Hard to believe the fall semester is already coming to a close, but we’re going out with a bang in Technomusicology (see & hear some of our projects here and there): Thursday’s final class session will feature a visit from none other than Jace Clayton, aka DJ /Rupture, globe-trotting artist, writer, label honcho, three-turntable magician, & one of the finest non-card-carrying technomusicologists in “the field”!
Jace will be presenting Sufi Plug Ins, his recently launched, semi-crowdsourced, collaboratively-produced, free (!) audio software / art project. As described over at Beyond Digital, Sufi Plugs Ins includes
four software synthesizers hardwired to North African maqam scales with quartertone tuning built-in, a device called DEVOTION which lowers your computer’s volume 5 times a day during call to prayer (presets include Agnostic, Fervent, Devout), and a drone machine
Now that’s what I call technomusicology! Check it out —
Jace is always very thoughtful (see, e.g., his own post on the project), so I’m quite looking forward to the demonstration & conversation. My students have been using Ableton all semester while reading across the history of sound technologies and how people have made them musical — what Jonathan Sterne refers to as their plasticity — so they should have a good vantage on the ways Sufi Plug Ins exploits the special affordances and constraints of contemporary techno-musical media.
Whether or not you too have been reading along and messing with Ableton, the event is free and open to the public, so if you’re interested in joining us from 3-5pm this Thursday, Nov 29, please do.
Last week the students in my technomusicology class submitted their video études. The assignment was relatively straightforward: make a montage of YouTube-sourced videos interlinked by some (musical) subject, theme, or tune. One additional challenge, if made far easier by Ableton’s video capacity, was to attempt to bring the various performances into a kind of musical coherence via tempo-warping and key-modulation, with the ultimate goal of producing a video that follows a specific thread in order to give an audible and visible sense of the vast world of musicking on YouTube — spanning professional and amateur domains, innumerable contexts, and a wide variety of genres, including some that are downright YouTube-specific — and, importantly, is also engaging to watch.
Longtime W&W readers will no doubt hear echoes of my own experiments in this regard — namely, Gasodoble & Bump con Choque — and perhaps a little bit of YouTube collage master, Kutiman, as well. Despite that I have not found many other examples along these lines, I think there’s great potential for this sort of form, or method even, to demonstrate and delve into the wide, weird world of YouTube — which is to say, the wide, weird world, period — despite that the site is also an incomplete, ephemeral, willy-nilly archive hosted on corporate servers.
As you’ll see in selected submissions below, students embraced the assignment with panache, producing wonderful little documents of the varied social and cultural lives of such things as recent pop hits, well-worn war-horses, video game themes, public domain experiments, and Elvis impersonators.
First, a veritable YouTube chorus performing the 2012 pop hit, “Call Me Maybe,” showing how quickly a popular song can enter into myriad genres of performance, presentation, and play (including some YouTube-specific ones, like stitching together political speeches to make presidents stutter along too):
Or this one, combining a handful of home versions of the Halo theme, seeking specifically to document the “resurgence” (or at least newfound visibility) of “amateur” musical practice and appreciating how even people’s mistakes “actually add some character” to the performances —
Another student sought to plumb the YouTube depths for impersonations of Elvis, uncovering in the process not simply the expected plethora of examples but an interesting recent wrinkle: most of these would-be Kings are lip-synching not to an original Elvis recording but to Junkie XL’s popular 2002 remix of Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.” My student found it notable that so many of the Elvises he encountered on YouTube “aren’t so orthodox in their impersonation”; I do too!
Several students went beyond the American pop repertory (which provides no end of subjects thanks to its imperial ubiquity) in order to explore YouTube instantiations of tunes that originated and enjoy rich social lives elsewhere.
Take, for example, this beat-matched collection of performances of “Asa Branca,” which my student describes as “a classic Brazilian baião composed by accordionist Luiz Gonzaga and lyricist Humberto Teixeira in 1947.” He continues —
This song has become so emblematic of so many things — Northeastern Brazilian regionalism, Brazilian diasporic identity, environmentalist movements, Brooklyn world music hipness — that I wanted to juxtapose as wide a variety of interpretations as I could, while choosing versions that retained the pulse of the original. From Korean fusion to muscle-metal play-along to small-town talent shows to arena Tropicália, with Gonzagão himself making the occasional approving cameo as a backup singer.
Or this one, documenting the variegated “going public” of a recent lullaby from Taiwan. (Notably, the student has only made the video semi-public — requiring a direct link — given concerns about unauthorized use of children’s performances, which she’s seeking explicit permission to include. Such ethical questions have been a recurring theme of the course, and I always encourage students to think about them as they record, copy, and manipulate the sounds and images of others.)
Finally, here’s a montage of a tune popular in both Turkey and Greece (and in both Turkish and Greek): “Kalenin Bedenleri” / “Siko Horepse Koukli Mou.” One curious thing that emerges here is how songs outside of the (Western) pop canon tend to be characterized on YouTube less by remixxy, YouTubey confections and more by familiar stagings of home, community, and local TV contexts. That said, a few clips of webcam-style pedagogy — a popular YouTube genre to be sure — make it into the mix too.
Here’s hoping that our experiments might lead to others in this vein and beyond. No doubt there is material aplenty to work with: YouTube reports (currently anyway; these figures keep changing) that 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. What a willy-nilly, wonderful world!
I’m happy to report that the semester has been going swimmingly. Sorry for the dearth of posts here, but I’ve been rather engaged with reading, for one course, across a vast and dense literature on music, race, & nation while exploring, in another, the history and potential of music’s (and sound’s) deep entanglement with technologies of transduction & reproduction.
As we barrel almost unbelievably toward the end of the term, we’ve managed to produce a pretty striking set of technomusicological etudes. While two big assignments remain (a video montage and a DJ mix), the students have produced soundscapes, radio collages, sample-based beats, and mashups. Impressed and entertained by them all, I want to share a few exemplary pieces to give people a (musique) concrete sense of what we’ve been up to. We recommend listening with headphones.
First, a couple entries from the soundscape assignment (including requisite if brief prose descriptions):
Sunday afternoon shopping [for soy sauce!] at the Boston Chinese Supermarket (C-mart).
In this tasty space, life takes many different forms: the entrance music that occupies its own territory 0:00-0:20; 2:36-end); people conversing on their wants and needs in Cantonese (0:21 – 0:40; 2:10-2:22); living lobsters/crabs breathing in tank [with running water] waiting to be picked, killed and consumed (0:45-1:15; 2:23-2:35); frozen dumplings resting in ice cases (1:22-1:26), listening to the check-out machine busy reading barcodes (starting 1:27 through 1:53, transposed); butchers cleaning, peeling and chopping off fish head using their fine/scary collection of life-taking tools (1:46 – 2:09).
All is intertwined and yet at the same time irrelevant. One eats to live, others live to be eaten. Together we breathe.
This recording encompasses the tragedy I face in procrastination – enjoyment of the meaningless which ends as soon as it metamorphoses into the meaningful. This tragedy is composed of five chapters. At first, the frustration with the ominous “paper” becomes not only overwhelming, but overwhelming to the point that I must abandon work with a very definitive “fuck this paper.” I venture outside into Harvard Square where meaningless interaction forms a melody. “Hey” defines the relationship I have with the grand majority of my acquaintances – an acknowledgement of each other’s existence is all we share. However, “hey” leaves me craving for real social interaction, and I do summon a friend upon stumbling on a musical gem in the Harvard Square “pit.” However, reality freezes the real pressure I have found in The Square. I am reminded that the ominous paper is still, in fact, in need of being submitted, and I am forced to retract into my study lair. “Why, why, why” is procrastination always halted when it gets good? The answer: it’s procrastination, it’s temporary. Oh, the tragedy that is procrastination.
The second pair of examples comes from the week we devoted to (Boston) radio collages, and each offers a rather interesting portrait of a particular slice of the local airwaves:
This soundscape/radioscape takes all of its material from a cheap radio clock in a bedroom in Cambridge, MA. The sounds were collected at about 2:00 PM on a weekday afternoon.
The goal in creating a weekday afternoon radioscape of Boston is to represent Boston radio at a time that I’ve always considered to be the least interesting time of day for radio. Because it lacks the audience that rush hour in the morning and evening (and to some extent lunch hour as well) draw, radio in the afternoon does not cater to a specific audience other than those who happen to be driving, are listening to radio as they work, or have nothing better to do for one reason or another. The music tends to be generic and fairly random, the talk shows discuss mundane topics in order to save more important thoughts for the busier hours, and there is no concerted effort to create a certain ambience, as in evening radio.
