Meant to be

By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  April 7, 2009

And certainly, if one's palette is the very culture we can hear — the same one that keeps barking at us about us in a desperate attempt to sell us future versions of . . . us — it makes sense that a sample is a kind of mirror, albeit one whose image dates itself. Among the reflections and refractions of thousands of mirrors (that is, within a single Books song), it would be reasonable to assume that some of the beauty must come from chance. But unlike Harry Partch (whom Zammuto admires for "freeing himself from Western organization of notes by inventing his own instruments — while staying very listenable"), or pop-audio frontiersman Brian Eno (whose ambient works, says de Jong, "could go anywhere at any moment"), or the many composers who both Zammuto and de Jong imagine would never admit to using chance in their compositions, the Books seem to have built their methodology more on emotional shifts, semiotic sabotage, and an obsessive relationship with detail.

"I have a love/hate relationship with language," says Zammuto. "It's like an alien that goes through your ears and rests in your brain. It doesn't feel like an innate thing. I like the idea of getting to a point where you don't need to encode things, you can see them for what they are."

Indeed, the duo are, more and more, making their work something you can see. The current album (untitled, about half-composed and two-thirds "gathered," and to be previewed at the ICA) is the first they've done in anticipation of touring the material. As such, it's the first they've composed simultaneously in audio and as video — mind you, these aren't "music videos."

"At first it was this wonderful distraction, like drawing," says de Jong. "Whereas making music is very painstaking. You end up finding interesting solutions in video rather than seeing it as an illustrative element." Zammuto: "We've always had a concept of video in a chicken-and-egg thing, to make it so that you don't know which came first. We're not trying to retrofit, and it's not just slapped up there; we're making them at the same time, at an even greater level of integration."

As they compose the new record, they're also working on scoring (and editing) In a Dream, a vérité documentary of sorts about the 1991 Biosphere 2 project that's culled from actual footage from within the ill-fated enclosure.

"In movie scoring, you work with a different kind of balance," says Zammuto. "There's a narrative that plays an enormous role. But the benefit of editing and composing is that we can really integrate the two. This became a sound-design project for us: what does the Biosphere sound like?" (Answer: PVC piping, and lots of it.)

If anything removes the Books from the proper realm of chance-driven music, it's the meticulousness with which they approach every second of playback. While serving well its practical purpose as something for you to watch while de Jong and Zammuto take it relatively easy on stage, their 2007 DVD Play All — which collects 13 video presentations of Books tracks, from Thought for Food, 2003's The Lemon of Pink, and 2007's Lost and Safe — also came as a demonstration of how deftly their process could be adapted to an entirely different realm. Tiny human gestures are clipped into surreal micro-repetitions; crude body diagrams from pain-reliever commercials throb with ache lines; words taken from a rambling microcassette monologue delivered by Zammuto's brother while walking in the woods are split into their unrelated phonetic cousins, flashing across the screen in perfect synchronicity with their saying but in jarring opposition to their meaning.

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