Ba lance. Rep it tish ion. Com pose zish ion. Mir rors.

Before The Books called it quits, I was fortunate enough to see them perform live. For those who don’t know, The Books are an experimental duo who make music with found sound, recorded sound, and instruments. As Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson says, “Their music is easy to appreciate immediately because they use pretty sounds – it’s not harsh, noisy, they use space […] Ringing guitars, cello, melodic – but it’s also hard to put a finger on, and there’s an in-between-spaces aspect to The Books that I find really appealing” (qtd. in Ganz). Unlike many other artists who use found sound, The Books only use analog audio (most of which is found in thrift stores or other random places). Instead of taking audio from the Internet, they use old answering machine recordings, self-help audiobook cassettes, ancient exercise tapes, etc.

One of their first songs, “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again,” will probably give you a good idea of the kind of music that they make:

When they perform live, The Books project videos that they’ve created (with stock footage). Some of these videos, like the one for “Smells Like Content,” are simple but effective:

The album that houses this track, Lost and Safe, is a deviation from their earlier work. Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink (their first two albums) both used very few vocals and focused mainly on found voices coupled with sparse instrumentation while on the other hand, “Smells Like Content” contains a full set of lyrics. What I like about the songs with vocals is that they’ve put into words what they’re trying to initially express solely with sound. In other words, if you weren’t sure what their agenda was after listening to the first two albums, pick up the third and everything will begin to come together.

For me, The Books are a very philosophical group. After many listens, I have noticed bits of Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and (recently) Deleuze in their work. “Smells Like Content” is a song that explores the purpose of life and asks the same question as modern philosophers, “How might one live?” At their show, Nick Zammuto (the half of the duo that provides vocals) said that his brother went on a hike and recorded his stream of consciousness ramblings which were then used as inspiration for the lyrics. In “Literature and Life,” Deleuze says, “Syntax is the set of necessary detours that are created in each case to reveal the life in things” (2). For this song, syntax is very important: each word is placed in a specific way so as to create a rhythm that exists on its own, without the addition of extra sounds. In “Smells Like Content,” the extra sounds that are included act as a form of repetition and as what Deleuze and Guattari would call a refrain.

In “Of the Refrain,” D&G talk about territory, deterritorialization, milieu, and assemblage (among other things). From what I gather, rhythm is the difference created through repetition and repetition is what moves us from milieu to milieu (while simultaneously creating those milieus). D&G say, “A milieu does in fact exist by virtue of a periodic repetition, but one whose only effect is to produce a difference by which the milieu passes into another milieu. It is the difference which is rhythmic, not the repetition, which nevertheless produces it . . . (346). In simpler words, the difference is what creates the rhythm. I don’t feel it’s necessary to summarize the whole essay, but I will say that in the end, D&G basically say that something called “the Cosmos” is the end game (which probably isn’t the right phrase) of music. They say, “[. . . ] modern philosophy tends to elaborate a material of thought in order to capture forces that are not thinkable in themselves. That is Cosmos philosophy, after the manner of Nietzsche” (377-8). So then music (not pop music, but music that D would deem worthy) does the same thing as philosophy, it seems. The Books are one of my favorite experimental duos because I think it’s obvious that they are trying to express that inexpressible through their music.

For me, “Smells Like Content” is a great song, albeit it doesn’t play with space, silence, and sound in the same way as their earlier material. Essentially, the entire song is about process ontology, the idea that the world is always in flux and that all we can do is think about what is coming into existence. The lyrics tell us, “But then again, the world without end is a place where souls are combined,/ but with an overbearing feeling of disparity and disorderliness./To ignore it is impossible without getting oneself into all kinds of trouble,/despite one’s best intentions not to get entangled with it so much.” The world is complicated and it makes sense for people to want to try to understand it; however, it is impossible to know for sure what the world is and why we’re here, etc. Philosophy is often hard to understand because it is an exploration, not an explanation (and it’s easy to get entangled when exploring different ideas). It’s also notable that the words in the video are spelled out phonetically and that some of them change as they are changing (that sounds confusing, but for example, look at “overarching paradigm” as it appears on the screen). By breaking the words up into other words, we are given a visual example of how everything is just a fragment and part of something bigger.

