Blog entry 3:
While building up my collection of acoustic samples, I had become quite obsessed with using EQ as a sound sculpting tool and ended up buying a used 31 band equalizer to play with. The sound of my refrigerator in North Adams was particularly complex, and I remember spending one long evening trying to isolate all of the various drone notes in that sound, from the low machine rumble, through the stack of harmonics produced by the compressor, to the high buzz of electrical system and the hiss of the freon. For the first time I fully realized that what the brain perceives as single sound was actually made of dozens of related sounds over a broad spectrum and it was a life changing epiphany for me. By using EQ to break sounds apart, my ear slowly learned how to do the same thing organically, and over time I found I could mentally suppress all but a tiny window of hearing on a particular sound. It became somewhat of a meditation practice. I would go out in a public place and listen to sound stratify into it’s component layers. I felt a little guilty destroying the unity of sound, shredding it mentally into little slices, but I had reached a point of no return, in a sense. What evolution had created over eons to produce a fluid sensation of vibrations in air (i.e. hearing), I was undoing by conscious effort, turning each nerve ending in the snail of my ear into an independent organism. I had learned about Fourier transforms in chemistry, for spectrum analysis in identifying compounds, and final made the connection that hearing is a perfect realization of this principal, born out over countless millennia of creatures competing for that sensory edge. AND, in fact, hearing had nothing to do with objective reality, as I had previously assumed: Hearing is a tool for survival, with a long history of idiosyncratic adaptations. Sensation itself is colored in this way. Not transparent. And, so then, what could be transparent or objective? It was all unraveling.
Moving to New York City felt like a further assault on my faltering grasp of wholeness. So many people living in parallel, all thirsting for opportunity, made me worry all the time. It made sense for me to go there, and as an artist I was supposed to go there. I had won an art fellowship from college when I graduated, just enough to live on for 6 months or so. I moved in with Julie during the early part of 2000, and tried to continue my work, albeit in miniature, given the space limitations. At the time I was working on a project called ‘Noisy Filing Cabinet’. I had installed two twelve inch subwoofers inside of a metal filing cabinet: one in the top drawer, one in the bottom. Any sound that I played through them became radically distorted by physically rattling the Cabinet. Somehow the concept fit with my newfound environment, being stuck in a tiny apartment in a very loud place. It also became a metaphor for my continuing realization that hearing itself is radically colored, both by the mechanics of it, and the myriad preconceptions of the person attached to it. There was nothing subtle about the Filing Cabinet. I only have the audio portion as it appeared from my computer, so there are no filing cabinet sounds here, just the ’dry’ input audio. You’ll have to imagine what the cabinet did to these sounds. Here‘s a few sections of it:
Notice here that many of these sounds also appear in ‘The Books’ first track, ‘Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again’. I started work on that track just a few weeks after these Cabinet tracks, having met Paul in the weeks between. I had a broken mandolin and an awful guitar that I sampled many of those acoustic notes from, and EQing them to create maximum impact in the Cabinet. Around then I spent a day sampling golf and tennis on television, which is where that crow and club/racket swats originally came from. I hadn’t owned a TV in years, but was drawn to it whenever there was one in the room. I always loved golf and tennis on TV because of the amount of ’silence’ in them. Because the players need to concentrate, presumably, the crowd noise is at a minimum during game play, so it makes for very dynamic sampling with a lot of unintended sounds accidentally making their way onto broadcast television. There aren’t that many unintended moments on TV so they seemed extraordinarily special to me.
When Paul came to the apartment that first time to play that cello/piano duet with Julie, I was quite taken by the sound of the cello. I had never been up close to a cello being played before and I was blown away by the warmth and richness of the sound. I loved the way it filled up the entire spectrum of sound with harmonics stretching all the way up to the hiss of bow hair on the strings, and longed to dig my EQ into it. Also I loved the gentle attack and laziness of the string response, since it seemed an incredible counterpoint to the tight angular sounds I’d been working with.
Soon after that, Paul invited Julie and me for dinner at his apartment on the other side of the building. During dinner I noticed a large rack, mounted to the wall, full of many dozens of minidisks. By now this format is quite outdated, but at the time it was the go-to medium for rewritable digital audio. I asked Paul about them and he said that they were his ‘reference materials’. He was in his mid 30’s and had recently been through a tough divorce. He had been going through a long period of general malaise, and one of his only comforts was watching films. According to him, he watched about 750 movies in the year leading up to when I met him. During then he got into the habit of sampling audio from films. Whenever there was a scene where the music or dialogue was particularly moving or unique in a way worthy of saving, he would hit record. Apart from that he also had a collection of rarities, like Shooby Taylor (the great scatting postman), and samples of speech from many famous historical figures. He didn’t have a computer, so his sample collection was entirely stored on these minidisks, and he would randomly listen through them whenever he was in need of inspiration.
