Postmodern Musical Salads, Part II
The philosophy behind the music
In my last post I talked about sample-based music—from difficult-to-categorize sonic collages like John Oswald’s Plexure to mashups made for laughs like Neil Cicierega’s “ACVC”. I described how some of these pieces are structured, and how composers’ choices regarding which samples to use can have an effect on how their music is perceived by their audience. I left open the question of the philosophical implications of sampling; I’m going to address that question in this essay. That question is heavily dependent on an understanding of postmodernism.
Postmodernism is the philosophy that came, um, after modernism in the nineteen fifties, and that 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 . . . 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.1 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.