The internet is full of articles that deal with contemporary composition in a very broad and abstract way. My articles for NewMusicBox are no exception: while I’ve talked about some specific works, it’s always been in service of more general points about borrowed material, relevance, and the politics of cross-cultural influence. So for the last article in this series, I’d like to zoom in and talk about how these issues played out in one of my own pieces.
I wrote World about a year and a half ago for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players. I’d heard great things about Stony Brook’s piano and percussion studios, so I took the opportunity to write for the now fairly standard instrumentation of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I knew I wanted to focus on the marimba—an instrument that has always struck me as somehow ancient and futuristic at the same time. And since almost everything I write has to do with cultural symbolism in one way or another, I started by asking: What does the marimba signify in American culture?
If you’re the kind of person who likes listening to a piece before you read about it, now would be a good time:
The first associations that came to mind were minimalism and TV news themes. I’ve thought for a while that there was a secret connection between the two. In particular, there’s one passage in Music for 18 Musicians that sounds remarkably like news music.
There’s also the 1991 theme for WABC 7 Eyewitness News, the opening of which wouldn’t sound out of place in a minimalist piece from the late 70s or early 80s.
(I assume that this connection is partially the result of Steve Reich’s widespread influence outside the new-music world—but I also have a theory that the presence of syncopated repeated-note figures in news themes originated as an imitation of a telegraph machine transmitting Morse code.) So World starts off with a passage that’s meant to sound like the ten o’clock news if it had been written by Reich circa Tehillim, with a little help from Bartók:
In TV news themes, the mallet percussion is often synthesized, which gave me the idea of splitting the ensemble into “real” and “artificial” sides: marimba and piano vs. electronic mallet percussion and synth keyboard. But the next association that came to mind landed me right in the political quagmire I talked about in my last article: both wooden percussion instruments and electronic imitations of them are associated with 1980s pop exoticism. The most iconic example is probably “Africa” by Toto—but you see the same thing in “It’s Nearly Africa” by XTC, “The Sheltering Sky” by King Crimson, “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads, “Mulu the Rain Forest” by Thomas Dolby, and “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush. These songs depict a variety of different cultures, and their attitudes range from Talking Heads’ anti-colonialist provocation to XTC’s blunt primitivism, but they all involve American or British musicians using a particular set of timbres as a symbol of far-off lands.
The thing is, I actually find some of these songs quite evocative. “Africa” in particular has been growing on me steadily over the years, for reasons I can’t quite explain (though it might have something to do with the prominent iii chord in the opening riff). Of course, that’s easy for me to say: it’s not my continent being exoticized. But I think it’s more complicated than that, because there’s quite a bit of art that I like even though it treats people like me pretty badly. I loved Infinite Jest, for example, despite a handful of passages that use just about every transphobic trope around as a comedic device. And I’m a fan of horror director Dario Argento despite the undercurrent of misogyny running through his work. In fact, what I like about the “world music” trope in 80s pop music is very similar to what I like about Argento’s movies: it’s all about the lush, enveloping atmosphere. (In the former case, it’s probably also because these sounds were constantly in the background during my early childhood. In fact, one of my first musical memories is an ad for Whatchamacallit candy bars that draws on a similar sound palette.)
I’ve also noticed that a lot of people dismiss this kind of faux world music not on the grounds that it stereotypes or exoticizes people, but on the grounds that it’s “cheesy.” In my experience, that judgment is almost never backed up with any kind of rational critique; usually it means “it’s considered uncool to admit to liking this.” So when I hear something dismissed in that way, I’m immediately drawn to it, both because I don’t like aesthetic prejudice, and also because things that are deemed “cheesy” can easily take on a surreal, alarming or even frightening quality. You can see this phenomenon—which I’ve sometimes referred to by saying that “cheesiness is the new dissonance”—at work in a lot of David Lynch’s films.
So here was this “cheesy” music that was conceptually related to my plan for the piece. I wanted to put it into a new context that would allows its merits, including its potential for strangeness, to be heard more clearly. (Some people might see this as trying to “improve” pop-cultural materials by putting them in a so-called “high-art” context, but I actually think of it more as trying to “improve” contemporary classical music, which could use a corrective to its often overbearing seriousness and self-importance.) The question was: could I create that lush world-music atmosphere without drawing on any actual non-Western cultures? Could I throw out the stereotypical bathwater while keeping the evocative baby?
In some ways it was easy; I could use the sounds of birds and water, long sustained synth pads, quartal harmonies, and minor triads in a major-mode context. If that sounds like it’s in bad taste, great! And how to frame the passage so that it might seduce people who would normally be skeptical of these kinds of sounds? Save it for later in the piece, and introduce its motivic material and aspects of its sound-world first, so that when it arrives, it seems like a revelation of something that was just under the surface the whole time: a door opening into the middle of a rainforest.
But something was still missing.
Now, a brief digression. Around the same time that I was writing World, I was thinking about how often I’d been hearing cut-up and pitch-shifted vocal samples in contemporary pop, rock, and electronica. The most striking example is the one that Skrillex gradually builds over the course of his song “Summit”—an entire pop melody constructed out of individually sampled vowels.
Others include Tune-Yards’ “Bizness”, Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”, and Gotye’s “State of the Art”. As I’ve said, I’m intrigued when a single idea shows up in a variety of different contexts. But wasn’t obvious, at least at first, that this had anything to do with my plans for World.
What put all the pieces together was Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby.”
If you’re not familiar with them, Deep Forest are a French “ethnic electronica” duo, and their work is especially problematic: they’ve been accused of extensively sampling traditional music from around the world without permission and sometimes without even crediting the original performers, and they’ve made quite a bit of money in the process. They also have a habit of talking about people in developing countries in a patronizing way: “Somewhere, deep in the jungle, are living some little men and women. They are our past. And maybe—maybe they are our future.” “Sweet Lullaby” doesn’t include that kind of commentary, but it is based on a recording of a traditional Baegu song from the Solomon Islands, which they used without the permission of either the woman who sang it or the ethnomusicologist who recorded it.
And yet here too, I find the music strangely haunting. And while I was trying to figure out why, I suddenly realized that listening to electronically cut-up syllables is a lot like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak—which meant that I could create my imaginary foreign culture by taking a page from Skrillex and building a melody out of pitch-shifted vocal samples in the climactic section of World. Not only that, but the artificiality of the cut-up technique would enhance the surreal quality already latently present in the “cheesiness” of the style.
And then I realized something else: several of the songs that had gotten me thinking about cut-up vocals were related to the ideas that I had associated with marimbas in the first place. “Summit” relates to minimalism through its repetition-based syntax, and, less directly, through the long history of connections between Steve Reich and electronic dance music, including the Reich Remixed album and the sample of Electric Counterpoint in The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds”. And Tune-Yards is another politically complicated case of a white American musician being heavily influenced by African music—in this case, Congolese pop music. In other words, everything is connected:
When I talked about complex tangles of interconnections between different artistic streams, this was the kind of thing I had in mind. So what does my attempt to translate that tangle into an actual piece of music sound like? Hear for yourself: