Minneapolis: Promoting Sonic Literacy, By The Books

Justin Schell
Justin Schell

While some artists who work with digital samples seek to retain the fragment’s sedimented cultural and historical associations, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, who make up The Books, find beauty in the decontextualization, but never dehumanization, of the voices they draw upon. On their three albums to date, Thought for Food, The Lemon of Pink, and last year’s Lost and Safe, those associations are still audible, yet much is left to the listener’s imagination. “When taken out of context,” Zammuto says of many of the samples he and de Jong use, “the imagery is really amazing.”

In possession of a digital sample library that numbers in the tens of thousands, de Jong (cello) and Zammuto (voice and guitar) select seconds-long gems from this abundance of digital riches, crafting surrounding textures corporeally—bowing, plucking, strumming—that never seem to overwhelm, nor are overwhelmed by, the sampled material. On Lost and Safe‘s “It Never Changes to Stop,” amid a plaintive banjo counterpoint hovers the voice of an overzealous preacher, whose diatribes quickly devolve from authoritarian power to sheepish vulnerability. Even Salvador Dali makes an appearance on “Venice,” a sonic rubberstamp courtesy of the surreal world through which The Books tread.

Samples are not always literal quotations, however. Most of the lyrics are also taken from other contexts, ranging from the writings of the Buddha and the Tao Te Ching for “A Little Longing Goes Away” and “Twelve Fold Chain,” respectively, and a Surrealist-derived, exquisite corpse-style lyrical composition on “Smells Like Content.” While watching television, Zammuto searched for poetically resonant phrases, then flipped the channels to find their completion. He delivers these words in a slightly delicate voice, yet one which thankfully lacks the whine of some contemporary male pop singers.

While composing with samples can lead to thorny legal territory, the two are not overly concerned with the possibility of a copyright lawsuit. “There is a danger in what we do, there’s no doubt about it,” Zammuto says, but feels that “we’re extremely conservative when it comes to dealing with copyrighted materials.” If there is a question over a sample’s lineage, the two simply put it aside and search for a something else in their library. For de Jong, “there is enough sound to play” that doesn’t involve undue legal attention. Besides, Zammuto concludes, “I don’t even think half of the people that would hear the record would even recognize their own voice.”

The Books
Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto
a.k.a. The Books
Photo by Nino P.

Since they first began playing live, shortly after releasing The Lemon of Pink, The Books have navigated both the indie rock and new music concert circuits. Their current tour, however, which also included European dates, is their first full-fledged concert tour. For every club the duo plays, it seems, within a week they will be playing in an art museum. “The real purpose of touring,” Zammuto says—only half-jokingly, I suspect—”is to raid Salvation Armies and Goodwills for new material.”

When I met them in Minneapolis, they were playing in the basement of the University of Minnesota’s student union; the space, filled to capacity with 240 people, was surprisingly intimate, with a large group seated on the floor enjoying the music just a few feet from the performers.

The performance revealed the latest addition to The Books’s arsenal. Each song performed had an accompanying video, from disarming cross-cultural displays of laughter that formed the sampled landscape of “Take Time” to varieties of life in motion, nimbly synchronized with the undulating repetitions of “An Owl With Knees.”

“There’s this world of rotting videotapes out there,” Zammuto said with more than a hint of glee. “Now music is starting to arise simultaneously with image.”

Zammuto, originally a chemistry student before switching to visual and now sound art, lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, while de Jong, who has played cello since early in his life, is based in New York. Each works on material separately until they have something to share with the other. Albums are recorded in North Adams, with the two doing all of their own mixing and editing. Originally from the Netherlands, de Jong is also completing a project that translates his experiences of Dutch neighborhoods into sound.

Establishing their recording home in North Adams, home of Bang on a Can’s Summer Music Festival, has brought them in contact with the group’s founders. Zammuto met Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang at the last Summer Music Institute. “It turned out,” de Jong said, “that most of the people involved with Bang on a Can knew our music already. We’re both pretty amazed by that.”

Such interest has translated into greater interest from the New York new music scene. Todd Reynolds will open a series of Books performances, including one on May 5 at Brooklyn’s Northsix. And on May 24 they will be featured as part of Ben Neill’s PlayVision festival, sharing slots with established Downtowners Christian Marclay, Elliott Sharp, and Okkyung Lee.

For The Books, then, digital sampling is more than a way to superficially revel in a pastiche of life’s audible shards. Rather, they have used their music to construct a coherent, distinct, and increasingly well-known musical identity, formed, in a gratifying paradox, from other people’s voices.

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Justin Schell lives in Minneapolis. He is a first-year graduate student in the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where his main research interests are the study of contemporary musical cultures, the relationship between music criticism and notions of historical value, and the myriad ways that music does cultural work throughout the globe. He previously lived and worked in Milwaukee, where he completed a Bachelor’s degree in Music History and Philosophy. And he unwaveringly agrees with Frank Zappa that The Shaggs are better than the Beatles.