Strangely enough, though, this all serves to loosen radio to a certain extent, encouraging hosts to let their hair down a bit, and allowing each station to be a little less authoritarian in their choices of music. While listening to the radio for easy entertainment or interesting concepts may be difficult in the afternoon, listening with a critical ear at this times can become immensely entertaining. It is that strange combination of humor, flair, mediocrity, and commercialism that I am trying to convey in this piece, representing most of the material I found while striving to keep the pace entertaining for the listener, who doesn’t have the comfort of being at the control. I used a lot of layering, blending, and automation to splice events together convincingly, as well as some other effects like looping, delay, reverb, and mixing in cleaner recordings of songs in order to give a little surrealism and extra realism to the sound, which was limited by the reception of the radio.
The piece starts out with quick flipping through a few channels, then settles in with a couple of announcements about the time and place. The first section mainly moves back and forth between songs on different channels, but as we go on, new characters are and themes are introduced, such as talk radio, advertisements, a discussion about receipts, a sportscast and the ever-present (in New England) Dunkin Donuts. Finally, we close with a “goodbye” and a contrast between upbeat folk-classic music that evokes a kind of “simple gifts” feel characteristic of old-time New England and some inspirational words in Spanish. And maybe one last quip about Dunkin Donuts and their great coffee.
The voice is often used as a symbol of personal interaction. In early descriptions of radio, the feeling of such interaction and indeed of intimacy through the radio was often dependent on speech and the voice. In this exercise, I have edited short clips of radio recordings taken on October 14 and 15 in Allston, MA. The resulting mix produces a simulated radio world that is all talk, all voices speaking in different registers, different levels of excitement, and different languages. The listener’s relationship to the various voices depends on many markers of identity – religious, political, linguistic, sports, etc. This collage is thus a reflection on the limits of radio voices to convey intimacy.
Our third assignment required students to get into the aesthetics of sample-based hip-hop, combining samples of their choice with two classic breakbeats I provided (the Funky Drummer and Apache). Here’s a few fun standouts (including one dubsteppy excursion):
On the surface, this piece is a hip hop beat that goes on for a couple of minutes, and this is probably all that’s really apparent when listening. In some ways, it’s all that really needs to be apparent; when putting this together I was trying to make a new piece out of the materials that I sampled from a few other songs, but there is some thought that went into the choices of material. The beat takes sounds from the Funky Drummer and Apache breakbeats, cut up and made into new rhythms: pretty standard. The harmonic and melodic material, though, all comes from a couple of songs by Billy Joel and Elton John. For some reason, maybe because they’re both rock/pop pianists, I’ve always considered Billy and Elton to be two sides of the same coin, so I wanted, at least intellectually, to put them together in one piece. I don’t really feel like the interaction is audible, mostly because I limited myself to just one or two samples each from two songs by Elton and one by Billy, cut down to the point where they are really just a note or two in most cases and often edited until they don’t resemble the original at all (for instance, slowed and deepened until a medium-high synth sounds almost like dubstep) but I still like the idea of them both being in there.
Turkey is sometimes known as the crossroads of the world, and here, the shape (Dilli Düdük) and electronic sounds (Çakk?d?) of Turkish popular music mix with the rhythms (Funky Drummer) and jazzy lines (Apache) of Western samples. Their interaction makes a dense sonic fabric, and there is some tension scattered throughout, but ultimately, the two pairs of samples serve to reinforce and advance each other.
I decided to be quite liberal with the Funky Drummer sample provided to us, and chopped it down to individual sounds. I then put this on a new drum rack and treated it with a filter delay, reverb, and a couple other elements to create a dub-like effect. The tempo and syncopation is reminiscent of most dubstep tracks, with a BPM of 140 and the snare falling on the third beat. The melody and vocals of the track come from chopped samples of the 1970’s Angolan protest song Valódia by Santocas. Samples are treated with various filters and reverb as well as sidechained to the kick drum via a compressor. We hear a looped verse, “Bem longe/ Ouví aquele nome/ Inesquecível/ dos filhos de Angola” (Far away/ I heard that name/ Unforgettable/ to Angola’s children).
