Documentation of the People Like Us Retrospective at alt.gallery

Documentation of the People Like Us Retrospective at alt.gallery
alt.gallery (entry via alt.vinyl) 61/62 Thornton Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4AW.
http://www.altgallery.org/
16 May-12 July 2008

alt.gallery is pleased to announce the first retrospective exhibition of work by People Like Us (aka Vicki Bennett).
ARTIST INFO
For the past seventeen years British artist Vicki Bennett has been an influential figure in the field of audio visual collage, through her innovative sampling, appropriating and cutting up of found footage and archives. Using collage as her main form of expression, she creates audio recordings, films and radio shows that communicate a humorous, dark and often surreal view on life. The exhibition will focus on the concept of collage, showing an edited selection of her work, including twenty album releases, numerous singles and remixes, live sets, seven films and over a hundred and fifty radio shows. These collages mix, manipulate and rework original sources from both the experimental and popular worlds of music, film, television and radio.   People Like Us believe in open access to archives for creative use, and have made work using footage from the Prelinger Archives, The Internet Archive, and A/V Geeks. In 2006 she was the first artist to be given unrestricted access to the entire BBC Archive. People Like Us have previously shown work at Tate Modern, Sydney Opera House, Pompidou Center and Sonar, and performed radio sessions for John Peel and Mixing It. The ongoing sound art radio show ‘Do or DIY’ on WFMU has had over a million “listen again” hits since 2003. The People Like Us back catalogue is available for free download hosted by UbuWeb.
MEMORY STICKS

Every week during the exhibition a different collection of special downloads from the People Like Us archive will be available from the gallery, bring your memory stick along for a free take away!
ESSAY BY DR DREW DANIEL
A specially commissioned essay by Dr. Drew Daniel of Matmos accompanies the exhibition. Download pdf here. Drew’s essay can also be linked to here

Download a larger version of this flyer here
Download the poster (featured top right) here
The exhibition also included a framed essay by Rick Prelinger on The Virtues of Preexisting Material. Here is an excerpt:
On the Virtues of Preexisting Material
© Rick Prelinger 2007
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License
1 Why add to the population of orphaned works?
2 Don’t presume that new work improves on old
3 Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
4 The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
5 Dregs are the sweetest drink
6 And leftovers were spared for a reason
7 Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
8 The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
9 We approach the future by typically roundabout means
10 We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
11 What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
12 Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
13 Archives are justified by use
14 Make a quilt not an advertisement

Download a pdf of the full text here, or link to the essay here.


The exhibition will also launch a new CD curated by Vicki Bennett for Sonic Arts Network called ‘Smiling Through My Teeth’, a compilation of humorous music and sound art.

SPECIAL EVENTS
People Like Us Special on WFMU
Thursday 15 May, 11pm-midnight (UK time) www.wfmu.org/playlists/ER – To celebrate the exhibition opening Ergo Phizmiz hosts a People Like Us Special on his show ‘Phuj Phactory’ on WFMU, both on terrestrial radio and live internet stream.
People Like Us Talk and Screening
Friday 16 May, 7:30pm
Star and Shadow Cinema, Stepney Bank, Newcastle
Vicki Bennett presents a selection of films by People Like Us.
The Late Shows: Smiling Through My Teeth CD Launch
Saturday 17 May, 7pm-11pm
alt.gallery
www.altgallery.org

The Late Shows form part of NewcastleGateshead’s world-class festivals and events programme. www.thelateshows.org.uk

Many thanks to Rebecca Shatwell for inviting us to do this retrospective, it was great fun to work together. Rebecca is now director of AV Festival.

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On the Virtues of Preexisting Material by Rick Prelinger

On the Virtues of Preexisting Material
© Rick Prelinger 2007
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License

1 Why add to the population of orphaned works?
2 Don’t presume that new work improves on old
3 Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
4 The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
5 Dregs are the sweetest drink
6 And leftovers were spared for a reason
7 Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
8 The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
9 We approach the future by typically roundabout means
10 We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
11 What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
12 Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
13 Archives are justified by use
14 Make a quilt not an advertisement

– – – – – – – – –

No one loves manifestos more than their writers, which means that they often require interpretation and maybe even translation into real-world language. So what I’m going to do is take my 14 points and expand them into ideas. Some of these might sound trendy, but I think they’re actually traditional — they’ve been in and around the culture for a long time.

1 Why add to the population of orphaned works?
This is meant to provoke, of course. I might as well have asked, “why make new work while old work still exists?” That would be an argument for stasis, but I’m not seeking that — I’m seeking movement.
We live in a tremendously media-rich society. Every year Americans throw away more text, sound and image than most other nations create. We’re the world capital of ephemera, and much of it has no active parent.

Orphaned works — which are works that are still owned by somebody, but a somebody that can’t be found — testify to the absurdities that arise when products of the intellect are automatically born as property, which is the way our copyright law now reads. There are millions of orphaned works out there floating in limbo. You can reproduce them or work with them if you like, but if the derivative work you make rises above a certain horizon of obscurity, you run the risk of being sued. We are trying to come up with a better set of rules, but it’s very difficult to change copyright law unless you run a studio or a record company. There are literally hundreds of thousands of great books we’d like to scan and put on the Net, but can’t because of their orphan status.

