Verisimilimusic: Synthesis of the Real

Posted by , February 3rd, 2013
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[All the songs within this post can be downloaded in this zip file.]


All musical sound carries with it a development of sensations that are already familiar and exhausted, and which predispose the listener to boredom in spite of the efforts of all the innovatory musicians.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


Only 24 hours in a day
Only 12 notes a man can play

Beastie Boys (“Shadrach”, 1989)


At the beginning of the 20th century The Futurists, a group of artists from the Italian avant-garde, launched an “insolent challenge to the stars,” aligning themselves with the spirit of youth. The musicians of the movement lead an audacious revolt, realizing the noise of the Industrial Age had drowned out Beethoven’s Eroica, and watching as the sound of old masters was hung around the necks of music students like an ideological noose, renounced the past in an attempt to forge a future free of “the absurd swindle that is called well-made music.” In 1910, Francesco Balilla Pratella offered his Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, attacking music academies and conservatories as snares that intended to render impotent any artistic insight, perpetuate traditionalism and combat any effort to widen the musical field. Pratella declared inexorable war on everything that repeats, prolongs or exalts the past at the expense of the future. Calling on the recklessness of youth, Pratella hoped to steer future generations away from convention because he believed schools prostituted the glories of the past and were used as “insidious arms of offense against budding talent” that limited study to a “useless form of acrobatics floundering in the perpetual last throes of a behindhand culture that is already dead.” Futurism displayed an ever-growing hostility towards the exhumation of old works that prevented revolutionary innovation.

Following in Pratella’s footsteps, Luigi Russolo offered his own Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises, outlining a way to liberate music from the confines of religious reverence, pleasantry and grace, and instead, supplant the comfortable melodies of the orchestra with the noise of trams, steam engines, foundries and printing presses. Russolo believed that substituting noise for sound would enrich the imagination of the listener, challenging him to experience new unexpected sensual pleasure. Rather than considering a symphony as music and the roar of industry as noise, Russolo created new instruments that intoned noise, allowing musicians a limitless range of new sounds that strove to incorporate the noise of everyday life rather than attempt to drown it out. The abrupt shock of a car backfire or a hammer fall, once synthesized into the Futurist paradigm, could lose its footing as an intrusion, and instead, become a crescendo in a new assemblage of sounds. The potential of transforming noise into art obviously went beyond the novelty of a printing press acting as a rhythmic device or steam pipe replacing the brass section of an orchestra. For if the province of music could include rather than exclude the noises of the day, and if the natural harmony and rhythm of those noises could be synthesized into a new musical language, it could aestheticize aspects of the everyday, transforming banalities into agencies of transcendence and distractions into ecstatic relays. The revolutionary aspect of the movement wasn’t in creating a proto-industrial band out of factory machinery; Futurist music was revolutionary in its call for the proletarianization of sound.


The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past, feeling and singing with the spirit open to the future, drawing inspiration and aesthetics from nature, through all the human and extra-human phenomena present in it.
Francesco Balilla Pratella (Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, 1910)


We want the airwaves
We want the airwaves
We want the airwaves, baby
If rock is gonna stay alive
The Ramones (“We Want the Airwaves”, 1981)




In their annihilation of the old masters, the Futurists displayed precognition of the “schools” that would follow them. Electronic, punk, industrial and sample-based music all include aspects of Futurism. Just as those who came after them created their own instruments, Luigi Russolo created intonarumori, or “noise intoners.” These acoustic noise generators were parallelepiped wooden boxes with a conical speaker and crank, operating as a basic proto-synthesizer. Borrowing design elements from the loudspeaker, drum and the phonograph, Russolo designed the intoners to offer a range of pitch and amplitude, which were classified according to noise family and register (e.g., roars, whistling, murmurs, beating, shouts, screeching, creaking, etc.). The first concert of Futurist music in April 1914 caused a riot, which is evidence of a strong opening salvo in the Futurist’s inexorable war on past traditions. Unfortunately, further Futurist conflicts went unrealized as concerts around Europe were cancelled during the outbreak of World War I, and many of Russolo’s intoners were destroyed or lost.

There are a number of musicians who were directly influenced by the Futurists, most notably Varèse, Stravinsky and Antheil, but corollary is clear in those who may have been unaware of Russolo and Pratella, but who approached music with a re-creative point of view that is comparably Futurist. Likewise, the methodologies employed in music are progenies of Futurism. While the individuals and their techniques may all be different, they all share in the Futurist desire to explore new realms.


