19 May

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Amy Cutler – the ends (also end) of (the) earth and variants (2021, Crow Versus Crow)

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i. spooky sperrrits

Roughly a decade ago, Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds astutely picked up on an emergent trend within electronic music(s): a gesture towards a swirling ethereality and the pervasiveness of a certain spectral presence. Building on Jacques Derrida’s notion of hauntology — ‘postmodernity’s doppelganger’ — the pair (amongst others) sussed out that this orientation went well beyond mere mood or atmosphere. For Fisher in particular, this aesthetic emergence represented a ‘confrontation with a cultural impasse: the failure of the future’. [1]

Neoliberalism has continued apace with its dismantling of the social consensus, vilification of the public sphere, and its defanging of trade unions, for those not part of the select group of beneficiaries, this would certainly represent a kind of foreclosure. That the past may tell us something about the present is a beguiling prospect; that the present may well be a lamentation of a lost future, no doubt caries greater existential and psychic weight.

Much as Reynolds and Fisher thought the works of Burial, Philip Jeck, et al. served as primary examples of musical works haunted by a lost future (in the 2000s and first part of the 2010s), one locates an analogue in Amy Cutler’s the end (also ends) of (the) earth and variants for the 2020s.

Spurred by the curious ambiguity of one of the Harley lyrics (Erthe toc of erthe), Cutler’s release is 18 dense tracks making use of guitar, voice, electronics, field recordings etc. and features a slew of guests (most notably a primaeval musico-hauntologist and séancer-in-chief, Drew Mulholland).

ii. fucked up time, time fucked up

Upon first listen of end of earth, one’s thoughts drift to and sense a close affinity with a seemingly unlikely counterpart: the proto-hauntological masterpiece, the KLF’s Chill Out (1990).* End of earth’s opening two tracks —a rendition of the aforementioned catalysing lyric ‘ether toc of erthe’ and the coins in the bloody pinball machine ‘earth carousel’— are highly reminiscent of the drifting, dreamy, incidental vignettes one hears on Chill Out. Yet where Cauty/Drummond send you off on a heady but carefree (~chill~) road trip, end of earth has you arriving at a desolate crossroads with the stark recognition that this trip ain’t headin’ where you thought it wuz headin’.

At varying points throughout, the haunting presence of a lost future and/or the spectre of an unspeakable future exerting its not-yet-arrived influence appears: modalities of distance, unstable fidelities, delay, pitch shifting, and reverse-effects all lend to a sense of both spatial and temporal disorientation (“time out of joint” in the Shakespearean hauntological parlance). Tracks such as ‘the guiltless earth’ are highly illustrative of this disorientation. The title itself can be read as an ironic rejoinder to Christ’s dying elegy, forgive them father, they know not what they do or in a literal sense: the material, geographical space (earth) containing human activities, which, in the absence of humans and so too human theoretical, epistemological, historical, social apparatuses would be a tabula rasa (guiltless).† The track begins with one of the most iconic sounds in the sonic vernacular: the crackle (ostensibly of a long playing record). A sound Mark Fisher dubs ‘one of sonic hauntology’s signature traits […] which renders time as an audible materiality’. [2]

Amidst the pervasive crackling, the listener audits a melodic line closely resembling Brahm’s Wiegenlied articulated through odd, rolling pitch shifts and modulations. Whilst the press release suggests end of earth may be conceived as ‘a sort of muted lullaby for earth itself’ the artist’s distortion of one of the most noticeably lullaby-esque moments gestures towards a certain ambivalence or ambiguity; this tension underlies the very ‘paradoxical incorporation’ which Derrida finds in spectrality. Material/immaterial, present/absent, at once. This simultaneity is at the heart of the time out of joint —and following modernist philosopher Paul McCartney MBE™ — here, there, and everywhere. [3]

The middle section of the album consists of four consecutive variants on the Harley lyric featuring the bulk of the album’s collaborators. These renditions range from the minimal (Ecka Mordecai) to the cinematic (Mark S. Williamson). Whilst this listener finds this particular section of the album the least engrossing, the durational variations in each rendition is again suggestive of time being out of joint.

‘[G]one to earth (in british technicolour)’ is amongst the most haunted tracks on the album. Its title is highly suggestive: the notion of having gone to earth being deeply evocative of the act of burial often conceived as a return to an inorganic state (this is bolstered by the invocation of the old adage of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ within the press release) and yet a spectral presence (from beyond the grave) remains. Alongside the parenthetical portion of the title — in british technicolour — the oversaturated visuals of technicolour processing, a now outmoded technology similarly exerts its influence and evince a longing for a future now lost. The album concludes with a reprise of the opening track. Whilst the latter version begins similarly enough, the listener quickly encounters a degradation in fidelity and many of the other trademarks of an aural sphere stained by the spectral.

iii. ¿end of earth/end of history/end of temporal discipline?

