It has been a few weeks now since my visits with Nick Zammuto and Paul deJong, known jointly for over a decade now as The Books. A little bio: I first heard the Books during that formative first year of college, around 2004. They’ve had a perennial spot on my playlist and in my thinking since then. It’s their methodology as thinkers and artists that has kept my attention over the years. Seven years later, the opportunity has come up, the excuse really, to make a little one on one time with them. Well, besides that one time after an Austin show, waiting for a table outside Magnolia Café; I think we talked for all of three minutes about… waiting for tables. What does one usually expect on meeting his heroes for the first time? Certainly not tea in the hero’s inner sanctum, Christmas-spiced cookies pulled from the oven perfectly timed to coincide with one’s arrival, or forthright and vulnerable statements. Much less questions in return, nor an immediate willingness to think together, discussing questions of art-and-life for hours. Certainly not. Yet these are the scenes I entered on an only occasionally overcast day in late June.
For those not familiar, The Books are “a band” insofar as they produce sounds that can—though often with much technical difficulty and occasionally not at all—be reproduced in venues intended for more typical music makers. I have seen them perform in Austin bars, New England hipster hangouts, and a university music hall. They also produce films that are often screened at these performances.
Their methods, sources, and final outcomes pose not just logistical, but conceptual problems as well. To tackle these latter quandaries is for many of their fans, once quite an esoteric group, the very appeal. “What are they doing, precisely?” Like the best of contemporary artists today, they evade and provoke this attempt at precision. Like the best of the best, they do so in earnest. Electronic with acoustic. Spoken word with found sound (old answering machine tapes, VHS audio tracks, utterly dated self help cassettes…). Manipulated text projected with relatively ancient black-and-white silent era film. The results might be called collage, but they resist this. Putting the question directly to them, with many more, yielded some answers, but more resoundingly caused yet more tremors in the grounds that usually provide stability for thinking about creative processes. Again, this is their appeal—the synaesthetic engine they offer up to take apart and analyze ad infinitum. Their fans are cerebral supermechanics. Conversations about the Books often end up more philosophical than musical, though they would shun this too-easy distinction.
The day began with a sunlit drive to Zammuto’s home and studio in Readsboro, Vermont, a small town pressed into the hills just north of North Adams, Massachusetts.
It may be that Zammuto is one of the most balanced beings I have ever met. This observation was not unfounded, and it took some considerable work to become so, as I discovered in our conversation. After graduating from nearby Williams College, life and love took him across the country to Los Angeles for a time. There he was subject to the grueling monotony of a lab, the job he was able to land with his chemistry degree, though his latter college years were consumed with developing his artistic processes, a major component of what deJong would call “Books methods”. Zammuto’s science background informs how he conceptualizes this ever-growing creative practice. For one, he articulates his selection process in regard to the many, many samples The Books put to work in terms of valence: “Valences are like handles on molecules. Where something can grab on. Some are totally inert and have no handles. Some have a lot. If someone sings the word ‘Allah’, that has tons of handles. And if you have a guy singing the word ‘potato’, in the same musical structure, they work together, and reveal something about the word for ‘god’ and the word ‘potato’. That’s what I try to find.” Ah, so this is what grabs us, the listeners, or more precisely, why there is such a plenitude of sounds and significations within the music for us to grab onto. Why, perhaps, the Books’ albums never sat quite comfortably next to the few other physical CDs I still possess. They always fit somewhere else.
One thing that struck me recently about the Books came with the research preparing for these interviews. I began with basic Google searches. This led me to a web of blogs, indie music websites, and so on. These consistently referenced groups that I know and listen to, if not avidly, but plenty enough, in association with the Books: The National, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, etc. I had no idea though, beyond these more well-known groups, what most of the population of this particular layer of the blogosphere were talking about. Zammuto confessed a similar ignorance, though a shared appreciation for these groups, many of which he’s happily shared a stage with. From the first listen, The Books were firmly in other constellations in my head and on my shelves. They are neighbors with writers, philosophers, and visual artists: Édouard Glissant, Rosalind Krauss, Chela Sandoval, María Lugones, Kitaro Nishida, Jacques Derrida, Marcel Duchamp, Christian Marclay, Alfredo Arteaga, FLUXUS, Tomás Ybarra-Fruasto, Jonathan Nix, Yayoi Kusama, Gloria Anzaldúa… And this is only a brief list to exemplify my point, that The Books are the only musical group that—in touring, producing albums, etc.—functions as a commercial musical group in order to make a satisfying living and has sustained a place in my critical and conceptual thinking over the years.
