Spectral Composition: On Spectral Music, Drone Metal, and Electronic music

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taken from the book Ultrablack of Music

A somber enthusiasm

In this essay, I don’t aim at analyzing a specific genre of music: my goal is rather to grasp a musical configuration encompassing musicians as different as Gérard Grisey, Sunn O ))), Thomas Köner, Chloé, Emptyset or Bérangère Maximin. Paying attention to the spectral technique of composition in drone metal and electronic music, the musical configuration I attempt to define obviously doesn’t consider the full extent of contemporary music, but sheds some light on a Grundstimmung – a basic mood, a fundamental tone that, as I will argue, is at stake in crucial contemporary musical works.

This fundamental tone is paradoxical: it’s like a hopeless wonderment; an enthusiasm that would have no faith in the future; the feeling of a stony sublime. All these contradictory formulations express the painful tension inhabiting the spirit of those who, despite their environmental pessimism, despite the awareness they have that Gaia is exhausted, don’t want to forget the profusion, the excess at the core of everything in the universe. What is at stake, esthetically, is an attempt to express, and symbolize, the relation between the ecological finitude of the planet Earth and the whole universe – Gaia compelled to recognize its Copernican belonging. Of course, this tragic tension doesn’t only concern the musicians I study in my essay, but music – at least a certain form of music able to be turned both toward the inside of the Earth and toward the outer space – has a capacity (that the other arts have maybe not) to express an infinite alterity in the more material, finite, present thing. Thanks to music, the whole universe can be offered in a single vibration; a voice can create an immediate bridge between the terrestrial environment and the cosmos.

I track this worried dialectic between the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial in the following sections, a dialectic that plunges the old »music of the spheres« into the tumult of our ecologically endangered planet, trying to avoid nihilism and despondency despite eco-political concerns: darkness is a core fact, not a moral prescription. As »the supreme form of nothingness«, darkness is – Hegel helps us to understand – »negativity, when it sinks self-absorbed to supreme intensity, and is itself an affirmation, and even absolute affirmation.«1 To explore the musical dialectic capable of revealing the pure affirmation of darkness, I’ll need first to describe the ontological spectrum at play in the contemporary music I want to analyze, a spectrum that I’ll conjure up thanks to an analysis devoted to Deleuze’s and Grisey’s approach to music. Grisey’s perspective is for me the key one to grasp the tone, the raison d’être of significant contemporary music: expansion and transition don’t only define Grisey’s »spectral music« but a period going, say, from Karlheinz Stockhausen’ Kontakte (1958) to Lea Bertucci’s Metal Aether (2018), through metal drone (I’ll focus on Sunn O))) and Earth), ambient music (from Brian Eno to Thomas Köner) and the electronic and electro-acoustic scene (with Lea Bertucci, Emptyset, and Chloé).

The contemporary music I pay attention to in this essay suggests that there is more in a single sound than one can ever expect – that’s why one should never pass too quickly to the next sound; it’s necessary to slow down; to go down, and deep, because it’s the only way to make the surface vibrate, and to remember that the terrestrial ecology takes root in the geological reality, in the subterranean world. Go down and deep: when the Earth drones, its place in the solar system is revealed and stands out on the dark background of the universe – a dark background that shines in every being.

Birds, horses, whales, and comets

»The two great moments of music«, Deleuze argues, »are the ritornello and the gallop.« Let’s follow Deleuze’s explanation for a moment, to understand the singularity of music’s contemporary fundamental tone.2 The ritornello is essentially vocal, Deleuze argues, while the gallop is instrumental; the ritornello is about »ronde dance, rondeau, and the song of birds«, while the gallop is about speed and precipitation; the ritornello is what comes back, you will hear it several times, it will haunt you (think about Charles Bronson’s harmonica in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), while the gallop is the living present in a hurry to pass, to be replaced by the following instant (think about Michelle Bokanowski’s 1994 musique concrète piece Cirque, in which loops take flesh as circus horses and laughter) ; as »the round dance of pasts that are preserved«, the ritornello marks an event that does not pass (a trauma), while the gallop is »the cavalcade of the present that passes«; the ritornello is on the side of death (even when death is sublated into eternity), while the gallop is on the side of life (even if its impetuous movement leads to death).

So, birds and horses.

But what happens when the gallop slows down and the cavalcade dissolves? Or when the circumference of the birds’ round dance is huge enough to look like the orbit of a stellar body? We get newcomers: whales, and comets. Deep insiders that sometimes come to the surface; remote outsiders that burn in releasing gazes when they pass close to the sun. Welcoming whales and comets doesn’t mean sweeping away birds and horses – thankfully, because the ongoing ecocide is already doing the job very well – but extending the musical universe that Deleuze has described. Whales and comets extend the representation that we have of the universe with submarine and extraterrestrial entities; they also dramatize our representation of the world we inhabit: ritornello comes from Italian ritorno, that is to say »return« – but we live in the world of the Sixth Extinction, a world in which species disappear; in which nuclear plants threaten to explode, unless they are decommissioned and devoid of human beings; in which things threaten to never come back; in which ghosts themselves will go extinct, because even ghosts need living beings, that is to say beings destined for death, to come back after they passed away. When death is threatened to disappear, revenants wither, and the ritornello sticks in your throat.

