Sticking it to U2

In what was being billed as a festival of “the art of sampled and repurposed sounds and images”, The Copyright/Copyleft Festival concluded on Saturday with a video/dialogue presentation by Mark Hosler, one of the founding members of the musical act Negativland. With a central theme of “sound collagism”, copyright legality, and freedom of expression, the festival featured artists who manipulate sound and samples to create.

Negativland, formed in the late 1970’s, has gained a certain cult status and notoriety in the US, in part for their musical productions consisting of looped audio segments, cut and pasted (literally) off old radio station carts, cassette tapes and movie soundtracks. This found sound is then put onto a bed of ambient soundscapes, creating a collage of potty-humoured politicism and promoted as conceptual art, complete with music videos.

At the end of the 80’s and into the early 90’s, Negativland became embroiled in a series of controversies, stemming firstly from a press release the group fabricated to bolster up a failing live tour. By falsely linking their music as inspiration to a teenage mass murderer, a media blitz followed that was conducted without any fact checking, a cause célèbre for the group’s next album.

This follow-up resulted in another controversy, involving a lawsuit with U2 over cover art design and music sampling. Negativland’s U2 EP ripped off the Irish band’s name graphically, in order to assuage the public into buying the record, and explicitly sampled “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” without permission.

Hosler’s pseudo-nonchalant reminiscing of these events provoked interesting questions about mass media literacy (especially as most of North America is still dealing with the Balloon Boy hangover) and rights to intellectual property, relevant in our current Digital Age.

But reminiscing accounted for most of his presentation, reeking of a last-shot-in-the-spotlight take, with preferences leaning more towards industry name dropping than to his half-hearted attempts at radical dialogue. Hosler presented himself, and the group’s work, as Beavis and Butthead Americana, and as success piggybacking from other people’s triumphs and misfortunes, rather than from the acclaim of solid conceptual artwork.

The second half of the evening afforded a rather unusual setting to see, but mostly hear, as virtuosic pianist Uri Caine performed with a group formed for this event. The Scotia-bank Dance Centre does have a stage, but the musicians instead played right on the floor. As time and music unfolded, it seemed to make sense, or at least not matter. Caine's many facets began to appear and combine to form wistful, frenetic or ponderously humorous gestures of sound that needed no visual. 

He has been described as both a Jazz and Classical artist, but his wide-ranging collaboration with musicians from many genres (among them trumpeter Dave Douglas and The Roots' drummer Questlove) inform Caine's sensibility in composition and playing. Seemingly limitless improvisational ideas and masterful execution allow Caine to move through many moods, sometimes quite abruptly, as with a new through- composed piece he played in the first set. At least half an hour to forty minutes went by with barely a pause in the intensity of the music as it shifted from frenetic passages, reminiscent of avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor's more aggressive moments, to a kind of Parisian/Klezmer waltz theme punctuated by Ben Perowski's world class drumming.

Giorgio Magnanensi, artistic director of Copyright/Copyleft, himself an international New Music practitioner, joined Caine, manipulating the acoustic sound of the band through laptop to great effect. Using fragments from passages only moments out from under the fingers, he managed to restate and reinterpret material, now processed in various ways to give new perspective on something just heard. 

To bring such disparate or previously unconnected styles together is the essence of sampling. To borrow and juxtapose, re-shape and create something new from the combination. Having Uri Caine end this four-day festival of sonic collage makes sense. His music is fiery exploration with an elegant outcome. Sample success.

//Ian Cox and Morgan Applewood

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