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Upcoming Book, Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling

Image: Preliminary cover design and logo for upcoming book by Ludmil Trenkov.

I am very happy to announce that my book Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling is scheduled to be published later on this year, by Springer Wien New York Press.  If all goes according to schedule, it should be available no later than this Fall.  The book offers an in-depth analysis on Remix as a form of discourse.  To get a sense of what to expect, you can read my previously published text, “Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture,” also available through Springer: http://www.springerlink.com/content/r7r28443320k6012/. You can read my online version as well, though I encourage you to support the publishing company by downloading the official version.

I will offer more information about the book in the near future, such as the table of content, and excerpts from the text. For now I wanted to share the promotional abstract:

Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling is an analysis of Remix in art, music, and new media. Navas argues that Remix, as a form of discourse, affects culture in ways that go beyond the basic recombination of material. His investigation locates the roots of Remix in early forms of mechanical reproduction, in seven stages, beginning in the nineteenth century with the development of the photo camera and the phonograph, leading to contemporary remix culture. This book places particular emphasis on the rise of Remix in music during the 1970s and ‘80s in relation to art and media at the beginning of the twenty-first Century. Navas argues that Remix is a type of binder, a cultural glue—a virus—that informs and supports contemporary culture.

Notes on Everything is a Remix, Part 1, 2, and 3

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Everything is a Remix is a four part web-film series directed and produced by Kirby Ferguson. It has been about a year since the first segment (above) was released. Since then, Ferguson has released parts two and three. The fourth and final installment is scheduled to be released this Fall of 2011, and I look forward to viewing it.

When I viewed part one, I really liked it, and thought that the title, while it may sound polemical to some degree (in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way), somewhat falls along the lines of how I view and have been discussing Remix as a form of discourse during the past few years. However, once I viewed the other two segments, I realized that the way some of the material is presented begins to water down the very foundation of the term “remix.”

For this reason, while I do like very much Ferguson’s series, and often share it as a reference with anyone who wants to get a sense of Remix as a form of discourse, I find the need to write down some of the issues that may be overseen in Ferguson’s series.

This oversight perhaps may be in part because short films cannot possibly cover in-depth analysis as a series of texts or a book would. On the other hand, it may be inevitably tempting to make an ever-expanding megamix about culture and media with a generalization that one cannot fully embrace (though in the spirit of remixing can truly like and admire). With both of these possibilities in mind, I briefly share my views on this series.

Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

The main issue about remixes that comes up, even in the first video, is that there is no explanation of the relation between material sampling and cultural citation. as I previously explained in Regressive and Reflexive Mashups, there is a difference between a Medley and a Megamix: the former is played by a band, while the latter is composed in the studio usually by a DJ producer, who understands how to manipulate breaks on the turntables.

What this means is that a remix in the strict sense of its foundational definition has to be materially grounded on a citation that can be quantified, in other words, measured. This is one of the reasons why DJ producers quickly ran into trouble with copyright law: a lawyer could play a sample from a Hip Hop song, in direct juxtaposition with the originating source of the sample and make evident on purely material grounds that the sample was an act of plagiarism.

But this is not exactly what happened with Led Zeppelin. What happened with Zeppelin, as the example given in Ferguson’s first segment, was straight forward plagiarism within the tradition of covers and knock-offs. Two terms that are also mentioned in the first segment as forms of “legal remixes.” What these forms of recycling content do share with remixes is intertextual citation–the embedding of ideas by way of direct or even indirect reference, which often is not materially grounded, but rather made possible through well calculated emulation.

Everything is a Remix Part 3 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

The best example of intertextual citation in the postmodern sense would be Quentin Tarantino’s films, which are also mentioned at the end of the credits of part two. Tarantino does not sample directly from the films he references in his own work, but rather recreates the scenes or shots to develop his own narratives. This allows him to claim autonomy of the material, much in the way that Zeppelin (in my view unfairly) can still keep their credibility, perhaps on the ground of reproducing material in a unique way that is their own–even if they failed to cite the sources from which they blatantly stole.

In other words, because, both, Tarantino and Zeppelin don’t materially take, but rather emulate with great precision, their productions are not remixes by definition, but rather informed by principles of Remix as a form of discourse. Their actions are cultural citations. These details are missed, unfortunately, in the first three parts of the series by Ferguson.

