UbuWeb new addition: Cumulative Tails

INTERRUPTIONS #15. Cumulative Tails. 30.12.2013 (90′ 34”)
Courtesy of RadioWeb MACBA

Playlist [PDF]

Cumulative Tails is a pun upon the ‘cumulative tale’, where each part of a story relates to that which just preceded and followed it. This radio mix has been created using that process – a succession of audio tracks picked in conceptual relation only to that which was previously played. The mental connection could have been made by the title, lyric, melody, genre, atmosphere or something (usually) far more incongruous…

UbuWeb Link: http://www.ubu.com/sound/plu_cumulative.html

Cumulative Tails is a pun upon the ‘cumulative tale’, where each part of a story relates to that which just preceded and followed it. This radio mix has been created using that process – a succession of audio tracks picked in conceptual relation only to that which was previously played. The mental connection could have been made by the title, lyric, melody, genre, atmosphere or something (usually) far more incongruous…

While searching for material for my project Radio Boredcast (2012), I came across an episode of the KPFA radio show Ode to Gravity entitled ‘Segue Tech’. In the show the presenters choose each track they play in response to what the previous track reminds them of. ‘Segue Tech’ got me thinking about the creative process and how in my experience it’s rare that the idea arrives in advance, as an intact gift-wrapped and gleaming entity. More often, the “idea” is exposed through a series of connections made through the creative journey, as much emphasising the process as a particular destination or end product. Similarly as human beings, our knowledge and vocabulary first evolve through mimicry and then experimentation with varying of these repeated actions of mimicry. While discovering or just guessing a connection between something already known and something new or unknown we then go on to develop a vast ever-expanding web of cerebral connections, pinpointing all sorts of associations on a giant nonexistent map that may actually make no sense when looked at from a distance.

The word ‘Consequences’, has two definitions; it is the result of some previous action, and a game (aka ‘Exquisite Corpse’ by the Surrealists) in which a larger picture or narrative is created by way of assembling subject matter ‘blindly’ in relation to a small amount of information made visible before it as a continuation point. As a result, narrative/content can erratically or surprisingly, sometimes magically change over a short period of time or space, with every part still connected to what goes before or after it.

The subject of authenticity or the ‘original’ in relation to the ‘copy’ interests me as an artist working in the field of appropriation, collage and industrial folk culture. Nothing created as an object or product can be traced 100% to an origin –– everything is relative, literally – it has a mother and father. The identifying factors of an object are not central to it’s actual essence of being, and much like speed, dimensions, size, the terms are not fixed and are reliant upon the conditions of the person experiencing it, where they are and when, there is NO absolute, and this is reflected when very similar creative works occur at the same period by people who have no knowledge of each other’s works existence.

The game Consequences can be compared to the artistic process, whether that be the laying out of notes for a text, making a storyboard or the construction of a film narrative. Consequences is an index of possibilities and daydreams that in fact need no end outcome, it is all about the journey. When played as a ‘game’ it’s an entertaining way of finding out about one’s own memory, making visible the hidden patchwork quilt of an individual’s knowledge banks – hinting at how we make connections within ourselves and to each other all the time. We are able to visualise the scope for making tangents within the overall journey where every direction is permitted, and sometimes discover the limitations of our own hard circuitry (our memories). With internet search engines, forums and databases we are not limited to just our own recollection of a song or a text or a movie scene, we can search other peoples memory banks too through keyword searches – the whole of the internet is a massive thesaurus of unrealised new connections and potential creations.

Radio Web MACBA – Cumulative Tails

Radio Web MACBA have published a new radio mix and pdf from Vicki Bennett: INTERRUPTIONS #15. Cumulative Tails

Read the pdf and listen/download the mp3 here:

Cumulative Tails is a pun upon the ‘cumulative tale’, where each part of a story relates to that which just preceded and followed it. This radio mix, curated by Vicki Bennett, has been created using that process – a succession of audio tracks picked in conceptual relation only to that which was previously played.

Is This Light Music? Essay by Vicki Bennett

Is This Light Music?

While creating a picture disc record for Edinburgh Printmakers‘ Prints of Darkness exhibition, I’ve been reflecting upon the theme of “darkness” and it’s sister “light”. My work has been described as having “dark” and “sinister” undertones. Although I don’t think it dark in the negative sense of the word, the act of mixing several musical elements at once, sometimes with discordant harmonies and incongruous structure, can bring subversive results. This is because the expectation of music, at least if it’s going to be popular, is that it should be clear and simple, adhering to a conventional melodic rhythmical structure.

