This weekend, I worked on refining and revising my response to Andrew Reinhard’s piece, Assemblage Theory, on Epoiesen. The response is a bit long so I’m breaking it into two pieces.
It’s also a bit complex, but by playing with these ideas, I’m hoping it’ll help me refine my thinking for an article that is due at the end of the month. Last Spring, I gave a paper at the annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper was titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” (plus this coda) and it marks my first effort to create an academic argument what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press.
It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as always, I’m more than open to any criticism or feedback!
Responding to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory is difficult on a number of levels. The greatest challenge, for me, is recognizing in Reinhard’s work a response to the recent attention to the assemblage in archaeological thinking (see the various contributors to 2017 special issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Harrison 2011; Martin 2013; Fowler 2013; Haggis 2018). This work is remarkably diverse and theoretically informed. Much of taps into the vital current of thought concerning the limits of material agency both in the past and in our own work as researchers. At its most exciting, critical engagements with the concept of assemblages, relational ontologies, and scientific practices (especially in the hands of thinkers like Karen Barad (2007)) offer new ways for understanding the “social life of things” (Appadurai 1988), “stuff” (Miller 2009), and “vibrant matter” (Bennett 2010). Bruno Latour has explored how in its broadest definition, the concept of the assemblage can inform how we think about our world in the fits of the Anthropocene (Latour 2017). This is heady and important stuff.
At the same time, I was drawn to Reinhard’s album and article because of my interest in music. In the past, I’ve thought about how music can inform archaeological thinking (Caraher 2019; Caraher, Kourelis, and Reinhard 2014). I also just really like music. In fact, as I write these words I’m listening to Ornette Coleman’s “Monk and the Nun” which was originally recorded in 1959 during the same session as his iconic The Shape of Jazz to Come. “Monk and the Nun” did not appear on that album, and resurfaced only on some compilations released in the 1970s. This afternoon, however, I was listening to it on Ornette Coleman’s box set of recordings from his year on the Atlantic label (1959-1961) called Beauty is a Rare Thing and released in 1993. The tracks on this box set are arranged in the order that they were recorded rather than in the order that the tracks would appear on any of Coleman’s Atlantic albums. This means that they only they loosely follow the organization of the albums and do not follow the order of the tracks as they were originally released. Coleman’s well-known track “Lonely Woman” is track 5 on the first disc of Beauty is a Rare Thing and comes immediately before “Monk and the Nun.” It originally appeared as the string first track on his The Shape of Jazz to Come. To my mind, this is important: the bass line, then drums, and finally, those magically awkward, melancholic, and deeply engaging lines from Coleman and his long-time collaborator Don Cherry introduce their new approach to jazz featured on this album and definitive for Coleman’s long career.
While the box set offers an exhaustive survey of Coleman’s work during his most exciting and productive period. It is markedly different from the assemblage offered by the six albums released over this same period (The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Change of the Century (1960), This Is Our Music (1961), Free Jazz (1961), Ornette! (1962), and Ornette on Tenor (1962)). The different order of the tracks alone give the 1993 box set a different vibe and the faithfulness to the order of recording provides new opportunities for insights into the development of the songs and albums that world make Coleman famous. Reading Reinhard’s reminded me to think about albums as assemblages, and to think (and eventually write) about music.
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 article that introduced it on Epoiesen—makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, and 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 cacophonic and discordant character of the original group of samples. Instead, he seeks to resolve their differences through the cutting away and carefully arranging the sounds into recognizable songs. Reinhard makes one group of his found sounds available for us to understand his process, and this is a generous way to make clear the methods that Reinhard used, in general, to produce order from the chaos of even his opportunistic assemblages. Reinhard’s work reinforces a point made by Rodney Harrison (2011): assemblages are “assembled” rather than discovered and while the act of finding sounds on the internet playfully mimics the modern serendipity of excavation, it does nothing to detract from the obvious work of assembly that is crucial to Reinhard’s piece. We can safely assume that he discarded and rejected sounds that were not suitable for his project making the act of finding even less about revealing something that existed and more about creating something that was necessary.
The goal of my response is explore the nuances of Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory as he created it and as I have encountered it and to trace the limits of his assemblage beyond the bounds of the album into the sinews of our culture. In this way, I want to emphasize an Assemblage Theory as a point of entry into a wider meditation on the ways in which assemblages provide a medium for the critical engagement of our contemporary world. In this way, Reinhard’s project reflects his (and my own) longstanding interest in the use of archaeological methods and metaphors as a way of excavating and constructing critical perspectives on the contemporary world.
