bellona calling: the musicality of samuel delany's "dhalgren"
originally printed in HiS Voice magazine ("fictional music" special), Prague, 2007
As un-hip is this may be, I might as well just admit it: much of my formative interest in music was sparked not by actually hearing good examples of it, but by reading lavish descriptions of music that never existed. The reasons for this are too complex to adequately cover in this space, but at least one of these is worth mentioning. When I first became interested in listening to recorded music, I was about 10 years of age, and my status as a willing magnet for chaos placed me under the constant scrutiny of whatever authority figures were available. The music contained on my few handed-down cassettes and scratchy 7” singles provided glimpses of a world that I couldn’t yet comprehend, and this was all entertaining enough- but every time I wanted money for a new record, I practically had to write a dissertation about why this music would not influence me to kill and eat people. It was hardly worth the effort. Now, books, on the other hand, were heartily encouraged for their educational value, and less suspected for their subversive value. I discovered that anyone unlucky enough to be my caretaker for the day would buy or lend me any book I wanted, just to keep me focused on something constructive, and to keep me from wandering over to the seedy roller rink cum amusement mega-park; the very epicenter of Satan’s suburban dominion. Anything was better than having me fall under the corrupting influence of the surly 12-year old boys who hung out at the pool tables there- the little vandals seemed to already have facial hair and chain smoking habits, and their older sisters were triumphantly sneering, spitting, fight-provoking Valkyries who glided around on roller skates as slick Italo Disco pumped from the rink’s P.A. system.
Cheap sci-fi paperbacks were an early favorite of mine, and could often be counted on to lubricate the musical imagination with tales of alien instrumentation and robotic rhythms. My appetite for all things tumultuous, from Aleksandr Scriabin’s symphonies to the Incapacitants’ free-form electronic rage, was probably helped in part by Douglas Adams’ description of the “plutonium rock band” Disaster Area in his Restaurant at the End of the Universe: the band which was “not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind at all. Regular concert goers judge that the best sound balance is usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles from the stage, whilst the musicians themselves play their instruments by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stays in orbit around the planet – or, more frequently, around a completely different planet.”
Then there were later acquisitions, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which offered enticing, painterly overviews of actually-existing music genres. When I first got my grubby paws on a copy of Gibson’s archetypal ‘cyberpunk’ novel, I had no idea that, say, ‘dub’ was something that you could find on the shelves of any decently stocked music store, but I was convinced that it would be the musical lingua franca of the cybernetic world by the time I was an adult. In Gibson’s reckoning, it was “music that pulsed constantly through the cluster...a sensuous mosaic cooked from the vast libraries of digital pop. It was worship…and a sense of community.” Imagine my surprise when I realized dub not only existed, but had numerous variants pulsating through subterranean dance halls from Kingston to Köln.
Over time, I would grow progressively less interested in seeing the universe through the mirror-shade lenses of Wiliam Gibson (no thanks to two horrible film adaptations of stories from his Burning Chrome collection, although this isn't the only factor motivating my "jacking out" of Gibsonia.) Still, I always admired his penchant for integrating elements of musicality into his work: through characters like his holographic pop music idol Rei Toei, and through the cool downbeat cadence of his phrasing itself- that famous opening line of Neuromancer (“the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”) still provides me with as much of a mental sound as a mental image; I can hear something like relentless electrical hum mixing with pounding surf and distant, insectoid machine jitters…maybe this is just me, but select Neuromancer images have always struck me with this kind of synesthetic experience. Extra bonus points go to Gibson for the wonderfully named ‘Chrome Koran’ in his book Virtual Light- his entry into the encyclopedia of fake bands, complete with their hit tune "She’s God’s Girlfriend." Like the best dub music, and indeed most good music of the nebulous post-modern era, Gibson’s was the type of writing which, according, to Rapid Eye interviewer Jack Sargeant, “celebrate[d] the vertiginous possibility of a post-dualistic world, in which radical heterogeneity is presented as a necessary and attractive survival option.”1
The same could easily be said for the writing of Samuel R. DeLany, an author who I discovered much later in life through his 1975 tour de force Dhalgren, a book which incidentally bears a glowing foreword from William Gibson (the awestricken cyberpunk author sums it up succinctly: “a prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any of a multiplicity of doors” 2.) At the very least, this book would have been simply impossible for me to comprehend during my childhood sci-fi paperback phase, and would still madden plenty of adult readers. It is a polyvalent, 800-page codex filled to the brim with unusual ephemera: holographic street gangs bearing strange bladed weapons called ‘orchids’, spontaneous and occasionally indifferent sex, temporal distortions, landmarks which mischievously shift location from one day to the next…even Gibson admitted to not understanding it, or even assuming it was meant to be understood! The more you attempt to synopsize the plot of Dhalgren, the more you realize how much you are omitting. As such it is one of the few books I have read that can rightly be compared to a pure dream state- it is a patchwork assemblage of transient sensations and of vaguely familiar personalities- maybe concealing a grand plot or unified purpose, but then again maybe not.
All the story's action occurs within the hermetic urban island of Bellona- a largely deserted city inexplicably shut off from telecommunications, and lit at night by twin moons or other anomalous celestial displays. The epic’s one-shoed, Apollonian central character -"Kid"- is a schizophrenic poet. The narrative abruptly splinters into a variety of different sub-texts (journal entries, newspaper clippings etc…one of the most novel fragmentations, on page 731 of my copy, features text arranged from 3 different sources, including an ingenious advertisement for Kid’s poetry collection that has to be held up to a mirror in order to be read. The book, if you succeed in wading through all of it (fellow sci-fi luminary Harlan Ellison was reportedly unable to do this), will eventually reveal itself to be an infinite circle or, perhaps more accurately, a Moebius strip: the book’s story somehow ends where it began after an intervening roller coaster ride of mayhem that is alternatedly 'street-level' and cerebral. Fans of philosophical toolkits like Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux would find plenty to enjoy here, as would readers seeking a hazy hybrid of Pynchon, Burroughs and de Sade. Scholars of Wittgenstein and Chomsky will also enjoy seeing their heroes’ names checked by characters in the book. Just as important as any of this, though, the book has some moments that could appeal to dreamers of new sonic inventions.
