Category Archives: Week 6

Embodied Imitation: Why Riff When You Can Copy?

Notice the hilarious caption. (Via the Atlantic, shamelessly screencapped, but here's a link.)

Notice the hilarious caption. (Via the Atlantic, shamelessly screencapped, but here’s a link.)

“Why bother replicating a masterpiece that already exists? There’s only one original.” – Dan Morgenstern, jazz author and critic

Dan Morgenstern in a sense answers his own question about Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s (MOPDTK) reproduction of Kind of Blue, which is called Blue. There’s only one original. Indeed, there is no danger of infringing on the larger than life notoriety of Kind of Blue – and there is no way to reproduce the moment in time when this communication that has meant so much to so many was created.

We already read about the “original” in Dr. Irvine’s “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture” reading, so I’ll just say a few words before getting back to MOPDTK. Dr. Irvine observes, “The album is an interface to a dialogic moment of major reinterpretations of the cumulative, inherited musical encyclopedia (African American blues roots, jazz and bebop reinterpretations, and music theory in the European-American classical tradition).” Davis took a combinatorial approach to exploring how different musical traditions could intersect. Kind of Blue is unquestionably original as a composition in a moment in time, but the composition was made using the lexicons and encyclopedias of several musical traditions. Dr. Irvine also notes that this album has gone on to be “the most commented on jazz album in history, forming a dense node of cultural meanings and values expressed both in interpretive discourse and in hundreds of appropriations and elaborations by many other musicians in the dialogic continuum of contemporary music.” It’s also worth noting that this wildly influential jazz album is a recording of an improvisation – its very function of committing the explorations and interpretations of these particular musicians in this particular moment to be listened to time and again connects it to the encyclopedias of other genres.

Back to MOPDTK. As David A. Graham puts it in his review for The Atlantic, “The joke is that no one has ever tried to recreate a record quite like this, but for the last six decades, musicians have performing music that sounds a lot like Kind of Blue and the other milestone records of its era.” It seems Kind of Blue is both lexicon and cultural encyclopedia for jazz musicians. Presumably its riffs and tones are incorporated into both live and recorded jazz every day. MOPDTK is in a sense cutting out the middle man by choosing to dedicate themselves to rendering this powerful influence with as much fidelity as possible rather than “interpreting.” On one level of meaning, Blue could be seen as an acknowledgement that the closest MOPDTK can come to accomplishing a comparable feat to Kind of Blue is simply to play it.

On another level, MOPDTK, like Davis before them, are experimenting with the conventions of different genres. In classical music it’s accepted practice to play someone else’s (very famous and previously recorded) composition note for note. Why not in jazz? MOPDTK dares listeners to experience the ineffable charm that makes Kind of Blue so great by being able to compare it to a carbon copy that cannot actually be the same. Graham’s assessment for The Atlantic: “MOPDTK are no slouches—they are among of the finest players working today, and to have produced so close an imitation is a serious accomplishment. But no amount of meticulous necromancy can conjure the vibe of the original players, some of the greatest to ever pick up instruments.” Can we in fact hear the difference between adept, heartfelt improvisation and painstaking performance?

Is Blue a message meant specifically for jazz musicians, critics, and aficionados? The way Graham puts it, “This is music intended to hold an unflattering mirror to jazz’s worst tendencies, not to mock the music before the outside the world.” Is the generative purpose of this album to remind jazz musicians that they should be flowing and exploring? Does MOPDTK think jazz is in some sense stuck in a previous era of innovation, worshipping past victories instead of generating new meanings?

Clearly another important level of meaning in this endeavor is that which MOPDTK experienced while executing the project. To recreate the sound of Kind of Blue, they needed to use modern recording equipment in an innovative way just to produce the “old” sounds. They had to learn not just what notes to play, but how to play them. They got to in a sense embody the musicians that so many jazz musicians since have sought, perhaps less explicitly, to emulate. MOPDTK’s bassist and band leader Matthew “Moppa” Elliott told the Wall Street Journal, “You can’t take this on the road and expect studio results, which was the whole point… Even the Miles Davis Sextet sounded different when they played album selections live. For us, it was always about the studio experience – the archaeology of it.”