(I’m now listening to The Comet is Coming’s Complete Studio Recordins 2015CE-2017CE. The tracks on this album, through some accident of markup lost their metadata and even their original order, when I uploaded this album to my Roon music software library.)
Reinhard is an archaeologist and like so much archaeology, the smoothness of his final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character of his assemblage of samples as the methods and practices that brought them into seemingly 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). In a short digression, Freeman considers Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a model for understanding the role that time played in the processes used to create verisimilitude in media. She argues that in creating his creature, Victor Frankenstein’s aspired to assemble a being whose seamlessness manifests the experience of reality in the present. His creature, however, was characterized by its seams and sutures that combined the assemblage of scavenged parts necessary to bring it to life. The visible seams demonstrated that it was impossible to eliminate the abrupt and affective character of its pastness that is intrinsic to awkward and profoundly human assemblages. In effect, the seams made Frankenstein’s creature authentic and, ironically, alive. Our modern efforts to create a smooth and seamlessness experience from found things, at best, mimics our experiences of the present, but more likely anticipates a perfectible utopian future that disregards our own encounter with the past. The discipline of archaeology with its debt to modernity (Thomas 2006) consistently attempts to create seamlessness from the disparate fragments assembled from past experiences. This echos the modern promise of seamless integration in the internet of things, of augmented and virtual reality, and in various transhuman fantasies of technologically enhanced humans.
Reinhard’s selective remixing of his samples to produce a smoothly contoured present ensured created a juxtaposition that both located the samples in the past but also created their pastness. The dissonant, discontinuous, and found character of the samples defined them as something other than the contemporary experience. This distancing made the act of re-assembly possible and, indeed, necessary even through we realize that the digital samples at the core of Reinhard’s songs are from an archaeological strata that could also be contemporary with the songs themselves. As Smith has noted in her response to this album (2018), Reinhard’s effort to assert and demonstrate the disparate parts of these songs while simultaneously obscuring how these parts fit together to create a sonically consistent whole is a key role in locating Reinhard’s creative power in the present. The tension between an asserted pastness and recognizable present is a common feature of our diverse, digital, post-industrial and modern world in that we often seek to eliminate the jarring disjunctions between parts of the assemblage that remind us of the past’s messy abruptness. The tragic and all-too-human character of Victor Frankenstein’s monster made it the deeply sympathetic victim of the modernity’s distain for the incongruity and flawed character of the past and the false hope for a seamless and perfected future.
To his credit, Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he created his assemblage. He arranged his found sounds according to the structure of traditional pop songs 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 prefigure his album in the 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. As long as pop music has existed, there have been those who have sought to challenge the self-evident character of its structure.
(I just put on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime which was famously recorded and mixed for $1100 (Azzerad 2001, 82). Despite the effort to make this into a concept album, it still retains the band’s anti-commercial, rambling style of the band which was the very antithesis of pop music.)
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. 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.
There are other elements present in Reinhard’s assemblage that offer more insights into the process that produced the final album. Two struck me as immediately visible.
First, the album has the unmistakable character of contemporary music making in its unfailing and precise rhythmic structure. Generally, a “click track” imparts this structure on a song. The click track is a tool that allows a musician to precisely synchronize sounds in various recordings. The click track is eliminated during the production process, but the regularity of the beat that it imparts persists. Damon Krukowski, the former Galaxie 500 drummer, has recently observed that the “click track” regularizes the interplay between musicians in recordings. Prior to the use of click tracks and in live performances, musicians would listen to one another and adjust their tempos in minute ways that allow a song to hold together. Musicians also would be influenced by live audiences to accelerate or slow their tempo in response to the crowd, the moment, and the shared experience of the performance. Thus the audience and performers responded to one another and the listener’s response to a performer would follow the performers responses to one another in the process of music making.
I’m now listening to Cannonball Adderley’s album Something Else (1958) and as I bob my head in time to their version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves“ waiting for the entry of Miles Davis’s muted trumpet, I’m literally moving in sync with the musicians as they listened to each other. I’m locked into the interplay between Art Blakey’s drums, Sam Jones’s bass line, and Hank Jones’s sparse piano. These are real musicians whose subtle cues and gestures I attempt to imagine as I listen deeply into this classic album. Reinhard’s album is a different affair, but it would be an odd effort to seek human interaction in the mechanical regularity of the click. Krukowski has suggested that lack of intimacy in contemporary recorded pop music comes from the standard use of the click track which has eliminated the subtle variations that may be undetectable on a conscious level, but nevertheless draw us into the experience of music as a human art. Whether one agrees with the argument of a former dummer is less significant than the more obvious observation that when we move our body in time with Reinhard’s thumping beats, we are not sharing in the generative interplay of the musicians who recorded the song, but falling in sync with precise beats of a machine.
