Sonic Occupancy

A Brief Walk Through Sampling, Sensation & Space

catalogue essay for Rent exhibition, Overgaden, Coppenhagen, 2000
reprinted in Ojeblikket, Coppenhagen, 2001

There may have once been a time when musical instruments sounded like they came from somewhere. They would have peculiarly reverberated in space, accruing their sonic identity from the way their mechanics forced sound throughout and within that space. You could have sat there and said: yes, that piano over there does sound like a piano indeed.

But who listens to pianos these days? In fact, who has really heard one? And more importantly: what is there to be gained by identifying a piano anyway? Inasmuch as sound can never be separated from space - from that specific phenomenological acousmonium which provides the frame and realm within which we identify sounds and soundings - all recordings of sound ultimately document the space of those occurrences. Put simply, whenever you hear a recording of an instrument - a lingering piano chord in a hall, a snare rim shot close-miced, a muted trumpet diffused from a stage, a fender guitar through a Marshall stack - the recording is defined by the characteristics of the space in which the instrument was performed, and the means by which the instrument was recorded. The materiality of this phonology is obvious enough in any age of mechanical reproduction, but what is of deeper interest is how sampling culture - particularly in the eclectic and global hybridization which streams and beams forth from the sonic satellites of Hip Hop and Techno - has affected ways of hearing space while identifying sounds.

Constantly slipping and skidding between the hyper-regimentation of Techno's lap-tops, plug-ins and down-loads, and the meta-abstraction of Hip Hop's turntablism, sampledelia and ethnocentricity, the employment of recorded/encoded sound in sample culture has all but decimated whatever mimeticism and mimicry was left in the illusion of recorded instruments. Fragments of music over the last decade have become documents of unrecognizable sources, mystified occurrences, sono-musical collapses. From early 90s Bleep to mid-90s Lo-Noise to late 90s Glitch (note those names), this active disrecognization of sound and music has been intuitively waged against the omni-present scourge of 'factory pre-sets': pre-designed samples of clean recognizable instruments for samplers, designed for the composer/performer to instantly recall and conduct. In opposition to the refined purity of those sono-musical archetypes (the 'definitive' grand piano sample, the 'classic' 12 string guitar, the 'ultimate' Chinese gong, etc.) sampling culture enacts and invokes all form and manner of disfiguration. In doing so, it has upheld the ideal of modernism: to totally destroy its 'self' through any and all means of reproduction. In recorded pop/folk musics, this has encapsulated the distortion of 50s rockabilly snares; the fuzz-wah of 60s acid rock and soul; the turn-it-up-to-11 of 70s hard rock & metal; the pursuit of unadulterated white noise in punk, post-punk and numerous industrial permutations; and the overload of bass drums, kick-clicks and drum machine pulses in just about every subgenre of dance music over the last 20 years. Any 'sound' that typifies all these musical mutations and apparitions is characterized more by its recording process than by any particular instrument, and those attendant recording processes are aimed at destroying something about the instrument's aural identity in order to make a new noise.

This in itself is a remarkable demonstration of the postmodern being curdled by the resilience of modernism's destructive energy - that sampling has re-instated tactility and physicality via digital and non-linear operations. In fact there is so much historical contradiction and ideological conflict in the most rudimentary approaches to sampling that one feels our extant ways of perceiving sampled sound (and discursively writing of its effects) are woefully inadequate and imprecise. For sampling can neither solely nor simply be the quotation of the uttered, the appropriation of the authored or the recall of the represented. Such dumbly labelled referencing does not even start to account for the history of phonology and the mysteries of psycho-acoustics. Most startling, the pale rhetoric of postmodern assertion is alien to the base materiality of any sonic experience - in precisely the same way that the mere identification of a sound is but a flaky epidermis to the sono-musical corpus of the sound itself.