The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


Bring the noise!
Public Enemy, 1987


Russolo’s intonarumori and two examples of  industrial music that similarly intoned noise:
»» Luigi Russolo — “Intonarumori: Ronzatore (buzzer)” (1914)
»» Einsturzende Neubauten — “Abstieg & Zerfall” (1981)
»» Throbbing Gristle — “Hamburger Lady” (1981)



The earliest innovations in electronic music were made by engineers who, sharing in the vanguard impulse of Futurism, didn’t stop in a desire to create new instruments but created an entirely new form of music. In the 1940s, Pierre Schaeffer developed musique concrète, a practice of abstracting recordings (concrete sounds) into a musical form. This was a complete departure from the traditional practice of notating ideas and having those notations performed by musicians armed with instruments. Schaeffer’s process disregarded notations, musicians and instruments. Like the Futurists before him, Schaeffer intoned the noise around him, but instead of creating an acoustic instrument to mimic noise, he manipulated electronic recordings.

Pierre Schaeffer was neither the first, nor was he alone, in the development of electronic music. There are a number of early electronic instruments—Clavecin électrique, Theremin, Telharmonium, Ondes Martenot—dating back to the mid 1700s, but it wasn’t until the advent of synthesis that the metaphysics of music, the notion of what music is, took on plasticity.


»» Pierre Schaeffer — “Masquerage” (1948)


The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.

Jean Baudrillard (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981)


Your persona’s drama, that you acquired in high school in actin’ class
Your whole aura is plexiglass

O.C. (“Time’s Up”, 1994)


To think about synthesis today, is, largely, to think about synthesizers, which is due to the fact that audio synthesis has itself been synthesized. In other words, most people think of the sound that comes from a synthesizer as synthesis itself. To appreciate the significance of where sound can come from today, we should remember a time when synthesis was a process of building a sound from scratch and not just, as we know it today, a matter of turning the device on. There was a time when there was no device; there was only a process, a way of bringing sound into being, creating a platform from which sound slowly materialized.

Early forms of synthesis involved building: using an oscillator to generate a waveform (sine, square, sawtooth), controlling the frequency of the generated waveform (variable pitch v. fixed pitch), controlling the amplitude (volume), and creating any filters that may shape the tone. Once a single sound was created, it could be recorded onto magnetic tape (saved) and either looped, spliced or played in conjunction with another created sound. The process of creating sound was revelatory, but laborious.


»» John Pfeiffer — “Orders” (Electronomusic, 1968)
[Pfeiffer was an engineer for RCA Records, responsible for producing many of the labels classical recordings. In addition to working on other’s records, Pfeiffer recorded an LP of his own audio experiments. The record featured an orchestra of sound produced by instruments that he built: Inharmonic Side-Band, Contraformer, Parametric Blocks, Metric Transperformer, Alphormer, Duotonic Transform, and Ordered Simpliformer.]





Many of the early commercial releases of electronic music were offered, thematically, as astrological or science fiction works: Forbidden Planet, Apocalypse, Fantasy in Space, Silver Apples of the Moon, Le Voyage, etc. And the record labels were right to liken the new sound of electronic music to aliens visiting earth, because the music shared very few auditory commonalities with anything heard prior. To make matters more petri dish-ish, electronic music was presented like a scientific dissertation. And rightfully so, as most of the electronic musicians were audio engineers who looked more like lab researchers than members of the avant-garde; just as most of the equipment was available only to audio professionals, academics or researchers. Those early recordings sound studious, methodic and analytical precisely because the people making the recordings were studiously analyzing the methods of synthesis and presenting their findings as such.


»» Henry Jacobs — “Sonata for Loudspeaker” (1957)



In the 1960s companies began making commercial synthesizers. The earlier modular synthesizers, such as the Moog, were difficult to transport or tour with, as the size, weight, set-up time and erratic operation caused by temperature fluctuation made the units impractical. But as the devices became more accessible to musicians, there was a widespread appearance of synthesizers in popular music. No longer relegated to the inquisitive scientist, electronic instrumentation turned up in works by artists such as Herbie Hancock, Genesis, The Doors and many others. Synthesizers, whether integrated into popular music or presented alone on novelty albums such as Switched on Bach, were still obviously not “real” sounding, and were not mistaken for traditional acoustic or electric instruments.


I almost think that in the new great music, machines will also be necessary and will be assigned a share in it. Perhaps industry, too, will bring forth her share in the artistic ascent.
Ferruccio Busoni (Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, 1907)


A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing and stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking
That’s entertainment…

The Jam (“That’s Entertainment”, 1981)


Synthesized music slowly outgrew a position of novelty during the ’60s, from being used as a spooky backdrop to being functionally integrated into musical repertoires. Stevie Wonder was a big promoter of synthesizers and used a large variety in his music. Pink Floyd made synthesizers a part of their milieu, convincingly blending the new sounds with traditional electric guitars. Kraftwerk embodied synthesis both in sound and persona. And it was this widespread use that made it possible for the synthesizer to become available to the household consumer.

