Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sound of the Year: 2011: The Cry for Freedom

The Critical Noise 2011 Sound of the Year is:

The Global Cry for Freedom and Fairness

You have a dream.
You have a voice.
Will the world hear it?
Or will you suffer in silence?

From Arab Spring to American Autumn, the meek, the poor, the downtrodden, have used the media in a way once reserved for those with access to elite connections and expensive broadcast channels: as both a megaphone and a weapon. And in so doing, they may or may not have won relief from daily tyranny, but they have increased global awareness of unjust governments and unfair markets.

They have been heard.

People of modest means have found strength in unity, and in so doing, have thrust themselves upon the world's stage, often eluding velvet ropes and manacles along the way. But many have also been arrested or died tragic deaths.

They will not disappear. They will not die in vain.

This chorus of discontent has compelled the powerful to listen, and the effect has caused nothing less than a tectonic shift of the global political and economic paradigm.

Indeed, tremors can still be felt. Without a doubt, they will resonate for years to come.

But although the cries of any given group of individuals were not always in unison, they were always identifiable as a collective appeal for Human Rights and dignity –for equal opportunity and a democratic ethos – to be distinguished from the law of the jungle and a sometimes predatory economic system that has for far too long passed as politics and business as usual.


The Critical Noise blog congratulates those who have won their freedom; and wishes continued support for those still fighting for their dreams (and as often our own); and extends our prayers to all who have summoned the courage to add a voice to what has been both a communal and a transnational chorus of voices using the power of sound and media to change the world.

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Photo Credit: The London Evening Post

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The Critical Noise Sound of the Year goes to that sound source, event, entity, happening or concept which so effectively produces wide response and reaction, whether intentional or not, such that it stirs collective emotion, inspires discussion, incites action, or otherwise lends itself to cultural analysis and resonates across the globe.

Prior Sound of the Year winners include The Vuvuzela (2010) and Auto-Tune (2009)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Beasts and Beats: Does the Cosmos Sing?

We call the chirps and calls produced by birds 'song' but little of it resembles music to me. That said, I'm deeply fascinated by the communicative sounds of birds and other animals, nonetheless. We might say this so-called bird song collectively resembles musical sound, but only in so far as speech and syntax is musical, no?

I think it more fair to say that though we might perceive bird vocalization as song, whether or not it is intended as such is still a mystery (at least, to me) –that is, do birds distinguish between speech and music?

In my own observations of various birds, I've identified warning calls, feed-me chirps, mate-with-me cooing and sometimes even beautiful, melodic utterances that seemed voiced simply for the self satisfaction of the bird itself. But whether or not such vocalizations by birds or any other animal was conceived as entertainment for a given bird's own pleasure is beyond my capacity to identify it as such.

Is the cicada actually singing, or is it more likely the cicada is simply communicating his desire to attract a mate? Maybe we should classify all activities, produced with the intention of resulting in sex, whether by human, animal or insect, as music?

When a dog whines along with an aria, can we say he or she is actually accompanying the tune? Does our music hurt their ears, as it sometimes appears to do? And yet, sometimes they seem to enjoy it to. It's as if dogs enjoy expressing their pain. Would it be too far afield to suggest dogs have a natural inclination to sing the blues?

Are the hydro acoustic sounds produced by whales and dolphins songs? If so, might one also reasonably ask if SONAR is song, produced by a chorus of instruments which include in their ensemble a signal generator, a power amplifier, an electro-acoustic transducer and the echo response produced by the ocean floor.

As for the origin of rhythm, we might equally argue that the beating human heart or the Circadian Rhythm forms the basis for all music, but if rhythm is fundamentally defined by regular mechanical movements, then does that make solar system a musical instrument? What about a mechanical engine? A car, for instance? Certainly the locomotive inspired much music after its invention, but is the train itself a musical instrument? Can we write a sonata for violin, clarinet and Amtrak?

Some who study Zoomusicology do argue animal vocalizations do fall under the category of music. I think it depends on whether a specific animal is singing or speaking, just like humans? But certainly, animals respond to man made music in different ways.

And in the case of SONAR and synthesizers, we do recognize that machines are capable of making music, but in those cases, the machines are actually modern instruments, manipulated by human operators.

In the case of synthesizers, I don't for instance, recognize the emissions of a random tone generator as music, but I do recognize their possible use as an element in creating purposefully designed music.

Does that mean works created entirely by random means, such as by choosing pitches based on a roll of the dice, or by some algorithm, are not music? I think of such works as musical games. The question is whether or not the result of a game based on random choices can be considered purposeful.

Which is not to say we should deny ourselves fun. In fact, purposeless activity can be as restorative as it is playful. At the same time, I think it is useful for professionals to distinguish between purposeless play and purposeful performance. The actors in a theatrical performance are not really playing. Likewise, musicians might be said to play an instrument, but it might be more accurate to suggest they're actually working an instrument.

Granted, you see and hear something like this video, and you think, maybe these birds are indeed singing, and also, possibly engaged in some kind of dance, too? It is certainly a performance of some sort, but is it art?

Does the cosmos sing? Are animal vocalizations song? Such vocalizations don't fall on my ear as song. To me, they resemble language, and while language might be a component of song, and linguistic techniques have long been used to analyze musical works, I personally don't think the spoken word (or the bird call, dog bark, etc) is by itself musical in nature. And yet a modern composer or sound designer with a sampler can take any of these sounds and incorporate them into a musical work.

But by themselves, in their original context? Well, if we choose to ignore intention, then perception is everything. After all, many things which are not musical in origin might indeed be music to one's ears.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Changing Role of Sound in Branding

From Musical Score to Critical Noise: 
The Changing Role of Sound in Branding

[First published by SEMIONAUT†, September 20, 2011.]

Composers and sound designers have long treated commercial projects as they would film scores, but in miniature. It’s obvious to see why. Traditional scoring techniques do many things for film and other media. Scoring adds flavour; provides a sense of time and place; magnifies emotion; enhances activity and establishes mood. A mere hint of melody can even frame the present, foreshadow the future, or recall the past.

Scoring also serves the functional purpose of smoothing problematic transitions. It’s as if music possesses a sensory gravity that draws together disparate images, scenes, people and places. A deftly scored experience feels less a sequence of individual events and more like a cohesive, unified work.

Obviously, music is pretty magical stuff, and there is no question that for the modern storyteller, it remains a powerful tool.

Nevertheless, the proliferation of multiple, small portable screens, in tandem with the device-ification of all remaining objects, has changed (and will continue to change) how audiences navigate media. If our smart phones cause a distraction now, what happens when our homes and everything in them also become ‘smart’?

The primary effect is that marketers are increasingly forced to abbreviate narrative, and add brand-to-fan touch points that didn’t exist before (or if they existed, were ignored). Consequently, the notion of story has been stretched to its semantic limits.

Yet one noticeably interesting result of this tectonic paradigm shift has been the curious emergence of a new breed of sonic artisan.

The practice is called audio, music or sonic branding, and many have indeed recast themselves using this nomenclature. Others have adopted related verbal identifiers, but haven't updated their processes, because they think such phrases are simply new ways to give the same old thing a modern twist.

Personally, I believe branding with sound does require a different aural intelligence than is typically accumulated from a film or broadcast media composer’s education or experience. I frame the actual process as the development and combination of micro musical sounds into ‘critical noise’ assets.

Unlike most commercial composition, the aim is not to support narrative, but to convey a message.