Now, as it is already obvious above, I do extend the concept of remix as Remix (with a capital “R”) to pretty much all the areas of culture that Ferguson mentions in his series, including the Apple computer. But when I do this, it is to emphasize that we are functioning under a paradigm ruled by acts of material appropriation and recyclability.

The attitude of remix made possible with the technology first introduced earlier in photo-collage and tape loops and eventually music samplers, has now become an attitude, an aesthetic that informs the way cultural material is produced. But this does not mean that “everything is a remix.” This may appear to be so, but as much as I myself would like this to be the case, it is not. What one could say is that “everything is intertextual,” which is closer to the tradition of sharing ideas in conceptual and material form, prior to the time of modernism. Historically all the material covered by Ferguson is certainly relevant in terms of recyclability, but it does not validate the catch-all statement “everything is a remix.”

Understandably, “everything is intertextual” (which could also be contested if one gets really picky) is not as catchy as “everything is a remix.” To go viral, one must use what is in vogue and quickly understood. Intertextuality had its time in the postmodern period. Now, it appears that remix is the catch all phrase.

And why is it important to point out such nuances that in the end a person enjoying Ferguson’s short films may find too nit-picky? Because if we actually take the time to differentiate the referencing of ideas in conceptual and material form (ideas, and actual products reused) then copyright law may actually be changed. If we keep referencing intellectual production in general fashion as Ferguson’s work unfortunately does, we will not be able to change laws on intellectual property. It is for this reason, only, why I write this entry, because I find that the film series could benefit from understanding the important differences between material samplings and cultural citations.

I should add a note to explain that my concern here is not academic by any means, even though I make a living by working with research institutions. I have been invested in remix culture long before the very term was coined. Before investing myself professionally as a media researcher and artist, I was a DJ for over fifteen years. And for this reason, as much as I would like everything to be a remix, I have to admit that this is not the case. To be blunt, from the point of view of cultural critics who are wary of hegemony, “Everything is a Remix” can be understood as a flip-on-the-script of diversity, paradoxically, to become a totalitarian statement–that anyone who is invested in difference is compelled to resist. I say this understanding that Ferguson probably does not mean it this way, which is why I do share his work as much as I can. Kudos to Ferguson.

The Aesthetics of Representation in Circuit Bending, by Eduardo Navas

Detail of Szkieve’s circuit bending performance at Montevideo, Uruguay, July 28, 2006.
Image source: http://www.hushush.com

Note: This text was specifically written as a contribution to ReFunct 09‘s Symposium taking place at ISEA 09.

One might wonder what is the concrete definition of “circuit bending.”  In a way, the name does not completely connect with the actual activity of appropriating sound from pre-existing sources, ranging from electronic toys to hacked radios, or even half-broken generators. When I first heard the term, I thought it referred to strict manipulation of electronic signals.  This possible definition hints at a certain purity in sound with specific electronic technology; yet, in 2009 circuit bending is quite the opposite, even if in the beginning it may have had a leaning towards hacking electronic gadgets of all types.  At the moment, it is a hybrid practice that appropriates any type of sound, freshly recorded or pre-recorded; re-recorded or significantly manipulated; even erased or retraced–or captured live from the environment in which a performance is taking place to be bent immediately, on the fly.

My most memorable performance of circuit bending took place in Uruguay, on July 28, 2006.  I attended a soundtoys event organized by Brian Mackern, one of the first net-artists from the southern cone, active since at least the mid-nineties. Mackern more recently has become a major supporter of sound performances of all types.   The performance took place at the French Alliance of Montevideo, where I saw Mackern and a number of other sound artists perform on customized software interfaces.  A couple of performers used Max MSP and Jitter, while Mackern presented a series of visual platforms built in Flash that remixed well-known movie clips from Hitchcock and Tarkovsky.

I saw a connection with the aesthetic of sound manipulation often found in circuit bending in these performances; yet, it was the performance of Szkieve (Dimitri della Faille), a Belgian-Canadian Sociologist that left a lingering impression on me.  He is obsessed with collecting toys that produce noise in any shape or form with the purpose to use them in circuit bending performances.  In fact, that afternoon, before the performance, I was invited by both Mackern and Szkieve to join them on a walk in downtown Montevideo.  At the time I knew that Szkieve performed with toys, but did not know exactly how he developed his sets.