The other artifact of Reinhard’s assemblage that captured my attention was the driving beat of trap music. Over the last decade, the rhythms of trap have become essentially synonymous with hiphop. Trap is usually associated with the beats that emerged in the South, and particularly Atlanta, in the 1990s and by the early 21st century these beats became increasingly common in the EDM. Essential to the style of trap is the sound of the Roland TR-808 drum machine which became so closely associated with this style of music that hiphop duo Outkast recognized it by name in their 2003 hit “The Way You Move” which connects the 808s distinctive cymbal and bass that is characteristic of trap.
So click-it or ticket, let’s see your seat belt fastened
Trunk rattlin’, like two midgets in the back seat wrestlin’
Speaker box vibrate the tag
Make it sound like aluminum cans in a bag
But I know y’all wanted that 808
Can you feel that be-A-S-S, bass
Outkast here is making fun of the 808-produced trap so typical in early-21st-century Atlanta hiphop by describing how it sounds played through a car stereo with its powerful subwoofer rattling the license plate and the poorly attached plastic trim. The reference to it sounding like “aluminum cans in a bag” is not simply an innocent simile but a playful suggestion that the sound of thumping base evokes the image of the urban scavenger with his assemblage of recyclable cans in plastic trash bag. In the hands of Outkast, the ubiquitous sound of trap and the Roland TR-808 slyly evokes the lower class near-suburbs of Atlanta and the “dirty” neighborhoods which made this sound famous. This superficial reading of trap does not do the complexities of this genre justice (see for example, McCarthy 2018; Kaluža and Študent 2018), but since Reinhard’s album is not so much trap as trap-inspired EDM, the relationship between his beats and the assemblage of trap driven hiphop is probably distant enough for us to abandon it at this point in my review.
The more proximate context for trap inspired EDM is, of course, is the club. As I have already noted in my discussion of the “click track” in contemporary electronic music, the use of trap beats in the club creates a bodily response not just to the beats, but to the automated processes which order the beats into a systematic tempo. The club is also a place of consumption and display where music is not only consumed, but individuals produce distinctive assemblages to manufacture both group and individual identities. EDM is social music designed to be played in public places and a constituent part of the assemblages that define club culture identity (Classically explored by D. Hebdige 1979; more recently Jackson 2004; Wilson 2006).
The intersection of style, music, and the movements of bodies in the club locates Reinhard’s album amid a larger assemblage of manufactured experiences that define identities within consumer culture. A particularly intriguing aspect of our experience with Assemblage Theory is the loudness of the album. Loudness in this context does not refer to the volume of the tracks which the user can control, but the relationship between the quietest and loudest passages on any track. The compressed dynamic range of the tracks on Assemblage Theory is a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, which is consistent with the 5 db present on Migos platinum-certified album CULTURE and slightly less dynamic than Daft Punk’s 8 db range on Random Access Memories. To put this in perspective Orbital’s highly regarded second album (often called “The Brown Album”) released in 1993 had a dynamic range of 13 db. Tribe Called Quest’s iconic Low End Theory from 1991 had a range of 12 db. The recent increase in loudness has its roots both in the desire or record labels to have songs that stand out on the radio, but it also ensures that tracks sound hyperreal when played through highly amplified sound systems at dance clubs. The flattening of dynamic range ensures that all frequencies and passages are equally audible above the throbbing bodies of a dance club. On home systems, particularly low efficiency speakers and headphones, this loudness creates an impression of fidelity that has little in common with the sound of live instruments. In many ways, the loudness of EDM contributes to hyperreality of the genre (and increasingly of all pop music) that has no or few referents in performed music. Our encounter, then, with loudness, the regimented experience of the click track, and the seamless integration of the found sounds in the assemblage offers an experience of the real with only the barest of relationships with our lived experiences. To use Baudrillard’s language, the structuring of this assemblage offers a simulacrum that lacks a clear point of reference (Baudrillard 1994).
(Part 2 tomorrow!)