Whales, comets, and a threat concerning the capacity of things to return: these entities and this affect define the musical dimension I want to explore.

Dilated time, and the whales (spectral music, 1)

Let’s begin with the whales, let’s try to understand why Gérard Grisey associated them with spectral music, let’s grasp the electronic becoming of whales. According to Grisey, the so-called spectral music – that he co-invented with several other composers (like Tristan Murail and also Hugues Dufourt) at the end of the 1970’s – could be defined with two features: the exploration of an »extremely dilated time« and the »control of the littlest degree of change between a sound and the next one«,3 in other words expansion and transition – the second term having led Grisey to describe his music as »liminal«, instead of spectral, limen meaning threshold.

Spectral music’s dilated – or »distended«— time is, Grisey explains, the time of sleep rhythms and whales, sounding like »a gigantic stretched and endless moan«. At least for us, for our human ears, even though for a whale, such a sound is maybe just a consonant, a brief sound (245). Brief sounds belong to another form of time that Grisey calls »contracted time« that he associates with birds (Deleuze and Messiaen are not far away) or insects. (159) Such brief sounds appear to us »acute and very agitated«. Between the distended time and the contracted one, there is the time of the human voice, the human time, the time of human language and breathing.

Amongst these three kinds of temporality (dilated, contracted, human-scaled), spectral music is first and foremost recognized for having explored the dilated one – whales’ temporality. Yet it does not mean that the others temporalities have to vanish, it just means that it’s from the exploration of whales’ time that the other temporalities have to be rediscovered. That’s why Grisey argues that the human voice is only able to express a »radical alterity« (326) on the background of dilated time. But what is this background exactly? Just a terrestrial reality, the one that the whales circumscribe? As I want to demonstrate in the next section, the fascinating point is that the whales, the submarine element, open the way for a cosmic dimension. Let’s see how.

Pulsars’ ecology (spectral music, 2)

Spectral music sets into the continuity of the sound, its terrain being not the note any longer, but frequency. Sound materiality is explored from the inside, a materiality that for Grisey microphony has revealed – microphony being first the undesired transformation of mechanical vibrations into electrical signal (noise), transformations that Stockhausen, the supreme forerunner of contemporary music, explored in Mikrophonie (1964-1965). For Grisey, music’s continuity is natural, and spectral music just follows the physics of the universe (the laws of nature); but spectral music composers have to shape this continuity, »we insert in it a discontinuity or, we could say, a form to see more clearly«. (37) This form is not static, it’s »the dynamics of sounds, the internal process, the drive (pulsion) determining a sound image. Form is the birth of sounds, their life and their death, their becomings«. (182)

Dynamic, sensitive to becomings, underlining the passage from life to death: spectral time is not the reversible, non-directional time leading to contemplation (the spectral is the opposite of the spectacle) and has nothing to do, Grisey argues, with eternity. Spectral time is the irreversible time that Grisey found at play in two different sciences: ecology and »the cosmology of the expansion of the universe« (41, 53) – in other words the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial. Whales, and stellar bodies. Grisey’s ecology of sounds is first and foremost a way to signal that the musician must pay attention to time, to slowness, and to the continuity at play in the transformation of sounds. This transformation is »organic« and reveals sounds’ »self-creating« (auto-engendrement). (123) Ecology, Grisey writes, is the opposite of hierarchy: a »cosmic web of all possible and imaginable sounds, a web in which the interactions between the different components are quasi infinite«. (183) Listening to the endless moaning of the whales, their alien songs, leads us to the stellar infinity, the alien universe.

In the non-hierarchical cosmic web, correlations, overlaps, and interferences reign. But this continuity does not prevent death, separation, and ruptures from existing. It’s true that Grisey imagines his music as a way to put »dialectic conflicts« and »internal tensions« in the background, literally (materially), thanks to the »cosmic becoming where all the sounds, whatever their forms, are included into an ensemble, a project that exceeds them and transcends them«. (182) But as we saw, spectral music’s time is irreversible: it’s a cosmic drama that Grisey wants to present in his musical pieces. Yet this tragedy should not lead to an unnecessary pessimism that would be turned into musical »internal tensions«. Borrowing from Grisey’s last completed work, Quatre chants pour franchir le Seuil (Four Songs to Crossing the Threshold), we could say that Grisey’s liminal music aims at creating passages: in music, crossing the threshold between life and death is not to die, but to explore the discontinuity of death into life’s continuity – death being the agent thanks to which we can create forms. Music’s continuity takes care of the universe’s irreversible time; the universe’s dark affirmation then becomes audible.