Graham, D. A. (2014, October 28). Why Did This Band Recreate Jazz’s Most Famous Record Note-for-Note? Retrieved February 18, 2015, from

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Blue. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2015, from

Myers, M. (2014, October 10). Miles Davis’s Jazz Masterpiece “Kind of Blue” Is Redone. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Dialogic domination of the “Afgan girl” portrait

This week, the readings made me consider whether there is anything sociological in the meaning-making process, and whether any sociological insight can bring back and feed the dialogic-generative structure. Is there any relationship between verbal capacity and cultural encyclopedia? Can we observe communities, or maybe social networks, in the form of political fragments, with cultural encyclopedias particular to them? The cultural artifact that I will attempt to analyze will, however, will try to understand what is political about a cultural encyclopedia, and how would the political affect the dialogic.

I will focus on a photograph in this analysis to address this issue.

While music, for example, is seen as an art form that builds on the human symbolic faculty, there are no minimal constituents in photography that establishes an association between language and photography. Therefore, photography is holistic. The intuitive and reflexive moment corresponds to the moment that an image is documented.

Pixels, or what is observed in an image– they can all be considered constituents, but there is no generative principle that function as a rule to acknowledge or define a photographic genre. Therefore, photography is more likely to be governed by creative principles (like 1/3 rules, forming your own color palette, or having your own way of not having a color palette, etc.) than generative principles. The photographer rather searches for a mental image, an idea, a remix of certain colors, patterns, elements, in a single capture.

Now lets consider the Mona Lisa of photography – the Afghan girl portrait, by Magnum photographer, Steve McCurry.

Afghan girl

While this photograph has become an icon now, along with Che Guevera and Marilyn Monroe, this girl is not famous. There is a reason that makes her portrait such an iconic photograph, however: she exactly looks like our image of an Afghan Muslim girl. The girl looks poor, primitive, veiled, hairy; everything the Western expects an Afghan girl to be.

The construction of the image of the Afghan girl would normally be no different than the dialogic process as constructed by Bakhtin: a performance of a symbol recreates and transforms that symbol. If I say a word, I am regenerating its meaning, in regard to the cultural encyclopedia I inherit.

However, how is this dialogic process effected when the image is globally distributed? The photograph gains a weight in the dialogic system so that it distorts the organic direction of meaning. The impact of this photograph is global, and it anchors what an Afghan girl is and can be. Photography, therefore, can be a stereotyping machine, and lock a moment from a certain perspective. Considering the photojournalistic landscape that social photography resides in, it is not about why we were exposed to the Afghan girl, but rather a question of why were we not exposed to other photographs? If done successfully, photography has the power to manipulate the dialogical process – this time, formation of the image of the “Afghan girl.”

DC’s Signature Aural Party: Go-Go Music

I’m relatively new to the DC Metropolitan area, but it did not take long for me to understand the pride and distinctiveness of the nation’s capital. Some signs and symbols are inseparable from DC culture: the taste of mambo sauce, pillars in the food industry like Ben’s Chili Bowl or Georgetown Cupcakes, events like the annual Cherry Blossom festival. However, even as a native of Richmond, VA, an alluring segment of DC culture trickled its way down I-95 and into my life – go-go music.

Based on prior conversations and queries with people in North Carolina and Virginia, it seems that the popularity of this musical genre seems only recognizable in sporadic geographic areas or to those of particular demographic circles. However, if we examine the musical works of Wale, an artist that has received national and international acclaim, hip-hop aficionados will see that this lyricist merges open-mic-style, go-go and hip-hop seamlessly into various compositions. Throughout this reflection, I will briefly historicize go-go music and introduce several works by Wale, a DC-bred hip-hop artist who faithfully alludes to his capital city roots in his music and lyrical references.

