Digital literacy, gaming and contemporary narrative writing

What constitutes digital literacies is an interesting topic in contemporary learning environments. When I was teaching in a school I spent much energy trying to convince the “literacy team” that they needed to alter their definition and subsequent approach of literacy to incorporate digital literacies, in this way I was hoping to introduce a more inclusive use of ICT by a method of subterfuge.

At that stage digital literacies was a term that was merely talking about film and early stages of web literacies.

Doug Belshaw an educator who works for Mozilla when trying to answer the question of what constitutes digital literacies recently wrote ;

“My short answer to such a question would be that it is a ‘convenient hypocrisy’. By this I mean that it is a term used ambiguously (both consciously and unconsciously) by people with multitude of different backgrounds and intentions. However, given that it is a term that has entered common parlance, I would hope that this thesis clarifies at least three things. First of all, I have argued that speaking of a plurality of ‘digital literacies’ makes more sense than endless attempts to define ‘one literacy to rule them all’. Secondly, I have suggested the essential elements that should make up any contextualised and emergent definition of digital literacies. Finally, I have attempted to argue that the process of coming up with a definition of what constitutes ‘digital literacies’ is at least as important as the outcome of that process.”

I agree with many of the points Doug raises. The term is now almost undefinable and therefore of so much more importance from an educationalist perspective – particularly to my old literacy team.

If we just talk about films: Peter Greenaway the highly respected British film director recently said that he believed the traditional movie was a dead art form. peter1

It is one based on the narrative structure of the 19th century novel – and this template gets repeated over and over and over again. There has been little to no progression in the format since its beginnings. In this it strongly parallels opera as a story telling devise and a medium of entertainment – it is now viewed as a quant entertainment with sentimental values but of no real importance in regards to its artistic and cultural value.

One of the reasons for this is its inability to adapt rapidly in much the same way as the rest of technology-based art forms have.

For example film is extremely narrative based, generally linear and highly dictatorial in approach – by that I mean it is one way. Everything is imposed upon the audience, from on high. The audience is being told the story, they are told what to think, what to feel, when to cry when to laugh etc. Everything in the movie making process is aimed it this. The music written supports the emotion the director is looking for and further attempts to manipulate the audience into feeling that emotion. The same applies with the lighting, editing, camera angels and so on.

There is no room in for the audience to actively participate in any way rather than just sit and passively go along with what they are being told to do. Now this can be very enjoyable for many people but I would argue that most people have progressed from this form of entertainment/learning and are now looking at the ability to have a say themselves, or be involved in the process.

This is the space that digital games become very, very interesting – especially from a learning perspective.

There are many games that fall into the same category as the traditional movie. The narrative is entirely predetermined and the gamer must merely do as there told, but there are also many games that have moved well away from this.  assasins creed

Games such as L.A Noir or Assassin’s Creed do follow a narrative. The difference is instead of passively watching it unfold; the gamer can become part of it. They adopt a character within the narrative and play out the role, often times being forced to make choices that will influence how the original story plays out – much like a choose your own adventure book but a lot more immersive. Another game that does this and is great for younger kids is Little Big Planet. These narratives or stories are generally very complex and nested within other existing narratives and .can take months to unfold. However there is still a fair amount of control within these games – the settings, places, etc. are all predetermined as they are all set within a particular storyline.

little big planetWhen interviewing a 14 year old boy on why he liked games he said “because I get to choose what I want to do, unlike school where we are constantly told do this or that in games that I play I don’t just have to go a kill everyone to move to the next level, I can decide which way to go, how to deal with it. It’s a lot more fun having a bit of control.” This is also referred to as free roaming within a game. Batman Arkham City is one game that plays in this way – you can do the missions or “simply go in wonder around and play your own thing, play your own story.”

This notion of perceived control is also an interesting one from a teaching perspective. Recently when interviewing a fantastic teacher, Roland Gesthuizen he stated that “ you need to give choice to students but not too much choice…If you give to much choice people inevitably make no choice or the worst one “

To me games using this model are the natural evolution from movies – they have narrative, they have cut scenes using traditional visual techniques but moving on they allow for reediting of the narrative in a controlled fashion.

Beyond that and also of great interest to education is the game that is fully immersive and has almost no predetermined narrative structure. This includes games like Minecraft and Gary’s Mod and to a certain extent Disney’s Infinity..