Let’s see what Grisey’s ecological-cosmological music looks like. Putting together electronic music, tapes, and instruments, Sortie vers la lumière du jour (Exit to Daylight, 1978) and Jour, contre-jour (Daylight, Against Daylight, 1979) are inspired by the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Their continuous movement looks like the curve of solar god Ra’s boat in the sky, his »course from Day to Night« (141-142). But the passage that Grisey’s liminal music wants to create can also take the opposite direction: in Le noir de l’étoile (The Black of the Star, 1989-1990), the goal is not to produce the curve of a solar boat, but to host the signal of a pulsar, that is to say a star after its collapse – a dead star, the opposite of the living solar god Ra. Le noir de l’étoile is a composition for six percussionists (placed around the audience), magnetic tape, and in situ transmission of pulsars signals. In Strasbourg, for the original production of the piece in 1991 with Les Percussions de Strasbourg, there were two pulsars: Vela, which exploded 12 thousand years ago and can only be observed in the southern hemisphere, turns 11 times per second on itself, thus producing eleven signals per second (it was recorded on magnetic tape and broadcasted during the concert); and 0329+54, which exploded 5 million years ago and is only observable in the northern hemisphere, turning 1,4 time per second (this one was received live thanks to Nançay’s radio telescope). Grisey used the pulsar’s frequency as tempi (relative speed) and then worked on these sounds, accelerating them, or slowing them down, even inserting the glitches that occur when astrophysicists try to catch pulsars’ signals with radio-telescopes.

What is fascinating in this musical composition is the inclusion of the Outside, the insertion of the extra-terrestrial dimension into terrestrial reality.4 As Grisey explains, a pulsar does not need us to transmit its signals, stellar bodies are »indifferent« to us, they are »inhuman«; but when pulsars’ sounds are trapped by radio-telescopes and inserted into a concert, then these stellar bodies send »more than their own songs« (155). Why? First because of the conversion of electromagnetic waves into sonic frequencies: sound does not travel in the void of the interstellar space, hence the necessity of an electronic intervention (translation/transformation). But there is more: the concert is a specific moment during which the signal of the collapsed star can be received, thus it’s thanks to an electronically assisted human intervention that pulsar’s sounds can become »an event in situ, more exactly in tempore, thus related to cosmic rhythms« – »Music with obliged pulsars!« as Grisey says(156).5

Yet Grisey also affirms that Le noir de l’étoile has nothing to do with the old »music of the spheres« and he does not consider stellar bodies as composing a harmonic universe, rejecting what he calls the »mystical-cosmic circus«: »nothing is less magic or cosmic than a music pretending to be so.« (255) This statement is very important: Grisey is not in a state of mere admiration for the universe, he heard about entropy and in this regard he has not the state of mind of Stockhausen, who was maybe not able to leave a real place to darkness (Luzifers Abschied proving it). Besides, Grisey adds that »the only music of the spheres is an inside music (une musique intérieure)«, pulsing more violently than pulsars and enabling from time to time a composer to stay in tune with these stellar remnants. (156) Le noir de l’étoile’s performance should then be understood as a psychosmological moment, during which the black of a star – its dark light – is introjected (to borrow a concept from psychoanalysis), that is to say inserted in the psyche of the listeners. Surrounded by percussions, the public is then constituted as an Inside.6 If the public, as Grisey said in an interview, was »in the heart of the star« (254), it’s because – dialectically – the star was inserted in the public’s heart. The pulsar is a dead star, a revenant having its place in a cosmic Book of the Dead; but Grisey’s spectral music is an ecology of pulsars able to avoid the specter of melancholia. Death throbs.

Earth amplified to the sun

The slow waves of distorted guitars, reverb, and feedback of drone metal band Earth are spectral, in Grisey’s sense, and I want to explain why. If Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version (1993), first Earth’s full-length studio album, was so important for the history and future developments of drone music, it’s amongst other things because of its radical break with the tendency, in metal music, to keep accelerating the tempo. When the tempo becomes slow, slower and slower, the metal itself begins to vibrate, the matter becomes compact in your ears, both communicate. »A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge, part 1«, A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra Capsular Extraction’s first track (the EP having being recorded in 1990) plays two riffs in loop, the second one lower than the first one, as a repeated, insistent invitation to go down inside the bowels of the Earth. Earth’s music – this expression meaning here and below the music of the band Earth – asks you to go down and to reach the »special low frequency« connecting you to the planet Earth, to its metallic core.7

Here is the first goal achieved by Earth’s sort of drone: to make the metallic core of the Earth tactile, perceptible, thanks to a certain kind of music able to slow down the musical spectrum. Once this goal reached, two possibilities present themselves:

1/ The ecological one: after having sensitized the core of the planet, you can try to find a musical path that would go from the solid inner core to the molten outer core and from the outer core to the mantle, to the crust of the Earth, sensitizing the whole planet, from its metal to the beings living at its surface;

2/ Cosmological, the other possibility consists in finding a path toward the outer space: let’s remember that Earth’s inner core is 565 million years old, having solidified out of a molten core formed after the formation of the planet itself, our planet being first an accretion of elements coming from the explosion of supernovas, of molecular cloud’s dust. The cosmological path leans on the following axiom: the more you look into the Earth, the more you enter the deep time of the universe.