Rather, we employ sound to reframe an otherwise interruptive transition as an informational transaction. A navigation tone, such as a click of the mouse, for one example, confirms ‘command executed’.  A custom ringtone signals someone you know requests your attention. And a deceptively simple melodic logo has unzipped itself inside your brain. You can't really sing it, but its construction suggests it's bursting with symbolic data.

Indeed, in the same way the purpose and design of a traffic signal is different from painting landscapes, so too is the craft of sonic signification different from composing music to enhance dramatic action. Ironically, branded sound is designed to influence behavior and drive action from a potentially distracted audience, while an action score is composed to delight a passive, receptive audience.

This is why new musical solutions providers require not only musical talent but also the ability to research and analyse extra musical, culturally relevant data. Lacking these skills, we risk conceptual dissonance when our goal is immediate comprehension.

Additionally, these sonic assets are ‘critical’ because in an automated world, they are the first point of contact between a brand and consumer, and therefore increasingly synonymous with another more common signifier: ‘hello’.

Unlike thematic material, when we use sound as a signifier, we intend to deliver a self-contained and instant communication. Sometimes, in the case of a consumer touch point, we only have seconds to do this. While that is just as hard to do as it sounds, it isn’t without precedent. But first, we have to think like a sonic semiotician.

I was fortunate to produce a 1.25 sec connect tone for AT&T. The communications company wanted to leverage the pause between dial and pick-up to identify itself using a non-verbal connection tone. Impossible? As it turns out, you can actually say a lot in 1.25 seconds. You can say: ‘Provided to by AT&T, a friendly and technologically savvy company.’

To understand how this might actually work, consider the possibility of guessing the title of a song from a snippet. Now, even more amazing, recall how a mere sliver of sound can evoke an emotional response. Anger, Love, Sadness, Joy. It quickly becomes evident that even a button-sized musical solution has the power to fulfill a marketing objective. And because branded sonic assets are often wordless, they become especially advantageous assets across a multinational customer base.

Of course, traditional film scoring techniques will continue to contribute to our enjoyment of stories. However, marketers will increasingly rely less on scoring and more on critical noise solutions that can guarantee immediate brand signification as a means to fulfilling a communications strategy or marketing objective.

In other words, the intelligent application of sound is more important than ever.

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Semionaut is an online magazine & knowledge resource offering insight into culture, media, creative industries, and brand strategy. Its publishers, editors, and contributors are professionally involved in the application of semiotic and cultural analysis to brand communication and design issues.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Commemorative Video: Gotham Artists – 911

I made a commemorative video for the Gotham Artists project I participated on in 2001, in the wake of 9/11.

The song '911' was recorded In Memoriam October 3, 2001 with a 'We Are The World' spirit and the sincere desire to provide comfort and consolation to our then wounded city and country, and if it were possible, to help heal the world (and our own souls, too), though music.

The memorial video was created Summer of 2011 to acknowledge the Ten Year Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 Attacks on America.

A lot of wonderful New York Metro musicians and audio professionals contributed to this track. Please check it out & share.

Editing images is not one of my favorite tasks, but over the years I've been contacted by a number of fans who follow a few of the musicians featured on the track to create a video. And since I couldn't manage to interest any colleagues in editorial to make something for us, I did it myself. And as it turns out, an amateur work this cut may be, but in the end I'm actually glad I did it myself, because it was nice to reconnect with the work, and of course, it took me back to the day, so I experienced a bit of catharsis.

To learn more about the history of the tribute song, read the following article I published to this blog on Monday, September 11, 2006: Gotham Artists

Gotham Artists: Drums: Joe Bonadio. Percussion: Erik Charlston. Electric Bass: Will Lee. Keyboards: Charles Giordano. Electric Guitar: Larry Saltzman. Strings: Sandra Park, Jungsun Yoo, Sarah Seiver, Eileen Moon, Krysztof Kuznik, Ann Kim. Singers: Craig Chang, Tod Cooper, Jo Davidson, Jenny Douglas-McRae, Tabitha Fair, Morley Kamen, Gary Morris, Jenni Muldaur, Jason Paige, Sophia Ramos, Eugene Ruffolo, Stephen Scarpulla. Singers contracted by Valerie W. Morris, Val's Artist Management. Strings and Orchestral Percussion contracted by Sandra Park. Composed Produced by Terry O'Gara. Arranged by Tony Finno. Engineered & Mixed by Michael Sweet. Asst. Engineer: Steve Schopp. Special Thanks to David Crafa who generously helped us with studio time and resources. '911' was recorded and mixed 10/03/01 at The Cutting Room Recording Studios/NYC. Mastered by Larry Lachmann. Original CD Art & Promo Design by: Amy Taylor/Exec. Prod., Jason Sienkwicz/Designer. Video edit by Terry O'Gara. All images not in the public domain remain the property of their respective copyright owners.

Friday, July 15, 2011

BEYOND SOUND: What is Music?

Near the beginning of my career I participated in the development of a 1.25-second connection tone for AT&T Long Distance. 1.25 seconds doesn't provide enough time to deliver a story, but it suffices for a mark –a carrier of data– and it is therefore fully capable of conveying a message, branded or otherwise.

But can an audio mark also be considered a work of music?

It begs the question: What is music?

At one level, anything that can be described to exhibit wave like motion might be considered music. Others go a step further to define music as a subset of sound by limiting it to those sounds or collections of sounds which are organized.

As a sophisticated example of organized sound, the answer is yes, an audio mark is music.

But as a mere signifier, the answer is no. It's like asking if a STOP sign is a sentence.


I'm of the dual opinion that 1) all movement describes musical activity, but also, 2) that the sensory experience which we commonly describe as music is more than simply organized sound (as Edgard Varèse and others often regard it).

The problem I have with Varèse's definition is that it lacks recognition that 'organization' does not simply describe intent but also impression, and sometimes impression is a false construct. So, instead I attribute the following characteristics to that which we call music by traditional standards:

• Purposeful design (whether 'composed' or 'improvised')
• Deliberate execution (demonstrating mastery of dynamics and phrasing)
• Unified by sustained control of coherent pitch and rhythm
• A specifically timed sequence of sound

So, what happens if non-musicians decide whatever it is one is playing is not music. Well, it happens all the time: if the consensus judges your art is noise, then it's noise (until such time as the audience decides otherwise). As Varèse points out, the audience will call anything new 'noise'. And so what if it is?

This is not the definition you'll find in Webster's, but it works for me.


The purpose of the above described filter is not to provide a megacosmic definition music, but rather just the opposite. And the purpose of this limitation is to control the focus and scope of specific conversations by eliminating those random or otherwise atmospheric emissions that we perceive as music, even if we can describe them as musical.

One of the most profound musical experiences of my life occurred while walking though a patch of forest and hearing a cricket apparently synchronize in concert with birdsong, a brook and indeed, what seemed to me all of of nature. But I would not define the composite as music, although it was certainly music to my ears. First, it was only my impression that my experience of the sound was organized, but as to whether it actually it was or not, one can't say.

Language, for another instance, is also organized sound, but I generally eliminate language from my definition of music, although that may only be the result of a sonic bias. I'm certainly open to any argument that includes the spoken word as evidence of music. Personally, I feel as though I experience a different psychology when I sing than when I speak.

What about rap?

Rap and other metered or otherwise poetic verse also feel different to me than either 'regular' speech or sung lyrics. I recognize rhythm devoid of melody as music, but I also stipulate that song requires melody.

