Islands of Order, Part 2
Nostalgia: Islands of Order in a Sea of Chaos
Nostalgia is another embodiment of the struggle against decay, trying to keep moments of our past alive in the context of our present existences, moments inscribed into our memories but which change with the times along with our very selves. Nostalgia is particularly apparent when considering the comings and goings of musical styles, and can be seen at work in the current interest being shown for progressive rock. The quest for relevance in contemporary settings, long after the late 60s and 70s have passed, can be seen in the progression of several different incarnations of progressive rock. There is the genre’s undisputed master King Crimson, more active now than ever before in reinventing itself continually. Then there is the less genre oriented Grateful Dead, and the untouchable fusion foray of 70s Miles Davis, both of which have recently been remixed by contemporary masters of studio sampling. Then on into the new century with God Speed You Black Emperor, capturing the flavour of times past but with a freshness born of its own nostalgic longing, so many memories forever altered by the very changing structure of the human brain over long periods of time. We try to remember, but are always a product of the present, regardless of efforts made otherwise. Is it a Faustian error to look back to times past and try to bring them along with us into the present like so much gold buried in the tomb of a Pharoah king?
On Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2001), the voice of Murray Ostril is heard reminiscing about the Coney Island of his youth with the bittersweet simultaneity of fondness and sadness: “Things have changed…they don’t sleep anymore on the beach.” Godspeed! You Black Emperor has developed out of the swirling pool of influence that is both nostalgia for the progressive rock of days long past, (the glory days when rock bands started playing with violins), matched with a keen awareness of contemporary musical practices, including sampling. Their long instrumental explorations are interwoven with spoken word and spontaneously recorded street material. The themes of the words included in the recordings are often about displeasure with the way things are in the world today, often angry, dark, morose, and even apocalyptic. Their cover art and liners are similarly themed. But there is also a hopefulness for the future, as though the sad and dark harmonies played off between violin, guitar and glockenspiel give rise in their sustained and constantly forward moving momentum to the ability to pass through the sadness.
Godspeed is about momentum, building to peaks, layering the density of their continuous picking and bowing, creating ever greater levels of interweaving until the dam breaks and the flood is let loose to cleanse the listener of attachment to the way things began. Godspeed is about texture, their slow builds on simple melodic phrases allowing time to reveal the particular qualities of the instruments they play and the techniques used to play them. Examples of such exploration of texture can be heard throughout their works, whether it be the extended slight waverings between tempered tones using the guitar’s whammy bar, or the exploration of cymbal textures through various unconventional methods of manipulation. These pieces are about the thwarting of musical decay, keeping sounds alive in the wake of their very deaths. This thwarting is not only apparent in the approach they take as individuals on their instruments, but also in the sounds they collectively put forth as musical testimony to their rich heritage. Godspeed does justice to the psychedelic explorations of mythical mind-states that were the realm of their forerunners like Soft Machine, Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. They also share kinship with contemporary musical forms such as avant-garde string groups, notably the minimalist strains of Town and Country whose extended double bass bowings with celeste counterpoint are strikingly similar, at times, to Godspeed. Much of Godspeed’s work also reminds me of certain projects undertaken by the Kronos String Quartet. To say that Godspeed is a retro band would not do them justice. Their version of retro is to take what was truly good about the times that influenced them and show us how timeless it can be. In this sense retro might be in its fullest possible effect, a seamless blend between eras that only a truly timeless existence could offer.
Of course, one of the greatest sources of influence in the music practiced by Godspeed is Robert Fripp’s mighty King Crimson machine, yet few bands in history have gone so far out of their way to make sure they are not stuck in time. Early Crimson played heavily upon nostalgic leanings for times and places that exist more in fantasy than anything else, In the Court of the Crimson King being a vivid case in point. However, this classic form of progressive rock, perhaps taken to its extreme by early-mid 70s Yes, did not last long under Fripp’s restless fingers. Not that he would want to take all the credit for the various shapes Crimson has taken over the years, consummate democratarian that he is. Let’s face it though: he’s the one who has been there for nearly 35 years, and nobody else. Crimson has sought continually to shake off the ties of the past and keep the forward momentum going, more in line with the jazz musician who plays with a different line-up on every album (and often on every track of individual albums). However, Crimson also exhibits a continuity that is both the product of recurring members over the years as well as conscious compositional strategies and repertoire programming by the band. There is something about Crimson that is definitively Crimson, and it is much more than the band’s embodiment of the phrase “the only constant in life is change.” Herein lies the interesting tension between natural decay and the quest for immortality within the mighty Crim.
Fripp’s own guitar playing is very much about fighting against the decay of the plucked string. This fight is especially evident since the dawn of his soundscapes era, where he takes the idea of holding a note to extremes with his layering of electronically processed guitar sounds both within Crimson proper and in his solo projects. With his soundscapes, Fripp has created an unparalleled strategy of sustain the likes of which Ribot would surely place high on his list of Faustian seekers of the guitar world. What is particularly interesting about Fripp’s soundscapes is their place within his broader desire to sustain Crimson through a climate of restless turnover. Fripp’s soundscapes are themselves onslaughts of relentlessly unending tones while also being ever changing in their texture and harmonic patterns. This kind of sustain in the face of change is clearly apparent in one of the more radical maneuvers in the history of rock: Crimson’s embarking upon a journey through its own “FraKctalization” in 1998.