They have always been there when I read, write, wonder, and I consistently find innumerable valences between their work and that of those listed here, and more. Perhaps credit is due to those reportedly soul-crushing hours in the lab that fed Zammuto’s precise, yet expansive methodology. What followed his time in Los Angeles however, is where balance was perhaps struck most poignantly.
As mentioned earlier, coming to embody the resonant balance one senses when in a room with this artist, took work, a physical toll. On his return to the east coast, Zammuto embarked on a southward four month long trek from New York to Georgia along the Appalachian Trail. What lingers with me most is his description of what was lost and what was gained in this time he took to “deal with [him]self.” Lost were all things extraneous: anxieties outside of those concerned with the next meal and bodily well-being, and any unnecessary body fat that he carried at journey’s beginning. “It was the fittest I’ve ever been,” he mused, gently patting with both hands his only slight paunch. A paunch of fatherhood and happiness to be sure. What was gained was balance, evident still in his and his family’s manner of life, headed toward full self-reliance, from building their own dwelling from natural materials and with a strict “no contractors” rule, to the not-so-simple act of growing their own food.
Zammuto freely references Buddhist thought where balance is concerned. In his opinion, they “hit the nail on the head,” precisely by not hitting the nail on the head I would add. Or another way, he references the physics of sound; waves constantly fluxing, drawing near and far, above and below a “zero point” to produce themselves: “I’m always looking for the relationships between the sounds and the samples. This is a representation of being alive. We don’t even know the basic truths about ourselves like, Where are we? What are we doing here? How did this happen? And I love that kind of mystery…It’s really hard to describe. Music is the best way for me to describe it. It’s this texture of life. There’s a wave that oscillates around that center point, but what is that? What is the zero line? What is zero?! What is the taste of your tongue?! You don’t even know. [laughing] So it’s oscillation around this mystery. Sorry if it sounds cheesy but that’s what I’m interested in.” Not cheesy at all.
“I don’t want to put myself in a position where I have to make an outrageous statement to outdo what I said before. I want to come and make the same statement every single time: this is reality, and this is just another way of looking at it. It triangulates this center that I can feel.”
Zammuto was spurred to this statement following an observation: I have always marveled at The Books’ negotiation of their own collage-like approach to found materials. In their debut album, Thought for Food, the track ‘Read, Eat, Sleep’, announces outright one of the most apt single-word descriptions of their process: “Aleatoric. Aleatoric? Aleato-ric? Alea-tor-ic? Alea-tor-ic or aleato-ric? Aleato-ric.” Through the brief length of this musing, one is confronted with the very nature of what is being heard.
On their Wikipedia page, Zammuto is cited as disagreeing with this description, and that the music is actually very “tightly controlled.” He did not disagree during our conversation, however, and this was perhaps because I understand the term “aleatoric” not in regard to their acts of composing, but as a description of their process of discovering materials. Sure, they ultimately scrutinize and choose, but what comes their way in the first place, what they come across in any given thrift store or the internet for that matter, is completely uncontrollable. And more to the point, they put the materials to use not to make one grand outrageous statement at a time, one unit, but leave the parts as parts exposed, however intricate the meditative thread that runs them through at the compositional level. This is unlike the collage work involved in, for instance, the détournement deployed by the Situationists or more recently the work of the late Dash Snow.
The Books have no truck with that sort of punch, the POW! that is the engine of those oeuvres. Rather, these collages are slower ruminations, less immediate, but no less visceral or rewarding, perhaps even moreso. They are earnest. By this I mean that in laying bare their aleatoric process of material gathering, they make themselves vulnerable while killing the sense of irony, the sardonic joking quality that is usually associated with collage. This is what sets them apart; opening up spaces of sincerity, god forbid, in a time when we are always on guard searching for the punchline in every cultural happening we come to. To do so through devices that have so long been the property of jokesters supreme only enhances the success and importance of these still supremely playful artists.
Play without punch(line).