The real issue, of course, is that we need to convene and decide how deeply we want to connect culture and property. And when we’ve settled on a particular mix, we might think about whether it maximizes our freedom to speak, to learn and to inquire — in short, whether it leads to the kind of a world we’d want to live in. This will not be an easy conversation — it’s hardly even begun. But one way we can move towards more open cultural distribution and exchange is to make our own works as accessible as possible. We can do this by limiting restrictions on reuse to the absolute minimum, by using permissive licenses, like the Creative Commons licenses, that say “use me this way, it’s OK,” and by using copyright homeopathically rather than as a weapon of shock and awe.

2 Don’t presume that new work improves on old
The ephemera we produce tend to manifest ideas that fix themselves over and over again in different media. What this suggests to me is that we might be more open to letting old works speak, that our task might not be so much to make new works but to build new platforms for old works to speak from. This might mean that we weave using others’ threads, that we take positions as arrangers rather than as sculptors.

Collage often does this. In recent years we have come to understand collage largely as an assembly of small units — as the equivalent of words, syllables or even phonemes. Collage has migrated from the arts and crafts we associate with folk culture into digital culture, speeding up and fragmenting along the way. Value-free, I want to propose that collage might also work in larger units, as sentences, paragraphs, chapters, even entire books. This kind of collage works slowly and in stealth, and will ultimately affect the way that we contrast new and old works.

3 Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
Take this with a grain of salt. I’m not good at ancestor worship and don’t know if I’d recognize wisdom when it’s in front of me.

But I’m going to argue here against eternalizing the present. Just because we’re in the middle of a condition that we call X doesn’t mean it’s always been X. Who would have thought that glaciers would start breaking up? Who could have predicted that honeybee populations would shrink? Who foresaw the breakup of the Soviet Union? And who among us recognizes that the 50 United States will grow to more or shrink to less than 50 as time passes?

Recycling the so-called wisdom of the past can problematize the present and encourage people to ask harder questions. When we inject history into contemporary experience, we are making an historical intervention, which can have dramatic consequences — if we listen.

This is why we’ve put ephemeral films online and why we’re now scanning books, most of which weren’t written by famous authors.

4 The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful

Many others have said this better than I can. It’s folly to make too much of originality. So much of what we make rests on work that’s come before. Let’s admit this and revel in it. Though it might make some people nervous, it actually cushions us in a genetic continuity of expression, and what could be more reassuring?

Last month, I went to a great lecture by Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt from Matmos at the beautiful Hearst Mining Building. Drew laid out the history and promise of 1960s and 1970s conceptual art and talked about how it informed the work they do. One of the most provocative legacies of conceptual art was de-commodification — departing from object-oriented artmaking and from the tyranny of the art market. And yet it struck me that de-commodification had actually created its opposite. Conceptual works tended to exist primarily in their documentation, in physical traces of the work that had been created by someone so that the work would not disappear from consciousness. Documentation creates objects that are always someone’s property. The value of art documentation rests in whose work it documents and in who made the documents. We are therefore almost back where we started.

When you attend a performance, a demonstration or a happening, count the cameras and recorders. What’s the ratio of documentators to actors? Think of all the property that’s being created on the back of an event that may be nobody’s property, that may even be anti-property. Then think of identifying and unraveling those property rights forty years in the future.

5 Dregs are the sweetest drink
My partner Megan and I run a research library in San Francisco that we built around our personal book, periodical and ephemera collections. At some point it got a life of its own and started growing like mushrooms in Mendocino. Many of you know it because you’re our honored shelvers. We joke about how it’s a library full of bad ideas; I characterize it as 98% false consciousness. It’s full of outdated information, extinct procedures, self-serving explanations, ideas that never passed the smell test, and lies. And yet that’s where you find the truth. You can’t judge the past at its best, you need to confront its imperfections. And of course that’s true for the present as well.

I’ve been interested in labor history for a long time, used to collect books about it, many of them from the old Moe’s. When I began to collect industrial films I was struck by how much of the history of working people was contained in films made by corporations. In order to extract it you’ve got to engage in selective appropriation, but it’s there, often eloquently so. There’s a 1936 film called Master Hands which you can download from the Internet Archive; it’s a tribute to mass production at Chevrolet. But what it really shows is how elemental, dangerous and mind-numbing the work at Flint was. It’s a film no one else seems to have, and it’s now on the National Film Registry, but it was dregs — on a cold day in 1983, I paid a man not to throw it away.

Research is now indicating that kids who grow up on farms have fewer allergies later in life. The hypothesis is that exposure to manure immunizes them early on. City kids miss out. I hope you’ll all come visit the library, get your own dose of bad ideas and build up your immune system.

6 And leftovers were spared for a reason
Leftovers exist for lots of reasons, but my favorite reason is that they’re our raw material for performing operations on history. Whether it’s an individual filtering their family’s reality through a scrapbook or a marcher carrying a picture of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, people use what’s left to us as leverage to document history or even change it.

