Thursday, 23 April 2009

American Memory Project (2008)

Imagine the far, far distant future, a time so distant from now as we are from Julius Caesar and Ramses the Second. Like the ancient empires of Rome and Egypt, the United States of America has receded into the mists of history. The once-great republic is remembered only by a handful of archaeological remains.

In this time, the Internet has also evolved. Web 2.0 looks like paintings on the walls of Lascaux in comparison. Into this, an expedition of deep cyberspace miners has recovered the Library of Congress' American Memory, a patchy archive of this antiquated society.

Finding inspiration in this archaeological find of the millennium, a group of artists that we, in the 21st century, would call "multimedia" created an event they call the American Memory Project.

This is the premise behind the project by William Morrison and Justin Bennett, late of their stint with pioneer Industrial outfit Skinny Puppy's live performance band. Plumbing the material found in the Library of Congress' website, they have created a musical, video and live performance piece that twists the American cultural tradition on its ear, using its own words.

Sometimes it isn't hard. As their track Backwards Song demonstrates, there is plenty in the American folk tradition that does it for them. The history of her people never was the spit-polished golden age that it is often made out to be by partisans. In other cases, the twisting is made by contrasts, such as Dear Mr. President's layering of Big Band tunes with wartime newsclips.

The most potent pieces are those that fuse America's ethnic heritage with modern beats, such as the narratives of former slaves and the artifacts of Native American song. With these, a statement isn't made for you, isn't pounding you over the head. Instead, you're left to hear these bits and pieces of a bygone age to a creeping incidental soundtrack that sets the mood of time and loss.

Music of this sort is some of the most refreshing to come out of "dark culture", that ambiguous mash that has risen out of the former Goth-Industrial scene. Several years ago, the big thing was electronic-ethnic fusion, pulling in Mediaeval, Celtic and Arabesque influences. Now that this is becoming more prevalent, standardized and even stereotyped, new forms of fusion are being explored. For a lover of both early 20th century and Goth-Industrial music, such things as the American Memory Project (and Puppini Sisters remixes, for that matter) fit the bill perfectly.

The best of it is that in reinventing and re-presenting anthropological recordings, Big Band, Jazz and Bluegrass, the aural qualities of aged music are not lost. Walter Benjamin noted that the grey film of dust covering things have become their best feature, and so have all the pops, hisses, background noise and decayed sound quality. A rerecording of old 78s must be listenable, of course, which is often the weakness of otherwise indispensable online audio archives. But they must not be so cleaned up that they lose the sense of being old, just as one would not wish to scour a fine patina from a piece of antique furniture.

Taking this classic music, this aged sound, and setting it against Industrial sounds is a fantastic way to go with it. It goes from being a queer little novelty shared alongside steam trains and dime novels to something playable in hallucinogenic nightclubs. One only hopes, against all hope admittedly, that it can bypass the stage of stereotyping. "Dark culture" has become saturated with belly dancers, fetish aesthetics, and now brass goggles and air pirates. Bluegrass and war-years harmony lends itself to heavily tattooed and pompadoured imitators who have their own problems with overabundant "burlesque" acts.

Perhaps working to intercept this problem, the American Memory Project goes beyond music to include filmed segments. Present-day actors mouthing original soundbites move alongside dimensionalised Edward Curtis photographs and computer generated psychedelia, all made to look as vintage as the audio samples themselves. These elements were united in the live tour, which has found a home on DVD.

The visuals themselves range from interesting visualizations to adding immeasurably to the theme and meaning of each track. In Ghost Dance, for instance, the heavy beat of the tribal drums transitions on screen into the pounding of a steam engine as Manifest Destiny drives stakes into the land of Native Americans.

To sample their video, you can visit their site at http://www.americanmemory.net/. For music, their MySpace site at http://www.myspace.com/americanmemoryproject.

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