Vol. 32 Issue 2 Reviews

Various: [re]

DVD-Video/DVD-Audio, 2006, everglade EVG06-01; available from Everglade Foundation, 27000 SW 192 Avenue, Homestead, Florida 33031 USA; telephone (+1) 305-247-6884; electronic mail info@everglade.org; Web www.everglade.org/.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hoffman
New York, New York, USA

DVD CoverEarly remix practices were wedded to turntable technology and performance. Today they are still tied firmly to technological implementations. As remix did then, it continues to break apart fully formed sonic objects, re-sculpting sound that is already fixed as a complex form, as an event. Although we understand remix now to embrace non-spontaneously composed sound, it remains concerned with dramatic realignments of time, of culture, and of thought. Rearranging the trace of an action, i.e., a recording, a memory, remix productively disrupts and provokes.

"Sample," "cut/copy and paste"—the early twenty-first century is steeped in highly fragmented flows of information and is filled with increasingly non-hierarchical disseminations of competing knowledge sets. It is provocative to have a chance to consider how these phenomena—which we celebrate, and which challenge us—figure in composed remixes. What sort of experiential wormholes do composers construct, and how do they manipulate expected information flow? What types of distortions are valued by composers who lean toward a classical electroacoustic tradition, and to what ends?

[re] is a DVD that dedicates itself entirely to this question; and "collage," "creolization," "conceptual art" are just three generalizations, or remix theories, that subsume some of its nuanced answers. The DVD encompasses one hour of music commissioned by the Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival. As an enchanting conceptual centerpiece to this collection, Mozart’s Requiem, by Kristine Burns, is a multi-layered response. For a few seconds this piece seems intentionally flippant, but a darker, weightier side to the composition is intermingled. “All composers die of TB or syphilis,” quips an interviewee in the music. Do we laugh, or do we feel a twinge? In fact, as the music unfolds in an elegantly-crafted patchwork of sampled materials that includes present views of passers-by about Mozart and his music, we wonder about the very mythology of the genius composer, if not the canon of classics. Are we ready to kiss the composer mythology goodbye? There's no denying the emotional power of Mozart's Requiem—undiminished through fragmentation and recontextualization in Mozart's Requiem.

Yet, the skills needed to compose a requiem remix are nothing like those needed to compose a Mozart-like requiem, the latter being the very material of Ms. Burns' composition. Her recorded interview materials assume such poignancy and humor because of their remixing, reordering, and because of the slices of musical contextualization. All of these details are strongly enhanced by the technical virtuousity the composer employs in placing and juxtaposing disparate materials in time and space. (The [re] DVD may be played in 5.1 Dolby AC3, or in surround 24-bit/48 kHz audio formats.)

Mozart’s Requiem invites even more complex replay for those who might hear in it two simultaneous commentaries: one explicitly on Mozart’s music, and the other far less directly on Jon Appleton’s 1969 Newark Airport Rock. (The latter piece depicts an interviewer who quizzes non-specialists on the question "How would you define electronic music?" rather than "What do you know about Mozart?") That many of the compositions on [re] seem consciously or unconsciously to rethink other recent electroacoustic musics is a unique aspect to this collection. At times we hear remixes that are wonderfully fresh, yet inadvertently are also rethinkings of other remixes.

The high quality of the commissioned pieces makes this DVD compelling as a source of individual compositions. Yet it is the conceptual journey and cross-links between the pieces that make it enticing as an anthology. How do computer capabilities enter the remix concept for a group of composers?

For Colby Leider, Benjamin Broening, Alessandro Cipriani, and Scanner (Robin Rimbaud), the medium is clearly integral to their remix messages. These composers all give heightened attention to a modeling of real and virtually enhanced real spaces (in Circulo, Lamentations Aleph, Aqua Sapientiae/Angelus Domini, and Sung Back, respectively). Their compositions appear to meditate on how sounds, and performed musics, fill and articulate seemingly sacred spaces, and, sometimes, on how spatialized sound has the potential to represent and stimulate memory. Rather than recontextualizing the distant spaces (cathedrals) by reconfiguring them in modern or imaginary forms, these composers all choose to preserve and amplify the grandeur and mystery, the layers of reverberation caused by cavernous architectural environments such as those in which their source materials were originally heard. This quartet of pieces is intriguing to listen to as a set, and further as following Robert Normandeau’s Memoires vives (1989) and Colby Leider’s own Veni Creator Spiritus (1996).