This fragmentation also reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado.” In this poem, Stein was trying to recapture the rhythm of a flamenco dancer, to paint a portrait of her with words. Stein’s writing uses phrases that almost make sense, but not quite. She forces us to toss away our conventional expectations and accept the open-endedness of her writing. When The Books say, “Meanwhile,/ the statues are bleeding green,” I am reminded of both Stein and Noam Chomsky (and of course, Deleuze). Chomsky’s sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” makes grammatical sense but really means nothing (15). How can ideas be both colorless and green at the same time? Because both “colorless” and “green” have figurative meanings, we interpret them a certain way. Stein’s poem strives to be nonrepresentational, even though the words that she uses also have figurative meanings; the meaning of her poem does not rely on what each of the individual words mean or what they are associated with. There would be no way to paraphrase Stein’s poem. To me, the lyrics of “Smells Like Content” are trying to tell us (with words and music) that conventional categories and ideas aren’t going to work if we’re trying to figure out what life is/what it means to be.

The Books describe how/why we created artificial categories and concepts in order to explain the world. They say, “Then finally, we opened the box, we couldn’t find any rules.” We’re born and never given any guidance about how to live our lives, what life means, what it means to be, etc. There are so many possibilities for what life is and what it could become but because of “faith,” we “decided to go ahead and just ignore them,/despite tremendous pressure to capitulate and fade.” There are so many possibilities that instead of considering them, we usually just fall into the routine/trap of artificial constructions (“So instead, we went ahead to fabricate a catalog/of unstable elements and modicums and particles”). The song ends with, “Expectation -/leads to disappointment. If you don’t expect something big huge and exciting . . ./Usually . . ./I dunno,/just, uh yeah . . .” While these maybe don’t seem like brilliant lyrics at first, I think that they say a lot in very few words. In a world that’s constantly changing, how can we have expectations for anything? As the video progresses, the images trick us. First, it seems like I’m looking at outer space. When I see jellyfish, I now assume I’m looking at the ocean. When the video ends, it is revealed that I was just watching footage from an aquarium the entire time. What if the world is just an aquarium and I’m just a fish? Does it matter?

If anyone is interested, here’s a link to the videos that The Books play at their shows: http://zammutosound.com/videos.cfm

— Kilgore Trout

Chomsky, Noam. Syntactic Structures. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2002. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Essays Critical and Clinical. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. Print.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. trans. Massumi, B. (1998). 1837: Of the Refrain.
In A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum.
pp. 342ñ386.

Ganz, Jacob. “The Books: Making Music Through Found Sound.” NPR. NPR, 04 Sept. 2010. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.npr.org/2010/09/03/129607098/the-books-making-music-through-found-sound&gt;.

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2 Responses to “Ba lance. Rep it tish ion. Com pose zish ion. Mir rors.”

  1. Victor Peterson Says:

    I truly enjoyed your post. Anything that is speaking of Deleuze and Chomsky, especially with concerns to language, is of particular interest to me. The juxtaposition of these two figures is peculiar indeed, especially due to the critique Deleuze offers on Chomsky and his “syntactic structures” in an explication of the ontological implications of his rhizome. Chomsky’s syntactic structure, if I’m correct, is pretty similar to the arborescent structures Deleuze critiques as it presupposes a common semantic structure for language that allowed for future permutations to manifest themselves from. I think this evolution, contra to a creative one as stipulated by Deleuze and his process ontology, is precisely what Deleuze would speak of when language is representative. A sign and signified, or Saussurean, approach to linguistics. Deleuze, in my opinion, in his movement away from arborescent structures, calls for language to be expressive and creative in his “Nomadic Thought” and “Minor Literature”. By operating within the purview of language and along the margins of its philosophical and pragmatist implications, the creation of new forms of thought and expression in juxtaposition to conventional styles, or habituated uses, truly allows for the transformational grammatology of Chomsky to occur. Not the hierarchical “surface” and “deep” structures that Chomsky explores.

    All in all, its amazing to see people experimenting and trying to create new expressions of artistic endeavors along the margins of these predetermined genres. I hope transformation will truly occur and we will be able to participate in the “language games” that Wittgenstien speaks of that will allow us to truly understand these creations with some certainty.

    – Victor Peterson

  2. Howdy! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group?
    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content.
    Please let me know. Thank you

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