The Resistant Language
In Columbus, Ohio, home of shopping malls and college football, the Evolution Control Committee (ECC) make audio collage with homemade equipment and a caustic, aware sense of humor. They may be out of place amidst 711,470 Buckeye fans, but their musical approach is familiar to anyone within 20 miles of a freeform radio station: spent cartridges of aural miscellany, coercive radio jingles, great songs, terrible songs, soundbites, interviews, 99-cent bin records, field recordings, and noise – in short, anything audibly perceptible is ground up into tiny units, letters perhaps, and then rearranged to form words and sentences in the language of pastiche audio composition. ECC, like most groups working under the rubric of "Plunderphonics," tend to use this language critically. The corporate media in particular are singled out for criticism, and the recontextualization of aural output (commercials, monologues, the evening news) is meant to mockingly highlight both the beneficial and destructive potential of mass media. Ever in this vein, ECC's most recent album, Plagiarythm Nation, is available now on the Seeland label. In a recent conversation with tradeMark G, co-founder of the music division of the ECC, we discussed the group's artistry, humor, and political goals.
Briefly: Mark and the Evolution Control Committee seek to provoke outrage, attention, laughter, and frequently legislation through the intelligent and unsolicited use of trademarked material on their albums. This combination of techniques is broadly known as Plunderphonics, a style of "musical piracy" first popularized by musicians like John Oswald and Negativland in the 1980's, which functions more as a political movement than as an aesthetically-driven form. The music contains at its core the argument that laws theoretically designed to protect artistic ownership serve corporate interests without justification, while encroaching on the art of sampling, which proponents argue is an unassailable and essential manifestation of free speech.
According to Mark, "I think we all realized fairly early on that sampling, collage, plagiarhythm, plunderphonics or whatever you want to call it was destined to be a solid part of the future of music. It always seemed a natural progression, if you think of music as a language, think of individual notes as the letters of the alphabet and samples or soundbites as the words." Thus sampling is the basis for a new critical language, whose semiotics are negotiated based on the need to continually interrogate the messages of mass media. The interrogations here tend to be blunt, but the best examples of plunderphonics are also quite beautiful – they produce just such a language from lost or discarded sound, and then effectively communicate using that language. Good plunderphonic critiques are always grounded in the practice of co-opting bits of aural detritus and giving each fragment new meaning, according to the producer's own beliefs. Collage music is thus a means to contest the one-way flow of information which mass media produces by re-appropriating sounds and then semantically painting over them.
Good plunderphonic critiques, moreover, not only challenge corporate malfeasance and social delirium, but give convincing rationales for their criticism. The genre's most successful artists have mastered the delicate art of deconstruction, producing damning indictments of questionably-motivated laws and deeply-ingrained (yet often outmoded) mass cultural truisms while also suggesting new and timely ways to understand and discuss the underlying issues. For instance, much of the career of Negativland has been an attempt to undermine a system of harmful and outdated judicial precedents by exposing the inadequacies of the ownership-theft dichotomy in intellectual property law. Negativland have famously engaged in grandstanding court battles (most notably against U2 in the 1990's), deftly using the spotlight of high-profile celebrity litigation to expose the vulgarities of copyright law. Win or lose, their strategy sheds embarrassing light on an area of the federal legal code that few people know much about but would perhaps be dismayed to learn of. And if you're willing to do a little reading, there is plenty of written material available rationalizing this subversion and offering potential amendments to the dominant discourse. (check www.negativland.com/intprop.html)
Artistic manipulation of copyrighted audio material, i.e. sampling, had of course been controversial in hip hop for several years before the U2 case and before Oswald coined the term Plunderphonics on a 1989 album of the same name. But Plunderphonicists like the ECC and Negativland were the first full-time, fully witting musical advocates of the first amendment in the sampler era. Plunderphonics was conceived to transform the debate over copyright and artistic independence in a technological climate whose openendedness suggested fleeting but substantial opportunities for grassroots action. The records produced in the movement’s wake are brazen acts/objects of civil disobedience, and the artists are generally prepared to make real sacrifices in order to create and distribute them. However, says Mark, "if you're a band with little or no legal budget, getting sued is more unpleasant than a rat poison stir-fry. Mark Hosler said that when Negativland got sued, he ended up spending much of the next four years doing something relating to the case, at least one task each and every day. ECC is a group of artists, not lawyers. We don't want to spend our time reviewing legal briefs. There's important jamming to be done!"
There's Important Jamming to be Done
There exists a great deal of important jamming which remains to be done. Plunderphonics has amazing potential applications for serious popular expression but, all the same, to take itself too seriously would be its undoing. "I think there's a great power in having a sense of humor," says Mark. "Humor is like a virus – it lowers your defenses and disarms you, making you susceptible. A lot of the time, art is about how to knock down barriers that audiences are used to living behind. If you're viewing something with a stern look on your face and your arms crossed, you're fortified – you're defending yourself against your surroundings. But detonate one well-placed humor bomb and the stern look vanishes, the arms fall to the side…the defenses are down, the veil is lifted."
