Liminal Reinventions: Hypnagogia in the music of James Ferraro and Grouper

At one point in my life I became fascinated with the idea of lucid dreaming, of training myself to explore my own subconscious within my dreams. It still disappoints me that I can’t lucid dream at will, but I’m beginning to forget just what it was about dreams that compelled me so much in the first place – my dreams seemed to get more and more meaningless. Although my lucid dreaming proved largely unsuccessful, I discovered ways of breaking down the dichotomy of dreams & reality, becoming especially attuned to the liminal gap between the two, in the mental state known as hypnagogia. Hypnagogia is typically experienced just as you are about to go to sleep, to varying degrees and in multiple senses.

I am sure that I experience hypnagogia more intensely than most people, and it was particularly vivid after I read about it, as this helped me to tune into the visions and noises I was only partially aware of before. When I’m particularly calm and tired but not exhausted, I can easily allow myself to experience it for minutes on end. However, the sheer randomness of the things I see all but convinced me that my dreams were meaningless. Despite the Dalí painting to the left, which is rich in symbolism despite appearing to represent a similar state of consciousness, I have never felt moved by my hypnagogia. There is literally no semantic significance embedded in the visual sequences; if anything they are wilfully improbable comic images. I see rapidly-shifting iapparitions, usually with two or three components in one image, in full colour and either 2-D or 3-D, some moving and some stationary. I often hear familiar voices or sounds, perhaps even a tune or phrase that’s been “stuck in my head”; most often I hear a person call my name, however, I’m always aware that all of this is not real. It’s also common to physically feel things; the most common and noticeable indicator of the hypnagogic state is a jerking sensation, (known as the ‘hypnic jerk’), which causes a brief spasm. I think most people have experienced hypnic jerks, so it’s a useful point of entry to becoming aware of hypnagogia.

I usually see objects and animals, sometimes figures of humans. I remember seeing an eye once, but for some reason never a full face – although most accounts seem to report that it is actually common to see faces. I mention this because it proves that hypnagogia is a subjective experience which is impossible to describe, which makes it at once fascinating and difficult to properly discuss, especially because I will forget every image I’ve seen almost immediately.

From Ryan Hurd's article on hypnagogia. This is actually a close up photograph, believe it or not, of an extremely psychedelic cactus.

The main difference between hypnagogia and dreams is that the images are not held together by any narrative thread, and unlike dreams, there is no sort of background or dreamscape for the visions. They are never part of anything larger, and mine do not last for more than three seconds. Because the images are intertwined with other senses, it would be impossible to represent them visually in film or paintings, despite numerous attempts – for instance, prominent dream researcher Ryan Hurd’s depictions of his hypnagogia are really nothing like my own experiences; they are kaleidoscopic, whereas mine are not psychedelic, but I suppose surrealistic.

While the hypnagogic state is linked to sleep, it actually has elements of both conscious and unconscious mental activity. I feel more conscious than unconscious during it, and I’m even capable of maintaining conversations during it, describing the visions I see (however, this tends to make them change much more slowly). So while we can compare hypnagogia to dreams, we can also link it to real, waking life. It is at once a minimum of stimuli (as in, the silence and darkness you need to go to sleep peacefuly), and a carousel of mental activity manifested as superimposed stimuli. Therefore, it has a lot in common with stimulating experiences like train journeys or walks in the city. In both of these situations, the body and mind are passive and unoccupied, not having to interact or consciously engage with the world; so, similarly to hypnagogia, the mind watches an excess of stimuli changing uncontrollably. The basic situation is stable, but what we see is unstable. Similarly to dreams, these everyday journeys are loaded with symbolic potential; there is a capacity for an unforgettable event or mental image to be just around every corner.

Because of its wildly subjective nature, I believe that the processes and atmospheres of the hypnagogic state can be best represented by music. This makes sense because music can be so impressionistic. Similarly to hypnagogia, it is so expansive and so difficult to talk about. More than with any other medium, the most tangible elements can be discussed on entirely different terms from person to person; this is particularly the case with music that might be said to value timbre, or feeling, over structure.

Furthermore, we often play music in the background, allowing it to occupy a liminal space, especially now we have iPods and media libraries, so we can stick a huge amount of music on shuffle very easily. We can either be rewarded by engaging with music intellectually, or simply allow mood regulation by half-listening, on a purely superficial level. Similarly, many people find that engaging with their dreams is intellectually rewarding, whereas most of us ignore or forget them.

Music which, in my opinion, evokes a similar mind-state to hypnagogia, is (paradoxically) characterised not by the excess of stimuli which hypnagogia presents, but by the lack of obvious stimuli, which leads to the relaxation required to experience hypnagogia. It is, ideally, repetitive music with no dynamics or developments, and the production should be so fuzzy that a minimum of harsh or percussive sounds should be heard. The sonic obscurity of lo-fi is important because it simulates the slow loss of conscious thought that leads to hypnagogia. I admit that it sounds odd that a mindset characterised by continuous shift should be best represented by a canvas so blank, but the only way to appropriate a mental state so peaceful and free of boundaries is through ambience. If ideas were cycling, (although each listener’s appreciation of the music would be subjective), the changes would be structured, and therefore prescriptive. Once you were familiar with this hypothetical composition, it would lose meaning as a hypnagogic, subjective experience – although I do love the idea of art like this; it puts me in mind of Panda Bear’s ‘Bros’. The musical changes in ‘Bros’ are too slow to mimic the mutations of hypnagogia, but if it were any faster, the music would demand too much conscious mental activity to be at all dreamlike or meditative.

However, while at first impressions, hypnagogic music is ambient and disengaged, it is performed with a sense of imperfection and affect that swells almost imperceptibly within the repeated patterns of the music. Obviously there must be engaging elements for the music to mean anything, and the effects are not a completely accurate analogue for hypnagogia, but I will argue that you can experience the music I will discuss in the same way.

At this point I should note that the term “hypnagogic pop” has already been coined, in an article by David Keenan which appeared in The Wire in 2009. The article caused a minor furore, but mostly this was because the naming of this rather amorphous genre was seen as pretentious and unnecessary. I find the backlash generally rather anti-intellectual, as Keenan makes some really fascinating observations about this wave of lo-fi musicians; however, his use of the word “hypnagogia” seems ill-fitting. My fundamental problem with the terminology is that hypnagogia is not an experience particularly based in memory, but he uses it to describe the idea of a warped recollection of 80s pop music, with the famous phrase “pop music refracted through the memory of a memory”. He links the themes of subconsciousness and memory to the dated musical and cultural pop touchstones warped by artists like Pocahaunted, Ariel Pink, and The Skaters. Hypnagogia exists independently of nostalgia, especially this specific form of nostalgia, and needless to say the mental state is independent of culture and generation (these 80s references are way before my time). I’m not discussing music that provokes anamnesis, but images and ideas of all forms, subjectively. Furthermore, the idea of hypnagogia demands a more minimalist sensibility than much of the music namechecked as “hypnagogic pop”.

Even though I’m sceptical as to Keenan’s definition, (and Keenan himself regretted and was criticised over the irony of labelling and deconstructing that which he was describing as “unpoliced by critics and cultural watchdogs”),1 his discussion of James Ferraro actually provides a really useful focal point for my own explorations of hypnagogia.

Ferraro’s body of work is so vast (incorporating dozens of aliases with multiple albums) and stuffed with ideas that his music could never be lumped under one genre, and in interviews Ferraro seems to gleefully, post-ironically disrupt any attempts to intellectually approach his work. He has an amazing sense of humour that a lot of people overlook; for instance, in Keenan’s article, he hilariously discusses his membership of “the first church of Lenny Kravitz in West Hollywood”, which Keenan allows to pass without comment. His most recent curveball was 2011’s postmodern joke of an album, Far Side Virtual, which was one of my favourite albums of last year (…for some reason!) This record completely dispensed with the lo-fi aesthetic that characterised Ferraro’s previous work, as it was recorded entirely on computers, using MIDI effects, and was as excessively cheesy as that sounds. It is Ferraro’s later work (just before Far Side Virtual) to which Keenan mostly refers, in which Ferraro became more concerned with assimilating “low culture and pop culture totems” into his music, creating something distinctly new. I would argue that, while all of Ferraro’s work is fixated on the subconscious, this preoccupation with cultural nostalgia indicates a departure from the hypnagogic evocation of his previous work.

Mind you, while I’ve heard a fair few of James Ferraro’s releases, that still means I’ve barely scratched the surface. Records like Clear and Discovery, and what I’ve heard of his “Lamborghini Crystal” moniker, are largely divorced from the pop culture that much of his work relies upon, and thereby tap into the subconscious without suggesting nostalgia. I want to particularly focus on Marble Surf, which is for me the apex of Ferraro’s hypnagogic powers. I can only guess how this music was recorded. It appears to be performed live, with a loop pedal, with analogue synths, kids’ toys, a bell – but then, I can also hear ghostly voice choirs and string sections which I highly doubt are actually on the record. It’s too lo-fi to tell. Keenan states that Ferraro mixed a lot of his albums on boomboxes, which explains the quality.

The entire thing is centred around two 2-bar patterns, repeated ad infinitum, across two near-identical nineteen-minute tracks: ‘Memory Theater’ and ‘Surf Washing on Spring Marble’. The appeal of it is immediate and the effects are so subjective that it would be silly to dissect it too far. But, it’s satisfying because it endlessly repeats a C-major perfect cadence (structure #1) – the sustained tonic C, followed by the most simplistic possible resolution through F, G, back to C. Structure #2 is played every 2-5ish repetitions of #1, breaking up these perfect cadences, creating an interrupted cadence moving from the G to a D minor chord (the supertonic) creating a moment of vague tension before resolving through the dominant G major chord back to C again, serving to reinforce the optimistic power of the perfect cadence. It’s still the sort of music that makes my housemates incredulous that I’m listening to the same thing over and over again.

OK, even though I think this GCSE-level approach does actually go some way to explaining why the song sounds so irrepressibly joyous, the orchestral vocabulary doesn’t exactly do justice to a piece of music so hazy and imprecise. There’s no real bass to emphasise the structure, the lower frequencies are mostly filled in by tape reel crackles and pops; it’s designed to inhabit the subconscious rather than the analytical mind.

To use a musical term coined by Brian Eno, referring to his wonderful composition Thursday Afternoon, Ferraro’s piece is “holographic”; that is to say, this is music that creates a singular impression which hangs in the air throughout the album, and any snippet of the 38-minute runtime is apparently representative of the mood of the whole piece. But after about my third listen, I discovered that there is a whole lot more going on than these two non-melodic chord patterns. New timbres and drones keep entering the music and building it up and up, yet the build is difficult to distinguish, because the layers occupy the same frequencies and instrumentation as what has come before. So when I skip through, ‘Surf Washing on Spring Marble’ sounds much busier than ‘Memory Theater’, although it’s really difficult to pin down what the changes are. Slowly but surely, melodic fragments are added, the most prominent are the descending C-B-A-G sometimes appearing in the Fmaj to Gmaj of structure #1, and towards the very end the D-C-B-D-C which rises triumphantly to the top of the mix.

The reason I would describe Marble Surf as hypnagogic ambient and Thursday Afternoon as merely ambient is because Marble Surf is full of imperfections, as with most of Ferraro’s work, and therefore comes across as uncontrollable, unconscious, surreal, in the same way hypnagogia does, especially with this piece because I can’t work out how on earth it was created. One prominent oddity occurs at about 7:12 on ‘Surf Washing on Spring Marble’, where the entire track is swallowed by fuzzy silence, only for the whole thing to be spat back out again with even more force than before. Perhaps it’s the sound of a tape-recorder reaching the end of its reel prematurely, and Ferraro stepping away from his loop pedal to flip it over and keep on recording. Thursday Afternoon is much more shimmery and perfect, gorgeous in the same way as Marble Surf, but safe, wallpapery. Marble Surf is successful because it produces constant reinventions within its repetitions, transcending the idea of holographic music. At first I thought that perhaps Ferraro was performing the same chords or melodies over and over and looping each flawed layer around again, emphasising the imperfections, but the more I listen, the less I can detect a pattern to these blemishes. It’s a quiet cacophony of unstable ideas contained within something that at first appears completely unfaltering, if rather ramshackle.

