The Books Come to Princeton; Or, How Steno Got Its Groove Back

Until recently, there was in my mind no conceivable relationship between Hebrew stenography and funk. Then The Books came along and everything changed.

The Books are reading the books!

Hey check it out The Books are reading the books!

The Books are an experimental musical duo, and on Tuesday afternoon they delivered a hilarious and hyper-intellectual presentation as part of the Music Department’s Composition Colloquium Series. This is their second appearance at Princeton in the past year — they played a hypnotizing set at Terrace last fall — but this time around there was less “let’s play our music” and more “let’s talk about how we make our music.”

These guys are critical darlings of the indie world: unsurprisingly, they were greeted by a room chock full of flannel, stubble, and horn-rimmed glasses, largely of grad student origin. And when I refer to The Books as experimental I mean that very seriously. Together they gather bits of found sound and assemble minimalist “sound collages” — a process that cellist Paul de Jong called a “harvest, a social-cultural farming.” (Gotta love the hyphenated abstractions — no wonder so many grad students showed up for this talk.) His partner in crime, guitarist/vocalist Nick Zammuto, rattled off tons of vaguely scientific, consistently gorgeous metaphors for their composition process. But first you need to hear it to understand what he’s talking about. They write pop songs at heart, but they might challenge your standard definition of pop song, unless your standard definition of pop song includes “bits of old Black Panther recordings edited and manipulated beyond all recognition.” But they’re good, trust me! Give ’em a listen after the jump.

They’re also into video.

You are probably now a) very confused, b) pleasantly surprised, or c) both. This is basically how it works: these two guys spend their lives hunting and gathering the most interesting snippets of sound they can find, and they certainly dig deep. They’ve got a recording of some random kid talking to his parents in an aquarium, and they’ve got the sound of a boat starting up, cribbed from a Godard movie. Then they take all of these staggeringly obscure samples and file them away in an electronic “sound library,” which is neatly organized, each sound labeled with its origin. This means it contains folders like “a day in the Algonquin park” and “50 years of religious broadcasting.” (Seriously, I spotted both of those as de Jong flipped through the library.)

Now that they’ve got this vast store of material to work with, they then draw from that vault, grabbing all sorts of different sound files and slicing them up and altering them and re-arranging them. Often they take a monologue and splice together different words and phrases within that monologue to create new sentences. “Sometimes if I need a plural, I borrow an ‘s’,” said de Jong. (He particularly enjoys working with self-help and hypnosis tapes because they speak so slowly — easy to edit! — and use such surreal imagery.) Once that they’ve got all their odd little samples picked out, they add their own instrumentals and stir.

This approach might sound absurd, and it kind of is. Zammuto frequently referred to it as “chaos,” with the end product “emerging” naturally from the very process of composition. He was ridiculously quotable and had all kinds of pithy things to say so I’m just going to throw them at you WATCH OUT:

  • On composition: “There’s this feeling of archaeology. I don’t feel like I write anything, it’s like they just write themselves.”
  • On the human voice: “There’s a huge amount of music in the spoken word, and I think The Books have always been about finding that music.
  • On working with a sound library: “So many elements to draw from. Every atom has its own valence; every element can combine with others in a finite number of ways.”
  • On musical intuition: “That first thing that comes to mind is almost always wrong .. It’s always the random encounters that seem to stick.”
  • On cymbals: “I hate cymbals. I friggin’ hate cymbals.”

And the best of all, honestly one of my favorite quotes in the English language: “The Hebrew stenography sample pushed the idea of funk.” He was referring specifically to one technique from a song called “I Didn’t Know That,” which uses a incredibly random recording of (surprise) a stenographer speaking in Hebrew. Zammato explained his method. What he did was take the speech, remove all the English words, take all the syllables and tune them to the nearest pitch, and quantize it all to fit the song’s rhythm. The Hebrew kicks in at around 1:02 in the song — listen for yourself. That, I think, is the beauty of this music: unearthing that groove in the unlikeliest of places. And sometimes really, really unlikely, as in only-500-copies-of-that-record-were-ever-made-how-the-heck-did-you-find-that unlikely.

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