This FraKctalization manifested itself in ProjeKcts 1 – 4 wherein various members of the larger Crimson unit played together in smaller groupings. These groupings were designed to free up the rigid organizational structure that Crimson is famous for and let loose in a live improvisational setting. The effect of the ProjeKcts was to allow Crimson to explore untapped creative areas of themselves through extended jamming in search of new material for the regrouping of Crimson proper two years later. In retrospect it is amazing to look at the progression from what we knew about Crimson up to 1998, through the various improvisations the ProjeKcts came up with, and on into new structured pieces on their subsequent studio album The ConstruKction of Light and the way they treated the new material in post ConstruKction live performance. Elements of Crimson can be heard throughout the ProjeKcts, little islands of order afloat in the chaos of live improv. These little islands are often desperate to break into larger and more ordered landmasses, and many succeeded in doing so on the new album (most notably being the emergence of “The ConstruKction of Light” out of the jam entitled “Light ConstruKction” which began in ProjeKct 2 and carried over into ProjeKct 4).
The concept of improvisation itself is fascinating in the context of struggles between progression and decay. Aside from the far reaches of free-jazz, improvisation almost always involves the search for order within chaos. This tension is also interesting when considered in the context of improvisation within structure: islands of chaos within a sea of order. Much of what is now known as standard jazz is based on the idea of seeking a little improvisational chaos in the midst of compositional order, though Coltrane doing “My Favourite Things” on Live in Japan (1967) juggles the places that chaos and order occupy in the sentence by skirting the frame of the song in favour of nearly an hour of improvisatory exploration. Crimson has always been involved in improvisation within their regimented compositional structures, but order seemed always to prevail until the onset of the ProjeKcts.
The use of the term FraKctalization to describe the ProjeKcts is fitting when considering how this era of Crimson’s development plays out in the bigger picture of the band’s career. Crimson’s pursuit of continuity in an ever changing sea is akin to the world of fractal geometry which is based on this very idea, like the role of nostalgia in the larger scheme of memory and the evolution of consciousness. Recall Edward Berko’s statement: “we contemplate the search for order within sameness, order opposing sameness, and order within random behaviour” (1). The ProjeKcts play with the idea of sameness, difference, and the search for order within both. Not quite Crimson, but more Crimson than anything else, the ProjeKcts explore the outer reaches of where Crimson as a whole hesitated to go. The ProjeKcts might be seen as a way of organizing the musicians themselves around the principles of improvisation, juggling personnel configurations, loosening up the rigidity that comes with an established lineup, and thereby freeing up the music towards its own improvisational seeking of order that would later manifest itself on forthcoming albums. If the trajectory of the ProjeKcts is viewed as a whole in and of itself, then it can be seen as one long progression towards order, like a two-year jam finally yielding the finished products. To add to the layers, the material developed out of the ProjeKct improvisations become subject to further improvisational exploration when performed live under the banner of King Crimson itself. It is fascinating to hear the early components of a song developing in the midst of improvisation in the ProjeKcts, find those elements brought together in song form on The ConstruKction of Light, and then hear that song undergo further transformation through improvisation in a live setting. This experience can be seen as a microcosm for the concept of nostalgia I’m putting forth here: little elements of the past that linger through the present while undergoing more change the longer they hang around.
A final point of interest in the way the ProjeKcts embody fractal geometry’s order vs. chaos can be made by examining the order in which the ProjeKcts themselves were put into practice. Numbered for the order in which the individual groupings were conceived, the chronological order the ProjeKcts were put into actual practice goes like this: 2, 1, 2, 4, 3. This string of numbers has a very random feel to it, yet the order makes perfect sense in terms of understanding how it came to be. The progression towards order is very clear in the music as well, with ProjeKct 3 being the tightest and most developed of the bunch since it came at the tail end of the two-year practice session. Chaos is often nothing more than a term we give to that which we don’t properly understand. Just as with the seemingly random order of the ProjeKct numbers, whose pattern makes perfect sense when its underlying drive is revealed, so too will it be with all the great mysteries of the universe.
The idea that musicians are always practicing, even when on stage, was made famous by Miles Davis and is the essence of what the ProjeKcts were about. This idea marks one of the most distinctive differences between improvisational music and the traditions of Western classical music where the masterpiece is the paper, and the performer’s job is to live up to it. The notion that a piece of music can be in a state of perfection as a manuscript can be seen at work in the world of contemporary audio recording as well. While music has changed drastically since the dawn of reproduction technology, the desire to consider documents of pieces of music as being the ideal that live performance must live up to has carried over into the realm of studio production. While many hi-fi enthusiasts consider the live experience as the standard to which their records must adhere, advances in studio techniques have created an inverse culture where the record is produced, and the job of the live performance is to live up to the standard of the careful production quality achieved in the studio. Either way, however, recording technology has opened up a whole to can of worms with respect to the way that musicians must interact with recorded copies of themselves. In the case of King Crimson, it is interesting to note that their approach to the release of recordings is not necessarily the attempt to put their best foot forth. Often it is as much about documenting the struggle and tension between the players and the state of the current lineup as anything else. For example, the decision to release the first of the two San Francisco ProjeKct Four shows, despite the liner notes clearly stating that the second show was superior, indicates that they wish to present themselves as works in progress as much as a tightly defined unit of musical perfection. Drummer Pat Mastelotto’s liner notes about that first San Francisco show sum it all up: “sometimes when you go for it you don’t always get there.” Their decision for that release was based on the potential of the evening rather than its fulfillment.