These games are providing a framework for the player to enter and then leaving it up to the individual’s creativity to do whatever they want.

When recently watching a collection of students playing Gary’s Mod they were collectively interacting and communicating with each other, they were building there own characters, they were inventing there own games within the game and moreso they were inventing their own narrative within the games they were playing – that is narrative within narrative. Look at all the potential literacies learning that could be leveraged off this space.

This is an example of the game makers understanding this generation and providing them with autonomy, the ability to be self-directed and beyond that providing them the ability to be highly web connected. These three concepts are what our education system needs to understand and embrace.

To quote Australian educator –  Richard Olsen  –  How are our education systems to respond to students as autonomous,  self-directed web connected learners?

All School Blogging

The following article was originally posted on DEECDs website. And talks about some of the work I was involved with when I was working at North Fitzroy Primary School

Blogs –Creating Worlds of Learning (Global2)

An ICTEV study group of 20 teachers arrived at the school gates to find out how blogging and games-based learning enriches learning for both students and teachers of Fitzroy North Primary School. The school in old in years (built in 1875) but young and contemporary in its use of ICT to empower learning and pedagogy. The approach and ideology has at its centre social learning theory.

Leading the group tour was Connie Watson (Principal), Kynan Robinson (Leading Teacher ICT/Creativity) and Kristen Swenson (3-6 ICT Coordinator).

Thanks to strong and innovative leadership, and the commitment of the ICT coordinators, in recent years blogging has become part of the learning and pedagogical fabric of daily life at North Fitzroy Primary. Kynan and Kristen have been active in the Global 2 blogging space for over 4 years. Kynan told the group that, “Global 2 allows kids to connect to the wider world. You can allow them to have an authentic voice and authentic audience.”

“We take seriously Hattie’s notion that feedback is one of the most potent factors in a child’s learning – blogging, where feedback is available from multiple sources is really important. They are not just posting their work for viewing by others, but posting genuine stages of their work and asking for feedback from others in an interactive process, which is much more powerful than simply learning in isolation and then posting your best work at the end of it”, Connie Watson (Principal)

With Hattie’s Visible Learning research in mind, Connie Watson decided that every teacher, every child from Years 3 -6 and every class should have a blog. All teachers were supported to develop their skills and confidence to create content, post, publish, upload images and movies, and moderate blogs. They now share and compare their blogs and their ideas with their students, parents, industry, and peers internal and external to the school.

Blogs are used to extend and assess all areas of literacy, Italian LOTE, and interdisciplinary streams of learning and skills and personal development. Kynan believes that blogging is a great, ‘platform to skill up and build confidence across the entire school staff to use web 2.0 tools to create and publish content not just be a user of content. If they didn’t blog they would miss out with connecting with the wider world. The main benefit is the ability to connect and find connections all over the world.”

The whole school community is involved at home and at school with their blogs. Homework, parent engagement, Italian recipes, news, quizzes, competitions, provocations, reviews, and reflection – it is all done with blogging accessed from home, school, during the week or at the weekends. “All of our Grade 5/6 students have their own individual passion blogs. We made the shift last year from the show and tell blogs to more of an interactive blog. Since then the quality of the students’ writing has improved dramatically. Their passion for blogging is so much greater and they just love doing it. Every time they have a spare moment in class they want to blog and it has just given them their own voice which is fantastic”, said Kristen.

Students create passion blogs and discover networks to discuss new ideas and perspectives from like-minded students. We heard from students who have created blogs on superheros, star wars, comic books, the World of Minecraft, the Hunger Games, Harry Potter and other favourite books. The students are learning to target their blog and writing style for specific audiences to elicit discussion on an international scale. According to Kynan, “the kids love the Global2 cluster maps so they can see their potential audience from across the world’. “It’s exciting collaborative learning and it is authentic for the kids because they are working on things that they are passionate about, and on questions that are relevant to them, often that they have driven themselves”, explained Connie Watson.

Also central to the contemporary learning and teaching practice is cybersafety awareness and copyright. Cybersafety is built into lessons and classroom practice at every Year level all year long. Fitzroy North PS is an ICT savvy school. Each classroom that the 20 strong study group entered, they barely caught the eye of the students who were completely engaged and immersed in what they were doing. The technology was seamless, the content was all important and it was student owned content. As Kristen says, it is not about the devices it is how they enhance the learning and fit within the learning curriculum. According to Kynan, “the point of ICT is to drive your pedagogy, to assist your curriculum”.

