Sampling Beyond Sound: Contemporary Sound Art and Popular Music, 2014

Nathan Heuvingh

{Excerpt from thesis}

Laurel Woodcock: Language, Text and Affect in Popular Music

Popular culture is often at the core of Laurel Woodcock’s artwork. Based in Toronto, Woodcock is a multimedia artist working in sculpture, video, audio, photography and performance, often using language as a point of reference and infusing humour through the subject matter. Her artistic practice often employs commercial or industrial materials and methods in an effort to negotiate the effect of popular culture on individuals and everyday life (Jacques 2012). The influence of her time spent at Nova Scotia School of Art and Design is evident in her use of conceptual approaches to her subject matter. For Woodcock, popular music offers a rich textual territory, in which individuals can establish personal relationships through the interpretation of lyrics, including the phrasing, delivery and perception of words in music. Through songs, lyrics and familiar phrases, many of her works explore the experience of popular music culture as well as the complex relationship that Lawrence Grossberg (1986) suggests exists between music and oral communication.
“Affect” is a useful term in analyzing Woodcock’s artistic practice. Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg define “affect” as “an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes sustained state of relation as well as the passage … of forces or intensities”:

Affect, at its most anthropomorphic is the name we give to those forces – visceral forces beneath, alongside or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion – that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world’s apparent intractability. (2010: 1)

Woodcock considers the multisensory affect of popular music through aural and textual appropriation of vocals, lyrics, song titles and band names, emphasizing the linguistic structures of popular songs. Furthermore, she probes the experience of popular music by reworking different texts to expose how they contribute to a
diverse combination of perceptive modes. Affect can be applied in understanding the capability of images, songs, lyrics and sound to provoke thought and feeling in Woodcocks work. As such, this MRP will examine three works by Woodcock that highlight her integration of linguistic and textual references as a way to find meaning in popular music culture.

How Does It Feel? Audio Materiality and Lyrics

“Feeling” can be understood in different ways – as both an affective perception as well as a sensory perception, through touch. In vinyl (e) (1997) (Fig. 12), Woodcock examines different ways of feeling through multiple sensory modes. She questions the sincerity of lyrics and phrases used in popular music, while contemplating the perception of popular music through auditory and visual media. vinyl (e) is a multimedia video and audio installation and represents one of Woodcock’s earliest engagements with popular music. The audio component features samples of two popular music recordings: Brenda Lee’s I’m Sorry (1960) and Connie Francis’ Who’s Sorry Now? (1957).1 A silent video accompanies the audio on a 9” monitor (Woodcock 2014). The monitor reveals a close-up, gradual pan of two fingers crossed with each other to imply an act of deception. Together each individual component contributes to an experience of popular music that appeals to many senses.

The word “sorry” in each of the songs is emphasized through Woodcock’s transformation of the audio recording. Skips and disruptions in the recording can be heard as it plays over speakers indicating the use of deteriorated records. The degradation of the vinyl is accentuated by Woodcock’s digital manipulation of the recordings, which according to her “render the repeated apology insincere” (2014). Thus, by digitally enhancing the audio samples and transposing them into a new recording Woodcock stresses the tangibility of the record itself.