Certainly, there are tonal languages which one might perceive as more musical than other languages, such as Mandarin. But lacking recognizable phrasing, non speakers might equally perceive a conversation as impenetrable gibberish as they might discern musicality as a result of pitch differentiation. Regardless, is there anything one might call melody produced by the vocalization of tonal languages during common conversation?

It would be interesting to me if a person who raps in English and who claims his or her craft is essentially musical in nature would also agree that the 'simple' act of speaking Mandarin is even more so. Anyone? No doubt, there are many examples of rap and song blends.

Not to say rap is not music, because a rap within a hiphop context most definitely is. However, a sung lyric without harmony is still a song, but whether a rapped lyric without a musical accompaniment is still music, I'm not so sure. What is poetry in relation to music? Is a poem music? Is it important that a rapped lyric be thought of as music instead of poetry? Yes? No? And if so, why?

Ultimately, music is everything and anything we designate it to be, but people still draw lines and make divisions, and I'm interested in the rational behind the why.

Then there are those who wish to dispense with genre, who claim there is only good music and bad music, but in my experience what people mean by good music is only the music they like.


For the casual listener of traditional music, my guess is music need only exhibit a steady beat and a sing-able melody.

By the full standard, the 1.25-second ATT mark (or any such mark) may be wrought of music, but it is not a work of music. Though purposeful in its design, it lacks phrasing, existing within a time frame in which phrasing is irrelevant, except at a micro scale. Music must exist at scale, and by that I mean, at the scale of human intelligibility.

The audio mark is therefore better described as an utterance, like a burp, even if it is one meant to announce the presence of a branded service.

Indeed, such utterances are better understood as a unit within a category of elementary particles (Quantum Audio) that serve as building blocks for music. As an example, few would consider a pitch or even a short sequence of pitches (motif) music, much less a musical work, even if we recognize the capacity for both pitch and motif to blossom into music. This limited definition does not invalidate the power of the audio mark. I never cease to be surprised by how much information a deftly constructed mark can convey.

Both 'Hello' and 'Help' are also utterances (and audio marks of the highest caliber), and both capably increase one's significance in the presence of others who happen to be on the receiving end of either message.


That organized sound should within its organization also demonstrate phrasing and dynamics happens to be a contentious idea in some circles. Indeed, music being a medium from which we create experience, communicate ideas and alter perception, it should not follow any dogmatic rule. The laws of physics yes, but someone's subjective aesthetic? No, not unless you want to become an expert in a particular style, of course. Regardless, the point is, the absence of either phrasing or dynamics is often the very reason many may snub both highly polished commercial works and their polar opposite: aggressively performed amateur pieces.

Over quantization, correction and processing –or just banging the drum loud all the time– might be suitable activities towards producing various examples of audio craft, but employed with a heavy hand or jaded ear and a track can be drained of all its musicality, not to mention humanity (which may be the key to understanding and defining 'what is music' in the first place).

Although it may be that while some consider such commercial pop works unmusical or unsophisticated because they lack sublimity, others might be stimulated by the way these constructions provide an uncluttered platform for meaning produced by words or sonic symbolism.


That some will find the idea that music must employ a sing-able melody will also no doubt strike others as an offensive, restricting or even heretical idea.

However, no doubt, it is one reason why a lay audience might categorize a modern symphonic, jazz or self defined noise piece as unlistenable or unbearable. Because while any of these forms may present a tapestry of harmony or rhythm, and though its performers may exhibit immense musicality, without a sing-able melody to unify a given work, these compositions sound like amalgams of disparate sonic elements to a casual listener, rendering them a pleasurable experience only to the fan.

'Wait, no melody?', the Einsturzende Neubauten or Igor Stravinsky fan replies, 'there's melody all over the place!'.

And yet, to a non-fan, strident strings or a given anvil solo on a post industrial track sound only like noise, which may be the performer's intention (no doubt), but nevertheless and otherwise torturesome to many other listeners.

The ears can't even begin to approach it; the mind not given a chance to assimilate it.

Similarly, a saxophone solo on within a modern jazz context doesn't sound like a melody to many people. It sounds like an incomprehensible sonic emission.

By contrast, there are also audiences bored with same old, same old, who find melody old hat, so last century and all that, and these persons crave a sonic experience composed of disparate elements that find cohesion in a single idea.

Maybe you are one of those people?


Personally, I have varied tastes. There are plenty of recordings I enjoy that present as either mono dynamic walls of commercial sound, as noise and as waves of non melodic harmony adorned with 'sonic emissions'. I am equally happy with a gourmet meal as I am with an apple and cheese. And as with some food creations, I enjoy a bit of over processed music, too, from time to time. For me, variety is the spice of life.

But I'm also okay with the notion that such works deliver a different audio experience than traditional works of music.

And whether or not every form of sonic expression is music, so what, if it is nevertheless intended as a genuine attempt to communicate an aspect of one's soul, and whether or not that expression is made manifest as a Rite of Spring, a Tanganyika Strut or a Rage Against the Machine. So much the better if you find yourself entertained or elevated or whatever else it is you draw from the magic of a given aural experience.

Yet for some reason, too, it seems important to many sonic artisans of disparate crafts that each be considered a musician. Is a guitar player a musician? A trumpet player? A drummer? Most people say yes. Is a DJ or sound designer a musician? The answer isn't so universal.

More interesting (to me) than whether or not a turntablist who uses the combination of old vinyl and modern decks as a percussion instrument, is to ask whether or not the violinist who uses a strange mix of nineteenth century spruce, horse hair and animal gut to make unearthly sounds is also a musician?

Or is the sound designer who purposefully creates an aural experience with which we can discern a mastery of such things as dynamics, phrasing, timing and pitch, –is he or she a musician? (Varèse called himself "not a musician, but 'a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities'." Sounds a lot like a sound designer to me.)

Is it the instrument in your hands that makes one a musician or what you do with it?

And if a composer is responding to a dancer (or other moving image), who is actually designing the musical work? The person making the sound? Or the person directing the placement of sound?

And what is happening when we recall or compose music using only our imagination, no instrument involved but our brains?

Does music even need sound?

The dancer who draws elegant phrases or who otherwise punctuates space without a pianist or drummer in the room understands that music exists as much as a directed feeling or thought as it does an audible wave.


In fact, the definition of music Varese claims to have preferred (other than his own) was one proposed earlier by Polish philosopher Józef Maria Hoene-Wronski who suggested music is "the corporealization of intelligence in sounds", which I find actually more accurate when we eliminate the last two words, so that the complete phrase is limited to "the corporealization of intelligence," with the desired net result, of course, that one masters one's art and instrument.

But whether that instrument is a cello or a conga; whether you pluck strings or turn knobs; whether or not you even make a sound at all is secondary to what music is. Music is in your brain, not your hands. Although if you've got hands, by all means, use them.

Having rhythm, for instance, has far greater applications than simply being able to blow or beat or bow in time. Surgeons and athletes (and lovers) use rhythm as performance tools. Who says what the surgeon or athlete or lover is doing is not music but a response to music? So is playing in a band, but that doesn't diminish the musicianship of any member of the band.

It may be that your listeners become your collaborators in a derivative work the moment they use your music as a platform with which to create something else -and I don't mean another musical work. I mean, anything at all.

And then there will be those who argue whatever sonic emission they produce from whatever orifice suffices for music, and as it happens, if I am locked into not examining one specific aspect of sound, I tend agree with them.

Marshall McLuhan famously said (among other things), "Art is anything you can get away with." But the truth is, the answer to the question, 'What is Music?', changes with context, and it may be that context itself exhibits conceptual wave like characteristics.