That evening Szkieve used a green plastic fish toy which he had bought from a street vendor during our walk.  He pulled and released a string from the fish, which then emitted an expected fish-like sound that Szkieve slowly distorted into an echoish abstract noise, somewhat reminiscent of dub.  Szkieve then combined the loop with the distorted sample of a toy train that moved on a circular track.  The pitch of the train’s motion was drastically lowered several notes, turning it into a cacophonous massive bass sound that directly contradicted the petiteness of the actual train.  Szkieve also mixed loops from various electronic devices through a mixer.  If the audience had not experienced the visual development of the performance, the sound could easily have been mistaken for just another experimental electronic mix, carefully developed in a music studio–rather than from toys found at any corner store.

Szkieve’s performance is a good example of how the key to creativity is not so much the ability to produce sound from scratch, or have an advanced skill in performance, but actually to be able to conceptualize the potential of material that may already have a function, or holds particular cultural value.  In this sense, circuit bending is a unique link between individuals who believe that all production should be developed and manipulated from scratch, and individuals who are primarily invested in acts of sampling and recombining material, as commonly understood in Remix.  Circuit bending exposes how in the end it is not important if something is performed live or looped, or is a mix of the two, but rather whether or not what is performed challenges the audience’s perception of the source material.  This is true not just for sound and noise performers, but artists in all fields.

I must admit that I often view circuit bending primarily as a performance based medium.  My case in point is  Szkieve’s performance, in which the sound may not be as interesting on its own but in conjunction with its visual development.

However, Circuit bending is becoming more diverse. In 2009 it is closely linked to physical computing and all types of art installations.  What is promising about circuit bending is that it can be a medium, as well as a tool: it can include software and hardware, or exclude either one, as long as its only requisite is met: that perception be bent.  Most importantly, like Remix, circuit bending can also be an aesthetic, to be cited in literary terms:

The snare of a wet red elastic nylon wire licking the bass-line of grey wooden-nails bound with the blind screams of a last name never to be famous and always worth mentioning; the beat of gracefully scratched hair longer than the history of the will, pushing the finger that struggles to penetrate its own castration; the speed of trust on the Internet, showing off its color as it begins to understand its dependence on truth…

The series of workshops and symposium at ReFunct 09, taking place at ISEA, in Ireland, are likely to push circuit bending’s definition, perhaps to the point that people like myself will no longer desire a live performance, but simply aspire to think beyond representation as we know it.

Principles of Sampling Come Full Circle

Massive Attack’s Grant Marshall and Robert Del Naja

Image source: The Guardian Music Blog

One of the anxieties often cited by those who guard intellectual property is how artists who sample ultimately steal from those who created the “original” material, therefore taking away potential revenue from the original source.  Another common argument is that the original source runs the danger of going unrecognized by those who enjoy the material composed of samples. Even if sampling artists may pay royalties, it is often argued by those who believe in creating things with their bare hands that artists who sample are simply unoriginal. Yet, as the article “What is your sampling Epiphany,” by Simon Reynolds entertains, at the moment, the republishing of material as a set of recordings sampled by well-known music studio artists has the potential of becoming a common trend–not to mention a major form of revenue for record companies.

We have reached a state in the consumption of post-production when those who have developed a career based on other artists’ samples have become the ones who support renewed sales of the originating sources in the form of reissues. This is the case with Massive Attack’s Protected Massive Samples. Now, it appears remix culture is coming full circle. The implications of this trend might further complicate copyright law in the near future. This trend is worth keeping in sight.

The article by Reynolds ends with a very compelling citation of Virilio, which was actually forwarded to me by my colleague, Greg Smith. It reads more like an aphorism that exposes that dialectics of culture:

The French philosopher Paul Virilio argued that every new technology comes complete with its own unique catastrophe; the invention of the aeroplane, for instance, was also the invention of the plane crash. The corollary of the sample epiphany is what I call the “sample stain.”

Dub, B Sides and Their [re]versions in the Threshold of Remix, by Eduardo Navas

Text and image source: Vague Terrain

Note: This text was originally published on Vague Terrain, Digital Dub Issue, August 08. It is reposted here with minor edits, and an additional quote by Bunne Lee, to clarify the history of dub in Jamaica.

Abstract: This text outlines the foundation of dub as a musical movement that found its way from Jamaica to other parts of the world, in particular NY and Bristol. Upon looking at history, it can be argued that dub and other musical genres that it has influenced have constantly thrived on the threshold of culture, feeding the center. In support of this argument the essay links the influence of dub to the theories of Homi Bhabha and Hardt & Negri. Dub is also linked to Remix as a discourse of global production.