Earth’s music offers a harsh ecology: a »Concrete Desert«8; a »Geometry of Murder«9; »Thrones and Dominions« instead of the interconnected, non-hierarchical ecosystems that the ecological discourse cherishes.10 Earth’s music is certainly more geological than ecological. Even if the imagery attached to a song like »Thrones and Dominions« suggest citadels and independent entities, when you listen to the song, you can feel the superpositions of layers, the vibrant strata of Earth’s music: everything is pulsing, shaking, droning, and it’s only after 6 minutes that a guitar-played melody appears. If there is a dominion, or a dominium at play here, its frontiers are blurred, and its throne unstable, abyssal. »Ouroboros is broken« (A Bureaucratic Desire’s third track): there is no unity of things, no harmony in the universe, no wholeness; but Earth’s drone metal is not some death/depressive/suicidal/funeral doom metal (played by bands like Forgotten Tomb, Skepticism, etc., bands that are, a noteworthy point, very classic in a way, less innovative than Earth) and no guttural vocals or quasi-vomiting voices tarnish Earth’s music. Instead of depressing us, Earth’s drone music amplifies our passion for the infinite terrestrial materiality.

This movement of affective amplification – which should remind us what Grisey said about the expansion/extension characterizing spectral music – is at play in the name of metal drone band Sunn O))), precisely named after an electronic amplifier. Interestingly enough, the band was named in reference to Earth. What I want to underline is the way Sunn O))) intensifies/amplifies Earth (the band), both bands constituting an (extra-)solar system irradiating drone metal. Sunn O)))’s music is like an earthquake in slow motion (something that Thomas Köner, as we’ll see later, exemplifies in his own way). With Sunn O))), music becomes so loud and so slow that you experience a sort of musical disintegration. Listen to the 42 first seconds of »Hunting & Gathering« (Monoliths & Dimensions, 2009): in this song, Ouroboros isn’t only broken, but spreading everywhere, the terrestrial earthquake making its mark on the whole universe. Thanks to this geo-logical dis-location, this exo-geo-contamination, we can go back and forth between the planet Earth and the other planets, as if the universe was a palindrome – like in the lyrics of »Eternal Return«, the third track of Terrestrials (2014) : »In Sinai sin is a / Golden nature / A liminal animal / Existing in exile / For forty years / The desert rests / Listen silent / Let the letters tell«.

But why is the album Terrestrials especially melodious, with no loudness or lowness, and – let’s be honest – not really musically remarkable? Is it because we stand, with this album, only at the surface of the planet, a surface severed from its interiority? Is it because every time we try to identify terrestrial beings without connecting them to an Outside, be it internal or external, we only get something esthetically dull, affectively impoverished? To really get a sense of what terrestrial beings are, we need to pay attention to processes and becomings, even when they are disturbing, like decays – two tracks of White2 (2004) comprise the word decay in their title. Terrestrial beings, I’d argue, are well tuned with »BassAliens«, another track of White2. A 23:25 minutes-long piece, »BassAliens« offers a striking depth of field: in the background, a clear guitar-played melody, and in the foreground a sort of rumbling, as if a storm was saturating the microphone. Distance, and proximity: these two excesses characterize our terrestrial condition. We, inhabiting the Earth, are definitely not some beings that only live at the surface of the planet, we are more some intra-terrestrial beings, if we consider terrestriality not as a surface but as a field. This intra-terrestriality is at play in »Aghartha«, which refers to a legendary city located in the core of the Earth, and »Aghartha«’s lyrics summarizes what I tried to explain in this section:

»The tunnels of the sky

Meet under oceans

And fall into the vortex of Bermuda.

The sun has moved where the lines of the compass lay vertical at the gates …

I search for the riddle of the clouds

From where a new world shall form

A tunnel gouges in the shapes

Of the stream in the great abyss

Of the sky.«

I won’t hide that this poetry is, let’s say, pretty bad, as ridiculous as Sunn O)))’s guttural voices frequently are. But what I wanted to stress in this section is the sonic universe that Earth, Sunn O))), and other bands that I should investigate elsewhere11 conjure up. What interests me in this universe is not its tendency toward the easy gloomy strand, but its capacity to amplify our perception of the milieu we inhabit, far beyond contemporary environmental geo-centrism.

