Archive of posts tagged with "rock"

December 4th, 2013

Welcome (African?) Wizardry

I’m a little late sharing the good news of the John Wizards, a producer-singer duo from South Africa who put together my favorite recording of this year. But given that even some of my most musically voracious friends have still not heard them, I’m clearly not too late. So let me put it like this: John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba deserve some of your time. We’ve already given them a lot of ours.

In a year with nuff great releases from smallbatch labels & independent artists (see: exhibits A, B, & C), John Wizards’ self-titled debut most captured my ears — and lent itself to realtime, and virtual, sharing with friends — and so I feel a need to sing its praises more publicly.

Let’s start where they do, the opening track, “Tet Lek Schrempf” —

A careful but whimsical opening, the track gestures in almost overture-ish fashion to the diverse musical corners the album eventually winds its way into. Beginning with something reminiscent of Soothing Sounds for Baby, by 0:45 we dwindle into a slowing-then-speeding piano arpeggio, eventually mirrored and replaced by a plucky synth lead and, at 1:05, a rollicking triple-duple beat. By the time we hear “Greetings from John Wizards!” at 1:45, we’ve arrived yet somewhere else, with live-ish sounds evoking birds and crowds and a warbling melodic loop. Along with an increasingly menacing, bubbling bassline, these occupy the foreground for about a minute before shoved aside by a bluesy, wailing guitar line, teetering on the edge of schlock. When the guitar jumps an octave at 2:52, the whole thing comes to screaming life, synthclaps splattering, like that’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for. As we lurch toward the end with the brief appearance of an acoustic riff that seems (in a moment of good judgment) second-guessed before yielding again to the electric wail, we get a good glimpse at the music’s meticulous construction — a sly moment of subtraction amidst all the accretion and allusion.

John Wizards’ restless approach to form and sui generis stylistic synthesis make them pretty irresistible even for a recovering-rockist listener like myself. Sure, there’s something very rock band at work here — plenty guitfiddle, pretty chord changes — but it’s balanced by a wealth of electronic signposts and presence, from the waveform drums & synths weaving through every track, to the occasional Shangaan electro-esque freakout, even down to the misleadingly low-fi demotape disco / bedroom bubblegum vibes of “iYongwe.” John Wizards pack an enchanting number of ideas into their music, but never too many, and always executed with care and panache.

Another fine example is “Lusaka by Night,” including the video’s parallel, playful imagery —

Much as I attempt to listen independent of biography and other narrative frames, the strikingly peripatetic quality running through the music seems consistent with the group’s official backstory —

John Wizards might have started in Maputo. It also might have started in Cape Town. It certainly owes a debt to Dar es Salaam.

These are the three places that band leader and producer John Withers either travelled through or lived in, and he feels have had a marked influence on his musical output. They also happen to be cities in which Emmanuel Nzaramba, John Wizards’ Rwandan singer has lived too.

John met Emmanuel while he was working as a car guard, outside a coffee shop in Cape Town. Emmanuel noticed the guitar strapped to John’s back, and they began to talk about music. Emmanuel had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and John told him that he had been writing music requiring vocals. They didn’t get around to recording that time: Emmanuel quit his job, lost his cellphone, and moved to a new place and lost contact.

A year later (2012) John moved house and had got together some new songs and by chance ran into Emmanuel again: they were living in the same street. John invited him to his place to listen to reggae band The Congos, It turned out that he didn’t like them, but he did like some of the new songs John had written. He would listen to them once or twice, and start singing. The outcome of these evenings can be heard on their debut album.

It’s a compelling story, to be sure (except for that bit about not liking the Congos!). Tailormade for today’s vexed representational struggles and mixed modes of reception, the narrative seems to anticipate congealed frames of reference, playing into the enduring importance to audiences of place and experience, especially when we’re talking about Africa, even as it seeks to evade the cliches of cosmopolitanism and authenticity. It helps, then, that John Wizards’ music itself says as much — and more — about the serendipity and movement so central to their myth of origins. Narrative aside, this is great music which deserves to be heard far and wide. But can we put narrative aside?

Given the panoply of reference points and stylistic curveballs, could John Wizards’ relative obscurity in an ocean of new music have anything to do with the difficulty of finding a bin? In 2013? On one hand, I find that hard to believe. On the other, I suspect that the question of genre — and its enduring social and infrastructural contours — continues to shape circulation and reception of musical media fairly profoundly, even well into the digital era.

Personally speaking, I owe it to Gamall, the discerning dude behind Backspin Promotions — and to the fact that I blog and tweet and sometimes actually review new music for other publications — for bringing John Wizards to my attention. Gamall’s always on top of new electronic releases, affiliated with such stellar, dependable outlets as Hyperdub, Editions Mego, and Planet Mu — the latter of which, perhaps surprisingly, is responsible for bringing the John Wizards to the wider world. As such, John Wizards have been inserted into a rather particular musical ecosystem, and some of Gamall’s promo copy has been pretty straightforward in creating distance from certain frames of reference:

… a unique sound that many have compared to Vampire Weekend in reverse (African music looking outwards taking in European influences). Don’t be confused and think this is some kind of world music project though – it isn’t …

It’s telling that the few times I’ve seen John Wizards come across my radar have been via the likes of Catchdubs and Obey-City, two producers/DJs generally more drawn to the (wide) world of club music than tempo-hopping, shape-shifting, bedroom-studio guitarry stuff. So maybe this tack is working after all. I won’t be surprised to see a well-deserved late surge for John Wizards in years-end Best Ofs.

Suggesting that this approach to spreading the group’s music will continue, their second single arrives this week accompanied by two remixes which transpose the dubby, ethereal “Muizenberg” into different genres — new channels to surf.

Far as newness goes, though, the newest thing here is the synthesis, not the synths. There’s no reason that electronic music audiences shouldn’t be receptive to a stunning take on the world of sonic possibility grounded in southern African soundscapes. Drum machines and squealing, squelching synths are not, by any stretch, new to African music. In this sense, John Wizards offer one of various points of entry into a long, loopy history of musicians using technology to constantly reinvent the Sound of Africa.

Could this be a controversial thing to say about a duo comprising a heavy-handed white-dude producer and a black vocalist? As John Withers put it in an interview with Pitchfork (so, yeah, it’s not like these guys aren’t making the rounds — and good for them for that) —

If you’re white and playing an African style, even in Africa, it’s a touchy thing. … But I’ve got no real problem with people drawing on anything — if the music is nice, the music is nice.

I’ve got to agree with that. John’s and Emmanuel’s music is nice indeed. May it touch you too.

