It’s been a long time since I’ve showed up around these parts. Thanks, Anne for holding up the fort during my ignominious absence.

This current post is going to be even more tangentially related to all things properly Victorian, so consider yourself forewarned. 

Longtime readers of Anne’s POTW series, should any of you exist, may know that I occasionally show up in Anne’s posts as the wet blanket who hangs dripping over any comment she makes that smells of aesthetic appreciation. In Anne’s last post, one might imagine me to be less piqued when reading of her aesthetic condemnation:

 [T]his poem bothers me in ways that “Dover Beach” and “The Buried Life” don’t. A rather forecful interior voice calls out, “It’s so whiny!”–hence, I’m sure, the Dover Bitch thing. The scientific language of the third stanza, coupled with the image of a severing God in the fourth, takes this mounting sense of helplessness over the top–it’s a kind of geological version of Tennyson’s “Lotos-Eaters,” where the self-administered narcotic lethargy has become a matter of mindless plate tectonics–a situation in which we not only cannot intervene, but we are never asked nor expected to. This seems like kind of a troubling model for thinking human relations.

I agree with everything Anne’s saying here, but… is this an aesthetic judgment? an ethical judgment? a political judgment? I suppose it’s somewhere along the faultline where the three meet, but it’s clear where I would like to stand and where I would like Anne not to stand. So yeah, its “a troubling model for thinking human relations” for political reasons, I’d emphasize. I’ve really got nothing more than party-line marxian doctrine to say: Arnold’s claiming alienation is metaphysical, or a product of secularism, which thereby obscures socioeconomic alienation, class struggle, yada yada yada.

I could probably make a more exciting Radical answer to Arnold’s complacent Torydom (and parrying Whiggish reformism as well), but I’ve realized recently just how much aesthetic appreciation actually does matter to me, except it’s far more likely to matter for me through music, rather than through literature.

I’m in Montreal right now, my homest of towns for my homeless self, but I’m here primarily because it’s Mutek, which is one of the biggest electronic music festivals worldwide, and, I think, the only one this side of Europe that really shows the high-art, avant, experimental Appolinian aspect of electronic music while providing ample opportunity for Dionysian, not necessarily drugged-up but not necessarily not drugged-up bootyshaking. When I tell people, especially Americans (elec. music is much bigger in Canada, especially in Montreal, in large part due to Mutek), that I like techno (I’m actually obsessed), I usually get a bit embarrassed. It’s not a guilty pleasure kind of thing–I really believe in this music, but I never know exactly how to explain that I’m really snobby about it, that I really hate the stuff that most people who don’t know much about electronic music think techno is. The techno that I’m into is actually about the most deeply introverted (but collectively so) kind of music that I know of, and it’s not the stuff that obnoxious people blast out of the cars they want to show off. I used to specify that I’m into minimal techno, but then I’d have to explain what that was, and now, the whole minimal sound has become a bit dated, and nobody quite knows what to call the stuff that’s coming out of Berghain in Berlin. In short, the techno that I’m into is un peu recherché–but I don’t like to defend the music I believe in in elitist terms by saying it’s high-brow, musically sophisticated stuff that someone with loads and loads of “classical” music training and education would be into. (I’ll not go into why classical music is such a misnomer in many cases.)

My basic point is that the aesthetic project that I ruthlessly attack Anne for bringing to the reading of poetry is more or less exactly the affect with which I approach techno.

I was thinking about all of this while I was watching Wolfgang Voigt’s performance on Wednesday night. He’s one of the most important figures in the history of techno for all kinds of reasons, but his performance wasn’t techno at all–it was his ambient Gas project. Hmmm, how to explain what ambient music is? Well, if techno is repetitive electronic music set to a four-on-the-floor beat, then ambient is repetitive electronic music without beats, more or less. Both forms are intensely concerned with questions of time and duration and change, following more or less the blueprint laid by minimalist godfather Steve Reich in “Music as a Gradual Process.” I’m sure there’s a lot–well, a fair deal–of academic work out there on the aesthetic of techno and ambient with which I’m not familiar, but I’m guessing that a lot of it would link it to post-modern or post-structural stuff: the manipulation of recorded or synthesized sounds rather than the production of “natural” sounds, the rhizomatic shifts that determine the “structure” of an individual track or a DJ’s transitions between tracks, the blurring of boundaries between woman and machine.

Maybe, though, there’s a nineteenth-century connection? The best description I’ve found of the Gas sound is from Resident Advisor’s review of the mini-box set rerelease of the Gas albums last summer:

 Distinct from the dance tracks is Voigt’s Gas project, which had a more ambitious agenda: the aim was to produce ambient/experimental tracks by running German cultural history – from Schlager to Wagner – through a sampler. This same process defines the sound of all Gas releases: Voigt creates loops of crackly brass and woodwind phrases, and then obscures this source material with dense layers of processing, smearing the sound into a hazy, bloated wash that shimmers like the blurred contours of a Rothko painting. Underneath all of this is often an unwavering bass drum, the pulse which gives the clouds focus.

If that description mystifies you, here’s a recording of probably my favorite track:

I’ve heard this described as looped snippets of German classical music, but really it’s pure German Romanticism, late Romanticism in particular. Zauberberg VII, at least, for me isn’t about “all of German cultural history”–its the lush, rich colors found in the music of Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss. And this is where the long 19th century connection comes in. Quite long: I’m thinking specifically of R. Strauss’s last of the Four Last Songs:


This post is getting kinda long, and I don’t quite what I’m talking about anymore, so maybe I’ll end here, and finish up some other time.

In Part II, I’ll speculate on this strange nexus between late C19 organic romanticism and late C20 cyber-minimalism and what, if anything, this has to do with my own aesthetic sensibility and what I get out of Victorian lit.