The electronic awakening of an alien universe

»Don’t drink the water« Hiro Kone warns us in a throbbing track of Love is the Capital (2017) – a track speaking to those who experienced water pollution, like in Flint, Michigan. Actually, the ecological perception irrigates the contemporary musical milieu, from field recording to the electronic scene. Let’s speak first about field recording, the way microphones can document the environment, our terrestrial macrocosm: listen to Chris Watson’s Weather report (2003), for instance the first part of the third piece of the album, »Vatnajökull«, a recording of Iceland icefield slowly cracking, melting – a sound that nowadays cannot but be heard as the sound of climate change, the evaporation of a world making way for the Anthropocenic hell. With Watson’s music, icefields moan like whales.12 Or listen to Peter Cusack’s »sonic journalism« at play for instance in his impressive Sounds from Dangerous Places (2012): on the piece entitled »Radiometer, Kopachi« you can hear radiometer bleeps, for the album was recorded in Chernobyl, in May 2006 and July 2007, sometimes in the dangerous »exclusion zone«, that is to say the core of the zone of the catastrophic nuclear accident of 1986.

Concerning the relation between electronic music and the environment, we need to consider first ambient music. If you want to get a sonic illustration of ambient music’s environmental dimension, you can listen to Substrata, Biosphere’s first ambient album (1997). The problem is that Biosphere’s edited materials are less interesting than Watson’s brut recordings. Why? Maybe because Biosphere’s mountains, glaciers, and running water, have lost their materiality while being electronically transmuted (if not trans-muted). That’s the problem of ambient music: dissolving the environment into bland ambience (read: superficial sonic surroundings). But someone like Brian Eno was always already able to play with ambient music’s dangerous weakness and to sublate it, exploring the melting zones between electro and pop-rock music, avant-garde, and easy listening. From famous Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) to Ambient 4: On Land (in 1982), from Another Green World (1975) to The Ship (in 2016, with computer-generated texts), from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983) to Small Craft on a Milk Sea (in 2010, with a piece entitled »Late Anthropocene«, a soft vibrating piece preparing us, without catastrophism, to the vanishing of humankind or its melting in the landscape), Brian Eno taught us that the environment can be natural or artificial, green or lunar, or both: as the lyrics of »The Ship« tell us, we are »undefined«, and our universe goes from a land to a satellite, making the Earth an unknown territory swept by an »unfamiliar wind« (the title of a track of On Land13).

What I call the electronic awakening of the universe is precisely the possibility to use microphones and electronic transformers to modify our perception of the world, in its natural or artificial dimension, not in order to abolish the distinction between the natural and the artificial, but to compel us to rethink them. 14 When you listen to Antonia Sophia’s Dunkelkammer (that is to say »darkroom« in English), you deal with a multiplicity of contrasting sounds and materials: vibrations, drone and violin, concrete and abstract music, noise and discrete sounds, continuity and repetition, electronic perturbations, glitches and precision, even some techno around 40min30s.15 As revealed in the electronic darkroom, the world becomes alien again and has to be replayed – »Play it again, Sam(pler)«. Listen to the universe, again-for-the-first-time, listen to the spectral music of the world as it should have been known, to the ghost of an alienness that our senses should have been able to recognize, and to love.16 As I say from the beginning of this essay, the spectral is but a spectrum, the extension of our perceptions, not of our senses understood as our body’s properties, but really as perceptions out there, out of ourselves, directly in touch with the thing considered, as if we were microphones trying to record the insideness of the things populating the cosmos.

To recapitulate and illustrate what I try to explain in this section, I’ll focus on Thomas Köner’s musical universe. His music is often defined as dark ambient because of the use of low frequencies and soundscapes evocative of desolate, Arctic place. But desolate and dark in which sense? If the drone of Köner’s Permafrost is especially worrisome, it’s because its referent changed throughout time: in 1993, when the album was released for the first time, the material reference was the permafrost understood as soil at or below the freezing point of water; but with climate change, the Arctic permafrost’s thawing will release greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and methane, which contribute to global warming. Now, when we listen to Permafrost, we listen maybe more to the release of time, its material dissolution, than to its frozen state. The sublime is gaseous, and toxic. Somber enthusiasm, as I said. To be in touch with a sublime that would not only be depressive, we need to access another relation with coldness: it’s what happens in Daikan (2002), a Japanese term meaning »the coldest« or »the coldest part of the year«. Yet coldness in Daikan is not first and foremost a problem of temperature, but of persistence: being cold is to hold, to be able to hold, I mean to resist, even when – at it keeps occurring in Daikan – earthquakes – or icequakes – fill the space with (s)low explosions that a hammer seems producing to test our capacity to survive the shredding of sound. Here Daikan’s waves of depth communicates with Watson’s »Vatnajökull« and Sunn O))) ‘s »Hunting & Gathering«. Above the sea of coldness, we can listen to Köner’s »Une topographie sonore: Col de Vence (a sonic topography: Col de Vence)« (Zyclop, 2003), »fashioning an auditory map of the Col De Vence mountain region in the south of France, integrating dissolved synthetic ambient textures into a patchwork concrete soundscape, full of natural environmental noise and man-made interference«.17 And La Barca (2009) provides Köner’s own terrestrial-extra-terrestrial dialectic: each track bears the name of a city or a place in a city, conjuring up a »a sonic cartography of the places [Köner] visited«18; but the title of the album refers to Ra’s sun boat in the Egyptian mythology, a boat disappearing every night – before reappearing every morning; until now at least.19

