This description matches very closely the soundtrack that introduces a 1962 film/interview with Constant featuring poet and television presenter Simon Vinkenoog, suggesting, along with the presence of improvised guitar, that the artist himself could have been involved in their production.
Opening with footage of a passenger plane coming in to land, the sound-bed segues from a dense cacophony of overlaid radio transmissions that escalate to a state of almost-white noise into randomly plucked guitar strings over background chatter, bumps and outbursts of singing that evoke a rowdy drinks party.
The guitar turns atonal and hammers out a flat, mechanistic rhythm, before giving way to a melange of abstract machine noise, a clattering train and a mangled brass band, prefiguring the sonic mash-ups and productive dissonances that would become standard features of both popular and experimental music in the second half of the twentieth century and are implicit in the film’s soundtrack, which resembles, if anything, crude raw material gathered for Holger Czukay’s pioneering classic of analogue cut-up recording, 'Cool in the Pool'.
Here, though, clues as to the sonics of New Babylon diverge sharply, not least in the musical personality of Constant himself. Despite declaring that “Industrial and machinic culture is an indisputable fact and artisanal techniques … are finished”, he nevertheless played guitar, violin and cimbalom, adoring improvised gypsy music which was performed at his wedding to Trudy. In his personal life, music was a craft that encouraged social and creative community, an essentially human practice. However, given his inherent musicality, the experimental multi-media practice of many of his collaborators over the years [one Cobra artist, Karl Appel, recorded an album of full-on musique concrete at Amsterdam’s Instituut voor Sonologie in 1963], along with his immersion in the radical culture of Sixties Amsterdam and his championing of technology, it seems positively perverse to think that Constant didn’t embrace the emerging electronic music of his time in some way. Given his archive is still being carefully compiled by his widow Trudy and her daughter Kim, this may not be the last word on the subject; a device recently unearthed in the basement of Constant’s house might be a homemade sound mixer and the reels of tape that are yet to be digitised could provide evidence for the production of further soundtracks.
Constant’s son Victor, who made fly-through films of New Babylon for which he also created bricolage-style soundtracks, may have also been the producer of the taped ‘sound effects’ that disoriented those attending the artist’s lectures. In 2005, the year of Constant’s death, Victor and his filmmaking partner Maartje Seyferth made a short film designed to give “an impression of the experience of the New Babylonians”. Victor is credited with the unsettling ‘soundmix’, which blends electronic atmospherics with abstract noises and voices, distorted brass band music [again], gypsy voice and violin, acoustic guitar, sitar, musique concrete, what is most likely a fragment from a live recording of AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie and a snatch of ‘African drumming’ from the library music album Sounds of Horror, Sci-Fi, the Weird. Another filmmaker, the American Hyman [‘Hy’] Hirsh whose work combined abstract visuals with contemporary music, created the 1958 experimental film Gyromorphosis by animating and layering stills of Constant’s models, adding ‘colour lights’ and setting the result to a track by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Music was central to Hirsh’s aesthetic – more accurately described as synaesthetic, given the goal of establishing ‘the visual equivalent of music’, a current in twentieth century filmmaking sometimes referred to as the ‘visual music movement’. Crucially, in the context of creating a film from the New Babylon models, the merging of images, colour and music, was intended to “impart mood”.
New Babylon continues to cast a sonic shadow in unexpected places,
including a recent ‘high concept’ fashion video for Adidas called New Babylon, with a soundtrack of abrasive abstract electronica – Input Vein by Kid Smpl – and a segment of Constant’s own text. In Amsterdam, sound artist Justin Bennett is working with students on a series of sonic events on the theme of New Babylon, partly based around the shopping centre with the same name in The Hague. More broadly, the Situationists have been cited as influences by alternative musicians and musical impresarios including Bowie, Malcolm McLaren and Factory Records’ Tony Wilson.
Rather than trying to ‘hear’ the sounds of New Babylon from the scant direct evidence that exists, a task made even more challenging by the contradictory nature of what little there is, it seems more realistic and productive to collate the various ways in which Constant’s urbanistic practice intersected with musical experimentation across a range of axes, from the avant-garde composing and free jazz scenes of Sixties Amsterdam, fellow artists who were themselves experimental musicians, film soundtracks and the ‘sound effects’, the tapes that accompanied his lectures and the reported experience of them, in Constant’s embracing of multiple media and synaesthesia, to his own musicality which, although ‘artisanal’ and folk-oriented, was often improvisatory. From these clues, certain features of a sonic imaginary for New Babylon suggest themselves.
It would almost certainly be a sound-collage, a mash-up; a mix of sound effects, film and library music, improvisation, jazz - composed and ‘free’, gypsy music, electronics, picked guitar, plucked violin and hammered cimbalom, ambient and field recordings, noise, musique concrete, bent-out-of-shape versions of classical compositions and official ‘state’ music [e.g. brass bands] plus random ‘field’ recordings of urban and social situations or events.
It would be overwhelmingly instrumental, perhaps to avoid the specific referentiality of lyrics and song-narrative. It would lean towards cacophony, atonality, dissonance, provisionality, incompleteness, rupture, senselessness. It would eschew completism, rationality, structure, harmony, lyricism, romanticism or repetition. It would never reach resolution, or end.