The first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was a whale song, at the start of “Moving,” track one on 1978’s The Kick Inside. Put another way, the first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was a sample of a recording made by Frank Watlington, a US naval engineer who accidentally heard whale songs while listening for Soviet submarines off the coast of Bermuda with an underwater microphone. Put another way, the first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was a sample of the song “Slowed Down Solo Whale,” itself a sample of the recording by Watlington and released on what remains one of the best-selling nature albums of all time, Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970), produced and arranged by zoologist and bio-acoustician Roger Payne. Put another way, the first sound anyone heard on a Kate Bush album was the vocalization of nonhuman mammals declaring fitness—wanting, as has been widely presumed but still not fully understood, to connect, to fuck.
The first sound anyone hears on “Deeper Understanding,” the sixth song on Kate Bush’s 1989 album The Sensual World, is Bush’s own voice, immediately: “As the people here turn colder / I turn to my computer / And spend my evenings with it / Like a friend.” The vagaries of Bush’s introduction—who is “I” and where is “here”?—are soon grounded in period technology: “I was loading a new program / I had ordered from a magazine.”
“Deeper Understanding” is related by an isolated, melancholy narrator, ground down by the detachment of contemporary life. Exhausted and unable to connect with friends, colleagues and lovers, the narrator becomes obsessed with an AI-like mail-ordered computer program designed to keep its user company. The computer intimately appreciates and speaks back to the narrator. The song’s chorus is the computer’s voice: “Hello, I know that you’re unhappy / I bring you love, a deeper understanding.” Soon, for the narrator, satisfaction can’t come from anything else. “I’ve never felt such pleasure,” they confess. “Nothing else seemed to matter / I neglected my bodily needs.”
Thirty years after its release, this song about a person of unspecified gender falling in love with their computer feels both retro-kitsch and relatable. (“This song about Kate installing a program from a cd rom <3,” texted one of my friends to me when Bush’s remasters were released in late 2018.) In the first and second verses, Bush appears to sing of the “execute” command, common to the incipient personal computer. In the first verse, the narrator “presses execute,” a variation perhaps on the “return” or “enter” key, and/or the “.exe” command in MS-DOS. In the second verse, the verb changes: “I pick up the phone and go execute.” This may conjure early network-dialup connections that culminated in the Internet, not yet commonplace at the time of “Deeper Understanding”’s release.
Yet in the direct context of Bush’s lyrics, “go execute” means her narrator is executing socially, cutting themselves off from IRL family who are attempting to “intervene” in the narrator’s compulsive relationship with the Siri-/Alexa-like program they’ve just installed in their “little black box.” “Are you lonely, are you lost?” Bush sings in the first pre-chorus, as the computer. If you imagine these words coming from the tinny speakers of some dystopian PC, the newly unwrapped diskette gurgling forebodingly in its drive, the next line—“This voice console is a must”—deflates the drama, suggesting either installation instructions or, if it’s now the narrator speaking, nerdy enthusiasm. Throughout “Deeper Understanding,” the clinical and the tender comingle.
Bush’s song has no resolution. The fate of her narrator is unclear, though there are sounds at the end seemingly meant to be organic, soothing: Bulgarian folk singing and, finally, birds chirping. A window has been opened; something has been set free.
“Deeper Understanding” could be read as a cautionary tale about human overdependence on computers, one commonly seen in, but certainly not exclusive to, culture from the 1980s. (In a 1983 episode of the TV series Fame, a teacher challenges a student to make art on a computer, with the student accepting, only to discover the computer has been brought to the School of the Arts to replace its beloved secretary.) By the time Bush redid “Deeper Understanding” for 2011’s Director’s Cut, for which she took songs from The Sensual World and its 1993 follow-up, The Red Shoes, and stripped them of their supposedly dated studio production, some critics began (ironically, given Director’s Cut’s impetus) to point to “Deeper Understanding”—mail-ordered program, voice console, and all—as prescient. “Kate Bush invents the internet with ‘Deeper Understanding,’” reads a headline for an April 2015 AV Club thinkpiece by Katie Rife. Not just the Internet: with Bush’s “tired” and “unhappy” character who connects with their computer so intensely they “could not eat” and “could not sleep,” Bush had also perhaps invented Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), a pathology unrecognized by the World Health Organization but Googled enough to have its own Wikipedia page. (Gaming disorder was only recently classified by the WHO, in May, 2019.)
Bush herself does not feel her “lonely” and “lost” character is ruined by the end of the song. “I suppose I really liked the idea of deep, spiritual communication—deep love which should come from humans—coming from the last place you'd expect it to, the coldest piece of machinery,” she said in an October 1989 interview with Melody Maker. “And yet I do feel there is a link. I do feel that, in some ways, computers could take us into a level of looking at ourselves that we’ve never seen before, because they could come in from outside all this… I think a lot of things in nature are almost program-based, and a lot of things that we do are very mechanical, so maybe somehow going right through a computer, almost so that you come out the other side—going through all that science—will take us to something very spiritual but very earthy.”
Bush was inspired to write “Deeper Understanding” after hearing physicist Stephen Hawking communicate through his text-to-voice synthesizer. “In some ways it was the closest I’d ever come to hearing God speak,” she told Pulse magazine in December, 1989. She wanted to find a sonic equivalent to this godly voice, and while she plays the computer in the song, her voice synthesized in a possible replication of Hawking’s, she searched for an alternate godly voice for song’s end, when her narrator reaches that “other side.” This wound up being those Bulgarian folk singers, Trio Bulgarka.
