Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thru-Who? A curious tale of amateurs rendered harmonious by a genius

My third Arcade post.

In March of 2009 an Israeli musician and multimedia artist named Kutiman (a.k.a. Ophir Kutiel) uploaded seven videos to YouTube, calling the whole project “Thru-You". The videos were complex remixes of existing YouTube videos of people playing individual musical instruments. Kutiman layered together fragments of audio tracks from many videos to create virtual ensembles performing new songs. His own videos constantly cut among these sources so that listeners could see who was providing the backbeat, bass line, guitar riff, instrumental solos, vocals, and so forth.

The first video, “The Mother of All Funk Chords," racked up over a million YouTube views within a week of its release, thereby generating media coverage and attention from copyright reform advocates. Time later declared "Thru-You" one of the “50 Best Inventions of 2009”.

“The Mother of All Funk Chords” opens with an African-American man in a suit sitting behind a drum kit and playing a basic rhythm. As he plays, he asks, “Well, what can I do?” The video cuts to a white man wearing a backward baseball cap and holding a guitar; he seems to reply “You could play that 16th-note groove…” and a younger African-American man holding a bass in his lap cuts in with “Just straight,” playing a three-note bass riff. The screen splits to show four musicians in the four quadrants of the video, as though they were teleconferencing. (The first three musicians are joined by a conga player.) The guitar player says, “Go! You’ll be amazed.” The original drummer replies, “Okay!” and the four musicians begin to lay down a groove together, via Kutiman’s layering and remixing of their original videos. Before long the bass player suggests that there should be more than one guitar part, with someone playing chords and someone playing single notes. The guitarist says, “Okay, then let’s just pick the mother of all funk chords, let’s pick a ninth chord.” Four brass players replace the first four musicians; Kutiman builds up a chord from individual notes in their original videos and the song takes off.

Much of the media coverage of the “Thru-You” project celebrated it as an unintended virtual collaboration by "amateur musicians": Kutiman’s genius has made them more than the sum of their parts. For instance, indie-media advocate Timothy Karr wrote in the Huffington Post that Kutiman “mashed and mixed video clips of amateur YouTube musicians to create a near-flawless overture to the Twittering masses." The Time “50 Great Inventions” summary likewise stated that Kutiman drew on “footage posted on YouTube by amateur musicians...in the process creating an all-new art form that combines DJing, video montage, and found art." Brooklyn Vegan writer John Seroff rightly noted that Kutiman’s methods are in fact no different from those of countless other video remix artists; he also asserted, “What really makes Kutiman unique is his abhorrence of commercial recording; his samples hail from virtual unknowns and his work is distributed for free on the web."

In the “info” section for “The Mother of All Funk Chords,” Kutiman credits twenty-two source videos, only a small fraction of which could be described as “footage posted on YouTube by amateur musicians.” The twenty-one videos that were still available on YouTube in August 2010 can be categorized as followed:

* 10 professional or semi-professional music lesson videos, posted as feeders for lesson websites (funded by student payments, donations, or advertising)
* 5 amateur performances (most with a humor angle)
* 2 excerpts from professional music lesson videos (apparently reproduced without permission)
* 2 performances by professional or semi-professional musicians (people who are in bands, perform regularly, and included links to their band websites)
* 1 amateur-produced music lesson
* 1 video of a childrens’ cheer routine, promoting a missionary organization in the Philippines

Two-thirds of the musicians sampled in “The Mother of All Funk Chords” are professional music teachers and/or performers who uploaded the videos to drive traffic to other websites. One musician is quite well-known: the first person to appear in Kutiman’s video is Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, a well-known session drummer with a discography spanning four decades. (Another YouTube user apparently uploaded a clip from one of Purdie’s instructional videos, which are available for sale on Purdie’s website.) While other remixes from the “Thru-You” project do include a higher proportion of non-professionals, it is curious that so many commentators described the performers in “The Mother of All Funk Chords” as isolated amateurs who could only join a band through the intervention of a creative genius. In fact, most members of Kutiman’s virtual ensemble were already actively involved in various forms of virtual performance, web-based collaboration, and entrepreneurial self-promotion, mostly connected with web-based music lessons.

Why were these professional and semi-professional performers (and a few YouTube comedians) so often described as unjaded, uber-sincere amateur musicians whose natural joy served as Kutiman's source material? Kutiman himself certainly can't be faulted for failing to cite his sources. It appears that even people who are eager to celebrate the democratizing impact of social media are also sometimes hungry for a genius who can masterfully organize amateurs, rendering P2P chaos harmonious.

Friday, August 27, 2010

playing along

So I finally seem to have settled on a book title that appeals to my editor and the marketing department at Oxford University Press.

Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance

In honor of this milestone, I've changed my blog title to match. Now I just have to finish writing the book. It will include case studies on Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero/Rock Band, and amateur-to-amateur online pedagogy. A few key themes:

* play (obviously)
* practices that compel focused attention/immersion/flow
* practices that bridge virtual and visceral experience
* digital ethnography
* embodied knowledge (and how to transmit it using digital media)
* dispersed participation
* amateurism
* repetition
* creativity as a state of mind (rather than as something that necessarily produces stuff)
* transmission of tradition
* the experiential intersections of gameplay, music-making, and learning