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March 5th, 2013

Boston Mashacre

On the 243rd anniversary of the Boston Massacre (bigup Crispus Attucks!), I’m reposting the merely titular-pun-related mix of Boston-associated songs I cooked up for the Somerville Art Council back in 2005. This is also (barely) germane to the day given the currently flaring debate over Massachusetts’ official rock song. (As they say around here, I shit you not.) Not to mention, if only very tangentially, the emergence of one of the best mashups in years. (Really love how it reproduces the effect of that ol’ Eminem/Britney mashup, revealing the underlying pop sensibilities of two putative hardcore outsiders.) Without further ado, here’s the Boston Mashacre (my follow-up, the Smashacre, resides over here)…

wayne&wax, “boston mashacre” (for somerville artbeat 2005)

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we begin with sounds of the davis square farmer’s market, with several different languages being spoken, including what sounds like a guy saying “habibi.” the percussion is an empty soda bottle that another guy was banging on his hip, quietly singing what sounded like a reggae song at the same time. confirming my impression, yet another guy–this one a farmer/vendor–walks up to him and says rather dryly, and to my incredulous ears for stumbling upon such a soundbite, “champion sound, yeah?” from there, the man with the bottle plays a classic 3+3+2, reminiscent of so many caribbean styles, and we hear car alarms and horns spin into melody. as a bus pulls up and takes off again (and “buses” was one of the most popular returns i got to the question “what are the sounds of somerville?”), the familiar strains of the standells’ “dirty water” enter the soundscape and the mix. from there, the incidental sounds of the city–which, as you can hear, are rather musical in their own way–yield to the “musical” sounds of the city. that is, we enter the realm of pop recordings, of the boston soundscape as MOR radio presents it (at least as filtered through the ears of a lifelong boston jerk who harbors a strange mix of pride, humility, and humiliation when it comes to the sounds of his city).

after the standells, the lineup moves through a number of boston mainstays and one-hit wonders, has-beens and shoulda-beens. the full tracklist is as follows:

the standells, “dirty water” (not a boston band, but they might as well be)
the cars, “you might think i’m crazy” (yup, a boston band)
dj c, “boston you’re my bounce” (beat research)
NKOTB, “hangin’ tough” (omg! jordan is my fave lol ;-)
mr. lif, “home of the brave” (so he lives in berkeley now, and what?)
tracy chapman, “fast car” (used to play T stations)
extreme, “more than words” (found an acapella!?!)
aerosmith, “walk this way” (nice break, dudes)
run DMC, “walk this way” (better break, jam master)
NKOTB, “the right stuff” (williamsburg where ya at?)
bell biv devoe, “poison” (girl, i must warn you: i know that BBD album by heart)
the cars, “just what i needed” (uncanny how the intro mirrors BBD’s)
j geils band, “angel is a centerfold” (urbody whistle now)
boston, “more than a feeling” (guitars are for dorks)
ed O.G., “i got to have it” (representin’ the bean harder than guru since 1991)
MBTA, “davis square redline stop” (a wicked hahd-to-find recording)

listeners will notice that some of these tracks are in more fragmentary form than others. (hope not to leave anyone hanging too much, but you should seek out the originals in that case.) as with most mixes, it was the tracks’ suggestive qualities and affective resonance that i was going for–not some sense of their textual wholeness. this is however less a mix or a mashup, per se, than what might be better called a mix’n’mash. at times, i play songs on their own, though more often than not i play two or more songs at once (or instrumental versions/loops of them).

the sound and shape of the music i am making here is a product of the technology that i am using: ableton live. having the relative freedom to stretch tempos without changing pitch allows me to match a number of songs together that the average vinylist couldn’t/wouldn’t. of course, i also change pitch sometimes, purposely, either to make a harmony sweeter or to weird/chipmunk something out. generally though, at least in this case, i have preserved the original pitch/key of the songs in question, which i think makes them much more recognizable. the changes in tempo are less noticeable. you’ll notice i like the echo button, too.


w&w performing the mashacre live at artbeat 05

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February 6th, 2013

Rockuduro

Speaking of Africa Remix

That’s “Ewe” — the latest from Throes + The Shine, a project out of Portugal which, as the + implies, is essentially a merger between two groups: (migrant) Angolan kuduro duo The Shine and, as my tipster Ana Patrícia Silva puts it, Portuguese “post-hardcore/noise band” Throes. (The b-boy formidably rocking out between bowls of TV-addled oatmeal is, I’m told, a national champ of sorts.)

Ana first told me about The Sine + Throes last May. (I know, I’ve been sleeping, but you should see my drafts folder: 62 and counting!) At the time, Ana reported that the group had “pretty much been taking everyone by surprise here in Portugal.” She continued —

They have a growing cult due to their live shows, which are absolutely explosive and make everyone – from headbangers to hipsters to hip-shakers – go absolutely nuts! It’s really interesting how they are able to unite such different crowds under one roof and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

A brief profile here helps to make sense of what might seem at first like an implausible fusion:

as far as we know, kuduro and rock is a novel idea, yet it makes perfect sense. Both are full-on, high-bpm styles that demand full bodily commitment for maximum enjoyment, especially live. Still, no one thought to bring the two worlds together until kuduro duo The Shine (André Do Poster and Diron Shine) teamed up with Portuguese rockers Throes (Marco Castro and Igor Domingues). The result is exhilarating.

It’s hard to disagree, especially when seeing the whole crew in action. Here’s a less ventriloquized video, for instance, their first single, “Batida” —

Describing a concert she attended, Ana was deeply impressed by the wide net the band’s performance cast and vibe they created, despite the harsh edges and insistent sensuality —

I saw them live last summer in the middle of the afternoon at an all-ages outdoor festival. During their show I remember seeing old people clapping hands, little kids jumping around, parents nodding their heads and teenagers and young adults pretty much losing their shit. It is impressive how something so aggressive and so sexual in its essence is capable of connecting with so many different people from different age groups, races and social status. It’s the beauty of music, I guess. How it manages to unite such different people in the same space and time. For that whole hour, the world did seem like a great place to be living in.

And just as the perhaps irreducibly jarring juxtapositions of the group are what make their shows so compelling, apparently there are subtler, but perhaps no less affecting, modes of mixture at work in the making of their sound:

There’s another interesting detail that I forgot to add. Their entire album was recorded, mixed and mastered in analogue tape. It was made at Estúdios Sá da Bandeira, a music studio in Porto that specializes in analog recording and vintage equipment (which is very rare in Portugal).

I don’t think I had ever heard kuduro recorded in 100% analog format! That’s part of the reason why their sound is so warm and with a bit more emphasis on the rockier side. Every single instrument they used (guitar, drums, bass, synths, marimba, xylophone, etc.) is fully analog, no computer was used in those sessions. And that’s also part of their appeal, I guess: it’s a completely different experience (especially live) to listen to something as effusive as kuduro music backed by the raw power of a drum kit, the melodies of a guitar and the groove of an actual bass.

A touch of rockist romanticism perhaps — and perversely enough, I might like my kuduro best in 128k gritty wifi realism — but I have to admit the group’s sound is awfully warm and punchy.