The King Crimson collector’s club makes many obscure shows from over the years available to serious fans, and also demonstrates more than just an interest in reflecting the band’s brightest moments. But there is more to Crimson’s policies of releasing records than just making the stuff available for those who want it. Fripp and the gang should be applauded for the attention they put to their recordings and the selection of which ones to release, but this attention is still mired in a philosophy of control that is very different from certain other prominent touring groups with a penchant towards improvisation. Fripp’s philosophy is founded on keeping the control over recorded material with the artist for various reasons, financial and otherwise. He subscribes to the school of thinking that allows music to be offered to live audiences in whatever state it might be on a given evening, but that this moment is fleeting and should not be remembered in the form of a recording by the general public unless he deems it okay to do so. This philosophy is, of course, grounded in the very nature of live improvisation, where moments are seized and pass away in the spark of immediacy, and those who are there to experience it come and go along with the moments. This is one of the greatest expressions of the tension between decay and regeneration; the improvised jam can go on as long as it can be kept alive by its instigators, sometimes decaying very quickly and sometimes yielding epic sessions of exploration. The very act of improvising can be seen as a manifestation of the desire to elongate the sustain of a single plucked string. Fripp’s policy on the right of individuals to re-experience these fleeting moments acknowledges the benefits of such re-experience. However, it also affirms that it is up to the creators of the moments to decide which of the moments should be open to the public and which ones must remain forever sealed, subject only to the regenerative processes of human memory. Fripp’s stance is not as blind as pure record company greed and the desire to manipulate the marketplace, but it is not particularly in the spirit of open sharing of experience either. It seems to me that it even borders on the paranoid, a thought that is further substantiated by their pre-modern fear of being photographed. One need only listen to the end of ProjeKct Three – Masque to hear the band stop a show until a fan’s camera is voided of its film after snapping a clandestine little shot. But then, I didn’t tour for free under EG management for many years, barely able to put food on the table while my record label exploited my tired fingers for the revenue they could bring in. So I’m not going to argue with Robert Fripp about who should have access to the fruits of his labours (or to the rosy glow of his stunning bespectacled countenance, for that matter).
However, a very different approach to the relationship between live performance, audience experience and recording exists in the Grateful Dead community. As we all know, the Dead actively encouraged the free taping and circulation of their shows. The only restrictions placed were that tapers had to buy special tickets to a specific section of the venue and that the recordings never be sold for profit. This freedom of taping meant that the evolution of the Dead has been documented and scrutinized by the public better than any other group in history. The circulation of the vast majority of shows they ever played also creates an interesting role for nostalgia amoung Dead fans. Not only can eras of the group’s development be remembered fondly, but if you went to a show, chances are that you can get a copy of that show. So, there exists a much more intimate relationship between the Dead and their fans than can be experienced with other bands that release only a tiny portion of their live output. In the world of rock music, the fact is that any given show is often no different from the previous one, making the potential for the release of live material very limited. One of the key aspects of progressive rock is that it caters to live music culture through its dedication to constant change, and in this respect the Grateful Dead were as progressive as any.
The Dead exhibit various manifestations of nostalgia in their work as well. To begin with, the band’s very name has strong folkloric intimations, likely taken from the myth of the Grateful Dead Man who returns in the afterlife to act as guardian for a man who paid the debts of the deceased so that he could be buried (2). This incorporation of folklore into the band’s image calls out to earlier times when such stories were part of the greater common experience. Many of their song lyrics contain references to such times, and also to more fantastical places that exist only in the myths themselves. Their music also exhibits nostalgia for more tangible times past, with its heavy orientation towards American roots music most clearly manifested in the banjo finger-picking style of playing that Jerry transposed onto his electric guitar. The act of transposing a playing style from one instrument to another clearly illustrates the role of nostalgia as the seizing of moments from the past that can’t help but be recontextualized by the present. This recontextualization of roots music within a modern rock context also illustrates the Dead’s interest in constantly reinventing themselves and the influences they draw upon.
Like King Crimson, the Dead are a band that sought to continually evolve over the years, albeit in a much different fashion than Fripp’s various outfits (and I’m not referring to the selections of satins and velvets worn by the latter). The Dead lineup was consistent up until the end, with only the cursed keyboardist’s bench being freed up every ten years or so due to untimely deaths, and a couple other minor additions and subtractions here and there. The songs in the repertoire were kept fairly consistent as well. Though they regularly added new material, only a handful of tunes passed completely out of existence over the years. In addition, their approach to the flow of each concert remained a constant. Their first sets consisting of blues and country-style tunes, they saved the epic jam tunes for the second set in the middle of which they invariably descended into the midst of percussion-based sonic explorations dubbed “drums” and the most abstract of instrumental noodling known as “space.” Yet, as noted by Gary Shank and Eric J. Simon, the dead never repeated a single set-list in over 3000 shows (3).
