By JASON DEAN
What I knew of The Books from their 3 previous albums was that they were fellow documenters, appreciators of the sample, the sound collage, the tapes from answering machines at the salvation army.
I later found out Nick Zammuto came into music through the visual arts and started out making sound sculptures, and bought his first DAT recorder to document them. The other member of The Books, Paul de Jong, has been playing classical cello from the age of five and (among other things) was commissioned by the Dutch government to compose music based on Rotterdam’s neighborhoods.
So the Whitney Museum was a fitting venue. This is one of those rare bands that fits in as easily in a museum as it does at an indie rock venue in Williamsburg, and they have played in both. However, I have a problem with this appropriation. I believe The Books and a lot of their contemporaries deserve this kind of recognition, at the Whitney, as part of some contemporary music series, being able to perform without the limits of a rock venue. But then again, that’s not what got them here, the smaller rock venues nurtured The Books, and they developed solely through word of mouth from critics and fans.
I couldn’t help thinking to myself: Is this the point where Ozzy plays the Queen’s 50th Jubilee? Is this the point when by appropriation, the Institution, changes the intention of the artist? I just wonder what this implies, to have the stamp of approval from the establishment. What happens to a band from the opposite world of DIY that is suddenly embraced by the arbiters of taste?
Maybe performing at a venue like this would give them freedom to experiment, try out things in a new context? Maybe they could expose their indie music fans to chance music and fluxus sound pieces in this appropriate context. Was there any acknowledgement of the venue by The Books? Any change in their performance?
Unfortunately, it was just another show for The Books. Inherently their music is structured by midi tracks, with layers upon layers of samples, so the ability to ‘play’ songs seems to come down to hitting the right cues and catching up with the machines. Nick even mentioned at one point not being able to play fast enough to keep up.
Personally I like their music, I think it should be experienced live at least once. The samples work on an entirely different level when seeing where they originated, and how they affect the audience, and change the meanings of sounds. Snippets of speech are just another manipulated instrument. It’s strange to see a band live and have an audience react so strongly to the visual clips: laughing in the middle of a song at footage of kids sledding, crashing into each other in the snow or a close up of stock footage from a martial arts lesson with an instructor tenderly touching a demonstrator on the hip. Their cover of Nick Drake’s ‘cello song’ was an incredible interpretation which received immediate applause. Nick Zammuto even mentioned that they had been in touch with the Drake estate, who liked it so much they wanted to include it in a traveling exhibition of Nick Drake’s short music career.
In the next logical step for The Books, their performance was being filmed for inclusion on a full length DVD, which very well may take the place of an audio release in 2007.
Overall, I enjoyed seeing The Books in a venue like the Whitney, but I also wonder what it means for them as artists, or musicians. Was this just another gig, a show that could have happened at any club in Williamsburg, or was it elevated to the level of art because we were at The Whitney?
The Books performed on March 30th, 2007 at the Whitney.
Image from The Books website.