Postmodern musical salads
Note: I’m taking the week off to work on some reading so I thought it a good time to repost this essay. I originally wrote it way back in August of 2021 when this newsletter had only 23 subscribers; I was stuck at home with the ‘rona when I wrote it, and it remains one of my favorites. It was originally posted in two parts; this version is combined and slightly edited. Please enjoy!
Mashups! Is there any sillier genre of music? Take two songs, crash them into each other, listen to what happens, and giggle or groan at the results—sounds like fun, eh? But how did this kind of thing start, and . . . is it good for music?
When magnetic recording technology was introduced in the 1940s, composers were first able to use prerecorded samples, in addition to live instruments, in the crafting of their music. Almost immediately, composers such as Edgard Varèse began to experiment with recorded sounds as a basis for their compositions. In the years immediately after World War II, Pierre Schaeffer pioneered what he called musique concrète, a compositional style that relied on found sounds and electronic manipulation of prerecorded instruments. From Schaeffer and Varèse, the practice of using recorded sounds in serious compositions spread to other composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, and then made the jump to more popular music such as that of The Beatles, then Pink Floyd, and all the way up to the present day. Now, sampled sounds are ubiquitous in recorded music.
But it wasn’t until the early 1980s and the ascendancy of hip-hop that other people’s music began to be widely sampled. Sure, it happened before, but hip-hop was the first genre to make sampling of other compositions an integral part of the genre’s aesthetic. Not long after that, entire works began to be created using samples of previously existing songs—full circle from what Stockhausen and his squad were doing. You wouldn’t have expected the lowly mashup to have such a pedigreed history, with roots going back all the way to serious dead German composers!
Let me tell you about some of the style points to watch for in the genre of works made entirely out of samples of other people’s music. The first work I want to mention is Plexure, by John Oswald. This sample-based piece of great density and complexity uses familiar songs from pop culture, disorganized and cut up to near unrecognizability, and presented with little structure or refence points. Oswald is using his samples of radio hits in the same way that Varèse et al. were using recordings of found sounds—as musical material without allusion, reference, or context. Mostly, his use of samples succeeds in reducing them to their sonic qualities alone (but there are a few places where a careful listener can recognize a sample as being from a specific work and enjoy a moment of familiarity).
Osymyso’s track “Intro Inspection” uses samples of the same kinds of songs, but his piece is heavily dependent on the samples being recognized as samples of pop songs.
Although “Intro Inspection” is, like Plexure, devoid of apparent form or structure, it sounds much more appealing to the ear because it is made of familiar elements. Your mind’s desire to find an overall pattern is distracted by the familiarity inherent in the samples, so the piece is not actually disorienting.
DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing (One track of which is showcased below) consists of sample-based songs which, like Oswald’s Plexure, are not dependent on the samples being recognized or familiar—in fact, DJ Shadow seems to deliberately look for obscure samples for his tracks. But his pieces are rooted in the conventions of song form and are readily apprehended as structured pieces of music. His aesthetic is very similar to a composer from the baroque period, such as Vivaldi, who copied parts of other people’s works into his own operas, or Handel, who copied parts of his own earlier compositions to write his Messiah—taken out of context, Handel’s samples (and those of DJ Shadow) cease to refer to their original sources and function as fresh material for new compositions.
If you want to listen to classic mashups in the high, platonic style, you need listen no further than Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Moods, possibly the best of the four mashup albums he has produced. He uses pop songs, as do Oswald and Osymyso, and employs traditional structures, as does DJ Shadow. The combination of both these approaches gives Cicerega’s work an immediacy and instant familiarity. Cicierega trades heavily on the surprise that his mashups induce, the sense of disorientation that is felt when the familiar becomes recontextualized; but this disorientation is different from what the listener experiences when listening to something like Plexure—the music Cicierega makes is familiar but all of its context is gone, replaced by new and unexpected context. Listening to Cicierega’s Mouth Moods is like bumping into a friend in the place you’d least expect to find them.
So what are we to make of these saladesque mixological frankensteinian entities, these mashups, these sonic equivalents of either a health shake or what your six-year-old just made in the blender while you were napping? Do serious music lovers need to pay attention to this sort of thing?