Shank and Simon conducted a statistical analysis of the Dead’s set-lists to discover how a continuity was so well adhered to in the face of constant change. What they found was that the Dead’s repertoire could be broken down into different categories of songs that typically occur in different areas of any given show. So, individual songs could change, while still adhering to these categories and thus allowing for the same structure of a show even if the material being played was always different. This is interesting in terms of the tensions that exist between modernist categorization and postmodernist deconstruction. The Dead exhibit many decidedly postmodern characteristics, yet this rigid show structure based on musical categorization is a part of a very different paradigm. Shank and Simon discuss the structuralist vs. post-structuralist notions of organized systems in relation to the Dead’s set-list strategies. In so doing, they draw on Lyotard’s idea that the grand-narrative as the grounding for a particular form has been replaced by a “free play of the form itself “ (4). They suggest the following analogy:
The modernist would say that the band built a set-list around a skeletal form, while the postmodernist would say that the band juxtaposed songs and song groups to create fresh new ideas, but that the juxtaposing process is historical and ongoing, and that any given setlist was part of a larger playing around with the form of the set-list itself (5).
So the roles of song groups, set-structure, and the historical evolutions of each are pieces of a larger puzzle-game that shifts as the play continues over the years.
It is interesting to note that the analogy of the skeleton as being the structure of a set-list is a pun not lost on Shank and Simon in their analysis of the band whose many emblems include skeletons in various forms of free-spirited play (so to speak). Drawing on Umberto Eco’s contention that we have returned to a medieval form of culture, Shank and Simon illustrate how the Dead fit into this idea. They say: “In the medieval world, which we argue serves as the conceptual and visual lynchpin of the Grateful Dead experience, death was an ever-present force of significance. In other words, we need to turn to death in order to learn how to live” (6). Memento Mori, remember dying, is indeed a powerful concept when considering the constant struggle against decay and death that I am exploring here. Fitting, then, that one of rock music’s most profoundly exploratory groups takes as its grounding the idea that we can learn to live by confronting death, and that the confrontation of death is present in many aspects of the band’s constant play with musical decay and the resulting potential for regeneration.
One of the most interesting things about charting the band’s progression is to see how they managed to set-up their skeletal structure while simultaneously maintaining a fluidity that danced around it like so many skinless uncles named Sam frolicking in the mushroom patch. As in Clive Barker’s The Forbidden and so much of the post-feminist gender theory that came after, we see in the Dead’s iconography the association of freedom with the removal of the body’s outer coverings. We don’t need films and feminists to tell us that death has long been connected to ideas about setting the spirit free. However, the way that the Grateful Dead have fused these ideas by linking these images to their musical explorations of death and regeneration couldn’t possibly provide a more concrete example for the connections between music and corporeal experience that I’m discussing here.
In addition to substituting songs to keep set-lists fresh, one of the key aspects of the Dead’s ability to remain fluid around a skeletal structure can be found when looking at the way that specific songs have been performed over the course of the band’s existence. The experienced Dead aficionado can pinpoint the era, and perhaps the year (maybe even the month if they’re total freaks), of a particular recording of any given song within a few notes of the song’s beginning. Of course, this is due in part to the changing sound of the equipment used by the various members over the years, as well as changing quality of recording technology. The way the songs were played, though, also figures prominently in the ability to recognize eras of the band’s musical evolution. Crucial to the identification of their changing approaches to given songs is the nature of the improvisational sections within the songs. The Dead’s sophistication of improvisational exploration increased over the years, with various peaks and valleys here and there. One thing, however, remained the same: certain songs would give way to long jam sessions where the decay of the song ending would be extended, with little remnants of it popping back up here and there in the midst of the liminal jam spaces, finally giving way to the stirrings of the following song. Very often the band members themselves would not know what song would be next, and would use these improvisations as a way of finding new order out of the chaos created by the decay of a particular tune. Certain members might hint at a melody here and there within a jam, seeing if it would be picked up on. In the most complex of these jams little wars can even be detected between different members trying
to coerce the group towards a particular song. Sometimes, the decaying song that gave way to the jam would still be there in remnants while the next song would be forming, creating a bridge between the two. Other times the decaying song would disappear completely, giving way to entirely unstructured improvisation out of which the next song would be born. These are exciting times in music, when anything is possible, and relationships are being drawn out, explored, and created between disparate elements. These improvisational moments between Dead songs are fantastic displays of the tension between decay and regeneration, the searching out of islands of order indeed. And we have the Dead’s open approach to the circulation of live recordings to thank for the fact that so many of these moments, however impossible to recreate in terms of the live experience, are nevertheless available for close attention and enjoyment by all interested parties.
Another result of the Dead’s openness to live recording manifested itself with John Oswald, the legendary practitioner of “Plunderphonics,” being invited to remix a selection of the band’s live recordings. Oswald’s use of sampling technology explores the lines between plundering, appropriating, reinvigorating and recontextualizing popular music. His Plunderphonics explorations are clear examples of the way sampling technology, as used by so many of today’s music-makers, can play with the tensions between musical decay and regeneration. The idea of taking bits and pieces of recognizable material from the popular past, perhaps long out radio circulation, and reconfiguring them electronically within new contexts is one way to extend the life of dying pieces of music. Hip Hop DJs do this all the time, their art being as much about awareness of music history through listening to other people’s work as it is about making music of their own.
