Friday, December 26, 2008

Aidan Baker and Tim Hecker - Fantasma Parastasie


The cover art of Aidan Baker and Tim Hecker's recent musical collaboration 'Fantasma Parastasie' shows a Phantasmagoria.

A Phantasmagoria was a magic lantern show, invented in France in the late 18th century. In these shows, magic lanterns projected frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images.

The Phantasmagoria took place on the threshold between science and superstition, between Enlightenment and Romanticism. They employed the technology of Enlightenment, and ostensibly had the purpose of enlightening the audience. Thus Philip Polidor, who first introduced the Phantasmagoria in Paris in 1793 (during the height of the Terror), introduced his spectacle as follows:

"I will not show you ghosts, because there are no such things; but I will produce before you enactments and images, which are imagined to be ghosts, in the dreams of the imagination or in the falsehoods of charlatans. I am neither priest nor magician. I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you." (sourced from this extremely interesting essay)
Phantasmagoria can be called "... an art of total illusion that also contained its own critique." (ibid). But even if Phantasmagoria were justified with appeals to rationalism, the subject matter was inspired by Gothic novels, which were very popular at the time. Étienne-Gaspard Robert, a professor of physics and the most famous creator of Phantasmagoria, created a full-fledged Gothic decor for his his first performance at the Pavillon de L’Echiquier in 1798:

The members of the public having been ushered into the most lugubrious of rooms, at the moment the spectacle is to begin, the lights are suddenly extinguished and one is plunged for an hour and a half into frightful and profound darkness; it’s the nature of the thing; one should not be able to make anything out in the imaginary region of the dead. In an instant, two turnings of a key lock the door: nothing could be more natural than one should be deprived of one’s liberty while seated in the tomb, or in the hereafter of Acheron, among shadows.” (sourced here)

Phantasmagoria were at once a product of the scientific rationalization of nature, and an aesthetic revolt against this rationalization. They were a liminal phenomenon: ambiguous, open, and indeterminate performances of light and darkness on the doorstep between Enlightenment and Romanticism, between the future as technological Telos and the future as Doom.


'Fantasma Parastasie' is a shortish (34 minutes) album which documents a collaboration between two Canadian musicians.

The first of these is Tim Hecker, who creates Minimal Techno under the Jetone monicker and glitchy Ambient under his own name. As Jetone, his work is obsessively precise; under his own name, his music has a drifting, billowing, blissed-out quality. In both cases, Hecker's music flaunts its technological, digital, inorganic character.

The second is Aidan Baker, a writer, poet and immensely prolific musician, who is best known for his Doom Metal under the Nadja moniker. Doom Metal is a genre which can be said to be one of the musical inheritors of the legacy of the Gothic novel: drug abuse, cemeteries, melancholia, superstition, Satanism, occultism, pessimism and amor fati are among the themes shared by Doom Metal and the Gothic novel.

So is the Phantasmagoria depicted on the cover art of 'Fantasma Parastasie' an apt metaphor for the album? Is 'Fantasma Parastasie' a Doom Metal album that is also a technological, rationalistic critique of Doom Metal? Does it present music which is an assemblage of technological know-how and of what we fear we might want to believe? Is it an album in which Doom Metal seduces glitchy Ambient to forget - even if only for a moment - its optimistic technological constructions and believe in Doom Metal's sombre pandemonium?


That is because Tim Hecker's Electronica and Aidan Baker's Doom Metal have been integrated rather too well, or rather: because Hecker's Electronica has canceled the Doom Metal content. Where in the Phantasmagoria the technological origin of the illusion was obfuscated, here Electronica's technology has elucidated Doom Metal's malevolent spirits out of existence. In fact, Hecker's music has swallowed up Doom Metal so completely that the two genres cannot attract and repulse each other anymore, they cannot intermingle, alternate, amalgamate, penetrate, receive, expand, converge, diverge, sympathize or antagonize any more. As a result, all ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy has dried up.


The term "fantasma" comes from the Greek phantasia (appearance, imagination), and was taken up in a more technical sense in psycho-analytic theory. Freud took phantasms to be disguises for infantile auto-erotic activity or for the memory of a traumatic event. In his analysis of the structure and function of phantasms, Freud gave particular importance "to the role of hearing: for the noise that impinges on the phantasm may not just be brute sound, but also might be the ‘familial noise’ (bruit familial) which carries the histories or legends or traditions of parents, grandparents and, indeed, the whole tribe. The noise, then, is both interruptive and interpellative and it is a critical component of the phantasm. ‘Phantasms are produced by an unconscious combination of things lived and things heard.’" (sourced here).

Parastasie or Parastasis is a medical term, which refers to a phenomenon familiar to those who watch the medical television drama House. It is a reciprocal relationship among causal mechanisms that can compensate for, or mask defects in, each other; for instance, a syndrome in which a hyperactive organ masks the deficiency of another organ.

Both the fantasma and parastasie are feverish cover-ups, disguises overripe with tension, maskings ready to burst.

Not so Tim Hecker and Aidan Baker's album: too consolidated, too consistent, 'Fantasma Parastasie' lacks grit and is ... polite.

1 comment:

Greg said...

I don't think this problem is a result of the collaboration as such - i think both Tim Hecker's and Baker's solo music to be 'too polite'. Noise-lite in the case of Hecker's glitchy harmonics or Doom-lite in the case of Baker's leaden drone.