By 1989, Kate Bush was an international pop star. She was following up her successful Hounds of Love record with a personal work that subtly communicated her disintegrating romantic relationship with Del Palmer, her musical collaborator for over a decade. What is a song about a shut-in PC user doing in the middle of a breakup album? In promotional interviews for The Sensual World, Bush would repeat that “Deeper Understanding” is a song about “being killed by love.” Bush’s own significant relationship with technology, notably during the feverish making of her 1982 album The Dreaming, makes “Deeper Understanding” not merely autobiographical, but among the most complex love songs she ever wrote.
There can be no single inventor of the Internet.
Feminist accounts of Internet history, which tend to conflate the Internet with computing, as does “Deeper Understanding,” stress networks, communities, with no fixed origin. Practices of sewing, knitting and weaving, for instance, in which lines come together, mutable by pattern, in a kind of binary code (knits and purls), creating technology such as clothing and tapestries are, arguably, early forms of computing.
Such practices also formed the basis of pre-Internet relational networks. Joseph Marie Jacquard’s nineteenth-century automation of the loom with a punch card is often deemed the first computer, but long before Jacquard, there were the female and likely gender-variant weavers who, it is surmised but impossible to confirm, put coded messages into their handiwork, and gossiped while doing it. (Jacquard’s invention made many of these workers obsolete. Those who protested became history’s first Luddites, a term that, unsurprisingly given its origin in labour rights, became pejorative.) There are also the motifs and strategies embedded in Indigenous ways of knowing, from art to navigation, that extend relational networking back millennia, across time and space.
Western patriarchy has looked on such pre-digital networks with predictable paranoia. There are the Greek Fates and the Norse Norns, often pictured holding threads or yarn that, when crossed, tell of future doom. During the French Revolution, so-called tricoteuses knitted while watching guillotine executions; in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge actually knits the names of those destined for the guillotine in secret code. (cf. “I press execute.”) In Greco-Roman myth, Philomela weaves the story of her rape into a tapestry, identifying her brother-in-law rapist who has cut out her tongue. (In 2018, Katy Waldman published a piece in the New Yorker noting similarities between this myth and the #MeToo movement.)
By the early twentieth century, some females were actually called computers, enlisted in service of networking technology that had by that point been coopted by the military. In Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, Claire L. Evans tells the story of human “computers,” later gendered in productivity units as “kilo-girls”: mathematicians and similarly trained professionals who crunched numbers as part of collective workforces that managed large sets of data. (“Kilo-girls” was a measure of how powerful such collective workforces, i.e., supercomputers, were, a measure of literal bodies. Contemporary coding has a similarly gendered labour force.)
If Evans’s book aims to celebrate these early female “computers,” it also tells of cooptation, even collusion. During WWII, the US military developed the top-secret Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), a room-sized supercomputer powered by a group of women known as the ENIAC Six: Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kathleen “Kay” McNulty, Elizabeth “Betty” Snyder and Marlyn Wescoff. After the war ended, the computer was revealed to the public, described breathlessly by journalists as “a giant brain” with the focus concertedly on the machine rather than on those who powered it. “The amount of work that had to be done before you could ever get to a machine that was really doing any thinking to me just staggered the mind. I found this very annoying,” Betty Jean Jennings said decades later. “It was more than annoying,” Evans writes. “It effectively erased her.”
It can feel odd to give credit where credit is due when one considers what the credit is so often for. What exactly were these women helping to build? The ENIAC Six worked on classified military projects aiming, among other things, to refine and accelerate ballistics. The ENIAC Six’s professional achievements comprise more than the solution of some abstract physics problems. “When their imaginary shell hit the ground, the mathematical model kept going, driving it through the earth with the same velocity and speed as it had while shooting through the air,” Evans writes, describing the faulty trajectory of one of the simulations worked on by the ENIAC Six. “This made the calculation worse than useless. If they didn’t find some way to stop the bullet, they’d embarrass themselves in front of eminent mathematicians, the army, and their employers.” Comparable is the book-turned-film Hidden Figures, in which three Black women in segregationist Virginia—Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—are given overdue recognition for putting some white men on the moon.
Collective, embodied labour has contributed to the success of the Internet proper, only one of many existing and possible networks, and an entity still owned by the military, the corporate, the male. The Internet and computing are two ways of claiming social practice as a so-called invention. The story of any technology is the story of how we are to each other: how we got here, and how we’re going to get the hell out.
“We were working secretly for the military,” begins “Experiment IV,” a bonus track on Kate Bush’s 1986 greatest-hits compilation The Whole Story. “Our experiment in sound was nearly ready to begin / We only know in theory what we are doing / Music made for pleasure, music made to thrill.”
Like “Deeper Understanding,” “Experiment IV” comes from Bush’s own imagination, though it could easily be mistaken as an adaptation of the experiences of the ENIAC Six. The musical technicians in “Experiment IV” believe they are creating a state-of-the-art experiment in sound, perhaps one designed to heal and inspire, until it is revealed to them, at a moment too late to turn back, that they have been building a military-industrial death machine. “They told us all they wanted / Was a sound that could kill someone from a distance,” the chorus goes. “So we go ahead and the meters are over in the red / It’s a mistake in the making.” The technicians in Bush’s song are placed in ambivalent relation to their Frankenstein’s monster. As is fleshed out in the song’s video, directed by Bush, the technicians hold their noses and continue their experiment in sound, guiltily absolving themselves of responsibility as their work turns ethically questionable. “But that dream is your enemy,” Bush sings. “We won't be there to snitch / I just pray that someone there can hit the switch.”