I immediately saw a parallel between Paul’s collection and mine. His being more archival and mine being more of the present moment, it seemed a natural idea to bring the two collections together to see what would happen. He let me borrow a small collection of English words he had cut out of a record about pronouncing proper American English, along with a film about deaf children in France. I loved the way these sounded through the Cabinet, so I incorporated them into a couple sections of that project, before debuting it at a small show at the knitting factory in New York City, opening for Cex and Kid 606. (I had made some inroads with Carpark records in those early days). The next day Paul came banging on our door, apparently very offended by my use of his samples, accusing me of stealing them. I thought they were a gift, but apparently they were not. The idea of ‘owning’ samples seemed crazy, but I could see he was mad and I had to respect his point of view. I was still quite curious to explore his collections so I figured I could turn lemons into lemonade if we started a real project together. Since I had this fellowship money, and thought it a wise investment, I offered him $2000 dollars to buy a computer to organize his samples onto a more useful form. He took it, and thus ‘The Books’ were born, although it would be several more months before we gave it a name.
We set up his computer to run all of the same software I had, so that we could swap files efficiently. We started making basic cello recordings in my apartment, consisting of open notes and odd sounds that I could easily cut and rearrange. Meanwhile Paul started feeding me sounds from his collection. Within a few days I was putting the finishing touches on our first track:
I remember thinking at the time that electronica seemed overly cool and ’in the box’ sounding. Although I loved Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Daft Punk and the like, I wanted to work with the same tools in a way that was warmer, more human and more irrational. I loved the contradiction that digital music, which was a paradigm of the grid and microscopic control, could be made to sound a bit sloppy, like a collage with rough edges, tape and glue all over it. Both Paul’s and my work up until this point had sounded very esoteric in a way that was off-putting to most folks, and we both wanted to make a record that was more accessible, so at least our families wouldn’t be so ashamed to have to listen to it. Working with rough cut acoustic samples rather than synths, and spoken word far outside of the hip-hop break-beat context immediately felt like fertile ground.
The opening theme was a guitar part I recorded with Julie’s metronome running in the background. I looped and layered it with itself into a sort of cannon, which sets the tone and tempo. I threw the broken mandolin, guitar, golf and tennis sounds from the ‘Cabinet’ against the guitar loop with a kind of reckless abandon until a listenable rhythm emerged. Later I added a corresponding set of elemental cello sounds from our recent recording sessions. Around that time I sampled a daytime court show from TV, where a woman selling vacation tickets was being harassed by a man unsatisfied by his accommodations. She went on this jaw-dropping motor-mouthed rant about how she had lost her job and had a heart condition, and it turned out to be a great stand-in for a free-jazz like instrumental solo. If you listen carefully you’ll hear my voice slightly ahead, doubling the text, which I recorded by speaking each phrase as a loop until I ran out of breath. I isolated each ‘out of breath’ phrase and reassembled them to match the original so that it sounded as if I was constantly running out of breath throughout the entire rant. Then, behind her voice is a rhythm created by zipping my fingernail across one of those crackerjacks box style holograms, with the ridged prisms on the front surface. A sample from Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ (one of my favorite films) ends her rant succinctly.
The cello solo in the next section was created by wiggling the playback cursor over a cello recording in the timeline of Soundforge, to give it that wiggle effect. “Myself, April, Tammy, and Brad” were the plaintiffs in the next case on that daytime court show. Then there’s a sample of a film (Goddard, I believe), in Russian, where a man professes his love to a prostitute and has a heart attack mid sentence, instantaneously dying (as an echo of the previous heart condition). Then there is a sample of a Japanese fellow reading stock reports, which we selected purely for rhythmic reasons, not knowing until much later what he was actually talking about.
The hootenanny breakdown in the next section is just a digitally sped up cello/guitar improvisation that Paul and I recorded in the living room. Paul was able to create a chordal wash of cello textures that slow fades in until the next section, where the heavy Cabinet kick drives a loop consisting of a stretched out Dutch sample: an homage to Paul’s native language. The final sample is from the late great cellist Pablo Casals:
“Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow, all the music is a rainbow”
To me, it seemed the perfect way to end… a spectrum broken into it’s component colors, and presented as a pattern that reveals a deeper and more mysterious structure.
Next track: ‘Contempt’
Thanks for reading,
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