A Draft of a Response to Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory”

This past week, I offered to write a response to a piece by Andrew Reinhard over at the journal Epoiesen. Having the opportunity to write a response there had been a recent bucket list thing for me since I started to work with the journal’s editor Shawn Graham to publish the paper and paginated version of the journal through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Reinhard’s piece is titled “Assemblage Theory” and it consists of a short essay and an album of music based loosely on an assemblage of found sounds. In my response, I want to probe the rest of the assemblage as a way to think about the way in which archaeology works to produce knowledge. Nothing I’m going to say is new on profound, but I hope it at least works alongside Andrew’s ideas and takes on some of what the first response to this piece (Jolene Smith, which you can read here) and Neville Morley’s noted on his blog here.

As a final note, this is just a draft. My original idea was to produce a series of statements on the piece that form an assemblage both on their own and in relation to the piece itself. As with most of my clever ideas, that one gave way to the limits of my creativity and energy, but hopefully, some parts of it persist in this roughest of rough drafts of a response.

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Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” is a remarkable experiment in thinking and performing an assemblage. Sculpted from found sounds on the internet, Reinhard’s album – and the work that preceded its release (and indeed, the article that introduced it on Epoiesen) – makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, or individual in bringing order to the fragmented realities that surround us. The seamlessness of Reinhard’s beats does not intend to represent or reproduce the cacaphonic character of the original group of samples, but to project a kind of order on this chaos.

The smoothness of Reinhard’s final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character to the samples as it does to bring them into meaningful relationships. His description of this process evoked for me Elizabeth Freeman’s interpretation of Frankenstein in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). When I read this work, albeit in another context, I mused that archaeologists continue to work in Victor Frankenstein’s tradition of practice: to creates a smooth digital reality that is both indistinguishable from our experience of time and inauthentic as a way of recording, understanding, and ultimately re-experiencing the past. In fact, we can argue, following Freeman, that modernity sought to create a past that eliminated the abrupt and affective character of its pastness created through awkward and profoundly human assemblages and replace it with a smooth and seamlessness experience that largely looked to the present as a point of reference, or, at very least, suggested a kind of familiar, future utopian reality (a Foucauldian heterotopia). Reinhard’s selective remixing of these samples offered an approach to smoothing our disjointed encounter with the past. In fact, out ability to recognize constituent parts of these songs is lost entirely as Smith has already noted in her response. This, however, is a common feature of our  diverse, digital, post-industrial and post modern world which so often seeks to eliminate the jarring disjunctions that the seams between parts of the assemblage become all the more intense and, as the tragic humanity of Frankenstein’s monster demonstrates, real.

Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he shaped and presented his assemblage; he drew on traditional pop song structure and accentuated the sounds that evoked contemporary guitar rock, beats drawn from trap, house, and EDM, as well as other sonic conventions. These various structures are part of this assemblage as well, and it is probably safe to assume that these structures allowed Reinhard to anticipate his music while identifying sounds on the internet. Hayden White, for example, famously argued that a series of tropes and forms of employment shaped the way that historians produced narratives, explained causality, and produced assemblages of evidence. Neville Morley’s response to Reinhard’s piece reminded us that pop sensibilities are only one potential way to emplot this assemblage.  

Despite Morley’s critique, which Reinhard invited by making his original assemblage available for examination, Reinhard’s arrangement still models our own approach to archaeological knowledge making. Narratives of all sorts prefigure the assemblages that we encounter in archaeology. These narratives and processes constitute parts of these assemblages the same way that a traditional pop melody or familiar sound on the web prefigured the songs possible at Reinhard’s deft hands. As Neville Morley has show, different hands introduce different elements to the assemblage and Reinhard’s generosity with his samples has resulted in at least one new encounter with some of the same basic elements. This reading of Reinhard’s project accepts the ontological integrity of the samples that Reinhard used in his songs. We can all agree that they exist and that they are things and as such they can be combined with other things which range from narratives, song structures, technology, and experiences.

By making the samples of one song available, Reinhard allowed us to play along with him and to create our own music from a common pool of sonic artifacts. Among archaeologists, however, this kind of generosity remains relatively rare; the fact that Reinhard only released the artifacts from ONE song parallels neatly the tendency among archaeologists to feint toward transparency and openness in analysis while holding back certain key elements of the interpretative process. Historically, archaeologists were loath to release their notebooks which were often the personal property of the scholar. More recently, archaeologists have acknowledged that their deep experience in the landscape, with particular methods, and across the social relationships that shape fieldwork formed as vital a part of the archaeological assemblage as the carefully documented ceramic sherds and stratigraphic relationships.     

Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” also invites us to think about the elements in the assemblage that served to mediate our encounter with it. In fact, the emerging field of media archaeology considers the way in which both the physical and conceptual structures of media impact our engagement with our environment, the past, and the present.  

