SQUARE FOOTAGE: Lately, de Jong (right) has been hitting small-town branches of the NYPL to comb their audio/visual collections, and Zammuto has been rearranging hair and beauty ads from the '90s.
You can hear a lot of things during a phone call with the Books. A muzak soul rendition of "You Are My Sunshine" struggling to keep intact as our conference call queues. The persistent crowing of a newly acquired rooster in Nick Zammuto's yard. ("We're going into the egg business," he says from his Green Mountain home in southern Vermont.) And a delicate, clearly uncontainable (but well-managed) sigh from Paul de Jong. This last when I ask who, if anybody, they look to as influential fellow practitioners of aleatoric music — that is, music generated at least in part through chance. I was gonna do a sidebar.
"It's funny, because, you know, we don't think of ourselves as that," he says, to correct the record. "We don't call ourselves that."
There's only a slight flicker of frustration active in his voice, but it's enough to have me imagining de Jong gently kicking himself once a day for having included "Read, Eat, Sleep" on their 2002 debut, Thought for Food (Tomlab). As its truncated acoustic-guitar and bit-fucked music-box samples amble and stutter forward, and as little analog drafts sweep through its hidden hallways and slam what sound like screen doors shut, the song swells, vanishes, and comes clambering back carrying a sample that has served as a de facto critical cue card for most of their career: a pair of male voices repeating the word "aleatoric" as though to learn it. They even go so far as to fit it into context for us: "By digitizing thunder and traffic noises, Georgia was able to compose aleatoric music." But de Jong is right: there's something about the term that doesn't quite fit what the Books, who come to the ICA this Friday, do.
No question that their æsthetic is as culled as it is composed. For the past couple of years — in addition to starting families and, in Nick's case, ordering hens — the two have been adding to the enormous archive of sound and video fragments from which their songs are assembled. De Jong has been hitting small-town branches of the New York Public Library to comb their audio/visual collections; Zammuto has been rearranging hair and beauty infomercials from the '90s. (I offered to send him my gift copy of Facial Magic, a home-beauty regimen that promises face-lift results through a routine of pinching and pulling — but he already had it!) For close to a decade, the two have been extracting precious bits of language from their original contexts, clipping syllables into rhythmic gibberish, using fits of laughter to imply melody, butchering narratives, undoing poems, sabotaging educational speech, converting sense to nonsense and refining it back into what feels like a purer sense.
And certainly, if one's palette is the very culture we can hear — the same one that keeps barking at us about us in a desperate attempt to sell us future versions of . . . us — it makes sense that a sample is a kind of mirror, albeit one whose image dates itself. Among the reflections and refractions of thousands of mirrors (that is, within a single Books song), it would be reasonable to assume that some of the beauty must come from chance. But unlike Harry Partch (whom Zammuto admires for "freeing himself from Western organization of notes by inventing his own instruments — while staying very listenable"), or pop-audio frontiersman Brian Eno (whose ambient works, says de Jong, "could go anywhere at any moment"), or the many composers who both Zammuto and de Jong imagine would never admit to using chance in their compositions, the Books seem to have built their methodology more on emotional shifts, semiotic sabotage, and an obsessive relationship with detail.
"I have a love/hate relationship with language," says Zammuto. "It's like an alien that goes through your ears and rests in your brain. It doesn't feel like an innate thing. I like the idea of getting to a point where you don't need to encode things, you can see them for what they are."
Indeed, the duo are, more and more, making their work something you can see. The current album (untitled, about half-composed and two-thirds "gathered," and to be previewed at the ICA) is the first they've done in anticipation of touring the material. As such, it's the first they've composed simultaneously in audio and as video — mind you, these aren't "music videos."
"At first it was this wonderful distraction, like drawing," says de Jong. "Whereas making music is very painstaking. You end up finding interesting solutions in video rather than seeing it as an illustrative element." Zammuto: "We've always had a concept of video in a chicken-and-egg thing, to make it so that you don't know which came first. We're not trying to retrofit, and it's not just slapped up there; we're making them at the same time, at an even greater level of integration."