The ECC are humorous, mischievous subversives, an artistic breed with methodologies reminiscent of Tzara, but working less as a signboard of abstraction than as an abstractor of modern media. All possible routes involve jamming. No one would listen otherwise. Bleak seriousness can be dull. Humor and art can be each other. Mark: "We've constantly been plagued by this whole 'art-or-rock' dichotomy. Clubs wouldn't book our shows because we didn't sell enough drinks, and yet art galleries would scoff at our tendency to laugh at things that are funny. Something obliquely funny in a gallery is a no-no, of course. We're stuck between a rock and an art place. But I think we've now managed to carve out a bit of a middle ground. There are plenty of people who are done with bar bands who measure their worth in decibels and artists who measure their worth in grants. Our music can be art, but it can rock too. We try hard to make our live shows LIVE. We create our own custom electronics to trigger the sounds. We have costumes. We're theatrical. And we get the crowd pumped." Art as entertainment and art as social commentary, or jamming and culture jamming, need not be mutually exclusive.
Rocked By Rape
Even so, most inquisitive listeners will eventually arrive at the question of impact. Does plunderphonics make a difference? Quite clearly, judging by the longevity and popularity of Negativland and the ECC (Plagiarythm Nation has charted well with college radio), the music matters in some sense.
But what does a track like "Rocked by Rape," from Plagiarythm Nation, ultimately do? There are three potential categories of outcome. First, the song successfully attracted the attention of the media company who by association are condemned or criticized. On "Rocked by Rape," snippets from CBS News anchorman Dan Rather's newscasts are spliced together over an AC/DC riff, producing a hip hop-style stream of troubling non-sequiturs. CBS eventually dropped plans for a lawsuit, but were presumably embarrassed.
Second, according to Mark, "[The song] asks an important question: Who's the real bad-ass here? Is it AC/DC, whose attitude and image can be accepted at face-value, or is it the song's lead vocalist Dan Rather, whose groomed, polished visage reaches eight-million households daily delivering a stream of violent rhetoric into their living rooms? It's interesting to note that the title of the piece – 'Rocked By Rape' – was untouched. He actually said that phrase. Yes, it was taken out of context ('The Pentagon today was rocked by rape allegations following . . .') but that's a very strong and unusual phrase. How could it not stick in the viewer's mind, even subconsciously?"
The second result, unlike the first, is beholden to individual interpretation. For the question "Who's the real bad-ass here?" to enter the listener's mind, she/he must first understand that the ECC are highlighting Dan Rather's excessive tendency toward violent language, rather than, say, lamenting the scope of tragedy in the world (a la "We Didn't Start the Fire"), or attempting to bring a big celebrity down to size simply because they're big (a la the New York Post or Celebrity Deathmatch).
The second potential result of a song like "Rocked by Rape" is the most crucial. Successfully communicated, the message of criticism will enlighten and empower listeners, altering their perceptions of a perhaps heretofore unquestioned institution like the CBS Evening News. But when communication fails, a counterproductive third result occurs.
The third result is the inadvertent re-release of aural garbage into the atmosphere. If a plunderphonic piece does not effectively criticize, it runs the risk of being a mimetic slave to the material that it had originally sought to question. I asked Mark if the ECC were concerned about the fact that they may indeed be reproducing precisely the problem which they seek to fight: "This is a tricky issue, very tricky," he answered. "If you depend on the success or celebrity of the source of your samples, you're not adding value. You're not making it your own or putting your mark on it. It's a matter of Gestalt…the whole song must rock more than the sum of its samples. This is one reason why we often go for unknown or unidentifiable sample sources – the audience has no preconceptions about them. That way, if someone takes our work as a satire of something specific, it often is not directly connected with the subject of the satire. But we have exceptions (and violations) of our rules, of course…Dan Rather is a real newscaster, not just some unidentifiable local news anchor from a small town. We thought it would carry more weight if the listener knew that this violent guy was actually one of the most famous newscasters in the world."
There are those who would say that, in fact, there is no way for the ECC to avoid the trap of the system they attack. By using the symbols, voices, and ideas of mass media, the inescapable end of their work may be nothing more than singing in unison (or maybe harmonizing) with the corporate choir. In this view, the ECC use the tools of the master to build a new house, only to watch helplessly as the master purchases the new structure, and uses it for some trivial purpose.
The reality is only slightly less harsh. It may be that the only workable challenges to the undemocratic monolith of corporate media are those that run risks, not only including the possibility of being ineffectual, but even of hindering one's own cause. This rather frightening circumstance is the one in which the plunderphonic program occurs. Plunderphonics absolutely does have the potential to affect the thinking of a segment of the population, if only in terms of empowering the converted, but possibly also in terms of giving voice and legitimacy to an alternative perception of mass media. The rub is that plunderphonics simply imbued with the proper ideology and methodology is insufficient. Plunderphonics backed by an intelligent manifesto and an eye toward molding a new language of discarded sound may be insufficient, too.
To function as art, as a political motivator, and as entertainment…the music has to be very, very good. If the precision of the message and the absurdity of the humor are not dead-on, then the new language becomes jumbled, and reverts to sounding like the discarded pool of noise from which it was extracted. The new language becomes indistinguishable from any idea-less retread of old source material (remember the ’80s?). Such is the fine line that a group like the ECC must walk.
By Ben Tausig