Blogging at North Fitzroy Primary School from Kynan Robinson on Vimeo.

TV and Jazz Clubs

Well die we didn’t, in fact we lived on with frightfully good energy. I wont bore you with the details of the following gig except to say it was in an astoundingly classy jazz club. In fact this club had so much class it bordered on the ridiculous and pushed it more towards the cliché of an astounding jazz club. Right up to the point of demanding the band play 3 one hour sets, who has the tolerance to listen to three sets of any form of music…..not me and I was on stage . The club was called “Once In A Blue Moon” which was displayed behind the bandstand in classic blue neon. I think you get my point, lets move on.

A four hour bus trip later we were in a huge TV studio setting up for the Korean equivalent of Top Of The Pops. Now I have been involved in some strange situations , many in this small tour alone, but this one was absurdist. The day was already long, set up was followed by a seven hour wait before it was our time to take to the stage for our one hour blistering set that was to be broadcast to millions of Korean houses. The endurance effort required to wait 7 hours in a TV studio with no one to talk to except the people you ran out of conversation with 3 days ago and little to entertain you except a large plasma TV playing 72 channels of Korean Soap Opera, and 2 small bottles of whiskyis significant. The line up for the show was to include a famous Japanese piano player who had nailed down the less than significant style made famous by Richard Clayderman in the early 80s followed by us and wrapped up tastefully with a Japanese boy Rock out fit, all to be interspersed with interviews conducted in three languages by a giggling Korean teenage host and her staff of interpreters. Perfect, I thought to myself. Why wouldn’t millions of people watch a smorgasbord like that?

Well perfect it was in true asian style. The studio audience was full of screaming teenagers that never let their energy levels drop below hyperactive as the put their heart and soul into mimicking the correct dance steps for the fast numbers, getting all teary on the slow numbers, hopstepping when required. The band played it up realising that we were taking part in some strange miniture reinactment of a Beatles concert. I kept my suit jacket on the entire hour despite the ragging heat being caused by the massive lighting system spraying spotlights and psychedelic colours all over us,thought it would be more authentic to keep it on. I love Sydaney was yelled by many of the delightful audience, no mention of Melbourne which I can understand. And at one stage I heard one of our band members names being called out again and again until he finally looked up to be met with a youngster making a heart like shape with her arms towards him. I can only presume this was to indicate her new found love of his chromatic soloing style.

Asia ….fantastic.


Well things seem to be progressing smoothly not discounting the usual hiccups that occur when you are touring with 11 other only slightly familiar males in a foreign country where hardly any English is spoken. At this stage no rival factions have been formed within the core elements of the band a fact I presumed might have occurred owing to both the large size of the ensemble as well as the lack of any female presence. Seoul itself is an unusually well organized and compartmentalized city. Structures appear to be very important in this place. Every city appears to be divided into zoning regions with the zones consisting of a common theme. Eg, block 1 is allocated to shops selling kitchen sinks, block to is allocated to shops selling light fittings block 3 is allocated to some other home appliance. Block 458 was allocated to bars and it took a little while to find.

I’m presuming tonight’s gig is allocated to bars dedicated to early ska music but we will see.

Yesterday we rehearsed in a venue we play at later in the week. For our rehearsal we were given a full back line (drums bass amps guitar amps) a grand piano full percussion set, music stands, stage, food, drinks, a sound technician who sound checked the band pulling a perfect sound onstage and off, when the keyboardist leads were playing up and electrician showed up to make him new ones… get the idea and all at no expense to the band. Melbourne a city that boasts of its love for music has a little to learn in regards to how to treat musicians as well as professional attitudes to presentation….without me launching into a rave about free trolleys at the airport.

Regardless it is a privileged life musicians lead. To constantly find yourself in new environments with new people. To be able to move rapidly over the banality of introductions to strong creative outputs in constantly new environments is an excitement that is addictive.