Go-go first came on the music scene during the late 1960s, which helps explain its aural similarity to funk and blues. The term “go-go” was a slang term used within the African American community to signify a local music club (See: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ hit “Going to a Go-Go”). As Professor Irvine clearly expressed last week, pinpointing the origin of a sign is superfluous and the black box that is go-go music is no exception. Yet, the appeal, credit and placement of go-go in musical discourses has remained centered around African American subculture, no matter how much its popularity has ebbed and flowed in the spotlight of mainstream music.

The primary component or standard that distinguish go-go from its predecessors is its use of junior-sized congas, keyboards, drums, hi-hats and hand cowbells in a syncopated distinct rhythm, similar to that of swing music. Prominent artists within this genre include Chuck Brown (1936-2012) – the widely proclaimed godfather of go-go – The Backyard Band, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band and EU. With the help of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, go-go group EU – which stands Experience Unlimited – became a recognizable face for DC’s feel-good music genre by way of their video for the song “Da Butt.” Many instances of remix culture rear itself in the makings of go-go music, specifically recursion, combinatoriality and dialogism. Like jam sessions in jazz, go-go music is often recorded during live performances, where much of the material is free-styled, off-the-cuff, improvised. As Yuri Lotman would say, “New texts are the texts that emerge as results of irreversible processes… i.e. texts that are unpredictable to a certain degree.” The grammar of go-go music is pretty simple and liberal, in that as long as you have the signature percussionist sound as your acoustic backdrop, the rest is free reign.


The essence of unpredictability also seems to be at the heart of go-go music, which often includes verbal shout-outs/odes to communities and sectors of DC; one go-go band is even named Northeast Groovers. More often than not, the only accessible text of go-go songs are those that were performed live. These recordings typically feature a call-and-response style between the band and the audience, which adds to the organic and unpolished nature of this musical genre. Many recordings exude the impression of an actual go-go, or party atmosphere – a feature of the music I’m sure isn’t coincidental.
The lengthy duration of some go-go songs like “Sick of Being Lonely” are the result of recursion – in this case, musical works that nest references, quotations, samples or allusions of prior works into a larger composition. This 14-minute live performance includes pieces of Atlanta rap group Field Mob’s 2002-hit “Sick of Being Lonely” and reggae star Lady Saw’s tune “I Got Your Man.” A similar song by go-go band Rare Essence called “Pieces of Me” is a cover of Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 pop song.
“Rare Essence – Pieces of Me” (5:04) [Derivative of Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me”]
“Backyard Band – Sick of Being Lonely” (14:18) [Derivative of Field Mob’s “Sick of Being Lonely” and Lady Saw’s “I Got Your Man”]

Wale, who was born during the peak of go-go’s rising fame, repeatedly pays musical homage to the funky genre along with another cultural staple – Seinfeld. In 2010, he released a mixtape, titled More About Nothing, which includes snippets from various episodes of the hit sitcom on each track, respectively. (Later this year, he plans on creating a sequel to this compilation – The Album About Nothing.) Undoubtedly enamored with go-go, Wale’s most recognizable songs, “Pretty Girls,” “Clappers,” and “Bait” are all derivative of DC’s signature music style.

Wale performing at Georgetown's Midnight Madness in 2010 | source: Wikipedia

Wale performing at Georgetown’s Midnight Madness in 2010 | source: Wikipedia
“Backyard Band – Pretty Girls” – WARNING: Explicit Language
“Wale – Pretty Girls ft. Gucci Mane, Weensey of Backyard Band” – WARNING: Explicit Language

