On The Beyond Digital Morocco Project

Over the past few weeks I discussed two examples of sound collecting in West Africa.  The first was the Digging 4 Gold project, the second was the Music From Saharan Cellphones project.  While these projects are not without their problems–foremost among which is the question of whether or not any of recorded musicians will ever be compensated for their work–they do go some way to circulate sounds from one part of our big world to other parts.  Clearly, new ways to “release” music are evolving all the time.

Over at DJ Jace Clayton’s mudd up! blog, we learn about an interesting fieldwork project that is slated to happen this summer.  Clayton and a small crew are headed to Marrakesh, Morocco, to explore how “creative adaptations of global digital technologies. . . are helping to transform youth culture and suggesting powerful alternatives to Western concepts of digital literacy.  One focus will be the use of technologies such as Auto-Tune in Berber folk music.  The goal of the Beyond Digital: Morocco project is to engage in a month-long art project with Marrakesh youth through teaching, collaboration, and documentation.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with this project as it looks like it could be a dialogue between musicians rather than just a taking of music . . .

You can watch a video about the project here.

On Secondhand Sureshots

The idea behind the documentary DVD Secondhand Sureshots (Dublab Collective 2010) was to invite four DJ/Producers to each build a new track based solely on their vinyl finds in California thrift shops. (Out Of The Closet Thrift Stores for you collectors out there.)  The DJs Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G, and J. Rocc (see pic below) would each have five dollars to buy any five records they could find (and which could not be previewed at the store). The rules for assembling tracks were equally strict.  A track can only be built out of sounds sampled from the  found vinyl, and only cuts and effects (reverb, etc.) can be added to the track.  No drum machine beats, other instrumental sounds, or extra samples can be used in the compositional process.  The goal, as the opening credits frames the game, is for each musician “to make musical magic out of dusty thrift store records.”

And so the four DJs set about combing through the detritus of 20th century material culture, excavators of our sonic past.  As the camera pans over the thrift store aisles full of used odds and ends it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe for how much sheer stuff North Americans plow through each year, most of it eventually consigned to either the trash or stores like these.  But there is rebirth here too: the thrift store as a space where (durable) objects sit quietly waiting for the next phase of their lives.

The DJs rifle through stacks of LPs, beginning their search by assessing the coolness of the record covers.  They’re not necessarily looking for funky looking records, but rather anything that seems like it may have the potential to offer a few seconds of loopable bliss.  As J. Rocc notes, “it’s all about looking…you can see the audio.”  The DJs are feeling out whether they may be able to “discern a moment that stands free from the song”–intros, outros, a novel chord or sound combination that will suggest the makings of a future (funky) track.

How do they know when they’ve found something good?  Intuition, gut feeling, or they’re just plain taking a chance on a cool cover.  There are a few odd rules though: stay away from Concord Jazz and Barbra Streisand records, for instance. (their sounds are too recognizable?), and easy listening records usually have cool sample moments.  (Lesson: Very uncool music can eventually become cool again.)

Ras G refers to records as feminine presences, speaking of “taking her home.”  When asked how he cleans his records, Ras says that no, no, dust is good: the audible crackling it creates functions as “seasoning.”  Then he finds an LP of traditional Japanese koto music and says: “this guy is about to get molested…musically.”  Ras also has vision of blending it with a Deep Purple find so he’s justifiably stoked by the prospect of this sound combination (probably never before achieved given that Japanese koto and Deep Purple don’t generally travel in the same social circles).

With their five vinyl finds in hand, the DJs return to their home studios to start listening, chopping and sampling sounds.  Listening involves having the patience to scan through entire albums, waiting for anything interesting to jump out.  But interesting isn’t all in the sounds themselves.  The DJs also bring their experienced ears and sensibilities to bear on their records.  Says Ras:

“It’s all how you hear it…You want to hear it in the machine…It’s you breathing life into the machine.  I’ll throw it onto the machine, [but] there’s nothing in it.”

Chopping, as J. Rocc puts it, involves “editing the sample to the parts I would want to use.”  Rocc and Ras use an Akai MPC to do their sampling and chopping, Daedalus uses Pro Tools, and Nobody does his work on a keyboard.  But regardless of their working methods, each DJ aims to make something new and personal out of something old and discarded because it was thought to have lost its value.  As Daedalus notes: “The game isn’t to make it unrecognizable; the game is to make it your own.”