“Experiment IV” and “Deeper Understanding” are two Kate Bush songs that are likely about the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, also known as the Fairlight CMI synthesizer. This large, expensive machine has been ascribed many firsts, including first visual-digital music sequencer (you could compose music on its cathode-ray-tube screen, writing notation with a light pen) and first digital sampler (you could hook up a microphone to the computer, record any sound, and then pitch-shift it on a keyboard).
The Fairlight is best known for the ORCH5, aka the “orchestra hit,” a sample from the Infernal Dance section of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite (1910): a dissonant, fortissimo chord that opens the section abruptly and shockingly. The attention-getting ORCH5 became a staple of 1980s and 1990s pop, dance and rap music, so much so that it is now largely unnoticed by listeners and/or understood as a banal marker of the era. It is not a coincidence that the Fairlight’s best-known sound is a violent modernist blast. As a physical object, the machine unmistakably recalls military technology that, in the early 1980s, had only been seen widely in films—its sequencer suggesting ballistic patterning, its return, or execute functions, kinds of detonations.
It is of course natural to view any technology as a kind of murder: machinery meant to replace us, to kill (part of, all of) us—voice, hands, eyes, whatever. In a 1980s Fairlight demonstration video with Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, an early adopter of the Fairlight (he used it to make his 1983 hit “Rockit”), anticipates this and tries a rebuttal. “These instruments were designed for people to use,” Hancock says. “It’s just another tool, the way an axe is a tool. An axe can be a tool to cut wood, to build a house, or it can be a tool to slaughter your neighbor. The same way a synthesizer can be a tool to really hurt people’s ears and interfere with their lives… it can be a tool to make a really nice-sounding instrument that can really affect people in a positive way. And it all depends on the person that’s using it.” Bush’s psych-op technicians in “Experiment IV” capture, among other things, “the painful cries of mothers” and “a terrifying scream”: “we recorded it and put it into our machine.” For a 1986 lip-synched performance of “Experiment IV” on BBC1’s TV program Wogan, Bush and her band donned lab coats in a seated recreation of the video concept. Shots of Bush at a wooden desk clearly show the logo of a bandmate’s Fairlight CMI in the background. It’s all very A Clockwork Orange.
It has long been recognized that Bush was an early Fairlight aficionado; the charged words “pioneer” and “trailblazer” are often used. Peter Vogel, the Australian co-developer of the Fairlight, explains in an interview for Vox that the Fairlight and other synthesizers allowed musicians to “create the music you had in your head a lot more easily than if you had to sit down and learn to play instruments from scratch.” Bush is a pianist, though Vogel’s words apply to her in the sense that the Fairlight acted as both a cheat and an expansion. As with the headset microphone Bush developed with sound engineer Gordon “Gunji” Patterson for her 1979 live show Tour of Life so that she could dance and sing at the same time, the Fairlight was not killing any part of her but rather adding something—which her body by turns accepted and rejected.
There were only three Fairlights in the UK in 1979, the year the machine was officially launched. The musician Peter Gabriel, with whom Bush had had a creative relationship since starting out, co-owned a company called Syco Systems that imported electronic instruments. He had his own personal machine, with Syco owning the other two. Bush learned of the Fairlight through Gabriel, according to Bush biographer Graeme Thomson, and rented one while recording her album Never for Ever. Everyone in the studio took turns making noises to record and put into the Fairlight. “We created a huge mess in Abbey Road Studio Two,” remembers John L. Walters, who co-programmed the machine during the sessions, “smashing glasses and sampling them, recording and saving the best-sounding noises as digital files in the Fairlight’s memory.” These glass-breaking noises ended up on Bush’s “Babooshka,” the second single from Never for Ever.
“For someone who had struggled on her first two records to articulate her feelings through sound, discovering the Fairlight was like stumbling into an Aladdin’s Cave of sonic possibilities, opening a door into a new world,” writes Thomson. He quotes Kevin Cann and Sean Mayes, authors of a 1988 book about Bush, who contend that the Fairlight allowed Bush to “layer sounds as she layers ideas.” “She could now add anything—strings, waterfalls, sunbursts—during the writing process itself,” writes Thomson. Says Bush: “As soon as I saw [the Fairlight] I knew I had to have one, and it was going to become a very important part of my work…What attracts me to the Fairlight is its ability to create very human, animal, emotional sounds that don’t actually sound like a machine. I think in a way that’s what I’ve been waiting for.” Not a “new world,” then, but a key to a long-locked door.
The induction of the Fairlight into Bush’s musical and recording repertoire allowed her not only to express herself better, but also to work more independently. Since her teens, Bush, who grew up with two older brothers, had little choice but to collaborate with a large ensemble of male musicians. 1970s rock music, especially progressive or “prog” rock, a genre with which Bush has been associated, was characterized by excessive studio sessions, with a variety of professional “session musicians,” almost uniformly male, being called on to contribute to multi-tracked recordings, produced impeccably in order to showcase the technology through which music was listened to, including FM radio and hi-fi speakers. Bush’s brother John had taken her demos to David Gilmour of the band Pink Floyd and she was duly “discovered” by Gilmour, becoming part of this male prog world. To her frequent mortification, Bush would see her record company, EMI, capitalize on her sexuality in various pinup-style publicity shots. Paradoxically and otherwise, Kate Bush was one of the boys.