7 Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
I don’t know much about actors, really, and I’m not going to take you through the “long tail” argument. But I think that reincarnation through reuse confers importance, greater recognition, and respect on works and those who make them. Does it bring the makers money? It often does, and there are all sorts of experimental models out there. We ourselves make more money selling stock footage since we put the same footage online for free downloading.

Ubiquity raises value. Culture is an infinitely renewable resource. Does the value of “Stairway to Heaven” suffer because somewhere in America, someone’s playing it on the radio every thirty seconds?

Perhaps we’ll never know whether models of plenty beat out models of scarcity, but we may learn something as we experiment along the way and give actors a fairer shake.

8 The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
We add meaning to culture by remixing it. Putting something in a new context helps you see it with new eyes; it’s like bringing your partner home to the parents for the first time, or letting a dog loose to run in the waves.

We also infuse culture with new pleasure. When the maker who calls him or herself Otto Nomous made the short video The Fellowship of the Ring of Free Trade, he or she sought to decode the hidden prophecies contained in The Lord of the Rings and prove that it was an anarchist parable relevant to the present day. This video reveals the decoded dialogues through witty subtitles set in an Elvish typestyle. It is delightful and you can easily find it online.

Remixing is estrangement in the way the classic writers like Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht described it. And yet the raw material remains familiar and recognizable. It’s at once a subversive and reassuring process. Some writers, like John Updike and not like Jonathan Lethem, fear the emerging mashed-up book. They hope their texts won’t be scrambled or altered, that they’ll always retain the same identity and continuity, and follow the same course. But rivers, like information, route themselves around obstacles, and the bends in rivers are where adventures happen. We’ll find new ways to experience and value old works as a consequence of mixing them into newer ones.

9 We approach the future by typically roundabout means
It’s said that storytelling is hardwired into our brains — that we respond most deeply and emotionally to storylines, characters and narrative arcs. You hear this from everyone, from folklorists to cable TV programming executives. You can’t drive a project through the distribution system if it lacks certain compulsory elements. You can, of course, employ traditional elements in novel and dramatic ways: this may get you awards.

Though I agree that stories wield power, I think this power is arbitrary. We believe in storytelling because we’ve naturalized the consensus that causes us to believe in it. There is no reason for this consensus not to change as the world changes. Storytelling as we know it is not an absolute, and it may slow the courses of culture and history. We value storytelling for its ability to wrap new skins on old skeletons, but even bones don’t last forever.

10 We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
It may be vain to hope that our works survive into the future and will be seen and listened to, but still we hope so. If we want to encourage those not yet born to think historically, we need to begin by thinking historically ourselves. This inevitably pushes us into the territory of preexisting materials.

11 What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
For 20 years I collected old educational and industrial films. They were made to instruct and socialize young people with the objective of turning them into dependable workers, good citizens and avid consumers. 1980s audiences became fascinated with these films and a cult following developed.

I was psyched to see this happen, but became disenchanted with what to me seemed like superficial and ahistorical reactions to the films. For many people, they triggered regressive nostalgic reactions. Others treated them as surreal documents, as bizarre oddities, as the stuff of long-gone conspiracies to manufacture consensus. All of these were true in a way, but something seemed to be missing.

The breakthrough for me was to realize that these films didn’t just describe a lost past, but might also be tracing the contours of possible futures. In other words, we could see them not simply as antiquated, but as predictive. And this has in fact come true. Many of today’s suburban children live the walled-in lives of their 1950s counterparts. Corporate and government interests are conflated. We fear those we call terrorists as we once feared those we called communists.

We can’t go back to the world of the past, but sometimes the past overtakes us.

12 Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
Sidewalk sales, dumpsters, library discard carts, Craigslist, your grandmother’s attic all contain masses of content just waiting to be cut up and reassembled. Every city has an outsider archivist who’s rescued some important collection of something from landfill and may be looking for collaborators. The past lies ready to be remade.

Yes, you can remix the present and upload it to YouTube, but they can take it down and they will, if you use content that someone else owns. The emerging digital media use electronic locks to inhibit reuse, and what you download on Saturday may vanish from your hard disk on Monday. We are beginning to turn fair use into a legal right rather than a legal defense, but we haven’t yet won.

Don’t shrink from remixing the present, but enjoy the freedom that comes with working with public domain material. The public domain is the coolest neighborhood on the frontier.

13 Archives are justified by use
This might seem obvious to you and me, but it doesn’t really work that way in the archival world. Until recently (and I generalize), archives focused more on preserving records than on providing access to them. Though this has begun to change, archives have had a really difficult time reengineering themselves and their culture to meet the vastly increased demand for their holdings.