Isn't it interesting that if I have steel, and I build a car with it, I can say that I have steel and I have a car. But if I have music, and I construct something with it, I still call the end product music.

I don't accept that music is one thing possessing a given absolute form –or even that it necessarily may be limited to sonic manifestations. Rather I believe music to be nothing less than a conceptual medium capable of being shaped into many different things and infinite forms for as many different purposes (even non musical forms and purposes!)

So what is music?

In the widest sense of the word, music is, indeed, whatever it is we want it to be.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


One of my favorite works from the Baroque era is the Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin, by Johan Sebastian Bach. And one of the things I admire about it is that when the Presto section is performed, it not only serves as a means to display a given musician's technical mastery, but that even when played at half time or quarter time, the sequence of notes create the illusion that this work can go on forever. In this way the score sometimes strikes me as containing a secret code for perpetual motion, much the same way some believe the Bible has embedded within it a Torah code or Rapture mathematics.

J.S Bach: Sonata for solo violin No.1 in G Minor, Presto BWV1001

Another particularly brilliant aspect of this work is that while it presents itself as a series of broken chords, Bach has so conceived the pitch sequence that our ears are given to an aural illusion of transcendent melody floating upon a driving harmonic engine. Although not an ostinato , this effect reminds me how repeating patterns can fall upon our ears as both a linear sequence, or as an underlying dimensional sonic color, and sometimes both.

Here is another example:

J.S Bach: Prelude No. 1, C Major, BWV 846 [v03]

While Bach's Prelude No. 1, C Major (1722) is beautiful on its own, I think I actually derive more pleasure from a derivative work composed nearly a century and half later by French Composer Charles Gounod. Gounod essentially superimposes a new and original melody of his own upon Bach's piece, resulting in the equally evocative 'Ave Maria':

Charles Gounod: Ave Maria

Is Gounod's 1859 score for 'Ave Maria' evidence of the first mashup? One would like to think so, and that Gounod, perhaps, represents an early precursor to the likes of Armin van Buuren, Fatboy Slim, P. Diddy and other sample based composers and DJs, and that with 'Ave Maria', he thereby paves the way for hiphop and trance which would come only another 150 years later.

But the fact is, the way Gounod appropriates Bach is not so uncommon as one might first think. Inspiration often works like this, with new melodies blossoming forth from the fertile harmony of another work. Why should that be any surprise, really? Music has the power to inspire not just new activity, new love and new ideas, but also new music as well.

As it happens, it's works such as this Bach/Goundod collaboration that lead me to think that the genius of the modern minimalist, Phillip Glass, is that he, like Gounod, appears to have taken a Baroque convention and expanded on it. But whereas Gounod adds an ethereal top coat to the Baroque harmonic vehicle, Glass finds pleasure by discovering new and inventive ways to let the engine itself run on to infinity.

As such, I either hear more commonalities in Glass' work with 18th Century music than I do with the works of any of Glass’s modern contemporaries, or I simply enjoy searching for them. This includes other minimalist composers such as Steve Reich or Terry Riley, –or even Ravi Shankar, whose work Glass has indicated as a strong influence from his time working for him.

Philip Glass: Glassworks

Of course, neither Bach nor Glass (or Gounod for that matter) are the only composers who trade in repeating patterns. Most conventional music, whatever the genre or cultural heritage, is built upon repeating patterns. But great composers all share a similar knack for altering repeating harmonic patterns so as to create stylistically individual and recognizable works.

Another thing that makes both Bach and Glass so interesting to me is that both composers capably produce the effect of motion though space.

If Glass is cinematic, Bach is compelling. But both are a bit of the other, actually, even if the latter predates the invention of film by a century and a half.

I like to imagine that the German composer was no doubt #soundtracking to his own tunes while he walked the streets of Leipzig way back in 1730. Who needs a radio or an iPod when your own brain gives birth to terabytes more music on a Sunday than most people have contained on a circa 2010 portable playback device?

And because Bach and Glass are both particularly compelling and cinematic, commercial media producers often turn to these composers and their works –and even to the suggestion of their works– for inspiration. Either Glass' influence runs deep, or media producers like to sync to nothing better than the haunting kineticism produced by reloading arpeggios, and they like it the way some people enjoy hiphop, on EVERYTHING.

But why? And why and how could this technique have so many applications?

I think it happens something like this:

Repeating patterns act upon brain cognition in at least pertinent two ways. First they demand our attention, initiate beta waves in the brain and thereby produce a feeling of alertness. The result is increased sensory sensitivity and a heightened level of aural awareness. Our ears once open, our hearing then becomes ready to tune into any incoming information, and our minds prepared to focus any subsequent message.

However, left unabated, our senses in very short order attenuate to the pattern. Our brains then produce alpha waves, and we relax. The pattern then becomes transparent, and we give in to the music.

An adept composer or songwriter recognizes when this shift occurs and at this point will introduce a lyric or melody. Another kind of sonic artisan might introduce a message, or signal a shift in story structure. Still another kind of composer, one concerned with mediation or healing, might signal no such thing at all, and simply let the power of the pattern continue without interruption or transformation.

In effect, repeating patterns in music trigger nearly simultaneous ratios of alertness: calmness, focus: receptivity.

I imagine it's the musical equivalent of smoking a post coital cigarette.

Synced to pixels, it's as if the moving image has been charged with both perpetual motion and perpetual emotion.

In this regard, it might even be said that the repeating pattern represents the perfect carrier of semiosis in media, movies and not to mention not-so-subliminal messaging –any content platform, actually.

In fact, I think it possible that no idea (or motif or message) is too majestic or too scant that it can't be capably delivered upon the undulating wave of a recycling sequence or arpeggio.

Such is the power of the pattern.

I. Michaelson: Google Chrome 'Dear Sophie'

M. Montes: Starbucks 'Vote'

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


For the purpose of this article, I'm going to define 'pattern' as a series of repeating sets, with each set containing at least one thing or concept that act or are positioned according to an identical and recognizable logic, so that the sets might said to share a corresponding relationship with one another.

(Click the link in the following sentence, however, if you'd like to read a more formal definition of the concept from Wikipedia.)

A linear pattern can be defined as series of points on a graph (or notes on a staff), but a pattern that expresses itself across several different platforms can seem to resist linear graphing, because it is assembled from a matrix of multidimensional data. Even more difficult if one platform is exists in a the physical world, and the other is a conceptual platform manifest in our brains.


For instance, if we watch the weather or the stock market, we arrive at a specific numeric value on a daily basis, the temperature or the Dow. We can then plot that value on a graph and over time analyze the graph for patterns. But we cannot extrapolate what it means to experience a drop in atmospheric pressure or the market from a mere number.

Likewise, a notated melody conveys information about a series about pitches. In this regard it is like any other pattern plotted on a plot/staff. But melody may also present itself as a carrier for emotional or semiotic content, and it must be performed if it is to be properly understood, decoded and (hopefully) replicated by listeners.

So it may be said that while a plot capably presents data, it is a poor delivery platform for experience. However, one reason why plot analysis remains intriguing is because by identifying and studying patterns we might learn how to reverse engineer an experience, the way a musician interprets a score in order to convey something about the human condition for a given audience.

So, really the identification of patterns in audio must be expressed as more than a series of sounds that share some relative relationship. We must also inquire as to patterns which evoke an emotional response. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact, musicians, composers, beat makers, songwriters and sound designers do this everyday, albeit with varying degrees of awareness.


