This is a hip hop instrumental soundtrack for an abandoned skyscraper in Bangkok.
The developers called the building Sathorn Unique, but the locals think of it as the Ghost Tower. 50 stories tall, built to show-off the mighty rise of Asia in the 1990’s, it was abandoned in 1997 when their economy dried up and capital fled to better markets. It remains as a hollow monument, nearly complete in the lower floors but slowly de-rezzing as it gets taller until the bare and open rooftop stands jagged above the Bangkok skyline. It lives as a shell, a reminder, a warning, and a resilient monolith.
I made this music to express the many different feelings & ideas that Sathorn Unique raises about architecture & acoustics, finance & globalization, great hopes & haunted dreams, and the way that futures can take sudden unexpected turns away from great visions.
I saw it first-hand in 2009 from a boat plying the green & dirty Chao Phraya river. I was captivated and haunted, deeply affected but unable to articulate why. It just seemed so odd. In the Summer of 2011 I found this post from Abandoned Journeys, revealing its so-very-appropriate science fiction name, Sathorn Unique, along with a beautiful photo journal documenting an urban exploration up into the tower.
This project has been an attempt to express the character of Sathorn through sound and to document the process as a meditation on the many curiosities about modern life that unfold from its story. If you scroll through this Tumblr, you’ll find my own thoughts about making the music and wrangling with the ideas & emotions behind the work. I hope that, in my own way, I’ve helped flesh out a brighter afterlife for the Ghost Tower.
Process notes – the meaning within.
(These are the original notes I made when creating each track.)
I recently ran across this post via Boing Boing about an abandoned skyscraper I encountered in 2009 while staying in Bangkok. The aesthetic really captured my imagination at the time and led me to wondering about it’s rise & subsequent demise – and speculation about its present afterlife as a sort of open source architecture or reclaimed & re-appropriated structure.
The Abandoned Journey post, which documents a bold & unsanctioned urban exploration of the structure, spoke to the atemporal, cyberpunk, organic futures side of me and highlighted my own musical quest to find a sound that, upon listening, evokes a sense of such a postmodern future beyond reach but beckoning through the present & past.
Thus was born a new music project that will produce 5 songs – hip hop instrumentals – inspired by this structure, by the hopes & dreams of its once-future vision, and the hollowed shell of its ruinous fall. In some fundamental way I feel that the Sathorn ghost tower is a bone slate onto which we can project and examine the patterns of our world.
Which is a long-winded & overly-intellectual way of saying that I’ve started making some music inspired by this gloriously abandoned high-rise building in Bangkok. Along the way I’ll be researching the structure and sharing my thoughts & feelings invoked by the exploration.
I hope that, in the end, I can make some good music and add to the mythology of the Ghost Tower.
Yesterday I started working on the first song in this project. I called it “Approach” to suggest the initial encounter with the Sathorn Unique structure. (And I should note that while this particular building is the anchor, the music speaks to a broader set of references, ideas, and inspirations that are somehow encapsulated in Sathorn. I’ll pull these concepts apart through the course of this project.)
So, I want the project to have very textured background sounds that convey an atemporal and/or future-forward atmosphere. For Approach, I used the Vangelis soundtrack to Blade Runner as key inspiration, and will continue to draw on it for that expansive Blade Runner feel.
For the whole project I want the beats to have a distinctly hip hop foundation, augmented with a lot of textured percussive elements. The most immediate inspiration here is the instrumental hip hop work of Man Mantis. In my opinion, his work evokes that sense that you’re listening to the future. I had the same sense of M.I.A.’s album Maya, and I also feel it listening to the latest Beastie Boys album, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2.
In this second mix I’ve balanced the EQ levels a bit more across all tracks, grouped the drums and ran them through a compressor to make the beat meatier, refined the vocal cut-ups, and added a few more analog synth layers & transitions.
The vocal cuts are taken both from the movie Blade Runner & from the recording of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 space orbital in 1962. Both of these sources have been deeply influential to me over the years. I’ve tried to chop them up enough to (mostly) blur recognition while still retaining the original feel.
The song itself is basically composed of 4 layers:
1. The drone wall, set back into a really big reverb space (this is in direct homage to the soundtrack for Blade Runner composed by Vangelis – more on this later…).
2. The drums, following a hip hop rhythm augmented with more electro & house sounds, and a dubstep bassline that also sits in the big reverb space.
3. The melodic synth elements which are mostly analog sounds from the Access Virus TI.
4. The vocal stutter elements mentioned above.
This creates the main space of the piece, the rhythm section, the melody, and the vocals.
The next mix will be an even more subtle evolution, likely adding some more strange fx textures and a few stutter edits to the beat here & there.
For the second song, Entrance, I wanted to establish the presence of the building and capture the experience of entering the ground level into the lobby. So I’ve tried to focus on setting the right general space by using a big room reverb with some surface reflections, trying to get that concrete-walled interior lobby sound. Additional room fx are invoked to build clearly defined sections of the song that themselves suggest both physical & emotional spaces.
