Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sound Systems

(Chris as DJ photo by Nicole Fournier)

"Listen, I don't have to attack hip-hop. Hip-hop attacks itself. It has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically. What is there to discuss?"

Flow? Rhymes? Assonance? Scansion? Lyrical dexterity? Rhythmic complexity? The use of samples that explore African-American musical history?

"Yeah yeah," he snorts. "It's mostly sung in triplets. So what? And as for sampling, it just shows you that the drummer has been replaced by a loop. The drum - the central instrument in African-American music, the sound of freedom - has been replaced by a repetitive loop. What does that tell you about hip-hop's respect for African-American tradition?"
Wynton Marsalis being interviewed in the Guardian UK (2007)

I had already planned to talk about the Caribbean roots of sound-systems in relation to the instrumentation of my trio/quartet before coming across Wynton's comments from an interview he did to promote his new CD From the Plantations to the Penitentiaries. My trio (we will perform as a unit on my upcoming residency with Racoco Productions) consists of me on laptop computer playing Ableton Live and Audiomulch, Lynn Wright on electric guitar and Lewis 'Flip' Barnes on trumpet. For one piece - a contemporary version of the old song/story Stagger Lee - we will be joined by poet Sharrif Simmons. The trio can be described as a "mini sound-system;" that is, a band based around prerecorded looped material played and mixed live by the composer. To me, this is similar to the Jamaican sound systems created in the late 50's that relied heavily on the islands' recording studio culture to produce music for large scale outdoor parties. This music in its earliest form relied on repeated (i.e. "looped") musical material. As DJs and producers became stars, it should be noted that a lot of sound-system music became very socially and politically charged. Rap as a music began with a Caribbean transplant who crafted a means of moving back and forth in performance between two simultaneously playing records to create extended repetitive grooves while MCs took the lead and rhymed and boasted over the resulting music. Another direction sound-systems took can be heard in collective groups like Tackhead and Massive Attack where the Caribbean roots are clearly heard now amalgamated with British punk and new wave music.

This is a thumbnail sketch (feel free to expound or contradict in the comments) I provide only to show (I hope) that the music I'm creating has some precedent and foundation that I as a creative composer can riff off of and expound upon. Now, in Wynton's world...what bothers me is that anyone would hear what I do with this trio or on my CD Saints & Devils (which, along with a lot of live playing incorporates a lot of looped material and sampled voices) as being disrespectful of African- American tradition or any tradition for that matter. Did Wynton actually say this in the interview I quote above? "(Hip-hop) ...has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically. What is there to discuss?" You can't always believe what you read. But from a few sources I've been hearing over and over from Wynton his disdain for "hip-hop" that is, in part, based on the use of "looped" material.

Now, a loop is its own thing. It is not meant to be a substitute for a live musician - at least that's how I hear things. Hearing James Brown's band and hearing Public Enemy are two different experiences. So what? They're both slammin and provide the listener a depth of expression. Do we say one is "better" and superior in its respect for humankind because there are no programmed sounds on the track? Now grant it, not every musician can deal with loops in live performance. I know this from experimenting with a variety of musicians in New Orleans and here in NYC. On the other hand, I've heard live "jazz" trios and quartets in clubs that were incredibly dull for many reasons - one of which being this strange need for schooled musicians to never settle in and play in the pocket or play something...simple (repetitive?). The laptop is one way of getting that simplicity - to creating a core that other musicians can jump off of. But as a composer, I am wary of creating a musical foundation that hinders rather than inspires the musicians. But that's simply a creative challenge - whether you as a composer are creating a piece of music using a drum loop or a live drummer. That's how I feel.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

Musicians who are against loops are usually paying more attention to the means than end, to the process than the sound. How one creates music is interesting, but how the music sounds is what matters.

Dance music utitlizes loops because repetitive beats keep the dancers moving. Rap is the descendant of chants, and if chants are not musical then music does not exist.