In musical memetics, we analyze a work in order to identify patterns which lend themselves to such reproduction. A series of two or three notes sharing a particular intervallic and rhythm structure can describe a motif; a motif being a repeated meme throughout a given work, and which if it is successful is also scattered throughout or embedded in the culture.

Memes suggest a relationship to biology. Yet, in specific regards to the application of memetic theory to sound, sound predates biology. It is pre-biotic and pre-linguistic. What is new is for an organic sensor to respond by triggering an emotional reaction to this incoming data set. And also, our capacity to organize it in a cognate way no animal before us seems quite capable of doing, the infinite sounds of songbirds notwithstanding. This is to say, we understand how to charge sound with both feeling and meaning.

I sometimes think that if a dog's ignorance of our language is indicative of what some define as a diminutive cognitive ability, then what does inability to understand what dogs say, say about our own brains?

This still young study of music memetics suggests an expanded study of motif, which when combined with a knowledge of semiotics, appears to promise a deep, sophisticated tool kit for the sound designer interested in using audio as a carrier of symbolic data, and not just as a confirmation of an onscreen event.


I think we should not remain content, however, to accept 'meme' as synonymous with 'idea', as is often suggested. Because, what would be the point? By this definition every point on a graph is a idea and a meme, and how does that help us?

Nor should we accept that a meme is simply an idea that replicates, and therefore one memetic structure shares equivalency with another. In other words – all viruses exhibit viral properties, and so what, unless they somehow impact our lives in a significant manner. For as it happens, some viruses pass through our bodies without our ever knowing of their presence, while others will kill you.

The fact is all ideas once ignited into a network spread, and by that definition every single word, every letter is a meme –is a replicating idea. Maybe so in the broadest sense, but that knowledge alone will not necessarily help us achieve creative assets that reach and engage a broad audience.

It may not even be correct to say that an idea is appropriated, because a brain once exposed impresses upon itself real, physical and structural changes to the brain matter itself. So, it may be truer to say that ideas appropriate humans.

Far be it from me to suggest that your ideas are not your own, but in fact, that might be exactly the truth.

Perhaps the key is to investigate whether an idea appears to be replicated or is replicating. What is the distribution method? Is something popular because people know about it, or do people know about it because it's popular. These are purely a semantic questions because, ultimately, all ideas spread in much the same manner, from one human to another.


More to the point, by asking such questions we are reminded that before we advance further, we will need to limit our definition of meme to certain, mutually agreeable, parameters. In music, it needs to be defined as more than just a single note. But as Richard Dawkins, the originator of the concept even inquires, is a meme an entire work, or a portion of a work? Is it a hit song or just the hook? Can it be a cadence?

In this practice, I suggest we identify a meme as a thing, a fully formed construct, formed from more than one idea (or point), and which together can be said to behave like an earworm. This notion suggests not a single impulse, but a fully mapped pattern composed in such a way that it distributes culturally relevant data and concludes where it begins, forming a cognitive loop.

That is why some do say a meme is simply an idea that wants to replicate, and leave it at that, because we perceive the thing as replicating within our own brains as though by some sort of self generating cognitive cell division.

However, in the system proposed here, the pitch center 'A' 440 may be considered an idea that has been replicated, while the melody for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (or the hook of any popular song) is a meme.


From catch phrase to catchy melody, memes are generally linear in our perception of them. Those involved expanding the field will no doubt attempt to invent theories that establish memes in texture, timbre and dynamics. But I think that such pursuits describe another branch of study, belonging to Quantum Audio, because texture, timbre and dynamics color the meme, but are not distinct patterns that follow and independent and individual trajectory. That is, patterns they may be, but they are entirely dependent on a carrier.

Without a melody or readily apparent pattern to shade, they do not exist. They could said to find a parallel in inflection, and are therefore akin to sub particles, or behaviors, perhaps more closely related to internally manifest, God-made, or Nature-made, archetypes than the externally man made concepts we call memes.

So, for the purposes of Quantum Audio Theory, a meme represents a small cohesive compositional unit, but not the smallest musical unit, examples of which include note and pitch, even if such units are the result of a replicated and much used concept. Music itself will be said to represent a man-made, organized means of communication while any given work a single sonic event, the same way 50,000 words can be identified as a book.


One might reasonably argue that just because something can't be seen without a microscope (or telescope) doesn't mean it doesn't exist. This is true, but it is equally true to suggest that such things lack cultural significance, although their discovery and replication of that knowledge might indeed be the result of an external cultural impulse to explore or investigate.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis is not a meme.
But the pattern of habits that allowed the Plague to spread through Europe is.

A love for the music of Beethoven (or Coltrane or Julie Feeney) is not a meme. But the hook or motif that seems set to psychologically irresistible internal repeat, leaving ecstatic holes in your brain is (although certain, obsessive ways by which admiration and fandom is made manifest might indeed be defined as memetic).

–With one important caveat:


If we further narrow the definition of meme as only popular phenomenon that serves as the smallest carrier unit for cultural information, then we must expand our notion to include not mere melodies, but melodies that deliver according to that rule. Thus a hook may be quite catchy, but not contain enough information to be a substantive cultural carrier. Indeed, many melodies appear culturally neutral.

To put it another way, a given melody is equally capable of sounding like nursery rhyme as it is a section of a work of Heavy Metal. Thus we may conjecture that what any single, linear melody expresses is not necessarily inherent to the pitch pattern sequence, but the result of an individual Quantum Audio overlay.

And regardless of Quantum Audio overlay, an earworm, for instance, might say nothing of its point of cultural origin, but that doesn't stop your brain from repeating the thing over and over again with a kind of memetic madness.

Apart from memes, Quantum Audio particles, therefore, represent information carriers smaller than a meme, of sentient or inanimate origin, regardless of their capacity to be copied or self replicate (though note that units of inanimate origin have their meaning projected upon them by yet to be understood biological processes). And however minute these structures they may be, they nevertheless present us with a valuable area for analysis, if our goal is the creation of content, such as sonic branding, for instance, which is intended to scan along a 'multi dimensional', multi platform, mixed media matrix.

* * *

Photo Collage by Terry O'Gara

Friday, April 29, 2011

The World is B Flat

The word 'Ecotone' is a real word, and although it incorporates the syllable 'tone', it has nothing to do with music. If we examine the etymology of the word, the 'tone' in this case is derived from 'tonos', meaning 'tension', and an ecotone represents a place where ecologies are in tension, such as transition areas between two adjacent but different plant communities.

It strikes me that global culture in its entirety represents an ecotone of some great magnitude, where communities are not simply in tension, but actively colliding and combining, –sometimes resulting in homogenization, and sometimes resulting in evolution of another sort.

Writer Thomas L. Friedman has famously suggested that as a result of both globalization and technology, 'The World is Flat'.  If it is, then the map is drawn with many overlapping Venn Diagrams, and you and I sit at the very center where all circles overlap around a power outlet, and where we can plug in the plethora of devices we carry with us use to navigate this new turbulent terrain.

It is turbulent because we have not quite fully moved from one century to another, nor have have  yet fully adapted to these new tools at our disposal. But as such, we stand at the cusp of another great adventure, and all we need to do is not let ourselves get bogged down in remixing past works when absolutely original things are still to be conceived, whether with rubber bands and paperclips, or HTML, CSS and Object Oriented Programming.

And it may very well be that new forms will yet emerge from traditional methods and old, well worn tools.

In this regard, I like to think the world is actually Bb.

What I mean by this is that despite tectonic technological shifts, I like to think that there are still many new and innovative works to be composed on piano, kalimba or yanqin, and novel gestures to be communicated by ballet or tap dance, for instance. A healthy human body does not require an upgrade. The violin can't be improved upon, nor the paint brush, and there is not a single machine on the planet that will ever weave the kind of magic that a mere child can conjure with smile.

The complexity and depth we feel or acquire from imperfect artistic works and executions can not be improved upon by computer assisted creation and precision processes. You can fix and remix, but none of those tricks give you quite same kick as human expression, although to be fair, a mouse click is also a form of human expression, and indeed, it may be the defining gesture of our time.

Either way, whether made from twigs or pixels, clay or light, or our own bodies and voices, that regardless of result, Process will always be exciting to us. As artists we revel in the act of creation; as spectators we enjoy learning how our favorite artists work.

It's wonderful, too, that Technology now allows those without training or technique to express themselves in ways that once required a high degree of skill. The only danger here is that a young person might think that just because they don't need to master a craft in order to express themselves, that they shouldn't. Not all value derived from making music, however, comes from making music. If that's all you do, then you miss out on something absolutely necessary to real artistry – how making music makes you.

Speaking or spectators, if audiences appear collectively blasé, and they frequently do, then maybe we might use the new communication tools at our disposal to 'mashup' the audience with our own lives. In this way we invite them into a mutually shared experience. We witness a fair bit of that already, and naturally I think that is a good way to go.

In the meantime, it is also fair to ask if it is art that is boring or the audience that is bored? Is someone disinterested because of external or internal factors?

Boredom, however, is relative to exposure to repeated stimulus.

I recall how as a little boy arriving in the United States after having spent great swaths of my childhood without television. While others complained about Television commercials, I found even the most poorly made advertisements deeply entertaining. Similarly, we have, in the last twenty years, all assimilated so many new technologies that our brains now apparently demand an accelerated diet of novel stimuli on a regular basis, lest life, for a moment, feels dull. Is there a day when some years from now we say, 'there's nothing interesting on the Internet?'

But hasn't that happened already?

For all the positives, it also strikes me as a kind of sad atrophy of our cognitive ability to appreciate the single frame, a single object, a still life, a captured moment, whether in Tempera, stone, vinyl, sand, glass, clay or even as a digital media file.

Racing through an online gallery so that a thousand images dance by like a single work of stop motion animation may seem an increasingly comfortable way to absorb visual information, but I think in order to deeply appreciate a single, static work of art, one must pause and linger, for there is another dimension at play in the sensory reception of art.

And that is the notion of Time. Giving a single work our attention and our time can mean the difference between real experience and mere observation, not to mention depth of experience is measured in both Time and Feeling.

So, it may be that if we still hope to sustain an interest in what it means to be human, then one might actually have to stop the feed, break the screen and step back through the shattered shards of so-called social media, if only to revel for a faintly reminiscent moment of what it means to be present in the proximity of visceral, physical, human expression –and to feel again how thrilling Art is, that it might even transform your life, –not if you simply let it, but if you actively engage in the acquisition of knowledge and skills necessary to your own creative understanding and expression.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Derivation vs. Recontexualization in the Modern Process

Our music is composed of samples; our images crafted from consolidated clip art, and our movies from stories that have been told draw from a well of tired tropes and conventions. So, we might as well ask ourselves how to tell the difference between Origination, Derivation, Recontexualization and Plagiarism, and no better way to exemplify these concepts than by framing the modern mashup as a metaphor suitable to representing the modern art process as it applies to all platforms.

The mashup is sometimes presented as synonymous with collage, but in fact the two concepts differ in intention and produced effect. Collages ala Rauschenberg are created from deconstructed or found elements, which once combined do not for the most part bring attention to their source/s, but rather present the viewer with a new image, much the same way a child is not a copy of his or her parents, but a synthesis and then also, something new, as this work, untitled "combine," (1963) so adeptly illustrates:

Whereas the mashup is not really born of synthesized concepts, but rather any given mashup represents a recontextualization of pre-exisiting concepts within a single 'frame'. It's purpose is not so much to advance, but to reflect; not to break down beyond recognition and recombine into a new form/s, but to layer existing elements in a manner that comparison is forced. The mashup itself does not present itself as something new. But its curator/creator hopes it will inspire new thinking.

As it happens, Rauschenberg was also a trickster and often revealed a sublime conceptual side to his craft, which doesn't necessarily support my argument, but it's a worthwhile look if you haven't seen it before:

Robert Rauschenberg - Erased De Kooning

It may be that one day we think of Rauschenberg not as a prominent 20th Century American artist, but as the Father of 21st Century Art.


If you accept my premise, mashups are always derivative by definition, as they are by nature always constructed from pre-existing works, be they text, graphics, audio, video, animation, etc. But it would be hard to argue that this work, 'Blue Nudes' by Henri Matisse (1952) is derivative (except of the life model on which it is based). Though it is a collage, it is not a mashup. Like J.S. Bach or Max Martin, BLUE NUDES represents an original expression made manifest.

It's easy to think mashup is a synonym for collage, but in fact the two concepts differ in produced effect. Collages ala Rauschenberg are created from deconstructed or found elements, which once combined do not for the most part bring attention to their source/s, but rather present the viewer with a new image. Whereas the mashup's purpose is often just the opposite, not to combine beyond identification, but to layer in a manner that comparison is forced.

Collages are Frankenstined together from recycled bits of other works, and then given a new life. Mashups, on the other hand, represent not reanimation but a realignment of the original corpses, wheatpasted up on the wall and one laying or metaphorically 'beatmatched' next to the other, with the purpose of illumination. Conceptual art was always interesting but was it ever exciting?

Whereas the traditional artist would, say, sculpt oolitic limestone into The Venus of Willendorf, the modern artist takes the The Venus of Willendorf, positions her next to an Enoch Bolles Pin Up, and then sign his name to the composite image:

Venus Versus Venus, by Terry O'Gara (2011)


If we are already familiar with the statue and the pin up, then the recontextualization may be interesting, strike us as novel, and even be something we Twitter about, and it may even be art – but it is not art in the way we have long considered it. But in our brave new world, whether it is, or isn't art is actually besides the point, because the point of the thing is not to be judged as a work of art, but as a lens on our personal relationship with the culture, to demonstrate a new way of seeing, or hearing, or sensing in any capacity. See, the thing itself is incidental. All the value is loaded in the idea. And if you find it instantly forgettable, it's because ideas by themselves are like balloons: pretty, color, things, that eventually lose gas if they aren't first popped by the next new thing.

But is it okay to appropriate other people's works of art?

No, not without credit, but then it doesn't really matter, actually, because everyone is doing it. The digital medium has democratized art, and the most popular mode of expression is remixing other people's yellow-around-the edges objects into our own cutting edge, cut and paste 'new' ideas.

See, we are not simply citizens anymore, bound by the rigid rights and responsibilities of the state, we are something more than that. We are DJs.

–With the immediate result being an Internet powered global explosion of 20th Century memes into 21st Century culture. It begs the question: if we are so immersed in the past, then are we actually living in the present? The effect from all this stimulation is titillating, that's why we tweet each new trending fact, not because we think no one else reads the New York Times or the Daily Mail, but rather to make it clear to everyone else plugged into the zeitgeist, (all together now) "Look, my brain is infected, too!"

