Tag Archives: music

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the ultimate surveillance image, is the main theme of this new episode of our MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE series. Panopticism is here explored through the aural lens of Paul Baran’s ‘Panoptic’, which combines elegant improvisation with a touch of electronics. 

Paul Baran is a Glasgowian artist operating sometimes alone and sometimes as a member of The Cray Twins. While The Cray Twins seem to devote themselves primarily to inventing unusual electronic instruments, on his own Baran appears especially concerned with linking music and thinking. ‘Panoptic’, Baran’s only solo record for the moment, was published in 2009 by Fang Bomb (a new one is apparently imminent). It is a conceptual album about creativity under surveillance, dedicated to thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.

The album’s opening track is a slow motion ode to forgetting, being undocumented, and self-erasure. Titled ‘Scotoma Song‘, it hints that Baran’s ‘Panoptic’, just like Bentham’s Panopticon, is as much about what is seen (and heard) as about what is no longer seen (or heard). The record then unfolds slowly and gently, at least at the beginning.

Love Under Surveillance‘, co-authored and performed with Andrea Belfi (percussions) and Werner Dafeldecker (at the double bass) offers a ten minutes promenade through surveillance threats. The mood is melancholic and at the same time spine-chilling, but eventually the record becomes progressively infected with more and more disruptive glitches. During To Protest In Their Silence‘ (again with Belfi, and now also with Gordon Kennedy) electronics go all over the place: it is certainly more about protests than about silence, like a tribute to the art of banging pots, pans, and other utensils in order to express dissent wordlessly.

The human voice reappears in Jackson and Lee’, painfully singing ‘and back, and forth‘, like an unmotivated pendulum. In ‘Pomerol’, it closes ‘Panoptic’s exploration with some apocalyptic mumbling floating on Keith Rowe’s prepared guitar and a sighing calculator. A worthwile conceptual experience. Text by Gloria González Fuster


Industrial music has always been attracted to dystopian worlds and apocalyptical aesthetics. The new episode of our MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE series explores the work of Skull:Axis, an artist self-described as ‘paranoid, delusional industrial’ that has devoted a whole record to ‘The Transparent Society’.

Skull:Axis is actually Jason B. Bernard, from Brighton, who is also responsible for the record label Peripheral, officially ‘the home of all things Dark’. Bernard plays intricate electronic music combining metalic and synthetic sounds, somewhere between obscure ambient and uncomfortable experimentation.

‘The Transparent Society’ is originally the title of book published in 1998 by David Brin, in which this science-fiction author tried to argue in favour of extreme social transparency. Skull:Axis’ record, also titled ‘The Transparent Society’ and published by Peripheral in 2013, takes a critical approach to transparency by offering eight dark tracks with eerie sounds and threatening voices repeating numbers. The artwork is black and white and retro, but the surveillance practices sketched out are rather contemporary.

The hypnotic ‘Data Retention Directive evokes the EU legal instrument currently imposing the general retention of communications data of all users of telecommunications networks in Europe. ‘SORM-2’ refers to the Russian system for the monitoring of telecommunications and Internet activity. A track named ‘Surveillance I’ is mirrored by a longer piece called ‘Überwachung I. The record wraps up with ‘Hide’, the most peaceful (or empty) track of the lot. The CD is accompanied by a quote by Marc Maron: ‘Surveillance induced morality: relics of cultural retardation’Text by Gloria González Fuster

The MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE series takes a walk through Bandcamp music platform in search of surveillance-related tracks, and uncovers a few interesting underground artists. Here they come, carefully collected and happily reported to the wider public.

‘Days Of Surveillance’ by Quiet Loner

A gentle protest song with a touching old-school flavour. It is not easy to say in the same sentence ‘DNA data’ and ‘piece of my heart’, so Quiet Loner deserves some respect at least for trying. Billy Bragg is supposedly a fan.

‘Surveillance’ by Mike Nicolai

More folk, now with a perfectly crafted song in the benevolently cynical spirit of the Violent Femmes. The author is Mike Nicolai, from Austin, and also singer of a band called The Bremen Riot.

