occultural studies column

The Mourning of Anti-Music

By Eugene Thacker, 27 March 2012
Image: Image: Junko's performance at A Special Form of Darkness, Tramway, Glasgow February 2012

Travelling to the outer reaches of vocal performance, a recent event featuring noise artists Junko and Keiji Haino opened up the anti-political space of ‘unvoice’ – writes Eugene Thacker


In late February, the dead of winter, the arts organisation Arika held a three-day festival titled A Special Form of Darkness. Located in the Tramway, a former railway station in the South of Glasgow, Arika has been organising events like this for a number of years. Their events often have different themes, though they consistently pull together music, film, performance and ideas into an evocative, heady constellation.i


My reason for writing about the event has to do with the two vocal performances that closed the second and third nights. One was by Keiji Haino, a figure who needs no introduction for those interested in the noise and experimental music scenes. Influenced early on as much by Antonin Artaud as by Butoh theatre, Haino quickly carved out a highly eclectic and uncanny musical style, often focusing on voice and guitar (his 1973 performance Milky Way is the sound of a weeping galaxy). An accomplished improviser, Haino’s many projects are evidence of his range, from free improv ensembles, to the avant-rock group Fushitsusha, to straight-up noise works such as The Book ofEternity Set Aflame , to black ambient projects such as Nijiumu. Haino has also performed on a range of instruments, from the hurdy-gurdy to the Theremin, and has collaborated with everyone from Toru Takemitsu to John Zorn.


The other performance was by Junko, a member of the legendary noise group Hijokaidan, which began as an extreme performance art collective in the 1970s, before focusing more on noise. Early Hijokaidan performances were notorious not only for their all-out sonic assaults, but for the way they would push the boundaries of music and performance into the material domain (there are stories of Hijokaidan performances culminating in vomit and piss on stage). In the 1980s and 1990s, Hijokaidan was at the forefront of the kind of ‘power electronics’ style often associated with Japanese noise, which favoured feedback, distortion, and all the desiderata of sound and hearing. Over the years, Junko herself has developed a unique and unparalleled vocal style, both in her many collaborations and in solo projects (the pinnacle of which is the vinyl record Sleeping Beauty – a vocal noise performance on side A, and on side B the same track, in reverse).


Junko’s performance, which closed Saturday’s events, was so transparent it defies commentary. And yet, here I am, writing. In the main performance space of the Tramway – a large, cavernous, brick-lined hall, remnants of a long-gone railway station still in evidence – there is a bank of seats. In front of it, a modest stage, a diffuse spotlight, and a single microphone stand, flanked on either end by two towers of speakers, all black. In person Junko is unassuming, reserved and soft-spoken. On stage, things are different. Without further ado, Junko walks on stage and proceeds to shriek at full volume… for an hour. After which, she curtly bows and walks off the stage.


Now, it’s hard to impress anyone these days, and even harder to be sincere in your effort not-to-impress-anyone. And, in describing Junko’s performance, it’s hard to avoid the cynic’s reply that it’s just a conceptual piece, a one-liner. But, as old school as this sounds, something different happens when you’re there actually listening to Junko for the duration of an hour. At first the sheer cathartic intensity of her voice is what comes across. Junko’s shrieking is high-pitched and delivered in an unrelenting assault.


After this, you notice... subtleties in the shrieking. After all, not all screams are alike. Sometimes Junko seems to be speaking/screaming in a kind of made-up language, or a language spoken so loud that it breaks down into phonemes. At other times her voice trails off in a bizarre, frenetic vibrato, transforming the shrieking into a kind of ‘noise opera.’ And at other moments shrieking is simply that – a voice filling to absolute capacity the upper frequencies of hearing, a density that becomes so full that it is strangely flat, the space between your ears and Junko’s voice collapsed into a thick, aural, opacity. And all of this, by the way, without any effects or overdubbing – just a microphone and some very powerful lungs. Speaking, singing and screaming – all co-mingled and confused in a vocal cacophony that is at once self-effacing and defiant.


Haino’s performance, which closed Sunday’s events, takes up this theme of articulating and disarticulating the voice. In the same space, but in almost complete darkness, Haino presented a sequence of short vignettes, each one employing a different use of voice, at the limits of the voice. Proceeding methodically, Haino’s performance began with nearly inaudible, barely emitted squeaks, which evaporate as soon as they are heard, as light as smoke. Gradually these are interspersed with low, guttural rumblings that evoke those bass notes that you can feel in your stomach. This gives way to sections that employ stark contrasts in pitch and volume. Each time there is sound, there is also silence. Then, suddenly, a weird, falsetto supplication is shot forth, before dying away in the midst of the large, cavernous space of the Tramway.


With Haino, the result is to, in effect, undo the vocality of the voice; the voice does everything except vocalise as a voice, it does everything except sound like a voice, the voice becoming unhuman. Hanio’s vocal performances always elicit this idea of the voice as a form of unhuman expression, the voice extended beyond speaking, emoting or singing. Listening to this, in almost total darkness, along with everyone else in the audience, the effect is akin to visiting a planetarium – an acoustic planetarium with a stellar banshee as your tour guide. There are no planets or nebulae, but only sound on the verge of being emitted, or sound on the brink of dissipation.


In this performance, as in his other works, Haino makes no attempt to hide his fascination with mystical traditions, particularly those in which suffering is made manifest as sound. But in this case Haino’s supplications are interwoven with abrupt shifts in pitch, tone, or microphone feedback. The pleading voice is sometimes undermined by other sounds (feedback, distortion, sounds from the body), but these are themselves byproducts of the voice. In the end, the sonic drama Haino performs is that of the supplicating voice undermined by its own enunciation, by the innate fragility and dissipation of the voice’s failure to sustain itself. And so it tries again, and again it dissipates. Gradually Haino’s performance did take the voice into the terrain of noise, utilising a series of pedals to double back his voice on itself, eventually resulting in a wall of dense noise, where voice and feedback become the same. There was even a section where Haino appropriates elements of monophonic chant and the mantra, sounding like an eerie, forlorn, crooning monk. All of this gives the impression less of a performance or a musical composition, and more of the kind of askesis found in mystical traditions of the East and West – ‘voicing’ as a spiritual exercise, one in which the vocality of the voice is purged, in the process releasing strange, dissonant tones that are, in the end, only traces.

Different as they were, the performances by Haino and Junko remind us of the long-standing ambivalence of the voice in mystical traditions. In medieval mysticism, communication and mediation are all-important means of relating the divine to the human, often via a voice, a vision or the divine logos itself. These divine ‘messages’ or intermediaries are then transmuted into language, and codified in the form of confessions, spiritual guidebooks and scholastic treatises. But the communication of the divine doesn’t always proceed so smoothly. Often words break down into mere shards of sound, and the message that is mediated encounters only a horrific muteness and the incapacitation of grammar.

Angela of Foligno, for instance, expressed her experience of the divine through an unhuman shrieking. Around 1291, Angela received a divine vision on her way to a church in Assisi. When this vision ceased, the overwhelming experience caused Angela to fall to the ground and begin screaming (somewhat melodramatically, as several townspeople and friars come to watch the spectacle). Angela described this feeling of dereliction in her Memorial:


I began to shout and to cry out without any shame: ‘Love still unknown, why do you leave me?’ I could not nor did I scream out any other words than these: ‘Love still unknown, why? Why? Why?’ Furthermore, these screams were so choked up in my throat that the words were unintelligible... As I shouted I wanted to die. It was very painful for me not to die and to go on living. After this experience I felt my joints become dislocated.ii


Angela’s vision is not just a divine voice but, more accurately, an unhuman voice, a voice that cannot be heard, a voice that Angela describes as ‘in and with darkness’, a voice that is ultimately ‘unspeakable’. The moment she recounts this episode to her scribe, who then reads it back to her, Angela strangely claims not to recognise the text at all.


Angela’s case is not unique in medieval mysticism, though her account contains among the most intense meditations on the relation between voice, word and sound. Hearing an indescribable, divine voice, Angela herself is overcome in a confusion of speaking and screaming, words broken down into a vocal suffering that eventually takes over her whole body.


This breakdown of the voice not only occurs with the divine but also with the demonic. Over a century prior to Angela’s experiences, the monk Guibert of Nogent recounts his confrontations with demons in his Monodiae, or ‘solitary songs’:


One night (in winter I believe) I was awakened by an intense feeling of panic. I remained in my bed and felt assured by the light of a lamp close by, which threw off a bright light. Suddenly I heard, not far above me, the clamor of what seemed to me many voices coming out of the dark of night, voices without words. The violence of the clamor struck my temples. I fell unconscious, as if in sleep, and I thought I saw appearing to me a dead man... Terrified by the spectre I leapt out of the bed screaming, and as I did so I saw the lamp go out.iii


Guibert’s account, not without its own dramatic flair, reads like a passage from the ghost story tradition of Algernon Blackwood or M.R. James. But, like Angela, it also details a supernatural, sonic exchange – to the cacophony of demonic voices, these ‘voices without words,’ Guibert himself can only scream in reply.


With both Angela and Guibert we have the expression of a sound that cannot itself be vocalised, an unsound that can only be negatively expressed in the collapse of sound and sense, speaking and screaming. What is articulated is not simply the perfectibility of a divine sound, nor is it the elegiac confidence of a human sound, a human poetry singing the harmony of the world. Instead, what we find in cases like those of Angela and Guibert is the articulation of the failure of the voice, its failure to speak, to enunciate, to communicate. The frailty of the human voice is given voice, at the same time that it becomes strangely unhuman. All this gives the failure of voice, this unsound, a tragic tone – a tone of lamentation or mourning of the voice, by the voice.


The classicist Nicole Loraux calls this the mourning voice. Set apart from the more official, civic rituals of funerary mourning, the mourning voice of Greek tragedy constantly threatens to dissolve song into wailing, music into moaning and the voice into a primordial, disarticulate anti-music. Juxtaposed to State mourning, Loraux argues for an ‘anti-political’ mourning that is, at the same time, not just apolitical. This is the mourning of Electra, Antigone, Cassandra, Iphigenia. As Loraux notes, in Greek tragedy, these scenes of excessive mourning not only threaten the more constrained, civic mourning of a funeral, but they also unbind all the discourses that constitute the polis, such that speech becomes screaming, and tears become curses or condemnations:


In passages like these, which depict threnody as a melodic wailing, it appears impossible to reduce lamentation to moaning. In almost every case, even if the cry dominates, music, whether it be soft or loud, is evoked at the same time.iv


The mourning voice delineates all the forms of threnos – tears, weeping, crying, sobbing, wailing, moaning, and the convulsions of thought reduced to the degree zero of intelligibility. Loraux again: ‘...in the tragic world all moaning tends to consider itself music.’v


While they exist in very different contexts, all these examples present us with a basic form of musical negation – a voice that undoes itself in its being ‘voiced,’ a voice without vocality, an unhuman voice. The mourning voices of Keiji Haino and Junko, of Angela of Foligno and Guibert of Nogent, and of Greek tragedy, all vocalise a negation inherent in the voice itself – words disintegrating into phonemes, speech buried in the viscera of the throat, weeping itself rendered as a song. This is perhaps where we might discover an anti-music that is not simply that of silence or found sound. Such an anti-music would have to be predicated on a certain failure of voice, and above all the failure of the human voice to speak at all – let alone speak reasonably.vi This anti-music would have to be a kind of pessimism of music, a sorrowful and studied negation of music, its luminous disintegration into a quiet noise, an infrasonic cacophony. In the collapsed space between the voice that speaks and the voice that sings, anti-music discovers its mourning voice. Between the failure of words and the song without lyrics, anti-music encounters the ultimate failure of sound and sense. In this form of sonic pessimism, sorrow, sighs and moaning become indistinguishable from music. And perhaps this aptly describes the core of what pessimism is: the disarticulation of phone and logos.



‘A Special Form of Darkness’

Arika, Episode II

24-26 February 2012




i While this isn’t an event review, it’s worth mentioning the participants, to give a sense of the range of work presented: an ‘abject noise’ performance by Deflag Haemorrhage/Haien Kontra, a sound and video installation by Walter Marchetti, a conversation between Ray Brassier and Thomas Metzinger, lectures by Mark Fisher and Alexi Kukuljevic, performances by Malin Arnell/Clara López/Imri Sandström (a re-enactment of a Gina Pane performance) and Dawn Kasper, a voice performance by Junko, a media lecture by Evan Calder Williams, an ‘inhuman Grand Guignol’ composition by Taku Unami, and a performance by Keiji Haino. I gave a reading of ‘Cosmic Pessimism.’ Throughout the event Iain Campbell also conducted a series of short performance pieces with audience participation.

ii Angela of Foligno, ‘The Memorial’, in The Complete Works, Paul Lachance (trans.), Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1993, p. 142.

iii Guibert of Nogent, A Monks Confession, Paul Archamabult (trans.), University Park: Penn State University Press, 2006, pp.51-52. Thanks to Nicola Masciandaro for introducing me to this work.

iv Nicole Loraux, The Mourning Voice: An Essay on Greek Tragedy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002, p.59. Thanks to Barry Salmon for his ongoing conversations about Loraux's book.

v Ibid., p. 67.

vi This calls for a more extensive cross-cultural examination. See, for instance, Howard Slater's recent review of the 'outernational' vocalist and musician Ghédalia Tazartès (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/guttural-cultural), whose voice Slater at one point describes as 'gutteral sonorous inarticulacy.'