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The Historicity of Valley of the Shadows

12th of February, 2024

“Rembrandt was, amongst many other things, a specialist painter of ageing. He also painted the so-called Woman Bathing; in fact it's one of many many pictures he made of Hendrickje Stoffels: the great love of his life. It's a painting about the eye’s endless rediscovery—always as if for the first time—of their own love of the body they are watching.”
—John Berger, About Time

Origin Unknown’s Valley of the Shadows has a curious place in the mythology of jungle and drum and bass. Historically it belongs to the former—produced (and played extensively via white-label pressing at raves) in 1992 and released in 1993, it predates the rechristening of the movement as “drum and bass” by several years. Stylistically it belongs to both jungle and to the later drum and bass of 1995 and beyond in that it is curiously preoccupied with texture rather than with rhythm. The one element that really makes the track excel is the glittering spiral staircase of synth chimes that appear throughout, and they are so impressive that they make the extraordinarily simple drum break pattern and unmodulated sine-wave bassline feel totally naked; even flat.

The repeating vocal line “I felt… that I was in this long, dark tunnel” dramatises this flattening effect. Tunnel vision, mechanically, means the loss of peripheral vision. A phenomenal description of tunnel vision doesn’t so much emphasise this loss of sensory richness or fidelity as it does a hyper-specialisation of one part of vision. We cannot do without the barely perceived data of our peripheral vision, so the brain falsifies this data by extrapolating what we see in the small spot of our central area of focus out to the side and behind us. What is usually an unconscious folding-in of the low-detail greyscale phantoms of the periphery into the relative clarity of central vision becomes a feedback loop, as the central imagery of focus is supplemented by greyscale phantoms of itself. Tunnel vision feels constricting, but it also feels as though our eyes are simultaneously three paces ahead of us and two paces behind. We are treated to a combined view of both foreground and background in a monocular flatness. The head, as an opaque object, is of course absent from this picture.

“In another painting Hendrickje is in bed. I reckon the painting was painted a little before the birth of Cornelia, Hendrickje's daughter with Rembrandt. In all they will live together for twenty years. In two years time Rembrandt will be declared bankrupt. Ten years before Hendrickje came to work in his house as a nurse for his two-year-old son from his previous marriage. Hendrickje will die, although younger than Rembrandt, six years before him.”

Valley of the Shadows partakes of this combination of foreground and background in its implied historicity. In 1992, listeners only had access to its past and its present. Its past: the sampled voice is petit-bourgeois and lifted from a 1980s BBC documentary, and the spiralling synth line feels tonally closer to the idyllic synth arpeggios of 1960s public service broadcasting than to the cutting edge synth-work of techno and hardcore. Its present: the white-label pressing was only available to DJs, so the public’s encounter with the track was exclusively within the rave itself. There was no context for it but the ritual of dance, and so the surrender to a contextless unfolding now.

Now, more than twenty years on from the commercial release, we have the then future-history of drum and bass to compare it to. It anticipates the subordination of rhythm to atmosphere—from the superimposition of times and sizes in a blind geometry to the rushing in of colour and texture—that made so-called atmospheric drum and bass feel painterly. But it does not anticipate the way that neurofunk would use this turn towards texture to develop complex computer generated basslines that would articulate the superimposition of times in the smaller scale of timbre and pitch, rather than danceable rhythm. In this sense Valley of the Shadows is more interesting because it does not contain a universal genetic memory of the future. It is prescient in the limited sense that history demands it must be: it is specific in its scope and so belongs to time and not to the mythical “timelessness” which the hagiographies pretend belongs to people like Bach or Shakespeare. The experience of listening to it means reckoning with this, in the same sense that reading Dostoevsky (a writer of psychologies working before Freud) means reckoning not with an element of an immortal canon but with a document of limitation.

“It is late at night, she's been waiting for him to come to bed, and he has just entered the room. She lifts up the curtain of the bed with the back of her hand. The face of its palm is already welcoming; already making a gesture which is preparatory to the act of touching his head or his shoulder, and the curtain she is holding up divides two kinds of time: the daytime of the daily struggle for survival and the nighttime of their bed. Rembrandt painted the picture because he remembered how Hendrickje greeted him. It was a retrospective image. Yet the picture shows the moment of her seeing him. It is on his appearance that she is entirely concentrated; in her eyes we can read her portrait of him. And we are now looking at this image three hundred years later. There is such a tangle of times contained within this picture that it is impossible to place the moment portrayed. Where is it? It is a moment beyond the time of clocks and calendars, and one would therefore feel a kind of pity for somebody who therefore said it is less real.”

A Woman in Bed, by Rembrandt (1647)

Further Reading:

Forty-Four UK Dance Tunes From the Noughties - Part 1
(Slip & Slide) Suicide: Vocal Anonymity in Dance Music
Tug of War: Digital Timestretching