Levi-Strauss, remix culture, and mining the rock ‘n’ roll past

Logic Studio screenshot
Last week Wet Paint, my old band from the 70s, got together to play a college reunion gig in Bellingham. Great fun was had by all, and I think the band sounded better than it ever had.

Leading up to the gig I digitized our 1978 single from vinyl, and then I decided to try my hand at doing a remix of one of the sides, Steve Robinson’s very cool Shake A Maraca.

Doing a remix is an interesting process. Starting with the original tracks you visually slice and dice them into parts, adding various levels of audio processing to them, and then combine them with other audio. The tools for digitally manipulating music these days are nothing short of astounding in their power (and complexity). I used the latest version of Apple’s Logic, version 9, but there are a variety of competing tools.

Logic comes with a vast array of software instruments and pre-recorded snippets (known as “loops”) which can be utilized at will, and you can import audio from any other source you can find. So the process of the remix involves sifting through a huge library of available sounds and grooves, and trying to figure out what’s useful to the task at hand, and using those pieces to build up what hopefully becomes a compositionally coherent whole.

That got me thinking about the late Claude Levi-Strauss’ writings on “bricolage” in traditional cultures. Bricolage literally means “tinkering”, or as Wikipedia defines it, “to refer to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process”.

Levi-Strauss wrote about the use of bricolage in the construction of myths in indigenous cultures, saying:

The set of the ‘bricoleur’s’ means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project… It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the ‘bricoleur’ not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determinate use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type.

which sounds a lot like the current way music is built up digitally. He recognized that the results of the bricoleur’s technique “can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane,” which I think is completely true of using musical remix techniques, which can often bear only the slightest resemblances to the original source material.

Some of my old fogey contemporaries question whether the technique of building up new musical art by reassembling and manipulating digital pieces is as valid as making music by playing a traditional instrument. Get over it! While I personally will always treasure the pleasure of my hands and ears interacting with strings and wood, I don’t think that any one method of achieving sound necessarily holds any more validity than another – it’s what you can do with the tools that matters. I’m sure if I was just starting out with music, I’d be spending a whole lot of time in front of my computer mastering these tools.

All of which seemed relevant this week with the news of the Rolling Stones release of a remastered Exile on Main Street complete with ten new tracks, some of which had some vocal and instrumental parts finished this year. I’ve always loved Exile (though I think Beggars Banquet is still my favorite Stones album), and having just been spending this time mining my own 30-year-old past for a remix, who am I to question whether Mick and Keith should delve into their own unfinished creations? While I haven’t given the new material a good listen, I did really enjoy the All Songs Considered interview with producer Don Was on the project, and the pieces he played during the interview sounded great. If I had a back catalog like the Stones, you can bet I’d be spending time revisiting it – and it sounds a good deal better than any of the Stones’ new material has in some time!

I also think that the bricolage approach has a lot of relevance to software engineering and how we manage IT, particularly in higher education, and I’ll have more to say on that in a coming post.

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