Madame Freedom, @DJSpooky, and App Art

Some scattered thoughts—untimely on one week’s delay—seem due for an unusually rich evening of contemporary multimedia at the Freer Gallery.  On November 4, DC native Paul D. Miller (marquee name:  DJ Spooky) performed a live music score to accompany the progressive 1956 Korean film Madame Freedom.  No less important than Paul’s legendary remixing innovation on display was the simple importance of revitalizing this cinematic relic of a country undergoing dramatic transformation.  And running parallel to that, Paul’s process raised interesting questions about audience empowerment, or for that matter, the possibility that our idea of an “audience” is evolving into another kind of freedom in the wider example of Björk Gudmundsdottir’s new Biophilia project.

The logistics were wonderfully hybrid:  two classically trained musicians played traditional string instruments, reading from passages of notation, and Paul helmed a buffet table of Macbook, sampling, effects, and—centrally—an iPad.  That last part is the virtual toolbox that invites blurred lines between stage and audience, or (if you will) the creative class and the consumer.  As Paul explained in opening remarks, his free iPad app (millions of downloads and counting) has aims that surpass pro tools for musicians, empowering the casual screen-swiper with cadres of clips to trigger and assemble into music.  The extent to which this engine was integral to the functionality of his Madame Freedom performance was unclear, but no one could suffer the mistake that all those sounds spring forth on-the-fly.  Forever, this is an artform of meticulous studio performances and synthesizer sequences, locked and loaded in a production process you’ll never know.  The subsequent stage, though, of organizing those pastiches to your ear’s pleasure is what the app revolution is all about.  Paul D. Miller has been a key innovator in “remix culture,” hence his moniker DJ Spooky.  A perfect overview of the innovators in this field can be heard in interviews with Paul and his peers from the 2010 documentary Copyright Criminals.

On fast rewind (now, an obsolete tape term!), I have a memory from the mid-’90s of visiting The Juilliard School to see an opera installation by Tod Machover from MIT’s (formerly) groundbreaking Media Lab.  This was a time when electronic music and digital sampling were genuine fresh practices and, to the general audience, a whole bunch of amazing hocus-pocus.  Machover, perceived then as a sage of what-is-to-come (while history proved otherwise, and where-is-he-now), introduced his “opera” with a demonstration of the music controllers he invented back at the Lab, to which he attached the term “virtual reality”—a sexy idea at the time evincing badass gloves and boning up with robots.  He also apologized that he’d fail to incorporate spoken phrases from the audience who earlier whispered into pre-show lobby pods, because the acquisition computer had crashed.  I remember actually seeing that iconic Blue Screen of Death on Windows 95.  Like I said, this was the mid-’90s.

One of his “virtual reality” instruments was a wizard wand thingie that frankly sounded amazing.  As he moved it around—if you need a visual image for this, think Doug Henning on a Theremin—lustrous string timbres climbed in pitch around a modally diatonic pad of accompaniment.  Partly out of jealousy, and partly because I saw myself heroically on the cutting edge of digital sampling at the time (a composer outside those Ivy Leagues), I seized his question-and-answer time with aplomb.  After someone in the audience asked, “Did you make that sound just now?” and he beamed “Yes!”, I tore into a lawyer line of questioning that would later evolve into my sellout profession.  Without now belaboring the details, my Socratic method went from asking:  whether sampled or synthesized, whether triggered or modulated, and whether wet or dry.  The end confession, on full public display, was that his magic wand was basically a start button with a volume control.  At least, that’s the way I phrased it, and he stupidly affirmed.  This would have gone better if he channeled Doug Henning after all, waving his hands and insisting, “The world is full of magic!”

Much has changed since then.  Or has it?  Enter Biophilia.  To start with, I am biased.  For a super long time, with intervening competition, I sort of madly believed that Björk was my intended, with whom I should make music and father children; half-serious or less, er something.  But to be serious now, I still maintain she is consummate as the artist of our time (forgiving even her insufferable music videos that always manage to command automatic praise).  In the spirit of an innocent soul, or a good agnostic, or a good documentary filmmaker, her music manifests receptivity.  She navigates between, say, Olivier Messiaen and Karl Stockhausen for organizing organic sounds, using machines (created by human organisms!), while sticking to our dogma of body rhythms and world cultures where we find fundamental urges.  Her diverse collaborations result in singularly personal works.  She lacks any pretension of avant garde formalism, yet finds no easy place in populism.  Simpler put, it’s no small moment when she emerges every few years, and begins to tour.

