Postmodern Musical Salads, Part I
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!
In this essay I’m going to define some of the stylistic 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 is a sample-based piece of great density and complexity using 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. For the most part 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, 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 postmodern 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? Is respect 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? I have my theories as to the proper answers to these questions . . . but I will save them for next time. Until then—listen to some of these musical salads, and let me know what you think. Was Plexure as difficult for you to understand as it was for me? What part of Mouth Moods make you laugh out loud? Comments are always on!