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    The Avalanches' Since I Left You and Digital Remix Culture


    Frontier Psychiatrist Characters

    In a digital world, the lines between author and reader, producer and consumer, are becoming blurred. Digital technologies afford people with the ability to engage with texts in entirely new ways. Namely, by means of producing new texts. Sample and remix culture has formed around the idea that cultural texts that are produced and distributed are not at the end of the creation process. With the freedoms afforded by a digital, networked culture, consumers enter a conversation with the text in a more active way than they were able to previously. No longer does engagement with a text simply mean having a deep discussion about what a text is saying, doing, or what it means. Engagement with a text means getting involved with the creation of more texts, creating a dialogue between artist and consumer, with the consumer becoming an artist in his own right.

    The musical group The Avalanches is such a group of consumer artists. Through the use of digital technology, their debut album Since I Left You (2000) was composed entirely of samples from other previously recorded songs that they then take apart and use different parts of in order to create something entirely new, recontextualizing them alongside other samples from disparate sources and putting them in front of beats that their original artists would have never have thought of using. Since I Left You is a pastiche of over an estimated 3,500 individual samples (Pytlik). These samples either form the backbone of a song as a looped groove, are parts of the sequenced beats, or simply provide atmosphere or various sound effects. In any given song on the album, there are roughly four to seven sampled grooves that make up the backbone of a song.

    Since I Left You is a testament to remix culture. Although this album could have technically been created using analogue technology, it is digital culture that provides the necessary cultural and technological framework for this album to be created. First, digital culture (including in large part social networking and the internet) creates the mentality of a certain type of ownership of previously created cultural texts that is necessary to conceptualize such a project. Second, it makes the process of obtaining, sampling from, manipulating and sequencing various materials from multiple sources far easier and faster. Third, digital culture creates more interest and allows wider distribution of such an artistic work that is in line with the value system of cultural ownership and reappropriation/recontextualization that the group of artists and the album are born from. As Lauri Väkevä asserts in his essay Garage Band or Garageband®? Remixing Musical Features:

    As digital technology has brought the mixing practices to everybody's reach and offered a global distribution and exchange network for new mixes, we can truly speak of musical works as emergent communal processes. In these processes what was originally 'a mix' becomes material for new creative ways of projecting oneself in artistic-technological space. This shifts the aesthetic focus from products to processes, from individual expression to communication (61).

    The Avalanches' use of various other musical works in order to create their own album is a wonderful example of this shift from products to processes. They use the other songs as a launching point for their own project, deconstructing and recontextualizing other songs as an elongation of the creative process involved in the cultural consumption of these texts. I intend to demonstrate through an examination of sample and remix culture in music that in a digital culture, consumers no longer accept a text as a final product, but a source to be utilized or recontextualized, and that active participation involves more than just thoughtful engagement with the text: it involves creation on your own part.

    Musicians and, indeed, artists in general, have always borrowed from others: either their peers, those in other artistic or intellectual fields, their contemporaries, or artists that came before them. To provide a relatively recent example, what would the British Invasion have been without the Delta Blues? Would it even have occurred? New art styles and genres as well as cultures have always borrowed and grown out of those that came before them. Sample culture takes this concept of borrowing a bit more literally. The idea of sampling in music is to lift a sound, a riff, a melody, a beat, something, from a source material and to recontextualize it in another musical piece. Hip-hop popularized this style by taking a break beat or a melody from old soul or funk records and, through the use of recording and playback devices or two turntables and a mixer, created looped beats which an MC could rap over. In the case of The Avalanches, these samples, often from stylistically disparate sources, are layered on top of one another to create a kaleidoscopic medley of beats, loops, melodies, effects, and various sounds that are lifted from vinyl records that the group purchased in bulk for the specific purpose of creating this album.

    In the video for The Avalanches' single Frontier Psychiatrist, seen here, different actors portray the different samples that the group used to compose the song. Frontier Psychiatrist is made up mainly of a drum loop and horn and string samples. These form the musical basis over which the other elements play. These other elements are vocal samples from Wayne and Shuster, John Waters, Flip Wilson, and the films Polyester and The 'Burbs (Avalanches). Originally, these vocal snippets were parts of completely different compositions. They were part of comedy routines, or movies, and they made up the dialogue that carried the narrative along. Many of the samples were taken from radio shows or comedy routines, which are completely dependent on dialogue to tell their narrative. What Frontier Psychiatrist does is take these elements out of their original contexts and juxtaposes them with one another to create an entirely new narrative. Frontier Psychiatrist uses this juxtaposition in a humorous way, and the narrative isn't very clear, though. The song starts with a woman's conversation with a man. The woman's son, Dexter, is being expelled from school and declared criminally insane. There are then cuts of different psychiatric talk, mainly about a person being insane or crazy in the coconut, this person ostensibly being Dexter. The narrative is filled with non-sequiturs as well, with other voices declaring that they're going to kill someone else, somebody is making false teeth, people are complaining about midgets, cowboys and indians, there's a “man with the golden eyeball,” someone else wants to hear a tune, one man promises to buy his girlfriend a violin, and there is a horse somewhere in the picture that won't stop whinnying. The whole thing ends with a conversation between a woman and a young girl, seemingly in a classroom setting, talking about things other than people that talk. Everything is very juxtaposed and cut together in such a way that creates an effect of confusion in a narrative sense, but uses this confusion for musical as well as humorous effect.

