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Version Therapy 

From remix to revelation

Wednesday, Mar 4 1998
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How does it feel to be remixed?

At the weird and exciting frontiers of technology, the identities of just about everything including yourself are up for remix. William Gaddis hit a cultural vein when he made art forgery the center of his first epic work, The Recognitions, in the '50s: Already the loss of authenticity was a societal obsession. And it's only gotten more intense. As the price tag of "great art" continues to rocket, collectors are ever more desperate to lock down a hunk of permanent, recognized human expression - a relic of fading humanity itself.

It's true, van Gogh's Sunflowers will not be repeated. It comes from a time of oil and water, before art in the age of mechanical reproduction, before Warhol's silk-screened duplications of duplications of duplications, before digital image manipulation, before it became clear that even people could be assembled like Tinkertoys. Music has been a competitive counterfeiter, from cloning Elvis, to sampling James Brown, to remixing - where essence is no longer essential.

There are 10,000 ways to remix, and a couple of current releases show the form at its furthest extremes: Bill Laswell's passionately reverent remixes of Miles Davis' "fusion" work, and Ryuichi Sakamoto's masochistic submission of his recent symphonic work, Untitled 01, to a series of outside assaults. They used to burn draft cards, now it's IDs: revision and depersonalization together again.

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In addition to his Miles project (Panthalassa, due
in April), Laswell has gone remix-nuts lately, having released an album of Bob Marley remixes last year (Dreams of Freedom, Axiom) and one of his own band Material this year (The Road to the Western Lands, Triloka). In each case, the choice is a natural and successful. Anyone would be curious to hear the Marley stuff done "dub" style, a method endemic to Jamaica and deeply influential upon all remixers. Material was Laswell's cut-up experiment - why shouldn't he reshuffle it? And finally, who better than Laswell - renegade producer, musician and multicultural mixmaster (Public Image Ltd., Master Musicians of Jajouka, Henry Threadgill/Bahia Black, Pharoah Sanders/Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, Arcana with Tony Williams) - to approach the electric Miles, some of the most radical music ever to hit the racks?

"I missed an opportunity to work with Miles," says Laswell, reached by phone at a New York studio, "and I was always very influenced by that particular period in his work, and also by his presence, his point of view and his attitude."

Columbia Records lent Laswell safety masters from the sessions of In a Silent Way (1969), On the Corner (1972) and Get Up With It (1974) - the last out of print in the USA for some 20 years - and he sat down to edit six hours of raw tape into one hour of continuously flowing reconstructions he named after Panthalassa, the sea that surrounded the Earth's primordial land mass, Pangaea (another '70s Miles title, both terms coined by German meteorologist Alfred Wegener). If taking a razor blade to Tony Williams, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Dave Liebman, etc. appears sacrilegious, be aware that the original releases were themselves the product of a lengthy and painstaking editing process. Davis would let tapes run in the studio, often bending the course of the music by nods, eye contact or sheer force of personality, and producer Teo Macero would later - sometimes years later - cut and mix them into album tracks, some of which ended up half an hour in length.

Virtually any number of different records could have been made this way from the same sources, and Macero's versions are terrific: simmering caldrons of funk, pain and sheer God-vs.-Satan arm-wrestle. But they have flaws, especially in the editing, which Laswell considers sometimes jarring: "It's a very courageous thing to do, but in some cases it's not really musical."

Listeners accustomed to the '69 In a Silent Way's unpredictable jumps, wholesale repetitions and static malaise will find Laswell's conception tougher, more streamlined, anchored by the EQ-boosted grind of Dave Holland's bass drone. The funky stuff from On the Corner and Get Up With It showcases dublike dropouts and boosted dynamics, with Laswell debuting a couple of strong session outtakes. And "He Loved Him Madly," Miles' dirge for Duke Ellington, gains activity, sounding more like a wake attended by friends than a solitary grieve. It works.

"This really was done with sincerity," says Laswell. "I thought a lot about Miles during this. I went back and listened to everything that I remembered hearing, and I also went back and reread everything that was related, and talked to a lot of people about that time and heard a lot of stories from people who were there.

"This is the beginning of the language that we're speaking now. Now it's DJ culture, but it's always been the same thing, which is the re-manipulation of recorded music, as opposed to live performance. It's an art form, and it's a science."

For atmosphere, the originals still rule, permeated with the indefinable presence of Miles and the scent of their time. But Laswell has verified the music's timelessness, its ability to live and change - it's a blessing to have both.

Columbia: Many hours of unreleased Miles from this period exist. Can we get more?

The past remixed is you remixed. Hearing
it done can make you feel strong and absolved of your history, but also insubstantial, impermanent. So how do you feel when you hand your own precious art over to the unclean consoles of infidels?

Screenwriters get a bellyful of this - maybe Ryuichi Sakamoto does too, considering the soundtracks (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; The Sheltering Sky; etc.) he's made. A techno-pop pioneer in the '70s with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto recently took to straight orchestral music with the "Grief"/"Anger"/"Prayer"/ "Salvation" cycle Untitled 01 (on the Sony Classical CD Discord). And then he did a highly unusual thing: He had it "remixed."

The music on Anger/Grief - The Remixes is "remixed" Sakamoto only in the sense that moussaka is "remixed" lamb. Sakamoto's own Web site describes the "rearrangements" he personally requested as "strange and brutal." They're also a big improvement.

Possibly, Sakamoto suspects that his original Untitled 01 is not all it could be - it's a soundtrack without a movie (though the CD does contain a multimedia ROM selection). "Grief" embodies a kind of Winona-Ryder-trying-to-be-dark-again quality. "Anger" should feature Yul Brynner. On "Prayer," Merchant-Ivory goes Gregorian. And "Salvation" features the likes of Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith babbling their observations - almost inaudibly, which perhaps Sakamoto meant as a statement.

The remixes trash all that. Amon Tobin's "Grief" remix twists with a deep synth groan before its busy drum machines batter against both the rhythm and the concept of the original strings. The other four tracks remix "Anger," which is Untitled 01's best movement, but that doesn't earn Sakamoto any reverence. You can hardly find him in Rare Force's stab, which launches with drums worthy of "Walk This Way" and hammers coarse synth on the two-beat. Talvin Singh is the trippiest, using percussion loops and mutated vocal samples to establish his countermood, which, like Rare Force's, screams "Meth" more than "Anger." Chocolate Weasel's mix is the least successful, grudgingly retaining the original's structure, emphasizing its cinematic stings, simply grafting some hip-hop beats on top. And Fernando Aponte's "edit" (the closest thing to a remix here) dips the volume of the strings, dramatically displaying how effective "Anger" could have been if it weren't so damn literal.

This isn't remixing, it's gang rape. And Sakamoto - who has worked with Laswell, by the way - brought the Vaseline, transforming a wimpy piece of dilettante fodder into harsh, bristling electricity. "Is this the true Sakamoto?" you wonder. His name's on it, bubba, just like Warhol's. That's about as true as it gets.

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