The Cultural Sounds of Apocalypse
Sounds of Apocalypse, Part Two
“The Walls of Jericho Fall Down” by Gustave Doré
This is Part Two of contributor Dominik Irtenkauf’s four-part essay “Sounds of Apocalypse.” Before reading it you may want to read Part One, “Roar of Creation and Destruction,” in which Dominik lays the explanatory groundwork for the theme he is pursuing.
The word “apocalypse” derives from the Ancient Greek language and originally meant “the unveiling of secrets.” But since the canonical Christian document by St. John refers to this revealing as the overture to the end of the world as we know it, the idea of the apocalypse became colloquially linked to this very idea: the end of the world. Human beings are able to predict events to a certain degree, and even more, they can imagine worlds and states they haven’t experienced before. However, the mash-up network of fiction and truth, real experiences and second-hand representations (either in personal experience, films, or books), doesn’t really entail different levels of fear, because fear erodes any distinguishable borders. It’s the sheer will to survive which remains intact.
Augmenting this with a term from Georges Bataille, we see that we can almost reach the reality of imaginary events by means of “inner experience”:
I call experience a voyage to the end of the possible of man. Anyone may not embark on this voyage but if he does embark on it, this supposes the negation of the authorities, the existing values which limit the possible. By the virtue of the fact that it is negation of other values, other authorities, experience, having a positive existence, becomes itself value and authority. (Bataille, p. 7)
So can we experience the apocalypse as living beings simply by imagination? The cultural products of the apocalypse meme tell us that it is very possible.
“Science fiction is still quite occupied with utopias and dystopias, but how many authors have speculated about the possible sound of extermination, the final sound in the cosmos?”
Adam Parfrey, publisher of the ominously named Feral House Books, has released two volumes titled Apocalypse Culture, yet you won’t find any actual ponderings over the sounds of the apocalypse in there. Maybe this aspect of the subject is still not widely acknowledged. When it comes to the Final Call, people may be more interested in picturing the possible visual effects or in going through the narrative traditions that describe the world’s end. But when the apocalyptic bell chimes, the final hour has arrived, and there is no more thought.
Yet we can experience the sound of apocalypse in short auditory glimpses before the actual annihilation of all lives. J. G. Ballard, for instance, pictured the sensual experience of a universal catastrophe in several of his novels. One of the most impressive examples occurs in his 1973 novel Crash, which delves deeply into a character’s morbid fascination, and in fact fetish, with causing automobile accidents so that human flesh can merge with cold stainless steel. The subject is carambolage, which is very amenable to acoustic scenarios. And Ballard does allow some acoustic associations in the book. But sadly, he avoids detailed description of sonic experiences, and dedicates much more description to the sense of sight. “Pinned to the walls and lying on the benches among the enamel pails,” he writes, “were hundreds of photographs. The floor around the enlarger was littered with half-plate prints, developed and cast aside once they had yielded their images” (Ballard, p. 76). And also: “I stared at the photographs in the harsh light. Without thinking, I visualized a series of imaginary pictures I might take of her” (p. 79).
Science fiction is still quite occupied with utopias, and even more with dystopias, as several monographs have already shown (cf. Future West by William H. Katerberg and the exhaustive reading list at sciencefictional.net/bibliography), but how many authors have speculated about the possible sound of extermination, the final sound in the cosmos?
“Welcome to the age of industrial noise pollution. How can a person possibly focus on the essential things in personal evolution? By causing a little personal apocalypse, perhaps? By evoking a personal storm’s deluge and having all the masses be swept away?”
Most classically educated citizens will probably identify Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the appropriate overture to overkill, but let me introduce another perspective. There is a music project called Gnaw Their Tongues. The type of music they compose can be easily inferred from their very name. They released a digital album titled “Eschatological Scatology” in 2012. Whereas “all golden turns to shit” (as another black metal combo from Finland — Impaled Nazarene — once put it), Gnaw Their Tongues captures the essence of winding up in shit, as you can verify for yourself if you look up a sample of their album online. Maurice “Mories” De Jong, the man behind Gnaw Their Tongues, describes himself as demon channeler, and since 1988 he has played many different instruments, synthesized virtually infinite types of noise, and screamed in a black metal-ish voice over beds of music that have a brutal impact on their listeners.