As we can discover, go-go music is clearly the offshoot of funk, blues and swing. Yet, primitive go-go is not like the traces of go-go we may catch occasionally on DC’s WYKS radio station. It has morphed with time, pulling inspiration from different signs to create unforeseeable results – the essence of discrete infinity. Like any musical form, go-go evokes nostalgia; searching YouTube for “go-go music DC” can easily grant retrieval of early texts from Chuck Brown and others. And while the infamy of go-go remains sporadic – with Wale seemingly the only mainstream artist carrying on its back – and less potent than that of hip-hop, its acoustic DNA can be found in texts from artists like Beck (“Where It’s At”) and Jay-Z (“Do It Again”). Thus, the semiotic and generative saga of go-go continues…

If you’re interested in hearing more go-go greatness or tapping into Wale’s repertiore, check out some of these songs below:
“Wale – The Break Up Song” – sample of Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do”
“Rare Essence – Sardines & Pork n’ Beans”
“UCB – Sexy Lady”
“DJ Flexx – The Water Dance”
“DJ Kool – 20-minute Workout” (5:48)

This Heat “Makeshift Swahili”

After much deliberation, I’ve decided to analyze the semiotic structures of This Heat’s “Makeshift Swahili,” track eight of their second, and final, album Deceit (Rough Trade, 1981).



In assessing the shared cultural encyclopedia from which this track draws, one can access contextual meanings through both the synchronic and diachronic dimensions (Irvine 3). Synchronically, “Makeshift Swahili” arrives at the tail-end of British postpunk, following the death of Ian Curtis and the failure of Gang of Four to achieve mainstream recognition, and preceding the rise of MTV and New Pop (Calvert). Admittedly, postpunk is a fairly nebulous genre, encapsulating a variety of different bands that pushed the boundaries of the minimalist, three-chord progressions of early punk music to include influences from other genres and experimentations with form. This Heat’s placement far on the experimental end of this genre further complicates the problem of categorization. However, “Makeshift Swahili” exhibits some common tendencies of punk/postpunk, including aggressive vocals, treble-heavy guitar tones, and staccato strumming (think Gang of Four). In addition, the song elicits comparisons with prog rock—it’s clear that a fair amount of composition went into each of the song’s three sections, and the electronic organ that becomes prominent in the second section connects it pretty thoroughly to the prog rock sound.  These clashing sound stacks of postpunk and prog rock enable “generative possibilities for variation and combination” (“Popular Music” 3)—in other words, they provide the ability for This Heat not to create something entirely new, but to remix already existing generic conventions in such a way as to add value and develop the possibility for future pathways in the meaning network (“Remix” 12).

From a diachronic perspective, “Makeshift Swahili” breaks down the conventions of Western pop music and sets the stage for succeeding genres (industrial, post-hardcore, and noise-rock). In contrast to the typical verse-chorus-bridge structuring of most pop music, “Makeshift Swahili” has three distinct yet equal parts, none of which are repeated (as in a chorus) or unique from the rest of the song (as in a bridge). The first section features drones/feedback, discordant and off-key (but not arhythmic) guitar riffs, a steadily increasing drum presence, an uncharacteristically smooth bass line, and screamed vocals. There is then an abrupt transition to the second section, which is significantly more melodic: the organ synths kick in, the vocals are no longer screamed but sung, everything is in time and seemingly in key. The third section is a muffled and more discordant version of the first. Here, the tempo accelerates dramatically, the staccato guitar work falls out of rhythm (or at least traditional notions of rhythm), and the screaming of discernible words turns into unintelligible yelling. It’s as if the song self-destructs into the drone from which it began.

In addition to the discordant and arhythmic elements, this three-part structure challenges conventional notions of musical normalcy through the inclusion of the second section. Although the second section conforms to most Western musical standards in terms of timing and harmony (when I took music theory in high school, music was defined as harmony plus rhythm), it is (for me, at least) the most jarring part of the song. In this way, This Heat invert the polarized receptions of music and noise by making the most conventional section of the song seem the most strange or unsettling.

