'Sounds of the Underground', Excavated

Stephen Graham manages to distil the essence of underground and fringe music into identifiable and recognizable components of a larger, global movement.

Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music

Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Length: 295 pages
Author: Stephen Graham
Price: $70.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-04

By its very nature, the world of underground music is a diasporic collection of creative ideas that exist wholly outside the mainstream. This outsider aesthetic is the primary unifying trait inherent within those who seek to create in a manner far different from the norm. From abstract noise artists to those looking to play their instruments in unique and/or non-traditional ways, the main thing all these artists have in common is their refusal to adhere to that which is expected and, thusly, they create highly idiosyncratic, often wildly individualized niche genres and enclaves of like-minded individuals who in turn help to make up what can then be defined as a scene.

The universal underground, then, is little more than a fragmentary collection of creative types looking to push the boundaries of what can be considered music; there's no unique defining term that can be applied to all, as each operates in an often entirely different sphere from the other. It seems the only way in which we can even begin to consider all of these disparate ideas is by lumping them together under the blanket banner of the so-called underground.

Indeed, it seems each community throughout the world has its variation on this theme of underground creatives coming together under a common set of ideals based on a refutation of the mainstream to come up with something perceived as "purer", more creative and true. This is the basis on which author Stephen Graham builds his study of the wildly diverse stylistic underworld that exists under the underground music header. Through his exploration of specific scenes from the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and beyond, Graham builds a case for the uniqueness of styles but the singularity of purpose adhered to by all artists operating within the underground. It’s a bold attempt to put a name and a face to hundreds of styles and variants that exist across the world, the majority of which defy rote categorization.

This is just what Graham sets out to do with Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music. The title alone reads as an exhaustive exercise in futility, the scope so vast as to be akin to early explorers setting out to map the whole of the earth. His is a valiant effort that, for the most part, manages to distil the essence of underground and fringe music into identifiable and recognizable components of a larger, global movement. Immersing himself in the myriad underground scenes in his native UK, Graham uses a fixed point of reference for what he deems “underground” and expands his exploration from there.

“I’m writing specifically about a noncommercial form of music making that exists in a kind of loosely integrated cultural space on the fringes and outside mainstream pop and classical genres,” he writes in the book’s preface. Laying out his academic study as such, Graham delves into a number of subcultures and their adjacent art forms in an attempt to create a unified picture of the different communities and sub-communities existing across the globe. While these scenes have existed to varying degrees for much of the 20th century, the rise of the internet and the democratization of the creative process through the use of computers has seen the proliferation of the underground virtually explode. Where once these communities may have been geographically isolated, existing beyond their city limits only in the form of primitive zines or rumor, even the most obscure artist can be readily discovered by someone half a world away.

This idea, Graham argues, has helped greatly in the modern listeners’ ability to not only access previously inaccessible music but also to exist as part of a greater global community that would previously have only been available to those within literal spitting distance. Not only are musical ideas easier to share with larger numbers of listeners, but the creative process is such that even those operating at the fringes of the fringe scenes can find themselves in front of a global audience, making underground music a vital form of cross-cultural communication that goes beyond the often mindless nature of mainstream popular music.

Through interviews with some of the biggest names in the world of underground music, explorations of their political and sociological motivations, Graham lays out the cultural evolution of underground music and its place in modern society. Often just as much a reflection of a culture as the mainstream, the underground, Graham argues, offers a shadowy mirror image of society that is often truer to reality than the music’s commercialized peers. Herein he explores those responding directly to the society in which they’ve felt themselves ostracized, creating an often visceral response to a worldview wholly at odds with their own.

In an entire chapter dealing with the wide-ranging political spectrum of underground artists, Graham takes readers behind the noise and scree of artists often perceived as inaccessible, exploring not only the groups’ sonic genesis, but their politically and socially-motivated reason for being. When discussing Australian industrial noise duo SPK, he points out that members Neil Hill and Graeme Revell were both mental health professionals prior to the formation of SPK in the late '70s. Coming together with a common ideology, the pair established their mission statement as being, “to express the content of various psychopathological conditions, especially schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, mental retardation and paranoia.” When explored within this particular context, the previously perceived “noise” takes on a whole new meaning, one rife with political and sociological connotations that, to the average listener, would have gone wholly unexplored.

It’s this academic and philosophical distillation of purpose that lends Graham’s Sounds of the Underground the necessary weight for cultural validity, but also lends an often impersonal art form the personal nature needed for connections to be made. From free improv to abstract minimalism to pure noise, Graham gives each a fair shake, conversing with some of the biggest names in each field and lending each a level of credibility previously only afforded by fringe publications. By bringing them all together under the aegis of true academic study, Graham has managed to place these often inaccessible forms within an accessible, fascinating study deserving of a broader readership. Given the music’s 21st century accessibility, it’s about time someone put into words a field guide of sorts that allows for better understanding of this fascinatingly diverse global underground. Sounds of the Underground offers readers just that.


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