Reggae, Dub and Memory Play: Paul D. Miller – interviewed by Eduardo Navas

[photo: joi ito]

This interview was originally published on Vague Terrain for their August 2008 Digital Dub Issue.

Paul D. Miller, AKA DJ Spooky is a multitasker. He is known for his music productions, as well as his art and film projects. He also has been writing about art and culture for many years. In the last few years, Miller has worked with Trojan Records to develop compilations about Reggae and Dub with a critical yet playful take on the complexities of Jamaica. Most recently, he edited Sound Unbound for MIT Press, a book which comprises a set of texts about the influence of sound in media and culture at large. In the following interview, DJ Spooky, discusses his current projects in a global context, and motivates us to move beyond basic binaries onto a more productive and creative state.

Eduardo Navas: In your most recent Recording Project “Creation Rebel” as well as “DJ Spooky Presents In Fine Style 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records!!!” you write short historical essays about the culture of Reggae, Dub and the Big Sound System. You are also very careful to present your position as a cultural insider, given that you used to visit Jamaica as a kid; and you also state that you were approached by Trojan Records, rather than the other way around, which would otherwise place you, regardless of ethnicity, in a position of “explorer” or Neo-colonial. Based on all this can you explain how you see colonial ideology at play in Jamaica today?

DJ Spooky: The situation Jamaica faces today is part of a global cycle of hyper capitalism – even the Cayman Islands used to be part of Jamaica… anyway, yeah, the whole system is based on production models that privilege the “developed” economies over the “developing” ones. From Mugabe in Zimbabwe to Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, Kim Jong Il in North Korea, or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Ahmadinejad in Iran, people in “developing” economies are faced with rulers just as flawed as anything the U.S. can summon up with people like Bush or Reagan. I tend to think that everything is connected. My Trojan records project is an exploration of the archives of one of my favorite record labels during a time of intense political upheaval. But it’s also about showing how people make music out of their circumstances.


Notes on Deeves’s “Beats of Boredom,” by Eduardo Navas

Image still of “Beats of Boredom” by Adams Deeves

The music video “Beats of Boredom” by Adams Deeves has been circulating among online video sites for some time now. Some sites where it can viewed include I-am-bored, Vimeo, and Youtube.

The video was created with clips of a man who finds himself at home with nothing to do. He does what most people who are bored would do: watch TV, eat a not so healthy snack, and then do some cleaning. The originality of “Beats of Boredom” is in the way the sequences are edited, which are built on top of each other rhythmically as new moments of the boring afternoon are introduced. The end result is a music video of an instrumental song clearly influenced by hip hop and variations of house that ordinarily would go unnoticed, were it not for the fact that the sounds were produced with household items.

The video starts with a series of water drops, then the man plays with a small radio, cut to the sound of a tea kettle, then the man scrapes a toast, sits and eats in front of the TV, wondering what to do; then he slaps his right hand on his right leg: once, twice–then hits his chest with his fist, and snaps his fingers; then he opens and closes the zipper of a sofa pillow to mimic the sound of a record being scratched, then he slaps the pillow, creating a similar sound to a base drum; and repeats the whole process. At this point we have the basic rhythmic structure of the music composition in place, and it is a matter of adding other elements on top.

Other activities include placing a CD player in a stereo system, turning on a printer, scratching a jacket’s sleeve with his index finger, going to the refrigerator to look for something to eat, then opening what appears to be a beer bottle; then flipping the pages of a closed note book with his thumb–and turning on and off a vacuum to make the sound of a DJ quickly cutting the sound level on a mixer.

At the end he is asked by a woman who comes into the apartment “What are you doing?” He replies “what?” she repeats, “what are you doing?” he replies, “nothing.”

This video shows how material activities attain value, which in this case consists of careful repetition of sound recordings from an uneventful day. A slap does not mean much if performed once, but when repeated it becomes a vehicle of representation. When this is recognized as a creative possibility, a second, third and fourth slap could follow, and this is the basis of rhythm. Repetition of activities, whether in music or other areas of culture, is necessary to create value–or more simply meaning. Repetition becomes even more stable and efficient when recording technology is used to preserve image and sound for replay.

