Sound Unbound - Review

Aaron Hayes When reading great thinkers, it is natural to wonder whether these people’s lives were any different from ours, whether their insights into the nature of reality and the world we live in allowed them some sort of super powers, or at least greater happiness, or something – especially nowadays with these intellectuals who can ‘see through’ the false images of society into the deeper forces working below us.  But I suspect that today, like any age, the philosophers remain blinded by the truth and so stumble around without actually doing anything, sightless oracles revealing to us the truths of postmodernism, etc., expecting something from those who act in the world, hoping for others to live guided by their wise instruction, to be able to understand the implications of what has been revealed to them.

Or maybe today might be different, in that the truths that are interpreted and discussed by the philosophers are precisely those forces and flows which everyone already participates in, and so the task is better understood as a coming to terms with what is here already.  Still, there remains a very interesting social gap between the thinkers and theorists in the academic towers, and the doers and the practitioners on the street level.  This gap, a strange fence which causes undue drag on the flows between the two preventing the otherwise natural movement, hides the fact that the dichotomy it hopes to perpetuate (pick your favorite name) doesn’t really work anymore. 

We all know that, yet it still operates.  It operates because few of us are able to move as individuals between the two.  We specialize in thinking about something, or in doing something, and taking up both as a task leaves our authority in either open to question.  But the answer was never really the generalist; the generalist could only draw diagrams (though valuable ones).  The answer lies in how we discuss, who we talk to, and what we talk about.  The general practice of talking to each other, learning, teaching, and playing in groups, requires some change if we want to get any of these flows of ideas to work right.

(Sound Unbound)

Without grasping the challenge facing contemporary discourse, it is easy to miss the significance of the recent MIT Press publication, Sound Unbound.  Edited by DJ Spooky (that subliminal kid), or Paul Miller, whichever name you feel more appropriate for an editor, this book contains interviews with composers, essays by important lawyers, cultural studies theorists, and many others.  The subtitle, otherwise known as the feeble attempt at thematizing an immensely eclectic series of essays (and a CD mix) is: sampling digital music and culture.  Sampling, the art of the DJ, is driven by musical aesthetics, and the aspect of intuitive groove among all the essays is perhaps the only unifying factor.  10 years ago, digital music and culture might have referred to a somewhat small and relatively rich segment of civilization (a nice, clean, focused topic), but today encompasses much more of the mainstream, and hence much more of the important, powerful, and decisive issues which artists create and audiences experience.

This is not to say there are no strong themes which unify many of the essays in the book.  Much of the work of Sound Unbound comes together to create a well thought out strategic positioning about intellectual property rights against the brutal legalism of the large media conglomerates who, in grand efforts of self preservation (or total domination, depending on your optimism or pessimism), are trying to criminalize the use of media in the face of increased technological freedom.  For those who tire of the shallow moralizing of the mainstream discussions of digital rights, many of the ideas in Sound Unbound are very refreshing.

Another common theme, though by no means ever-present, is a head-on look at the development of technology as it relates to musical creation and the changes of musical styles, not only concerning Boulez and the avant-garde, but also jungle, hip-hop, and easy listening.  Of course, the discussions of music and technology are an almost essential part of 20th century music history.  But this is not your average lab coat and thick glasses theorizing about the implications of spectral analysis on real time quadraphonic distribution.  Flowing naturally into these discussions come ancient deities and pop music producers, asking to be taken just as seriously as the latest IRCAM experiments.

In fact, one of the main weaknesses of the book is the contributions of Boulez and Reich.  Containing almost no reflections of any broad significance, the interviews and Riech’s introduction to the book read like some boring fanzine: ‘well, I used some technology, then I used some different technology, then I stopped for a while, and now I am using some technology again.’  However seriously one takes the other discussions of the book, it would have been nice to read the thoughts of these composers today, and not the same thoughts they have been having for 20 years (which, by the way, was 1988, in case some of you old people forget).

In an interesting way, this book is actually lacking in the traditional style of scholarship and the scholarly music – not through negligence, but in an appropriately destructive manner.  Sound Unbound is not a scholarly work, it is better.  In the past, these sorts of discourses were given voice out of some liberal moral obligation to let everyone be heard and respected.  But now, this book shows that the life of musical thought and thoughtful music can be found in many places, that the musical realization of our most profound ideas can be found in many other styles and practices than could have been previously admitted.

To illustrate the diversity of the book, consider a few highlights: writer Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” traces all of its phrases to other sources; Cultural Studies scholar Dick Hebdige writes about the differences and similarities between US culture in the ‘60s and today; Google lawyer Daphne Keller writes about intellectual rights and copyright law; Philosopher Manuel DeLanda writes about the connections between evolutionary systems and musical systems; Artists Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand discuss their use of sonoluminescence in one of their recent installations; Chuck D offers some raps -- and many more, all coming together, not in any thematic way, but in a much more subtle, aesthetic grouping which just somehow works.

Included with the book is a CD mix of DJ Spooky (who also contributes his thoughts via printed text).  This mix uses material culled from the Sub Rosa sound archives ( and contains samples of James Joyce, Sonic Youth, Phillip Glass, and quite a few other recorded voices and sounds mixed together in interesting ways.  The amount of information it contains and plays with is overwhelming, in some ways like the whole project, as many interesting ideas and sounds as possible fit into one publication. 

The scholarly validity of this collection of essays is of no importance; it creates its own validity by opening up a new way of connecting ideas and people.  As a consequence, it must be approached on its own terms.  If, in the end, the stories of crazy cyberpunk numerologists or the Deleuzian nature of dub and jungle isn’t accessible to you for whatever reason, there is still something for everyone.  What makes this book different is that these other voices are not so easily ignored.  Other worlds are opened up next to each other, and the flow increases.