menu Language Is A Virus

Origins of a Dub Fiction

by Jeff Noon

The Clash included a song called 'Police and Thieves' on their debut album. Like many people of my generation and background, this track was a doorway through to that elemental unfolding of music known as Dub Reggae. Quite apart from the value of the music itself, the most surprising thing about the Dub concept was its approach to the act of creation. I was used to the idea of music being built up, track by track, piece by piece, until the final mix was reached. Jamaican dub producers such as Lee Perry and King Tubby reversed this process. The final mix of a song became the starting point for experimentation. Composing at the mixing desk, they punched holes in the sound; they let instruments drop away, only to return at some later moment; they added sound affects to the mix. Very often the track revealed its skeleton, the bass and drums; at other times a ghost seemed to be haunting the mix. Music had become a liquid experience.

Jeff Noon was born in Manchester in 1957. He was trained in the visual arts, and was musically active on the punk scene before starting to write plays for the theatre. His first novel, Vurt, was published in 1993 and went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His other books include Pollen, Automated Alice, Nymphomation, Pixel Juice, Needle in the Groove, Cobralingus, Falling Out of Cars and most recently Channel Sk1n. His plays include Woundings, The Modernists and Dead Code.

Source: Jeff Noon author page @ Amazon

Over the years, this once secret concept has entered the public mind as the idea of the remix. Music no longer has a final outcome; rather, it exists in a constant state of flux, in which many different musicians add their own elements to the track. Even at the moment of performance, either live in concert, or in the hands of the DJ, the music is still being operated upon. This creates, I believe, a music totally in tune with the contemporary mind.

Turning to the world of literature, can we see any real evidence of equivalent techniques being used by writers? I would have to answer in the negative, that writers are still, with some honourable exceptions, using storytelling techniques invented in the nineteenth century, or even earlier. This strikes me as being ridiculous, especially as we enter a new millennium. We need to explore new ways of telling stories; new ways of allowing narrative to partake of the liquid experience.

Over the last few years, I've been listening to a lot of experimental electronic music. Some of this is allied to the outer fringes of Techno Culture; music by Pole, Autechre, Oval, and so on. Other musicians place their music in a more avant garde setting. But what all these musicians share is an interest in computers as a creative tool. Reading interviews with musicians, I started to learn a little about the machinery used, and the techniques involved. A musical signal is sent along a pathway. This signal passes through various software gates or filters, each of which has a different effect on the music. These gates are called things like 'Decay', 'Reverb' and 'Echo'. Sometimes, diagrams of the signal pathway were included in the design of the record sleeve. I might well have been studying one of these diagrams when the initial idea for Cobralingus came to me: could a piece of text be pushed along a similar pathway?

I had already been experimenting with using musical processes such as dub, and the remix, to make a new kind of fiction. The novel, Nymphomation, was my first serious attempt at this, using a kind of reverse dub of Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky' poem. Some of the stories in Pixel Juice then refined, or expanded, this technique, using a more overt form of the dub concept. The novel, Needle in the Groove, allowed the narrative to include, and be affected by, its own remix.

With the Cobralingus idea, I saw of a way of elaborating the whole process, of pushing it to the extreme. But, at the same time, the filter gates gave me a way of controlling the text as it moved along. Filter gates, such as Decay and Overload, were taken directly from the musical software models; others were invented that were appropriate to a textual adventure. Initially, I chose about ten gates. Some of them, such as Randomise or Explode, break the text down to different degrees; others, such as Enhance or Find Story, do the reverse, building the text up by differing degrees. The whole process becomes a waveform of language, breaking down, building up, breaking down, building up, and so on. The first piece I created was 'Exploding Horse Generator Unit'. In that piece, the reader can follow my struggle as I attempted to activate the process successfully.

Vurt by Jeff Noon - full audiobook, read by Paul McGann

A Cobralingus piece is not planned in any way. An opening Inlet text is chosen, followed by the first gate. How the text is transformed by the gate is entirely up to the individual. This is not a mechanical process. It's a way of allowing the imagination to explore areas it would not usually enter into. Once a text is transformed, another gate is chosen. The process continues in this way, allowing chance to play upon the text. Eventually, a phrase or an image will emerge from the process, something that makes the writer sit up and take notice. This always happens. This is the clue as to how the overall piece will end, and the process can now be pushed along in that direction. Again and again, producing these pieces, I was astonished as to how this moment arrived. I can only think that some hidden text has been brought to light, out of the original inlet. I have described this as the ghost, or unconscious desire, of the original text. Cobralingus, very like a Lee Scratch Perry dub mix, is a way of calling up these ghosts.