Each groove and ridge on a record is distinct and represents a tangible sonic signature, susceptible to erosion. Woodcock employs the gradual breakdown of the records selected in vinyl (e) as a metaphor for the fallibility of language, particularly the apology. Interplay between the video and audio components further focuses on materiality. The video portion of vinyl (e) brings attention to the detail and texture of the hands displayed, while the audio reveals the physical traits of the record.
vinyl (e) symbolically connects the visual and audio media through a focus on fingers and their association with the sense of touch. Likewise, DJs employing vinyl records also depend on a sensory knowledge of vinyl’s physical properties to identify the characteristics of each recording. George Nelson (2004) suggests that the grooves and spaces on vinyl records were often used as tangible reference points or aids to help DJs to determine what sonic properties a certain record contained. Woodcock’s mediation of physical records and conversely the lyrics reflect a curiosity towards the record as a physical signifier of sound. Furthermore, her focus on materiality accentuates the record as an inherently tangible object.
The audio recording in vinyl (e) represents the instability and often- dubious practices of the popular music industry while also bringing in to question the value of recorded productss. By exposing the physical record as fragile and deteriorated, Woodcock interrogates sincerity in popular music itself. Centring on the word “sorry” in vinyl (e) allows Woodcock to critique the subject of apologies, common to pop songs and particularly young female singers. But why did Woodcock choose Lee, Francis and these two songs specifically? Surely there are many songs that revolve around apologies throughout popular music. Woodcock’s selection of Lee and Francis implies complex layers of popular culture history that sheds light on the pressures young musicians face to appear more mature or responsible than their age might indicate.2 As young professionals and commercial products, Brenda Lee and Connie Francis had arguably fragile careers, decreasing in value as time progressed. Woodcock conceptualizes the potential instability of a career in the music industry by highlighting the fallibility of the vinyl record. Her choice of songs in vinyl(e) comments on the potential for sincerity in lyrics performed by adolescent individuals. Considering that both Lee and Francis were quite young when they made these recordings, Woodcock examines notions of authenticity in popular music by isolating certain phrases in the songs. As Ian Biddle and Marie Thompson suggest, “encounters with music are often cited in passing as an example par excellence of affective experience […] it is precisely the affective field that offers us a way into thinking authenticity, affiliation and identity, without abandoning them altogether” (2013: 12). As such, Woodcock allows the audience to contemplate the affect of lyrics in popular songs as well as the proclivities of the popular music industry. How do we know if it is or isn’t sincere? Is love exclusive to “mature” individuals? Do these songs speak to young love? Can a commercial product be authentic? And do the fans relate to the lyrics and the singer?

Woodcock poses these questions in vinyl (e) but rather than providing answers she presents the audio and video in a way that allows viewers to arrive at their own conclusions. Her interrogation of the recordings and themes in popular music culture uncovers the unpalatable traits of the industry, characteristics that can often be ignored when consuming and participating in popular music culture.

Gestures: Popular Music Materials and Emotional Acts Vocals, lyrics and song titles in popular music are often infused with many layers of sentiment and meaning. Several scholars have suggested that music has the ability to affect both our mind and our body, resonating on a conscious level through emotional impact in addition to having an influence on our common bodily functions, from breathing to temperature regulation (Millar 2013; Diaz and Silviera 2014). In some instances the meaning of lyrics can be interpreted as vague and inauthentic, but in others they can be interpreted as deeply personal and expressive. Woodcock’s untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) (2008) (Fig. 13), a limited edition print, makes use of the “playlist” as an emotional gesture and personal tribute. The homage is for the deceased Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader who after a modest career tragically died at sea at the age of 33 (Verwoert 2006).3 His work was known for drawing on romantic themes through performances and dramatic personal videos.

untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) is composed of a carefully curated list of song titles and their artists, printed in foil-stamped blue font on a white background. The aesthetic of the print echoes the cover of a retrospective catalogue of Ader’s art published in 2006 titled Please Don’t Leave Me (1969) (taken from one of Ader’s video works), and as Woodcock (2014) suggests the visual style implies a somber and mournful ambiance.4 She selected titles involving crying and falling, all of which represent the temperament and melancholic sensibility Ader embraced in his artwork. The subject of the tragic death of Ader is reflected in the choice of songs and artists, such as Why I’m So Unhappy by Dntel or Cry Cry Cry by Johnny Cash.5 Each of these song titles were chosen to emulate the equally disheartening titles of Ader’s artworks, including I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1970-71) for example. Woodcock’s work embodies the tragic legacy left behind by Ader and memorializes him through contemporary popular music, translating his personality and legacy through appropriation.

