Hey DJ

Stefan Goldmann 3 300dpi.jpg

Charting the origin of the term ‘Disc Jockey’ and it’s development into ‘DJ’ is an effective way to chart the origin and development of an enormous aspect of modern human culture. The creation of technology to both record and reproduce sound, and to transmit information wirelessly, occurred at opposite ends of the same late 19th century generation – they grew up together, roughly. Music was broadcast over the radio waves in the early 20th century, and the further development of the broadcast and recording industries was truly symbiotic; people bought radios and heard music, they bought recordings of the music they heard on the radios, and again, and again, and again. The first Disc Jockeys introduced and played recorded music, frequently seeking to create the illusion that they were channelling live music to the listener from some imaginary ballroom. They quickly became on-air personalities, hosts and commercial promoters. While some were knowledgeable and passionate about music and helped champion styles and artists – BeBop is a particular example – many were there to simply read the advertiser’s copy between selections and to draw in listeners with a certain charismatic quality of voice and presentation. The same was true with MTV VJs, with the new concept that they also had to look attractive, and the same is true today. Most radio stations promote their DJs on the basis of personality, while a few, like Phil Schaap and David Garland, seek to expand their listeners knowledge and pleasure, and an even rarer few, like the disappeared Captain Nemo on WKCR, create an imaginary, secret history of culture by combining and juxtaposing a string of recordings.

The rise of the recording industry also meant a move to pre-recorded music for people out dancing, and so the club DJ came about, spinning records to keep people moving on the dance floor. Both on the radio and in the club the record-playing became a performance, and the DJ some kind of performer. Mixing technology and a good set of ears allowed some to combine or switch between records on the fly, and a select group of imaginative virtuosos started making new music, again on the fly, from records themselves. That’s an important part of the rise of Hip-Hop, of course, but it also includes the mysterious audio collages of Christian Marclay. Some DJs became turntablists, musicians playing a reproducing technology that no one had imagined could itself be an instrument of original music. Witness:

Seeing the distinction between DJ and turntablist is important to this story. DJ Shadow scavenged vinyl sides, used studio technology to extract and loop sections, then layered those sections together into new music. His “Entroducing” is a marvelous Frankenstein monster, literally patched together from fragments of dead things and made into something both new and alive. Turntablists like the X-Ecutioners and Kid Koala use their hands on the turntable itself to manipulate the actual sound of what’s being played, which can be as simple as the common scratching technique or as advanced as altering the speed of the turntable in various ways to create a long, melodic line like a horn player would. Fundamentally it’s the difference between the recording studio as instrument and the record player as instrument. That music can be made in these ways also marks a new idea about what makes up the raw materials and information of music; notation turned musical material into information on the page which could then be reworked on other pages and in other situations; audio recordings added aural information (not new, but newly preserved and disseminated on a mass scale); and now digital technology makes music and sound into data which can be remade.

With a computer, an audio editor and Ableton Live (or free editors like Audacity), previously recorded music is mashed together into a flow, a layer, a juxtaposition in the studio or the club. It’s a sophisticated version of the mix tape in that it’s possible for the DJ to edit recordings, not just combining two or more but literally adding new parts to the music, recombining it vertically – in sequential time – and/or horizontally, i.e. simultaneously. The possibilities are profound – see John Osbourne’s “Plunderphonics” or DJ Spooky’s work – but since the cultural context of most of this music is a party the horizon is usually limited to the goal of getting people to dance. You can dance to “Entroducing,” but it’s primarily a record for listening, it’s real Modernism, making something new out of the past. The opposite end is what Girl Talk produces, which people dance to but is the thinnest, dullest type of Post-Modern pastiche. In between there are a lot of skilled DJs out there doing interesting and imaginative things with pop music and keeping people on their feet.

One of these is the German DJ Stefan Goldmann, and he’s produced a new recording which takes DJ techniques into a new area, that of classical music, with his own edit of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.” It is a recorded performance of the complete Stravinsky performance that has been assembled from other recording of “Le Sacre,” it features no other editing, embellishments, mash ups, or rearrangements of any kind, it is very skillfully made and deeply, opaquely strange.

It’s important to exam how Goldmann has made this edit, since the result is fundamentally a commentary on the recording and record making process. He describes his goal as audibly conveying the different rooms and microphone placements that went into making each recording, and the development of recording technology itself from mono to stereo to increased frequency range (all his sources are mono recordings). As one listens to his edit, one hears differences in resonance, sonic depth, changes in the audio field and, most clearly, changes from stereo to mono recordings and back. For the most part this is entirely seamless; the differences are noticed only after they occur, not the moment they occur (although there is a noticeably abrupt edit at the end of the churning bass clarinet solo in the Pastorale introduction, and another at the start of the Mock Abduction section). The pitch is maintained consistently throughout, variations in tempo are less controlled; a performance of the piece should modulate tempo and splicing together different recordings would inevitably create them, but while some sound organic others are clearly the result of immediately switching to a new edit at a new tempo, and are unmusical. This is not a technological problem, as there are editing algorithms that will change the speed of an audio file without altering pitch – it’s an editing problem that perhaps stems from a conceptual conflict.