And it's also a bit like spending hours and hours learning how to manipulate a video game? Sure, maybe you are learning a new skill set that will be useful when you have to navigate your X-wing fighter at light speed to find just the right position to take out a Deathstar and save mankind, or maybe it's just a huge waste of time? Or maybe you've spent so much time taking out Deathstars that simply standing still in order to appreciate someone's subtle application of dirt on canvas, knife to wood, chisel to stone, etc –it all lacks an bit of iThrill that you now require to enjoy anything? It's a possibility, yes?

Even otherwise young and healthy Brooklyn based digerati, though their thumbs appear to text in the 21st Century, their brains remain soaked in 20th Century popisms. Will it take another generation before we can begin living in the future? In fact, it may be more accurate to say that our future is not in nineteen year olds or even nine year olds but in nine month olds.

Imagine then how it feels to be over forty and suddenly realize that not only have you been living in The Matrix all this time, but that you're actually the BETA version.

In real life, however, you hit forty, and realize that's what your twenties were –beta. Only today, it may be that our entire culture is twentysomething (in nation years).

President John F. Kennedy is noted for declaring in a 1963 speech that "Ich bin ein Berliner". Except that today, in 2011, he might well have declared, "We are all 25."

The proof is in the tweets.


With Art, one dose can last a lifetime. It's like being inoculated from stupidity, but of course, it doesn't always work. Consider for instance how smart you usually are, and then consider the hot laptop resting on your lap.

Granted the line between mashup and collage is as fine as the one between medication and meditation, especially in the areas of graffiti, remixes and digital photo manipulation, all three of which are exercising tidal forces on our culture. But for the purposes of this discussion, mashups deconstruct; their aim to direct viewers to compare and contrast, the medium is not so much paint or pixels but context.

Collages, on the other hand, combine and construct, rendering source material obscure or irrelevant. Rauschenberg's Riding Bikes (1998) simply posits two bicycles side by side, but the effect is unique in every way imaginable, so much so that it we easily forget that we are looking at bikes.

Mashups shout: 'Look at this!'

Collages, ask: 'What am I looking at?'

In direct contrast, consider this next video, apparently produced for the sole purpose of comparing and contrasting one rock band's music and hairstyle with another rock band's music and hairstyle:

The Final Teen Spirit Mashup (Nirvana vs Europe) by Wax Audio

But of course, we enjoy layered media, don't we. A symphony, for instance, might be composed of a simple melody, but arranged for an orchestra, it demonstrates one pinnacle of human intellect. What's different today is that much music in the past was the construction of one mind. whereas today, layered mashups find their final form as the result of a division of labor. This activity, in and of itself, is not new in the commercial arts, but it represents a dynamic new trend for the fine arts.

My immediate inclination is to say that either Jeffery Koons or Damien Hirst (who are both known to work with teams) initiated this trend, though I know the process goes back centuries, and possibly millennia. It is curious to note that at least one thing we learn from Hirst, Koons and even DJs spinning wax in Ibiza, is that when art is presented as the effort of many, whether crowd sourced, remixed or mashedup, the originating or 'actual' artist/s themselves are relegated towards increasing obscurity, because the final work is said to belong to the curator/creator.

The Physical Impossibility of a flower from a Balloon
by Terry O'Gara (2011)


Contrast again mashups (of any medium) with traditional art. I don't mean pre-Impressionist works. Traditional art, for our purposes is simply that which is born from unique, recombinant conceptual material. In the creation of traditional art, the artist's progeny grows to maturation from a mutated meme into a wholly original work.

And sometimes, a meme is not even involved, and we are presented with the artistic treasure of a true soul diver who has descended into his or her psyche and returns from pituitary depths with archetypal treasure. And in this category we will also include the ocular seer who simply, but also superbly, captures wisps of our external world and presents them in a way that pleases the senses and strikes our fancy.

But here we are: we live smack in the middle of an age when Derivations have proven more popular to those who can afford nifty new media than 'Originations'.

It's as though it's not enough that something may be new or unique or original, or even simply decorative. What we're really interested in, is a Celebrity Deathmatch between competing ideas. And make no mistake, while many of us are at least delighted by the expression of ideas, others are just in it for the fight.


This Digital Dadaism reminds me also of Duchamp's 'Readymades'. For some, Duchamp's Fountain (1917) "is the most influential work of art of the twentieth century".

Whether it is or isn't, it's interesting to note that a man named Duchamp created nothing and became celebrated for it, and if that doesn't characterize our age, what does?

His genius, if you will, was not in the creation of a new object but in its 'recontextualization'. Or as it has been argued: What makes Duchamp an artist and the urinal his creation is that he "created a new thought for that object."

Yet, if the urinal is a work of art (I think it is), then the fact that Duchamp tagged it (with the name "R. Mutt") does not make him the artist, or even an artist, but a curator with a sense of humor. If that was not the case, then I know a kid in Brooklyn with a spray can who owns a train.

To compound things, what if you photograph the thing, what have you got then? Another original work of art? A copy? A representation? And what if I print the photograph to a T-Shirt and I only make one shirt. There are many 'Fountain' reproductions in the world, so if I only have one T-Shirt, what becomes the more valuable thing, the original or the derivative?

What Duchamp has done, really, to use modern parlance, is that he 'sampled' an object, and in the process demonstrated that industrial design could be and should be considered Art. Therefore the real artist of 'Fountain' is –MUST be– the actual designer/s of the thing, and his or her or their name/s appear lost to history (and/or to the Bedford Ceramic Urinal Manufacturer files).

As it happens, Duchamp's original 'work' was accidentally thrown out with garbage but authorized forgeries exist in museums all over the world, and we couldn't be happier about that, because we don't need the original nothing Duchamp didn't create, when we have something even more valuable and interesting to 21st Century audiences: a reproduction.

Not to mention, this circumstance makes my one-of-a-kind T-Shirt worth a million bucks.


So, no surprise, right, that today's TV/PC and possibly Adderall enhanced human chooses this exercise –COPY AND PASTE– to exemplify the height of new media/ new millennium creativity. And why not, when the process is democratic and damn fun to boot, even if the results inconsequential (and even profitable)? Art (With a capital 'A') has had its golden age; maybe this moment (right now) is a Golden Age of Entertainment? I think it is.

And yet, even if that is the case, then you still have to ask: If everyone is doing it, how special can it be?

The answer?

Only time, critics and copyright law will tell.


'The Physical Impossibility of A flower from a Balloon' is composite two works: The shark image is from the Damien Hirst work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991); the image of the balloon sculpture is of a Jeff Koons work: A flower from a balloon (Purple) (1995-2000).  All other images presented here are provided for the necessary purposes of illustrating points of this essay.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Recombinant Collage vs. In Vitro Mashups

Let's for a moment accept the old fashioned premise that traditional artwork, whatever the medium, falls into two categories:


The following melody represents an original creation. It is not the result of a found sound, a recorded sample copied and pasted off a long forgotten B-side, or a well reiterated meme there for the mere replicating. Rather it is a wholly unique and original (though not completely alien) communication conceived via some combination of mysterious inspirational and biological processes which we still don't understand, but it is seemingly composed out of the synaptic ether from the singularly sophisticated brain of one brilliant composer:

Isaac Stern performs Bach Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 Fugue

And so was this melody:

Britney Spears performs Max Martin Baby One More Time

But this I'm not sure about:

Consider Girl Talk's latest album ALL DAY, which samples and posits each of its 372 sampled riffs, procured from a repertoire of previously recorded and popular hit songs, is an instantly recognizable hook.

Girl Talk - This is the Remix

ALL DAY is superbly fun. Indeed, it's like mainlining crystalline ear candy or some other highly addictive central nervous system stimulant, but does it represent something new? And to my ear and aesthetic, it exemplifies the latest post millennial model for presenting existing art works –all at once, sort of like bubblegum memetics or flashmobbing music. But I'm not sure the samples represent small enough microstructures that one could say the work was composed by Girl Talk. Rather, more factual I think to state that ALL DAY stretches the boundaries of the curator's craft and is more aptly considered an experimental and Experiential Playlist created by Girl Talk.

Of course, the same can be said of Kutiman's JUST A LADY, composed by editing several different video clips into a montage and layering their respective audio tracks so that they sync into a composite unified whole. JUST A LADY may or may not be a new work, or even a derivative work. To me, it is closer to representing the experience of walking into a room where more than one sonic artist is performing, and their respective performances (10 to be exact) just happen sync. This is what 5.1 Surround Sound sounds like when it's squished into a compressed A/V file. And quite elegantly, actually.

Kutiman-Thru-you - 07 - Just a Lady


There are several works in the Kutiman oeuvre, and together they remind me very much of Darren Solomon's interactive 'In Bb', which may either be a composition or an electronic game; John Cage's Music of Changes (1951); Nam June Paik's Düsseldorf matrix 1995 Swatch installation; and even the Brian Eno and David Byrne collaboration, 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts', among many other such works created, constructed or composed over the last fifty years.

Nam June Paik: installation Düsseldorf matrix 1995 Swatch

Present distribution platforms may be revolutionary, but our experience of all the above mentioned works is similar to some degree. I think it interesting, though that the Byrne/Eno cycle is the only one which offers a memorable audio experience. Whereas Solomon's 'In Bb' is a fun interactive device, the content itself is forgettable, maybe because each A/V asset is not the result of Solomon's singular inspiration, but the result of crowdsourcing. Paik's audio is simply incidental, and Cage, one suspects, simply wants to be appreciated for his theories. But of course, that is the point of much 'modern art'. What the artists want us to remember is the concept. Neither sound nor object is the thing, it is the blurred boundaries, and that is an intangible.

So if one is simply trying to appreciate a thing for itself, then no wonder it eventually strikes one as boring. Conceptually, however, all three composers –Solomon, Paik and Cage– have produced utterly fascinating works. It's when we actually listen to them that our attention wavers.

In fact, it may appear as if we are making Art where content doesn't matter.

In this aspect all Conceptual Artists share a common motivation with all mashup makers. And since mashups have gone mainstream, there now are a lot of people disseminating interesting ideas using otherwise incidental art as a means of distribution.

What amazing intellectual heights our species has reached! It's stuff like this that separates us from apes, and thanks to INTEL and others, we can frickin gorge ourselves on it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An 8-Bit Flashback

Things were not better in the old days.

Make no mistake, my iPhone circa 2011 is way more cooler than my TRS-80 circa 1979 (though I still wish I had it), and my iPad does so much more than an Etch A Sketch. But one thing I sometimes miss, is a world in which songs were not slammed together in the titillating Celebrity Deathmatch we call the mashup.

Yes, mashups are fun, entertaining, –a bold new art form, perhaps.

But have you noticed, the mashup is not just a technique or medium, but in fact a mindset which has produced a transformative effect on the way we measure the value of objects which otherwise serve no utilitarian purpose. I know that in and of itself sounds rather negative, but of course, I'm talking about Art.

For instance, if you are old enough, or have some understanding of the history of computer assisted composition, recall that prior to the turn of new millennium, music composed with, on, or by computer was far more original by any subjective measure than that which is produced today with Digital Audio Workstations which arguably offer far greater means of expression for their operator/ programmer/ composers than the room sized chips of past.

What I mean by this is that early computer music composers were more interested in seeing what they could do with these machines to produce that which had not been done before, and I don't mean sending untrained singers up the pop charts. Contrast this with today's music producer who employs computers not so much in the execution of something different, but in the mashup and remix of the 'pre-existent'. And it is this activity that is in fact the primary and popular trend in both the popular and fine arts alike at the present.

We don't even have to go as far back as Max Matthews or Morton Subotnick; or confine ourselves to the halls of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; or IRCAM. Even the 8-bit music of Pac-Man for instance, whether you think it amusing or annoying, simple or cheesy, and lacking a sophisticated polyphonic tapestry, nevertheless embodies –if we may say that about sound– originality.

Pac Man Arcade Game Play

Contrast that with the fact that some 30 years later, we might amuse ourselves not by creating something equally original for our time, but rather by replicating the sound of 30-yr old 8-bit compositions, only we're doing so on our tricked out ProTools systems.

At least chip tune composers using 1980s-era technology, embedded with SID chips, can now be found creating new original works, and many have become micromusic virtuosos of this technology.

Rymdreglage - 8-bit trip

Arguably, some of this originality is born of limitations. Except that now we live in age with few and possibly no limitations.

But what if originality is actually the child of limitation?

Uh oh.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why Art is Like Sex (Or Should Be)

I don't accept the oft held notion that making art is just expressing an idea or making stuff (except within a pedagogical context). I think making Art is like having Sex (or should be). But in this I mean, "the process of combining and mixing genetic traits".

And if that's the case, then what's the implication of a society where the term is more commonly thought of as a solitary practice one does in the loving company of one's computer? Or executed as a fleeting hook up, whereby we are not so much hoping to 'combine and mix our respective genetic traits', but instead simply enjoy a momentary mash of external body parts?

Obviously, there are those who are using new media tools and concepts to create new and interesting artworks. But it is also interesting to note that the trend (or movement) which has currently captured the widest public attention is the one that parallels contemporary notions of coupling. Of course, I'm talking about the Mashup, and the more I look and listen, the more I notice how this activity resonates in every aspect of our culture.

By now, most people have heard of Moore's Law, which states the number of transistors that an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. And if we have thought at all about that statement, we might have realized that as chips are getting faster, all this power will have (is having) an increasing effect on our collective ability to process information.

Some say we are evolving. Others say we are losing our ability to concentrate. Neither statement is completely false nor true.

Regardless, I cannot help but wonder how the onslaught of a self-prescribed sugar drip of disruptive information is impacting art, artists and audiences. And it should be obvious by now what the future holds:

Modular all-you-can-eat works that present a buffet of images within a single frame remixing everything the artist has ever googled in a lifetime for audiences who select and simultaneously consume multiple works layered one upon the other, synced to a playlist, compressed to a thumbnail, and arranged in such a way that the entire experience can be enjoyed as a secondary or tertiary activity, like while running on a treadmill, for instance, or like while talking or texting while running on a treadmill. This technology has existed since the 1920's (it's called 'Television'), but it will seem absolutely revolutionary streaming out of our smartphones, because additional plugins allow us to connect with the real world which we are otherwise intent on ignoring. Not to mention that it won't be the only screen in the room competing for our attention. And not to say that it won't be enjoyable. We won't be able to take our eyes off of it.

Or will we indeed walk into a real gallery or museum only to be faced with rooms full of blank canvases whose content can only be seen once you hold your iPhone up to them? Even if each canvas represents the work of a single artist, isn't our perception of them through the lens of an electronic device, itself also a manifestation of the mashup mindset?

At which point we might then very well lament the good ol' slow days, but who would want to return, really, when you can now carry the entire Louvre around in an app?

Here's the Mona Lisa for you –Enjoy!:


The Image of the saluting woman was sourced from disassociated.com, and was used as a promotional image for the Paste-Modernism 2 charity auction for Queensland flood victims.