As newcomers took the synthesizers, a new set of needs developed. No longer the domain of the electronic engineer versed in the operation and design of sound, the process of audio synthesis proved inaccessible to the novice, and so, manufacturers developed pre-programmed sounds that required no creation. Banks of sounds were stored in the synthesizer allowing players to toggle from one sound to another, on top of the former function that allowed creating sounds from scratch. This either/or ability afforded the luxury of experimentation as well as standard, reliable sounds at the touch of a button. Today, every synthesizer includes a “preset” bank of sounds created by the manufacturer as well as a “user” bank — empty placeholders for new sounds created by the user. This is precisely where metaphysics emerge.


Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


Now I close my eyes
And I wonder why
I don’t despise
Now all I can do
Is love what was once
So alive and new

Billy Idol (“Eyes Without a Face”, 1984)


In The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes established that the author was a modern figure that emerged from the Middle Ages with empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation. In our age of capitalist positivism the single attributable voice behind a creation has found ultimate prestige, has been supremely epitomized, in the personification of the author. Much of how we understand a creation comes from what we understand of the creator—his life, his passions, his tastes—and our criticism of that work is a criticism of him. It’s easy to think of a written work, to borrow a line from Barthes, as a “tissue of quotations” drawn from innumerable sources, developed through culture, an anterior multiplicity that eventually becomes a cohesive original whole.

If we think of music the same way, as a tissue of quotations, and the music made from someone is the product of their learning, their interests, their surroundings, then surely the disjointed intrusion of “preset” sounds seems significant, if only as a source completely dislocated from the creator’s life, passion and taste. The implications seem insignificant on an individual level, as a composer is free, and should feel free, to use any instrument at his disposal, and a synthesizer is as likely a candidate as a guitar or piano. However, if we consider the implications of manufactured “preset” sounds in toto, it’s worth raising an eyebrow.

It behooves a company to be dominant in its respective field, to saturate the market, making its product the product to own. A high volume of sales is a sign of healthy business. In the case of a synthesizer, saturating a market with a product containing preexisting sounds means that the manufacturer has a share, as a kind of de facto collaborator, in whatever compositions result from its device.

Of course other instruments besides the synthesizer have consequential impact on sound (“she plays a Rickenbacker“, “he’s got that Marshall sound”, “it’s a Leslie speaker”), and the design and implementation of the manufacturer is, to some degree, entangled in the resulting composition. Where the ontological scale begins to tip is in the shift from sound that operates as sound, and sound that imitates other sound.



Those who talk about originality the most are the ones who most object to deviation, and in a few years it may be the other way around. Some day everybody will think just what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems like what is happening.
Andy Warhol (interview with Art News, 1963)


I was beat, incomplete
I’d been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new

Madonna (“Like a Virgin”, 1984)


In his 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin describes how reproduction makes the act of creation ubiquitous, thereby rendering indistinguishable the specific time and place of a work of art, changing not only its context, but also its “aura.” As an example, Benjamin differentiates between a painter, who renders and environment onto the pictorial plane by hand, and a photographer, who using the eye in favor of the hand, renders the environment in an instant. Since the eye can render faster than the hand, the process of creation was significantly accelerated. With the technological advancements of today, creation usurps process, moments of rendering are infinitesimal, and, in the case of Barthes’ theory of the death of the author, there remain very few traces of the creator in that which is instantaneously created.

Reproduction acts as imitation, standing in for creation. Andy Warhol’s art was revolutionary by virtue of its ontology. In elevating a reproduction to the status of an original, the “fake” nature of the work critiqued authenticity, asking, “What does it mean to be real?”




That same critical examination of being is embedded in the synthesizer. Once the device shifted from offering the ability to create sound to an already existing sound, a mimetic process stood in for a creative one. Synthesis took on a Warholian fake-as-real existence.


You’ve got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real
Van Halen (“Jump”, 1983)
[The first preset on Oberheim OB-XA synthesizer, “A1”, was the sound used for Van Halen’s #1 hit single, “Jump”]




In capitalist societies profit comes from production, and the worth generated by goods and services is correlative to the efficiency of the exchange process. The means of production, then, are most beneficial to the system when they are streamlined. It makes sense then that mass production, industrialization and repeatability function well in the capitalist system. It’s also logical that such efficiencies would extend beyond markets, or create markets where none existed before, as capitalism thrives on growth, which explains turning everything from education and prison to DNA and medicine into private property.

