Sound Unbound by Paul D. Miller (editor), Steve Reich (Introduction)

Erika Nanes

One contribution to the collection is a discussion of Keith’s sonic portrait, "Sexmachines", a triptych based on multiple recordings of the sounds made by a vibrator, a dildo, and an anal plug.

Sound Unbound

Publisher: MIT Press
Subtitle: Sampling Digital Music and Culture
Author: Steve Reich (Introduction)
Price: $29.95
Display Artist: Paul D. Miller (editor), Steve Reich (Introduction)
Length: 362
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0262633639
US publication date: 2008-05

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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