That said, Throes + The Shine are (obviously) hardly purist, and I was delighted to find that such friends and colleagues as Daniel Haaksman & Emynd have recently done remixes for them. Emynd’s is particularly amazing, departing from the band’s primary genre references to explore kindred vibes. Shuffling between breakbeat techno / protojungle and that ol bmore bounce, with a little trappist jam to stick things together, dude really takes it there, then somewhere else again (compare to the original):

You can sink your teeth into a lot more if you like, including their full first album, Rockuduro (streaming below) — & given such a strong start, I expect we’ll all have a chance to hear plenty more.

update (2/7): All of the above is worth considering against and alongside Alexis Stephens’s probing investigation into Os Kuduristas and the slick PR machine that represents Angola through kuduro.

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March 7th, 2011

Unauthorized Oz Wizardry

Tip of the virtual cap to “sharebro” and jazz wiz Josh Rutner for these —


c/o MOVIEBARCODE

c/o pughtube

The Wizard of Oz + Dark Side of the Moon…. many folks have tried to put these two together and succeeded, sort of. The people that even know about this probably still argue on which lion roar to start the album on…wait, do you start when you drop the needle on the record or when you hit play on the cd player, shit?! I put it on Vimeo so no one has to worry about syncing this ever again…This is for all you stoners and once was hippies.

– Per your requests, I have extended the movie to it’s actual running time and looped the album throughout the film. It’s actually quite surprising how many moments line up later in the movie, but it doesn’t happen as frequently as the first time through.

– If you have an hour and forty five minutes to kill you could spend it watching this urban legend. Personally, I can only watch the first rotation of the album. I like Pink Floyd and all, but my human brain is only able to withstand around 45 minutes of concentration. …

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February 24th, 2011

More SoundClowning Around

Thanks for the continued conversation re: the limits to your love. I enjoy plotting to create better possible futures with y’all, and I <3 how the discussions here get amplified and “shopped” around. Ahem~



To keep the discussion moving (for I really don’t want the iron to cool too much, lest we lose our fire entirely), I want to talk about a couple interesting uploads I came across this week on SoundCloud.

Briefly, let me preface by noting that I’ve found it pretty remarkable throughout SoundCloud’s relatively short existence that I rarely if ever run across an example of flagrantly unauthorized filesharing. Some users occasionally upload other people’s tracks without explicit consent but more typically as a form of decentralized (and courted) promotional activity than in a yes-you-can-find-that-on-YouTube fashion. To me this seemed like evidence of a good faith approach, wherein SoundCloud was taking a gentle, supportive hand to remixed, DJ-mixed, and otherwise recontextualized music (including as part of field recordings) and balancing that strong stance toward fair use by vigorously removing any blatant examples of bald, untransformative filesharing.

Of course, December’s wave of automated take-downs let the air out of any dream of a concerted, coherent, or particularly robust defense of fair use on SoundCloud at the corporate level. Nevertheless, users of SoundCloud continue — both unintentionally and purposefully — to challenge terms of service, copyright law, practices of attribution, and notions of ownership. I’d like to examine here one example from each camp: the accidental and the intentional. (And, given the fraught status of each, we’ll see how long before this blogpost becomes yet another web2.0 graveyard.)

Here’s one that I would characterize as unintentional, though as I’ll explore, the lines get blurry:

Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single Part 1 by mjs538

Pop archivist and professor Hugo Keesing, building on the work of radio DJ Mark Ford (post-post update: see here for a detailed parsing of the tape’s twists and turns), spliced together the audio “embedded” in the player up there, just below his portrait in triplicate. It’s a piece he named Chartsweep back when in the pre-Napster 90s, an hour-plus collage comprising short, recognizable samples of every #1 hit in the US from 1956 to 1992 (according to Billboard/Whitburn).

Apparently, the montage, which may or may not have been made from reel-to-reel recordings and/or 45s (see some mythology here [and again, here]), circulated informally and anonymously among radio heads for many years before someone finally solved the mystery and tracked down Keesing. [Though to update again, according to this, the piece was “heard in national syndication, annually, by millions and millions of listeners,” so obviously, and interestingly (given this week’s amnesiac reception), it has enjoyed a massive audience in the past.]

Keesing discusses the project, and his background, in this interview with Jon Nelson. Allow me to excerpt a bit to show how the assemblage, which Nelson says he “couldn’t help but think of as art,” emerges both out of Keesing’s capacious love for popular music and his embrace of mashup poetics, if you’ll permit the anachronism, as a form of multimedia pedagogy:

The concept and term “Chartsweep” both originated in the late 60s with a syndicated radio show called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I listened to it on WOR-FM in New York and recorded portions of it on an old Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder. As you know, the ‘sweep presented segments of every Billboard #1 single starting with “Memories Are Made of This” (Jan 1956). I don’t recall where it stopped, but it was around 1968/69. Six years later I began teaching an American Studies course at the University of Maryland called “Popular Music in American Society.” To provide a setting for each class I dusted off the concept, took it back to January 1950, added a number of songs based on Joel Whitburn’s re-definition of #1 songs, and continued where the original had stopped. I added each new #1 until fall, 1991 when I stopped teaching the course. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was the 900th. At the start of each class I played a portion of the ‘sweep that corresponded to the years we were covering that night. To accompany the tape I made 35mm slides of either the original sheet music, 45 rpm record sleeve or something similar, so that students could see as well as hear the pop music history. Copies of each night’s tape went to the undergraduate library. I assume that an enterprising student or two made their own copies and it is a copy of a copy of a copy that remains in circulation. That’s the story in a nutshell.

But, of course, the saga continues. In the last week Chartsweep has risen to “viral” prominence after a complicated — and possibly incestuous — round of re-posting and re-blogging and re-posting and re-blogging. Although uploaded to SoundCloud just two days ago, as of this writing, the two parts have cumulatively garnered nearly 150k plays!

Key to this unprecedented explosion of exposure is, of course, the unauthorized uploading of Chartsweep to SoundCloud, the special affordances of which — namely, embeddability and scalability — make it a lot easier for Keesing’s collage to travel and be heard and shared than if it were simply residing as mp3s on a server here or there.

Precisely because Chartsweep has been around for years, enjoying a more modest audience and addressing a narrower public, the piece’s performance on the so-called platforms of web 2.0 could prove instructive as we dispute what constitutes fair use, and what doesn’t, in an age of “automated diminishment.” At the moment, it remains to be seen what — and whether/when — Audible Magic will have to say about all the unauthorized samples it sniffs in this.

The samples are sitting there, clear as day. Here’s part 2, stretching from Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” (itself embroiled in silly copyright wrangling) to the fitting closer, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”:

Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single Part 2 by mjs538

Now, Chartsweep It may not be the sort of thing you’d like to listen to all the time, and it’s certainly not a replacement for any, never mind all, of the songs it includes. I feel little need to explain why this sort of thing has the right to exist. The answer to that question is audible and obvious. Indeed, just a glance at the reactions Chartsweep elicits, whether at SoundCloud or on blogs, turns up a great variety of ways that such a transparently derivative and transformative work can reveal, uniquely even, all manner of things about pop and charts and us. Among other things it nicely demonstrates, as one commenter notes, “This is so awesome…you can actually hear the British Invasion happening in 1964″ (emphasis mine).