Medieval chant, and Renaissance and Baroque musics, hold particular appeal as remix sources on this DVD collection, and it is easy to speculate that some of the allure stems from the performance practice and original venues of the performed music. There is a meditative, dreamy, but energizing aspect to all four of these pieces that stems from their vocal source materials resounding in resonant space. Mr. Broening’s work (based on music by sixteenth-century composer Thomas Tallis) preserves a vocal quality least literally, presenting itself as a remix loosely suggestive more of the memory—or the idea—of voices than of actual voices themselves. It is less like song than like song-filled space. In a serendipitous intersection of compositional ideas, Mr. Broening and Mr. Cipriani both set in motion immediate contrasts between detailed, particle-filled foreground noisy textures, and broad, timbrally smooth, pitched sounds. Mr. Broening’s granular synthesis-like detail remains detached, a bit like a screen, reminding a listener to self-reflect on the gulfs between her- or himself and the music; between our present technology-driven world and the past; between the composer Broening and the composer Tallis. Mr. Cipriani’s foreground detail is far more narratively and contextually integrated within an acousmatic totality, serving perhaps as a rethinking of the idea of text painting. Thus the delicate, filigreed textural detail that foregrounds the opening of Aqua Sapientiae is not so disguised as to cloak its source: water sounds. It shimmers as if reflecting light.

Circulo and Sung Back use their vocal sources more overtly, the former engaging in a play between real and synthetic worlds, invoking elegant transitions between pitch and rhythm; the latter rhythmicizing voice samples from a Bach cantata in a remix manner that is conceptually quite disjunct from the original.

Remix as "re-creation," and remix as "supplement," are two paradigms that arise in another intriguing subset of works on [re]. This subset is formed by an inevitable meta-dialogue between Matthew McCabe’s Prison Songs and Ricardo Climent’s Annus Horribilis, two works which seem fascinated by a search for optimism in a bleak external world. Mr. McCabe’s piece is part documentary, utilizing Alan Lomax’s fieldwork recordings of prisoners. It is the prisoners' unprocessed singing which elatedly distances itself, blues-like, from the composer-supplied, fabricated sonic surroundings that are missing from the studio-like vocal recordings. The soundscape of hard labor itself does not even pretend to be authentic, but merely to stand in for a ghoulish element that went undocumented by the original microphones. This remix is more filmic than musical, and it suggests the idea of remixing a single medium artwork into a multimedia one.

In contrast, Mr. Climent's sonorously imagined 1666 (a year cursed for the English with plague, battle defeats, and the great fire of London) is far less literal. The optimism he chooses to see in the Annus Horribilis includes the birth of composer Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, a bright spot on the horizon along with increasingly fertile musical activity in Europe at that time. The music "quoted" in the remix is only abstractly conjured up for the listener. How is this then a remix, an attentive listener may wonder? What Mr. Climent has done suggests a musical historiography: the same electroacoustic starting materials serve as the single source of the two parts, horribilus and miribilus.

Mark Applebaum’s work, Variations on Variations on a Theme by Mozart, is the only recorded performance on the collection, a "compression" of Mr. Applebaum playing 18 prepared pianos, redistributed amongst four tracks. A bit like his own Precomposition (a tour-de-force point-source diffusion piece), Variations gives the impression of a multiple personality. The prepared pianos remark on John Cage most obviously, and, of course, on Mozart. The result is certainly strange, hence the composer’s description of it as “an alien sonic patina” rings true. But it is more palpably a meeting of three composerly minds, a delightfully imaginary chatting and collaborative composing through time, between Wolfgang, John, and Mark. Is this a remix? It's hard to say.

The remaining five works each have unique strengths. Larry Polansky’s Epitaph (a four voice canon) invites interest more in its whole self than in its processes of remixing. This is partly because it is self referential, starting with the composer’s improvisatory material. He uses the computer in ways that are not manifest in any other works on this collection: toward structuring a mensuration canon with distinctly tuned layers in non-equal-temperament. There is a performed quality to Epitaph but it also uses stochastics and feature-detection sorting, and is the farthest on this collection from music that suggests a teleological model.

In Slumber, by John Gibson, the emergence of source material by Robert Schumann at the end (though a bit abrupt for this listener) effectively invites retrospection about how the processing techniques take the listener from abstraction to their discrete musical source. It is one of the few works on the collection, interestingly, that suggests a musical form emanating from the particular remix concept itself; this piece is gratifying in that respect.

Stephen Vitiello’s composition One Violin reminds this writer, vaguely, of Paul Dolden’s experiments with layered recordings. Mr. Vitiello allows a slow and detailed savoring of each recorded instrument sampling. Mason Bates’ brief Good People embodies the most traditional approach to remix on this collection, a spatialization of his own jazz-influenced electronica. It is a welcome addition that enables this collection to transcend a style-bound anthology. Finally, Gagaku, by Mark Wingate, is the one example that strays from the norm of Western source materials. Nonetheless, the “lens” for him is still “21st century occidental thought.”

The pieces on this collection are each rich engagements with past music, by composers with enough technological sophistication to create music that distorts space and time and context toward varied musical ends. This [re] DVD is an attractive project because of its thematic coherence, but it is even more appealing a listen in its internal commentaries.