Capitalist logic is at work in music as well. Not just in the obvious way, such as manufacturers trying to control the market, buying out competitors and mass-producing their goods, but in more subtle ways, such as how we think of creating music. As the recording industry became a Leviathan in the sea of sound, the process by which recordings were made began to change. In a studio, one of the most laborious processes is recording the drums. A drum kit has several pieces, each piece makes a sound, there are dramatic differences in frequency and volume of each piece and, depending on how many microphones are used, the synchronicity of multiple sound waves must be in phase or the sound will be incoherent. Not to mention the physicality of a drum kit. More than any other instrument, a drum kit is really played, with swinging arms and stomping feet. It’s a tight arrangement that encircles the player, and trying to discreetly place microphones to optimally capture sound can be tricky. Setting up an arrangement of microphones on a drum kit can take an entire day. Microphones are often thwacked by an errant drumstick or damaged by powerful bursts of air. The amount of time, the cost of damaged microphones and the unreliability of the resultant sounds all weigh on the means of production. A capitalist answer to such a situation would be to industrialize the drummer.

The Linn Drum, while not distinguished as the first drum machine, nevertheless set itself apart by becoming ubiquitous in music. As a machine it had the ability to do what it’s human counterpart could not. The Linn Drum was consistent in tempo, volume, dynamics, and required very little set-up time. Further, the device used digital samples of real drums in an effort to sound natural.

The advantage offered by the Linn Drum on the record industry’s means of production is quantifiable by its use value. There were countless songs released in the 1980s featuring the device. It proved better than a drummer, and so there was a paradigm shift, machines replaced humans in the cycle of production, and drummers, scared of losing their jobs, quickly became “programmers” instead of performers. Metaphysics gets its hooks in at this point, as the likes of Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and ABBA all adopt machinery in place of humanity, significantly altering what Walter Benjamin would call the “aura” of sound. Interestingly, as the Top 40 was inundated with the Linn Drum, and as hit after hit was built from the same identical “real” sounding rhythmic foundation, an existential anxiety developed, however unconscious, in the language of popular music.





The historic causality in art’s will-to-form, or what art historian Alois Riegl termed Kunstwollen, is embedded with the world in which art exists. Human volition shapes man’s relationship to the world, and we witness the mechanic will of the Linn Drum forming in the ’80s pop hits it took part in creating:


Now the day has come
Soon he will be released
Glory hallelujah!
We’re building the perfect beast

Don Henley (“Building the Perfect Beast”, 1984)


I hear it all the time
But they never let you know
On the TV and the radio

Falco (“Der Kommissar”, 1982)


If they say why, why?
Tell them that it’s human nature

Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”, 1983)


I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand

Prince (“I Would Die 4 U”, 1984)


The drum machine colonized part of the musical landscape, both in sound and idea. The titles of the songs that employed the Linn Drum—”Take On Me”, “Maneater”, “Don’t You Want Me”, “Danger Zone”, “You’re the Voice”, “Borderline”—share in the historic causality.

The capitalist solution to the bottleneck in production, replacing the drummer with a machine, solved the problem of time and money, but introduced a series of new problems. Specifically, the Benjaminian “aura” of the music of the ’80s was noticeably transformed. The drum machine gives the perfect drum performance: consistent tempo, flawless execution, balanced dynamics, and, as a result, the perfectly authentic performance makes it sound completely inauthentic, devoid of a human “aura.”





Musicians must substitute for the limited variety of tones possessed by orchestral instruments today the infinite variety of tones of noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)


 Ahhh, this stuff is really fresh!
Fab Five Freddy (“Change the Beat”, 1982)


As the era of Synth Pop blended with the era of hip-hop, the looping function of the digital sampler replaced the preset sound banks of the synthesizer. Looking back at the larger cultural developments that coincided with the sampler, we find Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a theory of the hyperreal. Just as an operation manual provides instruction on how to use a sampler, Baudrillard’s treatise provides instruction on how to think of the sampler. [And, by way of a footnote in historic causality, when Linn Electronics went out of business, Roger Linn—inventor of the Linn Drum—went to work for the Akai Company, the pioneer of the digital sampler.]

Baudrillard describes the hyperreal as an allegory of death, reinforced by its own destruction, no longer an object of representation, but a fetish of a lost object. The hyperreal exists where the difference between the real and imaginary is effaced. “The unreal is no longer that of dream or of fantasy, of a beyond or within,” but a hallucinatory resemblance of the real with itself. Today, it is reality itself that is contaminated by its simulacrum.

A sampler operates in the domain of verisimilitude, or, to flip the Baudrillardian postulate of the simulacrum: the substitution of “fake” sound is never that which conceals the “real” sound — it is the “real” sound which conceals that there is nothing real. “Fake” sound is real.





Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes.
Michael Davis (The Poetry of Philosophy: On Aristotle’s Poetics)


She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love

Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”, 1995)


Photography “freed the hands” of the graphic artists in the same way that synthetic music has “freed the ears” of musicians. The mimetic function of electronic music has enabled auditory stand-ins to do the work formerly required of their human counterpart. Just as the Linn Drum replaced drummers, the digital sampler replaced musicians.

Ours is a time of “verisimilimusic,” where meta-sound functions as sound. As it is reproduced, verisimilimusic becomes not only that which can be reproduced, but that which is always-already reproduced. Never extinguished or totally absorbed in one another, verisimilimusic and actual music overflow into one another at the level of simulation. An example of how this affects music:

»» The Charmels – “As Long as I’ve Got You” (1967)
»» Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.” (1993)
»» El Michels Affair — “C.R.E.A.M. instrumental” (2005)

The leitmotif of the Wu-Tang Clan’s song is a sample taken from The Charmels. This we can call the first order simulation: a song that samples another song. The initial creation (Charmels), and the secondary creation (Wu-Tang), which colonizes the first, resulting in two “original” creations. Next, the El Michels Affair, a funk revival band, perform an instrumental versions of the Wu classic, which is essentially an imitation of the initial creation (Charmels) in the arrangement of the secondary creation (Wu-Tang), rendering a third “original” creation, and, a second order simulation.

The El Michels song is hyperreal, as it functions beyond representation in the realm of simulation, swirling in its own en abîme, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, following his enemy into the hall of mirrors only to find himself surrounded by reflections.




But this does not mean that sound and meta-sound are in some sense extinguished through total absorption in one another. Hyperrealism is their mutual fulfillment, a reciprocal overflowing, which functions within the realm of simulation. Returning to Baudrillard, “Like the distancing effect within a dream, which tells one that one is dreaming, but only in behalf of the censor, in order that we continue dreaming, hyperrealism is an integral part of coded reality, which it perpetuates without modifying.” To look at the hyperreal inversely, today, reality itself is hyperrealistic.


We’ll always be together
However far it seems
We’ll always be together
Together in electric dreams

Giorgio Moroder (“Together in Electric Dreams”, 1984)


We’ve got no future
We’ve got no past

Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls”, 1984)



John Lennon was onto something, though a perpetual simulation of that which represents what once was real probably wasn’t what he had in mind when he sang, “imagine no possessions.” But in our digital age of simulation, where possession itself is superfluous, we are being forced to imagine no possessions. The digital paradigm has allowed the intangible to simulate the tangible, making it possible to listen to an album without touching it, without seeing it, without it being. And isn’t that incorporeality a perfect realization of the essence of music? The beauty of music is its ability to express ideas that can only be expressed through sound. I am old, from a generation of vinyl-loving Luddites, but I concede that the untouchability of digital music makes a perfect analog (excuse the pun) for the spectral beauty of conveying ideas unhampered by a tether to the terrestrial plane.

Of course, making digital ghosts of your music collection wreaks havoc on capitalism, evidenced by the language that addresses ownership. Today, a “pirate” is someone who listens to music they don’t own. The action hasn’t changed: we still listen to music. The problem, of course, is the digital paradigm lends itself to the idea of simulation, replication, plasticity of being, making possession both intangible and irrelevant. Ownership is fluid, and just as the Walkman made music portable, digitalization made music immaterial. We’re living in the uncomfortable age—the teenage years—of technology transcending the capitalist system. Our economy functions by way of ownership of goods, with profit generating from production of such goods. The glaring fault in referring to someone listening to a digital song as a “pirate” is in the difference in the means and modes of production. A physical piece of music (an LP, CD or cassette) involves material, a factory, the transport and storage of the product, and, of course, the labor involved. With the non-physical, a single mouse-click entails all of the previous physical forces, without the material, without the factory, without the labor. The physical world has been outsourced in the digital music paradigm. Everything is simulation. And to most people, that isn’t worth much, however valuable it is.

While everyone was largely in agreement that the cost of a compact disc was too high, the idea that it should cost something was agreeable. It was forged from material, through labor, into a product, resulting in profit that was then returned to the forces of production. The difference between that and anyone clicking “copy” is glaring. It’s a huge difference. Just as there was fear that people would stop attending the symphony when sheet music was printed, just as there was fear that recorded music would replace live music, just as there was fear that blank cassettes would kill the record industry, there is fear that digital reproduction is quashing the rights of possession—making pirates of everyone. The question that causes discomfort in our culture today goes beyond the idea of what an intangible object is worth, the bigger question lies in the evolution of the idea of ownership. In a time when we’re being asked to renounce our privacy, so goes with it the property of what is private.