Well . . . it seems to me that Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Moods relies too much on the listener’s reaction and not enough on whatever artistic merit it might possess in its own right; the listener is too busy laughing, or too much in shock, to consider the album’s formal or structural qualities. Cicierega has a very impressive skill for merging songs into unexpected combinations, but he relies almost entirely on the original songs’ structures and has few new compositions of his own (“The Starting Line” and “300MB” being exceptions).
An even worse fault with Mouth Moods is that if a listener is not familiar with the original songs, the humor is lost and unnoticeable. Cicierega might be saying something about nostalgia or context but he’s only speaking to members of his own generation, who listened to the same radio stations as he did; familiarity with his source material is a hurdle which must be jumped before his music can be properly enjoyed.
I’m usually pretty accepting of avant-garde or extreme music, but Oswald’s Plexure left me bewildered. I found myself desperately latching on to fragments that I recognized and not listening for any overall structure in the piece (since I first heard it, I’ve tried to find structure in it, but haven’t yet been successful). Cicerega relies on overfamiliarity; Oswald removes any familiar aspect (beat, meter, compositional form) from this work. Without some kind of formal reference points, the listener finds it hard to understand what is happening and becomes confused. Neither Oswald’s nor Cicierega’s strategies are, in my mind, conducive to a composition’s ability to sustain interest over many hearings.
Osymyso is the middle ground here, but instead of giving us the best of both Oswald and Cicierega, he seems to give us the worst; with “Intro Inspection” he succeeds in distracting the listener from his piece’s lack of structure by featuring already-familiar material . . . but again, what if we are not familiar with it? We would be lost in the woods, Plexure-style.
A musician who wants to use samples of previously released songs, without making the same mistakes that Oswald, Cicierega, and Osymyso make, would do well to study the methods that DJ Shadow employs on Endtroducing. On this album, there is plenty of new structural material for any music listener to enjoy; and that enjoyment is not dependent on already being familiar with the samples. DJ Shadow is basically doing exactly what Varèse, Stockhausen, and the rest were doing back in the fifties—treating samples as sounds on their own and creating new art from them. There is no reason not to consider DJ Shadow’s art as on the same par as the “serious” composers who first invented the methods he uses.
There is a deep philosophical question that must be addressed when discussing mashups and sample-based music: that of the proper relationship between artist, artwork, and audience. What obligation does the artist or listener have toward the past? What kind of respect is owed to the creators that have gone before, and to their artworks? What role does the audience / consumer have in the creation of works of art? That question is heavily dependent on an understanding of postmodernism.
Postmodernism is the philosophy that came, um, after modernism in the nineteen fifties. It is equated in the public perception with French deconstructionist literary theory and weird, ugly buildings. The fundamental axiom of postmodernism is the idea that “meaning is relative, therefore nothing is sacred.” In the more academic discussions this is manifested as “there is no objective truth; I don’t have to accept something as true just because some philosopher said it.” In religion, this means “I can create my own religious experience, and I don’t have to follow the creeds of any other spirituality.” In the arts, this philosophy is expressed as “There is no accepted canon of Great Texts which must be honored, revered, and respected.”
There is something seriously wrong with the idea that truth is relative; if that were the case, nothing could ever be known about anything, and besides, the statement “there is no objective truth” is self-contradictory. But are the ideas of postmodernism equally faulty when applied to the arts? Before we can answer that question, we must remember that there is a difference between Truth and Beauty, or more accurately, a gradient, with the exact center being Experience.
In the matter of received texts, consider this example. Oliver Twist is a revered novel in the Great Tradition of classics, written by a dead white male, and fully accepted into the Canon as a truthful and powerful depiction of poverty, hustling, the privations of the lower classes caught in the throes of industrial life, and is studied and assigned in schools everywhere. “Ghetto Anthem” by Jay-Z is not written by a dead white guy, not accepted as canonical, but is equally honest about poverty, hustling, privations, and the rest. Is Oliver Twist “more truthful” than “Ghetto Anthem”? The answer can only be decided by experience. If you had a rough childhood, which of these two artworks most closely mirrors your own experience? That one will be the one you prefer, the one you think is “more truthful.”