What makes it truly resonate as a parallel to hypnagogia is that it all sounds accidental. Marble Surf is so densely layered that it is impossible to trace any thread through it beyond the chord structure (and structure #2 enters at aleatoric intervals). Bombarded with this at once undemanding and colossal wall of noise, without any conventional hook or point of entry into the music, the listener begins to hear strands of musical ideas which appear as imagined as they are tangible; that is to say, the texture becomes so overwhelming that glimpses of musical ideas seem chimaerical, immediately disappearing from consciousness under an overlapping wash of ambience. It is this fleeting half-sensation of musical ideas which is remarkably similar to the ever-slippery experience of hypnagogia. As with hypnagogia, it is profound that such a blank canvas is so rich with possibilities.

Grouper is another artist who uses minimalist compositions to tap into this liminal headspace, but her approach contrasts significantly from Ferraro’s. Grouper’s music is more serious and moody, without any pop cultural touchstones, and generally avoiding major keys. Her music is performed acoustically, with vocals, acoustic guitars, and organ drones, all fed through swathes of reverb and tape delay, to the point that the “songs” are so entrenched in swirls of smoky ambience that her lyrics are unintelligible.

Her two most popular recordings are those on which the song structures and lyrics are clearer, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and A|A: Alien Observer (the title track of which pretty much omits the drone entirely).  However, I think I preferred the counterpart to the latter, A|A: Dream Loss, as this album delves deeper into ambient noise, and as such is more hypnagogic. The album art is reminiscent of the shapes you seen when you close your eyes; visually, her aesthetics are much more closely linked to a hypnagogic experience than Ferraro’s.

I first realised how truly astonishing the record was while listening to it on a train, expecting to be able to play some ambient drone music and read up for a lecture, but soon found that although the music is unobtrusive, it is highly embedded with mental triggers and fragments of ideas, and I was gazing out of the window, taking in my journey in the same way as the music. As with Marble Surf, what at first appears uncomplex is soon revealed to be imbued with a torrent of potential mental connections. But whereas the chimaerical shifts produced in Marble Surf are due to imperfections and reinventions, Grouper’s music is less aleatoric – although the imprecise low fidelity of her recordings is crucial to the dream-like enigma of her work. It is her use of vocals which is the main source of chimaeras, a background presence that sounds more like another layer of noise than a melody or vocal line.

Beneath the droney, relaxing bed of noise, there are smudgy syllables and a song structure, but it is almost as if the song is being played in another room, and you are trying to work out what it sounds like. Or perhaps it’s like listening to foreign-language songs: your brain still subconsciously tries to make sense of the lyrics, trying to find cognates and Anglicisations of fragments of syllables. Another example is the made-up “Hopelandic” language of Sigur Rós’ ( ), in which I believe most listeners will hear phrases that actually help shape the songs’ subjective meanings (‘You sigh / You suffer…’) With Dream Loss, the vocals are expertly mixed such that the music at once invites and denies interpretation, while the listener hears or superimposes syllables and words in a subconscious attempt to decipher the lyrics, as the music lures you into a conscious engagement with these half-imagined fragments. The brain reacts as if this artistic choice is unintentional, that the lyrics are supposed to be clear, resulting in curious mental embellishments and guesswork, at a liminal level in which there is an interplay between these conscious and unconscious connections. Because of the album’s undynamic, unpercussive hum, this mental activity is very similar to the sensation of hypnagogia.

I am proposing that hypnagogic ambience can be a meditative experience for the open-minded listener. Psychologists often explain dreams as a sequence of images produced by the brain as a form of puzzling over and straightening out the contexts of your day’s events. I think that perhaps, although the images seem like bizarre non-sequiturs, hypnagogia occurs for the same reasons. Because the processes are comparable, hypnagogic music has a pacifying and mentally-stimulating effect, caused by the rhythmic stirring of musical and (even more subjectively) non-musical ideas.

I have compiled a Youtube playlist of 20 tracks which I find have hypnagogic effects, which you can listen to here. I’d particularly point to the works of William Basinski, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Philip Jeck, and Tim Hecker as major proponents of this aesthetic – but I’m probably overlooking an awful lot of music which fits my descriptions perfectly. (Please let me know!)

1The Wire issue 324, February 2011, pp.6-7.
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About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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One Response to Liminal Reinventions: Hypnagogia in the music of James Ferraro and Grouper

  1. Envy says:

    Great article — well written and on a subject that’s always fascinated me. I particularly like your conception of ambient and lo-fi music as the best representations of intangible and indescribable states.

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