Grotesque (Dear Mutual Surveillance Society)by Boys Age

We move into indie territory with some floating lo-fi dream-pop, by the self-confessed false sons of Yo La Tengo. The lyrics are in Japanese or in strange English, but if they are as good as the title, they must be excellent.

Surveillance’ by Marshall Rendina

Some meta-avant-post-rock about the watchers who watch who is watching, by Marshall Rendina, who has probably listened a lot to David Grubbs, or to whoever he listens to.

‘Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’ by The United Sons of Toil

Surveillance hurts, and the The United Sons of Toil would like to remind you about it. This nicely Unwound-like song comes from the nicely titled 2007 album ‘Hope Is Not A Strategy‘.

‘Surveillance’ by Controlled Storms

Surveillance can bring sadness. Philadelphia’s Controlled Storms sing that privacy is a luxury, but attempt to manage to make us smile nevertheless by singing it like a mix between Swell and The Beta Band.

Privacy (If You Were My Piano)’ by Elephant Micah

Joseph O’Connell, aka Elephant Micah, knows about sadness. A zero technology recording that refuses to say goodbye (to privacy).

Music selection and text by Gloria González Fuster.

Albums titled ‘Surveillance’ are under the radar of our MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE series for obvious reasons. And If they offer a musically captivating vision of how does it feel to be permanently monitored and put in pieces in large databases, it is particularly urgent to know more about them.

Painted Caves
is the new project of artist Evan Caminiti, based in San Francisco and relatively well known for his participation in the duo Barn Owl. ‘Surveillance’, his debut album under the Painted Caves moniker, offers seven tracks of dystopian landscapes, reminiscent of Basic Channel’s minimalism but with a tendency to get deeper, darker, and more focused on (American) urban life.  

Using a modular synthesizer as his prime source, Caminiti creates indeed bleak textures nevertheless inhabited by a strange corporeality, as illustrated by ‘Flesh on tape’,Stalker’ or ‘Never alone’. His music sounds like a slow motion film about a fast approaching cataclysm, and is thus a highly recommended soundtrack to think about the movements of any surveillant assemblage. The album has been published as a limited edition vinyl LP by French label Shelter Press. Text by Gloria González Fuster

As every day brings along more news on the secret activities of the United States (US) National Security Agency (NSA), our MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE series examines the work of one of its most precious and intriguing fruits: Bill Callahan, alias Smog.

large billBill Callahan‘s parents used to work as language analysts for the NSA. He grew up at Silver Spring, Maryland, and soon started to compose and experiment with lo-fi home recording techniques. His early compositions, published under the nickname Smog, are strange songs about confusion and loneliness mixed with sometimes painful sounds. He later touched upon many different styles and moods, playing with blues, folk, country, and even dub. As he wrote himself, he “used to be darker”, then “got lighter“, and then “got darker again”.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 14.47.30Surveillance is never too far from Callahan’s music. Being watched and feeling guilty are two of the most prominent subjects in his discography. The first one is crucial for instance in “Goldfish Bowl“, from the 1995 LP “Wild Love” (“You’re watching me like a hawk“, he sings), or in the unambiguously titled “Live As If Someone Is Always Watching You“, of 2001’s “Rain On Lens“. Guilt is often addressed through the recurrent image of water, related to purification. Both subjects sometimes converge, such as in “River Guard”, from the 1999 album “Knock Knock“, about a guard who supervises prisoners when they go swimming, and who asserts that “we are constantly on trial / It’s a way to be free“.

But Callahan’s greatest ode to privacy invasions is undoubtedly “You Moved In”, from 1996’s “The Doctor Came At Dawn“. Here, the singer addresses somebody who “moved in” to his hotel, to announce her that he tapped her phones, and read her mail. The song’s final verses are: “And I hope you don’t mind / If I grab your private life / slap it on the table / and split it / with a knife“.

Finally, it is worth noting that the artist appears in a TV, very much like an Orwellian telescreened Big Brother, in the official video for “I Feel Like The Mother Of The World”, taken from “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love“, of 2005. Text by Gloria González Fuster

Technology delineates the background of much of the history of both MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE. And at the crossroads of technology, music and surveillance, stands out Léon Theremin.

