Monday, July 25, 2011

The Art of Sampling

As hip-hop continues to sully itself in its allegiance with commercial viability -- over and above artistic expression -- the misconceptions that surround the art are widespread and understandable.

The venerable tradition of the sample, of the break beat -- a tradition that largely accounts for the origin of hip-hop music -- has been denigraded by lazy, inept, and uncreative practitioners. Many of those instances of lazy, uninspired sampling saw great commercial success, which in turn gave an impression to the masses that 'sampling' is when a hip-hop artist (like say, oh, I don't know, Puff Daddy), steals and recycles a song that was already a hit. Of course, this is precisely what Puff, and others of the same mold, did in fact do. The trouble is that this left an impression of sampling that is false.

Sampling can be done poorly, but it can also be done brilliantly, and it is a legitimate artform. Being a total layman when it comes to music, and only slightly better when it comes to sampling, I'm probably not the best person to explain this, but I know enough people (mostly older) who don't respect hip-hop or the art of sampling that I felt obligated to call  attention to the creative and artistic aspects of the practice. Here are a few things that the best samplers and beatsmiths do which the hit-jackers do not:

1) Crate-digging

Crate-digging is a term that, obviously enough, refers to the practice of scouring large collections of vinyl (most often soul, jazz, and funk records, but anything is fair game) for dope and elusive samples. Finding a nice piece of music that is easily recognizable, or is from a well-known artist, is already less imaginative then someone who goes diggin' in the crates and unearths an obscure gem. And once you find a choice record to sample from, there's still the matter of which part of the track will work best as a beat, and having the ear for this is a talent in itself.

2) Chopping

Chopping is manipulating a sample in a way similar to how a DJ might scratch a record, only chopping is typically done to create a 'loop' of music, often in 4-bar time structure which often repeats for much of the song. It's not easy to describe, so for an excellent example of first class chopping, listen to Memories Are Here To Stay by The Intruders, and then listen to what DJ Premier did with that sample on Common's Sixth Sense (and for extra credit check Here's What's Left by RJD2, which samples the same record in a much more straightforward manner, and without chopping, but also creatively and to good effect). But what Primo does with the record is so uttetly brilliant, you might not recognize the source of the sample even if you loved The Intruders! Though the art isn't primarily in disguising the source, but in the resultant piece of music, and if you can't see the genius and beauty in The 6th Sense, then hip-hop wasn't made for you.

Included as a sub-category here I should mention other aspects of manipulating the sample itself, such as filtering the sample, speeding it up or slowing it down.

3) Blending

Blending is another art that originated with DJ-ing. When DJ-ing it's the act of attempting to mix one record into another. Kind of like a musical segue. When crafting a beat from multiple samples it means making them fit together in a seamless and dope-sounding fashion. It can also be done as a transition between tracks on an album (for some superb track-to-track blending check out Saigon's latest record).

4. Layering

Just as you might suspect, layering is the art of adding elements on top of a sampled loop. Whether it be the bass and drum tracks, another sample, a synth or live string instrumentation, multiple layers can give a track a more robust, dynamic sound and is another artistic tool which beatsmiths can use to make a track more original. This practice isn't part of sampling per se, but it is something that is done to samples to transform them into something fresh and different.

Hopefully this has given you a rudimentary appreciation for the craft and art of sampling. If your perception of sampling was that it was simple musical theft, I don't blame you. If you've gained an interest in sampling there's no better way to further that appreciation by listening to some of the greats at it; RZA, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Havoc, Large Professor, Alchemist, No I.D., Blue Sky Black Death, and many, many others. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

David Bentley Hart on 'The Tree of Life'

The anxious anticipation is over. David Bentley Hart has weighed in on The Tree of Life in a piece titled Seven Characters In Search of a Nihil Obstat over at First Things.

The muses are gaily capricious in the favors they bestow upon us, but humorlessly imperious in the demands they make of us. One never knows when inspiration may strike; one knows only that, when it comes, it must not be resisted. In my case, the occasion was an idle afternoon this past week, as I was irascibly considering the reaction of a few conservative Catholic critics to Terrence Malick’s strange, beautiful, perhaps slightly mad, and deeply Christian film The Tree of Life. One review even described the sensibility of the film as “New Age,” a judgment bizarrely inapposite to Malick’s often dark, often radiant, emotionally austere, and deeply contemplative art.
The film, in fact, is brilliant, mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical. Even if one is not enchanted (as I most definitely am) by Malick’s signature cinematic mannerisms, or by the fleeting hints of his more recondite intellectual preoccupations (Heidegger? Gnosticism? Buddhism? Russian Sophiology, perhaps?), surely one ought to recognize the ingenious subtlety of the scriptural allegories around which the film is built, and of the film’s meditations on the mystery of God’s silence and eloquence, and on innocence and transgression, and on the divine glory that shines out from all things.
Or so I was thinking as I drowsed there, warming my pelt in a pool of sunlight. Then, however, it occurred to me that perhaps, after all, these critics did have a kind of point. Oh, yes, The Tree of Life is profoundly, if mysteriously, scriptural—with its images of Eden, Cain and Abel, God speaking out of the whirlwind, divine Wisdom dancing at the heart of creation, Christ the man of sorrows, and so on—but is that sufficient to make it a truly Catholic film, at least of the sort these earnest critics so obviously crave? And I realized that probably it is not: It contains no pericopes from the catechism, no triumphant affirmations of papal primacy, no satisfying deathbed conversions, no heartwarming tableaux of the happy Catholic family warm in the embrace of Mother Church, no nuns, no Bing Crosby, no Italians . . .