Touring in Korea

Playing in a Jamaican Ska band full of Australians to an audience full of Koreans. I couldn’t think of anything better to be doing with my days and nights.
Today kicks off an 8 day tour with the band Skazz I have successfully managed to negotiated getting the king size bed while my room mate had to settle for the single bed. Always a stressful but important task to be handled with much care when touring. If handled incorrectly you can create an enemy for yourself for the rest of your stay in that particular hotel. My tactic was to surround the bed with my luggage thus claiming my territory, while still allowing him access to the bed by not actually placing a bag on it. While it would take a brave soul to actually do that they are still left with the feeling that they had some choice in the matter.
There will be many tales which I will tell using the means of this blog but to give you an idea of what this very cool band is about here is a video

Minimalism, Clock Time, Stasis and Repetition in The music of The Escalators


As the sampler/turntables were the instruments that were the key to the music being composed, the music that was written for all the other instruments had to be subservient to the sound produced by the them. One of the roles of the other instruments was to set up a musical environment that the turntablist could work within or over. While the parts of the other instruments also had other roles to play, those roles could never overrule the sampler’s sound. The idea for the band’s repertoire and performance style was to play a number of quite long pieces (over 20 minutes in length) interspersed by short ones that lasted no longer than about two minutes. (The reason for the short pieces will be better explained in chapter 2.4.) Much of the music written for the other instruments contained the characteristics of minimalist music. These characteristics include the notions of stasis, repetition, nonlinearity and time stretching.

When dealing with memory in composition I believe it is important to create an atmosphere that attempts to play on the notions of clock time. Memory is so placed in a notion of time that providing an atmosphere that alters clock time assists in the rearrangement of those memories (memories that have been triggered by the samples). Music that goes for a long period of time and is of a repetitive nature starts to alter people’s perceptions of real time. What might seem like 5 minutes can easily be 20 minutes. What might seem like 20 can have actually have been 20. As Bob Snyder states, “Time is an abstract construction of the human mind based on aspects of memory and the concept of an enduring self. Time isn’t experienced in the same way that physical objects are experienced. Rather as humans our subjective notion of time is constructed from our perceptions of objects and events and its qualities at a given moment depend on the relationship between these perceptions. Indeed what we perceive in a given amount of time to some extent determines our sense of the length of that time” (Snyder 2000, 212).
As humans we tune out behavior to the environments we live in and events within that environment act as clocks for us to synchronize to (Michon 1985, 28-32).
Effecting factors on our memory and perception of time include:
1. Duration.
2. Succession.
3. Temporal perspective or the construction of a linear ordering.

In writing the music to be performed by the other instruments (apart from the turntables) I was attempting to work with all three of these factors. Musically there has been much work done in this area with compositions that include all of these concepts. Compositions that are long in duration, compositions that play with the natural idea of an ordering of events and nonlinear music.

Iannis Xenakis Bohor (1962) is a piece that is both nonlinear in construction and works on the notions of duration in an attempt to effect perceptions of clock time. In describing this music Jonathon Kramer says, “ It seems to have adopted the requirements of moments (via stasis) as their entire essence. When the moment becomes the piece, discontinuity disappears in favor of total, possibly unchanging, consistency. The result is a single present stretched out into an enormous duration, a potential infinite now that none the less feels like an instant…Thus I called the time sense invoked by such music ‘vertical” (Kramer 1988, 55).

After reading of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories (1981), described as surgery of memory I started to think how I could effectively lengthen my pieces. David Toop says about Feldman’s piece “their organization of lengthy durations is compelling, yet the divisions between notes, those absences we call silence, demand a huge effort of memory in order to retain a grasp of this unfolding structure (Toop 2004, 90). This gives it an accumulative effect of time frozen. This was the effect I was after with the parts written for the other instruments. If I could play with the notion of memories within the structure of the music as well as through the manipulation of samples themselves it would give the music much more strength.

Steve Reich and Terry Riley’s idea of time contradicts traditional Western Music, in which the musical argument is the result of a subdivision of time. A lot of their music is ‘vertical’ in nature. When explaining vertical music Kramer states “ A vertically perceived piece does not exhibit large scale closure. It does not begin but merely starts. It does not build to a climax, does not purposefully set up internal expectations, does not seek to fulfill any expectations that might arise accidentally, does not build or release tension and does not end but simply ceases. A vertically conceived piece defines its sound world early in its performance and stays within the limits it chooses. Respecting the self imposed boundaries is essential because any move outside these limits would be perceived as a temporal articulation of considerable structural import and would therefore destroy the verticality of time (Kramer 1988, 55). In a similar way to these composers I am attempting to move to what Wim Mertens describes as “the idea of time as being an empty one so that a higher level of macro time can be reached” (in Cox and Warner 2004, 311).