Though Bush would continue to use male session musicians throughout her career, the Fairlight meant she didn’t always have to. Some were not happy about this. Thomson quotes Never for Ever keyboardist Max Middleton: “She had recorded this penny whistle which Paddy [Bush, Kate's brother] could play and then played it on the keyboard, and I thought it was a bit of a strange circle… Why not just play the pennywhistle?” Guitarist Ian Bairnson was similarly disgruntled: “The technology was going quite wild at the time. I don’t think she’d be upset if I said that at one point she was confused… There were four or five multi-track machines all loaded up and she had God knows how many tracks, she kept overdubbing things on it. It’s that thing about having too much choice.”
If Bush had seen a room of her own in the Fairlight CMI during the recording of Never for Ever, she moved into that room for her next album, the ambitious 1982 digital-pop experiment The Dreaming. Though she entertained working with a few producers, including Tony Visconti, she ended up producing the album herself. Producer Hugh Padgham, whom Bush used on preliminary sessions for The Dreaming, parted after only three weeks. Bush hired session guitarists but used little of their work in the final product. Session musician Brian Bath speaks of The Dreaming as if it had deleted him: “I just stepped aside in the end, I think I walked away… I felt a bit superfluous to what was going on. After five hours of playing the same bit you think, What do I do? Am I going anywhere, is anything happening?”
Something was definitely happening. The creative delving fostered by the Fairlight pushed daily recording sessions upwards of 20 hours during the late phases of Never for Ever, but this was nothing compared to The Dreaming. Bush has described the period after Never for Ever as “a sort of terrible introverted depression.” Writing songs for The Dreaming brought her out of this depression, but a manic phase was to follow. As Bush moved into recording the album, she loaned a Fairlight and then, near the end, purchased one for herself. Her relationship with the computer would not just aid but inform the album’s concept and song structures. The computer was to become her, her art. When, seven years later, Bush wrote “Deeper Understanding,” a song about someone falling madly, dangerously in love with their computer, she would speak acutely from personal experience.
Initial tinkering with the Fairlight was akin to flirting. Bush’s engineer on The Dreaming, Nick Launay, supported her as she developed a playful early process. “The fact that she was not quite in mastery of the technology was both thrilling and time consuming,” writes Thomson, describing Bush and Launay “digging away” at The Dreaming’s songs, in the obsessive-compulsive, never-quite-done, limitless-archive-of-test-files way that digital technology abets. According to Thomson, the two often “[chased] their tails…ending up back where they started.”
Soon, Bush was neglecting her bodily needs. Though at the time she was known in the British media as a devoted vegetarian, active dancer and sometime yogi, Bush was no health nut. She liked to chain-smoke while in the studio, for instance. “We were always sat in front of this desk, just me and her,” remembers Launay of The Dreaming sessions. “And at the end of the desk there were two huge bars of Cadbury’s milk chocolate and this huge bag of weed.” “Every night we ate take-away food,” concurs Bush, “watched the evening news and returned to the dingy little treasure trove [i.e. the studio] to dig for jewels.”
By the time Bush got to the end of recording The Dreaming, she had hired engineer Paul Hardiman, who attests to the tight intertwining of Bush and the Fairlight. She was self-isolating, with the exception of her lover, the bassist and sound engineer Del Palmer. Thomson’s version of the making of The Dreaming reads like a love triangle between Bush, Palmer and the Fairlight, with, in the chain of erotic command, Bush reporting to the Fairlight, and Palmer to Bush. “Del later talked about ‘coming up’ from the windowless basement studio as though they were on a submarine,” writes Thomson. Says Hardiman, “Musicians were not around most of the time.… After their particular overdub was finished that was it until next time. The only constant was Del.”
In the durational final sessions for The Dreaming, “the fabric of reality started to warp and fray,” according to Thomson. Encouraged by the Fairlight’s ability to mutate the recorded voice, Bush experimented with giving her singing a variety of tones straying from the willowy, girlish, “Wuthering Heights” soprano for which she had become known. Rerecording the master vocals in little sections that could then be digitally manipulated, Bush began screaming and grunting in the studio to give her voice texture, drinking milk and devouring chocolate bars to produce more mucous in her throat. The last two months of The Dreaming’s recording sessions coincided with the Falklands War. Gruesome news reports came through TV screens on studio breaks, with Palmer worrying he would be conscripted. By the end of the sessions, Hardiman claims Bush “was exhausted, and on nothing but a grape diet,” working at least fifteen-hour days in the studio and then listening to rough takes afterwards and preparing for the next day’s sessions, barely sleeping at all. “Even during meal breaks at the studio she would be tinkering with the Fairlight in the control room,” writes Thomson. Bush: “When I come out of the studio, I feel like a Martian.”
Bush would speak of the recording of The Dreaming as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done… even harder than touring. It was worrying, very frightening.” The album itself is about worrying and frightening things. Its title track recounts the colonial mining practices in Australia (where the Fairlight originates) that displaced Indigenous communities and ceremonies. Bush’s self-isolation is the arguable motif of “All the Love,” in which, inspired by a malfunctioning answering machine, she stitches together samples of the portion of messages in which her friends and family bid goodbye, as if she’s not been heard from for days. (cf. “I go execute.”) Thomson suggests the lesson of The Dreaming can be found in a lyric from “I Leave It Open,” in which Bush growls through a processor, her voice sporadically played backwards as she becomes both Faust and Mephistopheles: “Harm is in us.”
Bush took a six month "rest cure" after making The Dreaming, by orders of her doctor father, who diagnosed her with stress and nervous fatigue. She had tried to go on vacation to Jamaica immediately after finishing the album but it didn’t work; it didn’t switch anything off. “I went from this dingy little London studio with no windows to absolute paradise,” Bush said. “I could barely stand it. Even the sound of the birds was deafening.”