It’s an editing problem that would have been solved on the original recordings. Since the development of magnetic tape, the recording and record making processes have made use of razor blades and tape to edit different takes into a single coherent, ideal whole. This has been true across all kinds of music, not just classical, though classical has probably made the best use of it. There are purists who lament this process and prefer music recorded in complete takes, which they consider ‘live.’ This is an odd way to see things. Once music is removed from a performing context and made into a recording, it becomes something inherently different and slightly artificial, literally a record of a moment in time, a fossil of something that once was alive. There is no inherent quality in making use of the tools of the studio to produce such a record, there is only quality of the result. Glenn Gould was a musician who embraced the ability to splice together recordings into just such an artifact, he preferred the culled perfection he could achieve in the studio to the chance of concert performance. The masterpieces of Miles Davis’ electric period, like “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” are studio-made musical works, the result of Teo Macero taking hours of tape of the bands’ playing and splicing bits together to make complete pieces of music; what he did forty years ago is what DJs are doing now.

So along with the making of a complete recording, there are some very meta- things going on the this edit of “Le Sacre,” and I think that Goldmann misapprehends just what it is he is attempting. He does describe his goal as producing a result that conveys the inherent whole of the composition, and that he wanted to put a focus “on the subtleties of interpretation,” and he does do these things, but his method puts those two elements at odds. The issue of tempo is a key here. A conductor leading a performance of this work is going to bring the music through changes of tempo, as the score indicates, and this is true whether it’s a concert performance or a recording session. If the latter, the resulting spliced recording, based in the conductor’s view of the score, is going to consistently present this idea, just as it’s going to offer a specific sense of emotional, intellectual and dramatic interpretation. A great work like “Le Sacre” is full of ideas, and conductors with ideas about music will decide which are most important and deserve emphasis. Splice together the takes any number of times and you still have a coherent set of ideas.

But splice together takes from a dozen different recordings, though, and you have a dozen different ideas competing for attention, and that competition is not inherently constructive. This comes through most clearly in the jumps from tempo to tempo, but more powerfully, if more subtly, in the overall effect and affect of the music. “Le Sacre” is a dramatic work with a specific narrative and a performance works when it not only conveys the music but the idea that a human sacrifice is taking place (and even more, the sacrificial victim dances herself to death – this is dance music, after all, but of a non-social sort). It demands musical and dramatic force. This is most obvious in the Procession of the Wise Elder section, which should build to a crushing intensity that dramatically stops while the elder bends over to kiss the earth, then starts again in a malevolent rush. In Goldmann’s edit, the musical line is maintained, but the sense of drama is lost as the cut goes from one recording to another, from one idea of the dramatic importance of the section to a differing one – it feels like the air goes out of the music. The same happens as the work comes to its finale; the concluding Sacrifical Dance is choppy as composed on the page but still has a coherent line, while here it’s choppy in affect. We hear the sharp, start-stop rhythms, which is intended, and also start-stop ideas, which is unintended and doesn’t work – it’s frustrating musically.

What’s being confused here, or misunderstood, is meaning. “Le Sacre du Printemps” is a piece of music that has a meaning. Recordings attempt to capture and convey that meaning through a particular process, but the point is the meaning of the music, not the process itself. Goldmann here is fascinated with the process, which is a valid and fruitful concept, but the application of this fascination to a famous work, especially a famously dramatic work, seems mismatched. He’s looking at the fossils and describing the sizes, shapes and dimension of the impressions yet ignoring the fact that those elements make a whole impression, a whole creature. It’s a narrowly material view of music, which makes sense when seen through the perspective of a DJ taking beats and bass-lines from different songs and putting them together into a danceable, extended collage, but the very things which make that work – digitally controlled tempo, repetitive structures, simple harmonies – are the opposite of the elements which make a piece like “Le Sacre du Printemps” work. Why not take the slice and dice techniques available to a DJ and really cut up the recordings, remix it into something altogether different? There are enough short, rich sections of the piece to replicate, repeat, layer, emphasize, and use to make something new out of something old, to repurpose an artifact for a new age. [Edited here with new information provided by Stefan Goldmann] Goldmann used the score of the work along with digital tools to assemble the edit; it is an impressive technical feat, and again the editing shows great skill, and the score was used to reconcile the intentional and unintentional (i.e. mistakes) differences between the original records. That sees the score as a technical roadmap which it of course is, but it’s also a story, a set of ideas, influences and decisions, available for interpretation. And transforming the score into a digital document, for digital interpretation makes all sorts of transformations possible while still maintaing recognizable sounds and ideas. While I’m certain that this will bring some of the greatest music in existence to a new audience, which is absolutely beneficial, ultimately they will hear the notes and not the music, there’s no “Sacre” in this “Le Sacre.”

