes, and the actual mundane aspects of human life in their specific, historical, social and economic context (where context is always the fluid product of social actors). By collapsing the two, the avant-garde escapes the true work of art: social transformation . . .

These notes were written for an article intended for an eleventh issue of Contact. The article, like the allusive issue, never saw the light of day. The "Post script" indicates an imminent shift in our work from the populist conception of ambient music as social action to a more studied consideration of ambient sound, the production of space and the enunciation of a new listening subject.

1 John Corbett, Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 18.

2 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1974), tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), p. 85.

3 Simon Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock 'n' Roll (NY: Pantheon Books, 1981), p. 195.

4 This is the phenomenon of "oldies" whether it be classic rock, classic disco, classic punk or even classic new wave (classic ambient?). Each musical form becomes a nostalgia industry consumed by a particular age-group wishing to sustain a periodization of leisure as that moment which stands apart from the economic and social concerns of everyday life. I'm not interested in this particular sociology of youth culture. For the simple reason that it tends to reify traditional notions of production and fails to consider how music permeates all aspects of daily living [thereby assuming a form of social production].