The years following The Dreaming marked a now-celebrated period of self-determination for Bush. She would sing and write of attachment—love, lust, ambivalence, the pain of severance. A trilogy of albums, co-engineered by Palmer and recorded with him as the sole constant studio presence, loosely represents the phases of a long-term relationship: 1985’s Hounds of Love (limerence, infatuation, loss of innocence), 1989’s The Sensual World (co-dependence, finding and losing oneself in another, romantic failure) and 1993’s The Red Shoes (saying goodbye). The Sensual World was the last album on which Bush used the Fairlight. It is also a record about her disintegrating relationship with Palmer. After The Red Shoes, at the point of the couple’s breakup, Bush would not use the Fairlight again and not release another album for twelve years, though Palmer would return to assist on and co-engineer her return, Aerial. “I feel very relaxed with [Del],” Bush said to the press on Aerial’s release. “In some ways, in the nicest possible way, it’s almost like he’s not there.”
With his handsome, slender face and faded muttonchops, Palmer appears in the video for “Experiment IV.” He plays one of the subjects of the musical technicians’ search for a sound that “could kill someone from a distance.” We first see him in shadows, strapped to a chair and outfitted with wires. A little black box is placed on a plinth before him. The technicians retreat behind glass, playing sounds through the box in order to observe his reactions. A sound emerges from the box that soon materializes as a sylph, played by Bush in a curly pink wig. Bush-as-sylph blows Palmer a kiss, then pulls her face off to reveal her true identity, a Munch-like ghoul, a Golem of sound. The video’s POV shifts to this ghoul-Golem, and there is a fallout in the secret bunker in which the experiment is being conducted, with most of the staff collapsing to the ground, dead or in shock, except one cloaked official who exits the bunker with the experiment’s dossier. The last shot is of the official climbing into a van to make an escape. A face is revealed: it’s a winking Kate, putting a finger to her lips.
Only weeks after “Experiment IV” was released in 1986, the Irish actor Siobhan McKenna died. It was then, during the initial writing phases for The Sensual World, that Kate Bush likely first heard, or heard again, McKenna’s recorded, 1956 soliloquization of the character Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness monologue from the last chapter of James Joyce’s influential modernist novel Ulysses. Bush’s encounter with McKenna’s recording would form the basis of the song “The Sensual World,” the initial version of which excerpted Molly’s words verbatim. It would also form the basis of the album’s centering of female experience. According to The Sensual World’s liner notes, Del Palmer programmed the album’s percussion tracks on the Fairlight. As Bush worked through the album and, presumably, her breakup with Palmer, she would form a new relationship, a self-fashioned antidote, perhaps, to her encounter with the Fairlight during The Dreaming, when Palmer was her brother in arms.
The notoriously withholding Joyce estate would eventually forbid Bush from using Joyce’s words directly in “The Sensual World.” So Bush transposed her lyrics, with her conceit about Molly “stepping out of the page” and “into the sensual world” seeming a response to the estate's censure—lines that would become the song’s refrain and the album’s name. In Joyce, Molly remembers her sexual encounters in a half-dream, fantasizing about what she might do apart from her husband Leopold (sucking pretty cocks that aren’t his), mocking his sexual ineptitude while recalling their premarital bliss. “Yes” is the famous last word of Ulysses, Molly’s word, Joyce’s concept of the open feminine. In “The Sensual World,” Bush adds an “oooo” before the yes—as if listening intently, as if in rapt dialogue.
In October, 1988, Bush met Trio Bulgarka for the first time, later noting the coincidence of the first letters of their first names spelling “YES”—Yanka Rupkina, Eva Georgieva and Stoyanka Boneva. Trio Bulgarka were not on “The Sensual World” but they, like Molly, represented an eminent encounter. “I’ve never really worked with such hard-working professional people,” Bush told BBC Radio One in 1989, “and I’ve never worked with women either, which I found fabulous. It was very exciting for me, working with women creatively.” If the Fairlight was Bush saying “yes” to independence, Trio Bulgarka was Bush saying “yes” to finally working with session musicians who were female.
Kate’s world-music aficionado brother Paddy brought Bulgarian music to her attention in 1985. Bush was over a year into recording Hounds of Love, on which her song “Jig of Life” featured a Bulgarian tapan drum. Bush wanted to collaborate but was shy to contact the Trio, who had contributed to the fetishized compilation album Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, first released in 1975 and then rereleased in 1986 on the 4AD label, whose stable of bands such as the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance seemed to have a numinous bond with ancient Balkan sounds. Bush did not want to fetishize further, did not want a collaboration to fail. After her resolve took over, she telephoned folk-music producer Joe Boyd, who had been working with Trio Bulgarka as part of the Bulgarian folk-music supergroup Balkana. Boyd and Bush made plans to meet Trio Bulgarka in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, for the weekend.
Though Trio Bulgarka appear elsewhere on The Sensual World, it is “Deeper Understanding,” that song about a human connecting with something not-here, not-them, machine-but-beyond-machine—that song about someone being killed by love—that is the probable reason why Bush, a nervous and infrequent traveller, made the pilgrimage to Sofia in the first place. As Bush told Melody Maker in 1989: “When I was working on ‘Deeper Understanding,’ the idea was that the verses were the person and the choruses were the computer talking to the person. I wanted this sound that would almost be like the voice of angels: something very ethereal, something deeply religious, rather than a mechanical thing. And we went through so many different processes, trying vocoders, lots of ways of affecting the voice, and eventually it led to the Trio Bulgarka.” A year earlier, in the NME, Len Brown found Bush and Trio Bulgarka a week or so after the Sofia visit in a “broom cupboard” of a studio in Islington, London, aptly named Angel Recording Studios. The reclusive, private Bush was unprecedentedly letting the BBC film parts of the recording process for a TV program entitled Rhythms of the World. Bush told Brown: “I wrote a track with a choir-synthesiser sound hoping that if we could get to work with them, they would take the weight of the song from the synthesisers.” Later in the piece Bush describes the “emotions” that are “translated” to a non–Bulgarian speaking listener as “very deep information."