Woodcock references the aural properties of each song in the untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) by appropriating song titles for the particular emotions they imply. The titles and artists names therefore act as signifiers for feeling and sentiment, which shows how popular music texts have affective potential. The titles and names appropriated by Woodcock are essentially meaningless when removed from their original source, textually and sonically. Many of the words selected by her are familiar and if they are not, one can easily distinguish the style of each song by the ordering and their connotations. While the titles and artists could be interpreted alternatively and out of context there is added meaning for those with a higher degree of familiarity of the source texts as well as with Ader’s career and biography.
Playlist reflects Woodcock’s effort to examine affect in relation to an individual’s understanding of the significance of popular music songs and lyrics. Dean Wareham asserts that the playlist or mixtape, which contain various meanings and intentions, involves a thoughtful process of reflection and careful calculation:

It takes time and effort to put a mix tape together. The time spent implies an emotional connection with the recipient. It might be a desire to go to bed, or to share ideas. The message of the tape might be: I love you. I think about you all the time. Listen to how I feel about you. Or, maybe: I love me. I am a tasteful person who listens to tasty tunes. This tape tells you all about me. There is something narcissistic about making someone a tape and the act of giving the tape puts the recipient in our debt somewhat. Like all gifts, the mix tape comes with strings attached. (2005: 55)

Woodcock integrates the emotional connection Wareham describes, in her use of the playlist as a tribute and to convey a sense of melancholy, but she also reveals the narcissistic aspects of creating playlists by relying on her own musical tastes as a source for the songs. Her process of creating the playlist embodies Ader’s seemingly egocentric artistic practices. Such Great Heights (2003) by The Postal Service offers evidence of how each track implies a certain sentiment. As one of the songs used in untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader), Such Great Heights is a melancholic, soft and subdued track that conveys a feeling of longing.6 The lyrics constitute a love-letter of sorts, directed toward an unknown individual, while the audio and instrumental captures the essence of this sentiment. Lead singer Ben Gibbard states, “When you are out there on the road, for several weeks of shows, and when you scan the radio, I hope this song will guide you home.” Woodcock’s utilization of Such Great Heights is intended to imply both a personal and collective sense of longing, loss and desire for Ader since his tragic death. In his discussion of the Rolling Stones (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965), John Mowitt suggests that “the thinking of affect [in popular music] can be traced as it threads between the sound and the image” (2013: 98). That is to say affect in popular music exists at the nexus of various texts that intercede, which is evident in Woodcock’s appropriation of the song titles and artists’ names. The titles and artists’ names gain distinct meaning when placed within the context of untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) and allow Woodcock to examine familiar popular music phrases by observing the sonority of the song and the feelings evoked. Furthermore, it allows for an interpretation of the song titles and artist’s names removed from their original context.

As Dyment suggests in his writing on Woodcock, her utilization of the playlist effectively “manages to both tell Ader’s brief story and also evoke his sense of melancholy […] [I]t first reads as a bit of an art-world in-joke, but the playlist-as-portrait is surprisingly effective” (2012: 11). untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) constitutes a portrait in the way that Woodcock is able to convey an image through her selection of songs and examination of the effects of linguistics beyond the text itself. The work in question can be read from multiple perspectives; one with knowledge of recent art history, another with popular music as a starting point, and one that includes knowledge of both ostensibly distinct fields. Woodcock paints a picture of Ader that integrates a portion of her own identity, in that her source is limited by her own knowledge and encounters with popular music. Through her own experience of popular music, Woodcock assembles familiar song titles and artists’ names and asserts these texts as signifiers of a sentiment, a feeling and a reflection of identity, activating emotion in the titles through aural memory. She relies on viewers’ recognition of popular music culture, art history, or both to relate and make meaning of her tribute to Ader.

untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) also probes the function of the playlist as a dedication or gesture. In the past, CDs and cassettes have functioned as conduits for music sharing and building communities around music listening and enjoyment, but more recently the playlist as a cultural practice has evolved to respond to new music formats and increasing digital consumption (see Sterne 2006, 2012a, 2012b).7 Marcus Boon (2010) has theorized three terms in order to categorize the different functions of the playlist and music sharing in general. For Boon the following terms encompass the broad range of applications of music sharing including: “inventio” which refers to the selection of songs one wants another individual to play and hopes that they will enjoy, “dispositio” signifies practices of organizing and sorting songs to make playlists, and “elocutio” implies the cuts and edits made in the process of compiling playlists, including the aesthetic embellishments that are often included with care, such as handwritten messages or decorative additions. These methods of exchange all have one thing in common, and that is, as Boon remarks to “charm the recipient” (2010: 55). Creating a tribute in the form of a unique playlist allows Woodcock to raise questions about the function and evolution of music sharing, particularly in the digital age. Where mixtapes and CDs were common in the past, in what ways is the playlist still utilized and what role does it serve? untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) posits the playlist as a memorial and a portrait, a way to both reflect and remember certain individuals.

Woodcock further comments on the function of popular music and sound art in society by contrasting Ader’s narrative with popular music culture. Bridging the world of popular music with art history, the playlist acts as a sentimental gesture for a captivating personality, extending the mythos around Ader. Woodcock’s utilization of song titles and the words that comprise them reveals the shared characteristics of art and popular music.

Lyrical Resonance: Text and Affect in Popular Music Popular phrases and melodies resonate through lyrics via a wide range of means, from their “catchiness,” interpretation, exposure to audiences and their ability to connect with listeners. In her performance and site-specific installation wish you were here (2003/2004/2007/2011), Woodcock inquires into the interpretation and resonance of text through song lyrics, titles and linguistic references appropriated from popular music.
Woodcock reflects on familiar lyrical and linguistic phrases in wish you were here. The title of the work was created in the form of a massive industrial sized banner, composed of large, bold red lettering and subsequently attached to a small plane. During the opening reception for exhibitions in Toronto, Guelph and Waterloo, Woodcock arranged for a plane to fly overhead for the audience to view (see Fig. 14). The banner was subsequently displayed in the gallery space (see Fig. 15) for the remainder of the exhibition, acting as a sculpture and physical memorial for the opening performance. A pre-recorded video of the event was also shown in the gallery space following the opening (see Fig. 16) to bring attention to the function of the banner and the initial flight.

Wish you were here references and represents sounds by evoking popular music through familiar phrases. Woodcock examines the resonance in linguistic patterns that emerge in popular music as well as in everyday life. The text reveals a vague yet optimistic sentiment that regardless of its context has potential for affect. As Dyment points out, “’here,’ in this case, is, in fact, a moment shared in real time with the viewer for the duration of the performance, uttering the wish and bringing it to fruition simultaneously” (2012: 10). Using the method of advertising with planes and large banners Woodcock explores the tendency of ads to communicate to a broad audience, through intimate and sentimental expressions. Relying on familiarity with the phrase or the song, the banner also signifies the melancholy and longing captured by Pink Floyd in their album Wish You Were Here (1975). The phrase itself evokes the feeling of the song and triggers an exchange between perception and recognition. Individuals familiar with combination of words as lyrics might be inclined to reference the song in their head triggering the recollection of a previous sonic encounter.

Woodcock’s use of the phrase “wish you were here” evokes not only the title of a well-known Pink Floyd song and album, but also a tradition of using the phrase to express longing and yearning for the presence of someone absent. The aura of Pink Floyd’s album and song Wish You Were Here (1975) is captured in this work, by expanding the lyrics on a grand scale and further emphasizing the familiar words. Created in 1975, the album Wish You Were Here was written at a time when the members of Pink Floyd were both physically and emotionally exhausted from their efforts for Dark Side of the Moon (1973) (Mason 2005). The album’s overall sound can be attributed to their feelings toward the tumultuous departure of their former band mate Syd Barret.9 Nicholas Schaffner quotes Pink Floyd songwriter and guitarist Roger Waters when he suggests that, “I wanted to get as close as possible to what I felt … [that] indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd” (1991: 184). Woodcock captures the “feeling” of the well-known album by venerating the four-word phrase, eliciting both sonic and linguistic perceptions, through the melancholic connotation “wish you were here” implies.