For instance I attempted to deal with the notion of “timestretching and memory” in what was composed for the trumpet and trombone in the piece Log Lady. The basic structure is: the brass instruments play a melody and then rest for as long as I, the leader, can mentally hold out before bringing in the second melody. In using the phrase “mentally hold out” I am referring to the onstage pressure one feels as bandleader to move the music forward and to bring in the next section. That pressure can emanate from the audience, the musicians on stage or from ones own self and preconceived ideas of what makes for good music. In the rest period the remainder of the band continues to play as instructed. Their parts are repetitive in nature. They achieve stasis by never altering in regards to intensity of playing and dynamics. Each melody (written for the trumpet and trombone) is an expansion on the last. I took the opening 2 phrases, a B flat leading to C and started interspersing them between each new phrase. The idea of the new phrase is to build in length as another note of the 12-tone scale is added. Each phrase also develops rhythmically on the previous phrase. So I interspersed them with the beginning two notes and always stretched the length of those two notes out as well. Each phrase or melody is referencing the previous phrase and the phrases that have gone before. This gives the listener the feeling of familiarity while stretching that idea and subsequently stretching time.

There is repetition in the melodic structure but only after a long time (approximately twenty to twenty five minutes) and each repetition isn’t quite exact. Log Lady as well as the other lengthy pieces also apply the common “Aleph” type techniques which are a type of texture that transcends time by juxtaposing fast tempi and slow melodies (Trochimczyk 2002, 278). This is a technique used by Louis Andriessen in his masterwork De Staat (1972 – 1974) and De Tijd (1979-1981).

De Tidj (1979 – 1981) is Andriessen’s attempt to capture the essence of timelessness or where real time stands still (eternity). He devised many techniques in an attempt to replicate this ambience of eternity or timelessness. He speaks of attempting to create a situation of “sustained, glorified musical motionlessness…. A feeling that time had ceased to exist; the sensation of an eternal moment.” (Trochimczyk 2002, 113) . His inspiration for this was the writing of St Augustine. Augustine says,

“ If only their minds could be seized and held steady, they would be still for a while and for that small moment they would glimpse the splendor of eternity which is forever still. They would contrast it with time, which is never still, and see that it is not comparable. They would see that time derives it’s length only from a great number of movements constantly following one another into the past because they cannot all continue at once. But in eternity nothing moves into the past, because they cannot all continue at once. The past is always driven on by the future, the future always follows on the heels of the past, and both the past and the future have their beginning and end in the eternal present.”

This feeling of stillness or stasis is what Andriessen is attempting and what I also am attempting in my music. It is obviously an impossibility but the illusion is achievable.

Referencing some of Andriessen’s investigation’s into time manipulation I have built slight accelerations and decelerations into my drum patterns across almost all of the pieces written for The Escalators. There are moments where the drum pattern pushes slightly in front of the beat and others where it deliberately falls off the beat while the bass is unmoving. The drums circle the beat as it were, but over a great space of time so it is virtually unnoticeable. Andriessen speaks of the need to fix attention, since without attention time doesn’t exist at all. He built scarcely noticeable accelerations into the motion which precisely create the impression that everything remains the same but not quite the same; more in the way cathedral towers are the same and yet not the same. (Trochimczyk 2002, 124)

When talking about repetition in hip hop music Paul Miller states, “The repetitive nature of the music allows for the unfolding of clock time in a recursive spatial arrangement of tones that has parallels in the world of architecture where structural integrity requires the modular deployment of building materials to create a buildings framework.” (in Cox and Warner 2004, 350).

Repetition as a technique is also being used in my music for all the same reasons that many minimalist composers use repetition. Composers such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass as well as Techno producers Derrick May, Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson who have popularized the technique. By using repetition these composers are discarding and challenging the traditional harmonic functional ideas of tension and release as well as the musical narratives that go with them. It is used to try to eradicate the expression of subjective feelings through the music. It is used to move beyond the linkages of clock time and real life experience with the music. As stated by Ron Rosenbaum, “It is trying to create an extra historical experience of time brought about by discarding teleological and dramatic elements” (Ron Rosenbaum in Cox and Warner 2004, 309). It is attempting to express nothing except for itself. Minimalist music tends to restrict itself to a small number of ideas while stretching those ideas over a long period of time. Kyle Gann says “The length of the work actually underlines the intense restriction of materials: you might write a four minute piece using only seven pitches and no one would notice, but write a 30-minute piece, and the austere limitations become a major phenomenon of the composition. (in Cox and Warner 2004, 299).

