Does sonic abstraction foster fear?
Originally published here.
“She’s lying there
Throbbing Gristle is lauded as the band that gave birth to the industrial genre. It is also known as that band with the really scary song. “Hamburger Lady” has all of the components that make up a good Industrial track; it opens with silence, followed by a soft and constant thumping, and almost immediately after, that beautiful and ubiquitous droning sound that is so familiar to the industrial genre begins to drown the listener’s ears. It begins as a dim notion, an idea we pay no mind to, but slowly grows into all we can experience or think about. It intensifies and dims rhythmically, like a revving motor. The drone in this song is a particularly interesting one; it’s choppy, varies in tone and volume, and eventually becomes layered. Synthesizers follow, high in pitch and almost masking a man’s monotone voice as he reads from a letter about a woman in a burn unit whose disfiguration led to the nickname “Hamburger Lady”. The entire track sounds as if it is being played through a ceiling fan, spasmodic in sound and disorienting in presentation. A ripping electric groan interrupts the voice, and the voice fights back to relate in a sing song tone, “HAMBURGER LADY… HAMBURGER LADY”. The ripping groan begins to appear more and more prevalent as the song continues, and that early synthesizer becomes animalistic. Appropriately, the song stops each of its components as it fades into silence, and it’s on to the next track.
This music is meant to make you cringe, to have you sitting on the edge of your seat, indulging on the cheap sonic thrills that Throbbing Gristle is throwing in your face. But what is it about this track, and what is it about a majority of experimental music, that makes listeners as fascinated as they are freaked out? When I first heard “Hamburger Lady”, I had no clue what it was about, I simply heard the amalgam of sounds and the occasional decipherable word or two. And yet, without knowing of the terrifying burnt woman, I felt uneasy and ready for the song to be over. Scaring a listener is hard, and it usually takes elements of confusion and surprise to lead a listener to a fearful experience. This is where fear as a response to abstraction comes in. When listening to experimental music, it can be said that one isn’t fearing the same things that are feared when watching a scary movie or reading a scary book. The fear that is fostered by music comes from a more abstract area, and inspires us to react cautiously and with trepidation. Such a diversion from normality, especially in music, can naturally lead to distress, and this is perhaps one of the greatest gifts of any experimental genre. Famed industrial hip hop trio Death Grips does this all the time. In the first song they released, “Full Moon (Death Classic)” there are gut wrenching screams, savage lyrics, and dissected sounds of crazed drumming and heavy moaning. Listening to this music leaves me with my jaw wide open yet wanting more. It’s like riding a roller coaster and taking pleasure in the nausea. Investigating the meaning and purpose of Industrial music and all of its modern counterparts is useless. There is no meaning to “Hamburger Lady” but the cheap thrill it provides. Experimental music is useless if it doesn’t leave you questioning yourself, the sounds you just heard and the feelings you felt.
On a lighter side, artists like Tim Hecker don’t function on fear, but his sonic quality is one that is guaranteed to suck you in, make you question your perspective and give you a similar uneasy feeling. Hecker does the impossible in abstract captivation and embraces the seemingly mundane. More and more, genres of abstraction have grown out of cheap thrills and into more breathtaking territory. Electronic producer Iglooghost sends listeners flying through a world of abstract and digital complexity, without the use of fear, but rather the use of overstimulation. Fear in music is absolutely subjective and absolutely up to the listener, but when you look at it, the music that is most likely to strike fear and interest in one’s ears is that of abstraction and novelty. From Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, to Ash Koosha’s digital dreamscapes, abstraction is the key ingredient in forming that ever-present sense of uneasiness that we all love.