I arrived in New Lebanon, New York precisely on time. Paul deJong took a minute to answer the door. When he did come down, it was clear he had been sleeping, and he told me as much. I felt slightly guilty for ending his afternoon nap, but soon enough we were conversing comfortably, standing in the kitchen while water brewed for tea. It was here—surrounded by a plenitude of inimitable mugs, bowls, and plates all hand-thrown by his wife who is determined to replace all manufactured dishes in their home—that deJong launched into a summary of the decades of his life that brought him to the Books and the present.
Necessarily interspersed with his biography was a much appreciated swatch of American music history, electronic and classical. DeJong came from his home in the Netherlands as a young college student, attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on a scholarship premised on his cello and composition skills. “I felt I was always a composer”, he reminisced, recalling work done for theater and dance colleagues. But he soon tired of composing for others, and upon completing music school in the Netherlands, he went to Illinois, a choice influenced also by the pursuit of a love interest at the time.
At Urbana-Champaign, he found himself in the midst of a “fairly legendary” musical vanguard including Harry Partch and John Cage. “I was really lucky. Most of my friends I hung out with to study were composers, though I was a cello major there. It really catapulted me into digital editing and digital recording. I always edited by hand until around 1991. Tape splicing.” While we know much of the result of his introduction to the materials and practice of digital soundmaking, it was this latter practice, this old school of tracking, cutting, and gluing those now novel strips of thin black tape that caught my attention most. Happily, deJong had much to say on the subject, and much to remember.
Though modest in his self-positioning as a novice in the realm of digital sound upon his arrival in the US, it soon became clear that the skills he brought had actually been honed from an early age. True, there were no computers involved, but with the shimmer of recollection in his voice, deJong delightedly recounted the many hours spent alone and with friends producing and recording radio dramas, like Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The House of Usher’, onto cassettes, then dismantling the cassettes and reassembling them to create the effects that perhaps some of us—my mid-20’s generation who unknowingly participated in the end of the cassette’s currency—may remember as well from playing with our own Playskool devices. In particular, he recalled producing his very first sound effect: “I wanted a breaking bottle. We had these laboratory test tubes. I broke them and recorded that. Then we had a way of slowing that down. So this very high small test tube smashing sound slowed down, and of course it sounded nothing like a bottle. But at the same time it was like, ‘Wow! I’ve never heard this before!’”
What the dawning of the digital age offered was of course, expediency. “Now I can make these really quick edits, do this real quick splicing, instead of cutting with a knife to go to the reel to reel to reel, which I did forever and ever.” However, he continued, “there is something to be said for the older method. I see it as a skill something like writing out scores. With the new technology, you don’t have to write out scores. You just lay down parts and listen and re-record until you’ve got it. It’s not like having to go back to the table and write it down, where all the work is being done by your inner ear. Your conceptualizing skills are helped enormously by having to conceptualize further, a step or two ahead. In a more philosophical way, it’s an advantage if you’ve been through that. Tape-splicing, which I started when I was thirteen or so—you get skilled at that. You kind of have to just shoot. That skill, of having an idea and knowing its going to take 1500 cuts to get the sound…you’d better be damned sure of the chance that you’re going to make an effective sound. Otherwise, you’re going to waste a lot of time.”
Perhaps this is part of the ‘why’ of The Books. Another ingredient. Why can we not turn our ears? And why is it such a cerebral, sometimes tearful, always joyful experience to listen? Because just as deJong is by training always one or two steps ahead of his own composition, the emotive experience of listening to what that training produces is always one or two steps ahead of our capturing it. Old creatures in new fields evade standard traps built for that terrain. In this way, more than composition of sound takes place; one hears in deJong’s contribution the composition of the old and the new, turned by a most diligent ear and philosophical vision from the potential of being so much clatter in an attic, to instead finely appointed and vast dwellings where we wander trying to catch up to our own fascinations with what echoes there. It is with this same attitude of fascination and utmost care that deJong approaches his other great project: the archive.