Electronic dialectic

The most successful way for electronic music to catch the world’s alienness is when reinventing the relation between materiality and the immaterial, the concrete and the abstract, and also between the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial dimension, what sounds to be here and what seems to be there. Composer and performer Lea Bertucci offers a marvelous example of this dialectic in Metal Aether (2018). The title itself is an invitation to rethink the nature of the relation between what seems to be above us, out there – namely: aether, i.e. ether, the skies, something that, moreover, does not exist – and metal, something material that we can find into the ground or as components of our electronic devices. A metallic ether is like an immaterial materiality, a terrestrial sky or some spectral iron. For those who would think that I exaggerate in my attempt to use Grisey’s perspective as a sort of door opener, I’d like to mention the text that on Bandcamp’s website presents Bertucci’s album: we can read that Metal Aether »develops a language of extended technique for alto saxophone that is based on a spectral, psychoacoustic, and non-linguistic approach to the instrument«. In the track »Accumulation«, the saxophone creates a sort of fogbank, which is crossed by metal birds struggling not to sink into the noise. The noise also appears in »Sustain and Dissolve« after 10 minutes, followed by a sepulchral gong, electronic wind, and approximate water: do not forget Hiro Kone’s warning; and respect the ghost of matter, its attempts of expression.

The vanguard electronic duo composing Emptyset proposes another dialectics by reinventing the relation between electronic music and the sounds produced by the environment. Listen for example to Material (2013): the process at work in the EP consists in releasing some waves of noise in different places and seeing how the infrastructures react – how buildings’ walls and halls echo, transform, soften the sonic projection. One of the places subjected to the sonar-experience is a decommissioned nuclear power station situated in Gwynedd (Wales): what the power station’s metallic walls send back are the materialization of the absence of human beings. Sonic ghosts come back to tell the senders how inhuman the world can be when the human beings create unsustainable infrastructures. In Material, Emptyset’s noise machines are like whales that would have run aground and would test their new environment and the capacity of non-living materials, and the space itself, to respond. This transformation of the world into a surface of resonance modifies the way we need to consider a surface: involving a string instrument whose strings, which seemed slack, vibrate to dissolve and a drum in the background, Skin (2017) – listen especially to the song »Skin 1« – expands the surface itself, turning the skin into a milieu always on the way to collapse, this final destruction being silence (silence is always present in Emptyset’s music, like maybe the empty set, the inside void, the spacing thanks to which we can hear something) or the dissolution of the sound (like it happens in the track »Collapse« in the album Collapsed, released in 2012).

At first sight, the electronic music of someone like Chloé could be seen at light years away from Emptyset or Lea Bertucci. My goal is certainly not to reduce their differences, but to identify that Chloé’s music also reveals a sort of cosmic project. It’s obvious in Endless Revisions (2017). »Solarhys«, the first track, is a reminiscence of Wagner’s symphonic opening of Das Rheingold – and obviously a reference to Tarkovsky’s mystic sci-fi film (Solaris, 1972). The second track, »Outer Space«, is like the cool trip of a satellite crossing the universe. »Because It’s There«, the fifth track, is named after British explorer George Mallory’s famous reply to a reporter who had asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest; but we should not forget that John F. Kennedy cited this line in his famous »Moon Speech«, in 1962, adding that, »well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there«. Mount Everest, and the moon – in the same way that »Dune«, the 11th piece, refers to a desert on Earth, and to Frank Herbert’s famous novel (Dune, 1965). This dialects of the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial is visible on Endless Revisions’ cover: in the desert, two hollowed parallelepipeds are placed one on the other, the second allowing to see the sky through him.

Endless Revisions gives a straightforward access to its songs, but this simplicity is a trap. Of course, you can dance on the 10-minute track »The Dawn«, the only techno piece of the album, but it will be difficult to not pay attention to the voice of Chloé’s mother repeating »It was quite a long time ago / And then I just stopped it«. That’s the requirement, even if you decide to dance: you will need to stop it; everything will stop in the end, everything will be stopped, even the revisions – and the title of the last track is »Nuit Noire« (Dark Night), in which it’s easy to be lost.

A slow sound in the stone

»A gigantic stretched and endless moan«: as we saw, it’s the way Grisey describes the sonic whales. What I tried to show in this essay is that the Earth itself, from its core to its surface, can sound like a whale. Subterranean creatures par excellence, whales are the spokespersons of all the creatures inhabiting below the surface, their song is a metonymy for the whole planet – as poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite wrote, »the unity is submarine«. Whales are everywhere – in Ben Vince’s »What I Can See«20 (Assimilation, 2018), in Watson’s »Vatnajökull« (Weather report, 2003) as in his recent »Glastonbury Ocean Soundscape« (2019),21 in Emptyset’s »Lens« (Recur, 2013) etc.

