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photo by Eric Kigathi


March 11 , 2004 | feature

"Is nothing sacred?" This was the rallying cry, some years back, concerning sampling. Pioneered by the fledgling hip-hop artists, with its roots in music concrete, sampling is the art of extracting snippets of music from other recordings and re-assembling them into a new piece, usually based around some kind of electronic beat. Theft, it was called. Another phrase applied to it was "art".

Either way, it represented a new approach to sound recording, made possible by digital technology. It gave the music of the late eighties and early nineties its distinctive flavour, before grunge erupted and sent the samplers back underground into the dance clubs (where they were always popular). By the turn of the century (the one we all just went through, not that that "other" turn that our parents talk about), grunge had finally spent itself, and artists like Moby brought sampling out of the garage and back onto the radio.

Moby is an example of the new generation of composers and musicians, whose art was fueled by technology. These artists aren't interested (necessarily) in hearing a complete song. Only the 10-15 seconds that sticks in their heads as an interesting musical turn of phrase. Raised in the MTV generation of sound bites and attention deficit disorder, can we blame them? Is nothing sacred to them? Well, yes. That 15 seconds. Above and beyond that, all bets are off.

Graham Pipher is another example of the new generation's approach to music. The difference between him and Moby is that Graham is Canadian. And he isn't famous. Pipher is 19 years old, a resident of Nelson, BC, a student at Selkirk College, and already a master of sampling and electronic music. Like many of his age, Graham grew up with computers. His comfort level with the technology is far above even mine, someone only ten years his senior. He discovered computers first, and they led him into music.

Long before he started using sampling programs, Graham was his own sampler. He'd hear a song, and unconsciously loop the most catchy 15 seconds in his memory. This is something we've all done at times, but Graham (and others of his generation and talent), went the extra step of locating the source of the snippet, recording it and digitally looping it on his home computer, first using the audio editing software Cooledit 2000.

Pipher appreciates the artistry of those who made the original tracks (as do most of today's sampling artists), but he likes the "elements" of the tracks more. After he isolates the sample of the song he likes, and loops it, he sets about layering "real" instruments on top of it. In other words, the process of making modern, digital music, involves reaching back to old forms, breaking them down to their essentials, and building new structures on that foundation. Forty years ago, this would've been called plagarism. Four hundred years ago, it would have been called paying homage.

For Pipher, the computer is his easel, the samples are his paints and his music is his art. It's subtractive synthesis for him: start with everything and take away the parts you don't like. "My first song was 20 minutes long. That was my director's cut," he says with a smile today. Now his songs are of a more conventional length, only because he has become a better editor.

Writers and filmmakers know all about that process. So do visual artists, to some degree (particularly sculptors). Musicians are new to it, and there was a healthy fear in the early days. In 1989, when the hip hop group De La Soul sampled the sixties surf band The Turtles, they found themselves the targets of a lawsuit. This wasn't the first time the originators of the source material for sampling have taken legal action, and it wouldn't be the last. Since respect for the artistry of the sample artists grown over the years, this kind of action has become less common.

It's a compliment - one artist paying respect to those who went before him (or her) and building their own art on the foundation. Shakespeare borrowed from Marlowe; Snoop Dogg borrows from Stevie Wonder.

Things were different ten years ago, when I was a novice musician. I spent years learning to play my instrument well. I formed a band with some friends, and we practiced and practiced to get our songs, written from scratch, into something like a listenable shape. When we recorded (on cassette 4-track in those days), we layered everything manually, and crossed our fingers that someone wouldn't make a mistake, and necessitate a laborious re-take. We issued our recordings on cassette, and played our songs live, hoping someone important would notice. (Or at least a few girls.)

Young musicians like Pipher aren't interested in that process. He speaks of a lack of desire to "bring 25% to the table," as he would have to in the democratic system that is a band. He also didn't want to learn one instrument to any level of proficiency, taking years of scales and daily practice. He never wanted to be a great guitar player, just a great musician. His relationship is with his music, not his instrument. He plays keyboard "well enough", guitar "well enough". He has enough of a sense of rhythm to program a drum machine. But it was far more important to him to realize his musical ideas, and if the digital technology would do the work for him, why not use it?

That is his logic, anyhow, and the logic of many of this generation's musical artists. It was also, by the way, part of the legendary Glenn Gould's approach to music. He would have appreciated Pipher's desire for his audience to have a "one to zero" relationship with the musician. It was always about the music, and later, with Gould's pioneering CBC radio documentaries, all about the sound. As a proto-sampling artist, Gould is not as far removed from Moby as one might think.

No matter how much the technology informs young musicians, they retain (refreshingly, to us dinosaurs) a curious respect for the old media. Pipher, for example, is a fan of the Beatles, but only on vinyl. He regularly borrows his father's old Abbey Road record, enjoying its "rich, textured sound," that he considers miles ahead of any modern CD.

Most of the sampling artists such as Pipher are also pure artists in a way that perhaps my little rock band never was. For him, it doesn't matter if his music is ever heard. "It's a challenge," he says. "I'm creating something I didn't even know was in my head."

In that sense, young musicians may not hold sacred the same things as we did, but perhaps the right things.

Ian Dawe is a freelance writer and broadcaster living in London, Ontario.

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