More “Moby Dick”/Ambient Novels/Sunn O)))/Drone Novels


Apparently it’s “Moby Dick” season. I have learned through a friend that someone I follow on twitter (who’s work/twitter I admire) is also heeding the call of the wretched sea™ and like me is around halfway through. I finished “The Town-Ho’s Story”, and shortly after that “Moby Dick” turns heavy into encyclopedia mode, with three chapters with increasingly long names dedicated to the depictions of whales, and what Ishmael thinks of them. By the time we get to “Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth, in Wood, in Sheet-Iron, in Mountains, in Stars” we’re fully versed in Ishmael’s understanding of whales in art. 

It bears repeating that “Moby Dick” is really one of the strangest novels to achieve the kind of prominence it has. And it’s certainly the strangest one to have been adapted in as many ways as it has; it’s broad outlines are burned into the greater discourse. There are weirder famous novels, sure, but none that have been adapted or transformed in as many ways. Which means that people who sit down to actually read the book knowing the broad strokes, even those who know about these sections, are frequently thrown by them; and there’s always someone who will rush in and say that “they’re the best parts of the book” or “I really like them” or something similar. 

Hell, I’ve done that; and I’m kind of engaging in it here when I tell you the chapter “The Brit” which begins with a description of right whales eating (itself a strange and almost haunting image) ends with some of the most beautiful and thoughtful paragraphs in the book, and arguably in literature :

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”

There’s a lot of debate about what these chapters “are”, and there are even some heathens who claim to have figured out which chapters of the book merely advance the story and distilled the book down to them. I read a few articles by said heathens, and my quick survey shows that few of them agree entirely, and some of them will suggest adding in some of the ‘flavor chapters’ (a term I dislike, but honestly I can’t think of anything better), regarding them as ‘important’ while discarding others. Everyone seems to love “The Whiteness of the Whale” and it’s almost always recommended that if you’re going to skip-read the book, you should leave that in there and… on and on. One person suggested that the book is actually written to facilitate skip reading which, well, I don’t buy. It just means the person who is reading the book is trying to make the novel what they want it to be, rather than what it is. 


Some time ago, in some place I can’t remember, someone described Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” as an ‘ambient’ (in the sense of the music) novel. I’ve never made it past the first half or so of Swann’s Way, so I don’t know how accurate it is for Proust, but the term interests me to some degree. Ambient music concerns itself more with things like texture and mood rather than structure or movement. “As ignorable as it is interesting” as Brian Eno put it. It’s meant to wash over you in a way— the closest book to that I have found and finished has been Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, a book I found almost impossibly beautiful and impossible to write about simply because it is completely ‘about’ the experience of living without doing much in the way of describing moments in a life. It’s a hell of a trick, but it does have that distinct quality of ‘ambient’ to it— the overall effect is vastly more important than any individual moment (though the language throughout maintains a poetic beauty). 

You could make an argument that chunks of Moby Dick are ‘ambient’— that they seek to describe a feeling or moment— the alternate boredom or terror of the sea. If nothings happened, it’s because nothing is happening, and life at sea is more about anticipation than action. It’s not a terrible thought; but I’m not entirely convinced, if only because it doesn’t define the entire work, and I would look for that to be the case; ‘a novel with ambient elements’ doesn’t feel like a satisfactory critical overview. 


In 2009, I drove into the Santa Cruz mountains to see Sunn O))). They were a band who, at the time, were just beginning to gain a reputation outside of the little niche they had formed for themselves in the early 2000s. For the uninitiated, Sunn O))) (named both as an oblique reference to Earth, a band who’s ideas they pretty much wholesale lifted in the beginning, and for a brand of amplifier), are a band who operate with a few simple tools— volume, distortion, and drone. They had developed a reputation as one of the most ‘extreme’ live acts out there, both in terms of sheer volume and what they asked of their audiences. They dip in and out of their own catalog, songs don’t have a defined beginning or end, there’s improvisation, and the whole event feels like one gigantic whole rather than a collection of parts. 

During this tour (and some others), they had a vocalist, Attila Csihar with them, who adds lengthy, operatic sections to everything, at some points performing solo, or with very minimal accompaniment; doing everything from screaming to throat singing to chanting. He would vanish from the stage and reappear in costume, at one point dressed like a tree for some reason. 

Their reputation drew audiences. At that point, and for a few of the shows I saw them play after, curious folks would come to see them for the spectacle, and a bunch of them would leave during the performance when they realized that the spectacle was the volume and the music was… not all that easy to listen to. Someone asked me about the performance a few days after, and I said something like “They tread the fine line between art and bullshit, and sometimes that means stepping over it”. I still stand by this— and this is a band I have specifically gotten on a plane to see a couple of times, and driven considerable distances to see on others. There’s nothing quite like them. 

Over time, the limited tools they use have been added to and sculpted. There’s a diversity to their catalog that’s greater than their reputation suggests, and they have gone on to work with a variety of artists, and have become avant-garde darlings, with a reach and reputation far greater than you would expect from two dudes who dress in robes, drop tune their guitars, and play through 18 or more amplifiers at once. And despite these limited tools, there’s a surprising amount of variety in what they do— from avant-soundscapes to some surprisingly beautiful moments, to sheer terror, they are capable of doing it all, but all of it at a maximum volume. 

If ambient music is as “ignorable as it is interesting”, Sunn O))) attempt to redefine ambient in a way that makes it impossible to ignore. There’s been several attempts to name what they do, all of them kind of crap. “Ambient Metal” “Doom Drone”, etc. Frankly, I’m more or less to call them a “drone” band, though some folk think there is too much variety in their drones to fit the definition. But it’s a kind of music in which the smallest variance can make a huge difference, and where the overall flow is more important than any individual moment— but it cannot be ignored. I’m going to run with ‘drone’ as a genre name for it. 


Is this the moment that I make the argument that Moby Dick is a ‘drone novel’? Maybe not, but I do see some interesting parallels. Melville sought to cement a reputation as a serious literary figure with Moby Dick, and I would argue that it straddles the line between art and bullshit, and periodically steps over it. Like, is there a reason that “Midnight, Forecastle” is written as a play, of all things? I’ve read an argument that it’s done in order to stop filtering everything through Ishmael’s consciousness, but what Ishmael’s consciousness consists of is so fluid that I don’t think this argument holds water particularly well. 

It’s also, at the core, working with a limited set of tools— the story is simplicity itself, which is one of the reasons it perseveres the way it does. But its baroque language and the ‘flavor chapters’ create a kind of denseness that’s both difficult to cut through, and impossible to ignore. There’s a reason that a fair number of metal bands have tackled it as subject matter, and I was genuinely surprised that only one composer thus far has attempted an opera of it (I’ve seen it, and it wasn’t half bad). It’s jam packed with the kind of Sturm und Drang that metal bands and composers of opera live for.

Perhaps my background as a musician makes me want to view things through this lens, but I can’t help but imagine Moby Dick as a piece of music, a gigantic, loud slab of music, which moves slowly through the air. The ‘flavor chapters’ are a part of that music, indeed, they make the music what it is: a part of a single, glorious drone— the music of the terrible, vast ocean, in which our protagonists are just a small part. “The horrors of the half-known life.”

Drone on, Moby Dick. Drone on. 

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