In Through the Out Door: Sampling and the Creative Act

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This essay is an early mix of the introduction to Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, an anthology edited by Paul D. Miller, recently released by MIT Press. Contributors to the book include: Bruce Sterling, Chuck D, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Cory Doctorow, Brian Eno, Moby and Pierre Boulez. Paul Miller will appear at the Electric Equinox: An Evolver Salon, this Saturday in New York.


“free content fuels innovation”
– Lawrence Lessig, “The Future of Ideas”


I get asked what I think about sampling a lot, and I’ve always wanted to have a short term to describe the process. Stuff like “collective ownership,” “systems of memory,” and “database logics” never really seem to cut it on the lecture circuit, so I guess you can think of this essay as a soundbite for the sonically perplexed. This is an essay about volume – of content as sound-bite, of attention with no definite deficit, or memory as a vast playhouse where any sound can be you. Press “play” and this essay says, “Here goes:”

Think. Search a moment in the everyday density of what’s going on around you and look for blankness in the flow. Pull back from that thought and think of the exercise as a kind of mini-meditation on mediated life. Pause, repeat. A word passes by to define the scenario. Your mind picks up on it, and places it in context. Next thought, next scenario – the same process happens over and over again, it’s an internal process that doesn’t even need to leave the comfortable confines of your mind. A poem of yourself written in synaptic reverie, a chemical soup filled with electric pulses, it loops around and brings a lot of baggage with it.

At heart, the process is an abstract machine to search for the right place for the right codes. The information in your mind looks for structures that give it context. The word you have thought about is only a placeholder for a larger system. It’s a neural map unfolding in syntaxes linked right into the electrochemical processes that make up not only what you can think, but how you can think. Inside, we use our minds for so many different things that we can only guess at how complex the process of thinking is. Outside, it’s a different scenario. Each human act, each human expression, has to be translated into some kind of information for other people to understand it – some call it the “mind/brain” interface, and others call it, like Descartes, a kind of perceptual (and perpetual) illusion. In our day and age, the basic idea of how we create content in our minds is so conditioned by media that we are in a position like no other culture in human history.

Today, that interior world expresses itself in a way that in the “real” world, that can be changed. When it’s recorded, adapted, remixed, and uploaded, expression becomes a stream unit of value in a fixed and remixed currency of the ever-shifting currents of the streams of information moving in the networks we use to talk with one another. It wasn’t for nothing that Marx said so long ago that “all that is solid melts into air” – perhaps he was anticipating the economy of ideas that drives the network systems we live and breathe in. In different eras, an invocation of a deity, a prayer, a mantra – these were common forms, shared through cultural affinities and affirmed by people who spoke the code, the language of the people sharing the story.

Today, it’s that gap between the interior and exterior perceptual world that entire media philosophies have been written about, filmed, shot, uploaded, re-sequenced, spliced, and diced. And within the context of that interstitial place where thoughts can be media, whether they are familiar to you or not, the kinds of thoughts don’t necessarily matter; it’s the structure of the perceptions, and the texts and memories that are conditioned by the thought-process, that will echo and configure some of the ways texts that you’re familiar with rise into prominence when you think.

We live in an era where quotation and sampling operate on such a deep level that the archaeology of what can be called knowledge floats in a murky realm between the real and unreal. Look at The Matrix as a parable for Plato’s cave, a section of his “Republic” written several thousand years ago, but resonant with the idea of living in a world of illusion. For that matter, look at the collaboration between standardization and the notion of rhythm. “Ratio” of course being the root of “rationality” is the core angle on this, and the longitude system, the global grid organizing experience in the world map, is a part of the way we systematize human experience. This excursion is meant to be a dialog about different forms of sculpture, how physical objects “map” sound objects onto the kinds of metaphors we use to hold contemporary information culture together – think of it as hearing the sound of the world unfold in rhythm.

The sound aspect of longitude was based on the Harrison clocks from the 18th Century that King George III and the British Parliament used to create the grid system that still guides navigation routes and configures our perception of “time zones” to this day. We have inherited the sounds of the H-4 clock from the British Admiralty to use as a sculpture mix governing how we perceive the entire planet – it’s an exercise in what I like to call “planetary dynamics” – it explores how we hold an artificial sense of time and space together with the socially constructed frames of reference we like to call the “nation state.” Imperial time aspires to be universal…

Back in the 18th century, as global travel by sea was coming into its own, hundreds of ships and thousands of mariners were being lost at sea or wrecked on shore because, once out of sight of land, they had no reliable way of telling where they were on the world’s seemingly infinite oceans. In 1714, Parliament offered a £20,000 prize to anyone who could solve the greatest scientific problem of the day: accurately measuring longitude at sea. While others looked for the answers in the stars, John Harrison (Gambon), an 18th-century, self-educated Yorkshire carpenter who had already built one of the most accurate clocks in the world, believed he could make a clock that would still be able to keep time on board a ship – something that many people deemed “impossible.” The timepiece he imagined would allow sailors to chart their exact position and avoid further maritime tragedies.

