Some comments on music on privacy and surveillance.
‘Airport Music for Black Folk’, by Chino Amobi, hijacks Brian Eno’s 1978 ‘Music for Airports’ to reflect on the perception of black and brown people in airports since 9/11. Eno’s landmark record is generally regarded as the birth of ‘ambient music‘, and was all about embedding the listener in a frictionless, smoothing magma. Amobi travels instead a different road, where technology glitches and clinical voices transmit opaque messages to travellers who do not know whether they are going somewhere. Amobi, an American born from parents of Nigerian descent, is also one of the co-founders of the diasporic NON record label, which, under its Derridean name, navigates the left margins of contemporary electronics. ‘Airport Music for Black Folk’ was recorded in Berlin in March 2016 and is accessible through Bandcamp.
‘A Requiem for Edward Snowden‘ is a composition for strings, clarinet, electronics and real-time visuals, written by Scottish composer Matthew Collings for an audio-visual ‘opera’ co-authored with Jules Rawlinson, and premiered in 2014. Divided into seven moments and an interlude, the work dissects Edward Snowden’s decision to give up his comfortable past life in order to give evidence of global mass surveillance practices by the United States, and the fears and challenges associated with this choice. It is available on Bandcamp.
‘Big Brother‘, by Stevie Wonder: this song was featured in Stevie Wonder’s fifteenth album, 1972’s ‘Talking Book’, which was to become one of his most successful releases. The track’s lyrics sermon a personified Big Brother that watches people go nowhere, is tired of protesters, neglects children dying, and visits the ghetto only around election time. Accompanied by a swinging harmonica, the song ends on a somehow positive note, announcing to Big Brother ‘I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall’. ‘Big Brother‘ could have become a great hit, but ‘Talking Book’ had even more appropriate candidates: ‘You are the sunshine of my life’ and ‘Superstition’, which did indeed become great hits.
In ‘Calculate the surveillance’, Marcus Cotten aka Channel In Channel Out informs you with the most delicate precision that you are under surveillance, and that it might be time to relocate. The song appeared in his ‘The Author And The Narrator’ album of 2011, and can also be heard via Souncloud.
‘California über Alles’ was the first single of American punk rock band Dead Kennedys. Originally published in 1979, it has become since a paradigmatic piece of politically engaged punk rock. It scenifies the advent of a hippie-fascist regime in California, with references to its totalitarian facets such as a mention of ‘Big Bro’, and the ryhmes of the lines ‘Now is 1984, knock knock on your front door: it’s the suede-denim secret police, they have come for your uncool niece‘. The song has been covered many times, most famously by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1992 with an updated, revised version (telling of ‘Big Brother in a squad car’s comin’ near‘).
‘Closed Circuit’ was the first reference published by Electronic Eye, a project of Richard H. Kirk, more well known as member of the band Cabaret Voltaire. Published in 1994, ‘Closed Circuit‘ is a double album offering some classic 1990s Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) enhanced with a subtle touch of original flavours, from world music trips, to sci-fi tropes. Some track titles hint directly towards surveillance concerns (‘Datacrime’, ‘Electronic sight’), while others allude more indirectly to control issues. Subsequent records by Electronic Eye continued to feed these thematic choices, for instance the 1995 record ‘The Idea of Justice‘.
‘Colofon & Compendium (1991-1994)’, by Robin Rimbaud, alias Scanner, is an album described as an ‘eavesdroppers delight’ by Sub Rosa, the Belgian record label that published it in 2012. His compositions are indeed based on real interferences with other people’s real ‘private’ communications, mixed with abstract sound constructions and bizarre noises. As David Toop writes in Ocean of Sound: “Robin Rimbaud snakes out a cheap television aerial across my sofa and tunes in his hand-held scanner to the invisible, private world. Private no longer” (p. 37).