In the use of repetitious grooves I am allowing the listener a way in, giving their ear something familiar as an access point. However by locking the groove completely, almost in the way electronic instruments loop, I intend the listener to move into an area of discomfort. The music becomes vertical in nature rather than linear. This repetition can be found in the way the drums are performed on Log Lady. The ride cymbal was to be played in a fast continual fashion. The drummer was instructed not to move from the original dynamic setting and technique used on the ride cymbal. Only after 10 minutes is he allowed to add a second drum (say the bass drum) and this must then lock in the same fashion as the ride cymbal. While doing this on percussion I want the bass player to play sliding grooves that both move the time and placement of the ‘one’. These types of parameters for all the instruments were set to avoid clichéd ‘groove’ sounds.

Sampling and Memory within The Escalators

Chapter wo from my thesis relates to Sampling and Memory. If you want to hear the music you can go to the bands myspace page. Click on the link.

The sampler/ turntablist was the key position in The Escalators and in many ways his sound was the most important sound in the ensemble. Broadly defined, turntabilism is a musical practice in which prerecorded phonograph disks are manipulated in live performance. DJ Babu a member of the DJ crew the Beat Junkies introduced the term in 1995. The name distinguishes the turntablist from the traditional DJ, someone who plays records but is not traditionally thought of as a musician. Although turntablists consider themselves musicians their originality is sometimes questioned because they perform on machines designed for automatic playback. The use of the term “ism” therefore, lends weight to the practice, suggesting an art form with a cohesive doctrine it confers a seriousness that demands respect. (Katz 1970, 115-116)

John Oswald described the art in this way: “A phonograph in the hands of a ‘hiphop/scratch’ artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced — the record player becomes a musical instrument.” (in Cox and Warner 2004, 132).
The choice of a turntablist DJ Element was ideal. He had developed a great number of technical skills through his years as a “battling” DJ but he also had a wide appreciation of art and art practice, sensitizing him to the need for collaboration. Many of the DJs I had previously worked with had developed their own sound and technique or set of DJ tricks and were unwilling to adapt to new ideas presented to them. He was a turntablist that had the capacity to develop new techniques depending on the sounds required from him. Many DJs develop a personalized library of sound sources and are reluctant to move beyond them. These sample libraries are comparable to the collection of “licks” used by jazz musicians. The escalators project required a DJ that would bring his own library but would be willing to add to it on my request. DJ Element was perfect for this role. We spoke at length about the differing sounds required.

For a number of years now, I have been creating music that is reliant on digital samples, both in a live context and studio context. Katz defines digital sampling as “ a type of computer synthesis in which sound is rendered into data, data that in turn comprise instructions for reconstructing into sound. Sampling is typically regarded as a type of musical quotation, usually of one pop song by another, but it encompasses the digital incorporation of any prerecorded sound into a new recorded work” (Katz 1970, 138). The sampler as a machine has a long history that started with the Singing Keyboard made in 1936, a machine intended to store sounds that could be linked to film, as well as the Noisegraph, the Dramagraph, the Kinematophone, the Soundograph and the Excelsior Sound Effect Cabinet, all machines that employed some sort of disk or other mechanism to store various sound effects and were all put to work in the Hollywood cartoon tape editing techniques developed by film editors (Chanan 1995, 143). Appropriating hundreds of bits and pieces of other peoples work to generate new sounds by remixing them is a technique very common in the hip-hop community. This includes artists such as DJ Shadow who released a seminal sample based album entitled Endtroducing (1995). However, prior to that it is a technique used widely by composers such as Pierre Schaeffer with his musique concrete compositions of the 1950s, Gavin Bryars in his piece Plus Minus which incorporates a collage of the slow movement of Schubert’s C Major String Quartet and Barry Ryon’s pop song Eloise (1969) as well as John Oswald’s seminal recordings entitled Plunder phonics (1989).