The emergence of “longitude” is literally Harrison’s story of how he struggles to perfect his idea, in defiance of the physical challenges of the sea, and the more intellectual challenges of the Board of Longitude set up by Parliament to adjudicate the prize. Convinced his idea would work, Harrison moves to London and sets about building his first sea-clock. In 1727 John Harrison had made a clock with a “gridiron” pendulum, which consisted of nine alternating steel and brass rods to eliminate any effects of temperature changes. In the years that followed, he used this mechanism to make four clocks each to rise to the challenge to solve the Longitude Problem.

By 1762, after the end of a 147-day sea voyage, H-4 had lost only 1 minute and 55 seconds; it was probably one of the most complex devices of its era, if not one of the most subtly influential. It set the “tone” of time for the next several centuries. Mix the sound of it’s clock mechanisms with the sound of the U.S. cesium particle-based “atomic” clocks that are used to standardize internet time, and all aspects of modernity onto one basic time system and you have a massive social sculpture. Rhythm, after all, can be both visible and invisible, and this is the sound track to a different kind of “world order.”

Let’s look at it this way: as the World Wide Web continues to expand, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for users to obtain information efficiently. This has nothing to do with the volume of information out in the world, or even who has access to it – it’s a kind of search engine function that’s in a crisis of meaning. The metaphor holds, the poem invokes the next line, word leads to thought and back again. Repeat. The scenario: internal becomes external becomes involution. The loop of perception is a relentless hall of mirrors in the mind. You can think of sampling as a story you are telling yourself – one made of the world as you can hear it, and the theater of sounds that you invoke with those fragments is all one story made of many. Think of it as the act of memory moving from word to word as a remix: complex becomes multiplex becomes omniplex.

In physicist David Bohm’s essay on this topic, “Thought as a System,” the idea of progress is a convergence of these “visual cues” that hold the eye and hand together when we think… Multi valent/multi-cultural approaches to language and all of the sundry variations its going through right now, are what make this kind of stuff alot more interesting… Artaud was the fellow who invented the term “virtual reality” in his “Theater and It’s Double,” at the beginning of the section entitled “The Theater and its Shadow” – where one era looked for theater, another looks for code. It all depends on how you hear the sound of science: like I always enjoy saying, “Mimesis is the method of the mode.”

Another permutation, another sound file – flip mode excursion: In his 1938 essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music,” the theoretician Theodore Adorno bemoaned the fact, like so many other of his complaints, that European classical music was becoming more and more of a recorded experience. He had already written an essay entitled “The Opera and The Long Playing Record” a couple of years before, and the “Fetish” essay was a continuation of the same theme. People were being exposed to music that they barely had time to remember because the huge volume of recordings and the small amount of time to absorb them presented to the proto-modernist listener a kind of sound-bite mentality – one we in the era of the web are becoming all too familiar with.

He wrote, “The new listeners resemble the mechanics who are simultaneously specialized and capable of applying their special skills to unexpected places outside their skilled trades. But this despecialization only seems to help them out of the system.”

When Tim Berners Lee wrote some of the original source code for the World Wide Web, it was little more than a professors’ club – a place that entailed such exciting activities as giving briefs on atomic particle research at CERN in Switzerland condensed formats, or trading the latest developments on signal packet switching with DARPA project coordinators, or fielding queries for the latest developments in signal/noise reductions with Bell Labs – but it echoed that same sense of abbreviation that Adorno mentioned. I tend to think of sampling and uploading files as the same thing, just a different format – to paraphrase John Cage, sound is just information in a different form.

Think of Dj culture as a kind of archival impulse put to a kind of hunter-gatherer milieu – textual poaching, becomes zero-paid, becomes no-logo, becomes brand X. It’s that interface thing rising again, but this time around, mind/brain interface becomes emergent system of large scale economies of expression. As more and more people joined the web, it took on a much more expanded role, and I look to this expansion as a parallel with the co-evolution of recorded media. Lexical space became cultural space. Search engines took on a greater and greater role as the web expanded because people needed to be able to quickly access the vast amount of varying results look that would be yielded – search engines look for what they’ve been told to look for, and then end up bringing back a lot of conflicting results. Metadata breaks down website contents in very easy-to-search-for “meta-tags” that flag the attention of the distant glances of the search engines, and the process is essentially like a huge rolodex whose tabs are blue, and the paper they describe is hidden behind them. So, too, with sound.

