by Raymond Oberholzer

Remixing is turning the tools of music production
into the instruments of music making

When Saturday night fever took hold in the 70s, DJs in discos and hip hop clubs started using two turntables and a simple mixing desk to create extended passages of pure rhythm. At first, they simply homed in on the rhythm breaks, mixing between two copies of the same record in order to stretch the breakbeat. But soon they started to fuse pieces of music from different records, laying vocals from one over the rhythm from another. Astonishing feats of dexterity and creativity followed as the DJs competed to outdo one another in this new performance art. Slip-cueing, punch phasing, backspinning and scratching their way to notoriety as the ‘Toscaninis of the turntable’ (as Life magazine called them), they effectively turned the record deck into an instrument.

In 1998, the innovative highly-acclaimed Bristol band, Massive Attack released an eleven CD boxed set called “The Singles Collection 90/98”. Nothing unusual about this; successful bands have been doing the same thing for decades. Except that of the 63 songs, 52 were remixes - most of them by other artists. Between these two events lies the story of one of the most significant innovations in contemporary popular music. In hindsight, the schoolboy who responded to the music teacher’s question “So what do you play?” with the facetious answer “The fool and the gramophone,” looks rather more prescient than pubescent. For it was the virtuoso ‘gramophone’ players with their innocent desire to feed the beat that paved the way for the revolution to come.

Remixing involves taking a piece of music apart, modifying it and reassembling it. In the process many things can happen to the piece. But usually tracks are left out, new tracks are added, the duration is extended and a lot of sound-alteration and rearranging takes place. The new arrangement almost invariably changes the emphasis within the music and often the most noticeable effects derive from the myriad and wondrous ways in which sounds are manipulated: distorted, bent, repeated, warped, slowed, refracted, echoed, filtered and otherwise artfully mangled.

Remixes vary enormously in terms of their divergence from the original: some are almost indistinguishable while others are almost unrecognisable. The remix can be enjoyed in isolation but the listening experience is generally enhanced by knowing the original as a good remix will open up spaces inside the music and discover and develop tiny byways neglected by the original. It builds on selected details of the piece and turns sensitive indiosyncratic listening into a revelatory creative act.

Today, the practise has become widespread, and the quality and creativity of the results varies enormously - but they can be truly astonishing and very beautiful. Celebrated, handsomely rewarded and highly sought after, good remixers have become the alchemists of music-making.

Fanning the Flames

The practitioners of popular music have always exhibited an almost unseemly willingness to experiment with new technology, and in particular to utilise electronic devices in order to produce musical sounds. But remixing finally broke the sound barrier by turning the tools of music production into the instruments of music making.

The first remixes were concocted in response to the demand for longer deeper harder grooves that had been uncovered by the DJs. The opportunity this represented was not wasted on the music industry which started putting together extended ‘dance remix’ versions of popular songs and then pressing them onto the new maxi single developed specially for the purpose. But the results only really became interesting when the more radical practitioners started to plumb the depths of technological possibility.

Right from the beginning, two slightly older technologies were efortlessly assimilated into the remixer’s arsenal: multi-tracking had already transformed music production but it now assumed a vital role in the dismantling and reconstruction process; and synthesizers were eagerly embraced as a convenient flexible tool for injecting new sounds into a remix. The drum machine put in an early appearance too as part of the hip hop DJs live performance but its more sophisticated successors turned rhythm into programming.

The practitioners of popular music have always exhibited an almost unseemly willingness to experiment with new technology

Perhaps the most significant and certainly the most contentious of the new technologies was the digital sampler. Samplers made it possible to plunder not only the entire back catalogue of music history but in fact to turn absolutely any recorded sound into the raw material of music. Once a sound had entered the digital domain it could be sliced, diced, blended and flavoured in every coneivable way. Short samples were looped into musical phrases and patterns and then assembled into complete musical passages using the next great innovation, the sequencer.

Finally the personal computer swallowed the whole toy box and today a techno-literate musical wunderkind can compile complex remixes during transatlantic flights - using nothing but a slim laptop computer and state-of-the-art software. (As a by-product of all this, remixing is also blurring the lines between mixers, producers, sound engineers and musicians.)

Hi-Tech, Soft (He)art

Although technology has facilitated this revolution, none of it would matter if the results were indifferent or undifferentiated from any other form of music. But these tools and processes have spawned not just new ways of generating and assembling music, but a new kind of music with its own aesthetic. Many of the sounds in remixes make no attempt to emulate the familiar noises made by conventional instruments. Most of them are either sounds from the original mix that have been modified beyond all recognition or they are computer-generated. Their enthusiastic, skillful approach to pure abstract sound enabled the best remixers to use these noises as expressively as a conventional musician might use the sound of a guitar or a piano.