What we encounter in “Beats of Boredom,” then, are all the necessary elements for any activity to become and be repeated as a mix, and eventually a remix. Most importantly, the video is already a remix because it is composed of samples from a boring day, and in order to understand it as a composition, it is necessary to not only listen to the sound, but also view the video clips as the sound samples are added on top of each other. “Beat of Boredom” gives equal weight to, both, image and sound, something not always accomplished successfully by either music or video artists. Nevertheless, “Beats of Boredom” is primarily a video, which shows how with recording technology one has the power to take representation and manipulate it, mix it and remix it. And once “Beats of Boredom” is repeated enough and becomes recognizable it will enter the realm of the spectacle, and will be prone to becoming remixed or simply consumed passively, not because of its innovation, but because of its recognition as a popular composition.

Thanks to Greg J. Smith for turning me to this work.

Lee “Scratch” Perry and Mad Professor: Twisting the dial to twist the music, by Todd Dominey

Image source: Music Club

Text source: Rootsworld

Original publication date: unknown

Popular music has a long history of aural innovators, from Brian Wilson and his downward spiral to Phil Spector’s wall of sound. They are often romanticized as shadowy knob-twiddling visionaries who through mixing boards and miles of cable added new worlds to stereophonic sound. Reggae music, with an admittedly limited rhythm structure, has been propelled forward by it’s own pioneers, with Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Mad Professor holding top rank. In their own unique ways, both have created indelible catalogs of hit reggae albums, sonic experiments, and plenty of wicked bass heavy dub, traditionally the instrumental B-side or “version” of a popular song spliced and diced into a teeth-rattling art form all its own.

The two are from different generations and continents, yet both Professor and Perry walk the same twisted line. Both are passionate for electronics (Professor built his own mixing board as a teenager while Perry pushed four track recorders beyond comprehension), both built their own record company from the ground up (Ariwa / Black Ark), and both have produced music for a surprising range of artists including Massive Attack, U-Roy and the
Orb (Professor) to The Skatalites, The Clash and the Beastie Boys (Perry).

Read the entire article at Rootsworld

Dub, Scratch, and the Black Star: Lee Perry on the Mix, by Erik Davis (Reblog)

Image source: Fhex (mySpace)

Text source: techgnosis.com

A version of this piece originally appeared in 21C, issue 24, 1997

Having abandoned the Jamaican tropics for the snowy peaks of Switzerland, the legendary reggae producer Lee Perry—aka Scratch, the Upsetter, the Super-Ape, Pipecock Jackson, Inspector Gadget, the Firmament Computer, and a cornucopia of other monikers and aliases—now makes his home in one of the quietest corners of Europe. It’s an odd but somehow fitting environment for Perry—not because precision clocks and banks have much to do with the intense, spooky, and profoundly playful records he’s known for, but because Lee Perry had always been something of a stranger in a strange land.

Though still capable of turning out brilliant tunes like “I Am a Madman” and “Secret Laboratory (Scientific Dancehall),” Perry’s current output pales next to the pivotal music he made in the 1960s and 70s, especially the Rastafarian psychedelia he cooked up at his Black Ark studios in the mid 1970s. During that incredibly prolific period (he produced over 1000 sides in ten years), Perry fused his eccentric spiritual vision with powerful protest music, made some of the most surreal experiments with dub reggae, and sculpted the first (and arguably greatest) records by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Utilizing low-tech studio equipment with a brilliance and panache that continues to astound record producers and music fans today, Perry earned a place alongside Phil Spector and Brian Wilson as a visionary studio wizard who transformed pop music production into an art form all its own.


DJ Spooky: How a Tiny Caribbean Island Birthed the Mashup, by Scott Thill

Image and text source: Wired

July 12, 2007

Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, has been producing beat-heavy electronic music for more than a decade. From his early solo trip-hop efforts to his more recent collaborations with jazz giants, Spooky has always approached music from multiple angles at once. He has the chops of a musician, the genre-blending ear of a disc jockey and the conceptual vision of a performance artist.

It was therefore no surprise when Trojan Records, a reggae label entering its 40th year, asked DJ Spooky to put together a mix showcasing tracks from its massive archives. When assembling >In Fine Style: DJ Spooky Presents 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records, one of several mixes commissioned to mark the Trojan birthday, Miller found countless parallels between the Jamaican reggae scene of the 1960s and ’70s and the digital mashup ecosystem of today. (See Upgrading Jamaica’s Cultural Shareware: Trojan Records at 40.)

Read the entire article at Wired

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