It's not an exhaustively thorough review of the film, but it is great to hear his thoughts. He spends the bulk of the piece satirically renouncing the suggestion by some Catholics that the film is "New Age" or "not Christian enough". As I had written before, I also found such suggestions absurd, but Hart finds a particularly brilliant method of ridiculing these suggestions by offering a rough draft script for the perfect Catholic film.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don Juan and David Bentley Hart

In the newest issue of First Things, David Bentley Hart examines the various incarnations of the literary Don Juan through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, as well as his subsequent fading in Western consciousness in the following centuries, and what these changes signify. The piece, titled A Splendid Wickedness, appears in First Things and requires a subscription to read, but Hart recently gave a lecture on this same topic that ended up on YouTube and covers much of the same material (though I still recommend a subscription to First Things).

One of my favorite flourishes in the piece discusses a few aberrant incarnations of the character, such as the 'Don John' of The Libertine:
The most arresting seventeenth-century version [of the Don Juan story], however, is certainly Thomas Shadwell’s lurid and demented extravaganza, The Libertine (1676), whose “Don John” is not merely a burlador or rake, but something like Satan’s less reputable twin brother. The antinomian monster at the center of this play is a prolific murderer and rapist, who has murdered his own father and is laying plans to rape several nuns; he is also a thief, a blasphemer, and—almost as bad—a philosopher. As he and three equally evil boon companions rampage across the stage, committing one atrocity after another with delirious gaiety, they also spin out elaborate but perfectly cogent rational justifications for their actions, of an almost proto-Nietzschean kind. And, even on the brink of damnation, amid a roiling phantasmagoria—ghosts of his victims, devils, the living statue, hell’s fire—he expresses neither fear nor remorse but goes to his perdition proudly affirming his unshakable loyalty to himself, with a courage so insane it almost deprives hell of any significance. When the curtain falls, one is left wondering whether the devil is ready to receive him, or might rather be too shocked at his morals. 
Hart argues that while Don Quixote is a more timeless figure, Don Juan belongs to -- and is only possible in --  a particular historical, epochal context. That the vibrancy of his moral indiscretion and rebellion is only really interesting or intelligible anchored in a particular, coherent moral universe. A universe that we moderns, or postmoderns, do not naturally inhabit. Given this fact, it's inevitable that the character had to fade from our collective consciousness. Even his hedonistic, sensualist sensibilities -- characteristics which seems prima facie to fit quite comfortably into our cultural context -- are ultimately out of sync with the late modern ethos:
Our culture, with its almost absolute emphasis on the power of acquisition, trains us to be beguiled by the bright and the shrill rather than the lovely and the subtle. That, after all, is the transcendental logic of late-modern capitalism: the fabrication of innumerable artificial appetites, not the refinement of the few that are natural to us. Late modernity’s defining art, advertising, is nothing but a piercingly relentless tutelage in desire for the intrinsically undesirable. 

On Authority

In our culture, which prizes individual will and liberty above all other virtues, authority has gotten an undeserved bad rap. With skepticism being esteemed so highly, what room left is there for authority? What proper role can it have in our society? If the movement of my will is the good of all goods, then authority can only be a hindrance to my realizing my purpose in life, which is obviously to do what I want to do.

Perhaps our society shows some deference to certain necessary authorities, such as the police, whose existence is necessary to maintain order. Beyond that, however, there is a precipitous drop off in respect for any other kind of authority in our culture.

Of course within the Christian tradition -- and the other monotheistic religions -- authority takes a central role in the formulation of beliefs and the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. Authority in the form of God, in the form of the Church, in the form of Scripture, in the form of Tradition. The difficult part for Christians is keeping the role of authority up front in their minds, while living in a culture that demeans all authority as necessarily illegitimate. In this sense, and as is very often the case, the Gospel is at odds with our culture's most fundamental values, and if Christians aren't vigilant in the face of this hostility it can erode their own understanding of authority and its just role in their life. Too often our culture's elevation of individual will as the ultimate virtue infiltrates into our own understanding of what is most noble and worthy.

While it's clear that our culture doesn't afford the notion of authority much respect, it should be noted that, at the same time, it can't avoid begrudgingly submitting to its dictates in certain aspects of life. To some extent we all recognize the proper role of parents as authorities over their children. Although even parental authority is constantly under threat and being pushed back in various ways, mostly as the state attempts to replace the parent's role in making education and health related decisions for parents. And while that is an instance of one authority usurping power from another, there are other ways that our culture attempts to reduce the role of parental authority even without the dictates of government. Such as trends in parenting in the West that treat children more as adult peers than as children; in the ways that media and marketing that sexualize and exploit younger and younger children, effectively conferring upon them one aspect of adulthood earlier and earlier; in the shift in education philosophy that emphasizes "critical thought", "learning how to think" and "creativity" over and above the transfer of factual, foundational, fundamental knowledge. All of these cultural trends are transfers of responsibility from external authorities to the ultimate authority, the self.

Authority also plays a prominent role in that wonderful, modern source of knowledge which is science. Despite the fact that it is an independent method for determining various truths about the physical cosmos, without authority the wonderful fruits of science would be impractical and irrelevant to the lives of most. The vast majority of us don't have the means or time to experimentally verify the claims of science. Even professional scientists in particular disciplines don't have the expertise or tools to verify the results of scientists in other disciplines. With this being the case, we have no choice -- for the most part -- but to submit to the authority of the scientific consensus in particular fields, and critically evaluate the best way to integrate these into our worldview.

None of this is meant to denigrade the role of critical thought or skepticism, which are essential for honest inquiry. Only to highlight the equally critical role of authority. A radical rejection of authority as such would be the death of knowledge itself, and yet we are constantly, and gladly, proceeding down this path as a culture.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Christianity, Witches and Witch-Burning

In my review of David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies I didn't delve into many specifics of the book, instead opting to give a more general overview. Some recent readings and discussions prompted me to return to its pages on the topic of witches and witch-burning.

Of course, witch-burning in the Middle Ages is one of the main tentpoles of atheist critiques of Christianity as a historical phenomena and the nefarious influence it has had on history. The idea being that witch hunts and witch burning were remnants of a pre-modern, superstitious past and that the Catholic church and other religious fanatics were the ones who were the source of the superstitions, and who perpetrated most of the hunts and burnings.

Hart questions this narrative, not only on the matter of whether witch-burning and fear of sorcery could be genetically attributed to Christianity or the Catholic Church (rather than the culture at large), but even going so far as to suggest -- and demonstrate -- that it was more a product and cohort of early scientific modernity.
[I]t was the Catholic Church, of all the institutions of the time, that came to treat accusations of witchcraft with the most pronounced incredulity. Where secular courts and licentious mobs were eager to consign the accused to the tender ministrations of the public executioner, ecclesial inquisitions were prone to demand hard evidence and, in its absence, to dismiss charges. Ultimately, in lands where the authority of the church and its inquisitions were strong -- especially during the high tide of witch-hunting -- convictions were extremely rare.  ... The rather disorienting truth about the early modern fascination with witchcraft and the great witch hunts is that they were not the final, desperate expressions of an intellectual and religious tradition slowly fading into obsolescence before the advance of scientific and social "enlightenment"; they were, instead, something quite novel, modern phenomena, which had at best a weak foreshadowing in certain new historical trends of the late Middle Ages, and which, far from occurring in tension with the birth of secular modernity, were in a sense extreme manifestations of it. 
On the face, it seems a bizarre claim, but he presents evidence and a rigorous argument in defense of the claim that is quite fascinating. He goes on:
[S]ome of the great early theorists of modern science and scientific method were believers in magic, and consequently were often willing to prescribe the prosecution of those who used it for maleficent ends. Rodney Stark is not overstating his case when he declares, "The first significant objections to the reality of satanic witchcraft came from Spanish inquisitors, not from scientists."' One might even argue that an interest in magic (though not of the maleficent variety) was one of the essential ingredients in the evolution of modern scientific thought. 
The upshot of all this is historical context. While a critic of Christianity might correctly point out that the Church did participate in witch hunts and execution of heretics, if this is all that they have to say on the matter, then they have presented a piece of data that is out-of-context and misleading. Properly qualified by all of the relevant facts, these admittedly sad episodes of Christian history are seen for what they are; products of the era and culture, of which the Church was only one influence, and often the influence that most strongly resisted these evils -- though it was also, unfortunately, complicit in them.