My interest in sample-based music arose from my work with Des Peres, a Melbourne based band in which I participate as composer and leader. Des Peres recorded and released a number of albums that are either sample heavy or entirely created using samples which have been garnered from my own and others record collections. Sampled based music is a music that allows for great freedom. A composer can take sounds from anywhere, mix them together and then apply their own touch. The restriction of the samples themselves is offset by the manipulated recontextualisation that can take place. It is a form of music that ignores the rules of genre. Rather it leads to the creation of new genres. Style is placed upon style, classical is placed upon rock beats, folk or country is placed all over jazz drumming, fusion bass lines are interspersed with blues guitar and its all mixed together.

The main limitations with what might happen, is the creativity of the composer. One’s limits usually stem from ones imagination rather than one’s talent. It is an idea that seems to build on the statements made by Cage with his piece Imaginary Landscape (1939). His composition consisted of chance recontextualisations using turntables and radios. In his famous essay, “Experimental Music” he says, “Any sound may occur in any combination and in any continuity.” For Cage the sounds of one environment were meant to be taken out of context and shifted through many new ones.

My interest in sampling with respect to The Escalators has narrowed to its relationship with human memory. The questions I am interested in include:
1. what takes place in perception when a person hears a sample?
2. what is happening within a persons memory when sounds that are familiar to them are recontextualized?
3. whenever a turntablist or sampler is used in music are they making a direct correlation to a human memory?

The primary sound source for the instrument is past recordings. These recordings are chosen because of the direct link they have to memory makeup of both the performer (turntablist) and the listener. Paul D Miller states “DJ culture is all about recombinant potential. It has as a central feature a eugenics of the imagination. Each and every source sample is fragmented and bereft of prior meaning – kind of like a future without a past. The samples are given meaning only when re-presented in the assemblage of the mix” (in Cox and Warner 2004, 349-350). The meaning held in memory is being remixed, changed, altered, made new, given new meaning, bettered or worsened.

Furthermore, Miller “considers sample mixes to be mood sculptures operating in a recombinant fashion. Based on the notion that all sonic material can be manipulated with the same ease that computers now generate composite images, the DJ or sample reliant composer combines the musical expression of other musicians with their own and in the process creates a seamless flow of music. The sampler can be seen both as a custodian and questioner of aural history, constantly crashing different voices and traditions together to give a reinterpretation of history (or memory) that is a contemporary and personal commentary” (in Cox and Miller 2004, 351). The choice of the samples is always significant. This was so for The Escalators.

A human memory is, in the phrase of eminent psychologist Daniel L Schachter, a “temporary constellation of activity” – a necessarily approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole. These images and data are seldom the exclusive property of one particular memory. So when one hears a familiar sound, for example a two second excerpt from Madonna’s song Like a Virgin (1985), what the memory of that consists of is a set of hardwired neural connections among the pertinent regions of the brain, and a predisposition for the entire constellation to light up when any part of the circuit is stimulated. The sound of a Madonna sample acts as a trigger for the memory that is deeply rooted in each individuals life experience and acts as a kind of oral history. Each time it is heard it enforces the constellation of images and knowledge that constitute that memory and each hearing further strengthens the dendritic connections among its components, further encouraging the firing of that specific set of synapses. (Franzin 2002, 8-9) . Each human memory is deeply locked into a system of personal referencing, i.e. a network. Ken Jordon states, “Once every sound had a distinct source. A door slammed shut, a horn was blown, a guitar was strummed. Audio came from a discreet event; it was tied to a discernable action. Networked music challenges this notion by displacing sound from its origin, moving audio freely from one location to another, giving it a presence in and of itself” (in Miller and Jordon 2008, 104). Sample-based music is a form of networked music, linking into the networks of the past and creating new networks to be referenced in the future.

The conditioning of each individual through genetic, cultural, religious, psychological, and linguistic information forms a separate and unique unit. These can be known because of their differences and their connections to those outside themselves. Each fragment has its own network with its own intentions, time, space and history. (David Shea Arcana p146). Sample based music connects into this idea as it is music of arrangement rather than direct invention per se. This is true for all acts of creation but sample-based music is one of the more obvious. Sample based music takes its sound sources from an original setting and then places them within a new one. It rearranges the meanings given to the original sound source based on each individuals network of understanding related to the original sound source.

Human memory consists of three processes: echoic memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Bob Snyder in his book Music and Memory links these three phases with three corresponding time levels of musical organization
1. level of event fusion
2. the melodic and rhythmic level
3. the formal level (Snyder 2000, 3).