Most remixes were fed straight back into the dance subculture. As a result, the most radical music to emerge in the dying days of the twentieth century came crawling out of underground clubs like life out of a primeval swamp. Make no mistake: some of the results were dire. And the majority of remixes still concentrate on extracting the maximum amount of ‘juice’ from drum and bass in order to appease a beat-hungry dance crowd. But in the hands of gifted sensitive artists, remixing not only totally transcended the dance music idiom, it soared gracefully into an entirely new realm. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sublime orchestrations of the Massive Attack remixes.

In the Massive Attack remixes, layers of cutting edge music were melted down and reblended in the furnace of post-industrial technology

“We don't ever make direct dance music,” says Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja. “You've got to be able to listen and then dance.” The members of Massive Attack are mostly former DJs from a collective called the Wild Bunch. These origins are reflected in their music: a supremely aware assimilation of a variety of sounds (including R&B, reggae, dub and punk combined with hip hop beats and soulful melodies) that they have woven into a highly cohesive musical style of their own. Their commitment to remixing has been evident from the start. In 1995 the Protection album was remixed in its entirety by Mad Professor - and then released under the title No Protection.

But nothing approaches the scale and comprehensiveness of the Collection project: in one huge compendium, a substantial body of already complex multi-layered music—meticulously crafted by a cutting edge band—melted down and reblended in the furnace of post-mechanical, post-industrial technology; 'hi-tech soft-touch’ music that segues and pulses rather than hammering and grinding; the clatter of the mechanical age suddenly made to seem hopelessly anachronistic; the vast, deep hum of the electronic age equally suddenly made to seem so obviously the sound of the new century; in short, a glittering showcase of the remixer’s art.

The Art Dance

This is all taking place in such an unlikely context (a hi-tech pop culture setting) that it is easy to underestimate its wider significance. Remixers are unassumingly carrying out the radical programmes of avant garde art theorists and in the process leap-frogging all but the most extreme efforts of the self-appointed guerillas of fine art. As a result, the pop music industry is playing its part in a larger revolution that is changing the way art is conceived and produced. Along with their contemporaries in other art forms, remixers are redefining the materials, the tools and the processes of artistic creation - and even the meaning of what it is to be an artist, to create something.

Remixing makes new art out of existing art rather than out of what have traditionally been perceived as the raw materials of art. Most remixers cannot play a musical instrument. But it would take a brave (deaf?) pedant to assert that they are not making music. As Stockhausen had already pointed out, new music is not invented but found. Along with other key phenomena of our time - such as quoting, self-reflexivity and art historical awareness - remixing is extending the practise of found art that involves ‘recycling’ existing artefacts (see for example the use of found objects and found images in sculpture and painting.)

The result of remixing is of course a recording - a carefully assembled endlessly reproducible product rather than a one-off live performance. Untroubled by the ‘art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ debate that had so agitated previous generations, the remixers blithely set about the quintessential reproductive creative act: recording a record. At the terminus of the twentieth century we arrive at a music made of music that dubs its creative process ‘remixing’. For the mix master, to rehash is to create and to create is to rehash.

This kind of artistic practise forces us to confront deeper philosphical questions about the nature of art. Remixing is predicated upon the idea that all creation is in essence a rearrangement of existing elements; that the material out of which art is made already exists in the world and that the artist merely recombines these elements to produce a new whole; that the only thing we ever conjure up out of nothing is the meaning we attach to these compositions (interesting word: ‘to form by putting together’.) Remixing merely takes this idea to its logical conclusion.

Old Tricks

A few of the most important aspects of the remixing aesthetic were not new, although they are perhaps being applied differently and in more extreme ways. In many cultures and for many years, artists always and only expressed their individuality through interpretation. They were confined to far fewer themes and sought to differentiate their work through the unique treatment of a familiar subject. This can be seen for example in the many different versions of the last supper ranging from Da Vinci to Dali. Same subject, same basic elements - radically different treatments. A not dissimilar pleasure can be derived from savouring the differences between two good remixes.

As for the ‘plagiaristic’ use of grooves, loops, samples and stabs... well, musicians started ‘borrowing’ riffs and patterns from one another long before rock and roll. This modular construction method is in fact part of nearly all popular music forms and has even formed part of ‘classical’ music from time to time.

There is too an architectural dimension to the creation of a remix that is no different from the demands and pleasures of all musical construction. Layer upon layer of sound built up meticulously to create a complex edifice.

As a pop culture phenomenon, remixing is both the most radical and the most significant musical development of our time.

One of the most important ways in which we define ourselves is through what we like and dislike. Witness the way in which people ‘discover’ one another on a date by comparing their tastes. A DJ becomes popular because his taste is valued. Remixing is the supreme expression of this idea. In the act of reconstructing a piece of music in his or her own likeness, the remixer makes the most comprehensive statement that it is possible to make about personal taste - defining it through its relation to that of another. In the Massive Attack Singles Collection there is a remix by Brian Eno that illustrates this perfectly. The piece is definitive Massive Attack but it is also quintessential Brian Eno. And isn’t this how all successful art operates: both as a picture of the thing painted and as a portrait of the artist who painted it?

Copyright © 2017 - Raymond Oberholzer