Interview for Sound Unbound by Paul Miller
Q: Sound Unbound contains thoughts from a wide array of people, and brings together names I would never have expected to see in a single book. What were you looking for when getting this compilation together?How did you know that this mix would work?
A: The whole idea, right now, is that we need eclecticism more than ever. In a world driven by playlists, and "collaborative filtering" that tells you every song and every book you might like, what happens to material that is hyper diverse? The answer is easy: it slips beneath the radar. I have a passion for championing voices that let us know another world is possible. It is so important to not be trapped by the false binaries of the 20th century - good/bad,black/white, old/new, original/derivative etc etc Everytthing is connected. I really wanted to put together a collection of voices like I'd put together a mix CD. You read the CD and listen to the book. Switch modes! Q: This book is clearly about now, even though everyone is concerned with the way in which now has developed. Do you think any of the ideas have a staying power for the future? Did any lasting truths of music and creation in a digitized reality come to the surface which can guide us for at least a little while? A: Time is elastic. What was true a long time ago, might not be relevant now. What's relevant now might not be relevant in the future. Everything is non-linear, impact dynamics. "Sound Unbound" embraces that kind of non-linear thinking and uses it to foster a milieu where alot of people with alot of different perspectives can have a space to dialog. So many anthologies and books make everything locked into categories - web searches, amazon.com collaborative filters, last.fm etc - they all look to culture itself as infinitely controlable, with no hidden connections. Where anoynymous posts, hidden identities, and a drive towards privacy held sway over the internet 1.0, the net 2.0 turns everything inside out. People don't want privacy - they want to put their entire life online! Sound Unbound looks at digital culture as a nonlinear process that makes alot of this kind of stuff explainable as part of every day reality. That's hip-hop, that's current storytelling...that's the way we live now.
Q: In the middle of the last century, both Boulez and Cage theorized the potentials of technology for the sampling and synthesis of new sounds for music. Their ideas were closely connected to their wider, very much modern, philosophies of musical creation (and their philosophies in general). How do you see these two composers in the light of your perhaps more postmodern musical creation with all of its mixing, sampling, and participation in our larger sonic reality? Do their ideas still have significance now that technology is surpassing their early comprehension of it? A: I think composers like Varese and Boulez (that rhymes!) set the tone for unapologetic experimentation. That was a good thing. On the other hand, as we've seen with so much of the experimental scene, is that people then go on to set up other rules. Most of which bore me... I really think it's amazing that experimental hip hop gets such short shrift in the sound art scene (that was one reason I didn't include any of the "normal" sound art people like Christian Marclay, but did include people like Carsten Nicolai. "Modern" composition is a really complex realm - ideologies like Communism (!!!?) and stuff like individual initiative were inspirations for alot of the modernist composers (look at people like Prokofiev!), but we also had to think about how Wetsern composers responded to other parts of the world - like Debussy's fascination with Javanese Gamelan music or Steve Reich's interest in West African percussion, or Phillip Glass's interest in Asia. This is to be celebrated - but I wanted the dialog to be a 2-way street. Too often it was Europeans appropriating from "Others." "Sound Unbound" seeks to create a kind of equilibirum, and that means things get non-linear. There ain't no grand progress to the end of history in this book!
Q: One theme in Sound Unbound seems to be giving a response to
contemporary legal concerns about sampling/mixing and intellectual rights. Those issues aside, do we still have other ethical boundaries which might make certain sounds, perhaps that of the sacred, off-limits to a public sphere? Are there still bounds to sound?
A: Daphne Keller is the Senior Legal Counsel to Google. She's a rockstar lawyer! That's why I asked her to write some of the pieces about the legal aspect of sampling. To me, when you look at sampling, you should go back to the original idea: it was a mathematical construct meant to be able to give you a solid picture. "Statistic modelling" is a process. You take a small fragment of a population (this could be the Census, or it could be atomic measurement of gas particulates etc etc) and use the sample to create a mathematical picture of a larger situation. The law as we know it in most Western countries is still based on physical goods - i.e. stuff that can fall on your head or clog mail box (letters, books, boxes, tractors, airplanes, machines etc). Software is dematerializing the whole scenario. Suppose you need something but just download a blueprint of it and have it made. You're violating some kind of law. On the other hand, if you need a nuanced view of things like "fair use" or "public domain" - Sound Unbound is a partisan shot about that kind of thing.
Q: Along those lines, it seems that mixing in itself has the danger of decontextualizing certain information which ought to be connected with its historical truths. How should we continue to remember when sounds and images become unfettered from larger contexts? How do you think we should perpetuate and propagate history in this digital age?
A: Sound Unbound is all about the un-announced tension between context and content. Radically different essays are put one after another. On the audio companion, you have crazy rare material from Joyce Joyce mixed with, oh I don't know... Wu Tang Clan type hip hop. That's OK. Your average person now understands the "logic of addition" that the mashup invoked. You hear some kind of remix, and you get the point - all meaning is relative. All creativity is essentially a conversation between alot of components of the imagination. Sound Unbound celebrates that kind of hybridity. Everything you see - from a photo shop edited image on a subway train, to sliced and diced, sequenced newsreels from Fox TV to Al Jazeera all have this in common: collage based narratives are something we all in the 21st century, know and understand.
Q: Technology has always been a tool for our use. In many ways it seems that musicians today, and music technology today remains within that very old concept of techne. But it also seems that something has changed fundamentally. What did change? When/how do you think it happened, and how should we describe it?
A: Naeem Mohaimen's article on Islam in hip hop resonates with this question. I really think that it's not about tools at all, but the culture of perception that surrounds how we think about the tools. Software is a tool. It carries certain contexts built into its code - you have to be literate to understand what it's about, and what you can do with it. What "Sound Unbound" does is posit a different kind of literacy that can move between the ever shifting roles of digital media's relationship to physical objects. What Mohaimen did was talk about Islam and hip hop. I positioned his essay as a response to the kind of "cultural superiority complex" the West has at the moment. Islam was ahead of the West for many centuries. I like to put that kind of paradox out there for people to think about why terms like "algorithm" or "algebra" are Arabic, or even composers like Halim El Dabh (one of the first Arab electronic music composers. The audio mix that accompanies Sound Unbound has all sorts of "hidden connections" - Jean Cocteau, Kurt Schwitters, Iggy Pop, Gertrude Stein, etc etc All of these people have only one thing in common: they were interesting to sample. The same kind of "logic of selection" applies when you look at any interaction with technology. What kind of attraction impulse drives the imagination when you're coding software? What kind of impulse drives a jazz saxophone solo. I posit that somewhere in the creative act, there's a common denominator.
Q: Does our participation in this digital culture change what we are as humans? It seems the notion of 'the self' that most traditional music/cultural studies use is insufficient, but it is not clear what the next formulation requires. Do you have any requirements for a new form of humanity, the new idea of the self which is emerging? A: Sure - I guess it means that everything is "flow." I can't get too deep into whatever current direction people think humanity is going. If you look back at the 20th century, you had people who thought the Soviet Union would be around for a long time, or that Hitler would have some kind of 1000 year situation. History is littered with the debris of people who thought in one way or another that they could shape or direct history. Sound Unbound posits that there will always be multiple paths of entry and exit onto the world stage, and that sampling is a tool that we can use to "deconstruct" alot of the media landscape that surrounds and innundates anyone living in an information based economy.
Q: Your recent Antarctica project is premiering this summer at the Democratic convention. Is it an overtly political statement, or does it simply contain material which naturally fits in with environmental concerns?
A: The world is changing. That is almost the only constant we have right now. I wanted to go to Antarctica and do a project that would be an inquiry into how to look at the environment itself as a kind of record. Guess what? Scientists use what they call "core samples" to measure the changes in the ice. I don't want to give away the project just yet, but the basic idea is to figure out some "resonant issues" out of the ice's transformation.
Q: You mention in the trailer that Antarctica is itself information of sorts, a meaningful articulation of the Earth. Do you make an effort at decoding Antarctica yourself, or are you presenting it as a pure enigma still to be figured out? How do you see your work interacting with the political?
A: For me, Antarctica is a kind of geological clock. It measures the tempo of the world. So does dj culture.
Check the trailer for the film at: