" Ballardian Soundbites "
Kevin Wienke reveals a personal Top 20 references to sound in his work
Ballard rather famously maintained the position that music was not important to him, yet it often served such a vital purpose in his fiction. There is ample evidence that he had a deep appreciation for beautiful or even disturbing sounds, both in his writing and extensive interviews. But, as with most of his obsessions (and I would call music, or ‘sound’ if you prefer, an obsession of his), he was more interested in the function it plays in society and its affect on an individual’s mind or behavior. I’ve always felt that Ballard used sound as a tool for explaining the psychological state of his characters. Often it signaled change in the character’s surroundings- good or bad- psychological or physical. Rarely did Ballard use “music” as it is commonly thought of (Vivaldi, Green Day, Miles Davis, etc.). He used sound, perhaps more in a way that people reading from this website might appreciate.
Sonic sculpture was now nearing the apogee of its abstract phase; twelve-tone blips and zooms were all that most statues emitted. No purely representational sound…with a Mozart rondo or (better) a Webern quartet, had been built for ten years.
‘I’ve a tin ear, I’m afraid. I’ve never bought a single record, cassette, CD or whatever. I don’t own a record player of any kind…It’s a big defect, I admit. If my girlfriend’s playing Mozart or Serge Gainsbourg’s lovely songs, I enjoy them tremendously. But on my own I’ve never felt the need- I don’t know why. It’s just some gene that skipped me.’
High above, he could hear the spray singing as it cut through the coigns of the cliff’s edge, the deep base of the breakers overlayed by the treble of the keening air. Carried by the music, Mason climbed the flank of the headland, a thousand reflections of the moon in the breaking sea.
At last, late that afternoon, when the deepening ruby light of dusk settled through the forest, Sanders entered a small clearing where the deep sounds of an organ reverberated among the trees.
With a deep metallic sigh, the burning catafalque of the dead astronaut soared overhead, a cascade of vaporising metal poured from its hull, filling the sky with incandescent light. As Bridgman shielded his eyes, it suddenly erupted in tremendous explosion of detonating sand. A huge curtain of white dust lifted into the air and fell slowly to the ground. The sounds of the impact rolled against the hotel, mounting in a sustained crescendo that drummed against the windows. A series of smaller explosions flared up like opalescent fountains.
‘I’m intrigued by the way some background music is surprisingly aggressive, especially that played on consumer complaint phone lines and banks, airplanes and phone companies themselves, with strident non-rhythmic and arms-length sequences that are definitely not user-friendly.’
He played with a battery-powered tape recorder which had been mixed up with the child’s toys.
The earliest ultrasonic recordings met with resistance, even ridicule. Radio programmes consisting of nothing but silence interrupted at half-hour intervals by commercial breaks seemed absurd. But gradually the public discovered that the silence was golden, that after leaving the radio switched to an ultrasonic channel for an hour or so a pleasant atmosphere of rhythm and melody seemed to generate itself spontaneously around them. When an announcer suddenly stated that an ultrasonic version of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique has just been played the listener identified the real source.
Amplified 100,000 times animal cell division sounds like a lot of girders and steel sheets being ripped apart- how did you put it?- a car smash in slow motion. On the other hand, plant cell division is an electronic poem, all soft chords and bubbling tones. Now there you have a perfect illustration of how microsonics can reveal the distinction between the animal and plant kingdoms.
The final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development- the short-playing record, spinning at 900 rpm, which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes… One 30-second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact.
‘At an outdoor festival somewhere near Brighton, I was doing a reading, and so was William Burroughs. When I arrived, the Hell’s Angels security guards said to me, “Dad, you’re in the wrong place.”’
He listened to the silence that filled the entrance hall, and then spoke briefly into the microphone passed to him by a marshal. His magnified voice in its motorway accent boomed over the heads of the police and soldiers outside the dome. ‘The metero-Centre is secure…Withdraw all army units…Repeat, the Metro-Centre is secure…We have hostages…Repeat, we have hostages…’ The sounds echoed through the mall, drumming against the roof.
‘Popular icons monitor the changes in the cultural landscape and the changes in popular culture far more effectively than any politician. Music is the carrier wave and on it modulated all this fascinating stuff- what I call the real news.’
Pirate Radio. There were a number of secret transmissions to which Travis listened: (1) medullary: images of dunes and craters, pools of ash that contained the terraced faces of Freud, Eatherly, and Garbo; (2) thoracic: the rusting shells of U-boats beached in the cove at Tsingtao, near the ruined German forts where the Chinese guides smeared bloody handprints on the crimson walls; (3) sacral: V.J.-Day, the bodies of Japanese troops in the paddy fields at night.
A Silent Tableau. Soundlessly the Sikorsky circles the dunes, its fans driving the fine sand down the slopes…After a pause, during which he scrutinized Tallis closely, the psychiatrist began to speak. His mouth worked silently, eyes fixed on Tallis. He stopped and began again with an effort, lips and jaw moving in exaggerated spasms as if he were trying to extricate some gum-like residue from his teeth. After several intervals, when he had failed to make a single audible sound, he turned and went back to the helicopter. Without any noise it took off into the sky.
Non-Communicating Dialogue. …She looked up from her nail file. The half-hearted inflection of irony in her voice no longer irritated him…If anything, her voice formed a module with the perspectives of wall and ceiling as postural as the design on a detergent pack.…
Last Summer. …At the conclusion of the film he would go out into the crowded streets.
U.H.F. ‘Considerable interference has been noted with TV reception over a wide area over the past three weeks,’ Kirby explained, pointing to the map. ‘This has principally taken the form of modifications to the plot lines and narrative sequences of a number of family serials. Mobile detection vans have been unable to identify the source, but we may conclude that his central nervous system is acting as a powerful transmitter.’
I’m an old man now and I prefer silence.
Below is one of William S. Burroughs’ most powerful essays, “The Electronic Revolution” from 1970. I believe it to be an intense influence on Ballard’s work in the early 1970s and again in the 2000s.