Negotiating with Terrorists
Without a press release or review to guide the listening experience, this record from Jan Jelenik’s Gesellschaft Zur Emanzipation Des Samples (translated as the Society for the Emancipation of Samples) would likely be seen as a simple homage to the tape manipulations of Pierre Schaeffer and the musique concrète movement of the late ‘40s. However, something changed significantly in the music landscape between Schaeffer’s era and today. Major labels have been running around like chickens with their heads cut off for decades, trying to nail down anything they could possibly turn a profit on. For their use of samples, some stretching as long as 15 whole seconds, Negativland has been sued more often than Mobil Oil, spending more time in court than the studio since the early ‘90s. This kind of lunacy is what the Society for the Emancipation of Samples was formed to protest.
Things are changing, though, slow as they are. Danger Mouse brought the subject to the forefront in 2004 when he dropped The Grey Album. That album placed the vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album over beats painstakingly assembled from the Beatles’ White Album. DM released the album online free of charge, and was immediately issued a “cease & desist” letter by EMI. The major label’s ploy failed miserably after what has subsequently been known as “Grey Tuesday”, when approximately 170 websites simultaneously hosted the work, and over 100,000 copies were downloaded on that day alone. The effort catapulted Danger Mouse into the mainstream, going on to enjoy chart success with Gnarls Barkley, Beck, and Gorillaz, while EMI came off like a gaggle of fun haters completely out of touch with the direction of popular music.
More recently, despite his astounding lack of talent, Girl Talk turned all sorts of heads with his aimless cutting and pasting of pop hits, essentially repackaging the style of Kid606. Shocking to him and the industry at large, the mainstream embraced his form of found-sound glitch. Feed the Animals garnered a spot in Rolling Stone‘s Top 25 of 2008, and ranked as high as #4 on Time Magazine‘s year end list, and #2 on Blender‘s. He has been featured in several documentaries covering the “fair use” debate, yet the majors have not seriously challenged his music. They seem to be learning their lesson.
Hammering the point home, Jelenik’s Society for the Emancipation of Samples wades all the way to the deep end of the sampling debate while nodding to the birth of the technology that birthed the whole problem. While Circulations apparently contains pieces of a wide range of pop songs, as proclaimed by a computer voice in the track “Samplecredits (Manipulated)”, there is nothing on the record that could be inferred as pop music.
Unlike Girl Talk, Jelenik does not aim for the lowest common denominator and shoot for the quick buck. Circulations is a cerebral work, based on the original spirit of electronic experimentation. While certain sections retain more of a song structure than others, it is an album designed to be heard as an entire work and considered for its principals, rather than a hack-job recycling of other artists’ material meant to be ironically nostalgic and mindlessly danceable. While the artistic originality and worth of Girl Talk and The Grey Album are still and will likely always be arguable, there is no question about Circulations that was not answered over 60 years ago. That makes Gesellschaft Zur Emanzipation Des Samples a definitive statement in the fair use debate.