Kid’s love interest Lanya (perhaps the character he is most emotionally attached to, although his sexual couplings with the other Bellona libertines are manifold) is an interesting inclusion in this long and winding book, not least because her unique sound manipulation device –a “four-spooled tape recorder, interrupted by a quorum of dials, twin rows of knobs, tabs, and multiple ranks of jack-sockets, gleam[ing] above coiled wire”- is a souped-up, post-apocalyptic version of a multi-track recorder. By the original publication date of 1975, such things were hardly new (let alone “speculative fiction”) yet their relative unavailability compared to the present day still made them something that could be romanticized. DeLany’s extensive run-down of this machine’s functioning reminds us of the wonder that these machines once held for those who were willing to experiment, and of their ability to make simple sounds choral and lush through persistent layering and looping of multiple tracks…if nothing else, the 'Lanya' passages herald a real world boom in musical ‘garage electronics’ that was just around the corner. As Lanya runs her harmonica through the machine, playing on top of a previously recorded drone, it first assumes the sound of a mellophone or organ, and then blooms into increasingly more hallucinatory effects: “something in the playing brought [Kid] to the ‘here and now’ of the room…the plastic reels winding, the tension arm bouncing inside its tape loop, the needles swinging, three of the four signal lights glowing like cigarettes. The music was more intense than memory: emotional fragments, without referent scenes, resolved through the brittle, slow notes.” Lanya asks Kid and his friend Denny to join in with percussive handclaps and vocal chants, forming a beat which “rattle[s] out…like insects” in frantic triplets as Lanya drones over the multiplying clatter. As Kid rises in prominence throughout Bellona, becoming a well-known poet courted by an occluded newspaper magnate named Calkins, Lanya’s song functions like a paean to honor him and to acknowledge his place among the other ‘immortals’ of this strange island of infinity.
The piece that Lanya plays throughout the book would best be described as a portotypical ambient music, carrying with it all its spiritual connotations and disembodied bliss: as I read the pages given over to Lanya’s music making, I think alternately of Angus MacLise’ “dream weapon” tape experiments (see Astral Collapse for a point of reference) and the generative computer music of Oval; two different types of music which overcome the stigma of being ‘machine-based’ and take on highly personal or emotional resonances. When finished composing, Lanya titles her improvised-on-the-spot recording “Diffraction”, a name which may be a metaphor for the way people perceive Bellona- the city, as a living entity, is a kind of perceptual ‘filter’ through which time and consensus reality is ‘diffracted’, making many different interpretations of time are possible. “Temporal diffraction?” Kid thinks to himself as Lanya decides on the title of her song. Kid and Denny’s participation in the recording of the piece is also worth noting: as they hear themselves being played back on multiple tracks, they notice “one of the tracks was heavily echoed and the clapping seemed to come from dozens…the claps mounted; a final clap, and then the dozens shouted- among them he recognized his own voice, and Denny’s, and Lanya’s, but there were many others.” This sequence could be a subtle hint as to the multiple personality disorder of Kid (and the role it may or may not play in making Bellona seem so strange), or it could be a sonic metaphor for the way in which each citizen of Bellona seems to reflect the other.
Another episode in the book is prescient for enthusiasts of 21st century music: Kid befriends a former astronaut, Kamp, who submitted to sensory overload experiments as part of his training. As a result of being bombarded with hours of electronic bleeps, noise and oscillations, Kamp comes to a point where “when I went outside, into the real world, I was just astonished at how…rich and complicated everything suddenly looked and sounded: the textures of concrete, tree bark, grass, the shadings from sky to cloud. But rich in comparison to the sensory overload chamber. Rich…and suddenly I realized what the kids had been calling a sensory overload was really information deprivation.” Kamp’s comments seem to forecast the modus operandi of the more extreme electronic music and sound art we have today: a synthetic music which is so alien, and so characterized by spatial or temporal disconnects, that it re-activates our deadened senses and makes our daily, organic surroundings vibrant and ‘real’ once again.
There are other things to recommend Dhalgren as a “musical book”. Another reviewer astutely noted that over half of the book is dedicated to dialogue, much more than your typical sci-fi undertaking. This ranges from intensively philosophical and poetic discourse on the nature of the shape-shifting city to the guttural, spat curses of common street thugs: all these elements fuse together into a veritable symphony of voices, exclamations, murmurs, nervous laughter, orgasmic wails…these ‘sonic universals’ help us readers to overcome the more outdated minutiae of the book, such as the “free freak” visual appearance and hippie idealism of certain Bellona inhabitants. Almost every page of this juggernaut prose poem inspires you to think of music, making it a counterculture inversion of Beat poetry (i.e. the phrasing of jazz tunes inspiring similarly free-form upsurges of verbiage.) The real world results of DeLany’s concentrated fictional riffing would bear fruit soon enough: the anarchic dystopia of Dhalgren would segue into the wired dystopia of Neuromancer, at which point these fictions leapt back into reality, being the stylistic templates for the music of numerous cybernetic dub-meisters and post-industrial MIDI abusers.
1 Jack Sargeant, "The Future Has Already Happened." Rapid Eye Vol. 3, p. 46. Creation Books, London, 1995.
2 William Gibson quoted in Dhalgren by Samuel R. DeLany, p. xi. Vintage Books, New York, 2001.