The Null Device
In his latest Poptimist column, Tom Ewing writes about recordings attributed to imaginary authors, typically at some time in an imagined past. More specifically, he writes about Science Of The Sea, a record allegedly made in 1979 by Jürgen Müller, a German oceanographer and amateur musician who was inspired to make a record of ambient electronic compositions by the hours he spent on field trips out at sea, one of whose 100 privately-pressed copies was apparently rediscovered in 2011:
Except, of course, he probably did no such thing. It seems likely that there never was an expedition, or a young biologist, or a private pressing. Science of the Sea is a 2011 record from fin to tail, and the rather lovely tale of Jürgen Müller is entirely invented. Did suspecting this make me like the record less? Certainly not. If anything, I enjoyed it more. As a small child I would sometimes be allowed to sit up with my parents and watch science documentaries, like Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I didn't understand the science, and the documentaries were broadcast late so I was on the edge of sleep in any case, but I remembered their soothing flow: The infinite turned into a kind of bedtime story. Meanwhile, on library bookshelves I would sometimes find 1950s and 60s paperbacks about modern-day scientist-adventurers like Jacques Cousteau or Thor Heyerdahl-- giving the impression of an age of clean-limbed scientific heroism I'd tantalizingly missed, one that looked very much like a Tintin comic.
So no surprise that some of what I get from Science of the Sea-- there by intention or not-- is a pang of love and loss for this imagined time. More intriguingly, though, if the record is fictional it feels like this might have been liberating for its mysterious creator. The album is full of beautifully cornball seascape touches-- flickering arpeggios and note-clouds which practically demand you start thinking about shoals of fish darting back and forth outside a bathysphere window. Sit down and make an electronic album about the ocean now and you might find yourself trying to dodge these clichés. Sit down and role-play a naive non-musician inching towards transcendence at the turn of the 1980s and you can fully embrace them.Science Of The Sea is not the only recent example of its kind; another recent recording shedding light on an underexplored, romantic and distinctly alien corner of the modern past was the retrospective of the Endless House Foundation. The conceit of Endless House presents an experimental electronic music collective, founded in the early 1970s by an eccentric, wealthy Czech audiophile, situated in an ultra-modernistic studio/discotheque complex in the heart of the Bialowieska primeval forest in eastern Poland and informed by the breadth of European avant-garde design and architectural movements of the 20th century, it thrived for must six weeks in the summer of 1973 before collapsing under the weight of its expensive impracticality, leaving behind only some scraps of biographical information, a few ambiguous photographs of improbable architectural spaces, and the curiously pristine recordings of the resident musicians' compositions, which, it seems, prefigured everything from Kraftwerk to Detroit techno, much in the same way that Delia Derbyshire invented IDM in 1965 but neglected to tell the world about it. The fragments have remained buried until recently, when an unnamed British curator unearthed the pieces, and managed to track down the original participants, getting interviews and even a mix, from them.
Of course, it's quite possible that none of this really happened. The story of Endless House reads almost like a Wes Anderson set-piece, only set in a nebulous European avant-garde as seen from outside. Unsurprisingly, the illusion doesn't hold up well to closer examination. For one, the idea that a group of Western European playboys could cross the Iron Curtain with impunity, bringing party guests and giant modular synthesisers with them, while the governments of the Eastern Bloc, still shocked by uprisings in Prague in 1968 and Warsaw in 1970, were in ideological lockdown, seems highly unlikely. (A non-fictional recent musical retrospective of East German electronic music reveals the extent of ideological control over music in the Eastern Bloc; in the DDR, the government only started allowing the production of electronic music in 1980, and even then anything that could be interpreted as critical of industrial society was verboten, leaving room only for ostensibly harmless cosmic psychedelia.) Over and above this, this improbable bubble is populated by a cast of exotically European bons vivants with names like Walter Schnaffs and Felix Uran, who speak in a mixture of English and German, but refer to distances in miles. Nonetheless, if you can suspend disbelief, imagine that the Cold War wasn't that big a deal and that an Austrian synthesist and socialite might sing about being sixteen miles from Saint-Tropez, in an avant-garde cyber-disco about that distance from the Polish-Soviet border, it's an entertaining story, and an even more entertaining record. (The tracks, listened to on their own, work as electronic music, and do evoke the world they purport to come from.)
Meanwhile, in a recent edition of Milan art journal Mousse, there is a retrospective of the works of Scottish-Italian artist Scotty Potenza, written by someone named Nick Currie:
The colour, shape and texture of fresh ice cream is certainly visible in Potenza’s acrylic gouaches; peach, pistachio and purply-red forest berries distinguish themselves forcefully from the sodden greens and asphalt greys of the Scottish industrial landscape. His subject-matter shares this otherness: influenced by the exciting first wave of Acid House culture in the late 1980s, Potenza evinces a non-Calvinist positivity more evocative of Chicago warehouses and Ibiza raves than Glasgow tenements. A Potenza painting incarnates not what Scotland is, but what it lacks.
As 1990s rave culture has continued to experience the bearhug embrace of mainstream acceptance in the UK — its visual values, once restricted to club flyers, now inform restaurant design, public information films and TV commercials for banks and building societies — Potenza has been granted a high-profile list of public commissions. His decoration of the walls of the Home Office lobby with a mural of happy ravers, their hands linked like the figures in Matisse’s La Danse, caused short-lived (and clearly manufactured) outrage in the tabloids, but has proved peculiarly popular with the civil servants who work in the building. A major mural at Finsbury Park underground station entitled Get On One Matey! was unfortunately damaged beyond repair in the 2011 riots. The vandals, caught on CCTV, are currently serving long prison sentences.