But what about questions of attribution and fair use and ownership not with regard to the maker of the montage but the uploader of the audio? It’s notable that mjs538 provided no information about who put the piece together — or anything else. Indeed, he even gave it a misleading (and erroneous) new title, “Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single.” But despite these possibly suspect procedures, plenty of listeners recognized Chartsweep immediately, and some — like DJ Empirical — felt compelled to leave a comment providing proper attribution. (The confusion here seems to stem from a case of lazy reblogging and meta-data erasure by the very same affective laborer, Matt Stopera, who (re)posted it here — where he oddly indicates that it was “Made by” Ubuweb, who have merely done the simple, if awesome, [& actually, slightly misleading] service of re-archiving the audio and interview — and who also re-blogs stuff like “The 30 Best Pictures Of Asians Wearing Engrish Shirts” — clearly a man of taste and honor.)

Can we imagine a better set of practices for sharing Chartsweep with a new set of publics? I suspect we can. Would as many people have heard it this week if such a system were somehow automated? Doubtful, at least at this point. Does that matter?

These thorny questions echo in the second example I’d like to discuss here…

Earlier this week, Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson took to his website, Facebook, eager amplifiers like Mad Decent and Resident Advisor, and, yes, SoundCloud, in order to clown a couple Italian producers who centrally employ an obvious sample of Saunderson’s 1987 classic, “The Sound,” without giving credit (or publishing for that matter) where due. In response, Saunderson is giving away digital copies of the original track while posting a copy of the offending track to SoundCloud — for free, without Supernova’s permission, and in 82mb wav file splendor (not that it’s such a splendiferous track, a rather wan paint-by-numbers production rightly derided in comments as “beatport minimal” and “ableton techno”).

Here’s the story according to Saunderson (& hear the original here, if you don’t want to download it c/o his righteous largess); note the nuance in Saunderson’s position here — this is hardly copyright extremism:

I recorded “The Sound” back in 1987 and released it on my own KMS Records label. It was a massive hit at New York’s Paradise Garage and in Chicago and of course Detroit. Once it hit the UK it became one of the earliest Detroit anthems right acround Europe, a huge underground record across the globe – a true desert island techno track. It is such a special record to me because it was one of my first really successful productions and I hope that you all will enjoy this free, fresh digital download of my original 1987 version.

The reason I have decided to give this track away for free is because of a situation that recently developed involving the unauthorized sampling of “The Sound” by Italian producers Giacomo Godi & Emiliano Nencioni (Supernova) in their release “Beat Me Back” on Nirvana Recordings. It came to my attention that they are licensing and selling, with considerable success, this track which is nothing more than a continuous loop of the main hook from “The Sound.”

For me to hear ‘Supernova’ taking an extended loop of “The Sound” and claiming that this is their own original composition and production is both dishonest and disrespectful. My first thought was that they were perhaps naïve, but as they have apparently been recording together since 2002 this seems unlikely. In any event this is completely unacceptable, we cannot continue to let this kind of wholesale rip off go unchallenged and tolerate “artists” who completely sample recordings, add nothing of their own and then release the results as their own work.

I have a huge affection for sampling, it’s how some of the most inspiring and ground breaking tracks of our times were created. We’ve pretty much all sampled records at some time, and cleared the sample so we can use it on our releases, but it is just not cool to take someone else’s music, create a big old loop of it and then put your name on it and try to have success entirely off the back of another artist’s efforts. This really has got to stop. For this reason, I have uploaded the Godi/Nencioni version of “The Sound” to Soundcloud so that you all can download this for free if you so wish. These producers and their record label should not be profiting from my back catalogue… this is not their track to sell.

Here it is (and do note the title!), though I recommend clicking over to SoundCloud to check the convo happening there (and over at RA too):

The Sound rip off/now called Beat Me Back By Supernova, what the hell by Kevinsaunderson

As of this writing Saunderson’s instantiation of “Beat Me Back” at SoundCloud has been listened to over 10k times and downloaded almost 2k times. I can only hope that the original will enjoy a lush new life despite the strange circumstances of its revival. It’s definitely vexing that someone like Saunderson — who can be credibly described as an architect of the very sound, the very aesthetic conventions (never mind specific bassline), that Supernova are working in — might find himself so rudely excluded from deserved techno dividends in the age of Beatport. And I quite support the sort of public gesture he’s making.

I also look forward to hearing, if anything, what happens to something like this on SoundCloud. Will Supernova sue? Will they settle? Will SoundCloud / Audible Magic intervene first? It’s tricky terrain, to be sure. But I suspect there are plenty of “brave” lawyers ready to leap into the breach.

But before this seems like another round of ammunition for the copyright wars, I want to return to the importance of nuance and context when we make efforts to distinguish between fair and unfair uses of musical recordings. While I am sympathetic to Saunderson (and would happily help him make his case), I don’t think it’s so simple as to say that any track built on a loop in this way is necessarily subject to the kinds of ownership claims he’s making. In contrast, I can think of any number of hip-hop tracks that are similarly loop-based and yet still stand as undeniably “original” and perhaps even deserving of commercial (and, of course, non-commercial) lives of their own.

As it happens, this very example offers a fine test case, for Supernova are not the first to build a track around a central sample of “The Sound.” Way back in 1988, just months after “The Sound” started hitting clubs across the burgeoning post-disco diaspora, New York’s Todd Terry enlisted its distinctive bassline for one of his trademark sample-laced burners, “Back to the Beat” —

Listening to the three versions alongside each other, we’re invited to think about whether “Back to the Beat” > “Beat Me Back” — or, more precisely, what makes one loop hackish (and hence disrespectable) and another inspired (and thus tolerated). Note how this commenter on another instantiation attempts to tease out what Terry has borrowed from what he has created:

Of course, the amazingly amazing and idiosyncratic bassline was sampled from Reese & Santonio’s Detroit classic “The Sound” just as the the choirish sound has Kraftwerk circa anno? 1986 and “Electric Cafe” written all over it. However, the heavy rhythm, the eclectic melange of samples from everythere and – yes – the stuttering quality is very characteristic of Todd Terry productions.

I really appreciate the way a sense of community norms — however local or contested they may be — undergirds a comment like this, and it’s that sort of community-wide interpretation and peer-level censure (or approval) that should be at the heart of how we collectively regulate public culture in an age of click-and-drag remediation.

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August 25th, 2010

Todo Mundo Musikeando

When I was in Mexico recently, I gave a lecture-demo on how one might express ideas about music through music. (Readers of this blog will be familiar with these approaches, especially via my excursions in riddim meth0dism.) Although I want to keep the concept as open as possible, believing there are myriad ways to do so, in my presentation I explored two principal methods: the mashup and the mix.

With regard to mashups, I talked about two different sorts of uses, which I termed the “analytical” and the “aesthetic” (even though the whole point of music-about-music is that the aesthetic and analytical modes merge). Essentially, I was trying to draw a distinction between using mashups — i.e., the vertical / simultaneous juxtapositions of two or more tracks — to 1) demonstrate certain correspondences between recordings; and 2) embody a kind of “poetic justice,” a critique of the relations between two or more works that one can attempt to encode by choosing to “discipline” or “subordinate” one track to another (whether in terms of form, pitch, tempo, or the like). These lines really do blur, inevitably even, though certain examples I offered were rather cut’n’dry and could prolly safely be consigned to category #1.