This precipice which abuts the referential to the tactile, the identified to the experienced, is materially and textually exemplified by the millisecond at which the sampled/recorded sound stops. We are potentially more aware of sound's palpability as its ensuing silence impresses us with the absence of its 'self'. An economy of eventfulness thus determines much about sound 'as it happens', as we can only really talk about sound 'as it happened'. Composers of all persuasion and background have used the halting moment of non-performed silence for drama, definition and distillation; recording engineers, session producers, electro-acoustic realizers, turntable DJs and computer users similarly extrapolate the signal-to-noise ratio of recorded media into a schizophrenic schism where the silence after an edit/cut/break/pop/gate/trigger contains and boxes the sound, trapping it into a ruthless binary of on/off, now/then, happening/happened.

Many early musique concrete compositions employ the sonar warping of the tape splice as the raison d'etre for their musical architecture and spatial orchestration. Moving on from the early radiophonic 78rpm turntable experiments of Pierre Schaeffer, the rigour of later academic compositions harness the brute force of the tape splice and channel it into granular fields of gesture and furrows of rhythmic detail. Ilhan Imaroglu's THE TOMB OF EDGAR ALAN POE (1964) - composed solely of a voice reading a Mallarme poem in French - is a concise investigation of what happens when the recorded voice is not only halted, but also constricted, contorted and controlled by a series of extemporizations, incisions, buttresses and ruptures. The piece deploys the classic 50s electro-acoustic effect of recording a voice in a reverberant space, then editing out the moments when the voice is talking so as to leave only the reverberation of the voice in that space. Extolling a beautiful morbidity so typical of postwar techno-driven modernism, THE TOMB OF EDGAR ALAN POE is a paean to those spaces which the voice haunts. Its voice is but a ghostly trace whose sensation is figuratively and technologically entombed in its space.

The surrealistic gymnastics of vocal violence and oral orgasm are deployed and displayed in countless electro-acoustic compositions from the early 50s well into the 80s. Clearly the naked voice - moist in its presence and pregnant with energy - is a prime target for the rank destructiveness of modernism, yet it must not be forgotten that such high art compositions are no different from the more prosaic and perfunctory recordings of the human voice in popular song. Consider even something like a record of Vera Lynne singing THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER: a vocal stream beaten into a tin-foil transmissive of a drastically narrowed frequency range, bathed in the acoustic patina of vinyl crackling. Her voice becomes an oral constellation wavering amid a nebula of scratches and hisses, rising in wisps from the spinning disc. Her space - with no intention toward such sonic abstraction - is neither neutral nor natural. Her voice lives in the soundfield of recorded technology, a realm of mediation and modulation where no sound can exist without its occupancy in a space defined by microphonic boundaries. That cloud of white noise is her non-human breath in her post-vocal atmosphere.

The celebration of scratchy recordings became de rigeur in Hip Hop's second golden age with a clutch of seminal LPs: The 45 King's MASTER OF THE GAME (1988), Royal House's CAN YOU PARTY (1988), Jungle Brothers' STRAIGHT OUT THE JUNGLE (1988) and De La Soul's THEE FOOT HIGH AND RISING (1989). Amid sprayed and splayed fields of vinyl corruption, these albums collectively bend one's preconceptions of recorded environments and phonographic space, and wholly question the existence of silence in the face of unmitigated surface noise. The production and mixing by (respectively) Mark Davis, Todd Terry, the JBs and Prince Paul not only mapped a series of templates which enabled Hip Hop to contour a myriad of sonic fault lines throughout the 90s, but they also pinpointed the transitional interzone between turntablism and sampling. The looped sample of a vinyl scratch or passage did far more than rhythmatize : it achitectured a form which pushed the breathing space of the original recording into a re-articulation of that space. Simply, the quality of the recordings, the microphones originally used, the specific acoustics of their studio environments converged to 'timbrelly spatialize' the new sample-construction. Songs from this point on would be built upon the raspy hypermaterial sediment of other rooms, other locations, other spaces. The scratchophonic texture of these self-reflexive meta-recordings aided in the redefinition of Hip Hop as a music which always came from somewhere else: it leaked across, impinged upon, spilt into, encroached and generally re-territorialized the very status of its 'self'.