Which brings us again to YouTube. In addition to generating lawsuits and refocusing mass culture onto a shrunken, fuzzy screen, it’s raised critical issues for archives. Media archives have tried to join the 21st century by putting little bits and pieces online. They face such opposition internally and from copyright holders that they’ve had to take baby steps. Now YouTube has raised public expectations, and it’s hard to see how any institution can meet them. In its first 12 months, YouTube built an easy-to-access online collection of some 7 million digital videos that I’d argue has become the world’s default media archives. Everything anyone does to bring archives online is now going to be measured against YouTube’s ambiguous legacy. It presents a massive collection of older and newer material, from video of Malcolm X’s complete speeches to clips of the moose I saw wandering in front yards in Anchorage. It sticks to preview mode, presenting visually degraded Flash video, so it will still get sued, but most rightsholders will rightfully regard what it does as promotion. Best of all, it allows users to upload almost anything and annotate with relative freedom. It is not an archives, but it’s outclassed archives at their own game.

In order for archives to survive while the YouTubes rule, they need to be used. And it is up to us to use the amazing things that they hold.

14 Make a quilt not an advertisement
Quilting is an early form of sampling. A patchwork quilt combines preexisting fabric from many sources. Quilting relies on what geeks call interoperability — the ability of elements to fit into a matrix and function together. That’s what makes the Internet work — machines and networks can talk with one another and freely exchange bits.

Interoperability requires openness. But today openness is threatened in many ways. While some companies have built business models around openness, many others haven’t. Right now, for instance, private companies are scanning books in publicly-owned and tax-exempt libraries around the world. Because the companies are paying for digitization, they control access to these new digital books, even though the books themselves may be in the public domain. Many online books let you see images of the pages, but don’t permit access to the raw text. You cannot cut and paste the text or grab it so you can index it yourself. That isn’t open, and these books don’t interoperate. You can’t weave a textual quilt using books from Project Gutenberg and books from Google. If we’re to build networked books, to freely cite the work of others and merge past and present, we need to make sure that openness is at the core of all of our activities. Cultural material needs to be shared and distributed as freely as the law allows.

But above all quilting is folk art, not corporate expression. It’s about turning leftovers into something that’s both transcendent and useful. It doesn’t have selling at its core.

Make a quilt, not an advertisement.

People Like Us & Ergo Phizmiz “Rhapsody in Glue” album

Online-only album
Released 15 May 2008 through bleep.com PLURGO1

Following the success of the critically acclaimed “Perpetuum Mobile” CD of 2007, renowned UK collagists / composers People Like Us & Ergo Phizmiz reunite for “Rhapsody in Glue”, a cycle of bricolage-ballet-music, skewed-waltzes, and skewiff-pop.
There is a story behind every album, and with “Rhapsody in Glue” we find a unique approach to constructing a record. Both long-term contributors to New York radio station WFMU, People Like Us & Ergo Phizmiz decided to publicly tear apart their respective practices and create an album “in the open”, presenting on a seafood-filled-platter the process of collaborative collage composition – informally discussing and jabbering nonsense to one another, resulting in the “Codpaste” free podcast series. “Rhapsody in Glue” is the culmination of the ideas explored in the podcast series.

“Rhapsody in Glue” continues in the bizarre ballroom vein of their previous efforts together, however, increasing the sonic palette into textural depths previously uncharted in their work. If “Carmic Waltz” is an expressionist painting by aged ballroom dance teacher who’s eaten the wrong kind of mushrooms in her soufflé, then “Gary’s Anatomy” is a slice of pure absurdist pop shot through with slabs of exotica and Ethel Merman. Recurring through the record is an apparent obsession with Prokofiev’s “Troika (Sleigh Ride)”, which merges and mashes with Burt Bacharach and Queen on “Snow Day”‘ and lapses into pure fantasy on the almost entirely acoustic “Withers in the Whist”, jarring with Ergo’s strange, Victoriana obsessed lyrics. Then on “Dancing in the Carmen” we discover what happens if Nana Mouskouri is thrown into a pot with Peggy Lee and let simmer for 10 minutes, whilst “In The Waking” shimmers along on multitracked guitars, meandering melodies, and music boxes.

REVIEWS:
Rhapsody in Glue – Liability (March 2009)
Rhapsody In Glue review – Goute Mes Disques (November 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – Blow Up (September 2008)
Rhapsody In Glue review – Pop News (September 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – O Dominio Dos Deuses (July 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue/Smiling Through My Teeth Review – Incendiary Mag (July 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – Octopus (July 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – Skug (July 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – D-Side (July 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – Choices Cologne (July 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – The Wire (July 2008)
Rhapsody in Glue review – Titel-Magazin / CD of the Week (June 2008)

Smiling Through My Teeth CD curated by Vicki Bennett

Sonic Arts Network is proud to announce the release of our latest CD publication. Vicki Bennett (People Like Us) curates “Smiling Through My Teeth”, a compilation exploring the use of humour in music and sound art and bringing together an assortment of humorous songs, amusing ditties and deranged sound works. Buy the CD or get it free by joining Sonic Arts Network today. The CD contains an essay by American journalist, artist, activist, and professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, Kembrew McLeod.

Download Kembrew McLeod’s essay here or link to it here.