‘Computer World‘ was released by German band Kraftwerk in 1981. By then, they had already established themselves as talented pioneers of machine-like music about modern technology and public infrastructure, reaching not only selected audiences but also the mainstream public. With this album they introduced their stance on a society built on computers and data processing, and did so partially in various languages. The record opens with the track ‘Computer World‘, which in its English version repeatedly evokes ‘Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard‘ before referring to ‘business, numbers, money, people‘. The German original, ‘Computerwelt‘, is even more explicit about the connections between computers and massive data processing, including for intelligence purposes: ‘Interpol und Deutsche Bank, FBI und Scotland Yard, Flensburg und das BKA, haben unsere Daten da’, the song states. ‘Flensburg’ refers there to the city where were located German traffic authorities, collecting notably data about traffic violations, while the BKA is the Bundeskriminalamt, that is, the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. Echoes of surveillance pop up also in other tracks, for instance in ‘Pocket calculator’, where the proud owner of the pocket calculator at stake happily describes how he is ‘controlling’ thanks to the little machine.
‘Diamond Dogs’ , released in 1974, should have been David Bowie’s take on George Orwell’s dystopian book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four‘. Bowie had indeed started working on an adaptation of the novel in 1973, but he was denied the necessary authorization by the author’s widow, so he decided to create instead a more or less conceptual record about a future post-apocalyptic society. The record thus includes the relatively Orwellian songs, notably ‘1984‘, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Candidate’, even though it finally became famous for the hit ‘Rebel Rebel’, as well as for its cover, by Belgian Pop Art artist Guy Peellaert, depicting a naked fictional half-dog Bowie.
‘Digital witness’ is a song by St. Vincent, from her 2014 album (‘St. Vincent‘). The song tackles compulsive sharing and mind control, ending with the question ‘Won’t somebody sell me back to me?‘. It also has a very nice video.
‘Exit’ is the fruit of a collaboration between French artist Jean-Michel Jarre and American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the first being responsible for the music and the second contributing with snippets of speech. A vinyl version of the track was released in 2016 for the Record Store Day, after the release of an official video featuring some agitated retro techno music and images of fingerprints, flying satellites, blinking data and of course Snowden himself explaining why he cares about privacy, but also a man wearing sun-glasses, taking the underground, and trying to look as he did not know he was being followed.
‘GPS dreaming (live in Istanbul, 2015)‘ is a track by Jasmine Guffond, an Australian Berlin-based sound artist and musician who has been particularly active in exploring the articulation between music, technology and surveillance. In 2015 Guffond developed ‘Anywhere all the time, A permanent soundtrack to your life‘, which is an Android application for the ‘sonification’ of wi-fi and GPS signals, inviting listeners to discover public spaces in new (audio) ways, as showed in this video. Listening to ‘GPS dreaming (live in Istanbul, 2015)’ it seems the promenades might be worthwhile. Guffond has also worked on facial recognition algorithms and the transformation into sound of personal images, with the project Sound Selfies. ‘GPS dreaming’ has been published as a track of her 2017 album, ‘Traced‘, where she continues her sonic exploration of digital surveillance.
‘Grotesque (Dear mutual surveillance society)’ is a pleasant indie-pop tune by possibly Japanese band Boys Age. It was featured in their 2014 record ‘The Odyssey – Best Of Boys Age Vol.1‘, which also includes the intriguing ‘God Will Test You Through the PC Screen’.
The band Rare Earth released the single ‘Hey Big Brother’ in 1971. Exactly like Stevie Wonder‘s ‘Big Brother’ – but one year before it -, Rare Earth’s song directly addresses Big Brother, and talks about being tired, and people dying. It culminates with the call: ‘Now that you got the picture, what you gonna do?’. Rare Earth and Stevie Wonder actually shared record label, the prestigious Tamla Motowon, and had appeared together in a 45 rpm in 1970. Unrelated to all of this, a cover of this song appeared under the title ‘Big Brother’ in 1991’s ‘The moment of truth’ by The Real Milli Vanilli – that is, the band of the voices behind the fake Milli Vanilli, who had won a Grammy award despite not signing on their (alleged) record.
‘Hopelessness’ by Anohni is a deep ode to freedom camouflaged as a collection of hate songs against governmental control, injustice and ecocide. In this 2016 album, Anohni‘s voice formed a unique partnership with the electronics of Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke to tell Obama all hope was gone since we discovered he was spying (‘Obama’), to decry constant surveillance of all facets of everyday life (‘Watch me’), and to denounce the killing of innoncents by drones (‘Drone Bomb Me’). If you wonder whether she has something to say to President Trump, you might want to check her more recent 12″ ‘Paradise’.