The term “light music” generally refers to the kind of orchestral music that is put together with the intention of being played in the background to add more than ambience but not be intrusive to the point that it would stop a conversation at dinner. As time has progressed, not to say one cannot still appreciate it for the pure thing it may be, a new sense of irony has subverted light music. In the same way that one cannot watch a current affairs programme like “Newsnight” without thinking of Chris Morris’ “Brass Eye”, this music without turbulence can result in the active listener visualising cartoon-like scenarios of destruction and mayhem – “Tea For Two” being played out while the building is being bombed and a pack of coyotes being let loose on the ballroom floor. It is no wonder that when we grow up on a diet of cartoon music, full of depictions of violence, we are unable to keep a straight face on hearing Roger Whittaker’s maniacal “Mexican Whistler” – do we really think it 100% full of joy or do we start to imagine that he is a lunatic? Am I the only person who finds it funny when the audience claps in time to the orchestra on “Friday Night Is Music Night” on BBC Radio? Is it that when all are clapping at once, often rhythmically out of step, people sound like morons? Or is it a recollection of the embarrassment felt when realising that no one told us when and how to gracefully stop?

How do we even categorise shades of music? For this we might want to look at the definition of the word “music”. It comes from the Greek “muse”, the gods and goddesses that inspire the arts and literature. Just as Edgard Varèse defined music as “organized sound”, online dictionaries define it as “the art of arranging sounds in time so as to produce a continuous, unified, and evocative composition, as through melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre”, and “an aesthetically pleasing or harmonious sound or combination of sounds.” So if music is to be agreeable it should be intrinsically harmonious and ordered, and the opposite of music is disagreeable noise. However, musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez said: “music, often an art/entertainment, is a total social fact whose definitions vary according to era and culture,” which reflects where we are at today. The decision on what is light, dark, popular and avant-garde depends as much on what year it is as how it may sound. It is an artist’s job to dissect, question, celebrate, criticise, and rearrange content to challenge and form such decisions.

Light music has often celebrated resurgence during or just after periods of economic slump, injecting a certain air of longing for a time that never was. Pioneers of the Industrial Music scene of the early 1980’s were fascinated with the Exotica genre. Both Throbbing Gristle and Boyd Rice referenced Martin Denny, coupling this with darker lyrics and more difficult music, and an often-missed sense of humour. The bright, sometimes other worldly atmosphere elevates the listener from drudgery. It takes us to an innocent place of Hawaiian music and sandy beaches, to the end of a pier where the Wurlitzer whirls and the ice cream never melts. Leaving no stone unturned in choice of subject matter, light music sanitises well known popular songs for popular appeal. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by the Mystic Moods Orchestra takes us far away from Bob Dylan’s world. With each new generation of protest song comes the sanitised version. Perhaps this, and the reminiscence of being stuck on hold or in a lift can make one cynical or suspicious of the “happy happy” themes. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and we don’t want to be sent to Hawaii.

Perhaps this is all coming over as a little too critical of the intentions of Light Music, when in fact it is the Dark Listener that is spoiling a perfectly good opportunity to be entertained. Light music to me, is lovely, it is nice. It’s not going to go away, so I surrender to all things light so long as I can keep my dark sense of humour. While humming the tune of Ronald Binge’s “Sailing By” preceding the late night shipping forecast, People Like Us wish you a cheery, whistle-free experience while enjoying “This is Light Music”. – Vicki Bennett July 2010

People Like Us “This Is Light Music” LP Pic Disc 2010

01 – Lavender White – 8:11
02 – Happy – 2:25
03 – You’ve Got To Know – 1:40
04 – Oh Dear – 1:18
05 – Ever – 2:34
06 – Seven Degrees – 4:01
07 – Silly – 1:28
08 – Chanson Da Moo – 3:25
09 – Let It Be Free – 3:51
10 – Timber – 0:27


Edinburgh Printmakers presented its world premiere exhibition “Prints of Darkness” exploring record cover art, curated by Sarah-Manning Cordwell, Norman Shaw, and Edward Summerton and published by Edinburgh Printmakers. This exhibition included original prints by eleven Scottish artists and a new LP of music by People Like Us.