What comes after all this? The Cold War paranoia over seemingly imminent nuclear apocalypse that pervades the entire album suggests the band might not have expected much to follow this release. Nevertheless, the sound appears to have strongly influenced later incarnations of alternative and experimental music. The screaming leads the way to post-hardcore, the synths appear to foreshadow industrial music, and the inclusion of discordant sounds within a piece that still retains structure (albeit a somewhat unusual one) lays the foundations for noise-rock. In this way, “Makeshift Swahili” draws on the past, recombines previously existing elements, and develops the potential for a future response, as in Bakhtin’s dialogism.

Calvert, John.

Irvine, Martin. “Popular Music as Meaning System.”

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”

Warhol’s Unbounded Merge

Through out the readings for this week, I found a particular fascinating feature of parallel principles:  “unbounded Merge”. Chomsky uses the term to describe the “unifying operation for rule-governed combinatoriality”. Andy Warhol experimented about Campbell’s Soup Can for almost a year, and released a thirty-two flavored Campbell soup can painting.   His soup cans do not seek to be pictures about something, but the picture of a real object: they choose purely to affirm the object. This unlimited recursion is widely recognized as an essential cognitive capacity that unites language, memory, and all other forms of symbolic cognition and expression (Martin, 2014). Warhol hand-painted all flavored Campbell soup cans, which is a consumables that can be seen everywhere and purchased by anyone. A real object now is transferred into a fine art work. Warhol used repetition and enlargement highlighted the recursion. As Heiner Bastian describes, “Warhol’s repletion of the motif can no doubt also be seen as the meta-level of an illustration of consumer-goods advertising, a kind of unbiased litany for the optical formulas of everyday myths that have lost their appeal.”

Warhol, compare to other post-modern artists like Roy Lichtenstein, is always looking for new popular items to practice in his art model. Pinker and Jackendoff sum up an accepted view in linguistics: “Recursion consists of embedding a constituent in a constituent of the same type, for example a relative clause inside a relative clause.” Similar to this theory, Warhol tried to practice Do-It-Yourself series, Cartoon, and Coco-Cola bottle before he adopted silk-screen technology.The subject can be varied, but the “grammar” of his painting was consistent.He was trying to use clear hand-painted painting to enlarge and mirror popular icons in mass media.

Warhol-campbells_soup_cans_moma-19641 "Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can OpenerSecurity guards stand near Coca-Cola [4] Large Coca-Cola by Andy Warhol during a preview of Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art auction in New YorkHeiner Bastian describes that Warhol’s Coco-Cola as an anti-metaphorical style. He emphasized this was an important step Warhol had taken in the direction of new painting. He said, “In winter 1960, he depicted a Coca-Cola bottle. The utter isolation of the much-enlarged object and its alien lack of compromise which can only be seen as futurist, puts this motif in a class of its own. ” However, meaning-making is not only a lexicon, which can isolated as something “new”, but it can only happen through communally Encyclopedia, which based on cultural contexts, dialogic relations to other works and genres, and situated knowledge of the members of a meaning community who create and receive the symbolic expressions (Irvine). Peirce also highlighted the ongoing development nature of meaning system in his semiosis model. I think we can understand Warhol’s style as an ongoing dialogic model. He was not trying to make a clear statement to isolate himself to the past, but he’s trying to bring new lexicons he noticed in mass media into this open-ended, unlimited sequences and network of meaning-making system.

Martin Irvine, “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality” , The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.

Warhol, A., Bastian, H., Varnedoe, K., Neue Nationalgalerie (Germany), & Tate Modern (Gallery). (2002). Andy Warhol: Retrospective. London: Tate Pub.

“Mona Lego”

Lots of important concepts coming out this week. It is interesting to see how we extend terms in literature/linguistics and semiotics to a broader sense. Intertextuality can extend to intermedial and dialogism is not only for the meaning making in a specific area.