The surface of the Earth can only begin vibrating, droning, and trembling, when its interiority is sub-verted, sounded by whales or terrestrial sonars. Conan Doyle asked himself about the reason for which the Earth could »scream« (When the World Screamed, 1928); Mahler composed The Song of Earth at the end of the first decade of the 20th century; but now, what we want to hear, and to feel, is the Earth trembling, and we want to accompany Earth’s trembling from its frozen core to its dancing surface – like in Bill B. Wintermute’s »Wintermutation« (2018).22 Trembling, shaking, droning: interesting contemporary music is spectral because it opens in each sound the spectrum of its duration and of its intensity, even though we know that this intensity is transient, dramatically precarious. Earth’s swansong. The ecocide reduces the sonic field of the Earth, producing a planetary »silent spring«.23 Contemporary music’s spectrum records the material specters of the coming extinction, as an attempt to engrave in present textures the disappearance of the future – without hope, but without falling into melancholia.

Is it the reason for which we should be seeking for exo-planets? For an Ark in the outer space? From the Space Age (Sputnik) to the New Space (Elon Musk), from Stockhausen to Chloé, do we rise the gaze to forget the Earth? Was it, is it, mere escapism? My answer is the following one: we need to escape, here and now from the here and now; we need to comprehend that our world is the other world, that the Earth is the beyond – no identity here, but a marvelous and anxiety-producing dis-location. Our planet is a place in which the distant universe can be perceived, or in which an intensive field can be created between the most distant and the closest – as we saw with Sun O)))’s »BassAliens« and as it is also manifest in the last minute of Bérangère Maximin’s »Mvt II, Der Stern« (Infinitesimal, 2013) when a tension appears between a distant droning and some sounds that could have been directly produced on the recording surface of a microphone.24 Escaping means discovering the abyss of distance exactly where we are; no celestial harmony, but »dangerous orbits« – that’s the title of Bérangère Maximin’s 2015 album.25 And if you dare to dance on »Cracks«, (Dangerous Orbits’ first piece) it is at your own risk.

»OOP (Our Own Planet)«, Dangerous Orbits’ fourth piece, will help me to finish this essay. Our planet is here and there, terrestrial and extra-terrestrial, always already in the Copernican sky. Our own planet is not our own planet, it’s our own alien milieu, in which birds – like in »OOP« – sound like pulsars. The power of music is to produce the absolute transfiguration of everything, an infinite metaphor less melting its materials than producing their resurrection before their death. The music I tried to analyze in this essay tends to save everything in a dimension that does not deny death, but inscribes it in its spectral form. What is saved is not life but the concrete transcendental of life, the black monolith of the universe, the black stone saturated with dreams.

»Stony ground but not entirely«, Samuel Beckett tells us in Enough – but why »not entirely«? No doubt that we die; that entropy wins in the end; everything will fall apart; the galaxies will become black holes weighing a billion suns; the universe will become »an endless dark night« (Trinh Xuan Thuan).26 Entirely. But we need to rethink what stones are. Stony grounds remember life, even spectrally; forms of life remain engraved in stones’ memories; stones obscurely call for life, or for its coming back – even if it is impossible. Even when nothing, when no one will be able to come back. Possessing – as Roger Caillois wrote – »something that will never perish or else has already done so«, stones are like specters at a standstill.27 Entirely dead, entirely imperishable. Immobile, they move. Silent, they sound. The slow sound in the stone weaves a worried eternity.28

Cited Works

Caillois, Roger (1985): The Writing of Stones. Charlottesville.

Carson, Rachel (2002): Silent Spring. Boston/New York.

Deleuze, Gilles (1984): Vérité et temps (20 March 1984, transcripted by Elsa Roques); accessed via http://www2.univ-paris8.fr/deleuze/article.php3?id_article=337

——————– (1989): The Time Image. Cinema 2 . Minneapolis.

Fisher, Mark (2017): The Weird and the Eerie . London.

Grisey, Gérard (2008): Écrits, ou l’invention de la musique spectrale . Paris.

Harley, James (2004): Xenakis: His Life in Music . New York.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1975): The Logic . Oxford.

Kursell, Julia/ Schäfer, Armin: Microsound and Macrocosm. Gérard Grisey’s Explorations of Musical Sound and Space, in: Kaduri, Yale (2018): The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Western Art . Oxford.

Neyrat, Fréderic: Cosmic Graffiti on Planck’s Façade, in: Alienocene, Stratum 5. (https://alienocene.com/2019/06/19/cosmic-graffiti/)

Watson, Chris (2019): Recording, in: Spectres: Composing Listening. Rennes.