Celebrating the vinyl record as an abiding audio-visual artefact, this project recalls the golden age of the record cover in the thick of post-psychedelia’s goth-surrealistic art-nouveau apocalyptic landscape explosion, now being revived in a current resurgence of collectable limited-edition records with original artwork.

People Like Us illuminates this dark visual ride with ‘This Is Light Music’, an exclusive full-length picture-disc album in a limited edition of only 250. This record is available as part of a lavish limited edition boxed-set publication which houses the record and a pull-out poster in a gatefold sleeve, and includes essays by People Like Us and co-curator Norman Shaw.


This Is Light Music Picture Disc LP

As part of the Prints of Darkness exhibition at http://www.edinburgh-printmakers.co.uk/ from 17 July to 04 September 2010, People Like Us have been commissioned to make a vinyl picture disc responding to the title theme of the exhibition.

This Is Light Music will be available for shipping to you from the second week in August. You can pre-order here. Please note – if you are intending to buy the print that Vicki was commissioned to do, please contact Edinburgh Printmakers through the above website url, since they are offering the record free to the first 20 people buying a print. Prices below in US Dollars include postage and packing.



Please note – this LP costs more than some other merchandise you may have bought from us – this is because of the nature of the item, in that the gallery needed to cover costs, etc, plus it costs more to post this kind of item. We assure you we always try and make things available as cheaply as we can!

For more info on the exhibition and how we responded to the task here:

Dates of Exhibition: 17 July to 04 September 2010
Opening Hours: Weekly Tuesday – Saturday 10.00am – 6.00pm
Admission: Free
Venue: Edinburgh Printmakers, 23 Union Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3LR
Telephone: 0131 557 2479
Website: www.edinburgh-printmakers.co.uk

Essay by Drew Daniel

Just What Is It That Makes People Like Us So Different, So Appealing?
Drew Daniel

Just What Is It That Makes People Like Us So Different, So Appealing?
Drew Daniel

From “Beware the Whim Reaper” (1995) to “Abridged Too Far” (2004), Vicki Bennett has a way with execrable puns. Confronted with the task of theorizing about what informs and unites the bewildering multiplicity of her life’s work creating painstaking, hilarious and disturbing assemblages out of sound, language and moving image as People Like Us, the title of hers that catches me by the throat is an oldie but a goodie: “Pompous Circumstance”. Wit’s last minute detour off the golden road to cliché, puns take a piece of shared culture and suddenly tweek it into a personal shape, creating something new by revealing what was already there. Inverting Alexander Pope’s formula for poetry (“what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”), puns reveal a latent possibility within the given: what oft was expressed but never, until now, brought to thought. Puns are a kind of “black art” that throws received values into reverse: if good puns are bad, then the worst are the best. Ideally, you should be groaning and laughing at the same time. Fair is foul and foul is fair.

Risking a descent into pompous circumstances indeed, the occasion of this retrospective exhibition reverses Vicki’s direction of flow and prompts us to take her sound and video work seriously, and asks us to try to place her work in the context of an ongoing sea-change in how creativity is understood. Pompously put, the artistic re-use of found material confronts us anew with the enigma of creation. Up-ended by indirection, we can only half-see the artist at work in the capricious decision to smash and grab. Looking at the results when the glue has dried and the files have been rendered, can we do any more than catch the shadow of a hand in mid-flight as it grasps and folds a found form, clicks “Crop”, hits “Save”? Trying to catch up, we might ask some simple questions: why isolate and preserve these fragments? Why this piece, placed exactly here? Why this element and not others? Is this a work of love and preservation for what is disappearing, or an act of mockery at the expense of the found? Are we meant to recall the vanished whole, or to see this isolated quanta of material as newly self supporting?

Faced with mounting evidence of collage’s omnipresence and the increasing banalization of cutting and pasting as components of every form of content-management software, it may hurt more now than ever before to return to the old, awkward question: is this creative?