I’ve been in the CCT Remix class before and we spent the first few weeks struggling with “what is remix and what is not?” I was surprised that Professor Irvine’s article is in Nava’s book because the main theories we draw in that Remix class is Nava’s. Nava tries to draw a line between “surface remix” and “deep remix” (that is what professor Irvine called Remix+). Since Nava’s speciality is in music remix and mashups, he writes articles on classification of music remix, mostly based on surface remix. Therefore in that class, what we emphasized was surface remix, that is borrowing materials and remix them. It was indeed an interesting process since we can use remix as a tool, a form, to benefit us (for instance, educational purpose.) However, remix is not only a form. Surface remix is a way to help us think, and using it as a tool is not ultimate purpose. I think there’s a quote from the Remix+ article is very thought provoking, “Turing to interpretive remix genres based on sampling, quotation, and encyclopedic cross-referencing in contemporary musical forms, we find that the technical means for combinatoriality can be used to disclose the underlying  recursive, generative, dialogic processes of the expressive forms.”

Also I found there’s a page is very useful on the PPT (The dialogic principle and the cultural encyclopedia: interpreting pop and appropriation art), page 22. It gives me a clear direction of thinking step by step to analyze how an art work “make sense” to us. Any art work is composed by segmentation. We can start analyzing it by its components. But at the same time, the work, as a whole conveys meaning that is more than the mathematical summation of segmentation. In this post the art work that I chose is Lego Mona Lisa. I will first analyze both the surface/composition of it and then I will focus on how to relates to other art works and how it embedded in the whole cultural encyclopedia.

An independent “Brick-Builder” Eric Harshbarger has been building professional LEGO buildings since 1999. He used to only focus on 2D mosaics and murals built out of LEGO bricks, and recently he creates few 3D sculptures. I think the LEGO Mona Lisa, as what he called “Mona Lego” is quite interesting (also because I don’t know much about art and gallery paintings and Mona Lisa is among the few things I know.)

Firstly he did two “Studs-Out” fashion mosaics (Figure 1&2). “Studs-Out” means the bumps on the bricks face out toward the viewer. The bigger one (Figure 1) is about 6 feet wide by 8 feet tall and requires over 30,000 pieces. However, it only uses the 6 basic LEGO colors: black, blue, green, red, white, and yellow. According to Eric, very little glue was used. Only the “hanger” pieces along the top were glued as well as any pieces which spanned the “seams” of the 33 baseplates underneath.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 6.32.11 PM


Figure 1


Figure 2

Now he is working on a “Studs-Up” fashion Mona Lego (Figure 3&4.) The bricks are stacked atop one another normally and the viewer is looking at the side of the bricks.


Figure 3


Figure 4

Then it is interesting to think how we interpret an art work like this? There are many parody versions of Mona Lisa on the website: Mona Lisa with make-ups, zombie Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa in the galleries, etc. However, I think this types of art is “higher” (maybe there’s a better word) than mere parodies. It needs creativity, aesthetic values, and special techniques. I want to relate Mona Lego with Andy Worhol’s work. (I forgot where this argument comes from, but probably professor Irvine) that Worhol’s work is to de-aetheticize and re-aetheticize previous arts. I think here is the same story that he re-aetheticize the original painting Mona Lisa through the aesthetics of lego (lego color and lego materials.) When we look at the Mona Legos, it definitely reminds us of the original painting (how beautiful it is; how famous it is; how important it is to the art world; or maybe how expensive and mysterious it is too.) All those ideas will be reminded by looking at Mona Lego, even though it is not an original one! But this creativity also sparkles new ideas: how can the author do this? Lego is not only for kids! It opens up a new “genre” of art. It is not just use materials from the past (Eric doesn’t go to Louvre Museum and cut the original painting, or print out a photographs of the original painting, which is more like “surface remix”). He use new materials to link the past ideas to the future. He constructs a link that demonstrates meaning is dialogic, forwarding to the future, to more re-interpretations.

Of course, there are “surface remix” going on in his Mona Lego works. But I think this work can help us to think through how “surface remix” and “Remix+” work together that make art generative and dialogic.