At the echoic level the inner ear converts sound into trains of nerve impulses that represent frequency and amplitude of individual acoustic vibrations (Buser and Imbert 1992, 156-171). At this moment the data is uncategorized and raw but through processes called feature extraction and perceptual binding the data is perceptually categorized. (Bregman 1990, 213-394) ( Bharucha 1999, 413-418). These categories or events are placed into groups based on similarity and proximity. These events subsequently activate the parts of long-term memory, which are activated by similar events in the past.
As Snyder states, “Called conceptual categories these long term memories comprise knowledge about the events that evoked them and consist of content usually not in conscious awareness, which must be retrieved from the unconscious” (Snyder 2000, 4).

The formal level is where the music for The Escalators is attempting to work especially with regard to syntax. Syntax is sets of relations between identifiable patterns (Snyder 2004, 200). Musically that can include ideas of genre/style or expected patterns within a piece. Snyder states “primary parameters are central to the creation of syntax because they are the aspects of music by which patterns are identified and related to each other” (Snyder 2004,200).

Syntax is made possible by categorisation and memory. Musical syntax consists of learned rules that generate certain types of patterns or gestures that in turn can signify specific types of musical functions. Sampling is primarily concerned with the syntax of genre. Genre or style is a syntax that depends on the perception of patterns occurring at different times as very similar or identical. Syntax depends on the perception of identity.
Sampling through the means of displacement would alter a person’s syntax within their memory. Music provides a sensory experience that activates memory. Meaningful reception of a musical message depends on appropriate context in memory, a repertoire of schemas and categories that are both personally and culturally activated (Noth 1990, 176-180).

In the original choice of samples made for The Escalators a statement is made. I am attempting to influence the listener to make a selection from their memory schemata that is hopefully similar to mine. I am presuming they will all be able to identify the samples from the culture from which extracted. It is through the use of memory principles such as similarity, proximity and continuity that various pattern units are marked out. As higher-level relations between basic pattern units involving long-term memory enter the picture the listener’s personal and cultural schemas begin to have an influence (Snyder 2000, 208). It is in the recontextualisation and displacement of the sample that memory sabotage occurs.

Snyder states that music can be divided into two categories based on the use of memory:
1. music that attempts to exploit long term memory by building up hierarchical and associative mental representations of large time structures
2. music that attempts to sabotage recognition and expectation by frustrating recollection and anticipation, thereby intensifying the local order of the present.

Sample based music falls defiantly into the second category. The continual genre bending of the music creates a kind of anticategorisation technique that creates sounds that cannot be easily framed in the listeners memory system. The rapidly changing samples in new settings create a nuance overload where every sound is a new event and cannot be easily identified as being in the same category as the last sound/event (Snyder 2000, 236). Discontinuities are commonplace in Western art of the 20th century, from the cubist art through to the splicing techniques used in film.

With The Escalators I have injected a significant number of chosen samples into the framework of the music. These samples that play with the ideas of discontinuity and recontextualisation have been sourced from the world of popular culture, things such as pop music, film soundtracks and TV bites. I have also used samples obtained from field recording. These are to be used as “Sound Markers” (Toop 2004, 94). The field recordings were of sounds such as fire, church bells, doors opening and shutting and footsteps. Each sample has preconceived meaning to most audience members.

Michael Forester describes “sound markers” as certain sounds or sound conglomerates that become lodged in memory as markers of security “The sound of the family moving around the house gives me a sense of security and belonging,” sounds can exert a powerful sense of centeredness, or perhaps push a door open within a darkened mind, offering a faint sense of escape. (Toop 2004, 94). The sounds of the church bell, fire and footsteps were to be my own sound markers to be used within the framework of The Escalators. These common sounds, have meanings for every member of the audience and would provide a sense of aural security. They also could be manipulated in the context of a musical performance.

What happens when these sounds are inserted into the musical performance while constantly manipulating and distorting them? A sense of the familiar shifted sideways should result. Of the piece Jesus Blood Never Fails Me Yet (1974) in which Bryars sampled the singing of an old London tramp, looped it and then composed an accompanying chamber orchestra score, he says the methodology was ‘the idea of assemblage, and taking iconic things and recycling them.’ (in Toop 2004 161).

The music of The Escalators was to be always creating a sense of the familiar simultaneously always pulling the listener into a state of unease. The recontextualising of memories through sampling will naturally have this effect.

Always shifting things slightly off the axis they are meant to sit on.