Historian Jacques Barzun once observed “that a good deal of [20th-century] art has been instructional, the artist-pedagogue flogging the dead philistine.” That remark could serve as epigram to the essays and music Paul D. Miller has collected in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture.
While Unbound contains chapters on music’s technological influences and contemporary composition, as well as lesser-known music biz history, its idée fixe is to defend the “art of appropriation.” Or as Miller, aka DJ Spooky, explains in a nearly impenetrable essay, Unbound is about the remix, “a plagiarist’s club for the famished souls of a geography of now-here.” Pilfery is doubtless a chief concern of the music industry, but it doesn’t excuse the prose crimes Miller commits. A representative example: “At the site of inside out, in through the portal into the here and now, out through the exit sign, there’s always a discrepant engagement.” This is bullshit, yes?
Fortunately, most of the writing is less pathological. For example, in “Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem has mixed reactions to encountering his novel Gun, With Occasional Music re-purposed for re-sale contoured as a pistol by artist Robert The. But in the end, Lethem concludes, “[t]he dream of perfect systematic remuneration is nonsense. I pay rent with the price my words bring when published in glossy magazines and at the same moment offer them for almost nothing to impoverished literary quarterlies, or speak them for free into the air in a radio interview. So what are they worth?”
Other notable chapters examine Raymond Scott’s invention of the sequencer, album art innovator Alex Steinweiss, and English church-bell ringing (this whimsically written by Brian Eno). Artist pedagogy looms large in interviews with Steve Reich, Moby, Pierre Boulez, and Nadine Robinson. The accompanying CD has occasionally interesting moments, with two standouts being a remix of Gertrude Stein reading her “Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” and Hans Arp lecturing on Dadaism, set to the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
But it’s computer scientist/composer Jaron Lanier who gets the last word in “Where Did the Music Go?”: “A sample played again and again expresses a feeling of stuckness and frustration.... Hip-hop was a great example of a new technology inspiring new aesthetic invention ... [but] more time has passed since hip-hop soared out of the box than passed between, for example, the big band era and Motown. Where are the new musical styles?”