The mind sometimes boggles at the number of different genres that crowd the contemporary music landscape. From the macro and its subsets (rock, pop, jazz, blues, stadium rock, bubblegum pop, free jazz, acoustic blues, etc.) to the micro (experimental, drone, sludge, noise, improvisational, ambient, etc.), there are so many out there that only the most obsessive of obsessive music nerds can identify them all, let alone appreciate any wonders that might lie in wait.
You can imagine my delight, then, when There turned up in my inbox, for the music within belongs to a micro-genre previously unknown to me: hauntology. Originally a philosophical theory outlined by Jaques Derrida, hauntology has become something of a buzzword for those who see the modern world as a postmodern, ahistorical, atemporal, borderless funfare/nightmare. In a musical sense, it is often applied to those artists whose works move beyond postmodernist pastiche (Beck, The Flaming Lips, Balkan Beat Box, Ween, etc.), and instead combine samples and recreations of “historical” sound; cultural, indigenous and world-music tropes; experimental, drone, ambient and noise influences; music-concrete flourishes; and music library and soundtrack-style construction.
The end result is “music” that lacks the slightest trace of the “zaniness” that sometimes marks the aforementioned postmodern pastiche practitioners. Instead, hauntological music tends to fuse its disparate elements into highly experimental soundscapes that use echoes, reflections and ghosts of the (aural) past to both make audible our fears and anxieties regarding the present, and to conjure up bleak futures that resemble imaginary versions of their historical forebears.
Pouya Ehsaei’s There does this remarkably well, conjuring up an aural representation of an almost funhouse-mirror reflection of both contemporary and historical Iran.
Divided into five “movements” simply entitled ‘There #1’, ‘There #2’ and so on, There is at heart a true “journey” record, with each track informing the next and the effect of the whole only becoming apparent once ‘There #6,7’ has reached its abrasive and bombastic conclusion. Rather than break each track down into its component parts, it is perhaps more appropriate to contemplate the piece as a whole and to illuminate what I believe are some of the ways in which Ehsaei has crafted such a moving and haunting piece of work. The best example of this is arguably in his use of traditional Iranian instruments as the framework for his hauntological soundscapes, for this instrumentation is treated, processed and effected almost beyond recognition.
The eerie drone that is probably a bowed Kamanche or plucked Tanbur also resembles the shriek of a jet in flight, the dull grind of a tank in the street, the monotonous pounding of the ocean, the loneliness of the desert wind; the ringing chime that might be a Chalab or a Boshghabak also resembles an air-raid siren, a call to prayer; the steady beat that could be a Tonbak or a Mohre or a Batare also resembles the pounding feet of people marching, the background noise of construction and reconstruction.
The effect of this technique is a kind of recognition/unrecognition, whereby sounds that are reminiscent of a time(s) and a place(s) are simultaneously both themselves and other, familiar and alien, real and false, concrete and abstract. When it is also combined with Ehsaei’s use of heavily treated samples, field recordings and found-sounds of Iranian history and life, as well as his use of synthetic and artificial tones and textures, the effect is devastating: an aural picture of an imaginary land that cannot shake its ties to the real.