‘Negative Acoustic Space’: Ballardian Sound Art

Ballardian Muxtape>

Originally published in the catalogue for the exhibition ‘J.G. Ballard, Autopsy of the New Millennium’, held at the CCCB, Barcelona, Spain, October 2008. The piece accompanied the soundtrack of Ballardian music, which I curated for the occasion.

Curated by Simon Sellars

J.G. Ballard says he has a ‘tin ear’: that he has no taste for music, barely a feel for it, borne out by his Desert Island Disc selection for BBC radio which included ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’. There’s no music in his writing either, he insists – ‘I don’t know why. It’s just some gene that skipped me.’ He says with a Futurist flourish that ‘the most beautiful music in the world is the sound of machine guns’. Yet his work has influenced a whole range of musicians. In the 80s he was consistently name-checked by influential postpunk and industrial artists: Ian Curtis, John Foxx, Steve Severin, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK. The word ‘Ballardian’ became shorthand for speed and violence, sex and death, but as with The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, the postpunk Ballard bibles, the ultimate aim was to transcend the post-industrial murk, not wallow in the malaise.

Then in the 1990s a curious strain of Ballardian world music began to emerge (notably from Finnish band Mo Boma, who explored Ballardian themes across a three-album cycle). This was lush, steamy and otherworldly, but not in the realm of clichéd exotica common to the genre, rather in the sense of vague unease, borderzones of the mind, the imagination rather than the third world as the last nature reserve. The aesthetic was wholly appropriate to the cycle of novels Ballard was writing – The Unlimited Dream Company, The Day of Creation, Rushing to Paradise – degraded, lysergic visions of mythical lands rusting and undermining the structural integrity of the urban West.

In recent times, Ballard’s influence on music seems to have waned although there is convergence with a cadre of sound artists who have magnified and critiqued the sonic footprint of the world’s cities and conurbations. Interact with any aspect of the Big City today, virtual or actual, and you will be enveloped with noise. When you pick up the handle of a petrol pump, an ad jingle plays. When you prowl the supermarket aisles, blaring adult rock replaces the sedative Muzak of yore. When you click on MySpace, smileys with artificial intelligence shout at you and autoplay music sutures the gaps. When you are put on hold for customer service, recorded voices puncture your calm inner space at regular intervals. In Ballard’s short story, ‘The Sound Sweep’ (1960), he warns of the virtual reality of artificially generated, negative acoustic space. Sixteen years later, in the novella ‘The Ultimate City’, he posits the chaotic sounds of the city as a beacon of vitality, an invigorating counterpoint to the enervating utopianism of hysterical eco-activists.

So, while it would appear to be true that there is no music in Ballard, there certainly is sound. Acoustic space is the last frontier to be colonised by late capitalism and Ballard records the process, but as always in his work, it can be as alienating or as invigorating as you care to make it.

– Simon Sellars, ballardian.com, 2008.

More information: http://www.ballardian.com/ballardian-music-mike-ryan-interview


‘Thirteen to Centaurus: Main Titles’ – Norman Kay (1964)
From the BBC TV adaptation of the Ballard short story.

‘Hello?’ – J.G. Ballard (2006 )
Taken from ‘Rattling Other People’s Cages’, Simon Sellars’s 2006 interview with Ballard.

‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ – Val Rosen (1932)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection, a sinister choice in light of the evil mechanical bears in Kingdom Come.

‘Affirmative Dystopias’ – J.G. Ballard (2006)
Taken from ‘Rattling Other People’s Cages’, Simon Sellars’s interview with Ballard. Soundscape by Melanie Chilianis.

‘Cairo’ – The Future (1977)
Contains a spoken-word passage from The Atrocity Exhibition’s ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’:

‘This Venus of the dunes, virgin of the time-slopes, rose above Tallis into the meridian sky. The porous sand, reminiscent of the eroded walls of the apartment, and of the dead film star with her breasts of carved pumice and thighs of ash, diffused along its crests into the wind’.

‘I Want to Be A Machine’ – Ultravox! (1977)
Lyrics influenced by Ballard.

‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ – David Bowie (1977)
Mines the same ambivalent man-machine aesthetic as Ballard.

‘Warm Leatherette’ – The Normal (1978)
Lyrics based on Crash.

‘High Rise’ – Hawkwind (1979)
Lyrics based on High-Rise and the Ballard short, ‘The Man on the 99th Floor’.

‘Plaza’ – John Foxx (1980)
Lyrics influenced by Ballard.

‘Atrocity Exhibition’ – Joy Division (1980)
Title lifted from The Atrocity Exhibition.

‘The Him’ – New Order (1981)
Title taken from a passage in ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

‘Let’s Do It’ – Noel Coward (1955)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. According to David Pringle, this choice ‘betrays a certain leaning towards clever lyrics’ but maybe Ballard just likes Coward’s image of machines having sex.

‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – Antonio Carlos Jobim (1962)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. This choice represents JGB’s attraction to ‘sizzling sex’, according to Pringle.

‘The Dead Astronaut’ (excerpt) – Vanishing Point (1988)
Taken from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s series of Ballard radio plays.

‘The Final Strand’ – Michael Briel (1993)
From the album Crash: A Tribute to James Graham Ballard. According to Briel, it’s based on the JGB short, ‘The Final Strand’, which, he says, ‘touched me: a man, living – or better: dying – alone on an island used as a nuclear testing ground, is visited by visions of his family. *Very* sad’. The story Briel is referring to is ‘The Terminal Beach’ – Ballard’s title was lost in translation (Briel is German).

