The sound of the end of the world: A brief guide to drone music.
A few months ago, I was given a private tour of the SpaceX facilities in Hawthorne, California. The whole space was fascinating, from the cavernous hangar where rockets capable of repeatable soft landings are being constructed, to relatively smaller spaces where dozens of employees solder tiny parts, to the retro-themed café where workers enjoy all-you-can-eat vegan gnocchi or sauerkraut or other fare for a flat fee of $5. The sight that will stay with me well into the future is, I suspect, a mural triptych that is hanging near the elevators, on the second floor. The left-most panel shows a planet similar to Earth as seen from space, with green continents flecked with brown mountain ranges, and enfolded amid blue oceans. The only telltale indication that this is not Earth is the geography of the land- and water-masses, which in no way resemble the continents familiar to us. The middle panel shows the same planet, but with less green and blue, and far more brown. Continents are recognizably similar to those in the left panel, but enlarged; oceans have shrunk and retreated, but still persist in truncated form. The third panel shows this same planet, but the oceans have vanished, and the two polar caps are covered in white, presumably with snow.
Before I saw this triptych, my tour guide had finished explaining that one of Elon Musks's goals is to "terraform", or engineer a new atmosphere and oceans that will make the planet habitable for terrestrial life. Transporting a few colonists is only the beginning; Musk aims to transform Mars into a new Earth, a sanctuary to which humanity can flee as it persists in destroying its current home. With that mandate in mind, looking at the triptych was a vertiginous experience, for if read from left to right, its implied chronology was all wrong. Musks dreams of turning arid Mars into a garden of Eden, but the mural suggested a retrograde version of the metamorphosis. One of my companions speculated that the triptych was in fact depicting Mars' past, its transformation from an aqueous world to its present cold and dry state. Another among us said that we simply needed to read the triptych "backward", from right to left, to understand the terraforming message. My thoughts of SpaceX and its future gambits will thus return to this dizziness, the confusion between past and present and future, and above all, the inability to pinpoint when the end of a world occurs.
Images of the end of the world, however we might define that end, are rampant in today's art and music. Because of this ubiquity, we can overlook one formal aspect held in common by much apocalyptically-themed art: its eliciting of vertigo. As Timothy Morton has noted, "the end of the world" has already occurred because "world" means a series of ideas about what life should and should not be. Tim Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 107-8. We can thus feel disoriented when contemplating apocalyptic art, asking when this end supposedly has taken or will take place, and what if anything remained or will remain after that end. I experience such disorientation when listening to much contemporary electronic music. To choose just one relevant subgenre, synthesizer drone, let's take Popol Vuh's soundtrack for Werner Herzog's 1972 film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Its most recognizable theme sets sustained, chorale-like drones to images of Klaus Kinski's conquistador as he descends, godlike, from a mist-shrouded mountain. When Popol Vuh's music was first released, it was easy to associate its particular sounds – synthesizers that sounded like choral church music - with the film, itself a modern, New German Cinema-take on the genre of historical drama. Today, there is a great deal of synthesizer drone that has been inspired by Popol Vuh's Aguirre album, from the Canadian group Secret Pyramid's foggy ostinato "A Descent" (2013) to Los Angeles-based M. Geddes Gengras' enigma, "Ishi" (2014). What used to betoken historical disaster in Popol Vuh's music has since become a common way to evoke our own impending doom: the mournful end of spirituality as Secret Pyramid conceives of it, or a modern reflection on the true story of Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe of California. This vertiginous music obfuscates when the end will take place, and what will come after it. Synthesizers are already a five-decade-old means of invoking "the future", but that future is now old by our standards.
Some of the disorientation that I perceived at SpaceX and that I hear in Popol Vuh is present in the Centro Pecci's current exhibit. The featured works were chosen in relation to the theme, "The End of the World", and as Fabio Cavallucci's introductory essay states, our current end-time has the peculiar quality that "we seem to not be able to understand what is happening around us". In the absence of certain knowledge, a few coping mechanisms kick in. In works by Cai Guo-Qiang and Hiroshi Sugimoto, the focus has shifted away from humanity toward non-human documentation. This first approach lets it be known that what is ending is any semblance of human-centered world, but it is unclear whether this is present, past, or future. A secondary tendency focuses on the topography and geography of the end, from Thomas Hirschhorn's hoarder's paradise to Qiu Zhijie's mythical genealogies and Henrique Oliveira's subterranean, anonymous spaces. "The end of the world", as treated in this exhibit, is an epistemological cipher, something whose boundaries are only vaguely delineated, and whose content is opaque.