Oswald’s Plunderphonics work touches on several of the controversies discussed here. Most obviously, the sampling of existing material is on the forefront of the copyright debate, and Oswald is the most often cited example of what the recording industry fears most about technologies of reproduction in the hands of the public. Oswald’s remix of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” along with the singer’s face pasted onto the body of a nude white female adorning the cover of the Plunderphonics release, resulted in a law suit that ended with Oswald being instructed to destroy all existing tapes of the work. This is no surprise coming from a person who is so enamored with control over his own likeness and representation that he has undergone several surgeries designed to put his best face forward. Too bad it didn’t work, referring to the fact that Plunderphonics has finally been semi-legitimately released (7), not to the fact that Jackson is uglier than ever (I would never say such a thing – that would be mean). The sex-change he gave Michael Jackson on the Plunderphonics cover illustrates Oswald’s connection to various medical ethics and gender theory issues as well. Jackson is far from being the only subject of Oswald’s transformations. Another good example is his treatment of Dolly Parton’s “Pretender.” Oswald explains that he often wondered if Parton was a country-style Milli-Vanilli. He writes:
Astute star gazers have perceived the physical transformation, via plastic surgery, hair transplants and such, that make many of today’s media figures into narrow, bosomy, blemish-free caricatures and super-real ideals. Is it possible that Ms. Parton’s remarkable voice is actually the Alvinized [ed. of Alvin the Chimpmunks] result of some unsung virile ghost lieder crooning these songs at elegiac tempos which are then gender polarized to fit the tits? Speed and sex are again revealed as components intrinsic to the business of music (8).
In order to test his hypothesis, he created a track that runs “Pretender” while gradually slowing the speed until the pitch reaches a point where it sounds very much like a beautiful male mezzo-soprano. For the last line of the song, he then layers Dolly’s voice at its original speed over top of the slower version, creating an amazing duet out of Parton and her male alter-ego.
Oswald’s transformations of popular music are intrinsically linked with the image of the pop musicians that are his subjects, a fact that illustrates how, in popular consciousness, the sampling issue is tied to a great deal more than just a question of royalties. Many of his creations involve the blending of different pop icons together, creating mixtures of identities that melt in the minds of the popular consumer that can at once recognize the material while having that recognition confounded by its transgression. Oswald describes these blendings as “fictional Frankenstein-like assemblage[s] of raw parts” and have linguistic accompaniments like “Bruce Stingspreen” and “Marianne Faith No Morrissey” (9). As with the Michael Jackson example, he even creates pictures that blend the identities together through collage techniques. It makes perfect sense that Oswald’s audio transformations would be placed in the context of language puns and the questioning of the role of image in music. As we saw with the Drag Queens of Paris is Burning, the breaking down of our artificially imposed social boundary lines necessitates the appropriation and reconfiguration of language and pop culture images.
Interesting to note here that the worlds of surgical enhancement and audio sampling found its most concrete conjunction to date on Matmos’ recent album A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (2001). The San Francisco sampling duo created the album using nothing but sounds they recorded during various cosmetic surgery procedures. Both cosmetic surgery and sampling are based on the idea of altering the surfaces of their subjects through the art of cutting and pasting. So, Matmos’ project doesn’t surprise me one bit, especially given the theoretical connections between issues of the body and reproduction technology that can be seen just as clearly in Oswald’s work.
Oswald’s remixing practices are not malicious, nor does he present them as though he is the sole author of the works. As David Keenan suggests: “Enabling individuals to reappropriate their heavily polluted sound environment, plunderphonics effectively combats the increasingly one-way transmission of culture” (10). He goes on to suggest that this amounts to a “restoration of folk’s oral tradition” whereby “folk singers used to freely mine a common lode of orally passed down lines” (11). Oswald feels that the analogy with Folk music would be better made with respect to rap and hip-hop music, but there are many connections between Plunderphonics and hip-hop turntableism that can be made. After all, Oswald himself played turntables in a band as early as 1964. The most notable connection between hip-hop turntableism and Plunderphonics is the role of active engagement with one’s sonic environment, what Paul Théberge would suggest is the result of the simultaneity of production and consumption fostered by sampling technologies (12). One of the hallmarks of this simultaneity is the blending of various different musical eras together, the folding of time onto itself so that a 50s jazz drum solo (with its distinctive microphone placement and resulting sound) might co-exist along side 90s Roland 303 lines (as might be heard on Amon Tobin’s recordings). I like to understand this use of sampling as being another manifestation of the ongoing human quest for timelessness, a desire to join various disparate elements together much like the mind does with its memories free-floating in a sea of association generated by the simple act of being.
The quest for timelessness is also at the core of Oswald’s Grayfolded. On this remix of the Grateful Dead, Oswald drew on over 40 live recordings of the band’s infamous “Dark Star,” their most renown improvisational instigator, to weave an extended double-CD jam session that brings a unity to the band’s evolution over the years. At various points on the two CDs, 1970s Jerry can be heard playing along with 1990s Jerry, “Dark Star” jams co-mingling with each other, retaining the distinctiveness of the flavours of their eras while joining together to make it clear how the era of peace and love remains relevant 30 years later. “Dark Star,” both in its title and in its structure (designed to incorporate improvisational exploration), is the perfect example of the kind of “space music” that the Dead are famous for. Oswald’s titular pun “Grayfolded” adds the concept of folding to the idea of space, and rightly so when considering the way he uses sampling to fold the Dead’s musical evolution in on itself.
This notion of folding “space” reminds me of similar space folding described in Frank Herbert’s Dune, and David Lynch’s distinctive visual treatment of the concept. Lynch illustrated the act of folding space through the use of superimposition, layering images of space over one another as the layers of space itself are brought together allowing the travelers to cross vast distances without really moving. The filmmaking practice of superimposition combined with montage shares much with the way sample-based music is created. Lynch’s use of these practices to explore the concept of folding space is a perfect union of theory and practice, and provides a good metaphor for Grayfolded. The most extreme case of Oswald’s space-folding comes right at the beginning of the first disc, where it’s entire 60 minutes is put forth in two and a half seconds by folding the hour onto itself 16,384 times (13). This opening serves as a concentrated illustration of his basic working method for the album; Oswald indeed travels far through the history of the Dead’s space by bringing the eras together through the act of sample folding.