1Hegel, G.W.F. (1975): The Logic . Oxford, p. 128.

2Deleuze, Gilles (1984): »Vérité et temps« (20 March 1984, transcripted by Elsa Roques) (http://www2.univ-paris8.fr/deleuze/article.php3?id_article=337). See also Deleuze, Gilles (1989): The Time Image. Cinema 2 . Minneapolis, pp. 92-93.

3Grisey, Gérard (2008): Écrits, ou l’invention de la musique spectrale . Paris, pp. 121-122. Translations are mine.

4To be compared with Stockhausen’s Sternklang (1971) and Xenakis’s La Legende d’Eer (1977-1978); see Harley, James (2004): Xenakis: His Life in Music . New York, p. 114.

5Note for anti-correlationist thinkers: correlation is marvelous, it’s not a damnation, it’s not a reduction or the denial of the inhuman, of the Great Outside, it’s its only possible celebration! Suppress the correlations between subjects and objects and you get nihilism, pessimism, reactionary positions.

6For Julia Kursell and Armin Schäfer, Le noir de l’étoile creates a »milieu« à la Simondon. S. Kursell, Julia/ Schäfer, Armin: Microsound and Macrocosm. Gérard Grisey’s Explorations of Musical Sound and Space, in: Kaduri, Yale (2018): The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Western Art . Oxford, pp. 209-211.

7The core of the Earth is composed mainly with an alloy of nickel and iron.

8Concrete Desert is the name of an album composed by Dylan Carson (Earth’s leader) and UK producer the Bug in 2017.

9It’s a track of A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra Capsular Extraction.

10It’s a track of Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions (1995).

11At least I need to mention Nadja (especially The Stone is Not Hit By The Sun, Nor Carved by a Knife, in 2016, and Sonnborner, in 2018) and Boris (let’s think about Amplifier Worship in 1998 and Cosmos in 2012).

12Interestingly enough, Chris Watson was a founding-member of Cabaret Voltaire, a band of the 1970’s that passed from industrial music to electro. The title of their 1984 album, Micro-Phonies, retrospectively appears as an anticipation – despite the total change of musical universe – of Watson’s music future center.

13See Mark Fisher’s analysis of Eno’s On Land, especially of the piece »Shadow« in its relation with the outside, in Fisher, Mark (2017): The Weird and the Eerie . London, pp. 80-81.

14I’ll analyze elsewhere the dynamic cosmos of Lionel Marchetti, certainly one of the most important contemporary composers (I already wrote a short text, »L’esprit des cordes« about his Psalmus: https://www.larevuedesressources.org/L-esprit-des-cordes.html). One example: Océan (de la fertilité) (2016) is defined as musique concrète; but what precedes the appearance of the sound of the ocean and the song of birds is an electronic wave, as if an artificial wave was the condition of the possibility for a new way to listen to the concrete sounds of the world.


16About contemporary music and alienness, I recommend to listen to Franck C. Yeznikian’s »If Whenever (Alienocene Version)« (Alienocene, Stratum 4: https://alienocene.com/2019/03/01/if-whenever/). I study Frank C. Yeznikian’s music in »Mais si… Note sur la musique de F.C.Y.« (forthcoming).



19Elsewhere I will try to explain why contemporary music is so fascinated by the Egyptian Book of the Dead (let’s think about Pierre Henry, Gérard Grisey, Philip Glass, Thomas Köner, and Sunn O))), amongst others who composed music related to the Egyptian universe).

20»Vince’s saxophone mimics both the fricative buzz of horsehair pulled across cello strings and the ethereal rumble of whale song« (Andy Beta, »Ben Vince – Assimilation«, https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/ben-vince-assimilation/).

21https://chriswatsonreleases.bandcamp.com/track/glastonbury-ocean-soundscape. About Watson’s fascination for the Blue Whale as »the largest and loudest animal which has ever lived«, see Watson, Chris (2019): Recording, in: Spectres: Composing Listening. Rennes, p. 19.


23Of course, I refer here to Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental book: Silent Spring (1962). Carson, Rachel (2002): Silent Spring. Boston/New York.

24In »Mvt III, Distance«, a layer of close sounds – flies’ buzzing, cracks, frictions, brief ghostly breathings – is added to some industrial sound afar. »Mvt IV, Adrift« is the sonic crossing through which the universe finds again its alienness: we go through, without a goal, and we become sensitive to the spectrum of things.

25In the presentation of the album, we can read: »In a trial-and-error process made to measure distance from inner gravity to star clusters and plot them on a tape, the signals have to go through the most intricate channels.« (https://www.berangeremaximin.com/albums/)

26See my text »Cosmic Graffiti on Planck’s Façade« on Alienocene, Stratum 5, https://alienocene.com/2019/06/19/cosmic-graffiti/.

27Caillois, Roger (1985): The Writing of Stones. Charlottesville, pp. 1-2.

28It dreams.

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