Additionally, Woodcock relies on her utilization of commercial forms to suggest the co-optation of phrases such as “wish you were here” for profitable purposes. Like many of her works incorporating popular music, Woodcock questions the authenticity and sincerity of text and lyrics. Turns of phrase are frequently appropriated to convey a personal sentiment or emotion in popular music and are equally common in greeting cards or allegedly intimate gifts despite their mass production. But by inserting the colloquial phrase “wish you were here” into the advertising realm on a grand scale, Woodcock reveals a paradox in the simultaneously affectionate and impersonal employments of language in mass marketing and popular music. Wish You Were Here scrutinizes the sincerity and intention of language in the business world (including the popular music industry) through the use of seemingly cliché phrases commonly applied to express a wide range of emotions, from sympathy, to sorrow, to desire and joy.

Woodcock exhibits an interest in how popular music affects the individual and resonates with them on a personal level. Utilizing linguistic elements associated with popular music products allows her to interrogate both the commercial and cultural elements of the popular music industry. Cox offers an insightful observation on materiality in the sonic realm stating that “sound and the sonic arts are firmly rooted in the material world and the powers, forces, intensities, and becomings of which it is composed” (2011: 157). As such, Cox situates sound within the framework of affect theory, even employing such terms as “intensities” and “becomings” also used by Gregg and Seigworth in their theorization on “affect.” By locating sound in relation to “affect,” Cox allows for an analysis of popular music that looks beyond what songs and texts “mean” and instead examines what they do and how they make individuals feel. Cox’s concept is particularly useful when considering Woodcock’s mediation of popular music artifacts. Her interest in popular music rests in the way that songs make individuals feel, how they recognize the “intensities” and “becomings” and how they relate to it on a personal level. Moreover, the use of popular music productss brings into question the social and cultural significance of perception in popular music culture in general. A relational system of referents and signifiers represents the experience of popular music in works such as untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) and wish you were here, while vinyl (e) examines the materiality of records and the sincerity of lyrics. In scrutinizing popular music materials as a commodity as well as a significant social and cultural influence, Woodcock claims agency and disrupts the persistent cycle of production and consumption in popular music culture.

1 I’m Sorry was written Dub Albritton, Ronnie Self and performed by 15-year-old singer Brenda Lee and Who’s Sorry Now was written by Ted Snyder, with lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Lee’s version of I’m Sorry and Francis’ Who’s Sorry Now garnered significant attention both obtaining positions on Billboard Charts (Bronson 2003: 106).
2 Written as a love song, the record executives were actually hesitant to allow Lee to record I’m Sorry at such a young age, concerned that the subject matter was too mature. However, it was eventually released on July 18, 1960, and the song would quickly reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts with wide popularity in America and the UK (Bronson 2003: 71). According to Bronson, Francis allegedly recorded Who’s Sorry Now? after disappointment in her attempt at establishing a career in music and as a good will gesture to her father, with no intention of necessarily releasing it (2003: 69). But after recording it during what was supposed to be her final studio session, the song was subsequently released and would become her breakout hit, boosting her career and making her a mainstay on the American popular music scene (Bronson 2003).
3 Ader was a conceptual artist, performance artist, photographer and filmmaker who came to symbolize the romantic artist. He acquired a cult following after his death that contributed to a revival of his work and led individuals to reexamine his legacy and artistic production (Verwoert 2006).
4 This catalogue actually accompanied an exhibition that was compiled following Ader’s death, reflecting the significant popularity Ader achieved through the legacy and mythos surrounding his untimely death (Verwoert 2006).
5 See Appendix A for full list of tracks and artists included.
6 Such Great Heights was written by Ben Gibbard, frontman for the popular indie band Death Cab for Cutie, and Jimmy Tamborello an electronic musician. Released on Sub-Pop Records. Rolling Stone ranked the song number 27 on the list of 100 best songs in 2000 (Rolling Stone 2000).
7 The playlist as cultural phenomena has evolved since it was used in commercial radio formats. Since the emergence of new technologies including music storage on computers, randomized selection as well as other methods of organizing or categorizing music, the term “playlist” has implied a method of arranging and sharing personal musical collections (Moore 2004).
8 Woodcock would also go on to produce a multimedia version of wish you were here for Nuit Blanche (2007) in Toronto, presented using lights to form the phrase in several locations throughout the city.
9 Barret was lead vocalist, guitarist, principal songwriter and a founding member of Pink Floyd until 1968. Despite his remarkable musical talent, he was known for his experimentation with a wide range of drugs, particularly psychedelics, which would eventually lead to his departure from the band. According to Julian Palacios (1997), throughout late 1967 and into 1968 Barrett became increasingly erratic, unreliable and unpredictable due to persistent drug use at which point he agreed to leave the band in April of 1968 and was briefly hospitalized. Barrett was a close friend of the remaining founding members of the band and the decision to keep Barrett out caused them considerable anguish.