The answer isn’t simple, and our age demands thought if we are to reconcile simulation and the irrelevance of originality with the capitalist notion of private property, but clinging to the past has historically proven to be injurious, and, what’s more, is usually the province of the despotic.





A musical example of arguing simulated ownership presents itself in the beef between the Beatnuts and Jennifer Lopez:

»» Barrabás — “Hi-Jack” (1974)
»» Enoch Light — “Hi-Jack” (1975)
»» Beatnuts — “Watch Out Now” (1999)
»» Jennifer Lopez — “Jenny From the Block” (2002)

With their 1999 song “Watch Out Now,” the Beatnuts sampled a disco song, “Hijack” from Enoch Light’s 1975 LP, The Disco Disque, which was a cover of the song “Hi-Jack,” originally written and recorded by the Spanish band Barrabás in 1974. In its manifestation as a Beatnuts composition, “Hijack” was already three generations old. Then, Jennifer Lopez, in a 2002 effort to solidify her hood-born credibility, combined a sample from “Watch Out Now” with the 1987 classic rap anthem “South Bronx,” by Boogie Down Productions, in her “Jenny From the Block.” It’s arguable whether Lopez convinced anyone of her street credibility, but what’s certain is the fact that she angered the Beatnuts by biting “Watch Out Now,” who fired back at her with a diss track, “Confused Rappers.”


Can’t forget to stay real
To me it’s like breathing

Jennifer Lopez


See, you sorta like a bird
And you like to repeat

The Beatnuts


Both Lopez and the Beatnuts behave like analog privateers in a digital world of simulated reproduction, clinging to outmoded ideas of ownership. From its foundation, “Watch Out Now” was a mimetic function, a former reality reabsorbed into a simulated hyperreality. The antecedent of “Watch Out Now” was “Hijack,” and when the Beatnuts heard their simulation re-simulated by Jennifer Lopez, they entered into the Droste effect, a hall of mirrors, an endless loop.


Freeze! Nobody move
And this here sounds like nobody’s groove
Original, straight from the studio
I ain’t trying to sound like the next estúpido

The Beatnuts


I’m real, I thought I told you
Jennifer Lopez


What would possess you to use
My records, like I’m here for you to abuse

The Beatnuts


Nothin’ phony with us
Jennifer Lopez


It’s an Aristotelian clusterfuck of mimesis. The Beatnuts act as Bruce Lee, chasing their enemy, Jennifer Lopez, into the hall of mirrors, which is the capitalist idea of private property, and once inside, they are surrounded by a Barthesian tissue of quotations and a Benjaminian mechanical reproducibility, which makes everything ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless and free.





The human condition is analogous to the digital sampler. The sampler allows taking a snapshot of audio and rendering it as an endless loop, a repetitive re-telling of the past, inviting new interpretations of past truths — making the solid fluid again. The human condition is a struggle to evolve, a constant movement, an unabated desire for change, amidst the same recurring fundamental questions of being. A constant un-gluing and re-gluing of reality; testing the ontological hold on perception, scanning the horizon of beliefs for the next wave in awakening that will shudder our hold on what is real. The whole process acts as a mise en abîme, a scene within a scene, constantly recurring.


Because you’re empty and I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past

Pavement (“Gold Soundz”, 1994)


We can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind

Men Without Hats (“The Safety Dance”, 1983)


At the end of 1857, in Notebook IV of The Grundrisse, Marx drew a similar analogy with regard to how crises form in capitalism. Using a Hegelian dialectical treatment of the nature of limits on growth and expansion, Marx shows how limits are more ideal than real through annihilation of space by time.


For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a mean of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old way of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production. But from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.
Karl Marx (The Grundrisse, 1858)


Our cultural development — as the result of capitalism, or, as the cause of capitalism — behaves much the same way with respect to limits. That is to say, we cannot abide limits, we must turn them into barriers which we can circumvent or transcend. This is clear in music: the acoustic guitar was a barrier overcome by the electric guitar, which in turn was a barrier set ablaze by Jimi Hendrix, while today the real, actual physical guitar is superfluous, as its sounds can be simulated or sampled digitally. The same is true of the limits revealed by the Futurist prospect: the Futurists sought to transcend the barrier of the orchestra by intoning noise, which resulted in a widened spectrum of available sound sources; That variety of sound sources later became a barrier to the idea of a sound source, which was overcome by synthesis, or, the open-ended creation of sound rather than generated sound; finally, the all-inclusive synthetic starting point, ironically, became its own barrier that was circumvented with the sampler’s ability to reconstitute the real into the simulated hyperreal.


