A brief little eon ago, when I was a student composer and inmate of the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center (which looked pretty much as it did in its glory days, pictured above), I would make electronic music using the following Paleolithic techniques: Use a tape recorder to grab street noises, a few seconds from an LP or the rumble of a purring cat; copy these nuggets of sound onto quarter-inch tape, which I could then slice with a razor blade, splice with adhesive tape, slow down, speed up and run through various primitive processors. It was monkish work, solitary and laborious, and once I had made some headway, the prospect of repeating any of it discouraged me from revisions. Already then, there was a computerized alternative, which involved spending so much time entering lines of code that I would forget all about music. Two weeks of typing would yield a couple of constipated bleeps.
This process of assembling sounds has become so seamless since then that it’s as if roads had been laid where once were only ruts. Making music – not just playing or writing it, but literally making it from scratch - has become collaborative in a whole new way. A singer in India warbles into a $20 microphone, a violinist in Budapest records a couple of folksy riffs, a Latin music enthusiast in Michigan offers a snatch of a vintage cumbia - and a kid with a laptop sitting in his bedroom in Bay Shore, NY or Talinn can weave them all into a sophisticated mix. It's called a mashup, and the whole arrangement is legal, flexible and free.
In this brave new world, two organizations have become essential: the Freesound Project and CCmixter. The first is a vast landfill of recorded sounds, over which composers can hover and pick at will. Topping the Freesound chart at the moment is a nightingale song, followed by another nightingale song; then the sampling classic known to legend as "The Amen Break" (a 1969 drum solo by George C. Coleman of The Winstons); an unearthly choir of Tibetan monks; and an apocalyptic wordless mini-opera called "IMPresora.wav," which sounds as if it is probably about machines taking over the world, getting drunk and going berserk. Actually, explains "Melack," who contributed the cut, it's "the sound of my old printer (epson stylus 600) when i switch it on. it is broken and it makes strange and amazing sounds, trying to clean the printhead and making other unknown operations... the low reverberation is produced by the printer plastic box." "Melack "signs off with the marching order for the new generation of composers: "listen, download, cut."
And then take the result to CCMixter, a worldwide composers' club - the Cedar Tavern of the virtual Village. The barkeep is one Victor Stone, of Berkeley, California. "We turn away a lot of musicians who think we’re just another music site," Stone told me when I called him. "We don’t allow people to post their back catalog of CDs, because re-mixers ignore fully mixed tracks. What they really want is a capella voices – no effects, just the voice." So, singers, post a song of yourself at CCMixter and there is a 90 percent chance that someone will use it in a new work of music. Bad singing is welcome. Stone elaborated: "Throw an a cappella into the piranha pool, and you'll see that producers are hungry for decent vocals that they'll even take some of the painful squeezing noises."
(The CC, by the way, stands for Creative Commons, which is another righteous contributor to mashup culture, as well as the name of a legal concept. The simple but radical idea is summed up by the phrase "Some Rights Reserved." Free Creative Commons software allows artists and other creators of intellectual property to make their work available online and still protect themselves against someone else making a killing from it.)
Stone runs competitions from time to time, and he says that his own ultimate goal and that of the most active producers on the site is to make albums for the do-it-yourself label Magnatune, eventually get picked up by one of the majors and enter the commercial mainstream. But what appeals to me about the site is something else: the idea of musicians trading source material like Yu-Gi-Oh! game cards, and recognizing that new music can instantly be bent, refracted and processed it into something even newer. Here's an example of how it works: The virtuoso violist and friend of the blog Ljova, whom I heard do an impressive set with his improvisational Eastern European sort-of-folk ensemble at Joe's Pub, posts a set of separate tracks, and someone who goes by the handle Hepepe mixes the melody line with an Ethiopian chant and a few other samples into a piece called "Self Portrait of Silence." Which of course someone else could recycle all over again.
Perhaps the future lies not in whiz-kid symphonists but in the kind of collaborative anonymity and taste for intricate layering that filled the aiwaves of the Middle Ages with organum, parody masses and polyglot chansons.