Smiling Through My Teeth 

It is relatively unusual to find humour in sound art, even less has been written on the subject. The avant-garde can be a dry and humourless area (and is therefore perceived as such), both in writing and practice. It is not unusual for writers and audience alike to dismiss anything to the contrary; the catch is humour sometimes isn’t taken seriously, although the reality is a practitioner has to be extremely serious and accomplished in order to carry off a good piece of humorous work.

Humour and music are commonly perceived as an unlikely pair. But the removal of this expression from the pleasure and appreciation of creative art is impossible. Inflections of wit can be found in the most unlikely places, from John Cage’s 4’33’ (using silence in the way Tony Hancock used dead radio air to implicate his own boredom) through the parody of Erik Satie and Charles Ives, the metric disruptions and misquotations of John Oswald or Stock, Hausen and Walkman, and the mixing of genres by Ground Zero’s Revolutionary Pekinese Opera. The more popular end of sound manipulation is also inflected with avant-garde playfulness, for instance Carl Stalling’s cartoon music, the cut up manipulations of Spike Jones, the chaos and disorder of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and the ruination of the classics by Portsmouth Sinfonia.

If the receiver isn’t intimidated by the sort of extreme surreal humour presently found in TV and radio production, there isn’t a reason why they cannot open up to the same categories of humour apparent within the work of, for instance, Runzelstirn and Gurzelstock, Otomo Yoshihide or the Nihilist Spasm Band. This isn’t to say that they would necessarily listen to this art form in the same way as pop music, but it is possible to shift the barriers between “popular” and “obscure”. Humour transcends the confines of language and metaphor, opening the receiver’s mind to new ways of experiencing art, and a comprehension of something that may previously have been obscured.

It is interesting when my work succeeds in a humorous context, then I research and discover that it fits into all of kinds of psychological categories of humour and music that I didn’t know existed. It is true that one doesn’t need to know anything about art or cultural history to be able to make good art, but it enriches the context in which one is working, and is very inspiring to take the time to look into this history and try to also apply it to the art of one’s contemporaries.

Having considered all this, I’ll throw it all away and just say that I love the music and sounds found on this CD, for the pure energy and enthusiasm found within, and may sparks fly when you press play.

Vicki Bennett, People Like Us 2008

Scans of REVIEWS here:
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Machina (November 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Bad Alchemy (November 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Hair Entertainment (October 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Orkus (November 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Rumore (October 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Westzeit (October 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Ox (October 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Le Son Du Grisli (September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Sound Projector (May 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Frieze magazine (September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Octopus Record Of The Week (September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Rock Delux(September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – D Side(September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Titel Magazine (September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Schlendrian (September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – Vital Weekly 162 (September 2008)
Smiling Through My Teeth review – The Wire (August 2008)

TRACKLIST:
01. 3:15 Spike Jones and his City Slickers “William Tell Overture”
02. 2:51 Raymond Scott “Girl at the Typewriter”
03. 2:17 Paul Lowry “I Got Rhythm”
04. 2:53 Leif Elggren & Thomas Liljenberg “9.11 (Desperation Is The Mother of Laughter)” (edit)
05. 1:54 Komar & Melamid and Dave Soldier “The Most Unwanted Song” (edit)
06. 0:58 Ground Zero “China White”
07. 3:16 John Oswald “Pocket”
08. 1:04 Nurse With Wound “You Walrus Hurt The One You Love” (edit)
09. 2:13 Rudolf Eb.er’s Runzelstirn & Gurgelstøck “Eel Dog Rap Mix” (edit)
10. 0:28 Nihilist Spasm Band “It’s Not My Fault” (edit)
11. 3:53 ‘The Freddy McGuire Show’ with Anne McGuire, Don Joyce & Wobbly “Dark Days Bright Nights”
12. 4:00 Vomit Lunchs “Total Pointless Guidance Mix” (Stock, Hausen+Walkman)
13. 0:07 Gorse “Interlude”
14. 3:40 Rank Sinatra “Take On Me”
15. 0:51 DJ Carhouse & MC Hellshit “Motha Fuck Mitsubishi”
16. 2:56 DJ Brokenwindow “Kit Clayton vs. Roscoe P. Coltrane”
17. 3:01 Christian Marclay “Maria Callas”
18. 2:35 Viennese Seven Singing Sisters “William Tell Overture”
19. 1:55 M.A. Numminen, Tommi Parko, Pekka Kujanpää “Eleitä Kolmelle Röyhtäilijälle”
20. 3:18 Justice Yeldham and the Dynamic Ribbon Device “Berlin, Germany, 270104” (edit)
21. 1:34 Adach i Tomomi “Lippp”
22. 1:02 Bill Morrison “Single Breath Blow”
23. 0:51 Zatumba “Natchung”
24. 1:12 Nihilist Spasm Band “Going Too Far” (edit)
25. 7:21 People Like Us & Ergo Phizmiz “Air Hostess”
26. 0:44 Christian Bok “Ubu Hubbub”
27. 1:14 Gwilly Edmondez “Cock!”
28. 1:47 Spaz “Spaz”
29. 1:34 Komar & Melamid and Dave Soldier “The Most Unwanted Song” (edit 2)
30. 4:20 Xper. Xr. “Ride On Time”
31. 8:49 Richard Lair and Dave Soldier “Thai Elephant Orchestra Perform Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony First Movement”
32. 0:10 Nurse With Wound “You Walrus Hurt The One You Love” (edit 2)