The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past, feeling and singing with the spirit open to the future, drawing inspiration and aesthetics from nature, through all the human and extra-human phenomena present in it.
Francesco Balilla Pratella (Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, 1910)


Yo, just give thanks it’s the new shit
For y’all to ever try to sleep on this is stupid

The Roots (“Act Fore”, 1999)


The fact that music, like the culture it comes from, cannot abide limits means that the process of music will constantly transcend by imagining the limit as a barrier, and, as Marx warned, never actually overcome the limits. Put another way, desire is most satisfied by unsatisfied desire. Every obstacle to desire generates a desire for an obstacle. The feedback loop.

The pursuit to shrug convention, to find new sounds, to overcome barriers, to change and adapt, can be seen on one hand, as an ouroboric cycle, endlessly frustrated, and on the other hand, as an immanent impulse that strives for purity. However, purity itself can exist as contradiction constantly overcome and constantly posited, which is often where we find the line blurred between the real and the imagined.

Think of how advertising slowly transformed the view of beautiful women by way of presenting an image of a beautiful woman. Growing out of this ideal image of beauty, photographs of actual women were then metamorphosed, first through airbrushing and later through Photoshop; the ideal was simulated. Today, actual women are simulating the ideal by surgically reconstructing themselves, making themselves an imitation of something that was never real to begin with. In record numbers, people are getting plastic surgery, following Bruce Lee, the Beatnuts and Jennifer Lopez into the hall of mirrors…

Commercial jingle for Lightworks Cosmetics written by electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott, along with the re-simulation of “Lightworks” by hip-hop pioneer J Dilla:

»» Raymond Scott — “Lightworks” (1967)
»» J Dilla — “Lightworks” (2006)


I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

Velvet Underground (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”, 1967)


Don’t know how to take it, don’t know where to go
My resistance running low
And every day the hold is getting tighter and it troubles me so
I’m nobody’s fool and yet it’s clear to me
I don’t have a strategy

ABBA (“Under Attack”, 1981)


Because music exists in the meta-reality of imitation, reproduction, and the Barthesian “tissue of quotations,” the resulting distanciation flummoxes our bearing on what is real and what is imaginary. It’s within these coordinates that a song like Selena Gomez’s “Love You Like a Love Song” is grounded. No longer in the realm of actuality, the Gomez song binds itself to reality not with anything actual, but with that which stands-in for actual, a simulation. Rather than a limitation of physical distance, as in the example of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” the distance that Gomez has to conquer is metaphysical, and by expressing her love, in turn, through an expression of love, she dwells in the domain of the unreal, the age from which her song arose. The “love song” she references is a reflection of love, making her song a reflection of a reflection.




We will be forever in debt to the Futurists for making a critical crack in the façade of the idea of what is “well-made” music. By intoning noise the Futurists prepared the world for new ways of thinking about music, new forms of music, and a wider field of musicians. Everyone from Schönberg to the Bomb Squad is visible in the viewfinder of the Futurist forecast. Where the foresight of the Futurists fell short, however, was in their complete dismissal of the past. It reveals a nascent fascistic tendency to think the past can simply be exterminated and a new, past-less future can be born. The Futurists likely could have imagined the synthesizer as something to grow out of intoned noise, but the idea of a new machine primarily reconstituting what once was, a kind of past intoner, was outside their ideological wheelhouse.

Examining the volition of a culture — the will-to-form of creativity forged in the developments of the era — provides a much more detailed picture of that culture. Thus, the Industrial Revolution begat the Futurists, who consequently thought the past was dead as they were witness to man being replaced by machine. The age of the drum machine was nestled between the Space Age and the Digital Revolution, a time marked by the disillusionment of the Cold War, dubiousness regarding the promises of a Jetsons-esque future, and the early signs of consumer fatigue in a never-ending cycle of planned obsolescence. Looking at culture in this broad view, seeing the embedded historic causality and how that shapes mankind’s relationship to the world, we can examine today’s culture with a critical appreciation not only of what’s at work in forming thought, but, what the idea of the future looks like through such a formation of thought.

Just as surely as we are living in what Roland Barthes predicted as author-less times, we are living in times where technology has outpaced our belief systems. Considering that the establishment of the author emerged with rationalism, which also saw the emergence of capitalism, it would stand to reason that technology today has overrun the constraints of our economic system. The Digital Revolution has returned us, in many ways, to an era of the commons. The ironic short-circuit of such a broad view is that capitalism has all but replaced communism throughout the world, while at the same time, the volition of the author-less age is, essentially, communistic. That is to say, we are practicing a digital form of communism within a system of capitalism.