    The video, on the other hand, creates a definite narrative, although the narrative that is in the song is still a bit confusing. The video contains actors portraying the different sample sources and playing them out when the song gets to the sample that those actors represent. There are cowboys, psychiatrists, a horse, a ghostly chorus, a german horn section complete with liederhosen, a skeleton with a golden eyeball, violinists, pretty much anything that is referred to in the vocal samples that the song is comprised of.

    The different actors in these individual scenes that the camera cuts to imaginatively recreate the scene that was connotated by the vocal sample. So there are scenes being depicted such as two psychiatrists having a debate about whether a problem is psychosomatic or if therapy is needed, there is a standoff between two cowboys, and a classroom setting with a teacher, a young girl, and a giant parrot, among others. These scenes refer back to the original sources of the samples that these vocals were taken from. What the camera's movement does is create a sense of unity, showing all the different parts moving and speaking in time with the music, and also show the disparity between the different sources, since the different characters look like they are pulled from different stories entirely (which, of course, they are).

    The music video, with its stylistic and technological combination of audio and visual elements, essentially creates a transmedia narrative of how this song was created. The audio track of the song that we are hearing is the product that The Avalanches created, and the different scenes and characters represent the original sources, products or texts that were created by other people. The actors are dressed up and act in a certain way that is representative of their source. Taken individually, these different characters seemingly have nothing to do with one another, and the video gets its humor by showing the disjointedness of the characters. What the video's narrative, along with the song playing throughout, does is unify all these different parts, each character jumping in and playing out their own little part in time with the music, visually depicting the connotated source of the sample at the same time we are hearing it as it was recontextualized, signifying the creation of the song as it was actually done. This ragtag bunch forms an orchestra of uprooted characters, stories and dialogues that, amazingly, are all tied together in this song. This essentially tells the narrative of the creation of the song itself. The Avalanches took these different parts from different source materials and cut, pasted, mixed and modulated them to create their work.

    Evident throughout this entire narrative is the idea of play, of interactivity with different texts. When the giant record rolls out onto the stage towards the end of the video, it is representing several different things. First, it is representing a material object. The vinyl record is first and foremost a product to be purchased and then listened to by the consumer. Its second representation is that of a cultural text or product. The vinyl record contains music, which is itself a manifestation of culture, tradition and art. Its third representation is that of the source. When The Avalanches went about obtaining the samples that they were to use to create Since I Left You, they ripped the samples from vinyl records. It seems, from the diversity of their sample library, that instead of picking through crates of records for choice records, they simply purchased an entire record store. The creation of songs like Frontier Psychiatrist shows that The Avalanches were not interested in records for only the purpose of listening, which is what they are intended for. The Avalanches sought out these materials with the specific purpose of deconstructing them and recontextualizing them into a musical creation of their own. Väkevä writes:

    In the 1970s it might have been appropriate to think of popular music’s artistry culminating in such albums as Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run (1975), authorized mixes that stand as types to their tokens, the copies made of these mixes (Gracyk, 1996, p. 21). However, one may ask whether this really helps us to understand today's networked popular music culture that seems to be more and more influenced by freewheeling exchange and copying of musical parts, assembling an extensive 'plagiarism mosaic' based on continuous remixing (Lethem, 2008, p. 25) (60).

    It is precisely this networked popular music culture that makes such an album as Since I Left You possible. It fosters this idea of sharing materials freely, of borrowing, copying, lending, ripping and sampling. Remix culture is one that is born from digitality. Digital audio hardware and software makes the recording and ripping processes of sample-based music much easier and faster. The same technology makes it possible to take these different parts and make a composition from them. Although this is technically possible with analogue technology, it would not be nearly as fluid, as complex or, to put it simply, as good. More importantly, using analog technology to create sample-based music would require a great deal of technical and musical expertise. Digital technology, by making the process much easier, opens up the practice to a much larger community, which encourages the sharing mentality that sample and remix culture is based in.

    Since I Left You is a testament to sample culture, and further, to digital culture as a whole. A text's story no longer ends when it is first published. Scholars, lovers of books and intellectuals have always looked at books and material pieces of literature as having their own story, telling tales of the creation of the text, its distribution, cultural context, and the various owners that had it before as it changed hands throughout the years. For many, digital culture represents the death of this extended lifespan and the championing of ephemeralism. What The Avalanches, and other remix artists, show is that no text ever truly dies. Even in the digital age, these texts survive, and with more vibrancy than ever before. Texts are given new life as they are recontextualized, transformed, and built upon. Their stories don't end with the end of their material being; digital culture simply is introducing new ways of continuing their lifespan, through the creation of new texts. Digital culture is not an ephemeral one; it is building upon our culture that is already in place, and more people than ever before are getting involved in the conversation. And besides, any culture that can turn an Xavier Cugat string composition into a certified club banger is one that I'm glad to have around.


    Works Cited

    Avalanches, The - Since I Left You. Discogs.com. March 3, 2011. Online.

    Frontier Psychiatrist. Dirs. Tom Kuntz, Mike Maguire, 2001.

    The Avalanches. Since I Left You. Modular Recordings, 2000. LP.

    Väkevä, Lauri. British Journal of Musical Education 27.1 March 2010: 59-70.


    By: Mike Martino, 2011.