Perhaps the most famous DJ in the world is Moby, and he has a new recording this year, the ten year anniversary of his blockbuster record “Play.” The worldwide popularity of that recording is no mystery; it’s punchy, pithy dance music with enough of a pastiche of cool to be both popular and hip. It was also an estimable critical success, praised by The Village Voice, Spin and Rolling Stone which remains puzzling, because while its appeal is understandable, it’s not successful musically. The very means Moby used to make the record, which have enchanted critics, are the same things that make it fail. His use of samples from Alan Lomax’s collections of American folk music drew praise and was the element, for critics, that made “Play” something special. Listening to the record again after the intervening years produces the same reaction as before, that this is a dull, stiff record full of childish bombast and self-regard. The use of samples does the music no favors. On the opening track, ‘Honey,’ the sampled vocal, full of life and the combination of rhythmic consistency and shifting pulse that is the great foundation of American popular music shames the simplistic, quantized and boring dance-beat setting. There’s a real lack of musical imagination. With the tools at hand to perform complex transformations and recontextualizations of pre-recorded material, Moby merely stuck one type of music next to another, vastly inferior type of music and declared it done. There is nothing good in the result, not even a good, accomplished use of studio and DJ techniques. That this was praised critically raises more questions about the critics than it does about the artist; are they that easily fooled, do they not actually hear, do they truly know that little about pop music, about American music? The praise indicates that something else is going on other than listening to music, and what is happening is an actual case of cultural appropriation.

In commercial sampling there is an process of turning a work of pop and/or fine art into a commodity, and by taking a piece of that work rather than the whole the result is an object that can be repurposed. This is not a new idea in the arts, but the technology makes it sound new, so that instead of Stravinsky rewriting the guts of music by Pergolesi to produce a masterpiece that sounds like Stravinsky, we have DJs taking recognizable fragments of songs and artist, slices of actual history that trigger memories in the listener, and hopefully altering and combining them to produce new masterpieces. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this, and an ideal example of how to go about it is “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts,” but without the artist aesthetically owning the material, loving it in the way Stravinsky did, the result is a mere copy stuck uncomfortably into a meaningless musical context. Taking a digital fragment of a black man singing the blues and copying it into an electronic music arrangement means that there are two pieces of music going on, and only one of them is the blues. But culturally . . . now that’s a different story. There is certainly a real appropriation going on when a white musician takes a fragment of black folk music and pastes it onto music that is almost stereotypically white in its sense of stiff, artificial rhythm, while all the white critics cheer and hail its “body and spirit.” It’s a sort of token racial inclusiveness that smacks of self-conscious whites trying to gain that one black friend who’s existence will prove their sincere social sentiments.

Moby’s new record, “Wait For Me,” is more appropriate to what he thinks and does as an artist, and more successful for it. It’s mix of instrumentals and vocals is far more natural and organic. The most obvious sampling is the use of a phrase from a preacher in ‘Study War,’ but it’s a spoken text, so there is no musical or cultural clash between the sample and the accompaniment. Everything on the record sounds like it belongs there, like it belongs to itself, there are no internal contradictions nor any sampled material that offers an unfavorable contrast. The record has a slightly enervated, dour quality to it, there’s aß sense of retreat and resignation. Moby is still seeking to convey a sense of soul, a feel of the blues, but even if that’s natural for some of his singers, it’s not for him. The DJ idea of rhythm as beats and beats-per-minute occludes the fundamental idea of pulse, it mistakes a solid, quantifiable surface for the dynamic, sub-atomic core. The songs also have a pretty consistent architecture, with a sparse introduction laying down a sustained pattern, then layers tossed on top and later withdrawn. There’s a consistent striving for some sort of power-ballad apotheosis. It’s listenable enough and ultimately monotonous, but if listeners want to chill, “Wait For Me” should work for them. It’s an anodyne example of what Moby does, but not much of an indication of what is possible for a DJ. Goldmann’s “Le Sacre” edit is a misleading example of what a DJ can do, but it’s ambitions, if odd, are admirable. And you can dance to it.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.