‘Hörspiel avec… Madame de Shangai’ is a compilation released by the French La Muse en Circuit to present compositions awarded at the 8th Concours International d’Art Radiophonique Luc Ferrari. Among them stands out ‘Ouest profond’, a piece for trombone and electronics with which Italian composer Lorenzo Bianchi explores solitude as a crucial dimension of control and (Foucauldian) surveillance. The piece can be heard here.
‘I want to be alone’ is a beautiful song by the English singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, about the need and the pleasure to be alone. It can be found in the compilation of her singles and demos of the 1960s ‘Some things just stick in your mind’, which is also the title of another beautiful song.
‘Let us play!’ is an album released by English electronic duo Coldcut in 1997, celebrating sampling and the mix of genres. It contains several pieces somehow connected to surveillance, such as the elegantly spine-chilling ‘Pan Opticon’. ‘Every home a prison’, a collaboration with Jello Biafra, describes a world where the welfare state has a collapsed, all jobs have been ‘exported to Mexico’ and young people need to be kept under control: ‘Young offenders must be tagged and watched at all times‘ and ‘tag their parents with bracelets too if they don’t obey’, says the singer, before warning that ‘the main enemy, terrorist threat, is your own children...’ and that they should thus ‘tag them, curfew them, keep them down’.
‘Man‘ by Surveillance: there are many bands called Surveillance, but this one from Halifax, Nova Scotia is particularly endearing. They named their website ihatesurveillance.com, and placed a picture of the United States National Security Agency (NSA) on the cover of their first demo, titled ‘Go Fuck Yourself‘. The ‘Man’ 7″ includes a nice, noisy song named ‘Surveillance‘.
‘Music for Surveillance – Opus N51216’ is a composition by Glenn Weyant, where a cello, birds, a piano, a whole city and a plane evolve jointly, even if not always in a fully synchronised manner. The record is available via Bandcamp. The artist, based in Tucson, has also devoted much attention to the border between the United States and Mexico: during a decade he did borderland performances with a cello bow, physically inquiring into the sounds of barriers, and collecting field recordings and other border-related audio materials that notably resulted in the publication of ‘Ten Years Sounding The Line : 2006-2016 : A Penultimate Collection Of Border Wall Music, Field Recordings And Militarized Zone Ephemera‘.
‘Neon Bible’, the album released in 2007 by Canadian band Arcade Fire was all about the dark side of modern living. It opened with ‘Black Mirror’, noting that ‘shot by a security camera, you can’t watch your own image and also look yourself in the eye, and ressucitated their own euphoric ode to being collectively let alone, i.e. ‘No Cars Go’. The line that perhaps sums up best the contradictions of modern privacy appears in ‘Keep the Car Running’: ‘They know my name, cause I told it to them’.
‘Panoptic‘ by Paul Baran: a collection of electro-acoustic pieces echoing reflections on concepts such as underclass and surveillance, performed with a little help from Werner Dafeldecker, Ekkehard Ehlers, Keith Rowe and Andrea Belfi. The record, dedicated to thinkers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, was published in 2009 by Fang Bomb.
‘Panopticon’, by ISIS: in search of a kind of balance between metal and subtilty, Californian post-metal band ISIS composed a whole record about that peculiar feeling of being buried under a prison built on Jeremy Bentham’s ideas.
Probably the most beautiful song ever written about passwords, Piano Magic‘s ‘Password‘ reminds us of the emotional charge resonating inside all these terms we are asked to always keep secret, and never forget. It was featured in their 2000 album ‘Artists’ Rifles’, and starts with the unforgettable line ‘My password is a dead aunt’s name, a monument, a testament‘.
‘Platform’, the second album by American artist Holly Herndon, was released in 2015 by 4AD. Its electronic soundscapes explore the relations between the intimate, the (geo)political and the technological. It includes tracks such as ‘Interference’, ‘Chorus’, and ‘Home‘, very much concerned with the private lives of (digital) others, for which there are also highly interesting videos available online. The one for ‘Home‘ was produced in collaboration with the Dutch Metahaven. You can also listen to Herndon discussing sound and surveillance here.