Hip Hop through the 90s thus explored the grain of space possibly more than any other period in the history of phonology. This is an important distinction to make when so much is presumed and expected of the rhythmic impulse to pulsate in Hip Hop. Taking a different view, it could be argued that the throb of Hip Hop is its breath, while its sonics constitute the air it breathes. This is not as gratuitously poetic as it sounds. After the inital celebration of the scratch as both surfacial and rhythmic disruption, the base ontological self-reflexivity of deliberately making a record out of other records became less de rigeur and more an a priori means of simply making music. Hip Hop producers soon enough focussed their attention not on the vinyl grooves and surface crackles, but more on the abstracted sensation of space suggested by the extenuation of sampled and looped fragments of other recordings. Shades of spatial 'noise' in 90s Hip Hop tended to aerate many key tracks - initially via the turntablism of DJs like Terminator X, Eric B and AfriKa BabyBam, then in later Illbient and Trip Hop waves on labels like Submeta, Word Sound, MoWax, Ninja Tune and Pussyfoot. Textures like raspy sax breaths from 50s Jazz records, ride cymbals from 60s soul records and gritty amplified ambience from 70s funk records all were layered not for their events but for the grain of space they conjured in the listener's mind. Another distinctive trope of modernism is recalled here, in that just as most of the so-called Pop artists were in fact hyper formalists dealing with the abstraction of iconography, Hip Hop producers became engaged in 'abstrakt' phonography, creating granular landscapes of pre-recorded and re-assembled materials.

In early manifestations of Techno from the mid to late 80s, surface noise and spatial importation was of less concern than the regimentation, alignment and positioning of fragments of sound. If Hip Hop is a rendered environment, Techno is its CAD walk-through: rather than savouring the psycho-acoustic sensation of place, one is guided through Techno's potential space. The obsession with the rigorous patterning of fascistic on-screen sequencing programmes like CuBase and Cakewalk allowed the marshalling of rhythms to conceptually and musically dominate and dictate much of Techno's compositional ethos. Yet just as Hip Hop eventually revealed itself to be a growth from and beyond the metronomic and the syncopated, Techno generated complex fractal, molecular and structural intricacies out of the networking of MIDI quantizing and triggering.

Techno has specifically pursued this along its own distinctive lines of abstraction. Whereas Hip Hop suggests the presence of an idiosyncratic space by importing you into its granular existence, Techno disorients you with the displacement of those same sensations. The best way of describing this is to liken 90's Techno to the sound of music coming from another room. An acoustic imbalance is struck by certain frequencies appearing louder or softer than they would in any presumed norms: the kick is too loud and booming, the snare reduced to a powdery puff of white noise, the bass riff swallowed up in a mire of ground swells, melodies composed of distorted sheets of pitched ambience, and so on. This sensation of ungainly contorted sono-musical elements recreates the common effect of identifying the sound of music but disrecognizing its precise characteristics due to its remove from your ideal listening perspective. The prime aim of Techno's digital deconstruction of every facet of the compositional process is to engulf you with a sonic experience wherein the music remains elsewhere. This effect can be traced from early explorations of electronic realignment by Paperclip People, Ilsa Gold, Luke Slater, Kenny Larkin and Aphex Twin through to the landmark 'decompositions' of Maurizio, Ryoji Ikeda, Oval, Montage, Pole and a plethora of artists fleeting between the glitched borders of the production of dance music and the realization of electro-acoustic music.

In the swirling sonar transmissions of shimmering peeled skins of studio recordings and episodic matrices of the percussive detritus from drum machines, the elastic morphing between Hip Hop and Techno has little place for the active recognition of instruments. Like the hysterical use of factory samples of arpeggiated grand pianos which hysterically gushed forth from Milan, Rome and London in mid-80s House, the piano - one the meta-instrument for the inscription of musical composition - has truly been reduced to a visual ornament: baroque in its design and gaudy in its evocation. When it and other 'real instruments' appear in sample culture, they yield little in essence, but exude much in presence. The 'real' now exists nowhere in particular. A sample essentially declares that something happened somewhere else, thus constituting the sonic nano-machine to generate music less about the sound of action and more about the sensation of space which encapsulates that action.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.