I’m starting an essay on sampling and memory with a metaphor for search engines and the World Wide Web because I see the web as a kind of inheritor to the way that Djs look for information – it’s a shareware world on the web, and the migration of cultural values from one street to another is what this essay is about. Think of streets as routes on movement in a landscape made of routes and manifolds. The roads convey people, goods, through a densely inhabited landscape held together by consensus. Like James Howard Kunstler says in his “The City in Mind” of the cities he loves to write about, these routes are “as broad as civilization itself.” Look at the role of the search engine in Web culture as a new kind of thoroughfare, and that role is expanded a million-fold – the information and goods are out there, but you stay in one place. The architecture of where your information resides, in this geography of nowhere, in the relationships holding the structure together: Empty, as in the Buddhist sense of the mantra, repetition and reinforcement of motif – code the text – in this scenario, empty can be really full.

An artist named Warren Sack created a “conversation map” a little while ago to track the way we map language onto spatial relationships, as a “system for summarizing and visualizing large volumes of e-mail.” Two other artists, Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, did a similar project entitled “Listening Post.” Their press release reads like a psychoanalytic update on contemporary culture, and could easily be condensed to be a soundbite sample for this essay – after all, I am writing about the art of appropriation:

“Listening Post is a biorhythmic visual and sonic response to the content, magnitude, and immediacy of virtual communication. This collaborative multimedia installation is composed of a suspended grid of more than two hundred small electronic screens that display fragments of texts culled in real time from thousands of unrestricted Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards and other public forums. Dissociating the communication from its conventional on-screen presence, the project presents the texts according to the frequency of randomly selected words, topics emerging and changing from hour to hour and day to day. A coordinated audio component alternates between musical passages and sections that vocalize certain messages, underscoring the text on the screens.”

But it’s not fun citing press releases, so we skip from metaphor to trope – from content to code and back again – and come to the conclusion that this is an associative context. We bring meaning to the search, and the sounds that we want to hear reflect back some of our encoded relationships. The information defining what you’re looking for and the end result is a file somewhere, and the web’s search engines are the link between you and that end result. Because most search engines read format languages like HTML or SHML, search results reflect formatting tags more than actual page content, which is expressed in natural language. Back in 1939 John Cage wrote one of the first compositions for phonographs. It was called “Imaginary Landscape No.1” and essentially it was meant, in his own words: “to be subsequently broadcast or heard as a recording. It is in effect a piece of proto-musique concrete, though naturally, since at that date there was no tape, the instruments were records of constant and variable frequencies (then available chiefly for audio research).” From the rotation of records made of frequencies, we get a metaphor for a wireless imagination, a semantic web describing a new type of hierarchy and standardization that will replace what had been in his era a web of compositions (reminiscent of Vanevar Bush’s quest for the “memex” audio archive during World War II – the “Imaginary Landscape” was meant to be a kind of chance operation of memory and material…). Cage wanted to change his current “web of links” with a “web of meaning.”

Today, when we browse and search, we too invoke a series of chance operations; we use interfaces, icons, and text as a flexible set of languages and tools. Our semantic web is a remix of all available information – display elements, metadata, services, images, and especially content – made accessible. The result, like Cage’s piece intimated so long ago, is an immense repository of information accessible for a wide range of new applications – it’s an archive of almost anything that has been recorded. The word “phonograph” has so many connotations. I always like to think of it as a collision of two words: phonetics and graphology. Phono plus graph – the sheer variety of styles and underground phenomenon are pretty much universes unto themselves. Edison, Sarnoff, Marconi, Constellations of sound, memory, and expression are pretty much the core structures of this multi-verse … a good read is the equivalent of a good mix. Think of ’em as a kind of “amicus curiae brief” for the sonically perplexed – render judgement not on the singular track, but on the mix as a whole. It’s philosophy for the audio-splice generation – Burroughs vs. Grand Master Flash, etc., etc., – anything goes.

