Remixing Is A Curious Thing
by Thomas Brett
“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” – Igor Stravinsky
To a composer used to putting together notes on a page (or notes on the virtual page of a music notation program), the craft of remixing can seem like a curious thing. Its original meaning, in the context of Jamaican dub music, was to literally re-mix reggae songs, usually taking out the vocal tracks and foregrounding the drum and bass tracks to make a spectral instrumental version of the original. Since dub’s heyday through the work of Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, the remix art migrated to disco DJs and electronic dance music remixers.
Today, remixing is ubiquitous and we seem to be in the midst of what Kevin Kelly calls a “recombinant” moment. In fact, remixing is a creative option for anyone with a computer and some cheap audio recording software. Sounds can be recorded onto one’s cellphone, dumped into the computer, stretched, cut and pasted, superimposed, pitch-shifted, played backwards and filtered to an inch of their original acoustic lives. It’s almost too easy, with too many options ready at a mouse click.
So why is remixing a curious thing to a pencil-paper composer? For one thing, it challenges the notion that a piece of music needs to be a linear thing–beginning with a premise that develops systematically towards a conclusion. Remixing makes music cyclical and it’s comfortable with non goal-oriented repetition. Put more colloquially: remixes tend to groove pretty hard, and this is a good thing for almost any music. But by making music comfortable with its loopability, remixers threaten the kinds of rigorous thinking composers like to think as their privileged domain. Remixing mixes up our cherished musical narratives, making endings new beginnings, turning basslines into melodies, giving the voice a whole new set of clothes. Remixing reveals new meanings and spins new stories from what were once thought to be finished statements. And so the composer’s sense of “This is what I feel at this point in time” modus operandi is undermined and shown to be provisional, grist for some mill in the future. How equalizing! How destabilizing! How dangerous!
Another threatening thing about remixes is that they can take a piece of music so far from its original version that it gets homesick. Remixes can also mutate sounds so that they can’t even recognize themselves. And remixes bring us into strange new sonic territories where the composer’s old constraints–meter, scale, tonality, the timbral palette of acoustic instruments–are not necessarily enough to keep us oriented. But these moments of confusion in the face of new soundscapes are potentially liberating too, for they remind us that music always wanted to be free of our imposed constraints, and perhaps remixing helps us loosen those chains that shackle its spirit.