I played a bunch of mixes and mashes from the W&W oeuvre, but I also tried my hand at making one on the spot. And I’d like to share that one here (especially since one of the mashees, Vijay Iyer, saw my tweet about it and told me he’d like to hear it).

Although mashing up Vijay’s version of “Galang” with the MIA original doesn’t really offer much opportunity for much in the way of ethico-aesthetic statements (unlike other examples), it does offer a pretty classic case where the simple act of juxtaposition brings out some interesting points of coincidence and departure. Before I tell you more, let’s let the sound speak for itself —

w&w, “galangs” (MIA + Vijay Iyer)

galangs from wayneandwax on Vimeo.

I’m not sure what emerges as you listen to and/or watch this yourself, but one thing that you’ll hear&see if you try again is that I’ve only made two small cuts to the MIA track, suggesting that there is a great deal of correspondence between the two. In the process of lining these up, I learned — after noting that Iyer & co. remain faithful to basic issues of key and tempo — that the trio skips 14 bars at one point, at the 33rd measure to be exact (i.e., after two clean 16-bar “choruses,” in jazzspeak), bringing it back for one more trip through the refrain before getting to that ya-ya-hey-ya-ya-ho part at the end (which, interestingly and mercifully, they riff on for 4 fewer measures than she). Deciding to cut here rather than extend, I followed Vijay’s lead and snipped those 18 total measures from the MIA track, which brought them right in line. I like how the mash brings out the ways that the trio traces and accentuates MIA’s vocal lines (and driving, angular accompaniment) while, at other times, departing in some fanciful ways, as Vijay takes off on some small spiky solos. I also quite like the resulting chaos and density, matching key for keyb.

While I was in the process of getting back into the cover-song mashing practice, I decided to do one more (now back at home, not on-stage in Mexico). I’ve really had Nina Sky’s refresh of the Cure’s “Lovesong” in my head for the past few weeks, so I figured I’d whip up a little tribute in the form of a “duet.”

Notably, as with the Galangs above, I didn’t have to alter pitch or tempo in either case here, showing the new version to be faithful to the original in its basic parameters (and making it easy on me). Once again, though, there were some small differences in form that I had to reconcile, and it’s always hard to perform such nips and tucks without thinking about the act and what it effects, symbolically speaking. (This is where aesthetics and analysis necessarily intersect.) Why should I favor this one over that? Is there a poetics here that might guide this choice? Does the sonically “right” choice imply an aesthetic position, or suggest a poetics, that I hadn’t myself premeditated? What’s the best choice in terms of both sonic and symbolic outcome?

In the end I decided to compromise. Rather than totally warping one to work to the other, they take turns leading the way. Because the Nina Sky version features a far briefer intro (2 measures vs. 8) — & such a lovely vintage drum machine loop — and I didn’t want to start right in with any incisions, I decided to loop it (and make it loud enough to compete with a rock band) until they were ready to sing together. From there, as you’ll see, I’m pretty hands-off. I make only two small cuts to the Cure version, excising the guitar solo (yeah, yeah) and inserting a brief pause after measure 45 in order to match the newer version’s terser form and awesome little breakdown. In general, I also have the Nina Sky version a bit louder in the mix so that we get more contemporary bump than 80s midrange grind. Any rockist lawyers out there can sue me. We neither cease nor desist, yo —

w&w, “lovesongs” (the Cure + Nina Sky)

lovesongs from wayneandwax on Vimeo.

In Mexico I demonstrated less in the way of mixes, though I did do a brief rundown of the Zunguzung meme, zipping through 20 or so examples at a rapid clip. And I discussed a few organizing themes I’ve employed in my more “lessony” mixes, such as pursuing particular rhythmic threads or vocal lines, though I neglected to mention (doh!) the two swipes I’ve taken at my home soundscape, the Boston Mashacre and Smashacre. I also overlooked a great number of stellar efforts by other folk which do exactly the thing I’m talking about — i.e., the forms and contents of the mixes themselves, without requiring additional explication, possess the power to represent some rather interesting things about music, sound, and the relationships between particular works.

There are a growing number of these and, indeed, already a rather massive number that might be counted. Plenty have been mentioned on this blog before. We might think of Dr. Auratheft‘s suggestive series, devoted to everything from fairly straightforward collections (“Calypso War Songs”) to philosophically provocative assemblages (“Post-European Dialogues in Sound”). Or El Niño’s recent Reggaespañol mix or John Eden’s Boops Specialist compendium. Or attempts to gesture at the range of global hip-hop, world house, Indian house, or — one of the all-time greats of the meta-genre — the history of English MCs. Or take the (not one but) two vocoder mixes that have emerged alongside Dave Tompkins’s magisterial vocoder opus; notably, they need not be taken as supplements but as sonic (non?)fictions of their own.

But my favorite example in recent months — maybe of the year — has to be Nguzunguzu’s Moments in Love. I sorta slept on it for a while, but I’ve been listening to it weekly just about all summer and it’s just so good. There’s something really deep about those Art of Noise synth stabs, and their hauntingly simple melody, that makes me happy to hear them over and over again. But it’s also the engrossing, downright amazing way that one hears the riff take on new life, rising and falling across the various permutations and recontextualizations that Nguzunguzu string together. Beyond anything else, I love how this mix demonstrates the utter pliability — and yet resilience — of one little riff, weaving it through all kinds of club music, hip-hop, r&b, cumbia, you-name-it. It’s an audible trip through the remix age. Bravísimo!

Nguzunguzu, Moments in Love Mixtape

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The first few times I listened, I almost couldn’t believe that the riff had been repurposed by such an incredibly wide range of producers. Indeed, I started to suspect that Nguzunguzu must be mucking around a little, throwing the riff in at times in order to keep the flow going and not caring too much about playing with the musical-historical record. Now, even though that might not be quite as “cool” as if all the tracks actually contained the riff, I wouldn’t really have minded at all. No need to be too strict about this stuff. It is music after all, which is to say, at least in this case, art (& craft). And I’m happy to grant Daniel & Asma all the poetic license in the world. It would make the mix no less enjoyable, IMO. And that’s an important dimension of musically-expressed-ideas-about-music: they need not be held to (and indeed intrinsically resist) the same standards of comprehensiveness or authority or transparency that we expect from, say, academic or even journalistic writing; rather, such creations offer gestural and sometimes personal engagements with some musical or sonic subject. That is all. From there, feel free to entrain and entertain me. Edification is a bonus.

Anyway, I had to get to the bottom of what was happening in the “edits” noted in the tracklist. Turns out, rather than superimposing the riff, Nguzunguzu were doing the exact opposite: adding drum tracks to beatless versions of the Art of Noise song! Tres cool. Via email —

Actually yes, there are two instances that “mash-up” an awesome drum beat with an already made remix of art of noise.