Much more than simple blending of time periods however, Oswald’s remix also features some masterful use of the sampling technology used to do the blending. The Mirror Ashes disc opens with the “Dark Star” verse “the transitive nightfall of diamonds,” usually sung by three or four vocalists in the band (depending on the lineup). Oswald amplifies the choral quality of the line by layering 15 versions of it from different shows, but keeping the versions in a tight range of 4 years so that there is a consistency to the quality of vocal expression. This layering serves to intensify the unique sound of early 70s Dead vocals, and brings it to an ecstatic height that might have existed in the minds of fans witnessing the singing of that verse at that time.
The moments that follow this verse (beginning in track 2) illustrate one of Oswald’s trademark techniques: latching onto a particular moment of a musical phrase and repeating it over and over while the original phrase is allowed to progress underneath. In track 2, Oswald latches onto a bit of feedback from Jerry’s guitar that screeches and is then pulled back into a note. This moment in and of itself is a nice little microcosms of Ribot’s evocation of the guitarist’s struggle against decay, feedback being one of the strategies he mentions for prolonging the sustain of a given note.
Oswald’s strategy of repetition here is akin to the band’s improvisational method as well. Isolating moments within a jam and repeating them is what finding grooves is all about, and is what makes improvisation in rock-based music especially exciting. In the case of the Dead, such groove-finding is not the equivalent of modern electronically repeated and fantastically precise rhythms. Rather, it is the loose exploration of repetitive forms through a more organic sensibility. Oswald does much the same thing by repeating the moment of feedback, sometimes two or three times very quickly, other times more spread out. Thus the moment is repeated regularly not so as to create a solid rhythm, but rather to explore moments that might recur more randomly, as the repetition of shapes appear in nature. This is very much like the description that Michael Barnsley makes about the way nature copies itself to create infinite diversity, overlaying little bits of itself with other little bits of itself such that the result is recognizable but always different, little Mandelbrot variations within the complete Mandelbrot set. Oswald simultaneously allows the moment to progress naturally while layering it with the repetition of an isolated moment from within that progression, illustrating his desire to explore the tension between decay and regeneration that the band exhibit in their own musical practices.
The extreme end of this use of repetition comes at 4:22 into track 2 when Oswald builds an already climactic moment of a distorted guitar chord into superclimax. He layers the peak of the grungy chord many times together, slightly offsetting each layer so that a reverb is set up, sending the distortion level through the roof into an explosion of noise. From within this chaos Oswald then lets a very 1969-like Jerry guitar line cut through like an angel from heaven come to cleanse the Earth from hellfire, then bursting into a full-on groove while the reverb settles down into a decay of echoing drum pitter-patter until they disappear altogether. This technological strategy is again akin to the way the band often reaches peaks of climax and then settles into new grooves. The reverb effect on the drums creates an effect that is not unlike some of the slightly unsynchronized playing between the band’s two drummers. In fact, there is a kind of looseness, if not frequent sloppiness, to the Dead’s playing that allows for Oswald’s mixing to emphasize this and introduce layers of improvisational segments that would not work well together if clean-cut beat-matching was necessary to capture the band’s essence. Oswald’s skill at recreating the band’s musical strategies through the use of his sampling technology is evidenced by responses that suggest “it just sounds like the Dead jamming.” Though Oswald notes that Grayfolded does not sound exactly like a Dead jam, he is “happy that this highly-constructed recording can sound on some level like a document of live playing” (14). The Dead’s looseness of live playing that contributes to the success of Oswald’s work makes the band an especially good analogy for the seeking of islands of order in a sea of chaos. Ultimately, over the course of an entire tour, the serious fan will single out only a few moments when it all really “came together,” islands of order that are well worth traveling the high seas to find.
If we were to travel the high sea a few billion years ago, the one great sea known as Panthalassa, we would eventually come across a single island of order, the original order from which we all descended: Pangea. Miles Davis named his final album of the 70s after the great continent, and in so doing demonstrated perhaps the highest form of nostalgia of all: nostalgia for the one and original birthplace of the human species. Is it ironic then that Davis’ own career is perhaps the most synonymous in music history with the phrase “never look back”? Davis was absolutely obsessed by forward movement, constantly confounding his fans by never sitting still too long (the same could be said of Jeff Beck and the electric guitar). Many who thought he attained jazz perfection in the 50s were horrified long before Bitch’s Brew hit the shelves in 1969, and those who saw that album as the beginning of something new were no doubt disappointed when it also turned out to be the final word on that particular brand of newness. The man simply could not sit still, the very molecular structure of progression seemingly programmed into his very DNA. As Carr, Fairweather and Priestly suggest in Jazz: The Essential Companion: “the whole of his past glows in the music, and yet he is neither coasting nor purveying nostalgia” (15). No surprise then that his 70s foray into the world of rock, though never quite fulfilled without the infamous meeting between him and Jimi Hendrix (scheduled for just a couple weeks after the guitarist’s death), might be the most progressive rock of all. Further, it is utterly fitting that he chose the name Pangea for the definitive statement of his rock phase, as this nostalgia for the long lost one world is embodied within his own work. His music contains his entire history in every note while never looking back, much like the continents keep their history layered within their crusts while moving ever further away from one another, never to revisit the shores of their original connection. The one time Davis did choose to look back and do a concert featuring some of his old masterpieces was one of the last times he was to appear in public before his death. Strangely symbolic.