‘Privacy’ is a song by DVChamBerlin, from Chicago. A classical techno-pop tune with lyrics that synthetically fulminate both commercial and governmental surveillance: ‘Everything we do or say, it’s collected everyday: pictures, music joy and tears, catalogued to drive your fears‘, he sings. Released in 2014 and available via Bandcamp.
‘Reversing the Panopticon’ is a composition by Cindytalk, released as part of a project of Gordon Sharp’s 2014 album ‘touchedRAWKISSEDsour‘ (published by Handmade Birds), and which had previously been featured in an Antobothis CD with a slightly different title – ‘Fighting the Panopticon‘. Whether it is fighting or reversing the Panopticon, it is apparently going to take some (noisy) effort, according to Cindytalk.
‘Saviour Machine’ is another song by David Bowie with Orwellian connotations. Part of his 1970 record ‘The Man who Sold the World’, it tells the story of President Joe, who once had a dream – he dreamt he would build a ‘Saviour Machine’: ‘They called it the Prayer, its answer was law, its logic stopped war‘ and it ‘gave them food‘. This kind of pre- Big-Data monster also made President Joe sing ‘I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind‘.
‘Snowbird‘, an album released in 2015 by Winter Texan, includes a number of interesting and occasionally hypnotic tracks among which stands out ‘Surveillance Eye‘, in which a languid voice inquires ‘oh sweet, hungry, surveillance eye, can you tell me your secrets?, are you attached to my body?’ (see the full lyrics here). Check also ‘Data‘ and ‘New Technology‘.
‘Snowden’ is a track from AGF’s ‘Kon:3p>UTION to: e[VOL]ution‘, a limited edition CD that invites reflection at meta-level on the end of the CDs, as well as many other subjects, and can also be accessed via Bandcamp. AGF is one of the artist names of the German Antye Greie-Ripatti, also active as poemproducer. Her ‘Kon:3p>UTION to: e[VOL]ution‘, released in 2016, touches upon multiple issues, including sexual harrassment and the transformation of cities, but it generally turns around our lives as ‘data immigrants‘ and whether anybody is listening in the vast and limitless networks. The song ‘Snowden’ is a powerful, minimalist take on the character.
‘Solid States’ by Ian Helliwell, is the opening track of ‘Interpretations in F.C. Judd‘, a record paying tribute to electronics pioneer F. C. Judd (released in 2013 by Public Information). The piece mixes test recordings, covert interceptions of private communications with impressionistic noises for delightful results. Helliwell is also the author of The Tone Generation, a great series of podcasts on the history of electronic music making audible many of the links between technological advance and music.
‘Surveillance’ is a track by Marshall Rendina, from Los Angeles, raising key questions about who is watching you, or whether you are going to jail or to the mall, all to the rhythm of an inconspicuous guitar. Published in a mini-album called ‘Life Cycle‘.
‘Surveillance’ by Painted Caves, a project of San Francisco-based Evan Caminiti: dystopian textures generated by a suspicious modular synthesizer, with evocative tracks such as by ‘Flesh on tape’, ‘Stalker’ or ‘Never alone’. The record was published in 2013 as a limited edition vinyl LP by French label Shelter Press.
In ‘The Future is Void’, Erika M. Anderson, aka EMA, prospects the future to find it is full of technology and people disconnected from themselves. Various songs turn around the problem of overexposure and non-matching data doubles: ‘Dead celebrity‘ (‘tell me what you wanna see when you click on the link of the dead celebrity‘), ‘Neuromancer’ (‘makin’ a living off of takin’ selfies, is that the way that you wanna be?‘) ‘3Jane’, where she melancholicaly suggests ‘there should be a law about it: when they can take videos of you, of you, of you‘. The full album can be heard here.
‘The Message’, by M.I.A: the opening track of M.I.A.’s 2010 album, ‘/\/\ /\ Y /\‘, condensed the Snowden revelations on global mass surveillance years before they were even revealed. The lyrics martially declare: ‘Headbone connects to the headphones, headphones connect to the iPhone, iPhone connected to the Internet, connected to the Google, connected to the Government’. The British artist actually regularly drops references to surveillance between some other lines; her hit ‘Paper planes‘, from the 2007 album ‘Kala‘, featured the sentence ‘Yeah, I got more records than the K.G.B.’.
In ‘The Surveillance’, American band Trans AM reacted in their own way to what they perceived (at the end of the 1990s) as an increasingly oppressive presence of cameras, alarms and surveillance devices in Washington D.C., and more generally, as America’s surrender to feelings of insecurity and paranoia. The result is a rich instrumental attached to the surveillance narrative through some iron-fisted riffs, as well as track titles like ‘Armed response’, ‘Home security’ and ‘Extreme measures’. In 2004, Trans AM came back to the subject in the ‘Liberation‘ album, featuring ‘Total Information Awareness’ and real police helicopters.
‘The Transparent Society’ is a 1998 novel by David Brin, but also a record by Jason B. Bernard, alias Skull:Axis, on transparency’s problems. Released in 2013 by the label Peripheral, ‘the home of all things Dark’, offers eight tracks among which stand out the hypnotic ‘Data Retention Directive‘, evoking the now defunct legal instrument of the same name; ‘SORM-2’, referring to the Russian system for the monitoring of telecommunications and Internet activity; and the somehow self-explanatory ‘Surveillance I’ and ‘Überwachung I‘.
‘The Veil’ is a song written by English singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel for the soundtrack of Oliver Stone’s film ‘Snowden’ (2016), praising the ‘man in a boat out on the sea’ who crossed the ‘ocean where data flows’ – that is, whistleblower Edward Snowden. Gabriel has solid experience in supporting victims of injustice with his protest (pop) music. His track ‘Biko’, about Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activits who died in prison after being beaten by the police, became a best-selling song in 1980 (and was also covered by many famous artists, such as Robert Wyatt, Joan Baez or Simple Minds).
‘This Building is Under Electronic Surveillance at all Times‘ by Daniel Vincent: intriguing electronic pop from the English countryside, elegantly concerned with modern (dis)connections. Available for free at Bandcamp under a Creative Commons licence.
‘Unflesh’ was released in 2014 by Gazelle Twin, a UK artist and producer renowed for creating post-industrial electronic pop while wearing a blue hoodie, and protecting the confidentialty of her face through multiple means, including pixelation. The record touches upon feelings of being trapped inside somebody’s gaze (‘I can feel the eyes looking over me, following my skin‘) and generally disciplined (‘Exorcise’), and her videos also gravitate around these issues and often feature CCTV-like images. In 2016, she authored with a Chris Turner and Tash Tung ‘Kingdom Come‘, an audiovisual based on surveillance footage and commissioned by Future Everything Festival 2016.
‘We’ is the introductory song of ‘The Roches’, with which the Irish-American band The Roches debuted as a trio in 1979. ‘We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzy – Maggie and Terre and Suzzy Roche‘, they proclaimed, before proudly adding ‘we don’t give out our ages, and we don’t give out our phone numbers’.
‘Y Dydd Olaf’ is the debut album of Gwenno, who used to be the singer of the pop band The Pipettes. Published in 2015, the record is fully devoted to a sci-fi novel written in Welsh by a certain Owain Owain, in which the narrator claims to be writing in Welsh in order to escape the control of robots that are transforming society but luckily do not understand his tongue. Gwenno sings about all this also in Welsh, as a reminder that resistance against Orwellian trends might require taking some distance from Orwell’s language. The music itself is reminiscent of Broadcast, albeit in a brighter and sweeter mode. You can listen to it through Bandcamp.
‘You moved in’, by Smog, could be described as the hymn of the privacy invader, a kind of love song to intrusion. Bill Callahan sings in it ‘I tapped your phones, I read your mail’, and ends the track declaring ‘And I hope you don’t mind if I grab your private life, slap it on the table and split it with a knife’. This track is the first of ‘The Doctor Came at Dawn‘, released in 1996 on Drag City, and which offers also other explorations of twisted gaze, such as ‘All your women things‘. Callahan’s parents worked as language analysts for the United States National Security Agency (NSA), so perhaps there is a link between his childhood and his recurrent interest in privacy issues. In any case he has also written much more privacy-friendly lyrics, including the great passage in ‘I Break Horses‘ where he sings ‘Tonight I’m swimming to my favorite island, and I don’t want to see you swimming behind‘ (published in ‘Kicking A Couple Around‘ mini-album, also from 1996).