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Sound Unbound

Paul D. Miller (editor), Steve Reich (Introduction)

Sampling Digital Music and Culture

(MIT Press)

DJ Spooky, a.k.a. Paul Miller, bills himself as an “independent artist, writer, producer, and musician”, but he might be most accurately described as a connoisseur and investigator of sound in all of its forms. In his latest project, titled Terra Nova: The Antarctica Suite, he traveled to Antarctica to record the sounds being made by the not-so-gradually melting ice. The result, accessible through his website, is eerie, unplaceable sound that calls into question not only the distinction between sound and music, but also that between sound and noise.


Sound Unbound, Miller’s latest book from MIT Press, also calls these distinctions into question. Like his previous volume, Rhythm Science, this book offers a snapshot (to use a horribly analogue-culture metaphor) of the ways in which the human relationship to sound has traditionally been constructed and the ways in which, under the influence of what Miller calls “digital culture”, that relationship is changing. The book essentially contains three types of contributions. One axis of the collection deals with the relationship between cultural production, typically conceived of as the work of an individual, original creator, and sampling. Another axis addresses sampling not as cultural practice, but as metaphor—for the operation of the World Wide Web, for the workings of memory, even for race relations. And the third addresses not just sampling, but the ways in which we define—and, in so doing, limit—sound itself.


Given their variety of approaches and topics, it is not surprising that the contributors to Sound Unbound come from a similar variety of contexts, including academia, science fiction, music production, jazz performance, and, in the case of Ron Englash, the entirely unlikely nexus of ethnology and mathematics. Englash is but one example of the hyphenated identities that many of these contributors possess. Others with similarly-hyphenated professional personae include Vijay Iyer, the jazz pianist-composer-researcher; Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist-composer-artist-writer; Brian Eno, musician-producer-theorist; and so on. That, too, isn’t surprising: given Miller’s own polymath tendencies, one would expect him to run in similar circles.


And this book is, essentially, a bit like getting to eavesdrop on people in an especially cool—and original, and provocative—circle talk about why they do what they do. Take, for example, Keith and Mendi Obadike, a married couple who are also artistic collaborators. Their contribution to the collection constitutes a discussion of Keith’s “sonic portrait” titled Sexmachines, a triptych based on multiple recordings of the sounds made by a vibrator, a dildo, and an anal plug.  Obadike enthuses about the way that this project, with its emphasis on the “sonic possibilities” of objects originally designed with “an emphasis on ... tactile qualities” (ahem), enabled him to “freak the machine”.


Freaking the machine in a different way, Daniel Bernard Roumain’s essay-in-fragments postulates that all composers are pathological liars, that Snoop Dog creates chamber music for the 21st Century, and that the shuffle function of iPods allows their owners to participate in “a compositional idea, a compositional technique”. I am, of course, excerpting and oversimplifying; read in context, his claims seem less outrageous than quirkily perceptive. Similarly, Bruce Sterling’s piece “The Life and Death of Media” reminds readers that as technology progresses, so too does its obsolescence: “My PowerBook has the lifespan of a hamster ... Just how much of an emotional investment can I make in my beloved $3000 hamster”? Given what he calls the “ever-growing legions of dead personal computers” and operating systems, he argues, artists working in any digital medium have to ask themselves how likely their work is to survive. It is an arresting claim, one that, once absorbed, becomes utterly convincing. 


Miller’s biggest claim in favor of the ideas he espouses can be found on the CD that accompanies the book, which features remixes of material taken from artists as diverse as James Joyce and Sonic Youth. Most of the material on the CD comes from the archives of Sub Rosa, a small record label specializing in archival sounds. Miller has a particular gift for unexpected couplings: Bill Laswell ends up combined with Magritte, for example. When he isn’t splicing together unlikely bedfellows, Miller practices the art of juxtaposition, setting tracks from Sun Ra, John Cage, and Morton Subotnick against recordings of Kurt Schwitters and Artaud (among many others). The overall effect is occasionally grating, but generally exhilarating.


This exhilaration results, I think, from the way in which the CD and anthology implicitly challenge our assumptions about how musical culture is organized. In a concert hall, or on the pages of the newspaper’s arts guide, we would never expect to encounter Steve Reich, Chuck D, and Vijay Iyer within shouting distance of one another. We’ve been socialized to think of them as practitioners of entirely different forms of music. Their inclusion in this anthology reminds us that we are all impoverished by such artificial separations. After all, while musicians may be educated in different traditions, and marketed in different contexts, they are all conducting an implicit conversation with one another all the time simply by virtue of being musicians. Miller allows us to listen in. 


Even the most inspiring project can have flaws, and such is the case with Sound Unbound. On several occasions, particularly when I resorted to using Google to learn about some of those whose work was included in the collection, I found myself wishing for contributors’ notes. Did MIT Press really think that the audience for the volume would be so small that such notes wouldn’t be needed, or was this just a woeful oversight? The volume might also have benefited from being divided into sections determined by topic or theme. Aside from these quibbles, though, the book and CD can hardly be faulted. Check them out.  And be prepared for your machine to be thoroughly freaked.

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