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Appendix A: Images
Fig. 12. Laurel Woodcock, vinyl (e) (1997), video and Audio (installation view). Image courtesy of the artist.

Fig. 13. Laurel Woodcock, untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) (2008), print with blue ink. Image courtesy of the artist.

Fig. 14. Laurel Woodcock, wish you were here (2003/2004/2007/2011), performance footage. Image courtesy of the artist.

Fig. 15. Laurel Woodcock, wish you were here (2003/2004/2007/2011), vinyl lettering (installation view). Image courtesy of the artist.

Fig. 16. Laurel Woodcock, wish you were here (2003/2004/2007/2011), vinyl lettering. Image courtesy of the artist.

Appendix: List of track information for texts used in untitled (playlist for Bas Jan Ader) (2008)
Why I’m So Unhappy – Dntel
Don’t Ask Me Why – Eurythmics Don’t Tell Me – Madonna
Crying – Roy Orbison
Cry Cry Cry – Johnny Cash
Cry for Love – Iggy Pop
Let the Rain Drops Fall – Patsy Cline As Tears Go By – Marianne Faithful Down in My Own Tears – Aretha Franklin
Weep No More – Billie Holiday Don’t Have to be So Sad – Yo La Tengo
The Saddest Story Ever Told – The Magnetic Fields
Goodbye Sadness – Yoko Ono Falling – De La Soul
Falling Down – Tom Waits
Fallin’ Down – Goo Goo Dolls Don’t Fall Down – 13th Floor Elevators
Such Great Heights – The Postal Service
It’s Time to Break Down – The Supremes
It’s Alright – ESG
Grown Men Don’t Fall in the River, Just Like That – Liars
I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down – Elvis Costello and the Attractions Fall On Me – REM; Falling At Your Feet – Daniel Lanois
I Guess I’m Falling in Love – Velvet Underground
Can’t Help Falling in Love – Elvis Presley
I Fall In Love Too Easily – Chet Baker
Fallin’ – Connie Francis
Mondrian Was A Liar – Botch Primary – The Cure
Another Pot O’ Tea – Anne Murray Tea for the Tillerman – Cat Stevens Please Please Please – James Brown Please Don’t Leave – Pat Benatar It’s Not Easy – Desmond Decker I’m Leaving Now – Johnny Cash Please Don’t Leave Me Now – Billy Holiday
Farewell Ridee – Beck
Searchin’ – The Coasters
Missing – Beck
Lost in Music – The Fall

The above writing is an excerpt from “Sampling Beyond Sound: Contemporary Sound Art and Popular Music” by Nathan Heuvingh.
© Nathan Heuvingh, 2014
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April, 2014