Using reverbs & delays can create a real sense of physical space, while emotional space is conveyed through the minor & major chord structures, with their augments & suspended notes. The middle passage of this track (with the male-female counterpoint vocal samples) allows more physical space into the sonic landscape by pulling out some of the noise of the previous movement. This is reinforced by assigning specific instruments to each unique 4-bar section so that there’s a sort of musical signature for each part. These chords are mostly major chords but the final 4 bars of the 16-bar progression fall into a diminished minor descending progression suggesting the ruinous fall of the previous good mood. The whole section has a very dreamy, halcyon feel that just occassionally teeters on the edge. Dancing on the deck of the Titanic…
And it’s this sort of happy, spacey dance party vibe that I really wanted to pull out and highlight as a reflection of the heady days of unbridled growth that captured the Thai economy in the mid 1990’s. But only momentarily, seeded, as all parties are, with its inevitable comedown. The song pauses here briefly against snips of dialog between Decker & Rachael – themselves a timeless dyad of hope & fear – before shifting into decline, disarray, and the rising power of the final movement. The last section reinforces the grimy future-present of the ghost tower, it’s ambitious lobby given way to the feral jungle & its scattered & abandoned kin among men: dreams of business formal turned to a life of rags. Yet, there is something hopeful in this decay. Or at least something instructive to be gleaned from over-ambitious empires fallen to monument and time’s steady re-appropriation.
This song is all about the ascent up Sathorn through the stairwell. Every melodic part has a rising progression to reinforce the feeling of lifting upwards. Some of the textural elements underneath also bubble up & up giving lift to the song. There are a couple of stops that suggest stepping out of the stairwell to explore a new level but it always returns to the climbing ascent.
The song is trancey & repetitive, circuitous & convoluted. Progress is made up the stairwell but every flight looks the same as the last. It’s like being caught in an endless loop when the scenery blurs into monotony. Interestingly, images of the exterior of the Sathorn tower look as if the building was being printed from the ground up but the resolution started failing and the printer started going dry as the heads went higher & higher. It kinda pixellates as the skin (and the economy) breaks.
Indeed, just as this song is about rising up through the stairwell, it’s also about the dizzying rise of the tower under construction, ultimately breaking under its own economic weight. Notably, the song does little to reflect the giddiness of a rising Thai economy ca. mid-1990’s. This sentiment is reserved for the rooftop…
I’m really happy with the drums, heavy & dirty, lot’s of cut’n’paste. And the bassline owes a nod to Bootsy Collins from a certain Parliament song from the 70’s (with a little dub flavor thrown in). I also like the very distant rising piano track. It makes me think of the ghost mansions in Super Mario. The final acid line reinforces the delerium of the climb, spinning and folding in off-time. The end is abrupt. Possibly the opening of the final doorway onto the rooftop – the apex of the rise, a moment’s pause, then decline.
The 4th song is the peak of Sathorn Unique, as it exists physically, economically, and in the successful alterverse framed up by its original ambitions. The ascent of the last song has concluded at the rooftop. You can hear roar of the city below. The din is broken by a sudden dance party, perhaps the grand-opening gala celebrating what Sathorn was supposed to be. The ambitions of its creators and exuberance of the Asian development boom is captured and celebrated, its dreams as yet unbroken.
From within this fantasy emerges the present gritty reality of what the rooftop really is: a corroded & abandoned precipice overlooking a savage city struggling with disparity, political strife, and the relentless power of the jungle. The dance party breaks and is replaced by harder beats and darker tones. Cheering crowds yield to the din & rumble of Bangkok.
These two potentials exist simultaneously and in parallel though only one of them has collapsed into our reality. The gala party is now the distant spirit that haunts the decaying ghost tower, its pale bones offering barely a thin link to that otherworld.
A brief dance refrain towards the end reinforces this duality as the two timelines overlap, then fade back into the city. From here there is only resolution, either up into the heavens or back down to the street. To remain there offers only stagnation, equilibrium, escape. and perhaps a glorious view amidst forgotten bones.
If the Rooftop represented the peak of the Sathorn Unique experience, then the 5th & final song, simply titled Sathorn, is the come-down & resolution. The track opens with sounds of the street under falling stars. The beat is more syncopated and there’s a roots vibe, accented with a guitar & organ skank. There are more obviously-melodic elements in this song suggesting the enduring vitality of the creative act, in spite of decay & downfall.
And really, Blade Runner futures aside, amidst the endless rise & fall of empires people will always find simple ways to sing & make music. The electronic studio I’ve used to produce these songs could dry up with my ability to pay utilities, or be looted by desperate & displaced interlopers. I’d still have an acoustic guitar. No blips & bleeps needed.
This final song is more about the reality of the street below the Ghost Tower, and the necessary persistence of urban life proceeding whether or not Sathorn Unique was ever a success. Indeed, for most people, such overly-ambitious and incomprehensibly expensive skyscrapers have always been barely real. Such towers are not made for commoners. This one in particular emphasizes the tension, standing as it is now, hollowed and broken, once flush with moneys now vanished & moved on to better investment opportunities.
This is where the lavish imagined timeline of Sathorn Unique collapses back into the local reality, like the moldering brochures showing off a future that never was. This is where the ephemeral whims of capital touched down long enough to leave an indelible reminder of their ultimate disloyalty. The final movement of Sathorn, the song, reinforces the hard facts of life and the brutishness of the global money game. The droning wall and the whining worm throw up the fierce edge of survival.
And yet, the tempest sputters out and returns, as it always does, back to the streets where life continues, for good & ill, unabated for millenia thus far. This is the resolution: that, despite the great power elites and their fantasies & seductions, despite the shell games and ponzi schemes and cronyism and backstabbing… Despite all this the people persist. And they make music to express their lives, ease their burdens, and tell their stories. For most, the Ghost Tower is like the global elite: more easily forgotten in its decline than challenged in its prime.