The lore surrounding Pangea the super continent is rich. I believe this lore can be added to significantly in the context of contemporary musical practices. Davis was at the helm of the development of modern fusion. While musical cross-breeding has been in existence for almost ever, it was put into high gear with Davis’ rabid compunction for the joining of musical styles within his base of jazz. His final albums of the 70s are perhaps the pinnacle of Davis’ fusion interests, mixing styles ranging from African, Indian and contemporary American styles so freely as to never know they were separate. This is the essence of the super continent, the land where nothing was separated, and Davis’ interest in recapturing that unity of all things is one of the main reasons I believe he was so driven through so many different phases. While his constant shifting can be seen as a kind of self-fragmentation, I believe it also illustrates a quest for unity that can actually be achieved through such fragmentation. I am reminded here of Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of William S. Burroughs’ pioneering acts of cut and paste that have so influenced many of today’s artistic endeavours:
Take William Burroughs’ cut-up method: the folding of one text onto another, which constitutes multiple and even adventitious roots (like a cutting), implies a supplementary dimension to that of the texts under consideration. In this supplementary dimension of folding, unity continues its spiritual labor. That is why the most resolutely fragmented work can also be presented as the Total Work or Magnum Opus (16).
As the Earth’s landmasses fragmented and spread out amidst the great sea, the notion of fragmentation became an integral part of human experience. This obviously would have jumped up a few notches once the art of cartography was well under way. Now, as technologies of bridging the gaps become ever more prevalent, the notion of becoming one again is powerful indeed. Not that globalization hasn’t met with some resistance and casualties of course (a couple office towers here, a middle-eastern country there). Judging from his music, however, Davis’ vision of the global village was not based on capitalist world domination through manifest-destiny. Rather, it was the fruitful and respectful sharing of talents and pools of influence resulting in a synesthesia between musical styles whose influence continues to be felt today more than ever.
One of the major players in today’s continuance of Davis’ world vision is bassist and producer extraordinaire Bill Laswell. Prolific beyond the likes of anyone but his like-minded contemporary John Zorn, Laswell pumps out project after project uniting every imaginable musical realm in an effort to bring the record store’s categorization strategies to a melting pot boil, and brining the musical styles themselves along for the ride. Laswell, to me, most fully embodies what I consider to be the fact that the more stuff exists in the world, the more potential for originality there is. Some see it the other way around, like there is some cap on the amount of originality in the world and with every new piece of music composed or book written we get one step closer to the limit. This latter notion seems based on ignorance to the fact that the mind operates through the making of associations, the branching of neural networks between one another. Genius has often been recognized as the ability to take things which have remained separate and to put them together in such a way that the difference between them evaporates. The third mind. Energy is matter. Interestingly enough, this seems to be the very essence of human reproduction: the joining of two beings to create one new being, wholly unique yet containing the original two in an undifferentiated unit.
Laswell’s remix of Davis’ entry into fusion, aptly titled Panthalassa (1998), is no less than an attempt to reunify the master’s progression through the 70s, creating an ocean that can once again surround the great continent, bringing the disparate pieces together at long last. On the subject of originality vs. influence, Laswell’s remix also shows the depth of Davis’ influence on his own bass playing and musical interests. Laswell’s role as selector illustrates not only an understanding of Davis’ career and the relationships between the eras covered on the album, but also his own musical development. His respect for the music of Miles Davis is shown by his gentle treatment of the material, dubbed “mix translation and reconstruction” rather than remix, which is much more subtle than Oswald’s treatment of the Dead on Grayfolded. Laswell is interested more in making the original music sound better than ever, having been given access to the master tapes and the remastering potential therein, and uses no material other than what existed in the original recordings. He weaves some sampling magic here and there, like folding the two tracks from In a Silent Way over one another to create a single hybrid of the two, in parts isolating moments of John McLaughlin’s guitar playing from the rest of the mix. You can almost hear Laswell himself in the rich bass grooves on the songs he chose for Panthalassa, and his own work becomes more clear as a result. Like a bass warrior on a quest to implant his fat sound into every corner of musical awareness, using that most fundamental of musical basics to tie together so many styles and parts of the world much like a bass player will sew together the fabric of a particular group of musicians.
Laswell’s quest for the stitching together of musical styles through the enveloping quality of his bass grooves can be most felt on the recent resurrection of the legendary Tabla Beat Science crew. Taking tabla master Zakir Hussein and sarangi legend Ustad Sultan Khan as the molten core, this Indian influence is infused with the African vocal stylings of Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw, the hip-hop turntableism of DJ Disk, American jazz-rock drumming of Karsh Kale, fusion keyboard work of Fabian Alsultany and the drum’n‘bass Powerbook electronics of the Midival Pundits. In the middle of all this, Laswell steps in and sends a warping bubble of envelopment through the whole thing with his unique bass sound, transforming the group into a perfect unit as only he can, a true musical alchemist with the secret to bonding disparate molecular structures into new elements. Tabla Beat Science takes the ideal of a group working as one to a new level, exploring the micro-rhythms of Hussein’s tabla magic through the like minded use of DJ Disk’s scratching, the Pundits’ electronic beats and Laswell’s own percussive bass techniques. There are moments on the band’s Live in San Francisco (2002) where a virtual new instrument is created out of the perfect interaction of these various elements. No doubt he learned some of this by listening to Hussein’s work with John McLaughlin in Shakti, where the incredibly nuanced rhythms of the tabla are matched beat for beat by the kind of ridiculously precise guitar playing only McLaughlin can pull off. Miles Davis also pursued this kind of musical alchemy, often having keyboards, guitars and his own trumpet all playing through wah-wah pedals, confounding listeners’ attempts to differentiate between the instruments. United we stand, divided we fall.