The Ring Cycle. La Mer. Imaginary Landscape. The Art Of Noise. Pli Selon Pli. Kraanerg. Names that are common in the contemporary classical music reconfigure into templates for a different kind of classic: Afrika Bambaata’s “Death Mix,” Grand Master Flash’s “Adventure’s on the Wheels of Steel,” Steinski and Double D’s “The Lesson,” Dj Q*bert’s “Wave Twisters” and so on… This handbook for the semantic web covers, amongst other topics, software agents that can negotiate and collect information, markup languages that can tag many more types of information in a document, and knowledge systems that enable machines to read web pages and determine their reliability, but it also fosters a sense of participation in what Heidegger called the “Age of the World Picture.” The truly interdisciplinary semantic web combines aspects of artificial intelligence, markup languages, natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, intelligent agents and databases. A good Dj has a lot of records and files and knows exactly where to filter the mix. They don’t call the process on-line “collaborative filtering” for nothing – it’s those loops again, coming back, like E.T.A. Hoffman and Sigmund Freud’s Frankenstein Uncanny flipped with the original Mary Shelley scenario and updated, weblog style – trace it back to the origin, and you’re left with an imaginary landcape. Check the remix.

Think of the semantic webs that hold together contemporary info culture and the dis-connect between how we speak, and the machines that process culture speak to one another in our effort to have anything and everything represented and available to anyone, everywhere. It’s that archive fever that makes the info world go around, and as an artist you’re only as good as your archive. It’s that minimalist, and that simple. That’s what makes it deeply complex. At the site of inside out, in through the portal into the here and now, out through the exit sign, there’s always a discrepant engagement. Totally alive, wave patterns, cloud formations, vortices and eddies, and flows in the life patterns of the earth as seen from way above. It’s all rhythms, all patterns: the meteorology of the world we inhabit, syncopated fragments of geology, space and time, rendered into ripples of perception – like a place where everything – the sky, the sand, the clouds, the waves on the ocean’s surface, the breath emanating from my body – everything – is alive and moving gracefully with everything else.

There’s always a rhythm to the space between things. Pause, hold the thought, check the moment. Repeat. Wait. There it goes again. Another thought, another pause in the stream of conscious in another abstraction – the reader, the listener. Speak these words out loud, and the same logic applies – there’s always a rhythm to the space between things. It’s been a truism for a while, since Schelling and Goethe pronounced that “architecture is nothing but frozen music,” that sound and the forms we inhabit are intimately intertwined. What happens when you reverse-engineer the process, and think of sound as nothing but de-thawed architecture. The moment between sounds, the moment between thoughts and perceptions, it’s one of those intangible structures that gives meaning to the things it separates, and that’s what this monograph is about. Blurring the lines between forms of thought echoes in the after-effects of their actions and things generated by those thoughts, and well, in this day and age, that’s something to give one – pause. Private discourse made public, public discourse become a new kind of sustenance in an ecosystem of hunter-gathers of moments suspended in a culture founded on a world where information moves only because someone invented and shared it. It’s a milieu where a network is defined as a quote ending a quote: “” and a system is defined as another quote of a quote “”. Music of floating signifiers – software as editing environment, dematerialization of the studio at a bit rate that can only accelerate.

This is the end result: An incidental drift across definitions takes the place of any sense of fixed meaning – like slang, we look at sounds as a vernacular process, they’re a syntax of the “what-if” – how would these sounds appear in this mix when we place them over another sound, in another file, in another program? Again and again, one of the main things I hear people asking when I travel is – “what software do you use?”

Today’s computer networks are built on software protocols that are fundamentally textual. Paradoxically, this linguistic medium of software isn’t only nearly undecipherable to the layperson, but it has created radical, material transformations through these linguistic means–computers and networks as forces of globalization. “Translation Map,” like “Listening Post,” develops an approach to inhabit and visualize computer-based or computer-mediated language as a space or material form. Henri Lebvre said so long ago in his classic 1974 work “The Production of Space”: “the body’s inventiveness needs no demonstration, for the body itself reveals it, and deploys it in space. Rhythms in all their multiplicity interpenetrate one another. In the body and around it, as on the surfance of a body of water, rhythms are forever crossing and recrossing, superimposing themselves upon each other, always bound to space.”

An intangible sculpture that exists only in the virtual space between you and the information you perceive – it’s all in continuous transformation, and to look for anything to really stay the same is to be caught in a time warp to another era, another place when things stood still and didn’t change so much. But if there is one thing I hope this essay has done it is to move us to think as the objects move, to make us remember that we are warm-blooded mammals and that the cold information we generate is a product of our desires, and it manifests some deep elements of our being. The point of all this? To remind us like Ellington and so many musicians said so long ago that “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

As the information age moves into full gear, it would be wise to remember the cautionary tales of shades and shadows. To recall and remix the tale of a bored billionaire living in a dream world in Don Delilo’s “Cosmopolis,” who said: “It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet’s living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole.”

Sample away!

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