There’s a new game
We like to play you see
A game with added reality

Depeche Mode (“Master and Servant”, 1984)


Tell me how do I feel
Tell me now, how do I feel

New Order (“Blue Monday”, 1983)


Just as the Futurists couldn’t foresee the sampler making bricolage of the past, the architects of the digital paradigm couldn’t envision a wide scale usage of the technology that turns everything into a commodity while, at the same time, turning every commodity into free source material. It’s a digital feedback loop. Just as the camera freed the hand of the painter, and the synthesizer freed the ear of the musician, digitalization freed the creator from the process of creation. Pink Floyd, dude, “welcome to the machine.”

The pop charts are dominated by songs that act more like commodities than songs, while those exploring new ideas are plagued with the baggage of limitation, often resulting in “new” music that sounds reminiscent of the old, if not an imitation. The deadlock is that while we have the ability to reach far beyond what we know, we’re limited by a belief system, or a mode of production, or a constellation of being, that has no way of comprehending the environment in which it operates. Though our practice contains the intimation of a new era, our way of thinking is bound by old beliefs. Marx already provided us with the proposition to resolve this: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). It was in Capital that Marx offered this classical concept of ideology as a false consciousness, misrecognition of social reality which is already a part of reality itself. It’s this constitutive naïveté that creates the feedback, generates a blind spot in our view of the future, and keeps us in the Droste-like loop of repetition.

What I propose is not an answer, but instead, a shift in view, an inversion: to approach the author-less times with a refusal of fixed meaning, a refusal to discover, a refusal to think of ourselves as discoverers. The problem with trying to discover something new is the continued result of discovering something old, because to discover is to locate a limit, to determine an endpoint from which to return to the beginning. As a “new” logical procedure, as illogical as it may seem, we should invert discovery, and instead focus on the receiver, the listener. The listener is the space on which all the elements of creation are addressed. The multiplicities of a sound find unity not in the origin but in the destination. The destination cannot be personal because it is without the history, passion and taste of the creator, but the notion of the creator was born of the notion of private property, which in our new ever-social world is invalid. It seems counter-intuitive to think of music as something other than a stream that flows from a creative source to its recipients, but that is exactly what’s required of us. This new way of thinking harkens back to the Futurist’s revolutionary proletarianization of sound. Appropriating the directional flow is the equivalent of the workers taking control of the means of production. In this new system, free of the fixed idea of authorship, allowing a multiplicity of being, a horizontal field of view that perceives the “tissue of quotations” as part of the whole comes into focus, and the proletarianization of sound makes plural what has thus far been singular, allowing all things to be simultaneous.

My proposal is not something new, nor is it an answer. We are already practicing a new paradigm — art in the time of author-less commons. All I propose is that we start to believe that that is what we are practicing. Our worldview has been framed in the epoch of private property. It would be extremely shortsighted to construct a framework to free us from this, because it is precisely the idea of framework that limits freedom.


Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace
The burning keeps me alive

Transmit the message, to the receiver
Hope for an answer some day
Talking Heads (“Life During Wartime”, 1979)


Identify yourself with the infinite and wander freely in the unfathomable
Zhuangzi (4th century BCE)








Looking back at the Future: In 2009 Luciano Chessa reconstructed Russolo’s noise intoners for a centennial celebration of Futurist Music. A video of the evening of intonarumori performances at Town Hall in New York City can be seen here: “Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners

The past is back: For several years now, modular synthesizer enthusiasts in Portland, Oregon have been meeting to share and build sounds. A kind of pioneering-the-past avant-garde movement.

The past is “back in a big way”: The 2013 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show, where industry professionals unveil all the “new” gear of the year, had a multitude of new modular synthesizers on display.

The past foretelling the future: I went to a local electronics store yesterday looking for an iPod dock for my wife, and right next to the newfangled iPod accessories found a cache of mini-modular synth kits, complete with patch cables and carrying cases.

Finally: Here’s this “Buchla Beat” I can’t get enough of.




Posted by , February 3rd, 2013
Category: Reasoning Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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2 Responses to “Verisimilimusic: Synthesis of the Real”

  1. JRoot Says:

    I love you. (page me)

  2. the drone of queen bees Says:

    Thank you.

    Now, I think, we are in conversation with all things which are simultaneous, and we might be moving from the age of synthesis to synesthesia. The playing field is now being polished. All is one.

    Regarding painters & photographers: rather than the painter putting down the brush and picking up a camera, I believe there was more of a dialog between the two: a feedback loop that questioned the ultimate purpose of each medium, questioned the importance and desire to create, document, record, and question. This slippery slope is quite inviting and treacherous.

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