Gnaw Their Tongues, The Divine Antithesis (2011)
Noise is not easily comprehended, either acoustically or intellectually. This reminds me of lessons in physics at school, when my teacher chalked massive mathematical formulae onto the board. Let me rest at the assumption that the entropic possibility of transporting a complex message is rather small if there is much noise in the transferring channel(s). Hillel Schwartz wrote a whole book on our apprehension of noise in which he postulated the following:
Noise is what makes perfect repeatability humanly impossible and, in information theory, inhumanly problematic. But as a sound “in-between,” noise also makes significance possible and, like nineteenth-century applause that interrupted a performance in hot pursuit of encores, the role of noise in information theory is as ambivalent as that of redundancy, which at once ensures reception and reduces significance. (Schwartz, p. 25)
In view of all the masses of music being published on a daily basis, there is surely an entropy we as consumers have to cope with. Voices and vibrations are everywhere around us. Welcome to the age of industrial noise pollution. Consider, for instance, a Sunday in July when a culturally open-minded guy tries to sort out his fantasies and ideas and projects. He might visit some websites, browse through some books, and then be left confused. Where did all these noises come from? How can a person possibly focus on the essential things in personal evolution? By causing a little personal apocalypse, perhaps? By evoking a personal storm’s deluge and having all the masses be swept away?
Maybe so, yet what sound actually accompanies this personal apocalypse? Most likely, it relates to personal predilections. If you belong to a scene that praises decay and corruption as a promising perspective on future, then you might just welcome the apocalypse with aggressive and loud music.
Back in the 1980s, the peace movement and anti-Pershing protests came up, but in stark contrast to encouraging a sense of optimism against the warmongers, some musicians and writers advanced the idea that the best solution for humankind would be to be shut everything down by ushering in a (nuclear) apocalypse.
The German author Ulrich Horstmann wrote a whole treatise that pursued this subject under the title Das Untier (roughly translated into English as “The Beast” and referring to the human organism), which was later continued — without direct acknowledgement — by the American horror writer Thomas Ligotti in his book The Conspiracy against the Human Race. [EDITOR’S NOTE: When asked by an interviewer in 2010 about the similarities between Horstmann’s ideas and some of his own, Ligotti said he was unfamiliar with Horstmann’s work.] According to the back cover of Horstmann’s book, his life ended in 2004. Strangely enough, he published a book about his supposed Hölderlin-like (or Rimbaud- or Beckett-like) retirement after his alleged death. Horstmann apparently staged his personal apocalypse and disappeared from the public scene.
In The Conspiracy against the Human Race, Ligotti basically advances along the same track laid down by Horstmann by trying to understand how to keep on living despite feeling a great aversion to life itself.
There is a sound project associated with Ligotti’s texts. The British neo-folk group Current93 collaborated with Ligotti to release the 1997 album In a Foreign Town, In A Foreign Land, which contains the line (which is quoted from Ligotti’s story “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing” in his companion book of the same title), “I heard the sound of something that I could not identify.” The music is sombre and follows a constant drone rather than exemplifying a large spectrum of sonic apocalypse. Seven minutes into the track, brass instruments set in — perhaps reminiscent of the trumpets blaring to tear down the city walls in the biblical story of the fall of Jericho. Current93 have described their music as “apocalyptic folk,” and the definition that has spread and stuck to other bands on their label World Serpent, and also to other musicians working with a similar sound, aesthetic, and topical focus (cf. Andreas Diesel’s and Dieter Gerten’s Looking for Europe).
Examples could be multiplied. Musicians who write songs about the end of the world are legion, especially among the extreme metal, industrial, and noise genres. Analyzing the abundance of apocalypse-related descriptions and stories in the lyrics of these songs would require a complete book of its own, a task that is unworkable and far afield for a short essay like this one that wants to deal more with sounds than with words.
“We can experience the sound of apocalypse in short auditory glimpses before the actual annihilation of all lives.”