Yodeling in the valley, the fragment oscillates between emotional pitches. When T. S. Eliot wrote “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” he figured modernist fragmentation as a melancholic funeral rite, a minor key lament at cultural collapse sung against the headwind of history. The irony is that his flimsy barricade of found fragments of popular songs and overheard conversations and quotations proved surprisingly durable; far from a last gasp, it was a breathtakingly successful demonstration of the energies of a new, combinatorial poetics. Jump-cut from Eliot to Dada. Like the public torture of the corpses of suicides in medieval Europe (designed to purge the village of an evil selfishness through a gratuitously “meaningless” display of cruelty), Dada snippetry started as a hostile surgical intervention into a moribund and self-canceling society. The marginal chancers at the Cabaret Voltaire may have thought that their cut-ups of official rhetoric were the final harrowing of necrotic ideological tissue, but Dada collage inadvertently accomplished a revivifying transfusion into the post-war artistic bloodstream. Avant-garde art practices of mangling and attacking and distorting the detritus of mass culture birthed a portable technique of collage that proved all too adaptable to the posterboard and the advertisement and the radio jingle and the TV spot and the viral web campaign. Such are the ironies of what John Ashbery termed “acceptance culture”; the smothering bosom of official sanction muffles the howl of critique with a pillow of puff pieces. For further evidence, consult the PLU track title: “Cushions can Kill”.

Jump-cut to Richard Hamilton. Post-war fragmentation accelerated the centrifugal separation of the positive and negative powers unleashed by cutting up and reassembling culture into both an atomic optimism and an atomic pessimism. If anything could be harvested, shattered into fragments and then recreated for the sake of new art, then the entire archive (sound, image, word) was a standing reserve waiting to be taken by force. Unfortunately, thanks to the accelerating technology of nuclear warfare, this was also true of our own bodies: we were all going to be split apart and reconfigured against our will, and soon. William S. Burroughs’ nostrum “Cut into the present and the future leaks out” figures both the Pandora’s box of potentiality for recombination initiated by a self-consciously mature cut-up aesthetic and the radioactive fallout of anxiety and fear unleashed by a society which had cut into matter itself at its most basic level. We are still living with the results, as lurid narrative scenarios of the endlessly imminent total war choke present reality with a toxic cloud of futurity. Bennett revisits these fantasized bomb-sites and loops them, literally, in the “fort/da” game she plays with animated renderings of atomic explosions that wallpaper the backgrounds of the tank-faced, bighaired women in her video piece “We Edit Life”. Caught in the headlights of these macabre and hilarious people, with each improbable spit curl and passing facial tic replayed and looped into a digital tableaux vivant, we are embarrassed for them and yet find ourselves withering slightly under their artificially steady maternal gaze. In Bennett’s work, the past isn’t suddenly modernized by digital tools, but seems instead rendered even more saturated with the creepy alterity of its very pastness: the syrupy orchestral swells, campfire sing alongs, and outmoded fashions and forced smiles that she assembles and recombines aren’t so much preserved from the ravages of time as they are powerfully fermented in them.

The ability to cut up and transform found material would seem to constitute the ultimate post-modern runaround from older models of artistic expression as a self-revelation. Trading character and depth for a jigsaw surface, collage can seem like a cheap shot detour from being answerable for the self within the work. And yet there is something weirdly self-exposing about the cumulative results of Bennett’s excursions into the mass media archives; the obsessive return to certain images and sounds across decades of work grants them a weirdly personal quality, the fetishistic investment of a cargo cult of one that recognizes the deity of Rod McKuen and Dolly Parton. If it’s so funny, why does it make us feel so awkward? Bennett’s work registers a hot flush of manic exhilaration in the sheer powertrip of her sure technological command over her source material, but it pills the sugar with a certain lingering aftertaste of despair at the failure of the aspirations within the material she collects. If the surreal humor of her work at its lightest suggests the comic English anarchism of Monty Python or Richard Hamilton, the quotidian grimness of her work at its darkest suggests the mordant English miserabilism of Philip Larkin or Mike Leigh. Far from proposing a utopian or psychedelic “other world” of festivity in which to escape from the drabness of the everyday, after prolonged exposure to the alchemical work of Vicki Bennett, we see and hear our own everyday world as one big joke which is already cut to pieces. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

Works Cited
William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin The Third Mind New York: Viking Press, 1978.
T. S. Eliot “What the Thunder Said” The Waste Land and Other Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.
Alexander Pope “An Essay on Criticism” Collected Poems. London: Tuttle Publishing, 1991.
This essay was commissioned by alt.gallery to coincide with “People Like Us: We Edit Life” – a Retrospective of the work of People Like Us, which ran in the gallery from 16 May-12 July 2008. Documentation can be found on the gallery site and here:

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]