When I first read Reinhard’s piece, I clicked through to Spotify and dutifully clicked on the first track. The website played the first 30 seconds of the song and then went to the next song on the album. I didn’t think much of it because I wasn’t really that concerned with the length of the songs. After two or three tracks, however, I discovered that because I don’t have a Spotify account, I could only hear the first 30 second of each song. That was a bummer, and apparently this also influenced the first responder to this article’s listening to the tracks

I then emailed Reinhard and he let me know that the album was also available on on Tidal. I then played it on my MacBook Pro and though it sounded interesting enough to cue it up on the stereo that lives in my main room. Through by much larger and more sophisticated stereo the sound seemed a bit muddled: the big bass in a few songs (like “Trappist”) seemed smear across the other sounds on the track, and the entire album just felt too damn loud. To be clear, I was listening to the album over an Auralic Mini music streamer that outputs to a Schiit Bifrost DAC through a pair of Audioquest RCA cables into a 60 watt vacuum-tube Audio Research Corporation amplifier that drives a pair of Zu Omen Defs, which are paper-cone, full range driver speakers flanked by a pair of super quick, 400 watt Zu Undertone subwoofers. This system loves small ensemble jazz, carefully recorded rock music, and acoustic stuff. In fact, sometimes when I play loud, boomy music especially through the streamer, the bass get a bit sloppy for some reason. To try to listen to the music more carefully, I also played it over my little office system which consists of two powered Yamaha studio monitors and a thumpy little subwoofer that sits under my desk. It sounded tighter and every bit as loud as on my home system, but perhaps not as big. When I played the version of the album that Reinhard sent to me as .wav files through my Sony music player (a HAP-Z1ES). It cleared up most of the boomy-ness for whatever reason.

All of this is to point out that this sculpted assemblage of samples also consists of a complex series of technologies, services, and environments that mediate our encounter with all parts of the assemblage from their transmission to the relationship between the various component parts. We can probably assume that the sound that we hear is similar enough to what Reinhard created to form the basis for a meaningful conversation, but even across my various listening environments there is plenty of room to quibble about how the assemblage actually works. At the same time, we can recognize in the LOUDNESS of the tracks (their compressed dynamic range) a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was around 8 db, but could be as high as 13 on vinyl. The most flagrantly loud album in my playlist is Oasis’s 1995 What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? with a dynamic range of about 5db.

What we can understand, however, is how companies and individuals have succeeded at monetizing various elements in this assemblage. Sometimes this is overt, such as when we have to sign up to listen to a particular music service which then records our listening habits to compensate (barely) musicians and to serve us advertising. At present, we only have access to this music through a series of music services whose future is far from certain. The formats through which this music is distributed – whether in the rather more “raw” .wav file or through such compressed formats as FLAC, ALAC, or MP3 – may prove as ephemeral as 8-track tapes, DATs, or mini discs, or as persistent as LPs. Archiving these tracks so that both Reinhard’s and this article makes sense in the future is not as simple as saving the music files to a repository, but must also extend to preserving the various subsidiary formats and even devices through which these songs could be heard. As Raiford Guin’s has shown with video games, playing these games is more than just the source code, but involves the experience of the arcade or the home gaming system, the haptics of the controllers, the look of the CRT monitor or television, and even the art on the game cartridge or cabinet.    

Sometimes this is imbedded within longer history of music making. The samples that Reinhard used in his songs were all free and open access, apparently, but even this is a response to the growing scrutiny of samples used in hiphop music. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his recent meditation on the oeuvre of Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, reflected on the change in hiphop in the mid-1990s when record labels discovered they could require permission and payment for samples used in songs. By 2001, the use of paid for samples becomes a point of pride for rappers. Jay-Z, famously attacked Nas by claiming that he didn’t even own the right to his own songs so when Jay-Z sampled them, Nas didn’t make any money:

So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain’t get a coin, nigga, you was gettin’ fucked then
I know who I paid, God – Serchlite publishin’

In this context, Reinhard’s use of free samples explicitly detaches himself from the commercial aspects of the music making process. At the same time, he didn’t release his entire assemblage of samples explicitly. There is no ceramic catalogue, nor did he make his data available by crediting his sources. In fact, his tracks aren’t available for free download and only appear on paid streaming services. We can imagine that maybe Reinhard is getting “a coin,” but his sources are, in Jay-Z’s words, “gettin’ fucked.” 

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Reinhard’s place in the media ecosystem, but to demonstrate how the flow of objects through various media create relationships that define their value. The easy fluidity of digital space emphasizes the instability of assemblages especially at their margins and the push and pull of efforts to stabilize how they produce meaning. We do this through controlling access, through various strategies of narration, and  through the leveraging of various media affordances.

Reinhard starts his discussion of assemblages with Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. I suppose that I’m trying to nudge swap lenses and considering his work in light of Delanda’s earlier work, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines which expanded and developed the notion of machinic phyla from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus. The idea of Delanda (and Deleuze and Guattari) emphasizes that assemblages form not merely through conscious decisions or even discursive rules (like narratives or the pop song), but also through affordances of the objects themselves. These scholars were particular intrigued by the notion of flow and the ways in which the movement of material, manufactured objects, and individuals mediated by their materiality produced value within the capitalist system in ways that appeared to be nearly autonomous. Michael Roller has adapted this notion archaeological assemblage as evidence for the emergence of mechinic consumerism in the 20th century. This is a kind of consumerism that is as much a product of producers and production as the manufactured objects. 

In some ways, excavating Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” embodies both one potential relationship between the disparate fragments of found sound collected from internet as well as the ways in which 21st century digital assemblage exist within an ecosystem that not only allow us to experience them but also monetizes our access. 

<more soon…>

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