And one last example, a rather esoteric mashup from one of the grad students in the course:
Here’s a mash-up of a Brazilian maracatú (“Será” by Siba e a Fuloresta) and an unaccompanied Cretan rizitiko song performed by Vasilis Stavrakakis. Instead of mashing two pieces of similar tempo, I decided, inspired by the a capella intro to “Será,” to liberally chop up the unmetered Cretan song and manipulate it in various ways (pitch changes, overlapping punches, the creation of drones) to frame and comment on various musical events in the Brazilian song. Aside from a small gap inserted near the beginning, “Será” is basically intact; the challenge was to isolate and reconfigure phrases, both short and extended, from Stavrakakis’ performance to give the impression of a melodic, harmonic, and phrasal dialogue with Siba, the chorus, and the brass band. I especially like how, though the melodic trajectories of the two songs are similar, they often treat the second and sixth degrees of the scale in opposite ways (minor second and major sixth from Crete, major second and minor sixth from Brazil). This adds a nice pinch of tension without spoiling the soup (at least to my modally biased ears), and points to the manufactured nature of the operation.
It’s been a real thrill to hear what these talented students have cooked up this term. The best of these productions really speak for themselves. And that’s the point: how can we make audible stories about audition in the age of technological reproducibility? Toward that end, I was delighted to stumble across these thoughts just yesterday:
I think of the Marshall’s taxicab soundscape, how it captures not only the sonic communications of Jamaican cab drivers, and the broader dancehall soundscape in which they live, but also something of the musicologist himself. It’s just an essay transduced. What if students and academics were to pursue the craft of phrasing and editing sound, photographs, and film with the same doggedness with which we pursue the written word, aiming for the same sophistication that we do in our written texts? What would anthropology sound, look, feel like then?
“It’s just an essay transduced”! I like that. Gonna run with it — or take it for a ride? On that note, let me leave you with an intentionally schizophonic video mashup of my “Taximan” piece (as discussed here) set to soundtrack a trip down the Palisadoes to Norman Manley International Airport, where I chat a bit (in my own odd wavering accent) about Sunday radio in Jamaica (an old fave topic) with the driver:
It’s gonna be bonkers, sin duda. After this summer’s well received reggaetony set, I’m gonna have to up the ante, especially with downstairs’ subs to exploit. Trust it’ll be another crunk genealogy of some sort. Bottom-line: there’s nothing like playing to a room full of smiling dancing people. Can’t wait!
Then, on Sunday Nov 18, I’ll be at the Queens Museum in conversation with Apache Indian and DJ Rekha–
Felicitously — and aptly — the event is tied to an exhibition I’ve been wanting to check out, Caribbean: Crossroads of the World. What better angle to take on an English-born Punjabi bloke who raps over dancehall rhythms in a convincing Jamaican lilt, chatting bout arranged marriages with good creolized girls who “talk the Indian with the patwa” while proposing fusions of ragga and bhangra that, alongside contemporary Bally Sagoo, sketch out the blueprint for the entire genre as it’s known today.
A pioneer crossover artist, in his heyday Apache Indian addressed massive public followings in the UK and India, while enjoying a rare bit of outsider success in reggae and rap networks. And you can hear why. No more indebted to his namesake, Super Cat (aka the Wild Apache), than, say, Sean Paul is (which is to say, deeply indebted), Apache Indian distinguishes himself with a mastery of form that exceeds imitation. Man sound real, as they say. Check the original Don Raja stylee —
His knowledge of & affection for Jamaican music clearly run deep; note the fidelity to classic 60s style in what may be his best known song (thanks to inclusion on a few film soundtracks) — and, yes, he clearly enjoys playing “the Indian” in a Jamaican context (and the reggae guy in an Indian one):
Of course, all of this is to say that he sounds about as British as anything (or anyone) else. And his recordings embodied as they emboldened a generation of Asian youth who grew up amidst England’s unruly and often Caribbean-accented multiculture, and who wanted to own all of that — and to make it their own thing (no matter how Jamaican it might sound). Directly or indirectly, Apache Indian’s performances always raise questions about race and nation, (cross- and intra-)cultural dynamics and traditions, mutable and fixed positions. And this is irrespective of whether he’s performing in full Jamaican regalia, some bhangramuffin ensemble, or Putumayo-pleasing homeland garb (b/w Rastafarian rhetoric)–
Lots to talk about, no doubt. The event is free and open to the public, so come on thru!