LIke many classical musicians would remake moments in love with a whole orchestra or bells, and we would find these recordings and put
them to a dance break as with:
MACHETE MOMENTS: ERIDSON VS. LUCIFER (NGUZU EDIT)
and
ART IN MOMENTS: DJ QUEST VS. LIEBRAND (NGUZU EDIT)
(Lucifer and Liebrand made the more ambient/ classical renditions)

hope that helps, and we would be delighted for you to post about it,
im glad to hear people are still listening to it!
We are always finding new remixes and are thinking of making a vol. 2
of moments in love mixtape! there are just so many!

I for one would welcome that!

I’d also like to hear a Vijay Iyer Trio version of the whole damn thing ;)

Keep on, all — and do send any worthy contenders my way.

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May 5th, 2010

version a version (riddim meth0d repost)

[Ok, while I’m grinding on non-bloggy things, let me keep things moving here by offering up another from the riddimmeth0d vaults. I’m happy to report that I’ve since discovered more info about the origins of “Bird In Hand” here, which points out that the female singer on “Milte hi aankhein dil huwa” (from the 1950 film Babul, directed by Raj Kapoor) is not Geeta Dutt as I initially reported but rather Shamshad Begum. I also want to note that just about three years ago, my mashup of the Lee Perry recording and its filmi inspiration worked its way into a podcast by Mick Sleeper (mp3) devoted to odd remixes of Perry’s odd remixes. Finally, given the recent uptick around Dutch club music thanks to the moombahton movement, I’m pleased to note that the second track here employs a classic bubbling loop. This post was initially published on 27 April 2006.]


worldclass warblers talat mahmood and geeta dutt

several months ago, matt woebot called attention to another amazing instance of far-flung musical connections. in this case, a filmi melody turning up in a lee perry-produced dub track. i myself had always wondered about the odd, haunting melody of “bird in hand” (on return of the super ape), but like many listeners i suppose i chalked it up to that ol’ wacky jamaican creativity or assumed it was amharic or something. recorded in 1978, the song foreshadows reggae’s embrace of the bollywood sound by a cool twenty-five years.

even more remarkable, whereas contemporary dancehall producers tend to simply sample lata and conjure the east with tabla patches, here we have an amazingly faithful engagement on the part of the singer, versioning the melody like alton ellis doing sam cooke and drawing out suggestive vocables (ma-ri-wa-a). (woebot’s post points to more info, but one of the more explanatory pages is down so i’ve linked to it though the waybackmachine here. [update: actually, I’m afraid that page is no longer viewable at archive.org b/c it “has been blocked by the site owner via robots.txt”; I can’t seem to find it on Mick Sleeper’s site either; shame.])

as you might have anticipated, i couldn’t resist mashing the two versions together, hearing – as on “big gyptian” – one complement (and perhaps compliment) the other, filmi singers over dread riddims. (properly speaking, i guess what i’ve done is more like “blending” – no pellas, mang – but, importantly, via digital cut’n’play.) i’ve arranged the two so as to play up their relationship, lining them up and juxtaposing them toward the end, letting the versions share a chorus before their forms (which, despite all the melodic fidelity, are far from identical) diverge too much. i also pitch- and time-shifted the filmi song slightly, playing it a little higher and a tad faster so as to better ride the upsetters’ deep one-drop.


wayne&wax, “a bird in hand is worth two a yard”

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[as is par for the course, the filmi version itself is full of far-flung musical connections. note, for example, the tango-derived piano figure in the opening.]

/ .. / .. /


del shannon and max crook’s musitron

as i was cooking up my segment of our lemon-red mix, i was suddenly inspired to include del shannon’s “runaway” (well mixed’n’mashed, of course). given that it seems a less than obvious choice (see comment #3), why did i think this was a good idea? i’m not totally sure. i suppose that some aesthetic doors had been opened for me by bmore’s affinity for oldies as well as hip-hop’s recent embrace of doo-wop. (indeed, as it turns out, not only has bobby vinton been sampled and frankie lymon channeled but, apparently, shannon’s “runaway” has itself been tapped recently – pressed into service for the crossover-courting comeback of NYC’s kulcha don. ) but the main reason i even had the song ready to remix is because i recently picked up a bunch of 60s pop to play at moms’s birthday party. (where people – mostly aunts – were getting down to some golden oldies, boy.)

given the degree to which i’m tampering with it, i was delighted to learn that “runaway” is itself quite a product of electronic technologies. (you can read a detailed account of the story of the song on del shannon’s site.) for one, the track’s famous keyboard solo also happens to be one of the first appearances of a synthesizer (the musitron!) on a pop/rock’n’roll record. second, and significant, del shannon’s voice – which i have chipmunked here (along with the entire song) – was itself pitch-shifted for the original! so all you oldies fans who always wondered how he hit those alvin-esque high notes can now revel in the knowledge that del actally recorded the song in a lower range to a slowed-down accompaniment:

Upon his return to Detroit, producer Harry Balk listened to the tapes only to hear that Shannon was singing too flat. Balk liked the song’s potential and suggested to his partner, Irving Micahnik, that Shannon be flown back to New York to re-cut the vocals. Again, Shannon was nervous and singing flat. Having spent a lot of money on studio time and expenses, Balk and Micahnik were very concerned. Balk and Big Top Records president Johnny Beinstock turned to the owner of Bell Sound for help and advice. The owner developed a machine, the size of a desk, that would enable the tapes to be sped up and slowed down. This allowed Balk to speed up Shannon’s vocals to nearly one-and-a-half times it’s original speed to bring him into key. “We finally got Del on key, and it sounded great, but it didn’t sound like Del,” explained Balk. “We mixed it anyhow, and it came out wonderful. (source)

and i was quite pleased to discover that my chipmunked, boston-bounced, merengue-mashed remix not only seems in line with the original both technologically and aesthetically, but also – considering del shannon’s frank admission of alluding to “stealing” other people’s music – philosophically and ethically:

Shannon, too, was ahead of his time, being one of the first white boys to sing falsetto on record. “I learned falsetto from The Ink Spots’ ‘We Three,'” Shannon would explain in a 1989 interview. “I eventually got hooked on Jimmy Jones’ ‘Handy Man’ in ’59 and would sing that at the Hi-Lo Club. I always had the idea of ‘running away’ somewhere in the back of my mind. ‘I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder, why…’ I borrowed from Dion & The Belmonts’ ‘I Wonder Why.’ The beats you hear in there, ‘…I wonder, bam-bam-bam, I wa-wa…’ I stole from Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover.’ We all steal from the business you know. When ‘Runaway’ went to #1, people stole from me. That’s the way the record business is played.” (source)

well said. ahem:

wayne&wax, “runaway imagination”

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[as you can see, i’m mixing the chipmunked “runaway” with loops from the merengue-mix of lil jon’s “get low” as well as additional percussion courtesy of a bubblin’ loop, “Beat-005″ (itself a far-flung thing, filtering dancehall/soca through dutch happy hardcore) and a few boston bounce layers, namely that swingin’ hi-hat and syncopatedly-snappin’ snare.]