Lucie_Rosen_playing_thereminLéon Theremin was the American name used by Lev Sergeyevich Termen, a Russian inventor who designed the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments ever produced. Patented in 1928, the theremin consists of two metal antennas played without any physical contact: the position of the performer’s hands controls the frequency and amplitude of sound. During the 1930s, Theremin lived in the United States and was supported in developing the instrument by early adopters such as Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Since then, the theremin has been used both in avant-garde and popular music, and eventually became especially popular in film and TV soundtracks.

theremin_bugTheremin moved back to the USSR in 1938 in unclear circumstances. After being imprisoned, he was put to work on different secret projects related to surveillance technology. He invented then ‘The Thing’, a seminal covert listening device which allowed to gather audio signals without the need of any power supply, and was used as an espionage tool by the Soviet Union. Due to its use of passive techniques to transmit signals, Theremin’s bug is commonly regarded as a predecessor of nowadays widespread Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, which also allows for the transfer of data from passive, unpowered devices.  Text by Gloria González Fuster

Special guest MIT sociologist Gary T. Marx interrogates MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE by exploring the super-superveillance powers of distrustful singers and songwriters. 

Alittlerichard theme reflected in early rhythm and blues and rock and roll music involves the boasting of a male lover’s super-surveillance powers to discover unfaithfulness. Such songs contained an implicit threat and may be intended to deter. In contrast to songs that came later, here we see watching by an individual rather than a government or the private sector. In 1956, in ‘Slippin’ and Slidin”, Little Richard has been ‘peepin’ and hidin” to discover his baby’s jive, and as a result he ‘won’t be your fool no more‘. Bobby Vee sings that ‘the night has a thousand eyes‘ and that these eyes will see ‘if you aren’t true to me‘. If he gets ‘put down for another‘ or told lies, he warns, ‘I’ll know, believe me, I’ll know‘.

The Who more directly imply the possession of extrasensory powers when they sing ‘There’s magic in my eyes’, in their hit single ‘I Can See for Miles’. The singer knows he has been deceived because, ‘I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles‘.

privateeyesHall and Oates sing about the inability to escape their ‘Private Eyes‘, which, while ‘looking for lies‘, are ‘watching you / they see your every move’. The Doors sing about, ‘a spy in the house of love‘ who ‘can see you and what you do‘ and who knows your dreams and fears, as well as ‘everywhere you go, everyone you know’. The Alan Parsons Project makes direct use of technology to discover lies and to tell the deceiving lover to ‘find another fool because ‘I am the eye in the sky looking at you I can read your mind‘.

But the classic song of this type is ‘Every Breath You Take‘, performed by The Police and written by Sting, who reports that it is about ‘the obsessiveness of ex-lovers, their maniacal possessiveness’—written after a divorce. While Sting reports that he reads Arthur Koestler who wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism, he says his song is personal, not political. The female is warned that her faked smiles and broken bonds and vows will be observed by the singer. The song is about surveillance, ownership, and jealousy (Rolling Stone, March 1, 1984). While the song does not mention technological supports for the omnipresent and omnipotent surveillance it promises, it is easy to connect it with contemporary tools. One can hear the song to suggest an encyclopedic list of the means that were coming into wider use in the 1980s:

sting memeEvery breath you take [breath analyzer]
Every move you make [motion detector]
Every bond you break [polygraph]
Every step you take [electronic monitoring]
Every single day [continuous monitoring]
Every word you say [bugs, wiretaps, mikes]
Every night you stay [light amplifier]
Every vow you break [voice stress analysis]
Every smile you fake [brain wave analysis]
Every claim you stake [computer matching]
I’ll be watching you [reference to video]

Text courtesy of Gary T. Marx, who is also the author of ‘Soul Train: the New Surveillance in Popular Music’ (published in I. Kerr, V. Steeves, C. Lucock, Lessons From the Identity Trail, Oxford, 2008), and of an extensive list of surveillance related publications partly available here.