Download at UbuWeb

Smiling Through my Teeth is a beautifully presented CD and book, with the musical side of the collection put together by Vicki Bennett, who’s a Sound Projector favourite in long standing for her work as People Like Us. It includes a few early ‘novelty’ records from Raymond Scott and Spike Jones, but the bulk of the CD is made up of contributions from assorted well-known (and some lesser-known) names in the world of extreme avant and experimental music, and the selections (if lined up in a row, as they are here) do indeed create an escapade of jet-black humour scaped from the laughing lips of the lunatic fringe: step forward Nihilist Spasm Band, Otomo and Eye, Christian Marclay, Lucas Abela, John Oswald, and Xper.Xr. Plus of course a couple of cuts by Nurse With Wound performing in his vaguely nutsoid cut-up mode. In fact most of Bennett’s selections reflect aspects of her own chosen way of working – layering, editing, turntabling, and the collaging of an eclectic selection of ‘funny’ vinyls. I’ve got mixed feelings about the deeply intellectual essay written by Kembrew McLeod (once read, the last thing you’ll feel like doing is smiling, let alone laughing), but the red skull cover graphic and anatomical engravings on the inside make this an attractive proposition from Sonic Arts Network. Few people can match Bennett’s skill for setting forth warped humour laced with a deep undercurrent of constant menace, to chilling effect. If played end to end, I think this 32-track CD can certainly guarantee an unsettling and mixed experience which will slowly turn your cheery smile into a rigor sardonicus. – Sound Projector

People Like Us text for Smiling Through My Teeth

Smiling Through My Teeth

It is relatively unusual to find humour in sound art, even less has been written on the subject. The avant-garde can be a dry and humourless area (and is therefore perceived as such), both in writing and practice. It is not unusual for writers and audience alike to dismiss anything to the contrary; the catch is humour sometimes isn’t taken seriously, although the reality is a practitioner has to be extremely serious and accomplished in order to carry off a good piece of humorous work.

Humour and music are commonly perceived as an unlikely pair. But the removal of this expression from the pleasure and appreciation of creative art is impossible. Inflections of wit can be found in the most unlikely places, from John Cage’s 4’33’ (using silence in the way Tony Hancock used dead radio air to implicate his own boredom) through the parody of Erik Satie and Charles Ives, the metric disruptions and misquotations of John Oswald or Stock, Hausen and Walkman, and the mixing of genres by Ground Zero’s Revolutionary Pekinese Opera. The more popular end of sound manipulation is also inflected with avant-garde playfulness, for instance Carl Stalling’s cartoon music, the cut up manipulations of Spike Jones, the chaos and disorder of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and the ruination of the classics by Portsmouth Sinfonia.

If the receiver isn’t intimidated by the sort of extreme surreal humour presently found in TV and radio production, there isn’t a reason why they cannot open up to the same categories of humour apparent within the work of, for instance, Runzelstirn and Gurzelstock, Otomo Yoshihide or the Nihilist Spasm Band. This isn’t to say that they would necessarily listen to this art form in the same way as pop music, but it is possible to shift the barriers between “popular” and “obscure”. Humour transcends the confines of language and metaphor, opening the receiver’s mind to new ways of experiencing art, and a comprehension of something that may previously have been obscured.

It is interesting when my work succeeds in a humorous context, then I research and discover that it fits into all of kinds of psychological categories of humour and music that I didn’t know existed. It is true that one doesn’t need to know anything about art or cultural history to be able to make good art, but it enriches the context in which one is working, and is very inspiring to take the time to look into this history and try to also apply it to the art of one’s contemporaries.

Having considered all this, I’ll throw it all away and just say that I love the music and sounds found on this CD, for the pure energy and enthusiasm found within, and may sparks fly when you press play.

Vicki Bennett, People Like Us 2008

Humor in Music by Kembrew McLeod

Humor in Music

Frank Zappa once asked, via album title, “Does humor belong in music?” The iconoclastic musician surely believed this was a rhetorical question, to be answered with an emphatic “YES!” After all, pop music and comedy have coexisted for centuries, for as long as there has been a so-called “popular music.” Zappa’s potty-mouthed provocations, Weird Al Yankovic’s fun-loving parodies, and Blowfly’s X-rated proto-rap songs have continued a tradition that goes back centuries.

From this vantage point, there is definitely room for humor in music. However, “serious” or avant-garde music is another story, a place that appears to be an inhospitable environment for cultivating laughter (with the notable exception of classical music court jester P.D.Q. Bach). If we follow this stereotype, we should assume that an aficionado’s answer to Zappa’s query would be a resounding and condescending “no.” However, this compilation demonstrates that it is a false assumption, illustrating through numerous examples that the sound of (art) music can be quite funny.

