Sounds of Futures’ Past
Unlike older, lost civilizations that had no means to record and preserve audio, nor a method for notating musical instruction, we have been preserving sound for 150 years, and digital audio has been accumulating like an avalanche at easily the same speed as digital words. But these are all based on technology and need a means with which to reproduce the sound, from a cylinder player to a set of AA batteries.
I am afraid of the future.
Not for myself—I likely only have a few decades left, and there’s only so much that time can bring. But I have a daughter, a little girl, and it’s quite possible she will see the turn of the next century. There is no manifestation of our ongoing, 250-year process of terraforming that I will be able to protect her from, and that terrifies me.
What will she see—that is, if there is anyone left? More than a question of what the Earth will look like, I wonder what will be left of us, what we will leave behind. The Earth will abide; civilization is the open question.
Older, lost civilizations come down to us through objects that have managed to endure and that bear information: writing, images, symbols. Our own printed paper, painted images, and sculptures are also likely to last to some extent. I’m doubtful about the lifespan of these words that I’m writing. You are able to read them because of how fundamentally cheap digital media is, but that same cheapness means they are eminently disposable—they barely even exist. They’re just ordered bits on a storage device that can be erased, destroyed, or that will eventually, simply, de-cohere.
As much as for words, this is the contemporary and burgeoning state of music. Unlike older, lost civilizations that had no means to record and preserve audio, nor a method for notating musical instruction, we have been preserving sound for 150 years, and digital audio has been accumulating like an avalanche at easily the same speed as digital words.
Then there is all the physical media: vinyl, tape, CDs. Of these, tape is the most unstable, vinyl is fairly hardy if handled delicately, and CDs are predicted to last up to, or beyond, 200 years. And there are so many other places to find recorded audio: celluloid film, video game cartridges, Speak and Spell and other toys, the Mellotron.
But these are all based on technology and need a means with which to reproduce the sound, from a cylinder player to a set of AA batteries. As the massive, and especially plastic-based, manufactured detritus of consumer society accumulates, we are likely to leave behind stores, warehouses, veritable foot hills of this stuff. Will there be a means to play recordings, and will anyone be around to hear them? Just as recordings are ghostly hauntings from the past, so too will our sounds haunt the future. But which ones? What will be the sounds of the future’s past?
Not music, but sounds. Through the thousands of years of civilization, we have developed a large-scale, consistent, and constantly developing consensus on the nature of music, and we have made music, with deliberate intention, as a basic element of human society. While all sound recordings are a document of the past, all older music, from Haydn to Hendrix, is a document to some extent, a time capsule into the epochal currents and values that were the context for that melody, that rhythm, that set of chords.
Will music, in that sense, survive, and will it be recognized as such? Between a Bach CD and a bicycle bell found in a pile of garbage by some future scavenger, which is likely to be heard? For that future human, the bell will be the music of the ancients.
Walter M. Miller Jr. thought this through in his extraordinary 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. His context was different—the apocalyptic threat in the mid-20th century was nuclear war, not environmental catastrophe—but his fundamental question was the same: what of civilization would endure in the aftermath.
His answer was that the Catholic Church would survive in some way, with a new Vatican located somewhere in North America. Within the church, a new monastic order arises, dedicated to Saint Leibowitz. Before the war, the Saint was Isidore Leibowitz, an electrical engineer working in some capacity for the government. After, he was martyred during the Great Simplification, when the survivors destroyed any bit of learning and knowledge, burning books and people alike.
The Order of St. Leibowitz exists to preserve as much of the past as they can find, via the medieval method of copying by hand—it is the sacred Memorabilia. Everything matters, even if it is incomprehensible:
The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now, was as inscrutable to the monks in some instances as it would be to an illiterate wild-boy from the hills; this knowledge was empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay could be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday—someday, or some century—an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world last ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years.
One monk, Brother Francis, finds sacred relics, including a shopping list: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” One item is a circuit diagram, which he painstakingly copies, then illuminates, as a gift to the current Pope. He has no idea what it means, nor do any of his peers, the shapes nothing but “thingamabobs,” but to Francis it is both beautiful and marvelous and it is to be maintained and carried forward into the future, a fragment of old knowledge that might yet become integrated into a new civilization.
(In the end, civilization does arise again, in great part due to the efforts of the Order. In the conclusion, which is both horrific and poignantly hopeful, the monks continue their mission, just not on this planet.)
These visions of how the past views the post-apocalyptic future have likely been with us since man first imagined what the next day might bring. Their cultural legacy has survived primarily through writing and the visual arts, and in a mis-en-abime of the medium is the message, they focus on what the painter envisions, what stories the writer thinks will be told, and what surrounds us in the present day. And so J.G. Ballard, whose first novels chillingly (and perhaps presciently) predicted civilization’s destruction coming at the hands of wind, drought, melting ice caps, and scientific disaster, saw the gnostic literature of the present and future in billboards and news magazines.
This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, those thoughts are rapidly, if inchoately, encroaching. There is more to the exponential rise in drone music than just the prevalence of technology, there is a vision floating around in the zeitgeist of a world emptied of people. As Joanna Demers writes in her book Drone and Apocalypse (Zero Books, 2015), “Apocalypse as a cataclysm draws a line between the present and the future, presence and absence. It is an emptiness, a threat or a hope of a revelation … but it is unthinkable insofar as we cannot claim to have already lived it.”
But drone music and field recordings make it easy to think about the apocalypse. There is the music of corrosion and desolation made by William Basinksi, Herbst9, Lost Trail, Patrick Emm, and Howard Stelzer. Beyond the dolorous calm of drones and the strangely comforting sounds of emptiness, the subliminal aura of vast machinery functioning without human supervision, there is in particular cases (especially Basinski) the use of decaying technology and media.
Philosophically and aesthetically, this music is a companion to the final movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6, a narrative that contemplates nuclear annihilation and a landscape emptied of humanity. Our specific, contemporary anxieties make that movement, and the long line of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, sound like explorations of entropy.
This music is post-apocalyptic in the sense that it is music for a transformed and empty future. For what a future Brother Francis might hear, and might believe (not incorrectly) that we heard—for just what might appear to the future as the music of the past—listen to Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. Without intending, this long-standing and quasi-anonymous collective is an Order of St. Leibowitz of sound, making audio “symbolic structures” out of literal shards and fragments of civilization.
The Project rose during another era with apocalyptic overtones, the Reagan-era ‘80s, the last great hurrah (one hopes) for the idea of nuclear annihilation. Robert, who founded FAMP, describes their start as just a bunch of friends exploring suburban ruins in their home state of Illinois, digging through the debris of abandoned houses, shopping malls, and movie theaters. The stuff they found—objects, images, audio-visual equipment, “fragments of open reel 1/4’ tape and 35mm film recovered from burnt out warehouses and abandoned drive-in theaters”—they assembled into visual art, video, and tape loops. They knit together symbols of the cultural past into scrapbooks of preserved knowledge, without context or critical argument.
Initially short-lived, and with only two limited edition cassettes released in the late 1980s, Robert and various new members have revisited the project through the years. Since 2004, FAMP has been remixing and reissuing old recordings and creating new ones, including re-recording previous recordings via their old found equipment in sites they previously visited, and a new CD, Revisionist History, that celebrates the 30th anniversary of their first cassette and that recontextualizes older recordings with new material. (There is also a 1988 recording of a live performance in the basement studios of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that streams at Mixcloud.)
What they collected and made at times had a conscious expression of anxieties about the present and possible future—what their official history describes as “inadvertent examples of the post-industrial, post-apocalyptic landscapes so commonly imagined in Cold War-era media. Places and desires that fostered views of modern pop mummified, and contemporary provisions made artifact. Zombie pepsis (sic) and fossil aerosols.” There are recognizable fragments, deliberately placed in some of the recordings, of audio from George Romero’s seminal zombie movie Dawn of the Dead.
Listening to their recordings is immersive, haunting, troubling—a mix of beauty, fear, and hope. There are the gauzy, warm drones, the reliable and grounding loop points, but there are also the voices.
Yes, the voices. There is the report that “Communications with Detroit have been knocked out, along with Atlanta” from Day of the Dead. There is the spoken introduction to the TV series In Search Of (“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture …”). There are culturally familiar but unidentifiable fragments of news reports and televangelists and half-remembered movies. And then there are moments where you hear a phone ring, someone picks it up, and a man asks, “Yeah, can I listen to tape 60?” Is that an accidental archival recording from a business or a training center?
All the voices are revivified through the recordings, and the ones like the last strike deep. There is something assuringly unreal about hearing film and TV dialogue—spoken as a performance, it comes from characters who are fundamentally features of the imagination. But the men on the phone were real, and sound real. What happened to them? Are they still alive?
From their past, they speak to us. Through the sound of corrosion and decay, they speak to us. This is upsetting, because we are their future; preserved and reproduced by FAMP, they need a reintegration with broader knowledge to be understood, and we don’t have the tools, only these fragments. Like ghosts, they haunt us but we can’t understand them. (And with mass-surveillance, mass-dissemination via social media, and mass digitization, will any of our voices, accidentally archived, haunt the future?)
These are transmissions, speaking to us from the past, in what might be the mundane routines of personal and professional life. Much of what you hear on FAMP recordings was never music, but in an audio collage, it takes on the inherent qualities of music: timbre, pitch, rhythm, a developing structure through time.
This is listening in the post-apocalypse. This is a music of the future, heard in the present, and because it is made with real materials, it is as frightening as the terrifying messages from the future sent to warn the characters in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. FAMP’s recordings are broadcasts from the interior planet of cultural memory, excavations of the bunker, the sacred shopping list and circuit diagram as music. They force us to contemplate the future and the end of civilization.
Human music will survive, but who will hear it? Like emissaries from the Order of Leibowitz, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft each carry a “Golden Record,” an aluminum-jacketed, gold-plated copper disc analog recording (thoughtfully packaged with a cartridge and needle). The Golden Records contain greetings in fifty-five languages, recordings of space, human, industrial, environmental, and animal sounds, and ninety-minutes of actual music: including Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Pygmy and Aboriginal songs, Azerbaijani music, a honkyoku piece from Japan, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson singing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” If there are any creatures in the depths of the universe who can discern this essential human activity known as music, perhaps they will hear that as a fitting epitaph to the human race. But is also quite possible they will think our world sounded like Beethoven, and that the sound of factories is our music. Like the fallout shelter signs at my daughter’s elementary school (a drill I—and Robert—went through for years but that she will never experience), the inherent meaning and purpose of the materials won’t survive.
The hopeful part of the sounds of futures’ past is that while there may only be fragments of our shattered civilization 100 years from now, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project know that there will be sounds, “songs of enhanced decay and faked resurrection,” and trusts there will be someone there to listen to them.
George Grella is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is the music editor of the Brooklyn Rail, a freelance critic for the New York Classical Review, and the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.