[23 September 2008]
“Imagination is a magic carpet upon which we may soar to distant lands and times”, the irrepressible and irreplaceable Sun Ra says on Sound Unbound, a mix disc by Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. The album is meant to accompany the book of the same name. It sets out to do exactly what the loveable alien jazz fiend implores—to travel the space-time continuum—though it remains unclear to what destination or specific end these explorations are guided.
Miller, perhaps like Ra, is a singular figure in music. Not only is he putatively known as one of the founders of the “illbient” genre, he is also a noted videographer (he infamously “remixed” D.W. Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation) and one of music’s leading intellectuals. Sound Unbound seeks to examine what Miller refers to as “remix culture”, Miller’s hip-hop terminology for what’s often dubbed “participatory media” in the Web 2.0 world. For Spooky/Miller, the remix is at the crux of the postmodern era’s democratic desire to interact with culture at large. It allows us to recycle our surroundings, to reimagine the known universe, and to engage in dialogue with the vast information database of our hypertext realities.
His compositional elements for this journey come from the archives of Belgian label Sub Rosa, which is admittedly exactly the library and methodology used for the companion CD to his 2004 book Rhythm Science. As such, Sound Unbound is a sequel of sorts. The differences in approach between the Rhythm Science and Sound Unbound albums are largely technical and insignificant. Both seek out a kind of alchemy in recombinant strands of the textual past. And Sub Rosa’s ongoing rescue of entombed sound offers Miller an abundance of material from which to choose, spanning the range from latter-day abstract experimentalists to multinational field recordings to sound documents culled from the rising modernist insurrection of the early 20th century.
The selections for the disc are almost all vital, seldom-heard documents. There’s Matthew Herbert, Aphex Twin, and Marcel DuChamp talking about the process of creation alongside Raoul Hausmann sputtering off nonsense and Pamela Z reciting a poem made entirely of pop song titles beginning with the word “you”. There’s To Rococo Rot providing the backdrop for Tropicália star Caetano Veloso reading countryman Augustos De Campos’s poetry. All in all, it’s a musical narrative that unfolds at an abstract pace, with odd, exciting, and tedious patches all over.
The connection between the sonic texts fused together or placed adjacent one another on the album is largely interpretive, though it certainly opens the door for questions. What do Bill Laswell’s “Ghost Dub” and a series of questions by surrealist Rene Magritte have in common? Or what does a constructed collaboration between musical experimentalist Martyn Bates and the late Allen Ginsberg contribute to a conversation about the expansion of sound? Furthermore, how does the latter recontextualization expand the catalogue of DJ Spooky himself, who already finely tuned Ginsberg’s folk anthem “End the Vietnam War” into a protest of the invasion of Iraq on a mix (Live Without Dead Time) given away in copies of Adbusters magazine several years back?
Not only does Sound Unbound repeat ideas, like remixing Ginsberg’s poetic rhythms to sound like verse and exploring the Sub Rosa archives, but it also uses several artists more than once. Repetition of this sort is not untenable or unforgivable, but it’s curious why DJ Spooky would opt for performances of Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley by Ulrich Krieger when the originals are far more resonant. Raymond Scott’s three cuts from his the fantastic Manhattan Research, Inc. compilation may function well as commercial interludes, but why put three tracks from the same album on one that seeks to investigate the far margins of recorded sound, especially when that album wasn’t even released by Sub Rosa?
The argument can be made that the instant access to de- and re-construct free floating media is empowering for the otherwise disenfranchised masses left to rot in virtualities. Yet, one thing Sound Unbound fails to illustrate is how compact disc mixology, which has more value—at the very least in the market sense, but also in terms of production and usually labor—competes with, stacks up against, or is more effective than the podcast? Even as a potential podcast, Sound Unbound is a fine one, but how does the album distinguish itself from a web stream unless its proposed connections are charted cautiously? Does Miller want this disc to dissolve into the din of mass play by home-schooled DJs? If it does not seek to compete with the podcast, then why sell the album separate from the book at all? Miller seems to be saying with this mix that value is autonomous. You can listen as deeply as you choose. The prescribed traits of each sonic artifact are carried with them, including one’s own personal prejudices, but the degree to which you interact with or examine the text is left to the individual.
If the remix is all about plurality and perspective, the nonlinear narrative of the 45-track Sound Unbound wants to offer as many opportunities for that as possible. DJ Spooky’s peripheral moniker, That Subliminal Kid, comes from William S. Burroughs, who is perhaps best known for his appropriation of Brion Gysin’s cut-up techniques (he also appears on the album’s final track, with Iggy Pop and Techno Animal). It’s not difficult to see the fragmentary sequences abound in Sound Unbound as DJ cut-ups that slice Sub Rosa’s captured aural tapestries and carefully rearrange them like the words of Burroughs’s books.
But there’s also a more recent, and far more insidiously regarded information age artifact that DJ Spooky’s truncated reworks recall, and, in some ways, validate: the sound bite. Miller would be wise to note that the same power that one uses to produce cultural detournement can also be, and is, enlisted to manufacture spin, revise history in the image of the winners, and dull the senses of those who’d rather experience the 21st century’s cultural landscape in prepackaged doses.
The transitions between various concrète and electroacoustic pieces by the likes of Schaefer, Varèse, and Xenakis that fill up the album’s middle third are seamless and stimulating, but they’re just doses of the full experience of those artists. Perhaps many of the icons that appear on Sound Unbound deserve to be deconstructed and removed from their pretentious rung at the top of the literary or musical hierarchy. Many of these artists and authors have been sanctified in the communities of their lineage as near-commodities who even have built-in exchange values that increase with their growing relevance. Rendering each of them as sound bites then is almost like a punk or dada act of defiance to their institutional power. Yet, in the MySpace age, reimagining complex works through snippets seems more normative than revolutionary. Few people even listen to whole songs these days, let alone whole albums. Like that attention-deficit tendency, Sound Unbound often has the ability to Cliff Note and parenthetically compact its source material. Miller’s remix culture, as liberating as it may be, also permits the possibility of a world where every morsel comes pre-chewed for easy digestion.
While the “allegories” of the album’s subtitle, Excerpts and Allegories From the Sub Rosa Archives, remain mysterious, the “excerpts” are plainly clipped and occasionally neutered pieces of larger works, generally deprived of context or historicity. In a sense, this is probably the point, freeing texts from their limiting cultural baggage and allowing the materiality of sound itself to become the only or perhaps purest evaluative framework through which to perceive musical realignments (remixes, mashups, covers, sampling). If not, the remixing of pre-existing works at least opens further the valve of self-reflexive cultural communication, just as the entrepreneurial avant-garde figures featured on this album once did.
It’s fitting that many of the artists heard on Sound Unbound, such as James Joyce for example, have been heard far more after their deaths than they ever were in life. This is in no small part thanks to the use of new media and new distribution networks (sampling, CD rereleases, internet resources like UbuWeb). Though disembodied from their intentions (Sound Unbound often seems as if it subscribes to the intentional fallacy theory of criticism), they live on as reference points. Remix culture gives a kind of immortality to sound, that most ephemeral of creative forms. It’s like a time machine, and as such, even the slightest changes can alter our interpretation of the future, or our perception of the present, or our relationship to the past. Sound Unbound wants to do all those things, and it gives us an imaginatively stocked canvas to work from.