Monday, February 5

Language Is a Virus

A few days ago my wife and I were having discussion about comics. I was claiming that while both traditional superhero comics and Fantagraphics-style hipster comics both appear to have their own fandom communities, there doesn't seem to be a similar community for the rapidly growing sector of comics in the middle, by which I mean titles like Y, DMZ, and Desolation Jones. My argument is that while there's some chance you might be introduced to superhero comics through movies or cartoons, and you might find about hipster comics from your indie music or graphic design friends, there's no equivalent way for non-comics fans to get introduced to the those titles I mentioned. So I suggested that someone simply needs to group those types of comics under some catchy genre name. That's the thing about language, right? You can't have an idea or a discussion about an idea until that idea is manifested in a word. It helps if the word is catchy. It needs to, as they say, "resonate" with people.

This language strategy works pretty well for music. I started thinking about it again yesterday in relation to the recent-ish buzz around hauntology, a sort of virtual genre tagged by Simon Reynolds and picked up by several other bloggers to describe Burial, The Focus Group, The Caretaker, and several other artists past and present. It felt like just by naming the phenomenon, an entire new genre materialized from the ether. I'm not complaining about pigeonholing or chicken/egg issues here; I believe the genre tag has been very helpful in fomenting interesting discussions. Instead, I've been wondering about the effect this hauntology meme has had on my listening. Now that the thought virus has been planted in my brain, am I starting to hear it everywhere?

Yesterday, I finally got around to listening to Max Richter's latest album, Songs From Before (yes, I am that far behind). In short, the album is stunning--certainly one of the very best releases from last year. The album features Richter's beautiful neoclassical piano and string arrangements intercut with snippets of crackling ambience and Robert Wyatt reading bits of Haruki Murakami texts. Sounds haunting, no? I've only read Murakami's Kafka On the Shore, but I can hardly imagine fiction more haunted by...something. And the Richter album has a spectral, blurry image on the cover, which is no doubt influencing my impression of the music.

The there's Johann Johansson's IBM 1401, A User's Manual, also released last year. Here we have a sort of concept album about a vintage computer, where sweeping orchestration meets old recordings of someone reading bits of the machine's maintenance guide. I should probably mention that the album was inspired by reel-to-reel sound recordings of the mainframe made by Johansson's father over thirty years ago. Even the album's own website describes Johansson's music as "hauntingly melodic."

So, should these albums be admitted into the ever-expanding hauntology catalogue? I'll leave it to you to decide if I've gone too far. I'm not at all sure this represents a new musical trend or genre, or if we've just come up with a useful way of discussing music--a way particularly suited to our time. I'm starting to think that maybe all music (all art?) is somehow haunted and that we're really just dealing with a matter of degree.

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