Bush’s wish for the Trio to “take the weight of the song from the synthesizers” puts them in superficial counterpoint to the Fairlight. This is an untidy division. Bush would indeed see the Trio and the folk culture they represented as a useful tool, a novel means by which to relate and create, to extend expression. She was not the only one.
Bulgarian singing has been understood by many non-Balkans through superlatives such as “emotional,” “ethereal,” “mystical,” “haunting,” “atmospheric.” Many Western musicians have identified the music’s effect as sublimely strong, an alien force, a salutary drug. George Harrison once gave Yanka Rupkina one of his records with an ardent, personalized dedication: “To one of the greatest singers on the planet.” On a 1980s radio show, Harrison said: “This is the kind of music that never reaches a lot of people because no one would ever play it but at the same time I think we’d be a much better world if everyone was forced to listen to it.”
It is distinctive of the Balkan region in that it is sung in unusual (to Western ears) harmonic intervals, in the diaphonic style. One or more singers hold a single note, while the lead singer takes on a melody that frequently mixes dissonantly with the base note. As singers both amateur and professional know, holding a note strongly, steadily and in tune while another sings on top (dissonantly or not) takes both technical prowess and strength of will. That Bulgarian singers tend to sing from an open, engaged throat rather than the diaphragm, and that Bulgarian vocal songs, with breath control in mind, can stop abruptly and perfectly for a few seconds only to start again in booming pitch, make the music seem as bionic as it does “earthy.”
Singing broke the ice on the Trio’s first meeting with Bush and Boyd in Sofia, during which there were significant communication barriers apart from the spoken word. (A Western “yes” headshake means “no” in Bulgaria, and vice-versa, cutely relevant in the context of “oooo yes.”) Although the Trio brought Bush to tears as they sang, there was exacting work to be done. It was a kind of interfacing. Eva began by picking up the telephone to get her base note from the dial tone. Bush later told the BBC: “If you’re in the same room as [the Trio] when they’re singing, you can hear the air cracking…there’s so much harmonic information in their voices.” Borimira Nedeva, a composer, musicologist and translator who worked as a facilitator during The Sensual World’s Bulgarka sessions, felt “like a live electric wire, high-voltage currents running back and forth. I had to shoot words back and forth and see how they react and try to see what's good and try to promote it.” Echoing comments made by male session musicians about Kate and the Fairlight, Nedeva confessed: “Sometimes Kate didn't know what she wanted."
Unlike the Fairlight however, the Trio could not be stuck in a windowless studio to be tinkered with indefinitely. Bush had to work fast in Sofia on rudimentary arrangements and compositions, aided by Bulgarian arrangers Dimitur Penev and Rumyana Tzintzarska, and then shortly afterwards in London, where long studio sessions were nonetheless markedly finite. Trio Bulgarka were accompanied to London by an “official translator,” for instance, who was really there to ensure the women didn’t defect from their communist home country.
Bush would tell the NME of the “totally emotional” way she communicated with Trio Bulgarka. Like the mail-ordered program in “Deeper Understanding,” the Trio offered something exceptionally, uniquely intimate. “We can't talk intellectually,” said Bush to Brown. “We can't talk about the state of Bulgaria or even what the shops are like in London. It’s an incredible experience, the warmth they give you—you don't often get it from Westerners. Here it’s very much a communication of ‘I have this, you don't have that’ or ‘I don't have that and you do,’ whereas they want to know what kind of person you are. You can feel them probing your heart.” In Melody Maker, Bush enthused that the Trio would “just come up and touch you and cuddle you, and you can go up and give them a big cuddle.” In a 1989 interview for WFNX radio in Boston, Bush again extols the cuddles, adding, “They’re like my sisters now, I now have three sisters.”
In her book Performing Democracy, Donna A. Buchanan, a University of Chicago specialist in music from Bulgaria, the Balkans, Russia and the Caucasus, writes a chapter on the Bush-Bulgarka collaboration. Buchanan mentions in a footnote that she “was unable to locate the original arrangements from which the Trio sings excerpts” on any of the three songs on which they appear on The Sensual World. “Just what the Trio was actually singing about was beside the point,” Buchanan writes of “Deeper Understanding.” “The texts were, in this piece, virtually undecipherable and the original sources unacknowledged.”
Irene Markoff, ethnomusicologist, instrumentalist, singer and professor at Toronto’s York University, tells me over email that she, likewise, could not discern any specific Bulgarian lines in “Deeper Understanding.” “The lyrics in Bulgarian music are associated with the category/context of the songs,” Markoff writes, identifying categories that loosely confirm Bush’s attempt in “Deeper Understanding” to evoke something “primeval” (to use a qualified adjective of Buchanan’s). There are the rituals of the calendar, Christmas, Easter and other pagan-inflected seasonal observances, work songs, and table songs (sung while drinking or eating); and there are the life-cycle rituals, from birth to engagement and wedding, to death.
Weeks after The Sensual World was released, the Berlin Wall fell. The day after, longtime Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov was deposed. According to Buchanan, selections from The Sensual World were aired on Radio Sofia and Bulgarian national television on November 26, 1989, and March 3, 1990, respectively, the latter marking Liberation Day from Turkish rule, and in 1990 having, of course, double resonance.