Using his bass-guitar as the one constant through all his endeavours, Laswell’s plucked strings ward off the decay inherent in keeping things separated from one another. Miles Davis would be proud, and there is no doubt in my mind that Laswell was the right person to open the vaults on the great master’s most holistically-minded period. Panthalassa is a decisive statement in one man’s career, and on an era in music history that forever changed the way musicians relate to one another. Laswell has made this statement by using his technological expertise to re-stitch the fragmented fabric of musical influence that Davis himself set out to embody in his resurrection of the one world that generated us all.
In Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, Faust goes through a journey of self-discovery, taking an image of himself represented in text form and tearing to bits before piecing back together until he is freed altogether of the need to exist within the world of his own skin. One might argue that this is the goal of all examiners of the world: to explore themselves by breaking down the observable elements, analyzing them, and then reconnecting them. As much postmodern theorizing suggests, we are now still too busy concentrating on not slipping through the cracks between the fragments we have made of our objects of inquiry. We are walking the tightropes of our own inability to balance the great whole that the universe no doubt is, the one great island of order that just happens to be the sea of chaos as well.
Perhaps we can learn from the expressions of ourselves that we put forth into the world, be they pieces of art or technological innovations. As fractal geometry clearly demonstrates, there need not be a distinction between art and science. The humanists seek to understand the body in terms of reproduction technology (media as extensions of the human). Gender theorists blur the lines between the artificially imposed categories of sexual and biological gender orientation. Progressive rockers confound the constancy of their genre by impulsive tendencies towards evolution. Sample-artists and filmmakers break the world up into tiny pieces in order to piece it back together in ways that illustrate the often unseen connections that exist between all things. All of the above seek to keep the world from stagnating, simply engaging in the natural art of regeneration through whatever means may be at their disposal. Yet all this line-blurring creates havoc and unrest in the minds of many, as all the controversy surrounding sampling, changing musical-styles, and the prolonging of human life through technological means suggests. At the end of The Forbidden, after Faust’s skin has been removed, the pieces of the reconstructed pictograph are blown away for good, no longer necessary after the protagonist’s rebirth into freedom. The error of Faust’s seeking might seem to be corrected, perfecting the search for the timeless through the breaking down, reconstruction, and final discarding of his own image.
We are not yet reconstructing, it seems. One thing is for sure: every individual needs to be active in the process in order to stitch the world together as a whole. How does the saying go? “Think globally, act locally.” Perhaps we could start by unifying Barker’s film with an appropriate soundtrack. It would be fantastic to see Laswell go to town on the Crimson archives, but Robert Fripp’s abhorrence of outsiders touching his precious recordings precludes any possibility for The Forbidden to be scored with a remix of King Crimson material. So, how about the next best thing? Godspeed! You Black Emperor might have a slightly more contemporary view on the whole remix issue, and who better to explore the remix potential of their work than country-mate John Oswald? Who knows – it could be the world’s first positive union between Quebec and Ontario, and the result would certainly make for a splendid accompaniment to Barker’s film. It should now be clear from reading this little treatise that there is a myriad of common conceptual interests between Barker’s work and that of Godspeed and Oswald. Thus, the marriage of these three would be an excellent union of like-minded Faustian seekers in a world that needs a little push in the direction of reconstructing the great continent. Not to mention that it would just plain sound great, as evidenced by my own experiments in playing Godspeed’s music along with the film. This is, in the end, what inspired me to write this thing in the first place.
1 – Edward Berko in: Briggs, John. Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992: 168.
2 – Shank, Gary + Eric J. Simon. “The Grammar of the Grateful Dead.” Deadhead Social Science. Rebecca G. Adams + Robert Sardiello, eds. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2000: 55.
3 – Ibid.
4 – Ibid: 66.
5 – Ibid: 67.
6 – Ibid: 69.
7 – Since Oswald has been legally restricted from releasing his original Plunderphonics recordings, Negativland has scooped the rights and made them available through their website: www.negativland.com. All proceeds go to finance further Plundrphonics work.
8 – Oswald, John. Plunderphonics 69/96. Seeland 515CD, 2001: 16.
9 – Oswald, John (interviewed by Norm Igma). “Plunderstanding Ecophomics.” Arcana: Musicians on Music. John Zorn, ed. New York: Granary Books, 2000: 12.
10 – Keenan, David. “Undoing Time.” The Wire. No. 219 (May 2002): 47.
11 – Ibid.
12 – Théberge, Paul. Any Sound you can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997: 6.
13 – Oswald, John. Plunderphonics 69/96. Seeland 515CD, 2001: 13.
14 – Ibid: 37.
15 – Carr, Ian + Digby Fairweather + Brian Priestly. Jazz: The Essential Companion. London: Paladin Grafton Books, 1988: 130.
16 – Deleuze, Gilles + Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Brain Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987: 6.