From his home and studio, deJong and I proceeded eventually to the space across the street where his archive is stored. What is archived exactly? As far as pure sound, 70% is spoken word samples, the rest ambient and instrumental sounds. The 70% is comprised of twenty to twenty five thousand samples on deJong’s own estimation. This is in addition to an impressive collection of video and film, as well as a burgeoning library of stills. These sounds and images, besides existing digitally in computers, are carefully stored in their orginal forms of VHS, CDs, books, cassettes, and other print. If it began as an amateur practice, deJong’s collection has grown into a full-blown institution, or is at least well on its way in that direction. He is currently looking at more space in the same building for more storage and installation projects. Currently, the austere rooms, which are probably downright bleak on grayer days, is lightened by a few of deJong’s prints hanging on the walls, his own calming, yet luminous disposition and that of his equally bright assistant Valerie. Currently Valerie is busy transcribing the thousands of spoken word samples from which deJong will make selections for a book project, a collection of poetry composed from this heap of verbiage.
What I appreciate most about deJong’s attitude toward this activity is that it is not redemptive. It’s not about salvation of memories from the abyss of forgetting, not in a moralist sense anyway, nor really is it even about collection per se (there’s no end goal in mind). This was a welcome reprieve from the art world and Art Historical emphasis on Collections in which I most often have to deal. This is certainly not to say there is no curatorial activity involved. He is selective, and knows what he likes. His instincts are as well-honed, better perhaps, than any given Chelsea gallerist. But it comes off in deJong’s account of his materials and his attitude toward them as a poeisis of give and take with the ephemera that comes his way, and the life of experiences that constitute him. As he puts it, in describing the spoken word and soon to be printed poetry that he composes from the samples, “I started writing poetry when I was seven, so to me, it is this incredible gift that this library is giving back.”
Where do these instincts take him? What ultimately lives in the archive? For one, the revelatory qualities inherent in the human voice: “People actually will reveal themselves no matter what their intentions are, if you just listen to their timing and their intonation, and the way they speak. You hear a lot, for instance, with evangelists. Why do these people shout? Who are they trying to convince? Mostly they are trying to convince themselves. You can hear that they are absolutely unsure about what they are saying. And how can you be? I’m not accusing them of immorality or anything. How can you be sure of this stuff they are talking about? But the harder they try the less convincing it sounds. It becomes dogmatic. Spoken word can reveal frailty, or insincerity. And it’s rather universal I believe, and people respond to that: how something is said, whether or not they understand what is being said.” So in a way, it is an archive of mirrors. This is not however in the hackneyed sense of art existing to mirror life, but rather lost moments of the everyday, rediscovered and repurposed not to reflect but to inspire reflexivity. An archive of gifts and invitations; not a morgue where cultural artifacts have gone to be stored in death, but an increasingly epic party situated in a house of mirrors, after which one comes out transformed.
Last year, The Books released what appears to be their final album, appropriately titled The Way Out. Zammuto has begun work with new collaborators, seeking to reach a different audience than The Books attracted, though he is genuinely grateful for that sustained engagement over the years and considers them “an incredible group.’ DeJong is currently expecting twins, which he seems remarkably calm about, and is exploring the possibilities of large-scale installations which might be toured in the years to come, with strong sound elements, of course. In the meantime, he is busy in his archive. Both seem happy and ready to turn the page. What a read it was.
As Zammuto put it, he comes to “make the same statement every single time: this is reality, and this is just another way of looking at it.” And listening through all four full-length albums The Books have put out and Play All, the DVD of thirteen music videos made with Books methods, it is obvious he means this. Bittersweetly, on what is again likely their final album as this iteration of themselves and their collaboration, we are offered the track ‘I Am Who I Am’. But in true Books fashion, this declaration is haunted by its own fronted certainty, like those televangelists who now reside in deJong’s archive: the more vehemently it is declared, the less sure we are.
Dear Books, thank you for who you have been, who you are to each of us, and who you are becoming, always artfully unsure of who exactly that is.
1. Avid, or even casual listeners may have noticed by now that the title and subheadings of this article, save “Take Time” are culled from the lyrics of The Books’ ‘Smells Like Content’. A note is required here as they will also notice that this subheading is not true to those lyrics. Whereas the correct word is “proposition”, I substitute “composition” for two reasons: for years, this is what I thought was sung in the song, and it serves the subjects of this section much more aptly. I hope The Books and the fans can all forgive my inadvertent, now deliberate, inaccuracy.
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Josh T Franco: born, Odessa, TX. Year: 1985. Education: Art History. Philosophy. Currently: Sandsurfs between New York and Texas. Pursuing PhD in Art History at Binghamton University. Once saw a ghost in a tree in the desert at night by a fire under a clear sky.
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