‘Golden Skans’ – Klaxons (2006)
Lyric inspired by Ballard’s ‘Myths of the Near Future’.

‘Mausoleum’ – Manic Street Preachers (1994)
Contains a sample from a Ballard interview: ‘I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and then force it to look in the mirror.’

‘Me and J.G. Ballard’ – Dan Melchior (2002)
Shepperton resident Dan Melchior describes seeing Ballard in the supermarket, but they never actually meet.

‘Dr Penrose Has the Solution’ – Super-Cannes (2004)
This band is named after Ballard’s Super-Cannes, and the song after a character in the book.

‘Home: End Titles’ – Andrew Phillips (2003)
Soundtrack from the BBC TV adaptation of the Ballard short story, ‘The Enormous Space’.

‘Low-Flying Aircraft: Main Titles’ – Johan Zachrisson (2002)
From the Solveig Nordlund film adaptation of the Ballard short story.

‘The Pheasant Hunt’ – John Williams (1987)
From the soundtrack to Spielberg’s film of Empire of the Sun.

‘Superchannel’ – Janek Schaefer (2002)
Inspired by Concrete Island, plus it’s musique concrete – get it?

‘Primal Image’ (excerpt) – Alan Lamb (1988)
Sounds produced entirely by wind through telegraph wires picked up by contact mics, with no processing or effects involved except for minor EQ. It is reminiscent of Ballard’s ‘The Sound Sweep’ and other early JGB shorts in which urban sound is trapped and magnified. A sample from this (or something very similar to it) is featured on the soundtrack to Jonathan Weiss’s film of The Atrocity Exhibition.

‘The Swedish Rhapsody’ – Unknown (1997)
A recording of a ‘numbers station’ on short-wave radio. With their origin and purpose unknown, numbers stations are the audio equivalent of Ballard’s ‘invisible literature’. The idea of recording numbers stations, of trapping and recording arcane transmissions, is also reminiscent of T- building his strange radio receiver in Atrocity so he can tune in to pirate radio and ‘the time-music of the quasars’.

‘Don’t Fence Me In’ – Bing Crosby (1944)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. Again, David Pringle reckons this choice betrays JGB’s ‘leaning towards clever lyrics’.

‘The Marriage of Figaro (Highlights): Act IV Scene 11: Finale’ – Hungarian State Opera Orchestra (1786)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. The echoes of opera in ‘The Sound Sweep’ are inescapable. David Pringle muses: ‘The influence of Ballard working in Covent Garden flower market, outside the opera house, perhaps?’

‘Pace E Gioia Sia Con Voi (from the Barber of Seville)’ – Lang, Maloy, Modenas, Stilke, w/ Hamburg Radio Symphony Orch (1886)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. The opera references apply here, also.

‘Nested’ – Coti K (1993)
From the album Crash: A Tribute to James Graham Ballard.

‘More Songs About Factories: Part 4 (Itchy)’ – Camilla Hannan (2005)
Composed entirely of factory sounds, recorded in a similar manner to the Alan Lamb piece and freighted with the same Ballardian allusions.

‘Crash!’ – composer unknown; probably library sounds from the BBC audio archives (1971)
A montage stitched together by Simon Sellars of ambient sounds and music from the soundtrack to the Harley Cokliss short film, ‘Crash!’, which stars Ballard. Parts of this montage sound remarkably similar to the Alan Lamb and Camilla Hannan pieces.

‘World War III As a Conceptual Act: The Atrocity Exhibition Main Titles’ – J.G. Thirlwell, aka Foetus (2001)
From the soundtrack to Jonathan Weiss’s film of Ballard’s book.

‘Road Research Laboratory’ – Howard Shore (1996)
From the soundtrack to David Cronenberg’s film of Crash.

‘Wind from Nowhere’ – Uzect Plaush (1994)
Patterned after Ballard’s first, disowned novel, a rare inspiration to say the least!

‘The Kindness of Women’ – Mo Boma (1994)
Inspired by the Ballard novel.

‘Matinkaari Bridge, Helsinki, Finland’ – Jodi Rose (2004)
Composed entirely of sounds made by the Matinkaari Bridge in Finland as it bends under the load of traffic, twisting and turning due to heat and cold. Recorded in a similar fashion as the Alan Lamb and Camilla Hannan pieces, with the same sonic/conceptual allusions to Ballard’s work.

‘Forgive’ – Burial (2006)
For better or worse, the music of Burial has been branded ‘Ballardian’ by all and sundry. But surely Ballard is not as downbeat as this.

‘Track 12 (The Kiss)’ – Cousin Silas (2006)
Inspired by the Ballard short story.

‘Lime’ – kode9 (2006)
kode9 is Steve Goodman, a lecturer and theorist who has written on what he terms Ballard’s ‘sonic fiction’, including ‘The Sound Sweep’. The urban influence of Ballard’s music unavoidably seeps into the music.

‘Falling in Love Again’ – Marlene Dietrich (1964)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. Marlene’s frigid yet sexy film persona is surely very close to JGB’s cold and impenetrable women characters.

‘Put the Blame on Mame’ – Rita Hayworth (1946)
From Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection. More ‘sizzling sex’, says Pringle.

‘The Ballad of J.G. Ballard’ – Kevin Mahoney (2006)
Mahoney’s self-styled ‘iconoclastic tribute’ to Ballard.