I recently was interviewed about J G Ballard by Tim Noakes for Rough Trade’s new magazine, and the result got heavily edited. Here is the full unedited transcript.
What is your favourite novel of Ballard’s and why does it resonate with you?
– Hard question, but its probably The Drowned World. It was the first Ballard book I read. It was around 1995. I was coming down to London during the summer to go to Jungle raves. I didn’t really know London very well. It was a hot summer. It was very easy for me to fold the book i was reading into this humid city and alien, tropical sounding music I was listening to. Both the book and the music I was listening to seemed rivetted to some kind of Conradian trip into the heart of darkness.
In March, a film of his novel High Rise is being released. In it, social warfare breaks out with the upper classes in the penthouses waging war against the middle and lower classes for control of the building. To me it seems very prescient, with gentrification spreading through UK’s inner cities and poor communities being forced out due to rising living costs. Steel canyons dominate every capital in the world. If left unchecked, does living on top of people breed more violence and class division, or a greater sense of community?
– Im looking forward to High Rise a lot. In a way, the pre-run for it as a film was Snowpiercer, but instead of a tower block with a built in social hierarchy, its a train, and the rear of the train makes an attempt at revolution by storming forward, passing through the different levels of the social hierarchy. I found it interesting that just before they reach the front of the train, where the master/engineer resides, they find a decadent night club.
Anyway, I’m not really persuaded by the idea that high rise development has to be opposed to community life. All my favourite cities are in East Asia and are all super dense and high rise. I don’t think the logic of high rise development has to be seen as to the detriment of street life, community etc. Sometimes it can amplify it, the street becomes multiplied so its not just on the ground floor anymore, but on elevated walkways etc. Anna Greenspan, in her recent book Shanghai Future, is great at describing that tension between street life and high tech, high rise urbanism. Really, I don’t think there is enough high rises in London. There is a massive shortage of affordable housing, and relatively its a very low rise city. Very little of the new high rise developments seem to be social housing, but rather seem to be exactly the kind Ballard describes are liable to be populated by feral, bored middle classes in meltdown. The problem, of course, is who gets to live in the current wave of over priced luxury blocks that are going up, but I’m very much in favour of increasing urban density, especially if it doesn’t make property prices crazy and drive out residents who have been there for decades i.e. the current model for developing London.
Ballard loved the sound of machine guns, and your book Sonic Warfare explored the notion of sound as a weapon. Do you foresee a future where sonic weaponry is widely used by local police teams to keep situations like the citizen revolt in High Rise under control?
– Ballard’s short story The Sound Sweep was a big influence on my book, particularly 2 of his speculative conceits: the persistence of vibration, and the neuro-affects of inaudible sound (what I call unsound) The sonic world depicted in the story is one in which sounds do not dissipate as usual. Instead sonic artefacts take on a new physicality and permanence, persisting, cluttering up the city like actual refuse. There is even a sonic refuse truck with a device called a ‘sonovac’ (essentially a glorified sampler which removes instead of copying every sound it records) which hoovers up all the noise and detritus. So in a sense, its an environment in which past (or virtual) sounds (which usually fade to silence as they pass, unless they are recorded or remembered) are as real as actual sounds. Towards the end of the story, there is an ultrasound concert which is inaudible but the audience are receiving waves of aesthetic pleasure as if it was a standard audible concert. In the story, its almost as if, audible sound and music itself is treated as toxic waste, rubbish, a pollutant to the air and so an inaudible ultrasound concert is somehow was more refined, purer, sensation without audible stimulus. So these ideas of cleansing the concert hall/city of unwanted noises led me to speculate about acoustic techniques like phase cancellation that are used in noise cancellation headphones – what if they, or a similar device were used on a mass scale to silence areas of cities, or at least to mask certain sounds. Then I also came across an actual commercially available device called the Mosquito, which replicated the elitist sonophobia of Ballard’s ultrasound concert, but which was supposed to be inaudible to all except teenagers, who would find its high pitch whine irritating and would force them to move on from congregating outside commercial properties. I could certainly imagine these devices used to ‘cleanse’ the area around High Rise or being used in his more recent novels like Kingdom Come to acoustically harass ‘undesirables’ as a spectator sport.
Burial’s debut album was described as the soundtrack to The Drowned World. How have both of your views of London changed in the intervening years? Metaphorically is the city drowning?
– Yeah, that idea came from the press release I wrote for Burial’s first album. Not sure how much it had anything to do with Burial’s intentions to be honest. it just what the album sounded like to me with its infinite rain. It wasn’t really supposed to be a metaphor, but rather about real climate change. I think I’d just read something about how little the river Thames would have to rise to submerge most of central London, and this conjured up images of tube trains as submarines.
Why do you think your generation of producers latched onto Ballard’s outlook?
– In an year when optimistic utopianism is en vogue as a refuge from capitalism, his style of dystopian pessimism (realism) seems somewhat out of fashion, which probably makes it even more appealing. There are several Ballards, often separate, often at work at the same time. There is at least a brutalist one, a suburban one, an ecological one, a videodrome one, and probably more. A common thread is his depiction of the torque of abstract geometrical urbanism on the human psyche. I think many electronic musicians are inspired by the alienation of living with/in/around angular and geometric monoliths, whether they are grey concrete or glass and steel because its an architectural instantiation of the same processes of abstraction going on in their music.
Do you feel the most creatively inspired amongst industrial landscapes – if so, why?
– I find most alienating, artificial landscapes in which your insignificance as a human is reinforced, inspiring. These days, these are mostly post-industrial. By this point in the game, the idea of the industrial landscape as a muse for electronic music has become somewhat over saturated. Sure, it was the dereliction of the dying industrial age that inspired many musicians in the late 70s, 80s and 90s so on. But we are now living through the emergence of a whole new strata of technological civilisation and I think musicians and artist spend their time much more productively by engaging with the new situations that digital capitalism throws up in front of us everyday.