Right. In a spot of bother with no coherent theory of the album to speak of. The spectral presence doth loom large, but time/space (mine) restrict further theorisation… The cogs are sqeakin’ and turnin’. Cutler… Time… Lyric poetry… hauntology… time (again). As suggested at the outset, perhaps one could experience Cutler’s the end (also ends) of (the) earth and variants as:
(1) A haunted work of the present era, c. 2021 (continuation thesis)
(2) A yearning for the past since history has putatively ended and there are no adequate cultural forms of the present (postmodernist/reactionary thesis) [4]
(3) A part of the same lineage as the haunted works of the earlier part of this century (in a more experimental vein, mind) and simply a symptom of what Walter Moser identifies in Spätzeit — the possession of an air of belatedness (tardy thesis) [5]
(4) A Foucauldian / Benjaminian mode of cultural production — it’s an genealogical excavation blasting earthe from the continuum of feckin’ history and the time out of joint isn’t merely a spectral temporality, but rather the creation of a revolutionary temporal order (Jetztzeit thesis).

Choose yr own adventure.

Amy Cutler and Co. have a winner on their hands. Headphones recommended. Foolhardy field recordists, countryside chanting connoisseurs, and fans of experimental electronics would be wise to pick up one of these nifty tapes sharpish. [NB. I do believe the label, Crow Versus Crow, has already sold out of tapes… they looked great, so no surprise. But no matter! Physical mediums is overrr! To the digital downloads! ] ‘

JSES 19/05

[1] Fisher, Mark. ‘What Is Hauntology?’ Film Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1, 2012, p. 16; Simon Reynolds, ‘Why Burial’s Untrue Is the Most Important Electronic Album of the Century So Far.’ Pitchfork, https://pitchfork.com/features/article/why-burials-untrue-is-the-most-important-electronic-album-of-the-century-so-far/. Accessed 19 May 2021; Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Routledge, 2006).

[2] Fisher, What Is Hauntology?’, p. 18.

*Emphasis on proto for myriad reasons, but most notably, I would argue that Chill Out holds a distinctly liminal place between the haunted and the postmodern. This tension is especially obvious in the titles of two tracks on the B-side of the album: ‘A Melody from a Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back’ — symptomatic the subjective experience of being haunted and ‘Into the Nineties and Beyond’, demonstrating the terrain of the future had not yet been conceded. Beyond the medium of the album itself, a sense of rave/situationist-flavoured optimism is also present in one an info sheet the group supplied to the music press with the heading ‘AMBIENT HOUSE – THE FACTS?’. In particular, the suggestions that ‘AMBIENT HOUSE HAS COME TO SAVE THE WORLD’ and ‘AMBIENT HOUSE CELEBRATES THE SOUNDS WE HAVE HEARD ALL OUR LIVES BUT NEVER LISTENED TO’ make this evident. Moreover, the album’s release predates both the early 2000s — the point from which, as Fisher claimed, ‘electronic music could no longer deliver sounds that were “futuristic”’ and the collapse of the Soviet Union (and thereto the kind of haunting that haunts hauntology with and after Derrida). There is also the question of whether or not the group’s project to burn a million quid represents an act of iconocide, against the ruling sign of the commodity (although one could compellingly argue it demonstrates a certain class position/privilege and/or is simply part of the cultural logic of postmodernism)… Chill Out and the KLF as a whole both warrant further analysis. For an excellent write up on Chill Out, I’d direct readers to Matt Anniss’ piece on Join the Future.

† This certainly raises metaphysical and ontological questions as to whether or not one can even posit the concept, much less the value of ‘guiltless’ in the absence of human strictures, thought, etc. But no mind, ’tis neither time nor place for such arcane quibbles.

[3] I’ve opted to use John Mowitt’s audit in lieu of the verb ‘hears’. See Mowitt, John, Sounds: The Ambient Humanities (University of California Press, 2015), p. 4 ; Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 5.

[4] Fisher, What Is Hauntology?’, p. 16; see also Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992); Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2005).

[5] Moser, Walter. “‘THE TIME IS OUT OF JOINT’: TEMPORAL DISORDERS IN THE LATE MODERN CONDITION.” Revista de Letras, vol. 43, no. 1, 2003, p. 17.

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