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April 26th, 2010

This Totally Made My (Vampire) Week

Ezra Koenig, the brainy singer from the brainy band Vampire Weekend, did me the awesome service of bigging up this here brainy blog in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1103, 29 April 2010). One upshot is that I actually went out and bought something with Black Eyed Peas on the cover.

It’s also the first time I’ve purchased an issue of Rolling Stone since Kurt Cobain bodied himself. (I actually had a subscription back in the grunge days.) Rolling Stone ain’t exactly what it used to be (exhibit BEP), and I suppose it’s always been pretty MOR (even when selling counterculture), but it also runs some occasionally classic music criticism and longform exposés. Plus, as our Vice President might say, it’s still a pretty BFD.

I also get my name on the same page as ?uestlove and Russell Brand, so yeah, pretty cool. Here’s a scan of the bottom righthand of p.91:

I’d like to return the favor in some way — not that VW needs my help or anything, having had the best selling album in the country when Contra came out earlier this year.

I have to admit I’ve been struggling to say something about Ezra & co’s music — in part because I haven’t really had enough of a chance to sit with it, & in part because, despite the obvious resonance with stuff I’m interested in, I tend not to listen so much to “rock.” But bands like Vampire Weekend or Tanlines (who’ve been ringing in my ears since seeing them slay at SXSW) are slowly drawing me back into music-with-guitars precisely because of the way they’re engaging with the world beyond indie whiteness. Also, how could a band with a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (two of my favorite things), or who make “reggaeton homages” not endear themselves to me?

In the continuing absence of an adquately brainy analysis of Vampire Weekend of my own (which is trickier to perform, I must confess, now that @arzE and I are Twitterquaintances), I will instead point W&W readers — including any newcomers via RS/VW — to some of the smartest responses to Contra I’ve had the pleasure to read:

Most of these address the obvious if unavoidable issue of appropriation (and the privilege it seems to index). This is something I’ve obviously thought a lot about on this blog, if more often with regard to other spheres of nu-world music. I have to say that I found Bob Christgau’s question-of-an-answer to the question of whether VW should borrow from classic African pop, or not, pretty persuasive: “There’s no way any American pop band could equal it. But try to emulate it? Really, why the hell not?”

Plus, this old Columbia student paper piece, pre-big-break, is pretty charming and convincing re: VW’s self-knowingness (“African preppy”), their genuineness about Afrobeat, and, well, tbh, some serious similarities to me, a dude who also taught public school and performed “witty rap riffs” (sometimes at the same time) right after attending an Ivy League college, all while geeking out on all the music I could get my ears around, Afrobeat included, and increasingly “sampling” it — in my case, literally — and making my own things from it, and refashioning myself in the process.

Along these lines, I recommend this interview with Afropop.org in which the band go further into the backstory of their encounter with & embrace of African music. Hearing that those Orchestra Baobab reissues, which I myself picked up and jammed on a few years back, influenced the band, I’m tempted to become an annoying, facile critic and call this post-worldmusic, but let’s not go there. I’m so post post by this point, aren’t you? Still, you knomesayin.

Finally, if, like me, you come from a place (regardless of your grungy past) suspicious of “rock” “bands” and “guit” “ars” you couldn’t find a better way into VW than Toy Selecta’s demented Contra Melts.

Oh, and here’s a recent video, starring the RZA ~

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April 13th, 2010

the lion seeps tonight (riddim meth0d repost)

[Well, the Riddim Meth0d domain has finally kicked the bucket, scattering our posts to the great Internet Archive in the ether, or elsewhere. I’m going to continue rehashing here certain posts that seem to merit the treatment. In that vein, here’s another bit of resurrected mashup poetics for you. I’m happy to report that the example below has found its way into a chapter I’m contributing to a forthcoming book, Pop-Culture Tools for the Music Classroom, edited by Nicole Biamonte. This was initially published on 13 April 2006.]

the story of solomon linda’s “mbube” (known to many more as the weaver’s “wimoweh” and the tokens’ “the lion sleeps tonight”) is a tortuous one.

recently, the award of longstanding royalties to the linda family and an article in the NYT has renewed interest in the story’s embodiment of issues of appropriation and just compensation. i’d also recommend reading rian malan’s rolling stone exposé, which tells the story in no small detail, not afraid to name names and indict various actors. not everyone will agree with malan’s perspective (esp. re: pete seeger’s complicity), but the narrative arc malan traces certainly provokes a complex – and, one hopes, careful – consideration of all the problems swirling around this case.

as a musical analog to these prose provocations, i decided to mashup four versions of the tune: solomon linda’s 1939 original, the weavers’ 1951 adaptation, yma sumac’s 1952 cover, and the tokens’ 1961 smash hit. what i like about the mashup is that, as i’ve noted before, it draws our attention to certain correspondences – and differences – in musical form and performance style. it shows us, for example, how seeger’s and the weavers’ version is both faithful to and far from linda’s and the evening birds’ performance. it does the same for the subsequent versions. (i was somewhat surprised, for instance, to discover that yma sumac’s version so closely followed the weavers’ that it not only contained the same number of measures, but it also ended with a big brassy chord on measure 87! – a feature i have retained to end the mashup with the bombast it merits.) above all, i like the way the accretion of new versions in this mash seems to symbolize and embody the accretion of meanings, money, and – depending on where you stand – injustice that have piled up over time and over dozens of repeat performances. it’s a bit of a musical mess, which seems appropriate.

i don’t want to say much more at this point, lest i forestall other interpretations. after all, as i attempted to argue last saturday, musically-expressed ideas about music should communicate, in some ways, more directly than speech about music. so i’ll leave you with the sounds and with a graphical representation of my edit(s).

wayne&wax, “the lion seeps tonight”

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a technical note: among other manipulations, i have “warped” the songs so that their tempos match, i have pitched-up the tokens’ version to bring it – more or less (i didn’t fuss with microtones) – in the same key as the others, and i have arranged the songs so that to a large extent their forms correspond (in order to highlight the similarities and differences via simultaneous performance). also, overall i have attempted – in something of a critical-creative move – to “discipline” the subsequent versions to the linda original, as a musical “corrective” of sorts, or a mashup intervention, if you will. such explicit “tampering” is intended to underscore that my approach here is ultimately more artistic than scientific.

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September 29th, 2009

But How’s It Sound on Your Cellphonn O))) ?


check the tech rider!

With regard yet again to bass feeling, but especially the way that loud, low frequencies operate at a seemingly (sub?)atomic level, vibrating us like a set of “permeable membranes through which forcefields can pass,” note this evocative passage from Sasha Frere Jones’s review of a recent Sunn O))) concert:

Sunn O)))’s performance last week at Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple may be the loudest show I’ve ever seen. I saw a Ramones show in the late eighties that might have come close, though that music mostly took place in an upper midrange that Sunn O))) doesn’t visit much. The median sound for Sunn O))) is a low chord, pitched below standard tuning, that blows through the crowd like a humid wind and stays in your body like that liquid they make you drink before you go through the CAT-scan machine. Standing in front of the stage on Tuesday night felt like a teen-age dare. How long could I stand to have my organs palpated? How could I tear myself away? Would the volume loosen up kinked muscles? Sterilize me? The intense physicality of Sunn O)))’s music makes it seem like any number of things might be happening to you and only a forensic reconstruction will reveal exactly what did happen.