Ever since Sigmund Freud published Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, the study of humor has largely been confined to psychology. Scholars of music and media have rarely broached this subject, though other disciplines, such as philosophy, have tried. Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that one could write a serious philosophical work composed of nothing but jokes—because jokes magnify the fundamental paradoxes that constitute our language and logic systems. Murray S. Davis explains in his book What’s So Funny? that Wittgenstein’s “Viennese contemporary Freud also thought jokes, like dreams, use methods of inference that are rejected by logic.’”

In the same way that a joke (conveyed with words) can disrupt the linguistic systems that structure our daily lives, musical jokes (like the ones found on this compact disc) work similarly. A song may sound “funny”—both funny ha ha, and funny strange—when it disrupts expected tempos, mixes musical genres, uses excessive repetition, abruptly shifts keys, delays an anticipated resolution, and so on.

Before Freud or Wittgenstein, in the late eighteenth century, Kant wrote in his Critique of Judgment that, “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” Kant argued that incongruous ideas, words, or sounds provoke laughter, though he didn’t follow up on this line of thought in any sustained way. From Kant’s kernel of wisdom emerged “incongruity theory,” which explains humor as reaction stemming from the surprise of the unexpected. It has dominated theories of humor in cognitive psychology, as have relief theory and superiority theory. Relief theory assumes that the release of laughter stems from the need to reduce physiological tension, resulting in the release of nervous energy. Superiority theory, on the other hand, is much older than modern psychology, and it frames humor as primarily having an emotional function.

As Plato and Aristotle argued, something later expanded upon by Thomas Hobbes, people feel a humorous release by ridiculing someone they see as lesser or who deviates from social norms. Superiority theory might be applied to explain people’s reaction to what they consider “bad” music—unintentionally funny music that prompts laughter, even though the original composer or performer did not intend that reaction. Take, for instance, War to End All Wars, a 2000 album by Swedish guitar virtuoso Yngwie J. Malmsteen. “Prophet of Doom,” the album’s first song, opens with a blast of rumbling double bass drums and a caterwauling guitars firing off rocket-fueled solos that just sound, well, funny, at least for someone who doesn’t fetish high-speed heavy metal fretwork.

“Prophet of doom/ the end is coming soon,” go the goofily growled lyrics—which are echoed by the exclamation, “Of Doom! Of Doom! Of Doom!” It’s an absurd song, as is “Arpeggios From Hell,” an instrumental that is truly filled with arpeggios from hell. The five minute and thirty second track is stuffed with as much ludicrous virtuoso gobbledygook as the combined discographies of prog-rock pioneers Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. All in less than six minutes. Because Malmsteen is the perennial butt of jokes in the worldwide music community, perhaps superiority theory has a ring of truth. However, I don’t really buy that explanation. To me, the source of amusement can be found in the Swede’s incongruous melding of classical music techniques, heavy metal thunder, surreally speedy guitar riffing, and utter seriousness—as if he were carrying the weight of the world on his guitar strap.

Music that doesn’t try to be funny, but is, often produces its humor through the unexpected juxtaposition of genres. Take William Shatner, a classic example. In an utterly earnest move at the time, Shatner attempted to capitalize on the popularity of Star Trek by releasing his first full-length LP, 1968’s Transformed Man. A head-scratching tour de force, it consisted of Shakespearian monologues mixed with dramatic readings of then-current pop hits like The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” (the latter of which ended with Shatner screaming in an echo chamber “MR. TAMBOURINE MAN!!!”). This mixture of high and low popular culture—combined with his completely sincere, melodramatic takes on frivolous pop songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”—still baffles today (as does his rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” performed by three chroma-keyed Shatners at the 1978 Sci-Fi Film Awards).

For our purposes—studying sound—the most useful perspective I have found is incongruity theory. Media psychologists Buijzen and Valkenburg explain that, according to this theory, “it is the violation of an expected pattern that provokes humor in the mind of the receiver.” Instead of locating the function of laughter in the physiological (relief theory) or emotional (superiority theory), incongruity theory emphasizes cognition. Buijzen and Valkenburg explain that experiencing humor requires the ability to recognize and process improbable sounds or out-of-place acts. They write, “Absurdity, nonsense, and surprise are vital themes in humor covered by this theory.” Or, as Murray S. Davis puts it, humor’s epicenter can be located in an “incongruous element that shatters an expectation system into nothing.”

Because music is constituted by a system, or several systems, we can apply similar lessons about language, logic, and humor to the realm of sound art. Paul Lowry’s version of the jazz standard “I Got Rhythm,” from this compilation, appropriates horn honks, machine gun fire, alarm clocks, and other bizarre sounds in the service of rhythm and melody. In doing so, Lowry violates our expectations of instrumentation and timbre in quite unpredictable and bewildering ways. The same is true of the recent phenomena of mash-ups, which are simple homemade digital collages that mix the vocals from one pop song with the instrumentation of another.

