Keynote Speakers

Prof Hillegonda Rietveld_credit photo by Kevin Cummins



Prof Hillegonda C. Rietveld

School of Arts and Creative Industries

London South Bank University

Title of Paper: ‘Dark Sonic Space’ 

What is darkness in sound? Does sound have a hue, a colour, or tint? Perhaps darkness presents itself as the flipside to the enlightenment project, embracing the irrational, atonal, grating, and alienating in a range of twisted textures, structures, tonalities and acoustic spaces. Here I wish to explore how the alienating experience of the accelerated modern city is given form in terms of acoustic space in contemporary electronic music, offering a dark underscore for city dwellers.

This presentation will particularly address a sonic aesthetic that may be recognised within the dub continuum, forms of electronic music that sonically shatter urban time-space, some breaking the beat and even erratically changing time signatures, others inertly slowing down to a nearly frozen point on the edge of a black hole of information overload.

Sound that decentres the rational subject of modernity through labyrinthine echoic effects, through heavily textured machine drones and through the digital processing of recordings to a point of near-erasure, haunting the listener with their barely recognisable traces.

There is, perhaps, an irony in the array of technological wizardry necessary to produce such soundscapes. Employing such tools, the products of Enlightenment, the rationalised space of the modern city seems turned back on itself within a range of uncanny acoustic spaces. Offering what seems a deconstructive critique without solution, a space between words, a melancholic sense of unspeakable loss is produced, seductive in its nihilistic secret.


Wyatt at the fair_from MarcusO'Dair


Marcus O’Dair

Lecturer in Popular Music

Middlesex University, London

Title of the Paper: ‘Rock Bottom: melancholy and sadness in the work of Robert Wyatt’

Robert Wyatt may be an atheist, but he says he has experienced both heaven and hell. It would be easy to assume that his ‘hell’ refers to his fall from a fourth-storey window and subsequent paraplegia; that this paper relates to the conference’s ‘catastrophe and suffering’ theme. That is certainly how Wyatt’s most famous album, 1974’s Rock Bottom, is often perceived, from its title to specific lyrics (‘Oh no, no I can’t stand it / Stop please’). In fact, most of that album was written before the fall, in what Wyatt calls his ‘drummer biped’ period – and the album is emotionally complex, bittersweet: Wyatt’s voice, as bassist Richard Sinclair puts it, expresses ‘pain and joy all at the same moment’.

This paper will explore the ‘melancholy and sadness’ theme of the conference, with specific reference to Wyatt. He has suffered, cyclically, from depression since adolescence, and had made more than one suicide attempt before he found himself in a wheelchair for life at the age of 28. Wyatt speaks of ‘cliff drops into dark places’, of moments ‘staring into the abyss’. He has suffered from severe stage fright since the 1970s, and only relatively recently emerged from a period of alcoholism.

As a Marxist, Wyatt also struggles with the powerless of music to effect political change, suffering from a kind of guilt at the frivolity of the artistic existence; what the Germans call künstlerschuld. Wyatt also says, however, that he doesn’t want to be a political activist: he wants to be a hedonist. He may be plagued by self-doubt, but his music is never self-pitying, and his public persona remains affable: he is, in his own phrase, ‘a sit-down comedian’.

With reference to such influences as Alfred Jarry, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, to interviews conducted when writing his biography, and to a number of Wyatt’s songs, this paper will explore the mix of light and shade in Wyatt’s life and work. As Wyatt himself explains it, ‘the word “sad” is inadequate for sad music, otherwise nobody would listen to it. The fact is that the kind of melancholy induced by certain kinds of minor chords and so on, can give pleasure. Conversely, the sturdy major chords of bafflingly dull sports programme theme music and Souza marches can be deeply depressing within seconds. So it’s very hard to find words to fit the way in which music slithers about amongst the emotions.’