Of course it is easy to think that an appropriate cosmic Finale should entail not only a series of disasters but a series of disastrous sounds. But calling a given sound “disastrous” is strongly dependent on the subject’s individual taste and perceptions. Black metal or hard techno sound like a disaster to some ears, but devout followers of those genres might feel miserable and threatened by evil forces while listening to Rihanna’s latest single. What if a sardonic God would decide to punish all of those blasphemous black metal fans and send down very loud R & B or commercial House music along with earthquakes, famines and false prophets? Natural sounds can become cultural.
Filmmakers did not really ask after the sonic implications of the predicted end of the world in December 2012, but apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic times are not at all a new theme in the movie industry anyway. Many sci-fi classics such as the Mad Max trilogy present a vision of life on earth after cataclysmic events. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968 and loosely inspired by Richard Matheson’s dystopian and post-apocalyptic vampire novel I Am Legend, became the prototype for the now-iconic idea of a zombie apocalypse. However, such stories almost always focus on just one “last man” or few “last men” who continue standing after a human-caused catastrophe such as a global war or a pandemic. The plot of Matheson’s novel revolves mostly around the daily difficulties and emotions of a post-apocalyptic Robinson Crusoe living in a desolated and unfriendly — yet still terrestrial and partially recognizable — environment. Stanley Kubrick’s monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps one of the few authentic hints of a world-without-us to be found in all of cinema history. Even more, the soundtrack by György Ligeti contributed to the otherworldly alienation that this monolith seemed to embody. Yet the film of life continues, and as we know — as always — mankind will find new tools to survive.
Movies that visualize the last few days of our earth rely, of course, on a lot of sound effects, but these almost never have a detectable leading function, and are instead meant as comments on the plot and on the images.
What about the apocalypse on a larger scale, when there is no more story of human life to tell?
According to the Viennese astronomer Dr. Stefan Uttenthaler, there is no imminent cosmic danger. Our sun will grow to a Red Giant not sooner than one billion years from now. Things will then become uncomfortably hot on our planet. Mercury and Venus will probably be consumed by the sun’s new mass, and the sun itself will implode after another four billion years to become a so-called White Dwarf.
In space there is no atmosphere, and thus no noise, or rather no possibility to acknowledge any noise. It’s a funny thing that TV series like Star Trek invented specific sounds for actions in outer space, such as the speeding up of a spaceship engine or the detonation of a planet. Usually, we associate explosions and big bangs with very loud noises. Can we imagine a sun expanding to a Red Giant without any noise?
Dr. Uttenthaler can again assist us: there are sounds in outer space, but they are far too faint for human ears. By shifting them to other frequencies we can finally witness them, or at least a modified version of them. When turning from a Red Giant to a White Dwarf, the star peels off its coating, so to speak, until only the hot core remains. This process is accompanied by quite regular pulsations which could be transformed into audible sounds.
Yet human imagination is more likely to connect the apocalypse with the crumbling of man-made monuments — which will of course be accompanied by remarkable noise.
Destructive activities like war are expected to come with loud and violent sounds, whereas harmony and peace are associated with silence or a moderate climate of sound. A heavy argument with one’s partner could be shocking enough — including as a sonic experience — to effect a private Götterdämmerung.
Apocalypse is, in the end, a cultural phenomenon. You might blunder the whole project by simply not participating in the hysteria.
SOURCES AND REFERENCES
Ballard, J. G. Crash. 1973. London: Fourth Estate, 2011.
Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience. 1954. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988.
Diesel, Andreas and Dieter Gerten. Looking for Europe: The History Of Neofolk. Zeltingen: Prophecy, 2013.
Katerberg, William H. Future West: Utopia and Apocalypse in Frontier Science Fiction. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2008.
Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2010.
Parfrey, Adam, ed. Apocalypse Culture. 1987. Revised and expanded edition, 2 vols. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 1990.
Schwartz, Hillel. Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books, 2011.
“The Walls of Jericho Fall Down” by Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Monolith image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Posted on March 26, 2014, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy, Society & Culture and tagged apocalypse watch, Books, movies, noise, sounds of apocalypse. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.