One classic example is “Smells Like Teen Booty,” a smirky track that hammers Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into “Bootilicious,” by Destiny’s Child. Everything is business as usual when Nirvana kicks off with that familiar riff, until you hear the voices of Destiny’s Child coo, “Kelly, can you handle this? Michelle, can you handle this? Beyoncé, can you handle this? … Woooooooooo!” It’s a marriage made in hell, and it sounds heavenly. One of the underlying motivations of bedroom computer composers who make mash-ups is to undermine the arbitrary hierarchies of taste that rule pop music. Those hierarchies are often gendered, with the “raw,” “real” rock representing the masculine and the “soft,” “plastic” pop representing the feminine.

By blurring high and low pop culture (Nirvana representing the high and Destiny’s Child the low), these mash-ups humorously demolish the elitist pop cultural hierarchy that rock critics and music collecting snobs perpetuate. With mash-ups, Nirvana and Destiny’s Child can sit comfortably at the same cafeteria table, perhaps showing holier-than-thou arbiters of cool that legitimate pleasures can be found in both varieties of popular music. Or, if not, it at least holds the potential to provoke laughter. “I think mixing Busta Rhymes with a House tune will make people dance,” says Jonny Wilson, a member of the British mash-up group Eclectic Method. “But mixing Britney Spears with NWA [Niggas Wit Attitude] will make people dance and laugh.”

“The simplest way for humorists to wrench rationality is to reverse the traditional ways it has joined things,” writes Murray S. Davis, an observation that can easily be applied to music that sounds comical. “If reason requires us to connect things one way, the humorist will reconnect them the opposite way.” An example of this is Rank Sinatra’s take on “Take On Me,” one of my personal favorites from this collection. It begins as a faithful keyboard-driven cover of the 1980s hit by A-Ha—blipity bleeps and all—but its pop charms are quickly subverted by the distorted death metal vocals that intrude on the proceedings.
These examples highlight how musical humor is most definitely contextual; for instance, if you aren’t familiar with the original two songs that form a new mash-up, the comedy will probably be lost on you. We are also reminded of the importance of context by the sarcastic and satirical blog, Stuff White People Like—which is dedicated to explaining, and skewering, “White people culture.” Striking a mock-anthropological tone, the blog’s author writes, “One of the more interesting things about White people is that they love singing comedians.…[W]hen you have jokes that aren’t that great and music that isn’t that great, you can mix them together and create something that will entertain White people.” The author cites Weird Al Yankovic, Tenacious D, Flight of the Conchords, and Adam Sandler—though one could easily go back to the Smothers Brothers, or even earlier to Vaudeville.

Parody is a form of musical appropriation whose humor often erupts from the collision of genres, like when the foul-mouthed rap group 2 Live Crew covered Roy Orbison’s white bread 1960s pop hit “Oh, Pretty Woman.” A slightly more obscure example is Clarence Reid, better known in the 1970s as an outrageous masked Black man called Blowfly. On his 1971 debut, he took Otis Redding’s posthumous hit “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” and rendered it as—you guessed it—“Shittin’ On the Dock of the Bay.” This strategy was nothing new; spontaneous lyrical parody has been part of the folk song tradition for centuries. For instance, the classic bawdy ballad “How the Money Rolls In,” was set to the music of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” The lyrics for “How the Money Rolls In,” developed and tweaked by several anonymous singers over the ages, were a bit more edgy than in the song’s original incarnation. (Sung to the tune of “Bonnie”: “Grandmother makes cheap prophylactics/ She punctures the end with a pin/ Grandfather performs the abortions/ My god, how the money rolls in!” )

Murray S. Davis observes, “humorists also ply their trade by interpolating an element congruous with the other elements of one system into another system where it is less congruous or even incongruous.” So, even though the lyrics of 2 Live Crew’s “Pretty Woman” aren’t very funny, the disconnect caused by hearing Orbison’s tune (which is nearly syncopation-free) used in a rap song is nevertheless amusing. Davis continues, “Comics need find only one element that ambiguously connects two seemingly different systems to raise a laugh” (like turning the word “sitting” into “shitting”).
As I suggested earlier, sound art complicates the simplistic equation serious music = humorlessness as much as it blurs the line between “pop” and “art.” This is true of sound collage composer John Oswald, also represented in this collection. Similarly, the 1950s novelty sound collage recordings of Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman illustrate how avant-garde techniques can be deployed in the service of humor. In their 1956 hit “The Flying Saucer,” Buchanan & Goodman composed this “break in” record on a reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder.

They crafted a skit about an alien invasion—as told through then-current rock ’n’ roll hits that were spliced together into an absurd aural narrative. Imitating the tone of contemporary radio news broadcasts, but with a twist, Buchanan & Goodman create a jarring, goofy world of sound. “Radio Announcer: The flying saucer has landed again. Washington: The Secretary of Defense has just said…” Then Fats Domino cuts in, singing, “Ain’t that a shame.” Elvis appears, as do many others. It works because, at least on the first listen, one’s expectation is heightened during those split seconds before each song/punch line breaks into the news report.

Anticipation, subversion, confusion, laughter. That pretty much sums up the experience of much of the recorded songs and sounds found on this compilation.
Kembrew McLeod
Iowa City, March 2008

This essay was commissioned by Sonic Arts Network for a CD curated by Vicki Bennett entitled “Smiling Through My Teeth” [2008]