Music Without Authors
In the science-fiction allegory "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges postulated a utopian world in which the idea of the author as we understand it has ceased to exist. "The dominant notion is that everything is the work of one single author," he wrote in 1956, anticipating postmodernist discourse. "Books are rarely signed. The concept of plagiarism does not exist; it has been established that all books are the work of one single writer, who is timeless and anonymous."Five and a half minutes into the second track on Entroducing...(Mo Wax/ffrr), the new disc by DJ Shadow (a/k/a 24-year-old Josh Davis of Davis, California), a voice interrupts the funky flow of hip-hop beats, jazzy piano chords, and wah-wah guitar with an announcement: "I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me, which comes from all the music that I hear...come out. It's like it's not really me that's coming through. The music's coming through me."You might think Shadow is adhering to the old spiritual cliche: "I don't play the music; the music plays me." But he's really subverting it; he literally means that he doesn't play the music. Not even the voice is his. Like everything else on Entroducing..., it's taken (borrowed? lifted? plagiarized?) from another source. And though Davis signs the name DJ Shadow to his work, he and a growing number of electronic auteurs -- Aphex Twin, Alex Patterson with the Orb, Orbital, DJ Spooky, the DJs at England's Ninja Tune label, to name only a few -- have begun to erode conventional notions of authorship in music, opening the window on new possibilities for pop. Using sampling technology, they digitally record and electronically manipulate sounds taken from sources that can range from old funk LPs to pre-release dance singles to, well, anything that makes noise. Sonic collages become new songs that aren't really "written" in the traditional sense of the word. The music is certainly coming through DJs like Shadow and New York's Spooky, but its point of its origin is harder to pin down.Welcome to the Orbis Tertius of electronic music, an often disorienting place where pseudonyms and subgenres seem to proliferate almost as fast as the beats-per-minute. As a loose category that encompasses everything from bass & drums (or jungle) and trip-hop to acid jazz and ambient dub, it's already conquered much of Europe and England, where even American techno artists like Moby and the San Francisco DJ amalgam Hardkiss have fared better than on their home turf. And lately it's been gaining enough critical mass, in terms of media coverage and major-label attention, to break through in a US market that's now suffering from a bad case of post-grunge and post-punk burnout. Steve Fisk, the Seattle producer known for his work with grungesters the Screaming Trees and indie-rockers Unwound, has gone techno with Pigeonhead, a project that just released a solid disc on Sub Pop (The Full Sentence). Instrumental outfits like Chicago's Tortoise and Maryland's Trans Am, who both record for Thrill Jockey, are creating rich, electronic tapestries with rock undertones. Columbia just signed a deal with Ovum Recordings, an indie imprint helmed by techno DJs Josh Wink and King Britt. And remember, Perry Farrell, who's proved in the past that he knows something about cashing in early on cultural trends, put his money on electronic music last summer with the ENIT tour.So far, though, the electronic underground has yet to produce a Nirvana -- an artist capable of taking the world, or at least the US, by storm. There was reason to believe that Moby would be the one before he opted to abandon his sampler for a guitar on his new Elektra release, Animal Rights (see accompanying story). Moby got as far as he did with techno by acting like a rock guy on stage, a model that's now been adopted by the British band Prodigy, who hired a second-rate Johnny Rotten singer last year and in a recent MTV interview were heard distancing themselves from the rave scene. The Chemical Brothers made mainstream inroads last fall, but only with help from Oasis's Noel Gallagher singing on the single "Setting Sun." And a DJ named BT (Brian Transeau) is currently getting some airplay with "Blue Skies," a track from the album Ima (Kinetic/Reprise) that features vocals by Tori Amos."I know KROQ and MTV want to start playing more electronic stuff," offers Moby, "but there's one really big problem: there are only two or three [commercially] viable electronic artists in the whole world. The Prodigy are the only real one; they're really the only band that has personality, a singer, and a good live show. The Chemical Brothers are boring live and so is Tricky, even though he makes great records. There was a period from about 1984 to 1992 when I felt hip-hop, house, and techno were really vital and exciting. But in the last couple of years I've lost interest. I think it's become the musical equivalent of graphic design. It's cool when you look at it, but you never get too worked up over it because it's mostly semi-personality-less."Of course it's the lack of "personality," or of a distinct human voice, that makes the current wave of electronic music interesting and potentially revolutionary. Sampling is nothing new: it's been part of hip-hop's aesthetic since the beginning. The concept of "sampling" sounds from the environment by recording them on loops of magnetic tape has been a cornerstone of experimental music for the last half of the century. Analog and then digital synthesizers have been a part of pop music since the '70s. And, hey, everybody remembers Thomas Dolby's "Blinded Me with Science" from a decade ago.Like punk rock, electronic music has its own secret history, which you can trace back to conceptualist composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen; studio gurus like Brian Eno, Lee Perry, and Bill Laswell; Eurodisco masterminds Jean-Marc Cerrone and Giorgio Moroder; bands like Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire; and the mid-'80s Chicago acid-house scene. In an odd way, the re-emergence of punk as indie rock in the '90s may have inadvertently helped seed the clouds for an incoming techno storm by de-emphasizing the importance of the virtuoso in pop music and spreading the Do It Yourself gospel. With his talent for seamless, fast-paced edits, DJ Shadow may be the Eddie Van Halen of the sampler, but EntroducingÊ.Ê.Ê. is a celebration more of cut-and-paste possibilities than of a cult of personality.On the new Aphex Twin (a/k/a Richard James) disc Richard D. James Album (Elektra), doors can be heard opening and closing in the background as a voice calls his given name. A self-proclaimed eccentric who builds his own synths and samplers, James records in his bedroom, which gives an edge of human warmth to even his coldest techno creations. James has also made a habit of creating music that is at once a celebration and an ironic comment on a particular genre. This time his target is the roiling rhythms of jungle, which he chops into a sporadic, often unsettling barrage of mostly undanceable beats.Artists like Aphex Twin, DJ Shadow, and DJ Spooky, projects like the Orb and Chemical Brothers, collectives like Ninja Tune and Hardkiss, and even producers like the sample-happy Dust Brothers are blurring the lines between the role of the DJ, who plays and comments on music, and the performer, who plays with and produces music. With U2 due to release a jungle-influenced disc, My Bloody Valentine dabbling in techno, and bands like Cibo Matto mixing hip-hop and pop, it seems clear that people are learning to think about the kind of music Borges might have postulated in his fantasy world.