The notion that Bulgarian singing and folk culture in general represent resistance to oppression is not unusual in interpretations of the genre. Graeme Thomson quotes Nedeva as saying the Bulgarians under Ottoman rule “made nests of culture that couldn’t be reached, and they preserved language, [identity], songs. It was absolutely isolated for 500 years, and these songs are sung in [that] old style.” In stressing Trio Bulgarka’s angelic casting in “Deeper Understanding,” Bush positioned Bulgarian music as a salve for trauma: “And Bulgaria, the suffering that those people have gone through is tremendous… They were absolutely tortured, really, by the Turks. And I think the music reflects tremendous suffering. And comfort in music through suffering. Which I think is not unusual, that places in the world where people have a very, very hard time, normally the music is exquisite. Music is one of those few things that in very hard times people can hang on to. It can help people.”
Under Zhivkov, an insidious anti-Turkish campaign unfolded in Bulgaria, to which folk musicians like Trio Bulgarka were not entirely divorced. From the early 1970s, Pomak and Turkish names were “bulgarized” and by the 1980s, the Turkish language was forbidden in public places, with mosques being shut, and eventually over a thousand Turks being sent to labour camps or resettled. This state project, with the Orwellian name of Vuzroditelskiyat Protses in Bulgarian (alternately translated as “Revival Process,” “Process of Rebirth” or “Regeneration Process”) involved the writing of new Bulgarian history books erasing Turkish presence, and an assembled team of academics whose own dubious experiment was to prove that Bulgarian Turks had always been Bulgarian, and had been forced to convert to Islam. By 1989 Turkey had opened its borders expressly to Bulgarian Turks, with hundreds of thousands emigrating between May and August of that year.
Meanwhile, so-called traditional music and dance were being deployed in Bulgaria to reinforce and proclaim the communist regime. Since the Ottoman Empire focussed on colonizing towns and cities in Bulgaria, regional music represented by groups like Trio Bulgarka came, after liberation, to signify endurance of Bulgarian culture. In his book Music in Bulgaria, ethnomusicologist Timothy Rice notes that what had been “a communal and community activity” of dancing and singing in rural areas of Bulgaria became “a performing art with a sharp split between performers and audience,” morphing into “a symbol of the Communist Party, the nation, and submission to Soviet domination in cultural, political, and economic matters.” Recording stars like Trio Bulgarka were part of this cultivation.
Under communism, Rice argues, Bulgarian folk music and dance were not just separated from the church and from its context in rural ritual, but were slicked up and recontextualized as the voice of the commoner, with generous state sponsorship (alongside science, literature, education). Bulgarian folk music ironically became a means of touting something as new, as future facing—if not an invention, then a re-invention.
As a technology of the state, Bulgarian music and dance were freighted with contradiction. At once, notes Rice, they were a way for rural workers who moved to cities during communism to maintain a connection with their homes; but they also bore traces of the kind of poverty and class exploitation the communist state desired to erase. Communism made folk music new by, Rice argues, arranging it in the Western-classical sense, “adding chordal accompaniments and countermelodies to previously unaccompanied melodies; singing in choruses instead of solos or duets; playing in orchestras rather than solo or in small bands; dressing up in old-fashioned costumes for performances; and creating performance situations with a sharp split between the active performers and their passive audience.” As Bush herself demonstrated with her Trio Bulgarka collaboration, business was booming in Bulgaria for a variety of innovative arrangers of folk culture.
The Bulgarian government invited Phillip Koutev, a classical composer, to put together the State Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance, modeled after similar outfits in the Soviet Union. Auditions were held for singers and dancers. What had been part of daily rural life became something like a reality-television contest, in which the lucky, talented few would be “discovered” and perform for the state, nationally and internationally. (Travel abroad was rare during the communist era.) It was this Ensemble of Koutev’s that appeared on a 1965 compilation album released by the US label Nonesuch that essentially introduced Bulgarian music to the West, to the likes of George Harrison, Paddy Bush and, ultimately, Kate Bush.
Trio Bulgarka contributed to the aforementioned, highly performative Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir before collaborating with Bush. Their contemporary, Valya Balkanska, part of the Rodopa State Ensemble for Folk Songs and Dances, also left Bulgaria for professional purposes, but traveled even farther than they. In 1977 Balkanska’s voice, singing a late-17th-century ode to a rebel leader, “Izlel je Delyo hajdutin” (“Delyo has become hajduk”), went into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record, a 12-inch phonograph record made of gold-plated copper, carried on the probes Voyager 1 (currently the human-made object farthest from earth) and Voyager 2, with a playlist, also including Watlington’s and Payne’s whale songs, selected by a committee chaired by author and cosmologist Carl Sagan. The record, on which Balkanska is one of the few female musicians, is intended to “communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials,” according to NASA. Former US president Jimmy Carter’s dedication to the aliens: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
During her twelve-year hiatus between The Red Shoes and Aerial, Kate Bush appeared on the Prince song “My Computer.” She sings backup, though you wouldn’t know it if not for the credits. Bush’s voice, heavily processed, could be mistaken for a multi-tracked Prince, or a simulation. Bush had already collaborated with Prince on “Why Should I Love You?” from The Red Shoes, a song that contains the lyrics, “The ‘L’ of the lips are open / To the ‘O’ of the host / The ‘V’ of the velvet / The ‘E’ of my eye.” If Bush had tried to posture as Prince through this velvet (oral sex?) reference, “My Computer” is Prince’s effective update of “Deeper Understanding,” its concept identical but situated in the late 1990s, when being social with one’s PC was somewhat less stigmatized, somewhat more banal.