What about beauty? I remember talking to someone who grew up in Georgia about David Lynch’s film The Straight Story, which features an enormous amount of aerial shots of Iowa cornfields. Being from the Midwest myself, I’ve always found these shots stunningly gorgeous, but my interlocutor admitted that he was bored out of his mind by them. In his experience, cornfields are not that big of a deal; I, however, grew up around them, but that doesn’t mean that they are objectively beautiful.
Truth plus experience, or beauty plus experience, equal Meaning, and this is the heart of the postmodern philosophy; meaning is relative. The truth that physical matter is made of mostly empty space with protons and electrons orbiting around each other has no meaning for most people, whose daily experience involves manipulating hard, substantial physical objects. Similarly, the beauty of Balinese Gamelan music has no meaning for me because I don’t have enough experience of that musical tradition. I don’t want to talk about the very dangerous and corrosive implications of a postmodern meaning-is-relative view to philosophical, religious, or ethical spaces; I want to focus on what this idea means in the arts, and, in this particular instance, in music.
How can music “mean” anything? It’s true that music—pure sound—does not have any propositional content. But most cultures develop a vocabulary of meanings that are in an associative relationship with certain sounds. The record-scratch noise, as used in films, “means” sudden switching of cognitive focus in our culture’s sonic vocabulary. Big-name composers use sound effects also—Beethoven’s piccolos in the “storm” section of his Sixth Symphony “mean” lightning. Certain melodic and harmonic techniques convey certain emotions. The horns in “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves “mean” happiness, even before you hear the song’s lyrics.
But since taste is relative, meaning suddenly becomes so also—the song that makes you feel happy might be obnoxious to someone else. And a song that an artist meant to be serious might strike some people as just silly. And—here’s the key point—a song that a culture thinks is serious might, in the hands of a sample artist or mashup creator, become silly. This is what I mean when I say that to the postmodern artist, nothing is sacred—no work of art deserves to be treated with reverence or respect; all artworks are potential fodder to be recycled into something new.
Does this sound like a bad thing to you? If so, ask yourself: isn’t that how people treat music anyway? Who hasn’t ever played some sort of music in the background while they are entertaining guests—music that an artist toiled over, maybe for years, investing great amounts of effort into getting every detail right, without ever intending their music to be used as mood control at some party? Is this disrespectful of the artwork? Of the artist? Is the work of an artist inherently deserving of respect, simply because it is a work of art?
Modernist philosophy revered the works of art, literature, music, and thought that constituted [white European] Culture, practically to the point of idolatry. If we start acting as though artists are some kind of demigods, dispensing Truth and Beauty from the founts of their genius for the blessing and edification of the masses below, we are idolizing them. Postmodern musical philosophy—the philosophy of the mashup— puts artists back in their proper place. People are using music as they see fit. And if some artist is offended by this . . . well that’s too bad.
An important subgenre of sampling, maybe even a meta-genre, is that of the mixtape.
Mixtapes probably originated in the sixties with the widespread adoption of reel-to-reel tape recording; with the introduction of the cassette in the seventies, the art form of the mixtape took off. In the late nineties, the mix CD became the genre’s predominant expression; now, Spotify playlists are where the action is. Making mixtapes and playlists is a way for music fans to do their own postmodern recontextualizing, taking songs away from the context of the album they were in and giving them new meaning by associating them with other, unrelated, songs.
Mashup and sample artists make mixtapes too—and one of the best is by Aquarian Foundation, a band affiliated with Mood Hut records from Vancouver. They produced an eponymous album in 2012 which is, well, revelatory. It sounds like a completely random, chaotic assemblage of found sounds, fragments of beats, samples of strange instruments, and heavily modified pop songs, but it flows together in a surprisingly satisfying way, and it exemplifies what I’m saying about how sample artists make new contexts for the samples they use in their music.
Listen to what they do, on side A of the album, to two radio hits—Donna Summer’s “I Love You” from 1977 and Aaliyah’s “At Your Best (You Are Love)” from 1994. These two songs, once Aquarian Foundation gets done with them (here and here), become almost unrecognizable, losing all affiliations with their original context and meaning. They become raw material for Aquarian Foundation’s composition, just like Oswald did with the samples in Plexure but in a much more listenable way. Throughout their album, but especially in these two instances, Aquarian Foundation make the music their own. If you like mashups, samples, and that sort of thing, you’ve really got to give Aquarian Foundation a hear.