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August 18th, 2009

Re-Meet the Beatles, *Really* This Time

Last night at Beat Research the employees of Cambridge-based video game makers Harmonix swarmed the E Room with their friends, their gadgets, and their various musical side projects. They put on quite a show, and to a packed house! Video killed the radio star, but Rock Band might make some rock stars yet.

Harmonix is in the news right now as they gear up to release the newest edition of Rock Band. Devoted to the Beatles, the game has been generating a lot anticipation and a lot of commentary. The Fab Four — by which I mean Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Apple Corp. — are remarkably and, in some cases, notoriously strict controllers of their music and brand. Case in point: their recordings are still unavailable via iTunes. So the fact that they signed on with Harmonix speaks significantly to their belief in the potential of the game — and, it goes without saying, their ability to maintain close control.

This emerges, alongside countless other fascinating bits, in a recent NYT magazine article, in which Harmonix founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos claims no less than to be on the brink — and at the helm — of a new era in THE music industry:

… last month Harmonix announced that it will license software tools and provide training for anyone to create and distribute interactive versions of their own songs on a new Rock Band Network, which will drastically expand the amount and variety of interactive music available. Already the Sub Pop label, which released the first Nirvana album, has said it plans to put parts of its catalog and future releases into game format. The Rock Band Network is so potentially consequential that Harmonix went to great lengths to keep its development secret, including giving it the unofficial in-house code name Rock Band: Nickelback, on the theory that the name of the quintessentially generic modern rock group would be enough to deflect all curiosity. After a polite gesture in the direction of modesty, Rigopulos predicted, “We’re really going to explode this thing to be the new music industry.”

The possibility of opening up the Rock Band platform for all manner of artists and labels (not that they’re offering to do that exactly) is definitely an exciting one, and the release of the Beatles game will no doubt prove a major marketshare expansion for Harmonix. What struck me throughout the article, however, was not so much the implications for (the?) music industry, but rather, the bizarre contradictions that emerged around questions of control (of the Beatles’ “property”) and, simultaneously, an acknowledgment that the Beatles are inherently (and increasingly) a fan-produced phenomenon.

Paul seemed to voice this recognition most clearly when he says that a Beatles edition of Rock Band “reflects where the Beatles are at,” since, as he puts it —

We are halfway between reality and mythology.

I suppose I’d agree with that (and/or this). But this recognition of the Beatles’ mythologization seems pretty ironic alongside the band’s cautious and occasionally litigious actions with regard to “unauthorized” uses of their music. The article describes the deep degrees of tricknological secrecy and protectiveness applied to the project c/o Giles Martin, the audio engineer son of fifth-Beatle and legendary producer George Martin and Harmonix’s point of contact with the Beatles’ master recordings.

Mainly Martin worked in the less-iconic Room 52 down the hall, next to the men’s room. Apple’s preoccupation with security meant that the high-quality audio “stems” he created never left Abbey Road. If the separated parts leaked out, every amateur D.J. would start lacing mixes with unauthorized Beatles samples. Instead, Martin created low-fidelity copies imprinted with static for the Harmonix team to take back to the States — in their carry-on luggage. They were just good enough to work with until the game coding could be brought back to Abbey Road and attached to the actual songs.

I found the references to “amateur D.J.”s and “unauthorized samples” — even though it’s unclear whether these are Martin’s or the author’s words — pretty interesting to read against McCartney’s quote above. In other words, THX 4 THE MYTHOLOGY BUT DONT DO ANYTHING UNAUTHORIZED K? Or, you’re welcome to re-meet the Beatles, but don’t try to re-mix them.

One wonders what would be the harm of “amateur” DJs “lacing” mixes (now there’s a verb) with “unauthorized” Beatles samples. I mean, as “amateur” products such mixes would not circulate in the same market at the Beatles, or any market for that matter. Moreover, however craptastic their new contextualizations, they could never lessen the power of the original songs. And what harm would fantastic remixes be? Could such critically-acclaimed and popularly shared projects as the cease-and-desisted (but only kinda) Grey Album, or DJ BC’s The Beastles, actually degrade or dilute the Beatles brand? Detract from their mythology?

How is one supposed to participate in the Beatles’ mythology anyway — a mythology which, like all myth, can only be collectively produced and maintained — if one needs “authorization”? This paradox brings us to one of the oddest, and perhaps most disturbing and incoherent, quotations in the piece:

McCartney sees the game as “a natural, modern extension” of what the Beatles did in the ’60s, only now people can feel as if “they possess or own the song, that they’ve been in it.”

Only now? You mean that when I bought those CDs and sang-along with friends and family and learned to play your songs on guitar and tried my hand at remixing a few tracks … you mean that all that time I’ve yet to inhabit or possess your songs. Shucks. I guess I’ll have to get the game.

This is all a little maddening for those of us who insist on our rights to work with and riff on public culture — especially public culture we hold dear. (And I do hold the Beatles’ oeuvre quite dear, in case you didn’t know.) Few things could be more public than the Beatles’ repertory, which, to paraphrase John, might be more popular than Bible hymns. In the face of all of this, I have to stand by a bit of insight I came by some years ago: if Michael Jackson can own the Beatles’ music, so can I.

McCartney is either disingenuously hyping this product with a quote like that or, I just don’t know — maybe the author distorted the sentiment somehow. I can’t swallow that Paul actually believes playing Beatles Rock Band is truly the first or only way to “possess” or “own” or “be in” his & his bandmates’ songs. I think we either do all of these things anytime we engage seriously with a song, in the many ways that may happen (listening, singing, playing, tweaking), or we never do, even those of us who write songs.

Musician and writer Ethan Hein, who himself recently posted about Rock Band and inhabiting songs, also seemed a little irked by McCartney’s comment. His retort? “You know what really makes me feel like I possess a song? If you let me remix it.” The last few words of that sentence link to a meditation on sampling which includes a pretty resonant paragraph with regard to the ownership of songs; allow me to quote Ethan at a little length —

When I was an angry, confused teenager, I let myself be convinced that ideas are property, that it’s possible to steal them and thereby harm their owner. I listened to strongly opinionated musicians and critics hold up originality as the main criterion of artistic worth. Then I got out into the world and did a lot of playing and interpreting and composing of my own, and at the end of the day I’ve come to feel that to assert ownership of a song is like trying to assert ownership over a person or an animal or a place. You can have a close relationship with a song, you can be present at its birth and you can give it nurture, but once it grows up, you can’t control it. Why would you want to?

Say word. At that, I’ll leave you with perhaps my favorite Beatles mashup. Good luck removing this from the world! Or figuring out who “owns” it —

Oh, and props to Harmonix and the Beatles. I bet the game is gonna be great. SRSLY!

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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