Prince’s song begins with an AOL sample (“you’ve got mail”). Like “Deeper Understanding,” the song is written in the first person, yet Prince is clearly identified as its narrator. Prince presents a twofold case as to why, on a Sunday night, he has decided to “scan my computer looking 4 a site.” He’s disappointed with the people in his life (“I can count my friends with a peace sign: 1, 2”) and with the state of the world (“I have a child, I have a lot 2 explain”). Later in the song, Prince admits he’s “got no mail” (presumably the occasion for the song, making its introduction an unsurprising corporate lie). The song ends, not with angels or birds, but with another AOL sample (“goodbye”). There is no transcendence.
In April 2011, Bush unveiled her own redux of “Deeper Understanding,” the first and only single from Director’s Cut, released a month later, which remixed and in some cases rerecorded songs or parts of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. (“Flower of the Mountain” allowed Bush to cast “The Sensual World” as it had been intended, its original lyrics finally endorsed by the Joyce estate, and so rerecorded, with Bush replacing her original “oooo yes” with the textually accurate if passionlessly pedantic “yes.”) In an interview with Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal promoting Director’s Cut, Bush claimed to have “always been a big fan of analog.” The comment would be more shocking had Bush not released 2005’s Aerial, which contained almost entirely organic sounds. In Aerial’s final song, the conceit of which feels like the end of an ecstatic acid trip in the English countryside, Bush, now a mother, positions herself as the eponymous contraption, “up on the roof,” her body and mind the only technology she needs to tune into the sublime sounds of the universe she so blessedly inhabits.
When asked by Dombal about the initial reason for writing “Deeper Understanding” Bush says, “I was working with the Fairlight, which was the first sampling machine and was actually quite the computer, though I tended to only use it on the surface. So I was around all this technology, and the song was about this contradiction of technology bringing a person more love and humanity than their own contact with actual people. Perhaps it’s something that people can relate to more now because we all have computers in our own homes eating up our time.” Pointing to mobile phones, Bush adds, “everyone is too busy, including me.” Later she adds, “I love the sound of analog tape, but there’s so many things you can do with Pro Tools that would be incredibly difficult and very time-consuming with analog.” This, in response to Dombal’s question about the computer’s voice in the rerecorded “Deeper Understanding”: instead of her own voice, Bush revisited the song using the autotuned voice of her 12-year-old son Bertie. “I could use a truly computerized voice that would stand alone,” Bush says of the new “Deeper Understanding,” only offering that she used Bertie instead because the computer is “meant to be a very kindly presence.”
In the Bush-directed video for the redone song, this is not exactly the case. The video itself represents the third version of “Deeper Understanding.” For if the rerecorded version adds Bush’s autotuned preteen son, tweaks lyrics subtly but significantly (“go execute” is gone), removes much of Trio Bulgarka and all of the final bird songs, and has an extended outro in which Bush scat-sings the original lyrics over a jamming harmonica while glitchy sounds interrupt as if the recording has digital indigestion, the video adds such a significant, confounding narrative to the original’s lyrics that it becomes its own thing entirely. The results are the revelation of a malfunction.
The video stars character actor Robbie Coltrane (aka Harry Potter’s Hagrid), who plays the protagonist (now clearly gendered as male), coming home to his high-rise apartment from work, his tie loosened, his shirt slightly rumpled. He sits in front of what is definitely intended to be an iMac. He grabs a CD-ROM, the case of which has printed on it, in DS-Digital font, “VOICE CONSOLE: WHENEVER YOU NEED A FRIEND.” There is a pair of smiling red femme lips between title and subtitle. Coltrane puts the program in his iMac and it starts: “Welcome to video console, the only one who really understands you.”
The red lips on the case begin to speak on his screen, reminiscent of the opening credits for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Coltrane laughs (he is understood by the program) and also cries, put in a trance by this connection. His family barges in when Bush sings of his family intervening; they pull the plug on his computer. After they leave, Coltrane tries to fix the plug and it works: his beloved voice console is back, and she blows him a kiss, what looks like a red balloon full of water that meets his face, and pops.
Then the program crashes and Coltrane can’t get it to work again. Then he is electrocuted through his efforts, passes out, sees a white light. Then he is on a Fellini-esque stage, holding a champagne glass and cheersing with friends and colleagues. Then the stage turns into his apartment, and everyone he’s ever known is there. Then his wife and children approach him and seem to want to offer love, but then everyone points at him and laughs, including a clown. Then, after they turn their backs and walk away, he chokes, and wakes up. Then a coloured ball of light comes out of his mouth and begins to behave like a moth; it might contain a surveillance camera. Then Coltrane tries to capture it but can’t, and it soon flies out his window. Then he follows it, wandering through the city streets. Then he sees cartoon red sine waves coming out of an apartment window and follows them, after the ball of light emerges from his mouth again. Then he breaks into the apartment, and inside is a glam-rock programmer-cum-hacker, played by comedian Noel Fielding: this is the person behind the lips. Then Coltrane kills Fielding. Then Coltrane approaches the computer with frenzied happiness, hoping to rekindle his relationship with the voice console.
There are a few ways this could end. The last shot of the “Deeper Understanding” video shows a screen with what appear to be masculine eyes, which probably belong to Noel Fielding, peering over the program’s red lips, which probably belong to Kate Bush.
Special thanks to Irene Markoff, to the Kate Bush online archive Gaffaweb, and to The Kate Bush Fan Podcast for inspiration, research and thinking integral to this piece.