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Feature | 03.28.01
Fast Forward

continued from page 1...

Douglas Wolk

The first time I heard Art of Noise's "Beat Box" -- really heard and saw it -- I felt like someone had granted my secret wish. It was 1983, and my neighborhood had just gotten MTV. I was fascinated by the videos, but already frustrated by the idea that the idea of "musical artist" was so easily conflated with "lead vocalist," or, more properly, "person lip-synching the lead vocal part." The video for "Beat Box" was different. A news announcer came on the screen and announced that Art of Noise were in the studio behind him, working on their new record; he went on about them for a minute or so. Then we heard the song itself, accompanied by images of a studio, of London, of a dance club, and never of anyone who appears to be part of the band. Then the initial announcement was repeated, with most of the audio dropped out, so that the speaker was only saying "The noise...the Art of Noise...the noise...." I've never seen the video again. I've never forgotten it.

"Beat Box" is a hammering instrumental, built around a set of syncopated variations on the simplest of one-TWO rhythms. Otherwise, its components aren't conventionally "musical" on their own: dueling motorcycle engines, water bubbling in a tank, an artificially deepened man's voice babbling sounds that are less scat than glossolalia. There's no lead vocal; there's no chorus; its few specific pitches sound accidental. Together with the band's name (inspired by Luigi Russolo's 1913 Futurist pamphlet The Art of Noises), it sounds like an interesting highbrow experiment. In fact, it was pop, as in popular song, and a good one -- real hooks, a real groove, and a real live dance hit. The best kind of theoretical gesture is the kind you can do the Electric Slide to.

That's the part of "Beat Box" that was ahead of its time sonically: ground zero for the last ten years of the electronic underground. The part that's still ahead of our time, eighteen years later, is its glorious egolessness. "Beat Box" was the apparatus of stardom without a star attached. The Art of Noise very specifically didn't show themselves on their record's cover; all we saw was a hand holding a wrench that had just broken a window. If you dug through the obscurantist copy on the package, you could determine that five people shared the writing credit: a producer, a publicist, a programmer, a keyboardist, and a recording engineer. The support staff, in other words -- the people who did the dirty work for the Great Men and Women of Popular Music. The hand with the wrench could have belonged to any of them, or none of them. It's a great joke, and a step toward annihilating the star system that still poisons the way we hear music. Instead of pretending that there was a performer responsible for "Beat Box," they pretended that there was no performer at all -- that they were the art of noise itself, rather than the artist.

[Listen to "Beat Box." Buy the CD.]

Douglas Wolk is a New York-based writer, editor, and musician.

Osvaldo Golijov

I don't really know how things were twenty-five years ago. But I have the feeling that the time is now. For instance: Last month I was arranging and recording in Los Angeles a piece with the Kronos Quartet and the fantastic "Rock en Espa�ol" group Caf� Tacuba. The Tacubas composed this piece with samples ranging from tortilla sellers' whistles in a Mexican market to Silvestre Revueltas' "Sensemaya," and they included their own voices, guitars, and drum machines. The piece uses many simultaneous languages, but all are integrated in a "hyperlanguage" that speaks immediately and directly, and doesn't need to be explained. There is neither a feeling of self-enclosed, (pseudo) scientific experimentation (a stage that was perhaps necessary in the "classical avant-garde"), nor one of rockers trying to "go legit" or symphonic in their aspirations, but one of natural joy and playfulness in the manipulation of the new and heterogeneous media. Technology is cheap, available, and all that you need is people with imagination: no need for research institutions or money. Maybe about a century ago there was a similar situation when the disciplined German trumpets and trombones fell in the hands of the New Orleans black musicians who invented jazz. Last month, the Boston Symphony gave the American premiere of the Passion According to St. Mark, which I wrote last year. They seem pretty nonchalant at the prospect of having a berimbau, a capoeira, a yoruba dancer, and other "unusual" people and elements among them, and paired the piece with a Bach keyboard concerto with Peter Serkin as soloist. Was this amazing sense of aesthetic and technological possibility present twenty-five years ago? I am curious to know how the people who were active then, like Brian Eno, compare the times. Maybe what is unique to these days is the irrelevance of the idea of a musical world with a center and periphery.

[Listen to the Passion According to St. Mark]

Prize-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov was born in Argentina in 1960; he lives in Massachussetts and teaches at the Tanglewood Music Center.

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posted by boonerator

Re: most influential music
In 1970, Sly Stone got me from Whitehorse Yukon to Vancouver BC; 1800 miles in 2 days. We had the first 8 track in the Yukon and even with 2 drivers, those rhythms and drive were the only thing that kept us awake and driving. 30 years later, I remember ...read more

115 comments in this thread.

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