After the tracks are finished they’re mastered and pressed to vinyl and the DJs meet to listen to one another’s work and share their vinyl finds.  (J. Rocc eventually picked up an old Barbra Streisand LP after all.)  Meanwhile, a new piece of composite record cover art has been rendered from shards of the twenty LPs used to make the new tracks.  Assembled onto one disc in this new composite record sleeve, the work of the DJs now forms yet one more piece of vinyl destined for…you guessed it, the thrift shop.  And so, in the final scene of this efficient, under 45-minute movie, we watch Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G and  J. Rocc return to the thrift stores and secretly drop off copies of their new creations into the dusty bins.  (Some people call this practice “shopdropping.”)  “Remixed and recycled” roll the final credits, “the music lives on…Now, make some music of your own.”

Secondhand Sureshots makes a few things clear. First, without question there is enough recorded music in our world to form the basis for new tracks for many years to come!  Why throw out old music when it can form the DNA for new hybrid mutations such as koto-Deep Purple lifeforms? (Actually, why compose new music at all?)  Second, whatever your view of sampling–Is it theft or a creative practice of building new musical texts out of old ones?–it’s hard not to see the skilled musicians in this film as anything other than kinds of sonic anthropologists/archeologists doing work that reveals new meaning in discarded relics from another time.  Extending the legacy of hip hop sampling, not only does this crate digging and record collecting feel like important archival work, but it looks like endless fun too.

Feedback On African Feedback

In 2004, Italian composer and sound artist Alessandro Bosetti traveled to villages in Mali and Burkina Faso and asked villagers to listen to recordings of Western experimental, minimal, electronic, and improvised music.  As they listened through headphones to randomly selected pieces, Bosetti recorded their real-time reactions–“comments, breaths, attempts to imitate what was heard”–with a stereo microphone.  He later transcribed these reactions and compiled them into a short book called African Feedback (Errant Bodies Press, 2006).  The book also includes a CD of Bosetti’s own sound composition that uses his interviews as source material.

Bosetti talked to over two dozen different people, young and old, and a typical encounter takes up about a page or two of dialogue in the text.  What is immediately apparent upon reading the interviewees’ reactions is how they try to make sense of Bosetti’s recordings at face value–reacting to the sounds as they come, without necessarily having any interest in who composed them (and in some cases, in the sounds themselves).  Some listening sessions lead to conversations about the nature of music and role of music in one’s society; other sessions do very little to elicit strong reactions from the African listener.

For me, this little book (all of 64 pages) is worth its price of admission for a few reasons.  First, I think it was a creative idea on Bosetti’s part to venture out and engage directly with different communities of people through the medium of music recordings and conversation.  I imagine that with this project he got out of his comfort space as a composer to seek dialogue with others.  Even though Bosetti’s original idea was to gather source material for his own creative work, his ethnographic encounters quickly became the main event, and I liked how he was able to go with the flow and let  his work to grow out a shared experience.

Second, the book is, inadvertently perhaps, a powerful refutation of the notion of cultural universals and that musics have universal appeal.  It only takes a few blank stares as a reaction to a recording of music by Olivier Messiaen, Harry Partch, Ryoji Ikeda, or John Cage to remind us that music only makes its best sense to its community of makers/users/fans/consumers/participants, etc.  In other words, there are real limits to what a music can mean, and sometimes the easiest way to explore this idea is to physically bring the music to a new place and see what happens!  (Messiaen in a Malian village is not the same as Messiaen in a concert hall in France . . .)  I’m reminded here of something that I think the ethnomusicologist John Blacking once said about how Westerners make a big deal about being able to distinguish between the intervals of say, a Perfect 4th and a Perfect 5th, but that for other communities of listeners (I believe Blacking was referring to the Venda people of South Africa) these distinctions could very well be rather inconsequential.

A third reason I like Bosetti’s book is that it’s full of little gems of insight.  Some of the gems arise in the responses of the African listeners, like Soulemane, who described Bosetti’s own piece “Zona” as sound made by a white man “to make a profile of illnesses.”  Other gems lie in Bosetti’s extensive footnotes that are incorporated right into the dialogues themselves where he digests his fieldwork encounters, discusses his research strategies, explains how he has been changed by his experiences, and muses on various topics such as the unnaturalness of headphones and the difference between socialized and individual listening.

So what kind of book is this?  It’s not a conventional musical ethnography, and yet it does contain a number of interesting encounters between the author and the people he interviews.  For Bosetti, his field experiences in West Africa were “a crash course on cultural differences, misunderstandings, myth and reality of globalized creativity.”  I don’t really know what Bosetti means by “globalized creativity” but nevertheless, I appreciate how he is not bogged down in theory or the necessity of being in dialogue with an academic discipline.  He just goes for it.