Importantly, Biophilia’s essence is no different than her preceding catalogue:  pure music.  You can forget all about her conceptual aspirations toward education and interactivity; what speaks through the music is our human experience—while science is merely the totem.  Among these songs, Virus is a good example of her lyrical meditation on scientific phenomena that speaks just as well to our mysterious emotional urge to seek infection, craving the love of those who might bring hurt but build strength—"like a virus," she sings.  The beautiful thing of this literary tradition is that it combines an infinitely complex thing (microbiologists typically have Ph.Ds) with a universal human unconsciousness.

Clearly, though, Björk was teased with the ability to involve strangers into her creative process, using an Apple app suite available to anyone (except the ana-hipster Android majority:  boo!).  But there’s something interesting about this:  It arises from a position of power.  Rather like Radiohead promising a whole new world of digital music distribution, these models are easiest to pull off by Titans of Industry.

Yet, having strayed so far from Madame Freedom, here’s how that evening went (from my seat’s perspective), as a point of comparison.  Paul’s treatment was wonderfully nuanced.  He followed the lead of the Korean film’s peculiar incorporation of South American music, while his long stretches of silence served the film where they needed to.  Some themes were motivic, and tracked the narrative emotions in a dramatic arc.  Cliches of pentatonic scales and foley cues were nowhere found.  All of this leads to a frankly simplistic conclusion that might seem Debbie Downer upon the fresh promise of empowerment from remix apps:  Always, the result is only as good as the artist.  Historically, new technologies curry that admonition almost on cue, like a lazy rhythm, but history also always proves that whenever technology introduces ability/access/empowerment, at the center you find a cool tool for the production of more art.  It is a healthy suspicion to question critics of these tools:  Are we not, as human beasts, motivated by control?  Creativity tends to threaten establishments.  So the huge irony (even in these words) is that any critique of new tools is suspect, tantamount to evaluating a Picasso canvas with harsh questions about paintbrushes.  Who gives a shit?

There are some concluding things to say about the film Madame Freedom itself.  Personally speaking, around the time when I watched it, my father was stepping off an airplane on return from Seoul.  He first left his Korean homeland in his late teens, which makes every return visit as an adult unfamiliar, with always the same observation, that he can barely recognize the place.  The opposite of that is this:  today’s Koreans, Korean-Americans, and even half-breeds like myself have no concept of what Korea was like just over one-half century ago.  Madame Freedom captured that world in transition.  It shows people hanging around the home wearing Hanboks, not “copy couture” facing West.  It shows houses along dirt roads with sliding doors and rice paper walls, not high-rises with stenciled addresses.  And at the center of the film, it shows women breaking free from domestic restraints, smoking and dancing, venturing into business, and having affairs.  From today’s perspective, the modern social conscience has a boilerplate instinct that venerates Madame Freedom on cue, if only it glorifies progressivism, and it mourns the fate of women who suffered along the way.

But it’s not so simple.  That the film was ahead of its time and depicted broken social mores is beyond reproach.  That its first audiences (or even its filmmakers) were cheering for the women, though, is not so certain.  I am just as prepared to believe that the film channels Puccini’s scenario of Butterfly’s boy waving an American flag while she kills herself.  Two scenes in particular resonate here.  At the depth of damage in Seon-yeoung’s marriage to Professor Jang, when she finally begins to communicate her unhappiness, she sits in front of a mirror and hastily starts applying make-up, threatening her husband in some sense that this new kind of beauty (with all its Western dogma on how to paint faces) will shift the balance of power.  Another scene:  when she calls out Professor Jang for flirting and fawning over a younger woman as he teaches grammar lessons, Seon-yeoung finds the gift he got in return, and berates it for being cheap, inadequate, low-class.  These small moments of conflict were strangely prophetic in 1956.  They continue to resonate uniquely among Asians today, as nearby as those first, second, and third generation immigrants who live among us—whom we marry, whom we go to school with, whom we might see fulfilling terrible stereotypes of brand-obsessed shoppers with counterfeit handbags, and a desperation to assimilate exclusively into upwardly mobile circles and professions.  I can’t easily explain why these ungraceful transitions seem the most severe in Asian culture—around more universal truths, that consumerism, family neglect and sexual affairs are poisonous—but the way that Madame Freedom foretells it all is incredibly compelling.  Paul D. Miller’s great contribution, through his modest and nuanced score, is to reinvigorate the film for modern audiences.